Hen Maturity and Mating
Hens usually begin laying eggs between 18 to 22 weeks old which means raising chickens for half a year before you even get any eggs. At about 8 months hens reach thier optimal egg output of 6-7 days a week depending on health and daylight. Hens will stay at or near this level of egg production for a few years when kept happy and healthy. When collecting eggs from your own, or a friend’s coop, with incubating chicken eggs as your main goal, wait until hens have been laying for several weeks. Only collect eggs that are of an average size. Often when hens begin to lay they will put out some giant and tiny ping-pong ball sized eggs. These are often not viable and should not be used.
Just to be sure it’s been said; you must have a mature rooster fertilizing your hen’s eggs for them to hatch into chicks. (Some first time folks don’t realize this crucial step in raising chickens, you are welcome to giggle if this is common sense to you.) One rooster will very happily fertilize a dozen hens in my experience. I incubate them a couple times a year and eat the roosters when the begin to show aggression, aside from two that I keep to mate with my hens. I put them in two house to keep them from fighting AND to keep the hens they’re shacked up with separated.
How Many Hens will a Rooster Fertilize?
A rooster knows which hens he has already mated with on any given day with a flock of a dozen hens or less. If one stays on the perch late to “sleep in” he will wait until she comes down to hop on her the first second he gets. If you take a hen in a separate pen, the rooster will be very adamant about getting his turn in. A rooster can become aggressive toward people (especially shorter folks like kids who are seen as less threatening) who holds a hen that he has not gotten you yet that morning.
Once his first round is made, the rooster will keep close to his favorite few hens for the remainder of the day. If you have two mature roosters that are not fighting (yet) and one tries to mate with a hen, the other rooster will often interfere and/or take over. There is almost always a dominant rooster in this situation and they should be separated to reduce flock fights. This is the hard part for a lot of first time homesteading folks. Raising chickens means dealing with roosters.
We eat a lot of roosters. A lot of people who don’t eat their chickens will list them online “free for the taking” in Uncle Henry’s and the like. If you are looking for a rooster to add to your flock of all hens, this is a good avenue—but, take precautions when adding him to your flock. Keep him in quarantined a week to observe him and look him over real good before sending him to do his duties.
After hatching from both roosters’ flock I eat those two roosters and put the hens all back together in the bigger house. The smaller house is thoroughly cleaned in preparation for the chicks that will be hatched. Don’t count your chicks before they hatch though; always wait to do away with your roosters until you are sure you have enough healthy chicks that at least one will be a rooster. Once I hatched five eggs and they were ALL roosters. Another time I hatched eight and only one was a rooster. It’s generally a 50/50 chance, but don’t short yourself.
Mixing New Birds with the Flock: Raising Chickens in Succession
Once my chicks are big enough to go in the pen from the brooder box (season and weather permitting) they share a divider wall with the other birds and they all get to know each other. I’ll let a “nice” hen into the chick flock and eventually be intermixed until it’s time to separate for fertility again.
Some hens will pick at chicks and even kill them, slow introductions are best. Roosters are the most aggressive. Mature roosters can be deadly and tear through an entire new flock in a few moments time. Roosters only value mature hens; not little chicks.
Every few years I’ll get a rooster just for fertilizing hatching eggs from someplace else to keep my birds from becoming inbred and to avoid health issues in the future. Introducing new birds can also be dangerous, especially to young birds. Always quarantine and inspects birds for one week prior to placing them with mature hens and never mix two roosters who have never met before.
Promote Hens to Lay Clean, Viable Eggs
Feed your hens crushed, baked eggs shells or commonly sold oyster shell scratch along with their layer feed to promote firm shells. Stay away from so-called “chicken treats” and give them some greens in the diet. Chickens will eat pine needles right off the sick, a head of cabbage strung from the ceiling or loose leaf spinach tossed out to peck at. They don’t need a lot, but it adds vitamins and fiber that layer feed just doesn’t supply. Read more about boosting overall egg production, especially in the winter months.
Give them soft clean bedding to get the cleanest eggs possible and check a few times a day. They should have elevated nesting boxes that are just big enough for them to hop into and lay in comfortably. I find if they are bigger they will hang out in them, poop in the box and/or step on the eggs. Here is a post about how to make nesting boxes out of buckets, two boards and a few screws. In the winter I’ve had eggs get incredibly cold and still hatch just like the rest.
Eggs risk bacterial contamination from the laying hen’s feet, freezing, chipping and cracking the longer they are left in the coop. For best chances of a good hatch out, collect your eggs as soon as they are usually laid. This can also help you figure out which hen laid what egg—which may, or may not, interest you. I like to know and make note on the eggs.
Collect and Save Hatching Eggs
Don’t use eggs with poop on them. It may be obvious to some, but this can introduce bacteria that will kill your embryo—or worse other developing chicks in your incubator too. Even if you clean them it’s not a good idea. Cleaning eggs strips them of their natural outer coating that protects them from leaching in water and bacteria. Eggs that get wet, have possibly been frozen or near freezing, were laid on the coop floor, or were stepped on by chickens should not be used.
Take care not to jiggle them around too much and set them in an egg crate pointy side down for up to two weeks. I cut off saving them at ten days to be sure I have a good hatch rate. Mark each one on the top lightly with a pencil for the date it was collected, which chicken laid it (if you know, and care to), and make note of if it got really cold or was jiggled a bit. If there is a question of development later on and there is a note on the egg that it may have been botched early on, you’ll know to toss it before it stinks up the whole lot of them.
Keep the Eggs at Room Temp
As you collect eggs for raising chickens, keep them at room temperature and don’t let them go above 80° for more than an hour or below 55° for more than a few hours. They need to think they’re under a mama hen who is saving up eggs and leaving the nest some to eat and drink. Once incubation sets in they will need to maintain 98°-101° for 22 days, and can be pulled out and cool off some for candling and turning for up to an hour at a time at room temperature without an issue.
Decide How Many Eggs to Hatch
Save about 10% more eggs than you really want for your total number of chicks. So if you actually want 8 chicks, add an extra egg or two. Think of these extras as your insurance policy ju-u-u-u-st in case they don’t all hatch. Decide what you want to use your chickens for and always expect at least half to be roosters. If you want eggs and meat, figure out how many chickens you’ll eat in a year (if you only hatch once a year), and think how many eggs you use on an average each week and multiply that out to figure out your year’s worth. This will give you a broad idea of how many to hatch, then add your 10%.
For information on incubation, see the post: Incubating Chicken Eggs for Beginners.
Keep Space and Feed Requirements for Full Grown Birds in Mind
Understand space requirements and feed prices before you go and hatch out an army. A few weeks ago I butchered half my ducks, a big tom turkey and one chicken and my feed bill went from $80 each month to $50. Birds have to eat more when it’s cold out to stay warm. Just before the coldest part of winter I do a big butcher and put them in the freezer. The hardest part of winter butchering is waiting for a warm enough day to to the deed outside. Wet feathers are not easy to clean up when they freeze solid to a picnic table.
Raising chickens means planning ahead for all seasons and ensuring thier ability to live comfortably before they are hatched. Birds need space to move around or, much like humans that are cooped up all winter, they get can grouchy and peckish. Make sure there is at least 1.5 feet of pole space for each bird to roost and a three by three space on the floor for each bird to move around in on the coop’s floor. Before stuffing the incubator full, make sure to consider these needs ahead.