Usually around this time of year, when it’s cold and rainy out, I’m hard at work looking through the endless pile of gardening catalogues that makes its way to my mailbox and planning out my summer garden. But this year I have a much more exciting project on the horizon – hatching baby chicks! It’s been almost two years already since we bought the two dozen chicks for the farm, and it’s time to raise up the next generation to keep our egg production up. We let our smallest banty hen, Millie, hatch a couple of eggs last spring, and she did a great job raising the chicks (read about it in Momma Millie), so we will give her a few more eggs to hatch this spring. The good thing about Millie is that she is constantly going broody and sitting in the nest box for weeks on end, wishing and hoping to be a momma hen again so we’ll have no trouble getting her to hatch a few eggs for us. She’s such a small hen that she can only manage to set four or five eggs at a time, so we will also need another hen to go broody so that we can hatch a few more eggs than Millie can handle. That shouldn’t be too much trouble since we have several breeds of chicken that are supposed to make good mothers. When we’re ready to hatch some eggs we’ll just let a pile of eggs accumulate in one of the nest boxes, and in all likelihood one of our ladies will step up to the task.
Before we can hatch the eggs, we need to plan which hens and roosters to breed and the logistics of the breeding program. I suppose we could just hatch a random sample of fertilized eggs, but the scientist in me thinks it would be much more fun to do selective breeding. We are planning to breed mostly black australorps and easter eggers. These are among our favorites of the breeds we have for their sweet personalities and the beautiful eggs they give us. Right now we have Brown Rooster living with the ladies, but in order to breed purebred australorps we’ll need to separate Brown Rooster from the ladies for two weeks prior to letting Reuben mate with them. We want to breed Ramon, one of our two easter egger roosters, to several of our green-egg laying easter egger hens. Most of the ladies we will be breeding are coming up on two years old so they should have good fertility and we should get a good hatch from them, but we do love our Rhode Island Red hen, Rhoda, who is coming up on four years old and still lays a nice large dark brown egg so we want to try to hatch some of her eggs too. Both she and Brown Rooster have very pretty red feathers, so I think we’ll hatch a few of their eggs and see if we can’t get some Lil’ Rhoda ladies in the next generation.
Before we can start our selective breeding program we’ll need to divide up the chicken pasture to section off a couple of smaller areas so that we can segregate the chosen ladies with the lucky roosters. This will be one of those times where having tame roosters that will let me pick them up will come in handy, so I’m glad I’ve spent the time socializing the boys so that we will be able to transport them up to the hen pasture for their rendezvous with minimal objections.
When hatching eggs, the ratio of roosters to hens is usually 50/50. We would like to get more than a few ladies out of the hatch, so we’ll probably hatch about 12-15 eggs, or maybe a few more if chick fever really takes hold. When we got six baby chicks from a friend last summer, we ended up with 4 cockerels and 2 pullets (young hens) and one of the pullets died, leaving us with only one laying hen out of the bunch. So we want to hedge our bet a bit more this time in the hopes of winding up with a few more ladies. The roos, of which I’m sure there will be more than a few, will sadly have to go to freezer camp (read about it in Coq au Vin). I don’t say this lightly as it is a very hard thing to do to harvest one’s roosters, especially since I spend time with and get attached to all of our chickens. But it is a fact of life when raising chickens that you end up with more roosters than you need. I think it’s important to take responsibility for the extra roosters we produce, so we will give them a good life every day they are with us up until the very end when that difficult time comes again this year. In the meantime, I am looking forward to the fun that comes along with a batch of baby chicks and the amazing experience of watching a momma hen teach her chicks everything they need to know.