Hatching chicks, ordering them from a hatchery, or buying them from a farm supply store is a fun activity for homesteading families. But which option is best? Some swear by hatching their own, while others can’t resist the little fluff balls at their feed store. And a quick search for poultry hatcheries will surely complicate matters when you see the numerous breeds available online! In this article we’ll discuss your options for adding chickens and other poultry to your homestead, plus the pros and cons of each.
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Hatching Chicks At Home
If you have fertile eggs you can hatch them at home. Of course, you’ll need to keep a rooster in your flock to have fertile eggs. One rooster to every 8 to 12 hens should ensure a high fertility rate for those home raised eggs. Not sure whether your rooster is doing his job and the eggs are fertile? You can check before attempting a hatch. Here’s how:
- Crack an egg into a bowl
- Look for the small white spot on the yolk, called the blastodisc (not fertile) or blastoderm (fertile)
- A blastodisc will look like a plain white spot on the yolk
- A blastoderm will be a white spot with a ring around it
For a week or so before you wish to hatch your farm fresh eggs, check each egg that you crack open to cook. Look for a blastodisc or blastoderm. If most of the eggs you crack open have a blastoderm, you will know that your hens are laying fertile eggs.
No Fertile Eggs?
Even if you don’t have a flock of chickens or a rooster, you may order fertile eggs online. This can be costly and the shipping process may jostle eggs and reduce successful hatch rates. Order extra eggs in case some don’t hatch and try to order when weather conditions are mild. You may also check on your local Craigslist under the Farm section (be very careful picking up from Craigslist…follow safety precautions and bring a friend).
Eggs should be kept between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity levels around 75% for storage until hatching. They should be set under a broody hen or into an incubator within 7 to 10 days of laying, for best hatch rates.
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Advantages & Disadvantages Of Hatching At Home
Whether you hatch the eggs using an incubator or a broody hen, there are advantages, and some potential downfalls. You’ll need to base the decision on your situation and needs. Here are some of the pros and cons of hatching at home…
- Save money – home hatched chicks cost less than hatchery chicks
- Breed for your local conditions – develop your own landrace breed
- Home hatched chicks are less stressed than shipped chicks
- Biosecurity – decrease chances of disease being brought in
- Self reliance – not as dependent on outside resources
- Chicks may receive food and water as soon as they can eat
- It is fun and educational!
- Limited to breeds you have, unless you acquire fertile eggs from another source
- 21 days to hatch for chicken eggs
- No vaccinations unless you administer them
- Inbreeding can be a problem unless new genetics are introduced from time to time
- Must keep a rooster (not always possible)- or find fertile eggs elsewhere
- Straight run only – you should expect approximately half male and half female
Hatching With A Broody Hen
If you have hens that go broody, you can let them do the work for you and hatch the next generation. Not all hens will go broody and some are not reliable about setting for the full 21 days or rearing their young. Some breeds are more likely to go broody than others. Many breeds of chicken have had their maternal instincts bred out to increase their egg laying capacity. On the other hand, some hens have such strong broody traits that they’ll try to hatch a rock! They will readily accept fertile eggs from another hen, or even another species of poultry.
- No electricity needed
- Don’t need an incubator – less expense
- Less work – no turning the eggs several times a day, filling humidity trays, or worrying over hatchlings
- No brooder set up needed – no heat lamp or other source of heat
- Some hens are not reliable and may abandon their nest before chicks hatch
- Hens will not lay eggs while they are setting, fewer eggs for your table
- Fewer eggs may be hatched by a hen, compared to incubators that hold 48 eggs
- Hen should be removed from flock during hatch – you’ll need separate housing for her
Hatching With An Incubator
If you don’t have a broody hen, you will need an incubator to hatch eggs at home. A good incubator will have a turner, temperature control, and humidity trays to provide the ideal conditions for hatching. Some basic incubators need much more attention on your part, including turning the eggs 3 to 5 times a day, and checking the humidity trays and temperature regularly.
- Many incubators will hold 48 eggs, so you may hatch a large batch
- Allows you to hatch eggs while hen continues to lay eggs
- You may purchase an automatic incubator that turns eggs and keeps a constant temperature
- Allows you to handle chicks so they are tame
- Provides a homeschool lesson for your children
- If electricity goes out, hatch may fail
- Incubators that are not automatic need much more attention
- Expense of purchasing incubator may be considerable
- Eggs that are not turned or cared for properly are likely to develop embryos that are deformed, sick, or die before, or during hatch
- Chicks will need your care after hatching
Ordering Chicks From A Hatchery
If you are just starting out with poultry or you would like new breeds or species, you may want to order from a hatchery. There are many breeds of chickens and other poultry available when you order from a hatchery. You may choose to expedite shipping so your chicks arrive in less than 3 days to give them the best start in life. This will involve an additional fee. Most hatcheries guarantee 3 day shipping, although there is the occasional delay. Chicks are born with a 3 day supply of nutrition left from the yolk, which allows for the common practice of shipping day old poultry. Choose a reputable, pullorum free hatchery that is in your region to ensure you receive healthy chicks that arrive quickly.
- Many breeds and species to choose from
- Vaccinations may be provided, usually for a fee
- Chicks may arrive sooner than 21 days
- May order only pullets if you wish, no unwanted roosters
- The work of hatching is done for you
- Shipping can be stressful and some chicks may die
- Chicks don’t receive food and water as soon as home hatched chicks
- Most hatcheries have a minimum order or small order service fee, increasing cost
- Potential for disease to be transferred from hatchery flocks is not zero
- Cost is higher than hatching your own fertile eggs
- Hatcheries may not breed for qualities you desire
Purchasing Chicks From The Feed Store
Many farm supply outlets and feed stores order in chicks each spring for ‘off the shelf’ sales. These chicks often sell quickly as an impulse item. It isn’t advisable to pick up chicks from the feed store just because they are cute and happen to ‘jump’ into your cart! You’ll want to be prepared for them before you bring them home.
- Many feed stores take orders for customers, allowing you to choose breeds and plan ahead
- You may get a better price since they order a larger quantity
- It can be fun to pick out chicks at the feed store, especially with children
- If staff is knowledgeable, chicks will receive proper care until you buy them
- You can purchase the feed and supplies you need while you are there
- Feed stores may not order vaccinated chicks
- Impulse buying means you might not be ready for the responsibility
- You’ll need to transport chicks home, which may be stressful for them
- If staff is not trained, chicks may not receive proper care
- You are limited to the breeds they offer, unless you order ahead
- These chicks have been ordered from a hatchery and have been shipped, which could mean they have been stressed
What Is The Best Way To Get New Chicks?
Of course, there is ‘no one size fits all’ answer to this question! If you don’t have chickens and you want to start a new flock, you will need to acquire fertile eggs and hatch them yourself, purchase them at your feed store, or order them from a hatchery.
If you already have chickens, you can bring in new chicks to try a different breed, or you can hatch fertile eggs from your own flock. You’ll need to keep a rooster to have fertile eggs and some people prefer not to do this, or are prohibited from keeping roosters in their area. In that case you’ll need to buy chicks or fertile eggs to increase the size of your flock or replace old laying hens.
Choose the method that works best for your homestead and have fun raising your chicks!
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In addition to writing for her own websites, Lisa has contributed articles to The Prepper Project and Homestead.org.
The author lives outside of Chicago with her husband, son, 2 dogs, 1 cat, and a variety of poultry.