If you want to start your flock from scratch, you could go even further than buying chicks and raising them. You could go as far as getting your own eggs and hatching them!
This is a fun project the whole family can get involved in, and if done right, it will give you intense satisfaction in knowing you are raising your own flock of chickens.
This post is about how to do just that — everything from sourcing eggs to setting full-grown chickens free on your homestead.
1. Source and Prep the Eggs
In order to hatch eggs, you first have to get a good batch! Obviously, store-bought eggs will not hatch no matter what you do.
You will need to get fertilized eggs either from a neighbor with a mixed-sexed flock (roosters and hens living together) or from a hatchery that sells batches of eggs.
You can store the eggs for 1 week before incubating so long as you keep them 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Do not store them in your refrigerator. A garage or cellar might work, as will burying them in a box underground where the median temperature is about 55℉.
Clean the eggs carefully with a soft rag, and then mark one side with an X and the other with an O. These markings will help you keep track of which side is facing the heat if you are manually turning them for even warmth.
2. Prepare the Incubator
While the eggs are being stored, you should get your incubator ready if it wasn’t before you purchased them.
Clean it well with soap and water (or a light bleach solution). Make sure the heat is working, the thermometer is accurate, and you are able to maintain constant humidity.
Keep the incubator in a space with a steady temperature away from drafts. Keep the temperature around 100 degrees Fahrenheit — no less than 99℉ and no more than 102℉.
3. Place Eggs in the Incubator
This is called “setting” the eggs. Set all of your eggs (you should be trying for at least six, but you can have as many as will fit in the incubator) with the narrow end pointing down slightly.
Make sure to place them all either X side up or O side up so that you can turn them without confusion for the next three weeks. You can avoid this little chore if you get an incubator that rotates for you.
4. Adjust Temperature & Humidity if Needed
Keep an eye on your incubator to ensure the temperature and humidity remain constant. Oftentimes the temperature will drop when you first add the cool eggs. This is normal, and it should stabilize quickly, but check to be sure.
Most eggs fail because of temperature and humidity. Monitor them closely to avoid 90% of potential problems.
5. Turn Eggs Several Times Per Day Until Day 18
Turning the eggs allows the yolks to stay in the middle of the egg instead of floating up or sticking to the sides.
When eggs are incubated by a hen, her shifting and scratching will rotate the eggs. Since you are the mama, you have to do it.
Eggs need to be turned three times a day! Rotate them 180 degrees each time. This will give them an even rotation. (Now you see why I advise marking them with Xs and Os, right?)
6. Candle Eggs After Day 5
Candling an egg is a way for you to check on a chick’s development inside the egg. You literally shine a light through the egg to get a silhouetted view of the developing chick inside.
When candling, make sure the egg is clean, and then make sure you do not leave the egg out of the incubator for more than 30 minutes.
Do not candle every day! The changes will be so minor that you won’t be able to really see what is going on.
Keep it to every three or four days, and then stop candling after Day 18. Too much light can cause developmental delays in the chick.
7. Prepare for the Hatching Process (Days 18-21)
Your little cheep-cheeps are getting ready to enter the world! You will need to raise the humidity to 70% to help soften the shells and increase oxygen in the incubator.
Make sure you have your brooder ready with all of your feed, feeders, and watering equipment on standby.
It is also time to stop turning the eggs. The chicks need to be able to arrange themselves in an ideal hatching position.
8. Day of Hatch!
So, here it is. The moment you’ve been waiting for. The best thing you can do to help the chicks is… nothing.
Day 21 is usually Hatch Day, but sometimes they can hatch as early as Day 19 or as late as Day 23, depending on if you had to cool them for storage or not.
The chick will start by pecking a small hole in the shell and then will peck a ring all the way around the egg. This usually takes 24 hours, but it can happen much more quickly.
Try not to help your chicks hatch! This isn’t some deterministic rule about only the strong survive.
The chicks are still absorbing the yolk and creating their blood vessels. At this point, their veins and arteries are still connected to the shell.
If you remove any of the shell too soon, you can cause major bleeding and kill the chick.
Do not turn off the incubator until the chicks are fully dried and fluffy. They can stay in the incubator for two days and be safe. This is fine.
If possible, keep the incubator closed until all of your chicks have hatched and dried. Opening the incubator early for one chick can damage the others.
If an egg doesn’t hatch by Day 24, it probably will not ever hatch. Carefully dispose of any that remain on Day 25.
9. Taking Care of Baby Chicks
Once the chicks are hatched, the fun begins! They will start moving around and chirping as soon as they are dry.
When that happens, it is time for Phase 2 of chicken care: the Baby Weeks.
Setting up the Brooder
At the start, your brooder must have at least 6 inches of space per chick. Each week, you should add another foot. This will give the chicks plenty of room to run and scratch and play.
If they do not have enough space, they can get stressed, and this will have an effect on their overall health.
Make sure the brooder is strong enough that the chicks won’t knock it over and safe enough that mice, cats, dogs, and other critters can’t bother the chicks.
You have lots of options for bedding. Your choice should be determined on what you think you can keep clean.
The bedding needs to be dry at all times yet soft enough that they can scratch it as if it were dirt.
You might even try just using dirt, but you risk exposing the chicks to pathogens while they are still fragile
Most often, a red heat lamp will keep your baby chicks warm without posing a fire hazard or overheating them.
They will need to be warmest at the beginning, and then over time, you can move the lamp further and further away as the chicks learn to self-regulate their body heat.
Food and Water
This is the number one space in your brooder that will need to be cleaned on a regular basis.
If you get a feeder/waterer combo, like this one, it will be the cleanest option. Otherwise, you will have to change out bowls and plates and the surrounding bedding frequently.
Refresh their food and water two or three times daily.
I’ve found that elevating the containers slightly helps to keep bedding and droppings out of the food and water. Just be sure the chicks can still reach them easily.
Transitioning to the Main Flock
Once your chicks are big enough to run around and they have enough feathers to regulate their temperature, you can start integrating them into your existing flock if you have one.
You want them to be fast enough to stay with the flock, avoid predators, and run away from the bigger chickens yet big enough that they are able to find their own food and keep warm.
This is one of the cutest and most rewarding projects you can do on your family homestead. If you have kiddos, you can teach them about caring for others, but be prepared to have your first chickens feel more like pets than livestock.