How to make chickens

Look what I made!

Look what I made!

As I started the incubator last week for the first hatch of the season, I thought I would write a bit about what I have learned over the years about hatching and raising chicks. Last summer, I had a major flock-growing season, so I am pretty good for layers at the moment- I may hatch 10 or so for myself to replace some of the old girls, but this first batch is for our good friends at Ngeringa winery, who want to add more chickens to their vineyard pest control flock.

Making chickens is by far my favourite farm activity. I love little peeping chicks; I love broody, clucky mother hens. I love the signals she gives them as she teaches them to be chickens- observing this relationship resonates with my primal soul. As a human being, I think that you cannot help but be moved by the clear display of attentive motherhood in another species. Unless there is something wrong with you, of course.

When I first moved to the farm, I bought 7 Australorp chicks from a woman who lived down near Willunga. They were not quite feathered up, so I had to kit out the chicken house with a heat lamp to keep them warm and had to keep them locked up in the chicken house for weeks to keep them safe. It is a fair amount of work to look after little chicks- a lot of cleaning up after them.

At least these first ones were a bit bigger so they could be outside in the chicken house, and then in a little run before they were able to venture out into the great wide world of the farm. When I have raised newly hatched chicks in a brooder, the workload is much higher. Their first two days need to be on a rough surface, like towels, so they can get their legs working properly, and these towels need changing very, very frequently. They need to have their little beaks dipped in their water so they know what it is. I give them their food in a red plastic dish as chickens instinctively peck at the colour red, thus the chicks can find their food. Unfortunately, they like to hop up on these dishes, which results in even more cleaning. Then, after they find their feet, I switch the towels for wood shavings, and as the chicks grow they dust bath in the shavings which creates a layer of dust all over every surface in whatever room they are in; typically the guest room in my case. Lots and lots and LOTS of cleaning when it comes to little chicks.

It is a easier and a much more life-affirming to let a mother hen do the chick raising- chicks she hatches from her own eggs, chicks she hatches from another hen’s (or duck’s, or guinea fowl’s, or goose’s) eggs, or even chicks of any kind hatched out in an incubator. But first, she must be receptive to the task: she must “go broody”.

It is impossible to say what makes a hen go broody, change in season? Change in hormones? Instructions from the mothership (my personal favourite)? But what is clear is that the transformation is extraordinary. When a hen goes broody, her personality changes completely. She will sit on her nest all day long, getting up just once to have a drink, a snack and a crap, clucking with anxiety all the time, until she hustles back to her nest, tucks her eggs under her and goes back into the zone.

She will start the journey to broody-ness by spending more and more time in one of the nest boxes in the chicken houses. Day by day, her time extends, and she develops the characteristic behaviour of growling and puffing up her feathers when I check under her for eggs (although she is not laying herself any more, her flock mates may climb on top of her to lay and then she’ll tuck the egg under her, which I will need to retrieve). I will give her a plastic egg to brood, to keep her in the mood.

After a few days of serious sitting, I will move her, under cover of night, to a separate house; at the moment I am using a small timber dog kennel right next to the house in a small yard where the clothes line is. I fill it deep with nice clean straw and give her the plastic egg again to brood. At this point I wait a few more days to make sure she is committed- some girls will quit when you move them and you don’t want to have a bunch of babies on your hands with no mama to look after them!

During all of this, I begin to collect the eggs I want to hatch. I will know who the good layers are, or the most beautiful, or the best mothers, and I will choose their best eggs, big and regular-shaped and clean, writing the date on both ends in pencil. I keep the eggs in a carton on my desk with one end placed on a book. Each day, I add more eggs to the carton, and change the end that is up on the book, to try to approximate how the hen would naturally rotate the eggs around the nest while she is collecting them herself.

I don’t keep eggs for more than ten days, which is what I have been told is the maximum period that an egg will remain viable. I have never tested this- I don’t ever feel like any egg is worth wasting on a failed hatch just to satisfy my curiosity- perhaps if I was trying to breed something more rare I would attempt to hatch older eggs, but so far this hasn’t been a priority for me. It does appear, in my hatches, that the older eggs take a little bit longer to hatch, but I haven’t been scientific about this at all.

When all is aligned- the girl is committed, her housing is perfect, the eggs I want are ready- I begin the hatch. To me, this is the most miraculous part of the process- that I can take a collection of eggs laid at all different times, and they will just sit on my desk in a state of suspended animation until it is time to push go.

Notes on incubators: I have a small incubator, but a very nice one, a Korean brand called R-com. I first borrowed one of these from an excellent neighbour, who was my first chicken sensei, and had a perfect hatch- popped the eggs in and fired it up and the incubator did it all- temperature 37.5C, humidity 46%, turning the eggs every hour. Then, on day 18, the temperature was automatically dropped to 36C, the humidity went up to 75% and the turning stopped, then day 21- TA DA! Chicks!

The following year, I borrowed a different brand from someone else, a cheaper one, and you could tell. I had to manually adjust the temperature, which had a tendency to run high, and I had to put water in this well that was underneath the eggs and really hard to see how full it was getting while I was pouring it in. And on Day 18, I had to manually adjust the temperature again and add more water to a different part of the well, and also take out the egg turning device- all of which was rather awkward. But the most important part is that I just didn’t have a very good hatch- only about 50% of the eggs made it.

So when it was time for me to buy my own, I splurged and bought the RCom 20. I didn’t buy the top of the line model, the RCom 20 Pro, so I do have to manually set the temperature, humidity and egg turning on day 18, but it is a digital system, so it isn’t a big deal. It also plays this annoying little song every time it turns the eggs that you can’t turn off- the Pro model doesn’t do this. At least we keep it in the bathroom, which is fairly closed off from the house so the song isn’t too invasive. But if I was to buy another one, I think I’d kick down the extra couple hundred bucks or whatever the difference was and get the Pro.

Why all the bother with the incubator? One reason: It is much more reliable. Yes, the girls can hatch their own eggs, and I will give her a half dozen or so to hatch on her own, but I can fit 18 big eggs in my incubator and know that they are going to hatch. Eggs under a girl often get broken or pooped on or she may give up halfway through, wasting the time I spent getting her ready and her time she has spent sitting.

So for 21 days, the eggs tick away. She will have her half dozen to rotate around, I will have 18 large or 20 small ones rotating in the incubator. Then the magic starts. In day 21, we begin to hear tiny peeps coming from the eggs. She begins to talk to the chicks, low humming clucks as if she is encouraging them for their big exit- or should I say entry? One will suddenly rock. Then a tiny hole will appear. Then a bigger one, until craaaack! The chick pushes its way, wet and tiny, into the world.

During the hatch, I try to keep the room as dim as possibly, to replicate the darkness under a mother hen. I monitor the progress of the hatch, but I don’t mess around too much. If a chick is having trouble, I don’t usually help it- the act of hatching is the chick’s preparation for life. If they aren’t strong enough to make it out of the egg, they won’t be strong enough to make it in the world.

The hatch usually takes 24 hours. When I am convinced the hatch is complete (invariably some won’t hatch) and all the chicks are dry and fluffy, I give them to the mama.   Under cover of night, I line a basket with towels and pop them in one by one. Quickly and quietly, I take them outside and gently tuck them under the feathers of their waiting mama, alongside their new brothers and sisters that she has hatched herself. I also take out any unhatched eggs from underneath her and maybe pop them in the incubator to see if they will still hatch- I can slip a chick in over the next day or so and it will be absorbed into the clutch easily.

Once, when I was cleaning out a goose nest after a new group of goslings had been led out of the goose house for the first time, I found one egg that had just pipped. Unfortunately, geese don’t accept late babies as readily as chickens do; in our experience, the parents kill late arrivals. I held this egg in my hand, listening to the little peep, peep, peep coming from inside- I knew I should kill it right there, prevent it from the pain it would feel on hatching, but I just couldn’t.

At the time, I had an extra broody hen- sometimes I’ll have 4 or more girls all broody simultaneously, but there are only so many chickens I can make at once! So I slipped this egg underneath her. And do you know? She raised that little gosling to adulthood. She was funny- when anyone would come near, she would hustle him off to a distant part of the yard- it was like she felt that something was wrong with him and needed to protect him. It was pretty hilarious to watch him try to hide under her feathers when he was twice her size! But anyway- back to the hen-

In the morning, she will wake up and be so impressed with herself- 20 or more little chicks all tucked into her warm, soft feathers. (This is one of the reasons I favour Australorps- they are fantastic mums, and as big birds, they have a lot of room for chicks under there!) They usually spend a day or so in the house, peeking their little fluffy heads out from time to time, bonding with their mama and tentatively checking out the world.

By the second day or so, she will hop of the nest, leading her brood on their first forage. She will go to the food and flip it out on to the ground, pointing to it over and over while making the characteristic, “tuk, tuk, tuk” sound that means, “here is food!” Mamas do it for their babies and roosters do it for their hens. (I have seen Camille Desmoulins catch a fat grub, then throw it back on the ground with a “tuk, tuk, tuk” offering it to the ladies nearby…such chivalry!) She’ll repeat this action with the water. And then, they are off- all I need to do is keep the waterer and feeder full and clean.

She will protect them from anything, attacking people or pets that get too close. She will teach them to look for predators, predators on the ground or from above- once, I was sitting on the stoop of what was my broody house at the time, watching a mama (her name was Beth, the grandmother of Ruby who is the broody I am hatching for at the moment) and her quite big, maybe 5-week-old chicks, as they scratched around the yard. Suddenly, she cocked her head to the side and let out a low whistling trill- a sound I had never heard before. Immediately, I was surrounded by chicks flying past me as they raced into the house for shelter, and when I looked up to the sky, there, circling lazily, was a massive goshawk, looking for dinner. A good mama is a fierce mama, but not too crazy. She needs to have a certain measure of calm and introspection too, to really keep them safe.

An aside: in the past, I would integrate the chicks and mama into the flock straight away, allowing the chicks to be raised in the midst of the flock. It was delightful to watch how they all would look after the babies, my rooster even keeping some of them under him at night when the clutch grew too big for mama alone. That was especially beautiful, mama and rooster tucked side-by side with a huge clutch of half grown chicks tucked under and around them. But two years ago, I watched as a mama with 15 chicks ended up with just two as a goshawk picked them off, one a day. I pulled the final chick it killed from its talons as it took off like a helicopter through the leaves of the fig tree we were under, and watched helplessly as the fragile chick died in my hands. So now, despite the lack of social interaction, I keep the babies in a small yard next to the house where the goshawks can’t seem to hunt, until the chicks are a bit bigger and able to fend for themselves a bit better. Since adopting this method, I have lost no babies to predators.

I will let her raise them until they are feathered up- I usually wait until she lays her first egg again, which seems to be around the same time, 6-8 weeks or so. And then they are moved in with the flock (with mama, who will continue to protect them) or sent on to their new homes!

One comment

  • rachel

    Thank you Farmer-In-Chief for such spendid details. Saving this for future reference!

    17 October 2014

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