Category: Chicks

Causes of chicken hatching problems

Day old chick

Our first trial hatch in the Brinsea
Mini Advance incubator
 was better than I’d expected but worse than I’d hoped.  Four eggs  out of seven pipped, two chicks hatched, and one survived.  Although it was emotionally tough, I chose to autopsy all of the dead eggs in hopes of improving my hatch rate for next time.

  • Chick dead in shellOne chick was speared by
    another’s claw as it tried to hatch.  The dead chick was hatching about half an hour later than its sibling and had just reached the stage where it was beginning to push the mostly detached egg top aside when its precocious sibling clambered over top of it and stuck its foot inside the crack.  In a way, this is a crazy fluke, but the experience also makes me think that it might be smart to have somewhere else for newly hatched chicks to fluff out rather than on top of their
    hatching siblings.  Since I’ve read that it’s best not to move chicks to the brooder until they’re fully fluffed out, that means a spare incubator or other enclosed, warm space.
  • Chick dead at pipping stageAnother chick started pipping, but only seemed able to push small chips out of its shell.  (I’ve enlarged the hole after death to see in.)  I don’t know whether
    the shell was abnormally hard or the chick was abnormally weak.  I’d read not to help chicks out of the shell, so I stood back, and the chick eventually perished (perhaps in part because an earlier hatched chick (not the same one as above) rolled the egg over so that the hole was face-down on the ground.)  Since the chick died anway, I wonder if
    I wouldn’t have been better off helping this obviously struggling chick?  On the other hand, it might have come out weak and had to be culled anyway.
  • Air pocket in dead eggThree eggs had nearly full-formed chicks inside but they didn’t manage (or, apparently, even try) to pip.  Some sources suggest that late stage dead in shell chicks are signs of incorrect humidity, often too high.  I didn’t keep track of the size of the air pocket over time by candling, but I may try that next time around to help me keep the humidity in the right range.
  • Finally, one chick hatched on day 22 but died less than a day later.  Chicks that hatch late and are “soft” are indications of the average incubation temperature being lower than optimal, and temperature was definitely the spot where I did the worst job during incubation.  Air temperature in the kitchen fluctuated between 45 degrees and 85 degrees and the incubator’s high and low temperature alarms went off several times.

The good news is that all of the eggs were viable and made it nearly to hatching time, which means our rooster and hens are all fertile.  And watching the first chick hatch was quite an experience — well worth the price of the incubator by itself!  Hopefully I can fix my mistakes and have more living chicks next time.


Incubation HandbookSince writing this post, I’ve experimented much more with incubation.  I developed a dichotomous key that makes it easy to figure out exactly what went wrong (and how to prevent the problem from reoccurring).  Learn more about troubleshooting the hatch in my ebook.

Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook walks beginners through perfecting the incubating and hatching process so they can enjoy the exhilaration of the hatch without the angst of dead chicks. 92 full color photos bring incubation to life, while charts, diagrams, and tables provide the hard data you need to accomplish a hatch rate of 85% or more.


How much food do chicks need

Six week old chick on pastureI’ve written before about how
much to feed adult chickens
.  But what about growing chicks whose needs change almost daily?

One option is to give them free access to an automatic chicken feeder, but then you’ll have to worry about attracting rats into the coop and will also end up with lazy chickens who don’t forage.  To keep my chicks hunting for bugs (thus paying the least for storebought feed), I give my chicks a certain amount of feed in the morning and then leave them on their own for the rest of the day.

Success With Baby Chicks has a handy table telling how much feed chicks need per day, which I’ve tweaked a bit and then reproduced here.  These figures assume you’re raising heritage breed birds — Cornish Cross chickens need more food faster — and that the chicks aren’t getting anything from pasture.  Robert Plamondon estimates that it takes about 7.7 pounds of chicken feed to raise a chick to the twelve week age at which I recommend slaughtering heritage broilers.  Here are the specifics:

Age Pounds of feed per chick per day Cups of feed per chick per day
0 – 7 days 0.014 0.056 (a bit less than a tablespoon)
8 – 14 days 0.029 0.116 (nearly two tablespoons)
15 – 21 days 0.043 0.172 (nearly three tablespoons)
22 – 28 days 0.057 0.23 (about a quarter of a cup)
5 – 8 weeks 0.093 0.372 (a bit more than a third of a cup)
9 – 12 weeks 0.146 0.584 (a bit more than a half of a cup)


So, for example, a six week old chick would need around 0.093 pounds of food per day, or a bit
more than a third of a cup.  If  you had 14 chicks of that age, you’d need to give them 1.3 pounds of food per day, or about 5 cups.  (A pound of chick feed is roughly equivalent to a quart or four cups.)

Despite being armed with all of this data, I have to admit that I’m pretty sure I fed our first three batches of chicks this year more than they needed.  First of all, they were living on pasture, so the chicks were getting a good amount of their nutrition from insects, worms, and clover.  Second, I actually ended up feeding them more than the recommended amount for birds who don’t have access to pasture.  It’s just so easy to think your chicks are starving when they come peeping to greet you at the gate, but the truth is that chicks expect treats when they see me, so they scamper over even if their crops are bulging.

The two sets of Black Australorps I raised are a good example of the fact that overfeeding doesn’t lead to any extra meat.  At 12 weeks, I’d fed our first batch of australorps 10.79 pounds apiece, and the cockerels dressed out to 1.87 pounds each.  The second batch “ate” 15 pounds of feed apiece, and the cockerels dressed out to 1.76 pounds apiece.  Clearly, the extra feed I gave to the second batch just went to waste.

Full cropBut my gut tells me that even feeding using the chart above will waste storebought food in when chicks are getting a lot of nutrition from pasture.  Which brings me to a better way of estimating whether you’re feeding pastured chicks enough.  With my final batch of
chicks for 2011, I’ve taken to peering at their crops a couple of times a day, and have noticed that even though I’m feeding my chicks only about 80% of their recommended allotment, the chicks’ crops are always full.  Now, it’s possible that malnourished chicks could still have full crops due to eating things that aren’t really food since they’re feeling hungry, but our chicks are also perky, with shiny feathers and seemingly stout bodies.  I figure that as long as
chicks look healthy and have full crops, they’re getting enough (or too much) food, but I won’t know for sure until I kill the broilers at 12 weeks and weigh their carcasses.

Chick curled toe

Chick curled toeAs I mentioned before, one of our chicks hatched with a foot problem.  The toes on one foot were curled into a fist that remained closed even when the chick started hopping around.

There are two potential causes of what’s known as “curled toe paralysis.” If toes on both of your chickens’ feet are curled up, chances are the bird is suffering from a riboflavin deficiency due to a malnourished mother hen.
The solution in that case is to provide a vitamin supplement to that
chick immediately, which in many cases will cause the toes to naturally

Transpore tapeIf your chick has curled toes on only one foot (meaning it probably injured itself in the egg) or if you provide vitamins and the toes don’t uncurl, you’ll need to splint the chick’s foot.  Splinting is best done as soon as you notice the problem — I waited until day 3, but think I would have seen even better results if I’d splinted on day 1.  Mark helped me by holding the chick still during the operation and I highly recommend you find a helper before trying the procedure as well.

Holding a chick for splinting

Splint a chick's footI’ve seen various splint methods on the internet, but the one that worked for us was to use two pieces of 3M Transpore tape to sandwich the chick’s toes into a flat position.  Various people have had good luck with using bandaids and cardboard, but I didn’t think the bandaids were sticky enough, so I opted for the breathable but stickier Transpore.  The extra stickiness made it easy to uncurl one toe at a time, laying each one against the tape to stay in place while I worked on the next.

The first day we splinted the chick’s foot, we learned another lesson — make sure the tape covers every bit of his toes.  Our chick wasn’t pleased to have one foot turn into a flipper, so he pecked at the tape, which prompted his siblings to follow suit.  I had left the end of one toe exposed and that spot was soon slightly bloody.  Wrapping the tape all the way around the foot worked much better the next day.

Chick curled toe followup

Healed curled toeWe replaced the splint 24 hours later, at which point it was clear the toes were starting to uncurl but
weren’t there yet.  The second splint stayed on for two days, which seemed to be just long enough to make sure the chick was able to walk flat-footed rather than on a fist.  His toes are still slightly crooked, but the deformity doesn’t seem to slow him down — I have to sit and watch the brooder for five minutes before I can even pick him out.  I’m glad to have been able to save such an intrepid chick!