Chickens Life Cycle – The Complete Guide

Are you trying to better understand chickens life cycle? Whether you’re a backyard chicken farmer, keep chickens as pets, or raising meat birds, this is the complete guide to the lifecycle of your chickens.M

CHICKEN LIFE CYCLE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

As a chicken farmer, it’s vital that you learn more about the average chicken life cycle. What goes on between the egg stage until the end of the chicken’s lifespan? Or is it the chicken that came before the egg :)? How long do chickens live? How much do you know about the developmental stages that chickens go through?  In this article, we’ll be exploring a chicken’s life stages and important information that backyard farmers need to have knowledge of, at each stage.

Chicken Life Span

Chickens aren’t just for farming anymore. A lot of people have chickens as pets/companions and would prefer that their chickens live for a long time.

Most breeds of chickens would live a minimum of three years and a maximum of five years. Breeds such as Plymouth Rock, Easter Eggers, Orpingtons and Old English Game Foul often live as long as seven plus years. A chicken known as Matilda lived for up to 16 years and was in the Guinness World Records as the world’s most long-lived chicken.

To ensure that chickens do not die prematurely, farmers should provide for the chicken’s needs based on the chicken’s stage of life. If you want to maximize the life span of your chickens, then you have to consider the factors that affect the chicken’s life span. 

These include nutrition, pests and diseases, environment, housing, genetics, and veterinary care. Poultry farmers or keepers should take into consideration how they manage their flock with respect to the above factors.

Phases of a chicken’s life cycle

The life cycle of a chicken is in four sequential stages: egg, chick, pullet, and hen. 

Egg Stage

In this stage, a hen lays an egg which is the start of the life of the new chicken. Although laying hens produce eggs every 25-27 hours, the eggs cannot hatch into chicks unless the hen was fertilized by a rooster. 

The process from the creation of the egg to its being laid takes about 25 hours. The biology of the egg formation process begins with the formation of yolk (also called oocyte), which is produced during ovulation. It is fertilized by the rooster’s sperm and travels down the oviduct where it is gradually covered by the vitelline membrane, the albumen, and the external shell.

Choose the Incubation Method that Best Suits You

Fertile eggs can be incubated by the hen herself or by an artificial incubator. A lot of backyard farmers prefer a natural, organic way of creating new chicks and would allow natural incubation by the hen. In this case, the hen would lay sufficient eggs of about ten to twelve in her nest and then commence the brooding process.

Typically, brooding in hens entails sitting on the eggs for 21 days or more till the chicks hatch. During this period, the hen is temperamental. Just before hatching, the chicks absorb all the nutrients from the egg into their body. These nutrients are needed for sustenance by the chicks for the first 1-3 days.

If you choose the incubation option, the chicks will need immediate and proper care as soon as they are hatched. Whereas, in natural incubation (a favorite of backyard farmers), the hen would be responsible in the early days for the raising of the chicks.

It is crucial that hens are well taken care of to avoid problems with the eggs. The broody hens should be provided with food and water, and laying eggs should get enough calcium in their meal.

Chick Stage

After the chicks are hatched, they would require feed and water as well as warmth. Starter chick feed, rich in protein, is required for artificially incubated chicks. Lighting is also needed for warmth. Incubated chicks need to get constant water and would also have to be directed to feed from their feed bowls. 

Close observation is necessary to ensure that those chicks that are not eating are provided feed. Temperature control is essential: the temperature should be warm after hatching and gradually reduced to room temperature towards the 4th-5th week. 

Points to Note About Natural Brooding

Some farmers use a brooder for the entire chick stage. The brooder is an indoor space that is heated up using an infrared lamp. It must be climate controlled with proper ventilation. It would also contain absorbent bedding (no newspaper, recommended bedding is thin pine shavings) and drinkers/feeders.

In the case of chicks raised by their mother, they would be under the hen’s wings initially, and that would provide warmth for them. In this case, you should provide separate quarters for the hen and her chicks. 

The feed should be placed in the hen’s nest, and the hen would usually do a good job of making each chick eat and drink. After 3-4 weeks, you can start providing separate feed for the chicks.

Poultry health is most critical at the chick stage. You may need to consult with a veterinarian to establish a vaccination schedule and protect the chicks against any future diseases.

Whether to Vaccinate or Not

However, many backyard farmers choose not to vaccinate their birds. There are many benefits to not vaccinating the chicks, especially if you are not running a commercial poultry. In this case, you should ensure that hygiene and adequate nutrition standards are met in your management of the new chickens. In their first meals, you should provide electrolytes and extra nutrients.

The chick stage should last for 4-5 weeks, and then, the chicks would no longer require starter feed. During this time, they’d sprout more prominent feathers and depending on your farming goals, require different feed types. 

Take Steps to Avoid Pecking

You will also need to watch out so the chicks don’t injure each other from pecking as there is often a “battle” for the pecking order towards the end of the chick stage. For the first 4-5 weeks, chicks require constant care and monitoring. Backyard farmers should make out enough time to avoid mortality as the mortality rate of chickens is very high at this stage.

Pullet Stage 

After 5 weeks until they are about 20 weeks, the chicks are now pullets. Pullets are like the human version of adolescents. They are not as fragile as chicks, but at the same time, they do not have the hardiness of hens or adult roosters. 

If you used a brooder during the chick stage, you can now take the chicks out of the brooder and mix them up with the older birds. However, you should be on the watch for bullying. This can cause the pullets injuries (as they are younger and weaker) and feather loss. Some farmers after doing a lot of work in the chick stage neglect their birds once they reach the pullet stage. Don’t be that farmer! Alternatively, you may house the pullets in isolation from older birds. 

What if I Run a Free Range Farm?

Even if you are running a free-range farm, you should still devote some time to caring for the pullets. From 5-8 weeks, gradually reduce the amount of starter and replace with regular chick meal. Feed and water should be provided twice daily.  

At eight weeks, you should start feeding them grower’s mash to spur the growth required for laying. Pullets usually start laying their first eggs at 18-20 weeks. The initial eggs would be small, as the birds are still pullets. To improve their egg production, you would need to start feeding them layer’s mash.

What to Do Before Moving Pullets

Pullets are often moved to individual laying cages (for layer hens). In this case, the movement may cause stress to the pullet. Before moving pullets to the laying coop, we recommend that you do so in three to four days, and be sure to include electrolytes and water-soluble vitamins in the drinking water. This should also be done in the first three to four days after transferring them. Birds should be handled gently during movement to prevent injuries.

Hen Stage

At 18 weeks and above, the pullets become hens. Even though hens are lower maintenance than pullets and chicks, you still need to dedicate up to an hour a day to managing the chickens.

This is the stage where the life of a chicken becomes a cycle. Those chicks that were hatched and looking like they would die at any moment are now ready to lay eggs which would restart the cycle. If you are raising chickens for their eggs, then from the 18th week, you should start feeding the hens a specially formulated layer’s mash. If you had cockerels in your flock since the chick stage, this is the time to relocate them to another pen.

Some Management Issues with Hens You Should be Aware Of 

Hens come with special management issues. One of these is molting. Molting usually begins at the end of the main egg-laying season.  Since protein is required to make new feathers, you will notice that there is a reduction in the number of eggs laid as the chickens shed their feathers. Special nutrition has to be provided during the molting period. Another issue to sort out as a poultry farmer is in-fighting between the chickens as they try to establish a pecking order. It is essential that you be observant to prevent chickens from cannibalizing each other.

The egg production of the hens would usually be steady for the first year but then would start to drop after about 70-75 weeks. They would still lay, but then the egg production would not be daily. As the hens get older, they become arthritic and less energetic, with poor egg production.  Some hens could continue to lay intermittently for up to 7 years.  However the cost of continuing to feed old layers would still remain and to defray these costs, some farmers choose to cull old layers and sell them off for meat.

Rooster Life Cycle

Most of the information above deals with hens, as most backyard farmers often prefer hens due to their egg laying. However, a flock usually contains chicks, pullets, hens, and roosters. What is the life cycle of a rooster? It is not different from that of the layers. Roosters, just like hens, start out as eggs which hatch into chicks.

After 5 weeks, they grow into cockerels and begin to develop the plumage that characterizes cocks. They don’t have any special nutritional requirements, and so long as adequate nutrients are provided, they eventually grow into roosters. 

At 16-18 weeks, they begin to crow. To improve the taste of the meat, some roosters get castrated through the process of caponization. Others are kept for breeding purpose and are used to continue the life cycle of a new chicken. This is so because roosters are needed to fertilize the hens to produce eggs that can develop into chicks.

The YouTube video below illustrates as a presentation, the life cycle of a chicken.

In summary

  • All Chickens or Roosters start as eggs.
  • These eggs hatch into chicks, either naturally (through brooding) or in an incubator
  • The chicks grow to become pullets or cockerels
  • Finally, they become hens or roosters.

Farmers must provide adequate care to their chickens, depending on the stage of their life cycle. This would help maximize value from the entire flock. Many farmers complain of high chick mortality. This is often because they do not understand that newly hatched chicks are very frail. Some farmers also complain of poor egg production or inadequate meat yield. This may be due to poor nutrition. By understanding the life cycle of chickens, farmers can tailor nutrition and other care to the chicken’s needs and avoid problems like mortality or inadequate yield.

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