Hatching Eggs and Caring for Chicks

Though all the books say chicken eggs hatch after 21 days of incubation, in real life things aren’t actually that cut and dried. Chicks tend not to all hatch out at the same time. Thankfully, they can go for at least 12 hours without food or water after they hatch, having just absorbed the yolk sac before fighting their way out.

However, they can’t survive in the incubator forever and are best moved to a brooder within a few hours. I tend to build a new brooder each year, consisting of the following ingredients:

  • Large cardboard box
  • An old T-shirt
  • Wood shavings
  • Food and water containers
  • Lamp with an IR bulb
My Current Brooder

My Current Brooder

The T-shirt is for the bottom of the box. I’ve always got a few old ones kicking around and they make the best floor covering – absorbent, non-slippery and un-peck-up-able. The problem with using newspaper is that chicks slip on the smooth surface and so take longer to build up leg strength – they can end up developing deformities. On the other hand, wood shavings for day-old chicks can be mistaken for food, which can harm them. T-shirts are the way forward!

After a few days, I swap it out for nice, clean wood shavings.

Start out with the IR lamp positioned a metre or so above the centre of the brooder (I use a 250W bulb with a large metal shade). Once the chicks are in the brooder, you can raise or lower it according to how the chicks behave: if they cluster together in a fluffy huddle, lower it; if they spread out around the edges of the brooder, raise it. A temperature of 35ºC at floor level to begin with is about right.

They’ll only be in the brooder for about five weeks, after which I hope to have weaned them off the light and they can be transferred to a new, more permanent home – more on that in a later post.

Over the course of those five weeks, raise the heat lamp a few notches every few days (I hand mine on a chain from a hook and raise it four or five links each day). By week five, they hardly need it at all and are ready for the next stage. They should also have some decent feather growth by then.