Breeding Chickens

Don’t be clutching at straws this spring!

Breeding chickens can be very rewarding

Breeding chickens can be very rewarding

Breeding chickens can be a rewarding experience for the backyard poultry keeper, but also most frustrating when things don’t go to plan. Outlined in this article are the important steps to ensuring your season of breeding is a pleasure, as well as a success.

Plan ahead

This is the most important stage for those that have perhaps little experience with breeding chickens and are looking to get started, as well as for those that are an old hat at breeding. The most important point to highlight under this topic in my personal opinion is to ensure that whatever hatches will have a home. This is all too often not the case when a higher than expected (or hoped!) proportion of the clutch that hatch are cock birds.

Don’t get too carried away thinking that there will be queues down the driveway with keen buyers for whatever birds you have; and with an increasing number of people breeding an array of chickens and bantams, it is becoming all the more important to ensure you have space to keep your stock until the time comes that you find a buyer.

What do you need to get started?

With the space and facilities to cater for the birds that may hatch and not immediately be sold already discussed, we now think about what equipment is required to ensure a successful clutch.

1. Incubator

A mini incubator

A mini incubator

This in undoubtedly the most important decision with regards to breeding birds. The first question to consider is whether an artificial incubator is required, or whether using a broody hen (for example, a silkie) would be adequate. With such a vast range of incubators to choose from on the market, if this is the route of incubation you opt for, you must consider the criteria that the incubator must match in order to be suitable for what you require. The following points are important to consider:

  • the number of eggs you intend to hatch
  • whether you are able to manually turn
    Inside a mini incubator

    Inside a mini incubator

    the eggs during the day or whether a more automatic system would be more suitable
  • and ultimately, budget

I have personally had great success with a £45 basic budget 10 egg incubator, but for those that perhaps require something of higher build quality, reliability and the ability to automatically turn the incubating eggs, something such as Brinsea Octagon 20 Advance (£225) may be more appropriate.

2. Brooder

A simple brooder setup. This can be either purchased or home-made

A simple brooder setup. This can be either purchased or home-made

A decent brooder is essential to ensure that all the hard work put into hatching the eggs doesn’t go to waste with poor brooding of the vulnerable young chicks.

A point to note with the brooder is that people are often tempted to put newspaper down for the chicks once they reach 24 hours old, and are transferred from the incubator to the brooder. The issue with newspaper is that you’ll often see chicks then suffer splayed leg, due to the slippery nature of the flooring – so in my brooders I use a non-slip mat with newspaper underneath, which is all changed and cleaned on a 24hr basis. A large budget is not necessarily required in order to achieve a suitable brooder, but this is heavily dependent on the size of the clutches you intend to hatch and is an important factor to consider when setting out to breed chickens.

3. Eggs!

This decision is, like most with poultry breeding, a very personal one; and one that really depends on what you intend to breed. For some of the more readily-available breeds, you may be able to purchase the eggs directly from those already breeding, or indeed from your own current stock. More and more eggs, however, are becoming readily available online, often advertised in clutches of half-a-dozen. Sadly the risk of courier transport does mean that fertility can be drastically decreased, and this should always be seriously considered before forking out a large sum of money on usually a rather small number of eggs.

The incubation

If you opt to incubate your eggs under a broody hen, she will do all the hard work for you; regularly turning the eggs, temperature and humidity control.

However, if you opt to incubate the eggs utilising an incubator, the above points must be carefully considered and constantly monitored. The temperature should be 37.5°C throughout incubation (21 days, +/- 1-2days) at the level of the egg. Do not be caught out by assuming the temperature probe that provides the digital readout on the incubator is an accurate representation of the temperature of the egg. It is important to use an independent digital thermometer (a laser probe thermometer is the gold standard) to test the temperature at egg level to ensure the incubator’s digital readout is calibrated correctly.

With regards to humidity, the average should be between 40-50% for the majority of the incubation; increasing to around 60% for the last three days. The importance of correct humidity is due to the porous nature of an egg’s shell, allowing it to exchange moisture with the surrounding air. Too high humidity leads to inadequate moisture loss from the egg over the incubation period, and too low leads to excessive water loss from the egg. This may be automatically measured by some more expensive incubators, but for those using lower-budget incubators, a hygrometer is required in order to accurately measure the humidity within the incubator.

Turning of the eggs is another vital step to ensuring healthy and successful hatching. Turning by half a turn (180 degrees), 3 times a day is adequate but more is ideal. The importance of regular turning is to ensure the chick does not become adhered to the inside of the shell during development.

Although this article is by no means exhaustive of all of the avenues and tricks to a successful spring of hatching, I hope that at the very least it provides some insight into what is required and regarded as the basic needs for getting started with breeding your own stock.