How to Hatch Success: Unraveling the Basics and Secrets of Successful Chicken Breeding 

 

When we think about our chickens, especially in the laying industry, our thoughts may immediately drift to delicious ready-to-eat eggs from mature hens (after being cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, of course!). But if you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you want to take your operation a step further—and breed chickens, fertilize eggs, and raise baby chicks! The first level of this starts with breeding, so continue reading to learn more about how to breed your flock, choose chickens, and know when it’s been successful! 

 

The Basics of Breeding

 

Chickens lay eggs as a part of their reproductive cycle, and they can even lay an egg as often as once every twenty-four to twenty-six hours! Eggs within commercial production that we consume are usually unfertilized, since laying hens are housed with other females and not males. Stocking both females and males in your flock is the first step in breeding. If you have a mixed-age flock, it’s important to have a few individuals, male and female, that are similar in age to form a group. The typical ratio for males to females should be 1:5; this means that for every one male chicken, you can house him with five female chickens.

 

Now, make sure that your pullets (hens less than a year) and hens are in good health. If you see that some of your birds may not be laying, and they have reached the age to do so (usually around eighteen weeks), you should address their nutritional needs, the environment, possible stressors, and more. If you’re planning on breeding year round, it’s important to make sure your hens are in an environment that replicates summer with around sixteen hours of daylight (since this is when maximum egg production occurs). 

 

Housing and Choosing Which Chickens to Breed

 

To start the process of breeding, house males and females of similar age groups together. For example, have a pen with pullets and cocks and another with cockerels and hens (or a rooster, if the hen is old enough). 

Two brown chicks and one light tan chick standing on dirt when the tail of a white chicken in the background.

If you’re a beginner breeder, choosing the same breeds of chicken leads to more consistency in the resulting chicks, whereas breeding hybrids or different varieties results in blends of characteristics in the offspring based on the parent breeds’ characteristics. If you do have mixed breeds, make sure to take into account the characteristics of each breed. For example, does one breed have a hardier body and another good egg production that could be beneficial for your flock? To learn more about specific breeds you can read our previous article on some of the more common chicken breeds here.

Collecting and Storage of Fertile Eggs 

 

Once a hen or pullet has laid an egg, you can immediately collect the egg or collect them all at a specific time throughout each day (like the morning or afternoon). In terms of storage, it’s important to recognize that you can’t place these eggs in a refrigerator. Keep the eggs in a room or area with a temperature between 55-65℉ for no more than ten days. This storage ensures the eggs are kept fertile, and you can wait to collect a batch of eggs that you will incubate together! 

 

Identifying Fertilized Eggs  

 

An 8-egg diagram showing the growth of the embryo over an 18 day period when candling. On day 1, only a small dark spot can be seen at the center of the egg. From days 2 to 6, a network of spiderweb-like veins grows from the dark spot on the egg towards the shell, and the middle darkens. By day 10, a large dark spot can be seen in the egg with some veins seen around it. By day 18, the egg is mostly dark with a light area towards the top.

An 8-egg diagram showing the growth of the embryo over an 18 day period when candling. On day 1, only a small dark spot can be seen at the center of the egg. From days 2 to 6, a network of spiderweb-like veins grows from the dark spot on the egg towards the shell, and the middle darkens. By day 10, a large dark spot can be seen in the egg with some veins seen around it. By day 18, the egg is mostly dark with a light area towards the top. Photo by Higher Oak Farm.

To identify if an egg has been fertilized, you can use a technique called candling. Candling involves holding a bright light up to the top of the egg’s shell in a dark room in order to see inside. Six days after the egg was laid (and subsequently collected), you can candle it—paying special attention to a spider web pattern. This emerging pattern is the first sign that the embryo is developing, which means the egg has been successfully fertilized! Once you identify the fertilized eggs, incubate the eggs either using an incubator or by give the eggs back to the hen to incubate and hatch. Continue reading to understand the differences between these two options.

 

Incubating Eggs vs Returning the Egg Back to the Hen

Two brown hens sitting on a nest in a wicker mailbox.

If you were to return eggs back to your hens to hatch, you need to make sure that the hen is large, a good brooder, and is healthy! A hen that is larger can cover and keep more eggs warm. Her brooding ability will show if she’s a great mother; a good brooder will remain sitting on her eggs and display behaviors to make a successful hatching. However, hatchability does decline if there are more than ten eggs for a hen, which may not be ideal given the size of your flock. Feed and water should always be readily available to all hens, and if you want your hens to continue laying you should incubate as broody hens will stop laying to prepare to nest eggs.

 

Given a fertile egg, you can choose to either incubate and hatch the future chicks yourself or let your hens do this work! If you want to incubate the eggs, there are many factors that you have to consider. Depending on how many chicks you plan to hatch, you would need an incubator that’s able to carry that capacity of eggs. There are two common types of incubators: forced air and still air versions. Forced air incubators have more consistent temperature and humidity, which will lead to a higher hatching rate. With any incubator, you will need to make sure the temperature, humidity, and ventilation are appropriate, and you will need the equipment to make this possible. 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

To start breeding your flock, ideally, house chickens of the same age group (including males and females) together. Breeding can be stressful for hens, so if you see that your hens are losing too many feathers, decreasing egg production, etc. make sure to adjust accordingly. For example, developing a schedule of having eggs fertilized with your male and female chickens housed together a few days to two weeks out of the month allows your chickens to rest! Once a hen or pullet has laid an egg, collect it immediately and properly store it for the egg to remain fertile. After six days, you can candle the egg and either return it back to the hen or incubate it—depending on your own preference, the size of your operation, and the equipment you currently have! If it has a spider web like pattern, it’s been fertilized! Place it in an incubator, or return it back to the hen, and wait for your baby chicks to hatch! 

 

Written by Reena Grewal, University of California, Davis Student, Joseph Gendreau and Maurice Pitesky.

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