If you've got a few chickens and are looking to get more - hatching your own chicks is a fun way to add to your flock. You get to select eggs from your best hens, and see chicks evolve from a tiny dot in the egg to a fully grown chicken, laying eggs herself.
We have been hatching our own chickens since 2015; we lost quite a few to foxes in the first few years, and now we're just trying to get a bit more chickens - to get a bit more eggs.
Letting your broody hen hatch eggs
The best way to hatch eggs is by letting a broody hen sit on them, then raise and protect the chicks. Everyone who has tried both the natural way and incubating eggs, will tell you it's easier if the hen does it herself!
How to see if a hen is broody?
You will notice a hen is broody when she's sitting in one spot fanatically - she'll be very hard to distract and often not even come out for food.
Keep a good eye on her, as not all hens turn out to be all-out broody; if she leaves the nest for longer times, check the eggs - if they're cold, it's probably better to "break her" - or to let her sit on fake eggs.
My hens don't get broody!
If you have chickens that have been bred for laying eggs proficiently, it's very possible they won't get broody. Around here, most chickens you buy (e.g. at the vet's office) come from an industrial environment; their instinct to sit on eggs to hatch them has been totally bred out.
That is also the reason I got my first incubator - my chickens just weren't the kind that would get broody. These days I have Brahmas as well, and I've noticed especially my Brahma-laying mix chicken loves being broody!
My hen is broody, but I don't have a cockerel!
If your hen is broody but sitting on eggs that are not fertile, all she will do is cause the eggs to rot.
If you have access to fertile eggs at that moment, you can just swap the eggs she's been sitting on, for fertile eggs. Maybe you have neighbours who have hens + a rooster, and don't mind swapping a bunch of your eggs for a bunch of theirs?
If you don't have access to fertile eggs, the best thing to do is to "break" the broody hen.
How to break a broody hen
If a hen is broody but isn't doing it right (she's not sitting on all of the eggs all the time, she takes long breaks that allow the eggs to get cold) - or if you just don't have any eggs for her to sit on, the best thing to do for her is to "break the broodiness". Most of the times, it's easily achieved by not allowing her access to the nest anymore.
How to take care of my broody hen
People are often very worried about their broody hen - how can you make sure they are eating and drinking properly, and not starving themselves?
Most broodies will lose a bit of weight in the three weeks they sit on eggs, and in the first week of caring for the chicks. It all needs to stay warm and cosy, and getting off the eggs (or off the chicks) for too long can be fatal.
Make sure your broody hen has access to food and water at all times, and don't worry too much if you don't actually see her eat or drink. She'll often just choose the right time to leave the nest... which might be just when you're not looking.
One more thing...
When a broody hen is sitting on eggs, it's pretty important that
All the eggs get put under her on the same day - or maybe one day's difference. If she's been sitting on a bunch of eggs for 5 days, don't go adding another bunch of eggs - technically, they would hatch 5 days later, but chances are your hen would have left the nest with her newborn chicks before that.
She doesn't get to sit on other / fresher eggs while she's broody. Other chickens may come in and lay their eggs on the same pile - do take them away though, for the same reason as above.
To make it all go smoothly, I advise to mark the eggs your broody hen is sitting on with a pencil - so there will be no confusion.
In the past, I've had a chicken sit on fake eggs (the plaster kind you buy in animal stores) just to "test" if she's broody; if she is, after a day or two she'll get the eggs I want her to hatch. I do kind of use my hens as a natural incubator :-)
Using an incubator to hatch your eggs
If you don't have a broody hen, using an incubator to hatch your eggs is a wonderful way to get chicks from your own fertile eggs.
How to keep your eggs until they're ready to go in the incubator (or under a broody hen)
Keep your eggs at room temperature - not too cold (not in the fridge), not too hot (preferably in a cooler and dark space), and if possible without too many temperature fluctuations. In my case, the pantry is the best place for it as the temperature stays relatively cool and constant.
Keep the eggs upside down - or, if you want to keep them horizontal, try and turn them regularly. I keep my eggs upside down in an egg carton.
You can technically keep your eggs for 10-14 days before you start incubating them;
What type of incubator should you get for home use?
When I planned my first bach of home-grown chickens, I did extensive research, and came up with one brand I'm still completely in love with.
I now own a Brinsea Mini Advance incubator, and I love it; its only downside is that it will hold "only" 7 eggs. On the other side, having 7 chicks growing up inside your house is more than enough noise & rubbish to handle!
I have since then used other incubators, borrowed from friends; they would hold more eggs at the same time, but not have the same dependable high hatch rate.
My Brinsea Mini Advance does everything I need it to do though:
Turn the eggs automatically, so I can go away for the day without worrying about turning the eggs 7-12 times a day
Automatic temperature control - with (not very loud) alarm sounds if it gets too cold or too hot
Automatic humidity dispenser & fan
I like it a little less for after the chicks are born - the chicks don't seem to dry very well in there... and they're supposed to stay in it until they're dry. Which I don't do anymore. It used to be slippery as well, so I made this tiny mat. I swap the "egg turning" platform for the little mat on the first day of lockdown (see later), and chicks no longer slip and slide in the incubator right after they're born.
Phases of the egg - from egg to chick
It takes 22 days from the day you put the eggs in the incubator, to the day the chicks come out. Some will say it's 21 days, but it probably depends on how you count... When I set up my incubator on a Monday, the chicks will come out on a Tuesday three weeks later - and a few latecomers will hatch on that Wednesday.
Follow the development of your eggs...
The most amazing resource for following the evolution of the eggs in your incubator, is Cath Andrew's website Raising Happy Chickens. You can even sign up to the newsletter where you can read, day by day, what stage your eggs / chicks are in today... just like there are newsletters for pregnant ladies to see if their baby is still in the cherry-phase or is already turning into an apple :-)
If you'd like, you can get a candling device so you can see inside the eggs. I love mine (a Brinsea Ovaview & Ovascope set) - but you can make one yourself as well. There are tons of tutorials on the web... we made one in the beginning as well. I just found the Ovascope so much more convenient.
If you candle once after about 10 days and a second time around day 18, you'll be able to take out any eggs that aren't developing properly. This way, you can make sure they don't rot and explode in your incubator and contaminate all the other eggs! Which has never happened to me... but the idea alone has always scared me into candling before lockdown.
Don't forget lockdown!
One important thing (that Cath mentions as well, but it's so important I thought I'd tell you about it here in case you're not checking out her website): I said above you're supposed to turn the eggs quite a lot every day - however, from day 19, you're not supposed to touch them at all. No turning, no candling, no opening the incubator unless it really needs more water and you forgot to fill up on day 19.
Phases in a chick's life - from 0 to 9 weeks
If you let your broody chicken hatch the eggs, you will usually not have much work while the chickens are growing up. Make sure there are no openings in the coop or run they could get through (they're bound to not find their way back, and be taken by a dog or cat) - and if you hear excessive chirping, there could be something wrong (usually a chick not being able to find its mom or being stuck somewhere).
If you incubated your eggs yourself, you're going to take care of them like a mother hen - which involves the next steps...
0-3 weeks: keep the cuties warm, fed and watered
From chick brooder to cage
Chicks will spend their first days in a brooder; my home made brooder is a plastic box with holes. It doesn't take much space and doesn't spoil any litter, so I can have it in the living room for the first few days to observe the chicks and make sure they're ok.
I have an Ecoglow 20 heater (surprise, it's Brinsea as well), that can hold up to 20 chicks - and I'm super happy with it. It has 3 levels - the chicks are still tiny and will need it to be at the lowest level in the first week, the middle level in the second week, to go up to the third level in the third week.
After the first few days, the chicks will move to a bigger cage. They'll have more leg space, and I don't need to clean it as much! They still keep their little heater though, that's where they'll sleep for the first few weeks.
Things that can go wrong
Chicks are definitely cutest in the first week - that's also where most things can go wrong. I've had chicks with wry neck, splayed leg and pasty bum - which are the top-3 conditions to look out for in young chicks.
My experience with wry neck was never positive - in every case so far, we've had to euthanise the chick. The condition makes it difficult for them to eat and drink as well, so it's often the more humane way out.
I have had so many chicks with splayed leg - until I discovered it was all due to chicks slipping: they'd slip and slide on the slippery platform of my incubator - and once I'd fixed that (right after the first batch, they'd slip and slide on the (not THAT slippery) platform of the box they'd spend their first days in. I now have a custom-cut mat (made it from cutting out an anti slip mat) in both the incubator and the brooder box, and that works like a charm.
Pasty bum is easy to avoid, and easy to fix as well. It just means the poo came out a bit pasty, and started to clog the way out for the other poo - you'll need to catch it quickly, but once you've washed it away, it usually doesn't come back (in my experience). The cause of this is usually that the brooder is a bit too hot and / or humid. For me, it's a reason not to hatch chicks in the middle of summer anymore.
4-9 weeks: small but voracious dinosaurs
I take the heater away when the chicks are a little over 4 weeks old - and that's also when I start to watch the weather to see when they can go outside... because that's when chicks get BIG and eat a lot and make a lot of mess. Even in a room that isn't extra clean (like a garage), you don't want sawdust and straw and chicken poo all around!
Technically, chicks shouldn't go outside before they're 8-9 weeks old and have a full set of feathers. Here in Spain however, I'll gladly put the cage outside on a beautiful and warm day - they'd often still come in at night to sleep. Sometimes, they'll even sleep in a cat carrier, so I can leave the cage outside...
If there's enough chicks to keep each other warm and if the nights don't cool down much, I will sometimes leave them outside as young as 6-7 weeks.
A side note on Brinsea products...
I'm not getting paid by Brinsea to promote their products (maybe I should ask them!), and I often hear people say they're quite expensive. After trying a few other systems however, I just swear by them for the following reasons.
Reliability: my Brinsea incubator has a much higher hatch rate than other incubator's I've tried - and there are several failsafes to make sure things don't go wrong (like the alarm sound if temperature's off).
Ease of use: my Brinsea products are all very easy to set up and extremely easy to clean. As in, most of it can just go in the dishwasher after use.
Low power consumption: some friends of mine have had issues where the incubator just drained their solar power system (the batteries) at night after a not-so-sunny day... ours is so economical, the issue doesn't even come up.
Unobtrusive: I've seen quite noisy incubators - and constructions that took up a bit more space than I'd like. Not with my Brinsea stuff.
Safe: when I just started, I had glow lamps break, I heard of glow lamps at other people's places that caught fire. No risk with my brooder heater.
Basically, I think Brinsea products are well worth their money.
Introducing chicks with other chickens
You should never just place chicks with adult chickens without any kind of introduction and supervision - your lovely soft chicken looking "inquisitive" would often just peck a chick to death, just because they can.
The way we introduce our chicks with the chickens, is to let them be outside inside a "safe area" - that can be the cage, or (when they're a bit bigger) a little fenced area inside the chicken run. That way, they grow accustomed to each others' existence without risk for the chicks.
Sometimes a few days are enough, sometimes (especially when the chicks are younger) it'll take a few weeks until the chicks are completely safe to be left alone with the big girls.
Chicks are not usually allowed to eat with the big chickens though, so do make sure there are several feeding and drinking points in the run for a while. Also, I'd advise to make sure there are some escape routes in case the chicks get pestered; we have a few pallets, bits of wood here and there, an almond tree, things chicks can hide under - or at least run through so the chickens lose them for a bit.
If you'd like to speed up introductions, you can try putting the chicks in the chicken coop with the chickens at night. Don't do this right at the start though, and do keep an eye / ear out for fights.
At our place, we've never really had fights beyond chickens pecking at chicks who come too close to their feeding bowl or sleeping spot... but then again, we've always been pretty careful with them.
What to do with the extra roosters?
That is a difficult question to answer... when you hatch your own chicks, chances are half of them will be roosters. I have read an interesting article about hatching more hens than cockerels on Fresh Eggs Daily, but have yet to put it into practice.
Most roosters won't want a second male in their flock - especially not if the flock is small; they say you shouldn't add a second rooster to your flock until you have at least 15 hens. The perfect ration is said to be 1 cockerel to 10 chickens.
Now what to do with those extra boy chicks?
We often get asked if we don't want to buy a nice cockerel from somebody. He's pretty, he'll be a good protector for your chickens, why don't you want him?
Well, for one, we already have a rooster - we hatch our own chicks as well, remember? We've had the idea of creating a flock of roosters only, and just putting them outside in the chickshaw with an electric fence to protect them. People say that if they stay far away from the chickens (as in - can't see them, can't smell them), most breeds will be ok with being just boys. However, we wouldn't want to add an almost-adult cock to that flock.
Sometimes, you will find a good new home for those cockerels; maybe somebody who has chickens and wants some new blood in her flock (and prevent too much inbreeding) - or maybe somebody who just had to say goodbye to their resident roo. In many cases though, people willing to take on a rooster for free, will just want it for Sunday's dinner.
Our stance on this is simple: unless roosters can protect the flock and fertilise eggs, they will mainly be eating extra chicken food and costing us money. We give them a wonderful life on our little farm, but in the case of many roosters, that will end pretty prematurely - and in my kitchen. The meat from our own roosters is not even comparable to that of the average store-bought chicken; it's much darker, gamey-er and tastier.
When do hens start to lay?
After you've introduced the pullets to your flock, all you want them to do is start laying, right? Depending on the breed, this can be really soon - or it can take a long time. Some breed are said to start laying at 16 weeks, but more often I expect my chickens to start laying around 6 months. Brahmas are an exception to that - they grow much slower, but will often not lay (much) before they're 8-9 months old.
Don't expect your pullets to start laying in the middle of winter - and if you're planning out hatching, don't forget that they'll stop laying for a bit when they molt as well. However, our experience is that chickens will lay better and more consistently after their first molt! We have heard many stories of people butchering their chickens because they "stopped laying" and were "looking sickly"... killing off your chickens when they molt doesn't seem like a very good investment to me.
Now let me know in the comments... did you ever hatch your own eggs? Did you use an incubator, or did momma hen do the work for you? If you're planning to hatch your first batch, do you have any questions I could help you with?