Raising chicks

These chicks are being taught to scratch.

Raising chicks from a hen is actually quite routine when you have a good mother; she does all the work.

By Bernard Preston

  1. Bernard Preston
  2. Chickens in the garden
  3. Raising chicks

The first step is to acquire a hen from a breed that will get broody and sit happily for three weeks keeping her eggs warm, and turning them daily; our Leghorns are hopeless. They have been bred to lay and not rear chicks.

Therein lies the first trick; not too many because if they aren't turned, the eggs won't hatch. Not more than ten to start with and with a young mother on her first brood, there's nothing wrong with five.

That means, once she starts to sit, you must remove her from the other hens otherwise they will sneak in and lay their own eggs in the nest, like cuckoos, and suddenly she is sitting on nineteen as happened just recently; not one hatched.

The second question is that of a cockerel. Are you going to have one? One can always borrow a handsome young fellow for a few weeks from a friend. It's best to catch him at night after they have gone to roost; then it's dead easy.

Cockerels are rowdy but it will mean fertilized eggs too and a more natural flock.

Once the hen is starting to sit, you can return him. Actually, unless there are restrictions, you'll probably want to keep your cockerel; the hens are much happier and he does care for them.

An old runner carpet draped over the roost every night, rolled up during the day, douses ninety percent of the predawn crowing.

Raising chicks

Raising chicks does mean some planning and working out exactly what your long term intentions are. Mind you, chickens in the garden is a growing thing; you probably initially had no plans to have broody hens.

So, you have a hen who think will brood and access to a cockerel. What's next? You will need a nest where she can lay her eggs and raise her chicks; it needs to be secure and dry and it's useful if it is mobile and you can move it about.

We use old grass catcher boxes from the local lawnmower centre. It's absolutely essential to have a nest of grass or leaves on the plastic, or the eggs get cold.

If the box is laying directly on the earth, place some thermic insulation underneath first.

Old swimming pool motor covers with a piece cut out of the side with an angle grinder will keep your hen in the catcher box dry.

Keeping your broody hen secure from the creatures of the night is your next consideration; if you have snakes, foxes, genets and other wild creatures then a proper fence where all your birds can be kept is obviously important.

I've read, and simply have done it without question, that the nest needs to be relatively near to the main flock. The chicks must hear them clucking and crowing.

Free range

We want only free range eggs, so that's what I write about, but it does add difficulties. Hens don't like you stealing their eggs and once a hen becomes broody she will start to lay her eggs in the wild where you can't find them. They have to be fenced in during the mornings when they are laying and hopefully your hen will start laying in the catcher box, and probably the other hens too. 

Some breeds like Leghorns are so inbred that they won't lay and brood eggs suitable for raising chicks, so you may have to discriminate between them.

Then one day you'll notice that your hen turns into an angry puffball, blowing up her feathers and especially the tail into a fan and attacking any other birds that come near; she's broody.

She will start making a shrill sound if any of the others come near the nest. However they may still force their way in and lay in the box; that must be stopped.

Note the day on the calendar and remove the catcher box with your hen sitting on her eggs and move it to a private area where she can nest in peace.

She will barely leave the nest for three weeks, and eat hardly a thing. But make sure she has fresh water and some choice food. Fresh, green corn and our real bread scraps are their favourites.

Don't count your chickens

It's not for nothing that there's an old saying, don't count your chickens before they hatch. You are into a big learning curve, one filled with adventure and wonder, but disappointments too.

I write here about how you can avoid some of these disappointments, but you'll have your own. It's not a reason to give up, but to persevere. One of our hens had three miscarriages in a row, not one chick, from which we gleaned some of the errors we were making.

A proper grass and leaf nest, warm and dry, is essential, and don't allow the other hens to cuckold her once she starts sitting. A place that's secure from hawks and eagles and other wild creatures; you will lose a few, so accept it.

There are millions of chickens but very few crowned eagles and genets left is our philosophy. We are willing to share, but be careful or they will take the lot.

Day 22

And then suddenly on day 22, and perhaps a little earlier, you will start raising chicks in earnest. The first little face appears, a few heart rending little pipes and within a day or two you will have a nest full of tiny bundles of feathers, shouting for their breakfast.

Your can read more about that at best chick food.

Here are a couple of the chicks at three months.

At three months you have to make a big, and difficult decision. Are these chicks pets or are they for food. We have started slaughtering the cockerels. If you are unable to do that, you must give them away; they are rowdy and randy, and will terrorise the egg-laying hens.

I have not tried rearing chicks under an infrared lamp.

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56 Groenekloof Rd,

Hilton, KZN

South Africa

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