August 10, 2015
Due to my personal interest in breeding, incubating and brooding chicks and other poultry, I decided to take on the task of hatching another round of heritage chickens as replacement stock for Windward's current layer flock of about 15 hens.
Chicks at about 5 weeks old
Our thoughts were to hatch enough pullets to replace one third of the current flock (about 5 hens) as well as increase the flock by another 10 birds, providing for a total of 25 layers for next year.
This is in part to phase out older hens who have become less efficient layers (we are aiming for a 3-year productive cycle as of this writing) and to allow for a greater daily egg harvest for next year's potential population increase (i.e. more apprentices) and also for storing more eggs for the winter months via freezing and pickling.
This summertime project was done in three phases because we chose to hatch our own heritage chicks rather than purchase them from a local or regional hatchery - breeding, incubating and brooding.
As a community striving to decrease our reliance on resources from outside our locality, it is in our best interest to slowly, over time, develop a heritage chicken breed that is well adapted to our specific microclimate and community behaviors.
By hatching our own eggs from our own stock, we are able to pick the hens that are most adapted to this.
The goals were to use our current breeding stock to produce pullets/hens that meet these criteria, which I have deemed most important in our microclimate and in Windward's situation: high egg production, large carcass size (for final meat harvest), good foraging ability, calm temperament and both heat and cold hardiness.
These qualities help to decrease mortality in our situation and provide the best efficiency from a feed input-output perspective (which is particularly important now as most of the layer's feed ration comes from both imported dry wheat and commercial bagged layer ration feeds).
Phase I - Breeding
First we prepared the ChickPlex for breeding by cleaning out the pens, making some seasonal fixes to the gravity-fed watering system, cleaning up around the area to allow for easier access during the night, making sure that each pen had a nest and fresh straw, among other various "renovation" tasks.
A pen in ChickPlex after cleaning
My plan for breeding was to use only the roosters and hens that we currently had on property. Specifically, we had two roosters to choose from:
- 1) Doug, a purebred Buff Orpington, and
- 2) Griffin, an Ameraucana.
Both were good breeders and had good qualities to pass on to another generation. Note, there was another Ameraucana rooster at the beginning of the season who was culled for his general inability to effectively perform roosterly duties, i.e. mating. Also, we were having issues with feather pecking earlier in the season which we deemed likely due to there being too many roosters for our small flock of hens.
We were unable to identify his name as previous notes were unclear about his identification. We chose to use both roosters in the breeding process for genetic diversity and also to increase our fertility rate.
For the hens, there were generally four breeds to choose from, although they were all mixed with unknown other breeds in some way:
- mostly Buff Orpingtons (with a suspected splash of Ameraucana);
- mostly Rhode Island Reds (also with a suspected splash of Amerauacana);
- another unidentified mixed breed (mostly white plumage with darker wing feather tips) with few good qualities necessary for breeding; and
- an Ameraucana hen named "Cosmos" who hailed from Lynn Cosmos, a friend of Windward living in Yakima who also breeds heritage chickens.
I chose to use 8 hens for the breeding process and both roosters. The following crosses were determined to be best suited to our breeding goals, split between two pens in ChickPlex:
- Buff Orpington rooster (Doug) x 4 "mostly" Buff Orpington hens (as an attempt to get as close to purebred Buffs as possible)
- Ameraucana rooster (Griffin) x 3 "mostly" Rhode Island Red hens (again, attempting to get back to purebred RIRs)
- Ameraucana rooster (Griffin) x 1 Ameraucana hen (Cosmos) due to excellent green egg production and resilience to heat
All of the Buff Orpingtons were in one pen while the other 4 hens and Griffin were in another pen to control the genetics and allow for greater fertility. In my experience, you can put up to 20 hens with a rooster and still get good fertility results, though the fewer hens the better because the rooster has less work to do. Also, it is possible that with too many hens, a rooster will only choose to breed some of them thereby decreasing overall fertility rates.
I chose to give the two breeding groups 3 days to "get acquainted" with the new environment before collecting fertile eggs in an attempt to decrease stress and improve egg quality.
I also wanted to make sure that the roosters had a chance to breed every hen as to avoid incubating infertile eggs (which can be rather messy). After the 3 days, I began collecting fertile eggs for a total period of 10 days. This is about the maximum length of time a fertile egg can be stored in "stasis" before putting them into an incubator (in our conditions).
I collected eggs once per day, while labeling each egg so we could identify the breeds in the incubator. My labeling scheme was "Rooster x Hen" on the first line and the date the egg was collected on the second line. My labels were: B = Buff Orpington; BA = Buff Orpington/Ameraucana cross (suspected); and A = Ameraucana purebred (suspected).
I did not keep any eggs that were soiled, cracked or otherwise unable to be incubated. Also, when choosing which hens to breed, I made sure to not select the hens that laid excessively small or large eggs (i.e. younger pullets or older hens) to increase my eventual hatch rate. I looked for the most consistency in egg size, shape and color.
An example of an egg I did not use for incubating
Finally, to conclude the breeding phase of this project and since I wanted to begin incubating all of the eggs at the same time, I kept the collected eggs in "stasis" throughout the 10 day collection period. Because I wrote the breeds and dates on each egg with a sharpie, I was able to select which specific eggs were the best quality for incubation based on my desired breed mix.
I was able to reject several eggs because I only had 44 spots in the incubator and had collected 54 eggs total. The "stasis" storage I used was simply a set of regular paper egg cartons kept in Kitchen Bay 5 (for the best humidity and temperature consistency on property) that were tilted on one end and rotated twice daily (morning and evening) to prevent the yolks from sticking to the shells.
The humidity was around 35% (fluctuating daily) and the temperature was generally around 55-75 degrees F also due to daily outside temperature fluctuations. This is not ideal, though proved to be very effective in our case.
All of the eggs collected, unsorted
All of the eggs collected, sorted
The selected eggs ready for the incubator
Chicken Breeding Statistics
- Total roosters used during breeding: 2 roosters
- Total hens used during breeding: 8 hens
- Total eggs collected during breeding: 54 eggs
- Total eggs used in incubator: 44 eggs
- Average eggs per hen per day: 0.75
Phase II - Incubation
For the incubation phase of this project there were several incubators to choose from, primarily the Warmerator (a converted refrigerator setup to incubate eggs behind the kitchen) and several tabletop styrofoam incubators stored in the shipping container behind ChickPlex.
Both options would need some TLC to prepare them for the eggs. After examining the Warmerator and also noting how hot the weather was going to be during the incubation period (many days were over 100 degrees F) I was not confident that I could keep the eggs in a stable enough environment to have a successful hatch.
Inside the Warmerator
So I opted to use one of the tabletop incubators in Kitchen Bay 5, again to help keep the humidity and temperature as constant as possible given the rather extreme summer heat.
There were several to choose from in storage, none of which were completely assembled or ready for use. So I spent a few hours every day for a few days cleaning the one that appeared to be in the best condition (using pure vinegar as a cleanser and letting it air dry), fixing the fan which was broken (by disassembling all of the components, lubricating and realigning the magnets) proving to be a major issue later in the process and also adjusting the egg trays to accommodate the maximum number of eggs, 44 in this case.
Inside the tabletop incubator
I made sure to have the incubator ready and running at least a day before starting the incubation process. At the end of the collection period I gathered all of the eggs in stasis and sorted them by breed, date, size and quality.
I also candled the eggs to look for any cracks in the shells or other inconsistencies. As stated earlier, I was able to choose the best 44 eggs because I had collected 54 eggs total. The final set of eggs was chosen (and I opted to not wash them, although I have heard recommendations to do so in very specific ways - the eggs were already very clean) and placed carefully in the incubator after it had already had a day to warm up and adjust to the correct humidity. The incubation process had begun.
My goals for incubating were as follows:
- consistent 85% humidity;
- consistent temperature of 99.5 degrees F per the instructions on the incubator as it was a "forced air" unit instead of a more common "still air" unit;
- keep the rotating trays running all the time, which rotated about every 4 hours;
- candle the eggs after week one and again after week two to check for infertile eggs and/or other development issues; and
- monitor these datapoints at least four times daily (which worked well with my schedule).
Here is a brief operation data table from the incubation period:
days without any relevant data have been omitted
- Day 1 - Start (humidity and temperature holding constant)
- Day 10 - one (and only) egg was culled for being infertile
- Day 15/16 - Humidity dropped to around 35% for unknown reasons
- Day 18 - eggs were removed from the trays to allow for hatch
- Day 19 - the fan stopped working for the remainder of the process*
- Day 22 - seven (7) eggs hatched, one with unknown issues
- Day 23 - fifteen (15) eggs hatched successfully
- Day 24 - fourteen (14) eggs hatched, one of them died shortly after hatch
- Day 25 - one (1) chick hatched but was culled for health reasons
- Day 27 - the remaining 6 unhatched eggs failed to pip and were fed to the pigs**
Chicks starting to pip
The first hatch!
Recovering from the broken fan during the heat wave
Regarding the fan breaking on the 19th day of incubation: Before starting the incubation phase I did have concerns about the fan failing later in the process (which normally would not be a huge issue) due to my difficulty in getting it to work initially.
Effectively, with there being no fan the incubator would therefore become a "still air" incubator which would merely require a bit of tweaking to the temperature and humidity levels. However, since there was a severe heat wave (over 105 degrees F outside for almost a week) this proved to be a major problem in keeping the incubator from overheating.
After noticing the fan had broken, I tried to disassemble and fix it again, to no avail. Even in Kitchen Bay 5 the ambient air temperature was well over 85 degrees F during the day which made for some rather large swings in temperature (the nightly lows were too low and the midday highs were reaching over 107 degrees F inside the incubator which, over a prolonged period of time, was likely to kill the developing chicks).
To adjust for this, I checked on the incubator every hour during the heat wave trying to allow the temperature to drop back down by opening the top plastic windows to provide more airflow.
This proved to be very difficult as the incubator was so well insulated that I was unable to keep any consistency in the temperature as well as humidity during the last week of operation.
During this heat wave, the outside ambient relative humidity was below 10% which added to the difficulty of the process. The humidity inside of the incubator was hovering around 25-35% during this period. To help adjust for this, I sprayed the eggs several times per day with warm tap water to help keep the eggs from drying out.
All in all, I quickly lost confidence in the final hatching results. To my surprise, however, it seems as though these inconsistencies and dramatic fluctuations did not appear to have any major affect on final hatching (an 85% hatch rate is standard among these types of incubators).
Statistics for the 44 eggs selected
- Overall fertility: 43/44 or 98%
- Overall hatch rate: 36/44 or 82%
- Total loss rate: 8/44 or 18%
- Overall satisfaction: excellent!!
Phase II - Brooding
For the final phase of this project, the brooding period, there were also several choices at hand for selecting a brooder. One option was to use ChickPlex as it was designed (which at this time has 7 separate pens) as it provides everything needed for the process.
Another option was to use the chicken run setup in Vermadise, though the work required to get this up and running would be substantial compared to the other options (and it would require me having to walk a lot to do the chores since I spend most of my time near the chickens anyway). And finally, there was a 4' by 4' wooden box brooder sitting in storage that needed some work to get ready.
As a side note, and because I am a rather tall individual, I didn't want to have to contort my body every time the water or feed needed to be changed in ChickPlex. So I opted to relocate the box brooder over to the general chicken area (so it could be accessed in conjunction with other chicken tasks) and get it setup with fresh wood chips, the chick waterers and feeders, heat lights, etcetera.
The box brooder before getting setup
Since I setup the brooder at least a week before the chicks hatched, and knowing that there could be up to the 44 chicks total, the box brooder was merely a temporary brooder until the chicks got too big and needed to be transferred into ChickPlex, which I expected to be after 3 weeks or so.
My goals for brooding were as follows:
- provide ample heat during the colder evenings but also allowing enough room for the chicks to self-adjust to a cooler spot within the brooder during the heat of the day (with ample shade too);
- provide enough feeder and waterer space for at least half of the chicks to eat and drink at the same time with unlimited feed all day;
- provide fresh clean bedding to prevent any bad bacteria from entering the brooder;
- setup a bucket system adjacent to the brooder with all of the supplies (food/water/grit/extra bedding/bulbs/etc) needed for the process; and
- check on the chicks and clean feeders/waterers at least 3 times daily for the first month.
Inside the box brooder after setup
Outside the box brooder after setup
Upon hatch, I allowed the chicks a few hours to dry off before placing them into the brooder, which I had already adjusted and warmed up the day before. After the 3 day hatching period, all of the chicks were in the box brooder for the first 3 weeks. I did not see any noticeable health issues, neither physical nor immunological.
The box brooder worked very well in this situation as there were no major issues to deal with (like predators, too much sun, not enough heat, etc). After 3 weeks, as I had expected, the chicks were starting to outgrow the available space in the box brooder. On to the next brooder.
Chicks inside the box brooder shortly after hatch
For the remainder of my time here, and while the chicks were still months away from full maturity, I used ChickPlex as it was designed for brooding the 34 healthy chicks. The setup was similar to what was mentioned earlier except with chick-sized feeders and waterers, heat lamps and no nests.
By this time the chicks were doing very well, had no noticeable health issues and were starting to feather out. My summer apprenticeship came to an end in mid-August when the chicks were about 6 weeks old, at which point these duties were passed along to another steward.
Chicks in the box brooder at about 3 weeks
In regard to feed rations, here is what I used for the first 6 weeks (and much of this hails from my previous experience raising over 500 chicks in a semi-commercial operation): I mixed both regular layer hen feed (15% protein) with a higher protein game bird (turkey) starter (28% protein) to benefit from having a higher protein content for the chicks and well as not having to spend much more financially on a specific chick starter feed.
In my experience, having a higher protein content with newly-hatched chicks (24% or more) is very advantageous because so much of their energy is put into growing feathers, which are mostly protein. By limiting their intake of protein, you can in affect limit their overall ability to get a good head start on life. I mixed the two feeds about 50/50 for the first 3 weeks.
From weeks 4-6, I started adding dry wheat to the rations, in part because their protein needs were decreasing and also because that is a primary feed source for the animals here at Windward and I wanted to start integrating that type of nutrition into their diet.
So I mixed turkey starter, layer hen ration and dry wheat in the right proportion to get about a 22-24% protein mix. This higher protein feed proved to be very beneficial to the growing chicks seen by their immense amount of energy throughout the day, how quickly they feathered out and by not having any issues with picking, pecking or cannibalism (which is more common with chickens than people think).
Chicks at about 5 weeks old
Additionally, I had one more ingredient to my feed ration (other than water, of course). This is a product that I developed while running my own chicken egg business last year, having had many health issues partly due to my use of a commercialized birds that were not hardy enough for a pastured operation.
Specifically, I developed a liquid "immune-booster" that I make as a concentrate and mix into their water 5 gallons at a time. Yes, it is a secret, but here it is: 24 oz of apple cider vinegar (at 5% acidity), 8 oz of pure colloidal silver (~10ppm using distilled water) and 35 drops of a product called ConcenTrace Minerals which comes out to about 100ppm when mixed into 5 gallons (this is a mixture of over 76 ionic trace minerals derived from the Great Salt Lake).
This is generally not inexpensive to make, the most expensive ingredient being the apple cider vinegar, but I have had wonderful success using this with both chicks and chickens. This may have likely contributed to the overall excellent health of the chicks.
The only other ingredient that I usually add is a concentrated probiotic liquid mix that is around $200/gallon concentrate that I was not willing to invest in on this occasion. (Understanding that there may be questions regarding this special formula, I have omitted a very lengthy explanation of why I use this and why I think it works so well.
It is actually rather complicated and I don't want to spend the time trying to explain it here. Look up each of these ingredients and you may find great information about how beneficial they are for chickens as well as other livestock.)
My overall experience with this entire process has been very positive. Although I have ample experience in raising chicks and chickens, this was actually my first time to get to hatch chicks and take them through the entire process.
I am very pleased with the health and viability of the chicks as of week 6 and hope that after I leave they will prosper on to become great egg layers or a tasty meal. The final ratio of pullets to cockerels appears to be 22 to 14, a great result considering we have little use for a bunch of male chickens around here.
Hmm…what are we going to do with all of these cockerels now?…I'm hungry!