There’s nothing in the world quite like baby chicks: cheeping, peeping, adorable bundles of fluff. Every spring and summer, thousands of people participate in the annual ritual of raising baby chicks. More than a few also add baby ducks, geese, turkeys, and guinea fowl to their growing flocks.
Some poultry keepers enjoy the fun of watching mother hen sit on the eggs and hatch-out her own little brood. Many of us, your author included, have bought baby poultry on impulse during a trip to the feed store. Quite a few of us still order chicks from our favorite hatcheries. Whether we order them online or lie in bed night after night looking at the latest color catalog from the hatchery, it is very exciting to finally get to go to the post office and pick up that new box of baby chicks.
But have you ever wondered what all goes into getting that box of chicks from the hatchery to your post office or local feed store? I recently visited two separate hatcheries to learn the process and share what I learned. It was not easy to choose which hatcheries to visit, as there are so many reputable and wonderful hatcheries out there. I had the opportunity to visit Schlecht Hatchery, in Miles, Iowa, and Johnson’s Waterfowlin Middle River, Iowa.
A family-owned business, Schlecht Hatchery has been in operation for more than 60 years and has a loyal customer base. Owned and operated by Etta and Greg Culver, and with the help and partnership of their two adult daughters, Marie and Katie, the hatchery has remained a family business. Started by Etta’s parents as a hobby in 1955, the hatchery soon grew in popularity and success. Etta and Greg grew up as neighbors, became high-school sweethearts, and purchased the hatchery from her parents in 1996. In 1999, they built the structure that now houses the business. Over the years, the business grew mainly by word of mouth. Etta said that even with the internet, a lot of their business still comes from happy customers making recommendations to their friends.
When my wife and I arrived at the hatchery on a Tuesday morning, Marie and Etta greeted us with a warm Midwest welcome. We soon found ourselves in front of trays of newly hatched, peeping baby chicks. We watched as Etta, Marie, and Eugene Burken, a retired farmer from across the road, placed the chicks in boxes to be sent to customers. Eugene, who raised and hatched game-birds for many years, is a valuable team member to have in one’s corner. He has an “understanding of the incubators, inside and out,” and is very skilled in diagnosing problems.
Hatching some 150,000 baby chicks per year from the hatchery’s breeding stock, the Culvers maintain the business as a “no-kill hatchery.” Many larger hatcheries often find it necessary to euthanize day-old, male chicks, or cockerels. Unless they are a breed that develops muscle for meat in a relatively short time or are needed for breeding, there is little market for many hatcheries’ excess male chicks. Few people are looking for an abandoned baby rooster to adopt as a pet.
“If I am going to go to the trouble of hatching-out something, I am going to make sure it lives,” Etta says. Most breeds that the Culvers hatch are sold as “straight-run,” meaning the sexes are not separated. Both are shipped to the customers, and their long-time customer base is OK with this arrangement. The exception is the sex-linked chicks, which can be easily identified by color pattern, at time of hatching. These are a brown-egg laying strain that are purchased by both commercial egg producers in the local area, as well as people keeping home flocks. Some customers like to raise the sex-link cockerels as fryers.
Excess baby birds are kept in a retail-sales area near the front door of the business. These are purchased mainly by local customers. When we visited the hatchery, there were several brooders and pens of chicks of several ages. Chicks 2 or 3 weeks old aren’t quite as cute as the fluffy, day-old ones, but they are valued by customers who do not want to go through the hassles of dealing with young chicks and brooder lamps.
When first hatched, a chick has enough nutrients from the yolk absorbed into its abdomen to sustain it for up to 72 hours. This is how day-old poultry survives cross-country shipping, so long as it’s only for two or three days. They must be kept warm, so they are always shipped as a group. Hatcheries often have a minimum order number. Etta says the minimum number of birds they will ship is 20.
An excelsior or “straw” pad is placed in the bottom of each box. This helps absorb any waste from the new chicks, as well as provides insulation during transit. Chicks and other young poultry are susceptible to respiratory paralysis and death if they get chilled. Some hatcheries have started shipping as few as three birds, but they include a heating pad underneath the excelsior. However, this is very costly, and the customer ends up paying a lot of money for just a few baby birds.
Hatching a plan
During incubating and hatching, temperature and humidity are both crucial to the developing chick. Chicks require an incubation period of 21 days. For the first 18 days of incubation, eggs sit pointed-end down in large trays in the incubator. The temperature is kept at 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity is kept at a constant 55 percent. It is also very important that the eggs be turned, so that the developing embryo does not stick to one side of the egg. Eggs not turned will not develop. In nature, mother hen will roll the eggs into different positions several times a day. In a large, commercial incubator, the trays periodically tilt back and forth, causing the same effect. Etta says that their incubators are designed to tilt the trays once every hour.
At the end of the 18 days, the eggs are removed from the incubator and laid on their sides in large plastic hatching baskets and placed in a commercial hatcher. The temperature is maintained at 99.5 degrees, but the humidity is increased to 85 percent. This increased humidity tends to soften the shells during hatching. Once in the hatching trays, the eggs are no longer turned or disturbed.
Around the 20th day, a few of the chicks begin to hatch and continue hatching throughout the 21st day. As you might imagine, hatching day is very busy, as everyone pitches in to fill orders. The chicks must be handled with care, yet the orders must be packed quickly and correctly. After they are packed, they’re taken to the local post office for shipping. Etta says that the chicks are taken to the post office in the small town of Preston, 7 miles away, the closest facility set up to safely handle baby chicks. During the busiest times of the hatching season, trips to Preston are made twice daily to make sure the chicks get to their destination in a safe and timely manner.
When hatching is over and the chicks are boxed and shipped, incubators and hatchers must be cleaned and disinfected. Disease control and biosecurity are of primary importance to any successful hatchery operation. When all this work is done, new eggs are set to start the process all over again.
The Culvers have a set hatch day of Tuesday, and a series of incubators produce a new hatch every week. When I visited early in the season, they were just getting ready to set the first three cases of turkey eggs for the year. Turkey eggs take 28 days to develop, and are hatched-out in much the same way as chicken eggs.
While there are probably fewer folks who raise ducks and geese than those who raise chickens, waterfowl owners are not a small group. Many poultry keepers who start with chickens eventually get the urge to add waterfowl to their growing menagerie. Some keep only waterfowl, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
Many chicken hatcheries deal in ducks and geese, but keeping the adult breeders and producing hatching eggs requires more resources than keeping chicken breeding stock only. Some chicken hatcheries keep waterfowl breeding stock, but many opt to buy their hatching eggs from specialized waterfowl breeders, like Johnson’s Waterfowl.
Owned and operated by Emily and David Johnson, the hatchery keeps about 2,000 adult birds at a time. They hatch and ship at least 15,000 baby birds per year.
Over the years, word has traveled about the quality of waterfowl they raise. Emily said she has received calls from Australia, England, and even the United Arab Emirates from people wanting to buy waterfowl from them. They are not set up to ship birds to these locations, and regretfully must turn these potential customers away. However, being close to the Canadian border, they do have Canadian customers who are willing to drive across the border and pick up their boxes of baby birds.
According to Emily, call ducks — the little bantams of the duck family — are the most popular type of duck right now. Larger breeds of ducks are also popular, for pets, meat birds, or egg production. Some people even prefer duck eggs for various reasons, including flavor and cooking qualities (especially baking). Some who are allergic to chicken eggs find they can tolerate duck eggs.
The hatchery is a provider of ducklings and goslings to hundreds of 4-H members. Many children proudly show ducks and geese every year that started off at Johnson’s Waterfowl hatchery.
Over the years, the Johnsons have greatly reduced the breeds of geese they breed and hatch. Emily says there is still a demand for geese, but the unique economics of raising geese make it much harder to break even, let alone make a profit. While a male duck will mate with six or seven females, geese are notoriously loyal to their mates. Male geese, or ganders, are loyal to one or two females for life, and in rare cases, might mate with as many as three.
Female ducks, depending on the breed, can lay 150 to 200 or more eggs per year. A female goose might lay only 20. Geese, being larger, also consume more feed. If you’ve ever wondered why goslings sometimes seem expensive, these are the reasons.
Hatching season for waterfowl is much shorter than for chickens, and generally runs from mid-March to early July. The eggs are incubated in much the same way as chicken eggs. Emily says incubators are kept at 99 to 99.5 degrees. They try to keep the incubators and hatchers at a constant 65 percent humidity. The Johnson’s incubators tilt or “turn” the trays of eggs once every two hours. The eggs are only put into the hatcher trays after the baby waterfowl begin to pip through the shell. According to Emily, eggs from large ducks require 28 days of incubation, but the call ducks usually hatch-out in 17. Goose eggs generally require 30 days of incubation. Based on these variations, she must estimate and calculate how many eggs of each breed she will need to set, and on which days, in order to fill the orders every week.
Hatching day is a busy day, like any other hatchery. Orders are filled, and the ducklings and goslings must stay warm and be shipped from a facility equipped to take proper care of them. During cold weather, the Johnsons sometimes must take the day-old birds to the main post office in Grand Forks, North Dakota, some 80 miles away, just to make sure they arrive alive at their destination.
Hatcheries are busy places, and hatching day can be exhausting. Hatcheries are often run by people who not only love poultry, but have a desire to supply other fellow poultry keepers with the best they can offer. Next time you purchase your baby chicks, remember that you have friends out there in the hatchery business who enjoy poultry just as much as you do!
One of Doug Ottinger’s current poultry projects is breeding hens for laying longevity. He is also an advocate for organic and sustainable agricultural education.