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:

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:

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:

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

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:

Incubation Log

Here is a brief operation data table from the incubation period:
days without any relevant data have been omitted

*Please see below for major issues regarding fan operation and the weather **By this time the remaining chicks were not likely to hatch under any conditions

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

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: