As soon as the weather begins to warm, chickens across the world begin to think of hatching eggs and raising baby chicks. But they’re not the only ones. Spring also begins humans thinking about hatching eggs and raising baby chicks. Of course the way we do it isn’t nearly as natural and our success rates vary. Still, with practice and knowledge we can get just about as good. Human success rates for incubating eggs is about 80% while hens are at 90%. Not bad.
Out at Flip Flop Ranch, incubating eggs is one of the biggest parts of what we do. We usually hatch and sell a few thousand chicks each spring along with baby geese and turkeys. We tried out many breeds over the years before we settled on raising Dorking chickens-the world’s best heritage meat breed. We liked their look, their personality and most especially their taste. Since we breed our own birds, our Dorks also became very well adapted to our desert environment over the generations.
However, we always suggest to newbies to try out a variety of breeds. You can often find an “egg special” online where you get a variety (you can get “chick specials” too). Try forums like backyardchickens.com to find small breeders who care about their birds as opposed to large generic hatcheries.
Incubators come in all shapes and sizes. We use a GQF Sportsman and love it, but those are big and expensive and unless you’re serious, you want to start with something smaller. Styrofoam incubators are much cheaper. Your success rate may not be quite as good as with an expensive Sportsman, but your initial investment will make your spouse happier.
It is worth it to invest in an incubator with an automatic turner however. Our incubators turn the eggs every two hours which is just about what a mother hen would do. Turning the eggs prevents the chicken embryo from sticking to the egg shell.
When you put the eggs in the incubator, you want the temperature to be around 99.5ºF and the humidity around 55%. Buy a thermometer and hygrometer! They are cheap and available at the hardware store.
A great tip for helping with the temperature is to keep some rocks in the incubator. They will hold in heat if it gets too hot and release heat if it gets too cold, helping to stabilize the incubator. This is especially good for a cheaper incubator.
Keep your incubator clean! There are some harsh commercial products that kill bacteria and viruses. We occasionally use them, but generally we just use diluted vinegar and set the incubators out in the sunshine in between hatches. Sunshine is a great sterilizer.
Brooding chicks can be just as tricky as hatching them and most of the difficulty arrives in providing the proper environment for them. For a few chicks, a cardboard box makes the perfect brooder and it’s generally what we ourselves use out here at the ranch. Sometimes we’ll have 10 different cardboard boxes with chicks, goslings and turkey poults all over the place.
We like to use long, rectangular cardboard boxes instead of square ones. This way, you can put the heat lamp (available at feed bins or the hardware store) at one end of the box and the chicks can regulate their own body temperature. If they’re cold, they can move closer and if they’re hot they can move farther away.
Keep an eye on the chicks after you set up the heat lamp, if they’re all clumped together as close to the heat as they can get, they’re cold. If they’re as far away from it as possible and/or panting, they’re hot. You’ll quickly come to recognize the chirp that means “I’m a happy contented baby” versus the angry “Something’s wrong!”
Food and water
Food and water is pretty easy-just purchase chick starter from the feed bin. Check to see if it’s medicated. There is rarely a reason for the aspiring farmer to use medicated feed. The commercial facilities have crowded and dirty conditions and they use antibiotics as a preventative measure instead of just making sure their birds are healthy.
Most of the use of antibiotics in our country is by agriculture and is leading to antibiotic resistant bacterias and allergies in humans. There is a place for antibiotics, but it’s not in chick feed.
Water is simple. Purchase a chick waterer. They come in two sizes with a wide lip for older chicks and a small lip for newborns. If you have a wide lip, no worries. Just put some rocks in it so the babies can’t fall in. Just like human babies, chicks can easily drown in a very small amount of water.
While challenging, hatching baby chickens is not so difficult that you have to have an agricultural science degree. Anyone can hatch chicks and it is a great activity for kids.
Originally printed in the Daily Press by moi!