Raising your own chickens can be a good way to obtain laying hens, whether you have your own rooster or you purchase chicks from a breeder.
Purchasing baby chicks
If buying fertilised eggs from your local poultry farm or breeder, you will also need to think about purchasing all necessary incubation equipment. This process can be quite costly, so you may want to think about breeding your own. You could also place bought fertile eggs under a broody mother hen to take care of the rest. Alternatively, you can usually purchase day old chicks which can be set up with a heat lamp or an adoptive mother hen (although it's not guaranteed she will adopt, so you must be prepared to do the work she would otherwise provide).
Breeding your own
Hen "mothers" chickens
Start collecting your fertile eggs, marking on them the date they were laid. You will want to place all eggs under the surrogate hen at the same time. The embryo does not start developing until the eggs are under the right heat for a constant period of time (hence the reason you can safely eat fertile eggs that come from a refrigerator). So put these aside until you have collected enough to start the incubation (we recommend not exceeding 6-8 eggs, depending on the size of the hen incubating them).
On the day you are ready to start incubating the eggs, prepare a nest in a quiet, darkened cage safe from any other chickens and predators. Place all eggs in the nest and sit the hen atop. She will sit for the full 21 days, so everyday take the hen off the nest for no longer than 5 minutes to stretch her legs (she might struggle to walk at first), toilet and eat and drink (keep fresh water and food nearby her at all times, even whilst nesting).
Mark on a calendar the first day of incubation and the final due day of hatching (21 days from day 1). You may find over the duration of the 21 days the mother hen might have discarded eggs from the nest. If this is the case it may be that the eggs are not fertile, or the chicks inside have died. If this happens, be sure to remove these eggs if they are long cold.
On Day 21, you can check the eggs under the hen by carefully lifting her to see if the hatching process has begun. But be careful not to disturb her too often.
All the eggs will hatch roughly within the same 24 hour period. Leave the broken egg shells in the nest until the chick has cleaned out the yolk. The newborn chick will consume the contents of it's egg through its abdomen, which provides it with a highly nutritious meal.
Around week 3-6 of the baby chick's life it will begin to grow in its feathers. The comb and wattle will also develop. From approximately week 18 onwards you should expect your young pullets to begin laying eggs, and you will certainly be able to tell the roosters apart from the hens!
How to care for baby chicks
Chick starter feed - a commercially prepared mix (can be a crumbly or wet consistency) which can be bought from your local farm supply store or some supermarkets.
Water dish - use a shallow water dish. Anything with depth is used at the risk of drowning your chicks while they are still small. If you are using a mother hen to raise your brood, she will break the food up fine for her chicks and call them to feed.
The term "broody" refers to a hen who sits on eggs for the purpose of hatching them. You'll recognise a broody hen by her commitment to stay on a nest for days on end, all the while guarding her nest with aggressive signs like puffing up her feathers, giving off a low squawking sound, and pecking the hand of anyone who dares to approach her.
A broody hen can be a nuisance to the backyard keeper who is focused on egg production, or a welcome incubator to those wanting to breed their own chickens. To lower the chance of a hen becoming broody, be sure to gather your eggs daily, ensuring they do not sit in the nest too long. To end a broody session quickly, remove the hen from the main flock, placing her in an isolated cage without a nest and only water. After several days she will cease to make the low squawking noises and then you will know she is ready to be introduced back into the main coop.
Sometimes this brooding session can last longer. Hens that typically go 'broody' are bantams. But they make great mother hens!
It's generally difficult to sex a young chick to determine if it's a rooster. Unless it's crowing from a young age, time can only tell. Usually a rooster will have a larger comb as a chick, but this can not always be a guaranteed method to determine if it's male or female. They will start crowing anywhere between 1-5 months of age. It varies between different breeds and different roosters.
If you already have a rooster who is crowing this can encourage your young rooster to follow suit, and he may begin to crow from quite an early age.
Young pullets can start to lay at anytime between 20 weeks to 6 months of age. It will vary depending on breed, size and many other factors. They usually lay sporadically during the first month of laying. They will eventually settle into a more regular pattern, laying on average an egg every 1-3 days.
For a small backyard, we recommend keeping 4-6 hens. This will supply you with sufficient eggs for an average family. You can easily collect 1-2 dozen eggs over the course of a week from a brood this small.
A hen does not require a rooster to lay eggs. The rooster simply mates with the hens to fertilise the eggs and takes care of the brood of hens - although no simple task for him I'm sure!
A healthy hen can lay for over ten years, and live much longer than this again.
Hens molt once a year, shedding their old feathers for new. This usually takes place over summer. They will stop laying eggs during this period (which can last anywhere between 6-14 weeks). You can supplement your hen's diet over this time with extra protein to assist the feather development.
Placing a similar shaped object to an egg in the nest encourages new pullets to lay as well as demonstrating to the other hens where they should be laying. A small plastic ball, or golf ball will do the trick. You will find your hens laying their eggs around it, and if you have a broody hen she'll even sit on that for some time thinking it's an egg to be hatched.
Adding to your brood
You can introduce new hens or young pullets to the main brood at any stage. There will be increased fighting for the first few days, as the chickens re-adjust to their new 'pecking-orders', which speaks for itself! They will peck and squabble until they've sorted out who's boss. Eventually they will all come to accept this adjustment and get along fine, with the occasional peck to remind each other just where they stand.
Keep a bucket under a dry, rainproof shelter topped up at all times with laying pellets. Replace water daily, and change nesting once a week. Collect eggs daily and give them a light scrub with water and a small toothbrush to clean off any marks/dirt if necessary.
Any leftovers or food scraps will be much appreciated by your chickens, as well as additional fresh vegetables (see chickens love silver beet) to supplement their feed.
Eggs in cooking
See our recipes section for ideas on using your eggs in cooking.