A self sufficient homestead can look different for every person who chooses to live this lifestyle. For me, being able to save some money, reduce my reliance on large commercial suppliers and reduce my reliance on the grocery store by raising food for my own use, my families use and for sale are important things to consider and strive for. Incubation of meat chicken hatching eggs, hatching chicken eggs for laying hens and hatching turkey eggs affords many opportunities for achieving those goals of a self sufficient homestead. But, it can also come with some difficulty and disappointment.
Why would I want to Incubate eggs
There are many reasons why a person would want to incubate eggs rather than purchasing live chicks or turkey poults from a hatchery. Some of these are:
- Allows for the acquisition of unique breeds of poultry that are not available at a local hatchery.
- Decrease your dependence on the hatchery.
- Increase your self sufficiency in food production.
- Manage your own breeding program.
- Education purposes.
- Disease control.
Hatching chicken eggs and hatching turkey eggs can be a very rewarding, interesting and an educational experience for the young and old alike. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, the hatch does not happen or it goes poorly. If you are hatching chicken eggs by using a broody hen, the hen can abandon the eggs partway through the hatch as some breeds of birds, such as leghorn, sometimes do not maintain broodiness for the entire 21 days necessary to hatch the eggs. If you are using an incubator such as the Havo-bator incubator I use, for one reason or another a batch of eggs that you incubate goes poorly or does not happen at all.
Some realities of Incubating eggs
In one of my earlier blog posts, How to Incubate eggs, I described the process I went through to incubate 41 eggs comprised of 15 Jersey Giant eggs and 26 eggs from my own hens (barnyard mix). In the post I stressed the importance of maintaining humidity levels. Despite my best efforts to maintain humidity levels, due to one issue or another, I was not able to and a very poor hatch was the result.
When I candled the eggs at 10 days of incubation, only 3 Jersey Giant eggs had viable embryos, 1 had a blood ring and the rest were clear indicating that the eggs were not fertilized. Of my own barnyard mix, 22 of the 26 original eggs had viable embryos.
The clear eggs found during candling are not a direct result of improper humidity levels, but rather they are caused by a rooster that is past his prime or by having a too high of a hen to rooster ratio. To achieve high fertilization rates, the recommended hen to rooster ratio is 10 hens to one rooster.
On day 18 I washed my hands and carefully took the eggs out of the automatic egg turner and laid them flat on the incubator floor. I then increased the humidity to what I thought should be around 70% by filling additional troughs in my Hova-bater incubator as guided by the factory instruction sheet. On day 21 the first of my barnyard mix hatched and the by the end of the next day four more eggs hatched, one of them being a Jersey Giant.
I left the lid closed on the incubator as long as I dared because a sudden decrease in humidity can cause the egg membrane to shrink around an unhatched chick and suffocate it. But because the first chick hatched 24 hours earlier and I wanted to get it to food and water, I opened the incubator and removed the chicks. I left the remaining eggs be for another 24 hours and then unplugged the incubator as the hard reality was that the remaining eggs would not be hatching. At the end of the day, from the 41 eggs I started with, I had 1 hatched Jersey Giant, 1 barnyard mix from my Amaraucana hen, and 3 from one of my other brown egg layers.
I did crack open the unhatched eggs and found that the remaining chicks all died at different stages of development. Some died at around day 12, others at around day 15 but the majority at around day 17 or 18. For a very graphic chart on chick development, click here, The reasons for such a poor hatch could be varied as discussed in this article from The Poultry Site, such as nutrition, but I do feel that my main reason for such a poor hatch was humidity. I did notice when I was opening the unhatched eggs that the larger the egg, the further into development the chick was which would indicate that the egg effectively dried out. There could be other factors as well, but the main culprit in this case I feel was variant and incorrect humidity levels. I will be trying again but this time I will ensure the humidity levels are monitored more closely. I have a hygrometer on order which will measure the moisture levels in the Hova-bator incubator.
But at the end of week one in the brooder, the five chicks are doing well. This Ameraucana chick looks good. Notice the green legs indicating that if this is a hen, she will lay green eggs.
One of the chicks from my brown egg layers is showing some nice coloring.
And the one Jersey Giant, the main reason for the hatch, is doing well and showing some black legs.
A brooder is essentially a small enclosed area where young chicks can spend the first weeks of their life where it is warm and there is ample food and water. The brooder setup, regardless of who does it, has the same three key requirements - heat, water and food. The heat is supplied by heat lamps, brooder tables or some other method such as hot water bottles or forced air and is maintained at 99 - 100 F for the first days and then slowly reduced to acclimate the young chicks to ambient air temperatures. The water is supplied through any number of ways, typically through water founts. The chick starter food is typically offered through some sort of feeder and although I do use the metal feeders, the main feeder I use for the first week or so is old fibre 18 pack egg cartons. I like these because it allows the chicks easy access to the feed and although the chicks can get in there and scratch, they can't scratch all the feed out and when dirtied or destroyed it is easily composted or disposed of. They just save having to have all the different feeders around.
There are some great articles and video's out there that describe the brooder setup so I won't do a thorough exploration of a brooder set up. But for some interesting additional reading , check out Everything You Need to Know About Raising Meat Chickens by Josh Thomas of Homesteading Family, or, Raising Baby Chicks – Beginners Guide for the First 6 Weeks by Melissa K Norris of MelissaKNorris.com.
Getting chicks from the hatchery
As I explored earlier, although it can be fun to hatch your own eggs, it can also lead to much disappointment and affect the goals of attaining a self sufficient homestead. This disappointment can be intensified especially if you are reliant on the meat that the birds will produce when grown or the eggs they will produce when they get older. But there are currently available options to avoid that disappointment and still achieve the end goal, albeit in a different way.
The first thing is to decide what type of bird you want and what it's purpose is. There are many breeds of chickens and turkeys out there and choosing the breed that is best for you can be overwhelming. Certainly, doing your research will aid in this decision but to get you started Raising Backyard Egg Laying Chickens by Josh Thomas of Homesteading Family and The Best Chicken Breeds for YOU by Jess Soward of Roots & Refuge farm, both give some great information to aid with this decision.
The next thing to decide is whether you will be ordering chicks or incubating eggs. If you want a specific breed like I did with the Jersey Giant, you may not have a choice but to buy hatching eggs. But I also warn you as they will be pricey. But if it is a more sought after breed such as the Buff Orpington, hatcheries may save you the trouble of incubating chicken eggs and incubating turkey eggs. They will be more pricey than the hatching eggs but will also ensure you get how many you wanted and that there is no disappointment with a failed hatch. This decision really depends on what you want and what your comfort level is.
If you decide to incubate the eggs and have decided which breeds you are getting, the other decision is what to do with the roosters if you are wanting laying hens. Typically from a hatch you will average 50% hens and 50% roosters. Now at first glance, you would think to just raise up the roosters for meat and save the hens for eggs. And although that is an option, the roosters can be a little chewier, if not cooked properly, and the flavor can be different than one you would get from raising a bird that is bred for meat production. But it is definitely an option rather than being over run with roosters and it would help achieve the goal of a self sufficient homestead.
To avoid the rooster dilemma and the disappointment that comes with a failed hatch, getting your chicks, specific for their role, from a reputable hatchery is a viable option. They do cost a bit and alter the goals of a self sufficient homestead, but sometimes one has to pick their battles too and keep the end goal in mind. I have used Rochester Hatchery from Westlock, Alberta for years and have been very happy. As I only keep my egg laying flock for two years, this year I only needed to order chicks and turkey poults for meat purposes.
Although I grew the Western Rustic (similar to Freedom Ranger) last year and was going to do so again this year, I was only able to get the Cornish Cross. Cornish cross have been the standard within the commercial and home poultry industry and have been selectively bred for great feed conversion ratio, carcass weight and breast size. The Cornish cross meat birds have not been genetically modified (GMO) as some would have you believe. I also got a few Nicholas White turkeys. Like the Cornish cross, the Nicholas White Turkeys have been selectively bred for years for feed conversion ratio, carcass weight, breast size and white pin feathers.
And although these breeds have a high feed conversion ratio, you have to buy them every year and depending on how they are raised, may give you some problems. So to possibly save some money, not be so reliant on the hatchery, work towards a more self sufficient homestead and just because it is interesting and fun, I have been looking into developing a flock of poultry that would afford me the opportunity to have my own meat chicken hatching eggs, hatching chicken eggs for replacement layers and have turkeys so that I can be hatching turkey eggs as well.
Can I breed poultry for a self sufficient homestead
I currently raise egg layers for the sole purpose of selling fresh farm eggs although they do supply a meat source as well once the time for replacement arrives. As I run all my birds in one coop for the majority of the year, if I wanted hatching eggs that are breed specific, I would need to seclude the breed specific hens and the roosters for a period of two weeks. Rooster sperm can stay viable once deposited in the hen for a period of up to 14 days, so this seclusion time is necessary before any hatching eggs can be incubated for breed specific birds. If I didn't care, I would just incubate whatever eggs which have been fertilized by whatever rooster, resulting in a barnyard mix flock.Selection of your hens for supplying hatching eggs is important as one should select for pelvic bone width, productivity and length of productivity and any other breed standard traits that you consider important. The rooster should be selected based on the same criteria as the hens but in addition I would add temperament to the selection criteria. I recently listened to a very good podcast interview that Melissa K Norris did with Tom McMurray of McMurray hatchery. She goes over these points, along with the interview itself, in her blog post Breeding Chickens (Meat Birds) – Tips for Success.
The creation of the Western Rustic and Cornish cross breeds are the result of many years of selective breeding and not less than seven different breeds according to a conversation I had with an employee of Rochester Hatchery, most starting with the Cornish breed of chicken. This was further confirmed in an interview with Tom McMurray that Melissa K Norris did in Breeding Chickens (Meat Birds) – Tips for Success. As Tom McMurray identified, the number of birds that would be required and the management that would be needed to replicate the Cornish cross meat birds is really quite prohibitive for most small homesteads, such as myself. So what does this information mean for me and my quest?
As I identified in my blog post How to Incubate eggs in the section on Why do I want the Jersey Giant and Buff Orpington Breed, I feel there could be some definite wins in breeding these birds pure, crossed on each other or maybe crossed with some of my dual purpose breeds I have such as the Barred Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red and Columbian Rock. Although I am hopeful that I will be able to breed my own meat birds and subsequently reduce my reliance on the hatchery, only time will tell.
However, as my first hatch of Jersey Giants did not go as planned, another batch will be going into the incubator soon. But in the meantime, I was able to get some heritage breed Buff Orpington chicks from my hatchery and was able to introduce them into the brooder with the other chicks and the turkeys. It is hard to believe that these little puff balls will be able to produce any amount of meat and eggs.
From personal experience, I find that combining chicks from different hatch dates will work fine as long as the difference in age is not more than a month. Any more than that and the older ones will pick on the new chicks and supplying proper feed requirements becomes problematic. These chicks are 15 days apart, so I am not worried, but you can really see how much the older ones have grown. The turkeys just don't watch and step on the little guys so although it is not ideal, it will be fine for a short time. But soon, everyone will get their own room as I venture into the realm of pastured turkeys and pastured poultry.Turkeys
To me turkeys are one of the most underutilized birds on a self sufficient homestead and I am continually surprised that more people do not raise them. Not unlike the Cornish Cross chicken, the domesticated turkey is the product of several years of selective breeding for feed conversion ratio, breast size and carcass size. One of the original to meet that demand was the Broad Breasted Bronze but due to its black pin feathers it did not really take off. And so the Nicholas White stepped in to meet all the criteria of feed conversion ratio, breast size, carcass size and white pin feathers. But like the Cornish Cross, in selective breeding for these criteria, the ability to reproduce without the aid of human intervention has been removed and incubating turkey eggs was a reality. The only option for breeding these birds is through artificial insemination of the tom turkey to the hen. I have researched how to do it, but so far I have not done it. But you never know.
In lieu of doing artificial insemination of the Nicholas White turkey, I have had the thought of using a heritage bred turkey such as the Bourbon Red or the Naragansett turkey to do the work for me. I raised a Canadian Heritage breed, the Ridley Bronze Turkey for a number of years in the past and so they are also being strongly considered. As these three breeds of turkey are smaller in frame than the Nicholas White turkey they could certainly get the job done. And, I could certainly breed each of these heritage breeds to be pure and benefit from a hen that will brood her own eggs whilst allowing me to incubate the excess if needed But I like the idea of having the good qualities of the Nicholas White Turkey such as breast size and white pin feathers hopefully being passed down. One thing is for sure, I would need to incubate the eggs from a Nicholas White cross as the eggs don't seem to be able to stand up to the weight of the Nicholas White hen, if my current two year old birds I have are any indication. And, even if the hen did go broody I am not certain they would remain that way for the 28 days required to hatch a turkey egg. But a person could certainly try to leave some just to see if the hens would hatch them out. It would all be very interesting.
As all three of these turkey breeds I have identified as candidates are listed on the endangered list, having them to breed the Nicholas white turkey and for pure breeding, may perhaps help save the specific breed, something that is important to me as well.
However, if I wanted to sell the finished turkeys from these crosses or the pure bred heritage breeds, it would require some extra work in the marketing department. I will also need to factor this into the thought process for working towards a self sufficient homestead. As a general rule of thumb, people don't want to pay the price for a farm raised turkey when they can get a turkey for leader pricing.
I was unable to get hatching eggs this year for the heritage breeds thus far and so the idea may have to be shelved for next year. It will give me a chance to think this through a bit more and concentrate on raising the Nicholas White turkey.
One may ask why I would go through all this work, however fun and interesting it may be, but bringing in chicks and older chicks does increase the risks of also bringing in diseases such as Coccidiosis, Marek's disease, E. Coli, Avian flu and Salmonella to name a few. I do vaccinate my chicks for Coccidiosis and Marek's, but not everything can be vaccinated against. Although choosing a healthy hatchery will greatly reduce the risk, there are other diseases that could be brought into my flock, a closed flock. And should that happen, depending on which disease gets brought in could annihilate my entire flock and my goals of self sufficiency.
I experienced this first hand with the Ridley Bronze I raised a few years back. I had a number of birds displaying pneumonia type symptoms that ended in death. I sent a bird to the University of Saskatchewan and found out it was an incurable, highly contagious respiratory disease. As a result, over 40 breeding birds had to be destroyed. Luckily for me my laying hens had not been let out into their run yet, so they were not affected. The turkey pen had to be left vacant for over a year, sprayed with disinfectant periodically and the laying hens never came out of the hen house for the entire time to avoid possible infection. Although I was lucky, I don't want to have to go through that again.
Bringing in or having your own source for meat hatching eggs, hatching chicken eggs for egg laying hens and hatching turkey eggs reduces that risk to almost nothing because these diseases can not be passed to the embryo. The bloom over the egg protects it.
Working towards a self sufficient homestead looks different for everyone. For me, one facet of that goal is being able to have all the eggs and meat birds I require for myself, my family and for sale. How I achieve that goal will vary depending on what works and what does not. It would be nice to not have to rely on hatcheries to supply my birds as it gets expensive, and although slight, the disease risk is real. However, coming up with ways to develop my own supply can be expensive, slow going and disappointing as well. So at the end of the day, I take the necessary precautions and bring in day old chicks and turkey poults whilst exploring using incubation for developing my version of a self sufficient homestead raising poultry.
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