When it's time to add to your flock, you can buy day-old chicks from a local farm or feed store, or order them to be shipped from a hatchery or breeder through the mail. But why not try instead hatching some chicks of your own?
Springtime is the preferred season to raise baby chicks for a few practical reasons including more temperate weather, a greater selection of hatching eggs or chicks and more in keeping with the natural order of rebirth. Spring equals baby animals!
There are two ways to hatch fertile eggs - under a broody hen or using an incubator. Neither is necessarily 'better', but there are pros and cons to both methods. Either way, you are going to need some fertile eggs. You can use eggs from your own chickens if you have a rooster, otherwise you will need to buy fertile eggs from a local farmer, on Craig's List, ebay or shipped from a hatchery or breeder.
Once you're all set up with a source for your fertile hatching eggs, you need to decide if you want to use a broody hen or an incubator to hatch them. Let's look at hatching chicks under a broody hen first.
- The hen acts as both the incubator and the brooder box. No heat lamps or electricity needed!
- The hen turns the eggs, ensuring they each spend equal amounts of time on each side and rotate from the center to the edges of the nest for even warming.
- Because the broody has plucked out her breast feathers to allow skin-to-egg contact, she regulates the humidity in the nest.
- It's said that broodies can detect non-fertile and non-developing eggs and will kick them out of her nest - no need to even candle the eggs.
- If only one chick hatches, it won't be all alone as a brooder baby would be, since it will have the mother hen for company.
- The mother hen will teach her chicks to drink, teach them what to eat and where to find bugs and weeds, and also teach them the dangers of predators and how to take dust baths.
- A good broody will judge the ambient temperature and could have her chicks outside for short 'field trips' in just a few days, thereby allowing them exposure to the pathogens and bacteria in the environment and beginning to build strong immune systems.
- Since the rest of the flock will be used to the chicks being in the coop and run right from hatch, they are far more likely to accept them without any trouble.
- Timing your hatch can be tricky since you can't 'force' a hen to go broody, so ordering fertile eggs to arrive at the same time as you have a broody hen can take some coordination.
- Some hens don't sit the entire 21 days and will abandon their nest partway through - in which case an incubator should be your Plan B.
- Not all broodies make good mothers and once the chicks hatch, will sometimes lose interest in caring for them, or worse, maim or kill them, so you should have an indoor brooder box at the ready just in case.
- I have found that chicks hatched under a hen aren't nearly as friendly as my 'brooder babies' that I raise in the house since I'm more hands-off with the chicks raised outside by a hen.
- Both the hatching eggs and baby chicks are vulnerable to predators such as rats and snakes in addition to other flock members, so you will need to be sure the nest your broody has made is in a safe place and once the chicks hatch, you move them to a safe crate, cage or pen inside your coop.
And now let's look at hatching using an incubator...
Hatching baby chicks using an incubator requires a bit more hands-on work by you. You will, of course, in addition to the eggs, need an incubator, a thermometer and something to gauge the humidity if your incubator doesn't come with one, a candler, a power source and water.
- You can hatch whenever you want, you're not limited only to times when you have a broody hen.
- You control the temperature and humidity, often resulting in a far better hatch rate.
- You are generally able to watch the chicks hatch through the incubator's clear top, something not often possible when you use a hen, since she's sitting on the eggs.
- Depending on the size of your incubator, you can hatch many more eggs at one time than the dozen or so able to fit under a broody hen.
- Your eggs (and hatched chicks) are safe from predators and flock members in the incubator (and later the brooder box) inside your house.
- Incubators aren't cheap. I have the Brinsea Mini Advance incubator and really love it. It costs around $150 and it one of the most economical.
- If your incubator doesn't have an automatic turner, you will need to turn the eggs several times a day religiously.
- You need to monitor the temperature and humidity and keep the water reservoirs filled.
- If you lose power, you could lose your entire hatch.
- You will need to prepare a brooder for your chicks after they hatch, and be prepared to clean it regularly.
- You need a heat lamp for your brooder, which you will need to monitor, and again, in the case of a power outage, you need to have a backup plan to keep your chicks warm.
- You can expect your chicks to be indoors until they are at least 8 weeks old and then spend another few weeks separated from the rest of the flock until everyone gets used to each other.