Raising Backyard Chicks

Raising Backyard Chicks

Spring has sprung and our chooks do turn broody. 

If you are raising chicks then a broody hen is nature’s best incubator.

To get started, I select 6-12 fertile eggs depending on the size of the broody hen. Eggs can be stored up to 7 days after lay, before you start incubating them, but need to be at least one day old. If there’s a rooster in the flock the eggs will normally be fertile. If you don’t have a rooster you can buy fertile eggs online and have them posted to you! 

I like to be well prepared. I have a separate predator-proof nursery coop area for the broody mum. 

I put the eggs into a cosy shaped nest in our dark, quiet nursery coop and move the broody hen onto them. This is where it can get tricky because some broody hens won’t settle into a new area, especially if they haven’t been broody for long. I usually wait until I have a few broody hens and always end up with one unable to resist such a lovely clutch of eggs.

Some breeds are more prone to broodiness and Silkies, Buff Orpingtons and Wyandottes are good broody hens.

Incubation takes 21 days from setting. Make sure your broody hen eats and drinks enough. She will leave her nest briefly every day to eat, drink, poop, flap, stretch and maybe take a quick dust bath. I like to take her special chopped treats every day such as boiled egg, fermented grain, silverbeet and fruit.

Mother hen will cluck and purr softly while sitting on the eggs, which is how the chicks know her in the coop. Towards the final hours of the hatch you can hear them talking back to their Mumma. In this way she gives them encouragement to break out of the shell and reassurance that they are safe.

When the eggs start hatching Mumma is best left to her own devices. Most eggs hatch over a 24 hour period.

When she is ready she will hop off and tend to her new chicks leaving any unviable or unhatched eggs. Unhatched chicks can sometimes be helped along and nursed until they are strong enough to pop back under Mumma. I have had success with late hatching chicks by putting them in a sock on a string around my neck where it is nice and warm, and I return the sock chickie to Mumma at night time.

It’s a delight to watch a Mumma hen take her babies out foraging or to see a little chick’s head poking out from under her wing. 

But remember that raising backyard chicks will result in about 50% male chicks. They grow and they crow! Consider the space you have, your neighbours and how you’ll deal with the excess roosters. Some people in rural areas grow the boys for the pot. 

Often we find unplanned hatchings! Some cheeky chooks just take themselves off to a sheltered spot in the yard, in a corner or under a shrub, later to emerge with a gang of new chicks! 

For the first six weeks it’s good to keep the new family separate from the rest of your flock. Their mother should protect them from any bullying but keep an eye on them and make sure they are all getting on. It’s a good idea to have escape routes and safe areas so that young chicks can scamper to safety. If they are in any danger remove them and wait for them to be a bit bigger before reintroducing them. 

Apart from fresh clean water chicks need specific blends of food for healthy growth and disease resistance. I recommend a chick starter crumble with a natural coccidiostat (Regano) for the first six weeks. After a week or so I introduce finely chopped hard boiled eggs, shredded silverbeet, banana, probiotics and so forth – Mumma will select what she wants her chicks to try. Hours of time can be spent watching her teaching her young chicks to eat 🙂

Once they are a month old the chicks are able to have their first treatment of Super Mash. This will help to establish good gut health which is very important in young chicks.

If you are raising backyard chicks this season you’ll love watching your hen’s motherly instincts as she clucks, pecks and scratches around showing her babies how to forage. Children love to watch the curious young chicks as they copy their Mumma and practice chookiness. Being a backyard chicken farmer is all about marvelling over the delight of spring for these very social and caring creatures. 

Deep Litter Method

With Winter approaching and our days getting cooler it is the perfect time to set up a ‘Deep Litter System’ in our coops.

Cheryl Nelson from Natural Chicken Health – Super Mash shows you how to create this happy environment.

Deep litter in a chicken coop develops its own biome (bacterial culture), which acts to reduce insect pests, diseases like coccidiosis and unwanted moulds. The biome helps to decompose manure which reduces the amount of maintenance.

Here are the steps to clean the coop and make a healthy, natural deep litter on the floor.

Step One

Make a sweet smelling, natural cleaning Spray

To a large jar, add the peels of 1 lemon or some lemon oil, a big handful of fresh thyme, a couple of squashed cloves of garlic and white vinegar to cover the solids. Let the jar sit for a 1-3 weeks, shaking the contents every few days until the mixture is fragrant and the vinegar scent is gone. Strain.

Alternatively use the peels of 1 orange, a couple of cinnamon sticks, and a couple of fresh vanilla beans OR lime,  lavender, and mint (which helps to repel mice who don’t like mint) OR pine and cinnamon.

Spray perches, nesting boxes, nooks and crannies with your spray. Scrub and scrape with a stiff brush and paint scraper,  respray to rinse off solids.

If you find mite infestations use a pyrethrum spray to kill them.

Replace nesting material with dry pine needles or other fill with solid stems that don’t house mites. Add stripped rosemary leaves or lavender, oregano, or any of the mint family to deter bugs.

Step Two

To start your deep litter, empty and scrub down the coop (as above) to start with a fresh slate.  Scrape any manure to one side to add later.

Deep litter coop maintenance is all about balancing the beneficial microbe levels to allow the manure & litter to decompose in the coop. It means less coop cleaning, a healthier flock, a warmer flock through Winter and a rich garden compost for Spring!

The build method is to create layers with dry ingredients. It’s not ‘deep litter’ unless it’s at least six inches deep.

Add agricultural lime to the base and again half-way up the pile. Be careful to cover the ag. lime, the lime can mildly burn your chicken’s feet.

Then add layers of pine shavings and other dry materials like pine needles, dry lawn clippings, shredded paper, dryish sea grass, autumn leaves and other dry ingredients. Some people use straw or hay in their deep litter coops with success, but watch for mould and dampness.

As chickens roost above the deep litter, manure may cake. Caked manure can go anaerobic, which releases ammonia, which is a toxic gas.

Once or twice a week, use a hoe to completely stir up all the shavings & droppings. You can get your chickens to help with this part by tossing scratch or treats into the coop that they will have to scratch around to find.  You will still want to be in turning it yourself at least once a week so that you can access the condition of the material.

Deep litter has anti-coccidiosis properties, after it’s been around for a few months, building its own unique biome, so never remove all of it.  When you start bumping your head on the rafters, remove most of it.

Your chicken house should allow quite a bit of airflow. Deep litter must be combined with a fresh-air poultry house. Closed housing will build up ammonia levels that are far too high. Even in the brooder house, ventilation is essential. Just keep the wind-chill factor down by limiting drafts at floor level, to prevent chilling the chicks.

Once you get a feel for deep litter housing, you soon realise it makes a better growing environment for your flock and you.