If you are considering expanding the size of your flock, then one of the most rewarding ways to do this is by using a cockerel to provide you with fertile eggs from your own hens so that you can incubate and hatch your own.
There are however a number of considerations to consider, apart from whether a cock bird would be too noisy for your neighbours! From selecting the right birds to breed from, keeping them in the best possible health to obtain viable hatching eggs and then storing these eggs correctly before you even think about incubating them. This article provides some information on how to get these things right so that you can hatch some healthy chicks to increase the size of your flock.
Before deciding to breed from your chickens, it is sensible to consider whether or not you have the space to raise chicks and sufficient housing to be able to rear them. You cannot mix young growers with adult birds firstly because of the risk of them catching a disease (they take time to acquire immunity) and secondly because smaller birds will get bullied so you will need separate accommodation for them. If you have this covered then the next step is to consider what to do with (on average) 50% of your hatch being males.
If you are breeding a specific breed, then it is only right to be selective of which cockerel you choose and which of your hens you use. Genetically, the traits of the parents will be passed down to the progeny so if you are breeding from poor quality stock you will be increasing the number of poor quality birds. Sadly, so many pure breeds have been diluted down by poor breeding and sometimes there are massive differences within a breed. Birds that have bowed legs or wry tails (point slightly to the left or right continuously) for example should not be used for breeding as these problems will just be passed on.
1Breeders Health Birds should be examined for good health. With experience, general good health can be seen in a bird. The cockerel should be attentive to his girls and should court them from time to time, without bullying. Birds should have clear bright eyes, have a red comb without any blue edges and the birds should be bright and alert. Nostrils should be clear of mucus and breathing should be without any wheezing which could be a sign of respiratory problems. Check for lice, especially around the vent and under wings and check the vent for any discharge or scabbing.
A sound diet and good management of the birds during breeding is obviously essential not only to maintain good health but also to provide good hatchability and healthy chicks. A varied but balanced diet including greens is recommended with pellets having a high level of protein of around 16-20%. Breeders pellets contain all of the minerals and trace elements in the correct proportions required to produce healthy chicks. If large numbers of dead-in-shell chicks are occuring before hatching then this can often be overcome by switching to breeders pellets.
2Eggs How many people buy a breed that have a published annual number of eggs in their poultry book, only to be disappointed that their hens hardly lay anywhere near that number? This especially applies to utility type birds that have been changed massively for showing purposes where shapes and feathering have changed over the years to meet the demands of show judges leaving factors such as egg and meat production behind. This is because of poor selection of the ‘good' egg layers. Let's face it how many people can say how many eggs their chickens lay each year? Well even harder, could you say which were the good layers and which the bad? Many serious breeders recommend using the first year of lay to record egg numbers then in the second year, the better layers can be considered to go in the breeding pen. Whilst this is not easy in the backyard, over the cause of a year, with a simple coloured leg ring and frequent observation of your hens, you soon get an idea of who is laying well and who is not.
3Egg Selection Egg selection for hatching is very important and overlooked by many. Eggs for hatching should be checked for size, shape, colour and texture. Check the standard for as much information on your breed as possible but if you can't find information about their eggs, go to an online forum and ask for help from other breeders of this breed - for example Copper Black Maran should be a large size and dark brown in colour, Cream Legbar medium sized and blue, don't set eggs that are incorrect because firstly you are not helping the breed and secondly you are reducing hatchability. The better the egg quality, the better the hatchability. If you select weak eggs, this trait will be passed on down the generations and hatchability and chick quality will suffer.
Once you have the best of your birds selected, your breeding pen up and running, and the best quality eggs selected, you should allow the cockerel 10 days with the hens before collecting eggs for incubation so that they are fertile. If changing cockerels or removing hens from a larger run with other cockerels present, it is necessary to wait 14 days otherwise you can get fertilised eggs from the wrong cockerel. If hens have suitable nest boxes with clean bedding material, most eggs should be clean and not require any sort of washing prior to incubation.
4Egg Storage If eggs are stored before incubation, they should be kept in a cool place, away from bright sunlight and sources of heat. A garage or pantry is often the best option. They should be stored pointed end down and turned through 90 degrees twice a day. The easiest way to achieve this is by placing eggs on an egg tray or large egg box and placing an empty half dozen box under one side of the tray in the morning and the other side in the evening so that they are lifted by 45 degrees from horizontal one way, then the other. Eggs can be stored for a week without degrading hatchability too much.
Next is the 21 days of incubation which is covered elsewhere in the incubation and hatching section.