Tag Archive | breeding chickens

Baby Chicks Learning to Free Range

The baby Ameraucana chicks are three weeks old now.  This past week they have been learning to go out on their own into the big world and free range.  Seeing such small babies on their own can give a mother hen like me heart palpitations, but I can’t hold my little ones back.  They need to understand how to find food, hunt for insects, avoid danger and return to the safety of the shelter at night.  Although they are quite tiny, these chicks are old enough to be on their own.

The babies love freedom.  They run together in a little flock.  All twenty-three of the original hatch are still with us, hale and hearty.  On a sunny spring day they sprawl in the sunshine lighting the barn doorway and spread their wings to collect the warmth.  As a group, they move from place to place finding adventure and keeping in constant contact with a steady stream of peeps and chirps.

Thursday was the first time the little birds ventured from inside the barn out on the grass.  Once this wonder was discovered, there was no stopping those chicks.  They found the grass and greens delicious and also teeming with juicy bugs.  I am teaching them to drink from a pan by sinking their plastic waterer in the center of a rubber dish full of water.  The chicks have quickly caught on.

It is amazing how fast baby chickens grow.  The tiny roosters already test their strength in mock fights.  In no time the birds will be fully feathered and starting to fly.  A baby chicken is actually quite a good flyer because its body is small and light in comparison to the size of the wings.  This tends to give the small birds an advantage against predators.  They are very good at escaping.  Although they appear delicate, millions of years of evolution have made these small creatures tough and capable of caring for themselves.

Winter Chicks

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The chicks I was forced to hatch in January due to the loss of my best rooster are a month old now.  There are nineteen babies.  One died at day three, a common time for newly hatched chicks to perish if they have an internal birth defect.  The rest of the flock seem to be doing well.

The first month of their lives was spent in cardboard boxes in our house.  Their lives began in a bathroom in two joined boxes with a 60W light bulb for warmth.  At two weeks they outgrew that space.  I moved them to two larger conjoined boxes in our unheated woodshed.  With foam board insulation around the boxes and a 100W bulb they kept warm.  When the temperatures dipped below 30F in the woodshed I ran an electric space heater.  The babies thrived and grew quickly.b

Two days ago we moved them outside to an insulated hen house.  I’ve sealed all the windows and doors with plastic sheeting, used plywood to create a space with a ceiling about three feet high, and installed a 250W heat lamp.  At night I close off the heated area with plastic burlap to a space about 3 ft x 5 ft under the lamp.  Their water and food are inside with them.  So far they have stayed warm and their water hasn’t iced up.  We are lucky to be in a thaw period with temperatures in the 40sF during the day and no colder than 15F at night.a

The little guys are growing fast, making more insulating feathers by the minute.  They love the freedom of forty square feet of floor during the day.  I can hear them chirping away as they romp and flutter about in the hen house.

Chickens love apples and these babies are no exception.  They will peck a whole apple away in a day.  They also quickly learned to drink from a pan.  I teach all my baby chicks to drink from a pan by placing the beginner waterer they first learned to use inside the pan.  In no time everyone drinks from the new water source.  They eat chick mash like little feathered piggies.

These winter necessity chicks were a real burden to raise in the house, but I think the effort will be worthwhile.  At least four of the babies appear to be little roosters that look very much like the father we lost to a weasel back in December.  They are silver splash in color with lots of white on their breasts and body feathers.  I am hoping to produce some laced chicks from the splash color.  Although splash and laced are not accepted purebred Ameraucana chicken colors, I find the laced coloration very beautiful.  Each white feather has a band of black around the outside edge.d

So, if I’m lucky, breeding the splash color may result in laced babies one day.  Hopefully on a nice warm spring day and not in the depths of winter!

January Chicks

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The first Ameraucana chicks of 2017 finished hatching overnight.  Currently there are twenty babies, an excellent hatch rate any time.  The hatch is particularly impressive for eggs that were collected when the temperatures were at or below 0 degrees F and the majority of eggs set had been stored in the refrigerator for several days.  When the best breeding rooster for the next generation is killed by a weasel, any possibly viable eggs that could contain his DNA should be set.  Of the 42 eggs I placed in the incubator, 37 grew embryos.  Of those, 22 pipped and 20 hatched.  Had I owned a better incubator, I believe the hatch rate would have been higher.c3

In the photo above, the last two chicks to hatch are in the lower area.  They appear less fluffy than the rest because their down has still not shed all the albumen residue that keeps them wet and lubricated so they can escape from the egg shell.  In a few hours they will be as fluffed as the others.

I’m saving my pennies to purchase a Brinsea incubator to replace the styrofoam Hova-bator currently in use.  Had I known that such an early hatch was necessary, I would have begun saving sooner.  The usual hatching season begins in March for me.  By then all the hens are laying well, the days are long enough to assure good fertility and when the babies hatch, the weather is warm enough to keep the chicks in the barn.

Now I am faced with twenty chicks that must live in the house until they are old enough to go outdoors.  They will need to stay in with us for at least three weeks!  Anyone who has raised chicks knows they can get smelly.  They usually go in the barn after one week.  I will need to provide a large brooding area and consistent attention to bedding to keep the odor of chicken at an acceptable level.  The cats are another concern.  One of our cats, Chloe, killed some newly hatched chicks the first year she lived with us.  Since then she has mellowed, but we now have two one-year-old males who consider themselves mighty hunters.  The baby chicks will need to be enclosed in a cat-proof system.

Still, my hopes are high for a good outcome with these babies.  I’m certain many of them were fathered by my best rooster since he was the dominant male in the chicken house.  So far they are a beautiful hatch of silver Ameraucanas.  I look forward to seeing their adult plumage and the color of the eggs they produce.c2

 

Chick Update

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The third hatch of Ameraucana chicks finished this morning.  Currently there are 14 babies.  Very cute and alert little guys who are already eating the chick mash.  I’m glad to be done with hatching for this year, it is a chore.

The first two hatches are growing well.  They spend every day free-ranging around the barnyard.  The first hatch from 4/19 has eight young birds, including a beautiful silver pullet (right front.)  It is hard to catch these guys long enough to get a good photograph.  Here I slowed them down with some scratch grains for a pose.a4

a3The second hatch from 5/14 has thirteen chicks.  They are growing fast and have nearly completed their first fledging.  These little guys are real adventurers and even harder to capture in photos than their older siblings.a2a5Here the two hatches mingle at the feeders.  The older chicks chase the younger ones some, but they are getting more and more tolerant with exposure.  By fall they will be one big flock.  I must set up the feed stations inside pens with narrow entries so the adult chickens can’t steal the food.

Chick Hatch Tribulations

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The second hatch of Ameraucana chicks is safely in the brood boxes.  This time we got 14 healthy babies, a good hatch for me.

Sadly, so many of the 42 eggs in the incubator did not hatch.  Seventeen babies made it from the eggs, 3 died in the first day or so.  Many other eggs pipped or partially hatched then the chicks died.  Some of the babies that do escape the eggs are crippled and I must dispatch them.  I hate culling chicks!

I have been researching why the hatch rate is so poor when the fertility rate is near 100% and have come up with an answer.  It is the incubator.  I’ve been using a Hova-Bator styrofoam unit I purchased new several years ago.  It has a fan to circulate the air and help even warming of the eggs.  It also has an automatic turner.  I bought that one to replace an older still air model by the same manufacturer.  The styrofoam incubators are fairly affordable at around $200 for my current model.  Think I paid $189 about 4 years ago or so.

Last year and this year I sold hatching eggs locally, the same eggs I hatch myself.  Other people using more expensive models achieve 100% hatch rates or close to it with my eggs.  My hatchability is 70% at best, closer to 40% usually.  Technically, I’m only out a couple dozen eggs when the babies die, but it is still heartbreaking to see so many perfectly good chicks going to waste due to poor equipment.

I’m not sure what is going wrong with the incubator to cause this problem right at hatch time.  The chicks that die before completely hatching, I cannot explain.  I believe the crippled chicks become irreparably harmed trying to get loose from the shell.  They injure themselves and have nerve damage.  This is said to occur when conditions are too dry in the hatcher.  That is hard for me to believe since there is the correct amount of water in the  reservoirs and the inside of the view windows are nearly obscured by condensation.  I’ve been able to rule out faulty genetics or other factors that cause crippled chicks due to the success rate of people using better incubators to hatch my eggs.

For the last hatch, I even took the precaution of not opening the incubator at all during the first 24 hours that the chicks are breaking from the eggs.  No heat or moisture escaped.

Sometimes I have wondered if the hatched chicks moving about and knocking into their siblings who haven’t hatched, causing the eggs to roll, are somehow disturbing the process.  But, the year I partitioned the incubator with cardboard to limit movement, the results weren’t better.

So, I’ve decided to take the plunge and invest in a better incubator.  The next step up is in the $500 range.  These models are made of solid plastic and metal and are easily cleaned as opposed to styrofoam with all the pores that can hold bacteria and viruses and requires aggressive sanitation after every hatch.

The more expensive incubators have advanced heating units and better humidity control.  The viewing windows are also much better and they can hold up to 48 eggs as opposed to my current 42 egg capacity.  When you reach the $700 level, the incubators are cabinet models that can accommodate 200 eggs and have separate drawers for incubating and hatching so both these processes can go on at once.  This shortens the time between hatches and increases potential chick yield.

Investing in a better incubator should actually pay for itself in a couple years with increased sales of chicks.

Although I haven’t made a decision yet, I’m leaning toward the Brinsea 40.  This unit can hold 48 chicken eggs and gets very good reviews from users.  There are other choices and I’m still looking.  For certain, the styrofoam incubator has seen its last year of service on our farm.

 

First Chick Hatch

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This year’s first Ameraucana chick hatch here at Phoenix Farm was on April 19-20.  There was a problem with the incubator and only nine babies survived.  A rather dismal result.  These nine little ones are strong to have made it out of the eggs.  At least a dozen, probably more, were lost.  Such is life (and death) on the farm.

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Silver rooster, black hens, silver hen

The babies are from either the pen with a silver rooster and silver or black hens or the pen with wheaten and blue wheaten roosters and hens.  The ones that lived are healthy and active chicks.  Once they make it past day three, they usually survive to old chicken age.  chick2

Today I will set up forty-two more eggs to start the second clutch.  We will probably have a third hatch as well since the first was so poor.  I like to have forty to fifty young ones to choose among for the best quality breeding stock for next year.

Just couldn’t resist sharing this picture with a baby stretching its wings.  So cute!chick3

 

New Ameraucana Eggs

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Wanted to share the eggs this year’s pullets are laying.  Three or four young hens have started producing eggs nearly daily and I think the colors are very nice.  My goal is to produce a medium blue egg.  The one in the above photo at upper left center is getting close to the color I’d like.

The Ameraucana chicken, like it’s cousin the Araucana, lays an egg with a blue tinted shell.  There are three egg shell color genes in chickens:  white, brown or blue.  Shell color is one or a mix of those shades. All the eggs in the above photo have blue in them.  The green color is a result of dilution by brown.  The depth of color is a function of dilution by white.

When a hen first begins to lay, she produces the deepest shell color.  As she continues to lay the color fades.  The true egg color of a hen is found in the pullet shells or the shells of eggs made immediately after a hen finishes her molt.  While the bird molts, or sheds and regrows much of her feathers, she will not lay.

egg3As a sometime dues paying member of the Ameraucana Breeder’s Club, I procured a copy of their Egg Color Reference Chart.  Around the edge of the chart are all the known possible colors of egg shells that Ameraucanas produce.  To determine the shade, the card is held up to the egg until a close match is found.  To me, some of the colors are so similar that it is difficult to differentiate between them when comparing to an egg.  The best I can tell, my blue egg is similar to B2.  This would mean something to another Ameraucana breeder.  The shade in the center of the card surrounding the rooster is the ideal blue that all breeders hope to attain.egg2

There are eleven pullets from this year’s breeding program, so I am waiting for most of them to begin laying.  It will be exciting to see what the rest can do!  I have been selectively breeding for the best egg color for many years and I feel my efforts are beginning to show success.