Along the way, we've learned a lot, much of which I have not been able to learn from books or from anywhere on the internet that I could find.
Which is why I want to share with you what I've learned about when to separate males and females that we've raised from eggs, and discuss the problems we've had along the way.
We incubated about 40-50 eggs in the one incubation set. Of those, we ended up with 21 chickens. The best hatch rate we had was from our own, half-barnevelder eggs (barnevelder rooster, mixed flock hens). The worst we had was from one breeder who sold us a dozen fertile eggs through TradeMe, of which four hatched and three were deformed and soon died.
Here we are, 10-11 weeks on, and we have 9 female hens and five males. The last few weeks have not been good. We started to lose chickens about 2-3 weeks ago, and couldn't figure out why.
They were attacking one another. We'd go in to check their food and water, and find a chicken dead, its insides ripped out, and the others eating what was left of the carcass. It wasn't pretty. We'd remove the dead bird immediately, then a few days later find another.
It was only late last week that we realised the birds that were dying were all - with one exception - male birds.
So with five birds down, we were faced with a decision: did we kill the remaining males (which were destined for the freezer anyway) immediately, in order to prevent further suffering, or did we try separating out the males from the females, in the hopes that the problems were caused by a dominance issue between the males over the females?
We have decided on the latter, and separated the males from the females immediately into the cleared-out tomato house. It wasn't ideal, and isn't great digs for them, but we decided to see how they go, and if we have another attack, and even one dead bird, we'll kill the remaining males and consider it over.
I'd rather they died humanely than suffered at the beaks and claws of their fellows, and died by being ripped to pieces.
So from our original incubation we now have nine females (or what appear to be females - they certainly appear female, but you never can be 100% certain this early) and five definite males. We're building the chicken tractors as fast as we can, and should have proper accommodation for them pretty soon.
So it has been a rough learning curve. It's clear now that, with the next incubation, males and females really need separation from each other at about six weeks - or as soon as you can determine gender. Any later and you risk the chickens attacking one another.
We want to keep the males a while longer, as they're putting weight on nicely, and the bigger they are, the better they'll be for the table. But they'll probably be killed in the next week or two, and in the freezer by Anzac Day (April 25th).
So - a short assessment of what I've learned:
- Incubating chickens is definitely worthwhile. It is easy to do, and a great experience for kids and for adults :)
- You have to be willing to kill chicks / hens that are dying or injured.
- The best eggs to use are your own, rather than purchased fertile eggs from breeders. It is cheaper and more efficient to purchase a rooster than to get fertile eggs from elsewhere.
- An easy baby chick brooder (for the first 1-2 weeks) can be made from a heat lamp and a large plastic crate, with paper towel for lining. You'll also need a small food dispenser and a special chick waterer.
- Chicks need special baby chicken food, called crumble. You can buy this in large bags from farm supply stores. They'll move on to adult food at about 5-8 weeks of age.
- Chicks grow very quickly, and will soon need larger digs. They'll still need a heat lamp until fully feathered (about 6-8 weeks) and food and water dispensers. You'll need to check food and water daily - water in particular gets dirtied quickly. Their coop will need to be vermin (mouse and rat) proof and tight enough that tiny chicks cannot escape or get stuck anywhere.
- Males and females will need to be separated from each other, or males slaughtered, at about 6-7 weeks of age. No later than 8 weeks of age, or males will start killing each other as they attempt to dominate the flock. Injured chickens will be attacked by others. Deaths can happen quickly - in one instance, we checked our chickens, and they were fine, then checked again 1 hour later and one was dead.
- Breeds with an obvious difference between males and females are advantageous, as you can sex them early, and remove / separate males. Barnevelders are easy to pick the males in - the males are quite different from the females at an early age.
- Chickens start laying at between 16 and 22 weeks of age. Factor this into the expense of raising them.
I hope this is useful - it's based on my experience. I'm enjoying raising my chicks, despite the pitfalls, and can't wait to raise the next incubation in Springtime.
Have a lovely day!