I like the idea of keeping chickens on my allotment for fresh, free range eggs and I have always bought point of lay hens from various places. Then one day, I had just one chicken left in my flock and so I decided to buy some fertilised eggs and have a go at hatching them to get my flock going.
First thing to decide is what incubator you need. I wanted to hatch six at once, so I needed a small sized incubator which was relatively easy to get on with. I decided that the incubator would have to automatically turn the eggs as I thought turning by hand each day would be an impossible task for me. I also didn’t want to spend a great deal of money on this project. After trawling through a load of Ebay ads, and Youtube video’s, I decided the Janoel 12 would be best suited to the job.
It is advertised as a 12 egg incubator, and it probably will be OK for twelve quail eggs, but it can handle six medium chicken eggs with ease. The incubator turns the eggs automatically and keeps the temperature correct throughout the whole process. When the chicks are ready to hatch, there is enough space for them to move around inside the incubator until they are ready to be transferred.
These incubators can be had on Ebay for around £40 and I can highly recommend them. Once set up in accordance with the instructions, you only need to check the level of water in the bottom every few days and top up as required.
Once I had decided on the incubator to buy, I then needed to choose what breed of chicken to hatch. First, I had chosen to buy my eggs from a supplier on Ebay. A search for “fertilised eggs” provides an idea of the many breeds being sold. I wanted to get a “dual purpose” breed, that is, a breed that grew large enough to provide meat as well as eggs. NOTE: Since hatching my own flock, I have decided that I do not want to kill birds for meat. There is enough cheap meat in the supermarkets, and I don’t think the slaughter can be justified (it’s also messy and very time consuming).
I wanted to get Salmon Faverolle fertilised eggs as I liked the look of the breed which originated in the 1850’s in Faverolle, France. They are quite a hardy, large breed and lay medium to small eggs all year at a rate of around four eggs per week. I ordered the eggs on Ebay and they came in the post, very well packed and ready to go in the incubator which I had set up the day before. The eggs need twenty one days in the incubator, and after eighteen days, the incubator should be prepared ready for the chicks to hatch. In the Janoel 12, this means removing the lower shelf and egg separator. You also need to ensure that the water level is correct before returning the eggs to the incubator. The eggs should hatch in the next three days. Out of three batches of six eggs, I have had five, then one, then three hatch.
Once the chicks have hatched, they need twenty four hours to dry out and fluff up. They can then be transferred to another container. We used a large clear plastic storage container that we bought from a local store. You need to provide a heat source as the chicks rely on their mother for heat when hatched naturally. I used a sealable food container (like tupperware) which I filled with boiling water. My container has a one way valve on the top which prevents the container from expanding. You also need to provide water, food and lay down some kitchen roll to soak up the muck. To feed the chicks, buy “chick crumb” from a supplier like Pets at Home. After a couple of weeks, the chicks will have grown sufficiently to provide their own heat so you won’t need the “heater”, but you’ll still need to clean the container out regularly. One point to note is that the lid on these large plastic storage containers can stop the air supply if firmly attached. I just lay the lid on the top without pressing down into place.
Eventually, the chicks outgrow the storage container, so I decided to create a separate “run” on my allotment for them. They can scratch around and grow while being apart from the main flock. Chickens can be very aggressive to newly introduced hens, so, make sure the new hens are large enough before adding them to your flock. It has been suggested that if you add the new members while the others are asleep, they will be accepted more readily, but I haven’t tried that method, yet. One point to note is that in Winter, the chicken run for the smaller chicks was targeted by rats seeking shelter and food. They literally burrowed under the stones surrounding the run to gain access. On reflection, I won’t be hatching any eggs later in the season, probably one hatching around late spring will be enough.
A note on feeding a mixed flock (adult birds and younger birds): If you feed all the hens layers pellets, the calcium content can make the younger birds reach the point that they start to lay eggs, too early. This can be distressing to younger hens. You may like to try feeding the whole flock growers pellets and adding a separate container with oyster shells. You can also add a container for grit which the birds need too.
The only real downside to hatching your flock from eggs is that you may end up with a cockerel or two. I had to dispose of mine when I received complaints about the noise. I will hatch more eggs this year, but, if a cockerel hatches, I will either try to sell him or dispose of him at an early age. You will need to think about this before embarking on your project.