Many people are interested in breeding their own chickens but decide to buy point of lay chickens simply because they feel they are not set up for breeding chickens or that it is complicated and time consuming. Breeding chickens is really quite simple and with lots of small incubators on the market now, you can actually incubate as few as seven eggs.
Incubating eggs is very rewarding and if you have children, they will absolutely love the experience of raising their own chicks and of course will learn an awful lot about how chicks are reared and what happens to them as they grow. Follow a few basic rules and you will be rewarded by a lot of fun and excellent eggs for years to come.
Chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch (please refer to your incubator user manual) and chicks require basic care for the first 6 weeks of their life: a brooder with clean bedding, food and water. A brooder is a special heater for baby birds and by extension refers to the heated container or area the chicks are kept in. So let’s take a look at the elements of this brooder.
A small container such as a cardboard box, wooden crate or plastic bin lined with paper towels and bedding is suitable for freshly hatched chicks. Make sure the container is big enough for a cool side with food and water and a warm side with the brooder or heat lamp. As the chicks grow they will require more space and will also start fluttering. An enclosed cage like those suitable for rabbits or ferrets is a nice, easy to clean option to keep them contained.
When the chicks are about 3 weeks old, you should also consider adding a roost such as a piece of wood dowelling about 4" off the floor of the cage. The chicks will jump on it and may even begin sleeping there. Be careful not to put the roost directly under the heat source as it would be too hot. If you’re using our EcoGlow chick brooder you’ll find that chicks will roost very happily on its top and sides.
Sawdust or pine shavings are recommended. DO NOT use cedar shavings; cedar has oils which are toxic to the chickens’ respiratory system.
Straw is another possibility but it tends to smell and attract bugs when wet. It also can harbor mites.
Try not to have newspaper in direct contact with the chicks as the ink may be toxic and chicks will instinctively peck at everything. Some newspapers can also be slippery and cause splayed legs, a condition which occurs when the chicks repeatedly slip and their legs begin to split apart. If this happens you can carefully strap the legs together but prevention is best.
The bedding should be changed out every couple of days, and never allowed to remain damp - cleanliness is VERY important at this stage. Baby chicks are prone to a number of diseases, most of which can be avoided with proper sanitation.
Newly hatched chicks should not be removed from the incubator until they are fully dry and fluffed up, otherwise they could chill and die.
You can use a brooder such as our EcoGlow chick brooder or a heat lamp. Because the heat from the black underside of the EcoGlow is largely radiant, measuring the temperature with a thermometer is of little value. Radiant heat passes through air without warming it. Only a solid object will absorb and be warmed by Radiant heat. So a thermometer will register the air temperature but not the radiant heat and will usually show some 5 to 10°F lower than the effective temperature felt by the chicks. First, it is better to have the unit on a lower height setting, if in doubt.
With heat lamps the floor temperature should be around 95-100°F for the first week and can then be reduced weekly by 5°F until the chicks can maintain their own body temperature and are fully feathered. This is usually done by adjusting the height of the heat source.
Chicks will find their own comfort zone moving under or away from the heat source as they require. Observing their behavior will help you determine if the heat source is at the right level from the floor. They will huddle together under it and shiver if too cold. Conversely they will spread out and away from the heat source and pant if they are too hot.
At 6 weeks the young chickens can be acclimatized to the outside providing the temperature is not too cold. If it happens to be very cold you may need to introduce the chickens gradually.
Just before hatching chicks absorb the remainder of the yolk sac which provides them with nutrition for a couple of days after hatching but they will need water as soon as they are transferred out of the incubator. Fresh water should always be available and placed on the cool side away from the heat source. Make sure to clean it at least once a day (chicks will poop in their food and water) and if you’re not using a fountain type drinker (as shown) be sure to put marbles in the saucer or deeper waterers as young chicks can drown.
Chicks will instinctively scratch for food so it’s best to use a feeder with a lid as shown. You may give the chicks crushed cooked egg yolk initially until you get chick crumbs which are specially formulated for chicks. This complete food is available in medicated, non-medicated or organic formulae and answers all their needs.
However, feeding your chicks treats can be fun. After the first week or two, you can give them a worm or two from your garden to play with and eat. Although adult birds will eat a lot of vegetation, greens are not recommended when they’re young as they can cause diarrhea-like symptoms. When droppings are loose, a condition may develop called "pasting up", where droppings stick to the vent area and harden up, preventing the chick from pooping. Check the chicks for pasting - if you see any signs of it, clean off the vent area using a moist towel or even some mineral oil.
Chicks are insatiably curious - after the first week or two, they can be taken out of their enclosure for short periods of time if the temperature is warm. They MUST be watched at this age, however. Chicks can move fast, squeeze into small spaces, and are helpless against a variety of predators, including the family dog or cat.
If they have bonded to you (the first large thing a baby chicks sees is forever it's 'mama', this is called "imprinting"), they will follow you around. Chickens become fond of their owners; some will come when you call them (and some won't!).
Chicks grow fast so start planning their outdoor housing requirements early. They will need a coop and a run but that’s another project!