There’s something quite amazing about the process of an egg becoming a chick. Raising your own chooks from eggs gives you a wider choice of the breeds you keep, as you can get fertile eggs sent to you more easily than live birds. If you want to experience the miracle in your own back garden, you’ll need some fertile chicken eggs and a broody chook or incubator.
Choosing your mum
I think it’s easier to use a hen to hatch eggs. The chicks also turn out healthier when they are looked after by mum (or a surrogate mum), but you can get good results if you’re diligent checking even a basic incubator. Bantam hens are meant to make the best mothers. Older hens tend to be better than those less than a year old. Battery hens (red shavers) have had most of the broody instinct bred out of them. From time to time you’ll see hens for sale on Trade Me, although they can be scarce in Wellington.
Check you like chooks
Just make sure if you decide you want to keep chooks that you actually like them. You’ll be seeing them at least once a day for the next few years so you’ve got like spending time with them about. I sell fertile rhode island red eggs from about September to March for $15 for a half dozen so email me if you are interested in buying some. I don’t have chicks or pullets for sale.
Get ready to incubate
Keep fertile eggs for incubating at room temperature until you’re ready to use them. Put them in an egg box and turn it morning and evening. Fresh eggs are best, but I have had success with eggs I kept for up to three weeks while waiting for enough from one hen. If they’ve been on a journey, in a car or by courier for example, leave them in a cool place to ‘rest’ for 24 hours before incubating them. Eggs should be clean. The health of the chick will depend on the health of the parents, particularly the mother.
Incubators should come with instructions about the temperature, ventilation and humidity. They need to be scrupulously clean. Some have automatic turners, others you’ll have to turn the eggs manually several times a day.
Separate your broody chook
I keep my broody chooks in a converted rabbit hutch – anywhere quiet, warm, dry and secure from pests away from the main flock will do. If you leave a broody with the rest of the flock the other hens may try to get onto the nest and the eggs can get chilled or broken. It’s also meant to make it more likely that your laying hens will go broody. Make sure the chicks can get out of the nest when they hatch. I set up the broody chook with ordinary eggs in the broody coop first to make sure she sits tight, then put her on the fertile eggs. Normally there’s not a problem moving them but sometimes they give up sitting with a change of scene.
I usually lift the broody chooks off the nest once a day to have a drink, some food and relieve themselves if they want to. Be careful lifting them off as sometimes they have an egg or two tucked right underneath them so check carefully as they seem to be able to suck them into their tummy somehow. Also if they haven’t been off for a while they may empty their bowels quite spectacularly so hold them with their vent pointing away from you (speaking from experience). Sometimes they just go straight back to the eggs but usually they get the idea and need to do something (or all three). They should return within about 10 minutes so the eggs don’t get chilled. Don’t give them too many distractions or they may stay away too long and watch that another chook doesn’t take a fancy to the broody’s nest while she’s away.
Three weeks later…
Eggs will hatch after 21 days of setting them to incubate, irrespective of when they were laid. If you don’t have the temperature right in an incubator they may be a couple of days early or late. Make sure the surface of the incubator isn’t slippery for the chicks – I put a piece of towelling under the eggs when they are due to hatch. Leave eggs with mum for about 48 hours after the first one hatches. She’ll abandon the nest and any remaining eggs after that anyway.
Keeping chicks warm
Chicks will survive the first 24 hours without food and water so don’t be in too much of a rush to get them out of the warmth of the incubator. Wait until they are fully fluffed up and move them to a ‘brooder’. I use a box with a 250W heat lamp above it. It starts at the same temperature as the incubator and I raise the lamp over the next couple of weeks to cool it down gradually. You can tell from the movement of the chicks whether they are too hot or cold. Depending on the weather, incubator chicks will need some heat, at least at night, until they are about six weeks old.
The chicks need special chick feed and a waterer into which they won’t fall and drown. I give them greens, such as chickweed or silverbeet, from their first few days too. Again, mum will look after most of this for you, but you’ll need to make sure the chicks and hen can both reach the food and water. If they are with mum, chicks do much better with access to the outside so they can scratch and peck about in the grass. It strengthens their legs and the grit, bugs and greens they collect enhances their diet. Don’t forget to provide mum and chicks shelter from sun, rain and predators in any run arrangement.
The male and female chicks of some breeds of chicken look different, but for Rhode Island Reds I have to wait about six weeks to be absolutely sure which will be hens and which roosters. After about six weeks mum may push her chicks out and not want to look after them so you can take her back to lay with the adults (if only children were so easy). When you put mum and the chicks back with the flock, do it after they’ve roosted for the night. There will still be some sorting out for them to do but that’s life in the chicken run.
There will be roosters
You’ll need to have a plan for what to do with your roosters if you don’t want to keep them after they start crowing (about six months depending on breed). They make delicious eating at that stage – not that you’d recognise it as chicken if you’re used to the normal supermarket offerings. It’s not hard to dispatch and dress them – I find it easier to deal with roosters than clip my rabbit’s toenails. You’ve given them a great life and if you want to eat eggs there are always going to be roosters to deal with humanely. If you are allowed to keep roosters, only keep one with a flock or they will bicker constantly and disrupt the happiness of the chook run.
If you live in town, the council may have by-laws about whether you’re allowed to keep chooks. They may restrict the number and location of their housing. You generally aren’t allowed to keep roosters in an urban environment.
Simon Morton has been documenting his experiences on National Radio raising chooks in Wellington with the help of expert Darcy Philp. You can listen to his experiences here.