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Preparing for the Breeding Season

As soon as spring approaches you will begin your preparations for the breeding season. For poultry keepers this is one of the most crucial times of the year as decisions made now will have lasting consequences for your flock over the coming years.

Before deciding which birds to breed from based on breed standards it is first of all worth checking the overall health status of potential breeding stock.

  • check all birds for parasites such as lice and mites- these can transmit disease and lead to a loss of condition leading in turn to poor quality chicks
  • worm all breeders with Flubenvet 1% (a seven day course in feed)
  • check the spur length on cockerels and trim if necessary- sharp spurs can seriously injure hens during mating
  • check your birds for lameness- lame cockerels will find mating difficult and can often have very disappointing fertility
  • check the birds for Respiratory Disease (runny eyes or nose, sounding chesty, sneezing or swelling of the face usually around the eyes)

Any birds which have had Respiratory Disease the previous year should not ever reach the breeding pen as Mycoplasma can be transmitted through mating and through the eggs leading to poor hatchability and poor quality chicks which will make poor show birds. These affected chicks can develop respiratory signs in early life.

Next if you are hoping to use birds you have bred from last year it is worth going through your hatching records to ensure particular birds have not given poor fertility.

If at all possible when selecting birds for breeding try to avoid inbreeding, as excessive inbreeding can lead to weak birds. Inbred birds may have deformities and their immune systems are often weaker.

The next stage is the fun part where you get to select your breeding birds based upon the breed standards.

Try not to put more than seven hens to a cockerel or four if it’s a heavy breed.

Once you have selected your breeding birds, ensure they receive a top quality feed (ideally a breeder feed) whic will result in good quality eggs and healthy chicks. Try not to overfeed your breeders as some breeds can be prone to getting fat. Fat cockerels find it hard to mate and fat hens lay fewer eggs and are more likely to get prolapses leading to vent pecking.

Ideally put the hens and cockerels together in the breeding pen, at least two weeks before you intend to start collecting eggs. If your hens have been in pens with other cockerels then you will need separate them for four weeks to guarantee all chicks hatched are from the intended father.

The first few eggs laid by your hens will likely be small and of poor quality threfore they should not be used for hatching.

Make sure you have a clean, well bedded nest box; this will make sure all of the eggs laid are clean.

Only ever use clean eggs for hatching and never wash the eggs. If eggs are dirty enough to need washing then they are too dirty to be incubated! The egg is protected by a waxy cuticle and a shell to keep bacteria out. Wiping or washing the eggs removes this cuticle therefore removing the barrier and lets the bacteria in killing the chick. Similarly eggs with cracks or damaged shells let in bacteria quicker allowing for infection and embryonic death. We recommend that only clean, undamaged eggs are selected for incubation and that they are neither wiped nor washed.

The next step is to collect and store your eggs. Always write on your eggs, with a pencil, the date collected. Eggs should be stored blunt end up.  During storage eggs should be kept at 75% humidity. The temperature needs vary with eggs age. In the first week the temperature should be 20ºC, the second week 15ºC and the third week the temperature should be at 12ºC. After three weeks the eggs should be discarded as hatchability will decrease rapidly.

Once you are ready to set your eggs make sure you keep good hatching records.

This will allow you to help track down the cause of any problems with hatchability should they occur during the breeding season.  

Happy breeding!!!


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Poor Hatching Rates of your Eggs

How do we go about achieving the best possible rates of successful hatch? Whilst we all do our best to get good hatching rates sometimes things go wrong. Hopefully, if you have had poor hatching rates and you have filled in your hatching records card so Chicken Vet can help you identify the problem.

The first thing to decide is whether or not you actually have a hatching problem. Unfortunately putting a target figure on hatchability isn’t straightforward as hatchability will naturally vary between breeds (with heavier breeds in general having lower hatching rates) and it will also vary depending on how closely related the parent birds are (inbreeding is a particular problem in very rare breeds). Ideally you should be getting a hatching rate of at least 80%.

The next step is to determine if the problem was related to a specific setting of eggs and were all the batches of eggs affected. If you have had good hatchability all season but suddenly the hatch rate has fallen then it is likely something drastic has happened. Usually something such as a power cut or a fault with the incubators temperature or humidity has taken place. The eggs should be incubated at 60% humidity and 38.4ºC in still air incubators and 37.5 – 37.8ºC in forced air incubators. The hatcher should be 36.9- 37.5ºC and 60% humidity. These figures are official guides however I think it would be worth consulting your incubator manual as each brand and model will have slightly different ideal settings. It is also possible that a disease has spread throughout your flock causing a sudden drop in hatchability.

Is the poor hatchability in eggs from a specific breeding pen? If so it may suggest a problem with your cockerel. Check him for lameness and watch him to ensure he mates correctly! Sometimes cockerels get bored with the hens so take him away for a few weeks so that when he is returned to the pen he will have regained his libido. Absence makes the heart grow fonder! Usually eggs from infertile cockerels will have no chick development in the egg whatsoever. Either way the cockerel should be replaced.

Were the un-hatched eggs rotten inside? If so it is likely bacteria is the problem. Incubating dirty or washed eggs can cause a bacterial infection in the eggs killing the chick. Often these eggs burst in the incubator releasing bacteria to infect the good eggs. For this reason it is important to candle your eggs and remove infertile eggs or those with dead chicks as soon as possible. Incubator hygiene is paramount.  Whilst most incubators are cleaned by their owners many people find it near impossible to clean the fans which can harbour dust and bacteria. We think it would be useful to use an air compressor to blast the dust out of the fan. It may also be worth contacting your incubator manufacturer about the safest method for cleaning your incubator. Ultimately Chicken Vet believes eggs should be hatched in a hatcher only and not an incubator as hatchers are easier to clean. Always use an approved disinfectant such as Interkokask, this will kill bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Are there a number of eggs with well developed chicks which fail to hatch? Developed chicks which fail to hatch can point to the wrong humidity or temperature settings. Always ensure that up to day 18 your eggs are turned several times a day or else the eggs will be unevenly heated and the chicks can stick to one side of the shell.

Are you getting weak chicks? Weak chicks hatching early suggests the incubator/hatcher is too warm whilst weak chicks hatching late suggests the incubator/hatcher is too cold.

If you are getting good hatch rates but the chicks die in the first week this can suggest problems with the incubator/hatcher (humidity or temperature). Never take wet chicks from the incubator as their wet navels can allow bacteria to enter the yolk sac leading to death. Ensure chicks are placed in a pen with a source of heat (the litter needs to be 32-33ºC), a source of light, fresh feed and fresh water.


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The Broody Hen


  • a normal and natural occurrence for chickens
  • not common in modern hybrids and ex-battery hens
  • Silkies can go broody several times a year.
  • take them off the nest once a day to eat, drink and defaecate.
  • prolonged broodiness of two or three weeks takes a lot out of the bird. She will lose weight and general condition during this time.

What to look out for

  • constant sitting on the nest with fluffed up feathers
  • when you approach she may appear quite aggressive, she may peck you and loud clucking noises


This is a natural process and although quite frustrating it is best left to run its course. We do not recommend extreme forms of treatment to try and break the habit.

During a broody phase take the hen off the nest once a day to eat, drink and defecate.

If you do need to stop her being broody then placing your hen in a wire bottom dog cage propped up on bricks can sometimes help. The circulating cool air helps to cool her breast area also as she does not have a nice comfy nest to sit on this will usually stop her being broody after a couple of days.

Of course ensure you provide her with food, water and shelter.


During and after broodiness hens can lose a lot of weight so give her 5-7 days of Chicken Vet Amino+ to help compensate for her lack of eating during broodiness combined with Chicken Vet Energy to give her energy. Chicken Vet Energy contains L-Carnitine to give the bird much needed additional energy, improves digestion and stimulates her appetite. Give 100ml per 5 litres of drinking water daily for 3-5 days. The Chicken Vet Amino + and Chicken Vet Energy can be given at the same time. Make up fresh quantities daily. Ensure drinkers are scrupulously clean.

After broodiness she may moult, both these products are advised during moult.


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Looks that can Kill........Lethal Genes

As with all things in life beauty comes at a price and in the poultry world this equally applies .

The very genes associated with beautiful traits such as short legs on the Scots Dumpy and the crests on Crested ducks which we have specifically selected over the years of breeding, are actually caused by mutations of normal genes. In the wild, many of these birds would have died as they are often more vulnerable to predators. However, admiration of birds with these genes has lead to breeding ensuring these traits and genes are passed onto future generations.

Any trait such as the presence or absence of crests and feather colour are determined by one or more genes. These genes occur in pairs- one received from the bird's mother and one from its father.

These genes can be dominant or recessive. Many of the genes associated with beautiful traits such as crests on ducks are dominant. This means that if a bird has one or two copies of the dominant crest gene, it will be crested, whereas if it has two copies of the recessive non-cresting gene it will not be crested. For example:

C= Dominant gene for cresting

c= Recessive gene for not being crested

Birds with one or two copies for the crested gene (CC, Cc or cC) will be crested.

Birds with two non-crested genes  (cc) will be non-crested.

However, these dominant mutant genes that give crests in ducks or short legs in Scots Dumpy are also associated with problems during incubation and as such birds with two copies of these genes (CC) will be unable to hatch.

As such crested ducks can only have one copy of the cresting gene (Cc or cC) as those with CC never hatch.

If you breed two non-crested ducks (cc x cc) then all the offspring are cc and are hence non-crested.

If you breed a crested (Cc) and non-crested (cc) duck half the young will be crested (Cc) and half non-crested.

If you breed two crested birds (Cc x Cc) a quarter of the young will be non-crested (cc), half will be crested (Cc or cC) and a quarter will have two crested genes (CC) and as such will be crested but never hatch.

The presence of lethal genes means your hatch rate is automatically reduced by 25% before you even start to breed. Therefore, Chicken Vet recommends before you commence breeding it is worth researching whether or not a certain breed is associated with lethal genes or if you may encounter any genetic problems. This means your expectations will be realistic of the hatch rate. If you are unsure always contact your breed club.

Furthermore, many beautiful traits whether lethal or not may be associated with problems such as crested Polands or crested ducks where by the crest if large enough can obstruct vision and can be damaged during mating.

Examples of lethal genes are given below:

  • crests in ducks
  • creeping genes in chickens giving rise to short legs (such as in Scots Dumpy or Japanese bantams)
  • tufts in Araucanas

Finally, if you are interested in breeding then visit the Poultry Club of Great Britain website for information on breed clubs and


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