The idea of keeping chickens at home is one that appeals to a growing number of people around the world. It’s not just that you’ll get “free” eggs and chicken meat, it’s also that the produce from the chickens you keep is known to be free from all the unsavoury “stuff” (including harmful antibiotics and synthetic colouring) commercial chicken eggs and poultry are known to contain. But if you’re going to keep your own flock of chickens, you need to set it up the right way, and then maintain the flock so that they stay healthy, and so do you.
Having decided to set up your own flock of chickens, there are several routes you can take. The two that usually work the best are:
1. Buy one or more adult hens from a reputable source and give them fertilized eggs (also from a reputable source) to sit on. If you start with properly pedigreed chickens, your ultimate flock will be superior.
2. Buy a flock of young chicks, please ensure that the chicks are not separated from the mother hen at an inappropriate age, from a reputable breeder. Then wait for the hens to grow up and lay their own eggs that your best rooster will fertilize, and they will sit on.
The option to avoid is having chickens shipped in the mail.
Ultimately, anyone wanting a sustainable flock of chickens should be focusing on quality of bird, and not quantity. If you buy from commercial hatcheries, you should be aware that they don’t usually breed selectively, and because of this, aggressive traits are not ruled out.
So how difficult is it, really, to set up and maintain your own flock of sustainable chickens (sustainable being the operative word)? While there is no doubt that it is easy to breed chickens, the secret lies in the selection process, so that you will produce quality chickens that will lay quality eggs.
Select Stock for Breeding
If you are breeding your own chickens, the number one rule is to be sure that you keep a record of which hen is mating with which rooster. If you don’t, it’s going to be a hit and miss affair.
If you have a flock of chickens that is truly free range, this immediately introduces challenges, because they can all go anywhere and do anything. As the flock increases in size, there will be more roosters and more opportunities for the hens and roosters to breed. The best way to overcome this problem is to use pens for breeding, with no more than 12, but preferably three to five hens with each rooster.
Of course not your entire flock needs to be relegated to the pen – only your best rooster and top hens. If you start with a small flock of say six chickens, it would work well with five hens and one rooster.
But selective breeding is just that: you need to be selective in terms of the chickens you keep. If they don’t have the qualities required for the production of good quality eggs and meat, you don’t want them in the flock. That is the harsh reality.
So what should you be looking for before you cull (or get rid of) birds that don’t meet the quality check?
• You want good quality chickens that are healthy, active and eat well. They should be interested in mating, should be able to forage for food, and should be protective without being too aggressive.
• Hens should lay well. Best is to keep records of the number of eggs each hen lays.
• We humans get judged by our physical appearance, and so do chickens. Generally hens that lay well have bright eyes, combs and wattles that are red and don’t sag, and their bodies should be wide and deep. The skin, legs and beak should also have good colour, though this fades when the hen is laying eggs.
• If you buy a fully-grown hen, measure the protrusion bones that are located on both sides of the abdomen. The wider these are, the better layer she is likely to be. A width of three fingers is a good rule of thumb. There should also be about a four-finger gap between the breastbone and anal vent, which should always look slightly moist.
• When aiming for meat production, weigh the birds at eight and then 16 weeks. Those that grow and put on weight the quickest are the chickens you should use for breeding.
Of course you will need a way to mark chickens so you can remember which ones are the “best”. You can do this relatively easily by using specially produced plastic bands and toe punches.
Managing Chickens for Breeding
There are lots of different breeding programs, including spiral mating that is also known as clan mating. Generally speaking though, keep breeding patterns in mind, and be aware of what is acceptable and what isn’t.
Whichever poultry program is chosen, it’s important to ensure that the hen has been laying successfully (in terms of producing eggs) for two or three months before launching into the program chosen. You just don’t want to have brothers and sisters breeding together (just like you wouldn’t want human siblings procreating).
The spiral mating system is a simple and proven one that involves choosing the best hens and roosters from the entire flock. The way to do this is to divide the stock you have into two or three “families” and then work from there. One family could be as small as a single rooster and a hen – in fact the smaller the better. Separate these creatures and then let them start breeding.
Once your roosters have done their bit, two or three times, you can cull them and have a good-quality Sunday roast. But in the meantime you need to know how to handle the eggs these roosters have fertilized.
What to do With Fertilized Eggs
It’s a no-brainer that you need to take care of fertilized eggs, but the question is what exactly to do with them, and how to know which ones are fertilized.
Generally you can be sure that a rooster’s fertilization will be viable for around two weeks. For this reason it’s best to wait for about ten days before you collect eggs for setting. The issue though is that unless the egg has been fertilized, there is no point in the hen sitting on it to try and hatch it. It’s not too different from knowing when to eat freshly hatched eggs!
Get used to the fact that you aren’t allowing a hit and miss scenario. You are in fact operating a breeding stock that will produce the best eggs and chickens possible from what you have chosen. Presuming you are supplying a bunch of broody hens with fertilized eggs, you’ll need to select the best, and just enough for the broody hens you have (see below, How to Manage Broody Hens).
Save the cleanest fertilized eggs and store them at room temperature without washing.
How to Manage Broody Hens
When you manage your own flock of egg-producing chickens and broody hens you will find that the good momma hens will sit on eggs till they hatch. But the weird part is that not only biological hen-mommas will sit on eggs. Often broody hens will sit on just about anything, even other species, like duck or goose eggs. More often, a broody hen won’t even lay eggs while she’s broody.
So now you need a Broody Station.
There are some easy ways to start up a broody station for broody hens that will help you get your flock of chickens going. All you need to set up a sheltered station (perhaps a small coop) that separates an area from the rest of the flock. It really is that simple, though you will also need to be sure that there is a nesting box of some sort with bedding (straw or untreated wood shavings are best), as well as a place where the broody hen can scratch and do her “business”.
If you are starting up a first patch or station for a broody hen, you might need to leave a couple of fake eggs to encourage her to stay broody. Make sure it is clean and safe, in a place that is quite dark and secluded.
Of course, if you aren’t sure whether or not your hen is broody, and will actually sit on eggs, you’ve got a problem. Here are three tips to identify a broody hen:
1. Your hen sits on the egg-nest all the time
2. If you reach towards the hen it will puff-out, peck, or be aggravated if you try and find eggs from underneath her.
3. She sits on the nest throughout the night and doesn’t perch nearby with the other birds.
If you have a broody hen, now’s the time to put her on fertilized eggs, which is probably going to mean that you have to move her to the fake eggs. It’s best to do this at night, when she’s quiet and less likely to try and escape. Put her in the nesting box in the broody station and leave her there for a day. If she doesn’t settle straight away, hold her down gently. You can position the box against the side of the station or mini-coop to stop her from leaving the eggs; but don’t leave the box like that for more than a few hours, or overnight. She needs to be able to get to food and water.
If she continues to be broody you can replace the fake eggs with fertilized eggs. You can set as many eggs as your hen can cover, though a good rule of thumb is no more than eight per hen. Remember she needs to keep them warm for them to hatch, which will usually take about three weeks.
While your broody hen will be happy to sit on the eggs until they hatch, it’s your responsibility to keep her fed and watered. You’ll also need to clean out the chicken manure every day otherwise the station will quickly become smelly. The good news is that chicken poop is a wonderful fertilizer, so you can dig it into your compost heap, or even directly into garden beds. It’s a good idea to check the eggs after about ten days to see if there’s any sign of life inside. Do this at night using a strong flashlight to “candle” the eggs. Carefully remove an egg and hold it directly against the light; if you can see little veins in the egg, it’s good. If all you see is a solid lump, either the egg is off, or you’re not doing the “candle” technique correctly.
Presuming the eggs are fine, check them again another ten days later. Hold each one against your ear, and flick it very gently. Chances are you will hear a little chirp from the chicken inside the egg. Once the first chick starts to hatch, it will take anything from 12 hours to three days (max) for them all to hatch. Leave them be during the period, and don’t be tempted to help weak chicks hatch. Above all else you want your flock to be strong and healthy.
A good broody hen will sit on the eggs until all of them have hatched. If she leaves any unhatched eggs they are probably rotten. Most broody hens will also adopt young chicks if you pop them under her.
What to Do Once the Eggs Have Hatched
You can move momma and her chicks out of the broody station as soon as you like. It’s usually best to move the new flock to a chicken coop while the babies are vulnerable to predators, especially birds like hawks and crows.
You can leave them in the broody station for a while, but then you will need to feed them and ensure that they all get some “live” food like worms and bugs as well as other chicken feed. While laying hens need calcium, a calcium-rich diet can cause kidney damage in growing chicks, so avoid adult chicken pre-mixed feed that has calcium added.
Once you’ve got your flock, you’ll find that some hens get more broody than others. Some are likely to lay more eggs than others too. But if you set up the flock the right way, you’ll have a constant supply of organic eggs and chicken meat.