Hatching eggs and raising chicks can be the initial catalyst for many smallholders farming journey. Alex Robinson looks at the process of incubation, and how to improve the success of the home-hatched brood.
Most farms or smallholdings are familiar with the sight of the odd chicken wandering around the yard. Whether they are kept with the intention of producing a few dozen eggs to keep down the grocery bill down, or purely for ornamental purposes, keeping poultry can be a fun and fun gratifying practice.
While sourcing stock of a certain age may be more practical for many, hatching chicks can be a highly rewarding experience. And as incubators become more affordable, an increasing number of beginners are getting the opportunity to do so.
The selection of eggs is one of the most important stages of hatching, notes poultry lecturer and rare breeds specialist Andy Marshall.
Buying eggs from unhealthy hens can seriously reduce the chance of a successful brood.
Andy says: "You need healthy hens if you want successful hatching. Fertility is generally influenced by the male bird and hatchability by the female.
“Hatching late in the season, like now, can mean the birds have been in lay since last autumn and therefore the reserves of essential minerals needed for hatching in the hen may be lower."
There is a minefield of different breeds to consider and if you have a specific one in mind, your first port of call may be to head to the internet to order direct to the front door.
While this is often the most convenient method of purchase, there is a risk the eggs could be unfertile, and the health of the parent hens will be an unknown variable.
Andy says: "It is not buying online that is the risk, it is knowing they are coming from a reliable source. It is important to note, that once an egg has been laid, the poultry keeper can only reduce hatch viability by their actions, there is no way we to enhance it; we can only mess it up.
“Buying online means the eggs also require transport and this can result in germ death in frostier periods, or damage in transit.
"Eggs sent via post need at least 24 hours to settle before incubating. Do not store in a fridge and ensure the eggs are at room temperature before setting, to avoid the problem of split yolks.
“The best option is collection in person, and this also gives the buyer the opportunity to see the breeding stock and how they are kept."
While buying from a reputable breeder may guarantee a greater chance of fertility, there is no way of choosing if the off-spring will be of a certain sex. A batch of eggs, especially if small, could produce any number of one gender.
The growers cannot usually be sexed until about eight weeks and consideration of what to do with the excess males will need some thought; cockerels, unless a variety of rare fowl, can be difficult to re-home.
"Removal of un-wanted cockerels can be done if using sex linked stock at a day old," says Andy, "otherwise it can only be done when the chicks are older. Cockerels get head points first and pullets develop tails earlier. Sexes need to be separated by 12 weeks at the latest, to avoid flock behaviour issues."
It is recommended to set more eggs than the desired number of chicks, as it is rare for the total amount of original eggs to hatch successfully.
Popular sized incubators at a reasonable price can comfortably house up to two dozen eggs.
Andy says: "Egg viability falls from laying, however it drops off dramatically after between seven and 10 days, so I recommend acting quickly when you have enough to incubate.
Incubators vary in size and scale. Choosing one with an automatic egg turner removes the pressure of having to turn the eggs up to three times a day.
Turning is essential and should not be dismissed, as the physical action washes vital nutrients over the developing embryo and removes waste from gathering.
“There are two types of small incubator available," says Andy. "Still air incubators, often made from plastic, can be manual and automatic.
“Forced air incubators are more insulated and promote better circulation via a built-in fan. These can be more expensive and function similarly to commercial machines. While they tend to produce more consistent hatches, still air incubators can work perfectly well for smaller scale production."
Most incubators need to be set between 98 and 102degF, but it is essential to adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions when setting up, as humidity and temperature errors can lead to disappointing results.
To obtain reliable readings, the bulb of the thermometer should be at the same height as the tops of the eggs and away from the source of heat. Using two thermometers is advised to ensure you are getting an accurate reading.
The average length of incubation time is 21 days. Some hatches may take a day more or less, dependent on breed. Some bantam eggs can hatch as early as day 18.
While there may be an initial urge to assist the chicks out of the shells once they begin to hatch, Andy says that this should be avoided.
He says: “Helping chicks out can encourage inherent weakness. During the hatching process, the yolk is being absorbed, providing feed for the chick for the first few days of life. Interfering can also severely damage the blood vessels surrounding the yolk, which are essential for proper absorption of the yolk during the hatching process.”
When the chicks are fully dry, they will need swiftly transporting to the brooder.
The required temperature of the brooder is directly dependent on the temperature of the outside environment.
“If the chicks are all huddled together the brooder is too cold,” says Andy, “If they are well away from the heat source and have their beaks open, it is too hot.
“Placing your hand at chick height provides a useful guide to the conditions."
When it comes to feeding, boiled eggs are a good initial feed, to then be replaced with chick crumbs. Ensure water supply is plentiful but in a safe drinker so the chicks are not at risk of falling into the liquid
AFTER being gifted an incubator and six Silver Sebright hatching eggs aged 10, Jordan Lusted’s lifelong passion for breeding poultry was sparked.
Based on a rented plot in Hale, Cumbria, and assisted by his 12-year-old brother Ben, Jordan now keep about 70 chickens, alongside 20 ducks, two turkeys and a selection of rare breed bantams.
While juggling a full-time job in construction, he maintains a closed and self-replacing flock, only buying in stock when new bloodlines are needed.
This year, Jordan is planning on hitting the summer show circuit with a recently acquired pair of Silver Wyandotte bantams.
Jordan’s incubating season commences in May, and the tri-weekly hatches continue until September.
Jordan says: “I have an automatic ventilated incubator which can hold 50 eggs at any one time. On average, 44 of the 50 will successfully hatch.
“I set eggs every 21 days, and keep the freshly hatched batches at home in a brooder with a heat lamp. When the chicks are eight weeks old, I either transfer them to the main site, or sell them on to new homes.
“I have built up a solid customer base and also do a weekly egg rounds, with 75 regular buyers.
“Incubation can be difficult if you’re a complete beginner. When I set my first batch of duck eggs, I failed to hatch a single one after realising the humidity setting was not right.
The whole venture has very much been a DIY job for Jordan, who has developed his setup using only recycled materials to keep costs at a minimum.
“I started off with one small pen and have gradually expanded over the years. I have been inventive with my resources and we also have no direct electricity or water supply at the site.
“My brooder is also a homemade invention, designed with expandable sides so it can be made bigger as the chicks grow.
“Hatching my own poultry has become an obsession for me. You do not have to own the best of high-tech equipment. As long as you have a functional incubator, a clean, safe environment for the chicks, and the dedication, anyone can do it.”
Jordan Lusted of Westmorland Prime Poultry in Hale, Cumbria, can be found on Facebook @WestmorlandPrimePoultry. Specialising in eggs and hens, from day old to point of lay.
"My love for all things poultry began when I was about 10 years old and resurfaced this spring when I was helping with FG’s smallholding supplement (March 24).
Despite not being from a farm myself, I enjoy the idea of breeding my own stock and keeping animals, so chickens seemed like the perfect venture for me.
I have always liked a breed of chicken called the Millefleur, a small bantam with speckled colouring and feathered feet. Alongside two Silkie cross females chickens I acquired from a neighbour, I bought six Millifleur eggs in April, from a recommended vendor on Ebay.
Polish chickens are a rare breed with a large crest of feathers, meaning they can be difficult to breed. However, after deciding I needed a few more eggs to accompany my initial lot, I also sought out to buy six of these.
My original plan was to use the females as broody hens to hatch the chicks naturally, but they took a while to settle into their new home, so I had to source an incubator to do the job.
With 12 eggs ready to go, I borrowed my uncle’s incubator and set the dozen eggs. I did not interfere with the eggs, as this can disturb the intricate process of embryo growth, and would only check the temperature gage to check it had not altered.
After 20 days, all six of the Millifleur eggs hatched out, producing six healthy chicks, a great success. Disappointingly, the Polish eggs were less fruitful and only one managed to hatch.
The chicks hatched on Wednesday, May 3, a day earlier than predicted. The hatchlings stayed in the incubator for about 24 hours, until they were dry and fluffed up, and then they were transferred to a homemade brooder. The brooder is simply a large drum with fresh shavings and a heat lamb. The chicks will remain here until they are ready to move to a larger set up, before they will be housed outside at 10 weeks.
All seven chicks are now beginning to grow feathers and are eating well. I am still to learn what sex they are, as this can take up to eight weeks. These hens will never be great egg layers or suitable for the dinner table, so I will probably just keep them as garden ornaments, possibly selling a few along the way."