For the domestic poultry keeper there is the choice of two methods of hatching chicks - natural or artificial. The best idea is to gain experience and confidence in both. Hen eggs take 21 days to hatch, duck and turkey eggs 28 days, most goose eggs 28 - 30 days and Muscovy eggs 35 days. Some very small bantam eggs may be a day early and really large poultry such as Cochins may be a day extra.
Natural hatching under a broody hen is the ideal way to raise a few chicks. It is however essentially dependent on having a broody hen at the same time as the eggs you want to set. Silkie crosses make the best broodies; either Silkie x Wyandotte or Silkie x Sussex. A small pen of those can be bred alongside the purebreds. Alternatively they may be purchased around the neighbourhood, although this is less likely than it used to be. The Golden Rules of natural hatching are: tender care, attention to detail and keep it simple. Nowadays wooden sitting boxes have given way to disposable cardboard cartons for hygiene reasons, but make sure they are in a fox-proof area, in a quiet spot away from other stock. The individual broody boxes should be about 16" (40cm) square and lined with short straw or woodshavings (hay produces harmful moulds and can harbour mites), dusted with a pyrethrum based insecticide and have good ventilation. Broodies which sit beside each other spend the whole time stealing each others' eggs and generally ruining a hatch. The broody hen is best taken to the broody box in the dark to keep her sitting and left for a day or so on just a few unimportant eggs to ensure she is still serious. When she has proved herself steady, put the eggs you want to hatch under her very gently, preferably at night, removing the others. If you want to set more than one broody at a time, make sure that you either set the eggs the same day so they all hatch together, or keep the broodies out of sight and sound of each other as the noise of the cheeping will make the other broody get off her eggs if hers are not cheeping.
The broody should be taken off the nest once each day to feed, drink and defecate. Roughly the same time each day makes for a quieter bird as she is a creature of habit and may get restless if her regular time has passed. The hen should not be disturbed after the 18th day (for chicken eggs) and feed and water should be left within her reach but out of the reach of chicks. As soon as the hatch is finished, which may take from 24 hours up to three days, empty shells and any un-hatched eggs should be removed from the sitting box together with any faeces the hen may have produced. Should any of the chicks appear to be having difficulties getting out of their shell, do not attempt to intervene and leave it to it’s own devices for this is nature’s way of ensuring only the strongest survive. Try not to disturb her while the broody is sitting, tempting though it is to see how many have hatched, as she needs to bond with her chicks and turn her sitting instinct into the more aggressive protective maternal instinct. Put a water container that the chicks cannot drown in (pebbles in a shallow dish work well) next to the nest so that any early chicks can drink. The yolk sac inside their bodies will sustain them for up to 48 hours, but provide chick crumbs anyway - see Rearing.
This is the use of an incubator to hatch eggs. Small incubators are in regular use with many poultry keepers, the advantage being that incubation conditions are instantly available at the flick of a switch. It saves extra space or pens for broodies and takes little electricity to run. Technical improvements have greatly improved efficiency, but best results will be obtained with eggs which are between 24 hours old and seven days old and which have been stored in a cool (10°C or 50°F) place, and turned daily. Any dirt on the eggs can be scraped off with a dry potscraper, the ideal being to have clean eggs in the first place. If the eggs do have to be washed use water warmer than they are to ensure the membrane under the shell expands keeping bacteria out (cold water makes it shrink, drawing bacteria in) plus an approved poultry disinfectant*. The same disinfectant can be used with safety to clean out incubators after a hatch. This is most important for the success of future hatches.
Follow the manufacturer's instructions for an incubator, but go easy on adding any water. It seems to be a common misconception that in the UK water needs adding during the incubation process. The egg must lose 13% of its weight during incubation and most of this weight is water loss, giving room for the chick to move around in the shell prior to hatching. Fertile eggs which do not hatch are frequently sticky inside as the incubation time has been too humid. Try and site the incubator in a place which does not vary much in average temperature. During the incubation process the eggs must be turned in order for the embryo to develop normally (the hen does this naturally). If turning by hand do so at least twice a day and turn the eggs end -over -end so that the chalazae (strings which hold the yolk stable) do not wind up, potentially damaging the embryo. If the incubator is an automatic turning one, turn off the mechanism 2 days before they are due to hatch, or stop turning them by hand at this time.
A little hot water can be added when the eggs start to pip (the diamond-shaped start of the shell breaking) to keep the membrane moist. The chick pecks its way out of the broad end of the egg by means of the egg tooth which is on the end of its top beak. The egg tooth falls off soon after hatching. Chicks may take two days to hatch or they may all hatch at once. The latter is better, but not always possible. Most small incubators have a window in so that you do not have to take off the top to see inside. It is better to fill (or part fill) an incubator, hatch the eggs, clean it out and start again, unless you can set a few eggs each week, transferring those on the 18th day to a separate incubator which then gets cleaned out each week or after each hatch. This avoids the build-up of harmful bacteria which can adversely affect the hatch. In order to make best use of incubator space (and broody hens for that matter) the eggs can be candled after seven days' incubation. This involves holding a bright torch to the broad end of each egg in a darkened room. If the egg is infertile you will be able to see just the shadow of the yoke. Rotate the egg slightly to make this move within it. If fertile, a spider shape of blood vessels will be seen on one side with the heart beating in the middle. If there is a ring of blood vessels with none in the centre the germ has died. The infertile eggs can be removed and fresh ones added if you are going to use a separate incubator.
Using just one incubator to set and hatch eggs of different incubation periods is courting disaster as the humidity then becomes wrong if you add water for those about to hatch. Also, hatching eggs produce a huge amount of bacteria, so can infect younger embryos through the porous shell. If you candle the eggs at fourteen days and the embryo is growing as it should, the air space should have a sharp distinction from the darker remainder of the egg. If only a small dark area can be seen the germ has most likely died and the border between that and the air space is fuzzy. The air space gradually gets larger as hatching date approaches and sometimes the chick can be seen bobbing away from the candling light.
* For a list of DEFRA approved disinfectants , see Annex ‘N’ of ‘Code of practice for Lion eggs’ V.7 issued on 30/11/13 by The British Egg Industry Council.
Rearing - day old to 6-8 weeks
With modern equipment rearing chickens is a relatively easy process for the domestic poultry keeper to master. If you have a broody hen then all you will need to do is to provide her with chick crumbs, water and shelter against wind, rain, and sun, preferably with a wired over run to start with so that vermin cannot take the chicks. Chick crumbs need to be in a container which she can neither tip over nor scratch out. Water needs to be in a container that the chicks cannot drown in. Put some grain feed for the hen out of reach of the chicks. She may break the grain into small pieces for them. Leave the hen with the chicks for about four weeks and then take her away, but don't take the chicks away as it will unsettle them or set them back and they need all the encouragement they can get. They can be transferred to a larger house and/or run when they are about eight weeks.
Incubated chicks need a heat lamp to keep them warm, preferably one with a ceramic bulb so that they have heat and not light. This avoids feather pecking as they have natural light and darkness. Some of the lighter or more nervous breeds certainly do better with some hours of darkness. Site the heat lamp in a draught-free place with a generous covering of shavings on the floor or make a circle using an 8' (2.4m) length of hardboard about 18" (45cm) high around it. You can also use a large rectangular cardboard box. It needs to be rectangular so that the lamp is at one end and the chicks can regulate their own temperature. Turn the heat lamp on two days before the chicks are due to hatch. It should be far enough off the shavings so that the temperature under it is about 39°C (102°F). If the chicks are too hot they will scatter to the edges, panting. If they are too cold they will huddle in the middle, cheeping loudly. The ideal is to have a small empty circle just under the lamp. Transfer the chicks from the incubator when they have dried and fluffed up. Dip their beaks in the, again, drown-proof water and place them under the lamp.
Rearing - 8 weeks onwards
People argue when (and sometimes if at all) chicks should be given perches. As long as the perches are at least 2" (5cm) wide there should not be a problem of bent breastbones from perches which are too narrow, and certainly the lighter breeds like perches. A rearing house needs to be large enough so that all the chicks can shelter in it if the weather is bad, plus space for a feeder and drinker. If an adult house is being used, block off the nestboxes with cardboard, as roosting in a nestbox is a habit almost impossible to break later, leading to dirty and partly incubated eggs.
Young stock should be kept under observation the whole of their development period. Those with obvious physical defects should be humanely disposed of. This will mean cleaner houses and more room for the others to develop satisfactorily. Take precautions (by putting cardboard to round off corners) when moving stock to new houses so that they do not huddle in corners and smother. Continue to feed best quality rations - see Feeding.
When chick feathers start to drop between 10 and 12 weeks, new, sharply pointed and shiny male plumage will be noticed on the backs of the males. Time now to separate the sexes with the cockerels removed to a house of their own. Breeds vary, but it is also possible to distinguish the sexes by headpoints, the cockerels being redder and their heads bigger and bolder than those of the pullets. Again, the legs and feet of males are larger. The plumage method is the most accurate as birds develop at different rates, except for Silkies, where a wait of at least 14 weeks will be necessary in order to determine from comb development which are which. At about five months old it is possible to grade young stock for colour and markings and other breed characteristics. Time to take stock and assess the worth of the season's crop, giving preferential treatment to those that look likely prize-winners, or future breeders.
It is suggested that only balanced feeds from reputable sources are used. Feeding scraps tends to upset the balanced ration which has been proven over many years. Chicks should be offered chick crumbs of 20-22% protein containing a chemical which helps to control coccidiosis and build up an immunity to the parasite. Turkey starter crumbs have a higher percentage of protein and are beneficial for the larger breeds. Crumbs should be fed ad-lib in a container with a series of small openings or a swivel top to avoid waste. There should be enough trough space for most chicks to feed at one time to avoid bullying. At about 6 weeks introduce growers' pellets over the space of a few days. When the birds reach about 18 weeks they can be changed, gradually, to a layers' ration of 16% protein. This can be fed either as pellets or meal. The meal can be fed dry (but may be wasteful and also sticks to the beak and as a consequence quickly fouling the water) or as a wet mash. When mixed as a wet mash it should have enough water added so that when pressed in the hand and then released it should crumble away. Pellets and dry meal can be fed via ad-lib hoppers, but wet mash must always be freshly mixed as it quickly goes rancid. Water and flint grit should be available at all times from hatching onward. Flint grit is needed to assist the gizzard in grinding up the food, especially hard grain. From four weeks before laying commences, oyster shell or limestone grit should be provided to help the formation of egg shells. Light breeds start to lay at about five months and the heavier breeds at about six months. In the winter, a little cod liver oil can be added to the ration. Large fowl will eat about 4-6oz (110g-170g) per day, bantams need around 2-3oz (50g-85g), according to size. Wheat and maize can be offered as a scratch feed to keep the birds active. If they are not free-range, green feed is always welcomed by the birds, but hang up vegetables and nettles to prevent them getting soiled.