Breeding chickens will require a rooster, hens and probably an incubator to help with hatching the eggs. It’s a bit tricky to successfully breed your own chickens, but it’s one of the easier types of small-scale farming and can be very rewarding.
Before you get started, you’ll need to check the legality of breeding chickens in your area. Some cities allow backyard chickens but make owning a rooster illegal. Other regions may have laws against breeding your animals or will require you to get a permit. Do your research in advance to determine your rights and be sure that you’re within the confines of the law so that you don’t run afoul of any fines or problems with animal control.
Once you’ve determined that it is legal to breed your own chickens, you’ll need to consider a few logistical things:
- Will you be selling fertilized eggs or hatching them to grow your own flock?
- What will you do with the male chicks you hatch?
- Do you have the space and budget to increase the size of your flock?
- Will you be breeding pure-bred chickens? If so, are you committed to the welfare of that breed?
- Is your stock healthy and genetically sound?
Many chicken farmers opt to slaughter their male chicks for meat once they’ve reached adult weight. This helps to prevent fighting among your roosters and helps you to maintain a supply of both meat and eggs. However, be aware that rooster meat can taste a bit different; some people find that it’s less fatty or tastes a bit more gamey than meat from a hen.
Choosing Your Breeding Stock
You’ll need to decide whether you’re interested in breeding pedigreed purebred chickens. If you intend to sell fertilized eggs, you’ll make more money with pedigreed stock. If you’re just raising chickens for your own purposes, you have a bit more freedom to decide what to do.
When choosing a breed, consider the characteristics you value in a flock. Temperament, egg production and physical appearance are all worth considering. You’ll also want to choose chickens that are healthy and free from deformities.
When choosing a rooster, it helps to pick one with a gentle temperament. Roosters can become very territorial, and a foul-tempered rooster can be dangerous and difficult to handle. To prevent fighting, you should have no more than one rooster per 10 hens.
When Do Chickens Breed?
Chickens can breed throughout the year, and hens continue to be receptive during the laying season. After all, producing an egg is ovulation, which is a necessary step to reproduction. This means that you can technically breed your chickens in any season.
However, most breeders find that the best results occur when the chickens are bred in the spring. Chicks hatched in spring can begin laying eggs of their own in autumn. Any male chicks you hatch will be ready to butcher and put away for the winter as well if this is your intention.
After the second and especially third generation, inbreeding can become a problem. Many breeders decide to switch out their roosters on an annual basis to prevent a rooster from breeding his daughters. You can slaughter your rooster, trade him with another breeder or simply keep him separated from the hens that are related to him. If you choose to sell your fertilized eggs or chicks rather than keeping later generations, you don’t have to worry about changing your rooster.
How to Breed Your Chickens
Roosters reach sexual maturity after about six months. This is the same with hens, who begin laying eggs at the same age. A hen old enough to lay eggs is old enough to breed. If you buy your chicks together and one of them is male, they will all reach sexual maturity at the same time. Otherwise, you’ll want to introduce an adult rooster to your grown hens.
You don’t need to take an active role in breeding your chickens. If you have a rooster and a flock of hens, nature will take its course. If a rooster and hen mate, the hen can lay a fertilized egg anywhere from two days to three weeks after mating. Eggs are fertilized inside the hen’s body before being laid, so any ready-to-collect egg you find in the nesting box could be fertile.
Bear in mind that you may not witness your chickens mating. Roosters can be very secretive about their habits, especially if they view you as a potential competitor or higher in the pecking order. This means that you may not know in advance whether your chickens are laying fertilized eggs.
How to Tell If an Egg Is Fertilized
The oldest and still one of the most reliable methods for spotting a fertilized egg is called candling. This involves holding an egg up to a lit candle or bright light source. If the egg is opaque or especially cloudy, that’s a good sign that it’s fertilized.
Fertilized eggs will not necessarily hatch into chicks. You can eat fertilized eggs and likely won’t notice any difference. Placing an egg in the refrigerator will halt the development of the egg and prevent a baby chick from forming.
If you incubate the egg or allow a hen to incubate it, an embryo will begin to form inside. If you candle a fertilized egg after a few days of incubation, you will see the formation of red veins throughout the egg.
Not every fertilized egg will hatch into a chick. Some eggs simply do not develop beyond the initial stage of fertilization. You should be prepared to have a few “non-starters” in every batch of eggs you incubate.
How Long Does It Take a Fertilized Egg to Hatch?
It takes three weeks, or about 21 days, for an egg to hatch after being laid. The eggs will need to be incubated either in an incubator or under a hen. This incubation keeps the egg warm and encourages growth of the chick inside.
Because modern chickens are bred to produce eggs, most hens have very little interest in sitting on eggs and waiting for them to hatch. However, there are some hens who like to sit on their eggs. These are called “broody hens,” and they can be an asset when you’re breeding chickens.
A hen who goes broody will sit on her own eggs and the eggs laid by other hens. She may even find other things to brood over, like a rock or an empty nest. These hens can become defensive and will be reluctant to leave the nest except for necessities. Broody hens also will not lay eggs of their own.
Hens can sometimes go broody for no apparent reason. Some will stay this way for a long time, even if there is nothing to brood over in the nest. Others will pass through the broody phase quickly or may never enter it to begin with.
If you have a broody hen, you can use her to your advantage when raising eggs. Give her a nest of fertilized eggs and a secure place separate from the rest of the flock. After three weeks, your broody hen will oversee the hatching of your young chicks.
You can test whether a hen is broody by offering a fake egg or another egg. If a hen seems reluctant to stop sitting on the replacement egg, she’s ready to sit a nest. You can start sliding eggs underneath her to brood. A hen can sit between six and 12 eggs at a time.
If you don’t want to rely on a broody hen to hatch your eggs or intend to sell your eggs rather than hatch them in the coop, you’ll want to invest in an incubator. Incubating the eggs yourself also keeps your hens in the business of laying eggs rather than sitting on them, which will boost your overall egg production and aid in your breeding and egg-harvesting goals.
How to Incubate Eggs in an Incubator
You’ll want to store an egg for at least 24 hours before you start incubating it. Store it at room temperature overnight; allowing the egg to get too cold will halt its development. You can store the eggs for up to one week before incubation. When storing eggs, put them with the narrow end down.
There are many different incubators available, and you’ll want to do a bit of research to choose the right model to fit your needs and budget. The cheapest incubators are made of styrofoam and have manual temperature control and humidity control. On the other end of the spectrum, you can buy fully automated incubators that maintain heat and humidity and turn the eggs for you; some of these models can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
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The inside of an incubator should be kept between 99.5 and 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Aim to keep your humidity between 40 and 50 percent during the first 18 days, and raise your humidity levels to 70 percent in the last few days to encourage easier hatching.
If you choose a manual incubator, you need to be prepared to spend more time watching it. Eggs will need to be turned by hand every few hours for 18 days. Eggs need to be turned at least three times a day; five times a day is best. Turning the eggs at regular, evenly spaced intervals will yield the best results and ensure the best chances of a successful hatching.
Turning the eggs prevents sticking and ensures the embryo grows without any deformities. Failure to turn the eggs can result in eggs that don’t hatch or chicks that don’t live long after hatching. A broody hen will instinctively turn the eggs with her feet. Stop turning the eggs three days before they’re due to hatch. This gives the growing chick time to get positioned and ready for hatching.
Hatching can take a little while. It can be exciting to watch, but it’s also very time-consuming as a chick can take up to seven hours to emerge from the shell. Chicks begin to pecking a small hole or pip in the shell. They’ll then begin to push their bodies through the shell.
As tempting as it may be to help, resist the urge. Chicks may still have blood vessels connecting them to the egg membrane, and you can inadvertently cause a chick to bleed to death by prematurely breaking the egg. You can also introduce germs to the freshly hatched chick, and opening the incubator will affect the humidity and temperature inside. All of these can be disastrous for fragile baby chickens. It’s best to leave chicks to their own devices during hatching.
Hatching from an egg is difficult, exhausting work. Chicks will emerge damp and very tired. The first thing they’ll do after hatching is usually to wobble around the incubator and then collapse to sleep for a while. Don’t be alarmed; your chicks are just resting. After some time in the warmth of the incubator, they’ll dry out and become the cute fluffy chicks you see at the feed store.
The chicks can stay in the incubator for up to 72 hours without food or water. For these first few days, the nutrients absorbed in the egg will tide the chicks over. You don’t have to leave your chicks in the incubator that long; you can remove them as soon as they’re properly dried as long as there are no other eggs in the process of hatching when you go to open the incubator.
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Once the chicks are fully dry and ready to come out of the incubator, you can move them to a brooder box. This enclosed box should have a layer of bedding, a heat lamp for warmth and a steady supply of water and starter feed. You can use water bottles to keep the water fresh and prevent chicks from drowning in their bowls. The newborn chicks might take a day or two to adjust to their surroundings, but they’ll soon get the hang of it. From here, raising them is no different than raising chicks purchased from the feed store.
"People talk about fools counting chickens before they hatch. That's nothing. We name them."
-- Orson Scott Card, Alvin Journeyman