Hatching & Raising Chicks
Hatching eggs and raising chicks can be part of the fun of a backyard flock, but it's also the most difficult part. You can bypass this altogether by either buying young chickens that are ready to lay or just letting your own hens do all the work. But to save yourself the money of needing to buy new chickens every few years, you may want to give it a try.
You can either buy fertilized eggs or let your flock produce their own. In order to have eggs that will hatch into chicks, you must have a rooster in your flock. This may or may not be suitable for your location given their habit of crowing and aggressive behavior. But without a rooster, none of your eggs will be fertile so don't just leave some eggs behind for your hens to raise. They will just spoil and stink up the hen house.
Of course, if you do have a rooster, you can leave some eggs with your hens and hope for the best. This is the most natural and simplest way to hatch out some chicks though the success rate will be significantly lower. You'll also need to be raising chicks from a breed that will naturally care for their eggs. Some breeds have had this instinct bred out, and they will ignore their eggs. That's great for egg collecting, but not so great for getting chicks. Orpingtons and Wyandottes are great mothers, but Leghorns are not.
To hatch your eggs indoors without a hen, you must have an incubator. It's not recommended to put together your own hand-made incubator unless you are very experienced with hatching out chicken eggs. Each model of incubator will have its own instructions, so read them carefully. You will need to manage both the temperature and the humidity.
Purchased eggs are much more likely to be fertile, but the ones from your own chickens may not be. Even with a rooster, not every single egg will be fertilized. So after a few days in the incubator, you need to check using a process called candling. By looking at an egg with a narrow beam of light behind it, you should be able to see a mass forming inside after about 3 days. If the egg is pretty much clear, it means there is no embryo inside and it should be discarded.
With a simple incubator, you will manually have to turn the eggs 3 times a day to keep the embryos developing properly. Normally, a hen does this herself in the nest. Now it's your job. To keep from losing track, mark one side of each egg in pencil. That way you can tell if you missed turning one. More sophisticated incubators will automatically turn the eggs.
Either under a hen or in an incubator, your eggs will take about 20 to 22 days to hatch. Once the egg shell starts to crack as the chicks peck their way out, resist the temptation to "help". With experience, you can tell which chicks can be helped and when your attempts will cause more harm. For the novice chicken farmer, you should leave chicks alone.
After hatching, you should leave your new chicks alone in the incubator for a full day to warm up, rest and dry their feathers. They won't need food or water for nearly 3 days, so there is no rush to get them out.
Now comes the fun of taking care of your new chicks. You should plan out where you are going to keep them before they hatch, so your enclosure is ready to go. You can't just take them out to the hen house and let them loose with your adult chickens. They need extra warmth and care from you for at least 2 months.
If you have skipped the hatching stage and purchased day-old chicks, this is where you need to start reading.
You are going to need a "brooder" for this time of your chicken's lives, and you can get creative as long as it fulfills their needs. A cardboard box will work temporarily, but a small animal cage is one of the more popular choices. A long, low one designed for guinea pigs or rabbits works perfectly. It needs to be large enough for your chicks as well as their feeder and waterer.
Newspaper is fine as a bedding or liner material, but it can get a little slick once soiled and young chicks may slip and have difficulty walking. Wood shavings work better, though a combination of the two makes for the easiest cleaning. Do not use sawdust. Chicks will peck around in the brooder and end up ingesting a lot, which can make them ill.
Chicks need to be kept very warm, so you will have to have a heat source unless you happen to keep your home at 90 F. You can buy a heat lamp, or just use a 100W light bulb (the incandescent type, not a CFL). Use a reflective shade for it, and mount it near the brooder. Depending on how high the cage is, you may be able to just set it right on the bars. Use a thermometer to measure the temperature. The chicks can also tell you if it's too warm or cold by their behavior. Are they huddled right by the light? Then it's probably too cool. If they are huddled as far from it as they can get, then it's too warm. Adjust the distance or wattage until they are comfortable.
Leave it at around 95F for the first week, and then you can adjust it down by 5 degrees each week. By the time it's near room temperature, your chicks should have their mature feathers in and supplemental heat won't be necessary.
For food and water, you can make your own containers but they are pretty inexpensive to buy. Chicks can (and will) drown in even a small amount of water, so a shallow dish is a must. A waterer looks like a jar of water sitting upside-down in a saucer. As the water is used, it refills on its own. Chicks will drink a lot, so make sure it doesn't end up empty or fouled with waste. There's a good chance you'll be washing it daily. Any shallow dish can work for a food bowl, but they will scratch and peck so much that food can end up everywhere. A proper feeder will have holes that allow for feeding without letting your chicks actually walk around in their food. Again, you'll likely have to wash this daily.
You won't be feeding your chicks the same feed as your adult birds either. They can't eat cracked corn or grains so you'll need to purchase chick "mash" or crumbles for them.
After they've been kept in a heated brooder for about 2 weeks, you can start to let them out for "playtime" outside as long as the weather is warm. Once they have feathered-out completely, they should be fine to move out into your regular chicken coop. You should allow them some time to get adjusted, and to let your existing chickens get used to the newcomers. Let your new chicks roam around the chicken pen with your flock before its time to move them out permanently.
While all of this may seem like an awful lot of work, it can be quite rewarding to raise your own chickens and once your equipment is purchased, it means you can continually add to your flock without any added expenses. And the best benefit is that hand-raised chicks will bond with their caregiver, meaning you will have very friendly chickens who like people when they grow up.
One additional topic to mention in this area is inbreeding. If you have your own rooster, and are using your own fertilized eggs, then this is an issue for you. Purchasing eggs or chicks will bypass the problem. Once you hatch out your first batch of chicks, and let them loose in your flock you will have to take much greater care with breeding. As soon as the new hens are mature enough, your rooster can mate with them and start your next generation of chicks.
This is fine, except that your rooster is already these young hens' father, meaning you have a serious inbreeding situation brewing For any eggs that you intend to eat instead of incubate for hatching, this is not really a problem. But if you plan on continuing your flock with another generation of chicks, then you have to think ahead.
With small backyard pens, it can be difficult to segregate your chickens but that is one way to keep your rooster away from his own children. By having a separate area for the rooster, you can control which chickens he has access to for mating purposes. Just let the older hens in with him periodically so he can do his job. Leg bands can be used to mark the age of your chickens so you don't lose track of which ones belong to which generation.
Alternatively, you can keep your rooster for only one year and remove him from your flock entirely once his offspring are mature. By getting a new rooster each year, you are free to let him breed to his heart's content without having to keep track of which hens are which.