We are now breeding all our chicks ourselves from our small flocks of pure breed utility chickens and ducks.
We have a large old Hamar incubator whose idiosyncrasies Tim has now just about perfected. The eggs are put in every week once the hens have been laying for a bit and the egg sizes are good. We only hatch eggs that are of the best quality - the right colour and size for the breed.
This is the most important way to ensure the quality of the eggs from the future generation - and every person who hatches eggs - either in an incubator or under a broody has the responsibility to their chosen breed to only ever hatch eggs that are right for the breed. Each bird hatched from poor quality eggs dilutes the national flock a little more.
The other very important factor is yourself - you chose the eggs that are hatched - you control the quality of the next generation.only hatch eggs that are of a good size for the breednever hatch eggs that are the wrong colour for the breedif you have eggs that are not correct replace the breeding male with one hatched from the correct size and colour
don't be too quick to hatch eggs from pullets - they will be small so not provide the best for the growing chicks. It is also vital to make sure that all the girls are producing eggs consistently that are correct for the breed. If you start hatching from small eggs you do not know whether that hen will continue to lay small eggs. If so you have reduce the quality of your breedline.
Every time you hatch (or if using broody hens allow to be hatched) chicks / ducklings that are from eggs that are not right for the breed - come from hens that are not productive - etc you are playing a part in the demise of utility strains in this country. The future of utility poultry lies in all our hands - every one of us
After 21 days for the hens and 28 days for the ducks the chicks hatch and are left in the hatcher until they have completely dried.
At this stage the chicks are put into the brooding boxes in the byre - 100 to each box. These are pre warmed to around 28'C using heat lamps, and have fresh water and food readily available. The bedding is dust extracted shavings, around 3 inches thick. A 18 inch high ring prevents the chicks from crowding into the corners.
WATCH A CHICK HATCHING HERE from the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
These pictures show our brooding pens : they used to be the dairy goat pens until October 1998 when we sold all the goats to Northern Ireland and converted the pens by lining and insulating each pen, making a lid and fitting electricity and water supplies to each one.
Here you can see the chicks having a drink, we always make sure that each chick drinks as they get put into the pen, and then they get stuck into the chick crumbs (put out on egg trays for the first few days). Then it is time to sleep - it is a tiring business this getting hatched and settling in.
Their routine for the next week or so is to eat, drink and sleep, cosily shut in their brooding boxes. They have fresh water and plenty of food available at all times.
After about 2-3 weeks - depending on the temperature outside and the activity of the chicks - we open the doors and let them out into pens - still shutting them up at night. Soon the doors come off and they get to please themselves. At this time the lights are still on all the time.
We find that this means the chicks eat well, can warm up whenever they want, sunbathing under the lamps or explore the cooler reaches of their world. Letting them out seems to encourage good feathering, and prevents feather pecking from boredom or being too closely confined. It also means that any disease risk is removed as they have more space, more air, more light etc. The bedding is kept dry and clean at all times.
At about 4-5 weeks the heat lamps are replaced with ordinary lights. More space is given if necessary. Throughout they have ad lib chick crumbs and fresh water from automatic drinkers. Because our weather is so unpredictable and wet weather can kill chicks very easily we do;t have the luxury of letting our birds outside too early.
The stage at which they go out depends on the weather outside, the growth of the birds and the amount of feathering. It can be from 6 - 8 weeks. We have plenty of space in the byre to hold them if it is really horrid but like to get them out as soon as they are ready. This is one of the main differences we have found between ourselves and many other rearers of birds. Most are floor reared (and a few are cage reared) - this means that the birds may well not have been outside until you get them. If the weather then is cold or wet - you may well have problems - the birds will not be assured in ranging and will not be as well feathered. Another significant difference is that they will not have met much in the way of challenges to the bugs that beset the free ranging birds - from other birds for instance. This can mean that the birds are susceptible to illnesses just at the age you do not want them to be - coming into lay. All birds outside can catch coughs and colds but what you need to be very wary of is that it is not much more.
Once in the outdoor pens then they blossom as characters - chasing midges, charming visitors, exploring the fields. They are housed in large growers houses around 75 - 100 each which are mobile so they can be moved around the fields on to fresh grazing all the time.
It is at this time they are changed from chick crumbs to growers pellets
Depending on the breed we can start to sell birds from 8 weeks on - as long as the new home has somewhere to look after them separately as laying hens should not be fed growers pellets and adult birds may bully younger ones. However the pure breeds are often difficult to sex at this age and so we have to keep both the hens and the cockerels until they are much older. This is why there are not birds available all the time and why the pure breeds are more expensive. The cockerels cost a lot to rear and only a few are required each year. They are a considerable cost to us. We encourage people to book birds early though so you get the hens you require.
At around 14 weeks for the Black Rocks and 16 weeks for the Pure Breeds the food changes again to layers meal. The reason for the difference in age is that the Black Rocks are an egg laying hybrid and has been bred to mature faster coming into lay at around 20 - 22 weeks. The Pure Breeds are bigger and slower growing so we keep them on the growers ration longer to produce a better bird. They also come into lay later (at around 25 - 35 weeks). However both are settled into layers feed before 18 weeks.
8 week old pure breeds exploring their pen
Black Rock pullet