You can tell a chicken has stopped laying if the comb, vent, and wattle are shrunken and pale. Her body will be smaller and the pubic bones close together and possibly covered in fat. Yellow coloring will gradually return to the vent first, then the eyering, earlobe, beak, and shank.
Don’t incubate eggs from hybrid or cross breed chickens because the chicks won’t be the same. You will need purebred hens who are healthy, and who are being fed lots of protein and greens and very little grain. You will also need a fertile rooster. A young rooster can handle 10-20 hens, and an older rooster 5-10 hens, but don’t raise too many roosters. He will be fertile between March and April, but you can make it earlier by extending their light to 14 hours a day and keeping the temperature 60°. Gather the eggs before night and keep the small end down or you can rupture the air bubble inside. Don’t wash them, and mark the breed on the small end and keeping it down.
Electric incubators are cheap and easy to use, but you can make your own. Use a Styrofoam cooler, cardboard, or wooden box, a glass or plastic top. A wood incubator should be 11×16 inches, 11 inches high with a hinged front door. Drill 3/8 inch holes on each side, 2 near the top on the 11 inch sides, and 2 near the bottom on the 16 inch sides, for circulation. Make a egg tray of wire mesh on a frame 2 inches from the floor of the box, and put a water pan under it. Put the eggs on the tray and put a thermometer in with them. Use a 40-watt bulb. Keep the pan of water full so that it will keep the air humid. It is very important to turn the eggs gently, a quarter way around three or five times a day (never an even number of times, or the chick will lie on the same side every night). Mark an X on each egg to keep track. After 10 days, make sure the large end is higher than the small end. After 18 days, stop turning the eggs, and raise the humidity in the incubator. Most eggs hatch between 19-22 days.
Some eggs may not mature, and then they can rot and even explode. To find out which ones are not fertile and are not growing, wait three days after the eggs have been fertilized, make the room dark and use a very bright light behind the egg. Look through the shell. If you see a clear egg, it is not growing. If you see a dark haze or gray clouds then it is rotting. If you see a dark red circle and no veins, the embryo died. If you see a small dark center and a network of veins then the egg is good.
When a chick pecks a hole from the inside, that is called “pipping.” The chick may start to pip on the 18th day, but it won’t actually do it until there is a hole showing. Don’t open the incubator, don’t even touch it. Don’t help the chicks get out of the eggs, they must do it on their own or they might die.
Many hens lay eggs and forget all about them, but now and then one will get “broody” and try to incubate them. To encourage her, make her a private chicken nest box with dim lighting. The best nest is a small house 15×15 inches and 16 inches deep with a roof, that sits right on the ground. Some people put a wood egg in the nest to encourage her to lay in it. When the weather is warm she will lay one egg a day and start “setting” or incubating the eggs. Don’t disturb her or the nest or she may abandon it. After 21 days the chicks will hatch. Many people take the hatched chicks into the house until all of the eggs have hatched because the hen often will be torn between sitting on eggs and taking care of new chicks. Put those chicks into a poultry brooder, and then put them back the first night after hatching. To do this, go in late at night and slip the chicks under her while removing eggshells and fake wooden eggs. You can add a few orphan chicks also if you want. The next day watch for any chicks that got rejected (it will get pecked at by the hen, and hide its head), and bring them into the chicken house to be raised in the brooders.
Brooding eggs is keeping them warm like a broody, or mothering hen. You can buy a brooder, or you can make one by constructing a box with a heat lamp or near to a woodstove and a thermometer. The bulb should be low-wattage, and the temperature should be about 95°. A box 30 inches square and a 69-watt bulb can brood 50 chicks. Put your hand down to test the heat. If it is uncomfortably hot, the lamp is too close or too many watts. As the chicks get older, tape another box next to the first and cut a door. Hang heavy cloth in the door and the other room will be cool, so the baby chicks can run in and out. The light should be red or green and hopefully dim, or the chicks will have to be adjusted to darkness or they might die.
Fill a quart jar like a canning jar with water and turn it upside down in a bowl with an edge less than 1 inch high, with a diameter only a little wider than the jar. Then stick a match or toothpick under the edge of the jar to let out a little water at a time. You will need two 1 gallon chicken waterers per 100 chicks. Keep the water clean and full at all times, and make sure it is room temperature, not cold. Don’t put the water right under the heat lamp.
Check the chicks 2-3 times per night the first week. If they are cold, they will huddle under the light. If too hot, they will scatter to the edges. If they are content, they will chirp contentedly. Decrease the heat 5° per week, so that by six weeks it is 70°. Then you can turn the heat off unless it gets chilly. Put burlap or cloth rags with no loose threads as floor covering a layer of newspaper, for the first week, and then when they know what food is, graduate to a thick layer of black-and-white shredded newspaper, hay (not straw), or wood shavings, pieces too big to fit in a chick’s mouth. Stir the litter every day and remove wet spots. Doing these things prevents spraddle legs (legs turning outward) and infection.
If you hatched your own don’t give them food at first. Wait until they start pecking at the floor, then give them food. If you bought them, have food ready because they will be three days old. For the first week give food on a paper plate, egg carton, cardboard, or some other surface that will bring the food up closer to their eye level. Once they figure out what food is, put the food in a tuna can or a trough–the container should be difficult to walk in and scratch food out of, but short enough to reach in. Each chick will need 1 inch of feeding space until they are thirty days old, then they will need 3 inches. Don’t put the feeder right under the heat lamp. Fill the poultry chicks feeder only half full to prevent throwing the food out, and so they won’t waste any. Clean out old food each time you fill it, and keep it full all of the time. Chicks need small grit to help them digest food, so sprinkle sand on top of feed.
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