If you have been keeping chickens for a while there are many reasons why you might want to breed your own chickens. It could just be that you just want to delight in bringing a new life into the world or maybe you want to help increase the numbers of a rare or endangered breed. You might also want to improve the quality of your own flock of chickens (for example you could hatch only the chickens which produce the most eggs or perhaps the chickens with the best feather patterns). You might be after a specific breed that you cannot find locally or you have young children and wish to show them the joys of new life, introduce them to the joys of cute, fluffy chicks and educate them as to the life cycles of life.
However, breeding chickens isn’t for everyone. There are several things you should consider before hatching your own eggs. If you have not kept chickens before then hatching your own eggs is a complicated way to start. If it is your first time keeping poultry, then we recommend buying point of lay pullets as a good start. With hatching eggs there are no guarantees that every egg is going to hatch and grown into a laying hen. It is also worth noting that, at least half of all the eggs you hatch will be cockerels. Cockerels don’t lay eggs, are noisy and can be aggressive. If you don't think having a big noisy male who doesn't contribute anything to the nest box sounds like your cup of tea then it is seriously worth considering not breeding chickens. Many councils do not allow roosters to be kept within residential areas, so it is worth remembering that once these cute male chicks mature and start to crow you will need to relocate them to a new ‘forever’ home.
Finally, you will end up with more chickens! It sounds obvious, but you will need space to house and time to look after the extra chickens.
Once you have your ‘eggs’ - you need to decide if you are going to incubate them underneath a hen or using an artificial incubator. To incubate an egg naturally, you will need to have a hen which is prepared to sit on the eggs for a full three weeks. This is called a “broody” or “clucky” hen. The eggs in the nesting box is called a “clutch” or “setting”. If a hen was doing this without human intervention, she would generally go broody when she has built up around a dozen eggs in the nest. If you have a large number of eggs or are incubating the eggs to sell, then it might be worth considering using an incubator.
Some breeds make better “broodies” than other breeds. If you are looking for a hen that will make a good broody then we recommend using one of the heritage breeds. Pekin Bantams, Chinese Silkies and Araucanas make ideal broody hens together with many of the heavy heritage breeds like: Light Sussex, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, Dorking and Orpington, to name a few. The broodiness trait has been specifically bred out of most commercial hybrids. The reason for this is that a hen when broody does not lay any eggs, this makes her unproductive, and to a farmer that is selling free range eggs this is not cost effective. Commercial hybrids like the brown shavers or hyline browns have been selectively bred to remove this gene so they do not go broody and are more like little modern-day laying machines.
If you like the idea of naturally incubating your eggs, and you have the right breed of hen, then you will need to wait for your hen to go broody and sit on the eggs. You can encourage a hen to go broody by leaving artificial or fake eggs in the nest for an extended period.Fake eggs look and feel just the real thing and can be used to fool a hen into becoming broody. (Check out our fake eggs) You should place several in the nest and leave them for an extended period. Your hen might move on and off the nest for longer and longer periods. Finally, she might stay on the nest for at least 24 hours and then she is broody. Now you just need to place some real eggs under her to hatch!
Once the hen has gone broody - she will become very protective over the eggs and ward off predators (such as you) and to try to keep other hens from laying in her nest box or steal eggs from neighbouring nests. If you try to approach the nest or pick her up - she will make angry clucking noises and might attempt to peck you. The eggs will only start to develop once the hen is sitting continuously on top of them. This means that all the eggs will hatch together. The hen will turn the egg regularly during incubation to ensure that the embryo doesn’t get stuck to the shell membrane and the temperature is evenly distributed. The hen will then sit on the eggs for 21 days - only leaving the nest for short periods of time (about 20 minutes) to get feed, drink and generally have a run around. After 20/21 days, the chicks will then start ‘pipping’ or breaking through the shell. You might notice your hen clucking to encourage the chicks out.
If you don’t have a broody breed of hen or it seems unlikely that your hen will go broody then you can artificially incubate your eggs. It is slightly more complicated and time consuming to incubate an egg yourself using an incubator, for example you will have to check the egg regularly. However, if you have a large number of eggs and since the incubators tend to behave more reliably than a hen, it is actually better to use the incubator. Many, if not all, the modern-day incubators are digital and just about do everything for you. Hatching your own chicks is now considered easy and best of all it is good fun!
What Equipment Do You Need?
There is a standard range of incubation equipment you will need to get started:
Choosing the Right Incubator
There are many types and brands of incubators available on the market. Our recommendation is to purchase a trusted, reliable brand for a successful hatch and avoid all cheap, made in China incubators. Most incubators work in a similar way by providing heat and humidity to the developing egg. Below is a diagram showing the basic components that make up an incubator.
How Many Eggs Do You Want To Hatch?
This is probably the most important question and will to a great extent dictate your choice of incubator. When making the calculation of how large an incubator you would like, you need to account for infertile eggs and the inevitable cockerels. Only between 50-80 percent of the eggs you start with will hatch and half will be cockerels. We recommend setting 24 eggs to have 6 hens at POL (7 to 9 months of age)
Do You want To Turn the Eggs Yourself?
Your eggs will need to be turned over 3-5 times a day. This is not an issue if you are home and work it in with your mealtimes. It is easier and more reliable to get an incubator with an automatic egg turner however these incubators are generally more expensive.
Fans or No Fans?
You can buy incubators with or without fans. Incubators without fans rely on the natural circulation of air (hot air rising and cold air falling) to give an even temperature throughout the incubator. Most modern-day incubators are now fan assisted.
This section covers everything you need to know about setting up an incubator for hatching chickens
Cleaning and Sterilisation
If you’ve bought a new Brinsea incubator from Appletons then you don’t need to sterilise it. However, if you’ve bought a second-hand incubator or you have used your incubator before then it is highly recommended to sterilise it. You should ensure that the incubator is unplugged and take care not to get any liquid into the electronics, as this might damage it. Some incubators have electronics that you can’t see - so you shouldn’t immerse any incubator parts under water. To sterilise your incubator, we recommend using Sterigene.
Where to Position Your Incubator?
An ideal place to site your incubator is a location which has a steady, constant temperature varying by only a few degrees. If the room has large variations in temperature, then the incubator will find it harder to maintain a constant temperature inside. Ideally the room should have thermostatic controls and 24 hour heating so that there isn’t a large drop in temperature at night. You should generally try to keep the incubator away from radiators, windows or doors - so that draughts and sunlight do not affect it too much. You should also try and find a location which is easy to access because you will want to be able to regularly check on your eggs.
Marking Your Eggs
It’s a good idea to accurately mark your eggs for a manual turn. Firstly, you can easily tell which chicken or breed has laid the egg. Secondly, it helps identify whether an egg has been turned - otherwise an egg always looks the same. You should place an X on one side and O on the other side. This ensures that you can see which eggs you have turned. Please use a pencil to mark your eggs and not a permanent marker as shown in the photo below.
Testing your Incubator
You should run your incubator for several hours so that it is pre-warmed before loading it with eggs. After it has been running for a while you should check that it has come up to the correct temperature. Even if your incubator is new the temperature might not have been set correctly in the factory and it is well worth double checking it. If the temperature isn’t correct, you will need to make adjustments.
Loading Your Incubator
Your incubator should have been running for several hours. You should then bring your eggs from their storage room (at 12 degrees C) and let them slowly come up to room temperature. Do not load your incubator with different species because they will have different incubation temperatures and durations. For example a bantam might hatch a day earlier than a larger chicken breed. Guinea fowl eggs and duck eggs take much longer to hatch so best not to place them in the incubator alongside chicken eggs.
How to Manually Turn the Eggs in Your Incubator
If you don’t have an automatic turning incubator, you should turn your eggs about 3-5 times per day from the second day onwards. It is important not to forget to turn your eggs and some people remember to do it after every meal. You should not turn your egg after Day 18 which is two - three days before the chick will hatch. This will give the chick time to position itself properly for hatching. If you have marked your egg with an X on one side, you can easily tell if you have turned your egg or not. You should remove the lid of the incubator for as little time as possible. However, don’t rush and make sure you turn the egg carefully without jarring them. As you move them around the temperature and humidity of the incubator will drop but it will soon recover its temperature. Interestingly, an unfertilised egg will lose heat rapidly while a fertilised egg will not. Finally, when you turn the eggs manually, you should make sure that your hands are washed to avoid transferring bacteria and oil onto the surface of the egg.
Using a Candling Lamp
We also recommend using a candling lamp to look inside your eggs to see which ones have growing peeps inside. Using a candling lamp will reveal much about what is happening inside especially if an egg is fertile or not. It is an excellent education tool, makes the process for informative and fun and helps free up more space in the incubator making more room for hatching chicks as non-fertile eggs can be removed.
If you don’t have a rooster or would like to breed a variety of chicken that you don’t already keep, then buying a hatching egg is your only option. To help you choose what breed of chicken would suit your needs take a few minutes to read our Chicken Breeds. Hatching eggs are usually for sale during the season; spring to late summer. For more info on hatching eggs click here. When buying hatching eggs it is important to buy from a breeder with a good reputation. It is also worth purchasing eggs from a breeder local to you as shipping eggs can reduce the chances that the eggs will hatch. The most reliable and fun way to start breeding chickens is with fertilised eggs (called hatching eggs) from your own chickens. Obviously, you can only do this if you have a rooster and hens. Here are some simple tips which can maximise the chances of success when using your own hatching eggs:
Collect Your Eggs Regularly
If you have been collecting eggs for eating you might be used to collecting them once a day. However, if collecting eggs for breeding, it is a good idea to collect your eggs twice or even three times a day. This ensures that the eggs don’t get dirty and that the hen doesn’t accidentally start them developing by sitting on them.
Handle the Eggs Very Carefully
When you collect the eggs from the nest box you should be very careful not to jar, bang or crack them. This can damage the membrane and internal parts within the egg itself. You should also take care not to leave them in the sun or in the cold. You should also make sure that your hands are clean when handling the eggs so that you don’t pass on any bacteria.
Keep the Nest Box Clean
It is generally considered good husbandry to keep your chickens’ nest box as clean as possible, but it is especially important if you are planning to use the eggs for hatching. This helps reduce bacteria (from mud or droppings) that could affect the fertility of the eggs. You should ensure the nest box has plenty of wood shavings.
Keep Track of your Eggs
If you have a mixture of different breeds of chickens or are collecting eggs over a number of days, it’s worthwhile marking the eggs with a date and breed. Make them as you collect them, You can use a pencil.
Storing your Eggs
You can store fertile eggs for up to 7-14 days before incubating them. You should try to keep them between 12 and 15 degrees C in a draught free place. This slows down the cell division and ensures that the eggs don’t lose too much moisture through their shells. Regardless of how keen you are to get started, you must wait at least 24 hours before starting to incubate an egg. While you store them, you should ensure that the eggs are turned every day. The easiest way of doing this is to store your eggs in an egg box or egg tray with the sharp end of the egg pointing downwards. You ‘turn’ them by tilting the tray or box to one side using a block of wood under one side. Simply move the block of wood to the opposite side each day and it will keep the eggs in good condition.
The temperature inside an incubator is the perfect temperature for breeding chicks but unfortunately it is also the perfect temperature for breeding bacteria too. However, you should avoid over cleaning your eggs because this tends to remove both the dirt and the outer cuticle from the egg as well. This can leave the egg at greater risk from bacterial contamination. If you find that your eggs are slightly dirty you can clean them by scraping off mud with a clean knife or cloth. DO not wash them.
Feed your Breeding Flock Good Quality Chicken Feed.
To ensure that your chickens are producing high quality eggs and your rooster has high quality sperm - you should ensure that you give your chickens the best quality chicken feed. Westerns Peak Layer pellets provides a completely balanced diet with the right proteins and this is excellent for breeding hens. Remember to supplement their diet with extra shell grit.
If you have collected lots of eggs, you will need to select the best eggs to incubate. Remember you will have a hatch rate of between 40 to 80% and half of these will be cockerels. A good guideline for selecting eggs is as follows:
It is best to choose eggs that are the average size. If the egg is too large it might contain a double-yolk (you can check by using a candler). If the egg is too small it might not have a yolk at all. The average chicken’s egg should be between 53g - 63g and so a good egg will be within this range.
You should check each egg to ensure that it doesn’t have a damaged shell. Some eggs can have tiny hairline cracks and unless there is no alternative, these should not be incubated. If you really want to incubate an egg with a thin crack, some breeders recommend repairing the crack using either sellotape or nail varnish (it is recommended to put these only over the crack itself). The quickest way to check for a crack or hairline crack is to use a candling lamp.
You should also check that the egg doesn’t have any other shell abnormalities. Things to look out for and avoid are eggs which aren’t very egg shaped or eggs with ridges, oblong, or overly round.
For more information on hatching click here
For more information on raising chicks click here