As anyone who has ever owned chickens for at least, oh, 5 minutes knows, baby chicks have quite an addictive quality to them. Cup one in your hands for even 10 seconds and, next thing you know, you’ll be toting 20 of them home in perforated carry boxes.
Chicken math is a very common condition amongst backyard flock owners. But it’s not the only affliction that affects poultry farmers.
“Incubatoritis”—the insatiable need to hatch endless clutches of darling chicks—is just as acute. The only difference is that, unlike buying chicks from somewhere, you can control (or not control) how many chicks you hatch at home.
The side effects of incubatoritis—continual coop building and a high feed budget—are not, however, necessarily desirable. So the best alternative is to channel this condition into an activity that allows you to enjoy the wonders of hatching as well as the benefits of building a nest egg of your own.
You can start your own custom-hatching business.
Why Custom Hatching?
Custom hatching allows chicken-keepers to hatch only the number of chicks your customers wish to buy. By hatching only what you have presold, you eliminate the possibility of overstock.
Raising dozens of unsold chicks (and continually swelling the size of your flock) becomes a thing of the past versus an inconvenient inevitability each time it’s breeding season. Each chick you hatch has a guaranteed home. Custom hatching also allows you to keep better track of your flock’s fertility and productivity over each season, which will let you know what improvements you need to make to better your livestock.
Hatch a Plan
For each custom-hatch customer, provide a list of which breeds are laying well at the time of the order. Explain to your customers that breed availability can vary throughout the season due to numerous factors, including heat, humidity, molting, broodiness, stress and more.
If you rear one poultry breed, your clients’ orders will be cut and dry. If you raise multiple breeds and varieties, your customers should be able mix and match which breeds of chicks they would like.
For example, a custom-hatch order at our farm might be for three Black Orpingtons, two BBS (blue-black-splash) Ameraucanas and two Blue Silkies. Be sure to set a minimum order—our minimum is three chicks—as well as a maximum, which is typically dictated by the capacity of your incubator.
Protect Your Orders
Even with proven fertility and careful monitoring, no hatch is ever guaranteed. Too many factors exist that can affect a hatch’s viability. Fluctuating temperature, humidity changes, arrested embryo development and unexpected blackouts are just a few of the issues that can affect your developing chicks.
Minimize the effect these factors have on your hatches by:
- mastering the operation and maintenance instructions for your incubator
- selecting clean eggs to hatch
- avoiding handling the eggs once incubation begins
Just to be safe, add a few extra eggs to your orders. This way, if a customer orders six Wyandotte chicks but only four hatch, you won’t have egg on your face or be left scrambling for excuses. We add one extra egg for every three that are ordered.
Assuming all goes well, you’ll have a successful hatch with several extra babies peeping alongside the ordered ones. If you are looking to increase the size of your personal flock, you are all set!
Not looking for more birds? Well, you’ve got a few extra chicks to sell. A handful of extra chicks beats dozens of unhomed babies.
We always give the right of first refusal to our clients. We find that our customers usually go gaga over all the baby peepers and can’t bear to leave a few babies behind.
Should they decide not to take all of the chicks we’ve hatched, we then go to our “adopt-an-egg” list. This is a spreadsheet featuring the names of previous customers who will happily adopt any extra chicks we have after a custom hatch.
We always announce on our social-media accounts that we are accepting sign-ups for our “adopt-an-egg” list and make certain to clearly state that there is no guarantee there will be extras. Despite this, people still sign up for the chance to bring home one or more of our chicks.
We never have had to worry about raising extra babies ourselves.
The Custom Contract
Never operate your custom-hatch business on a gentleman’s agreement.
A conversation in which a client promises to pay you for so many chicks might as well be written on the wind. Empty promises lead to empty wallets and full brooders, neither of which will keep your business afloat.
We provide a written contract for each customer to read and sign and require a 50 percent nonrefundable deposit before we even begin incubation. I strongly recommend that you do the same. The balance is due when our clients come to pick up their chicks, which is always within 48 hours of hatch.
After that, the babies have exhausted the nutrients absorbed from their yolk sac, meaning that we must then feed and water them instead of simply providing custom hatching services.
We charge an additional $5 per day to house tardy pick-ups. At seven days past hatch date, our clients waive their rights to the chicks. They’re then offered for sale to our adopt-an-egg list.
We discuss these terms, which are clearly outlined in our contract, with our clients prior to ordering. Fortunately, nobody has ever waived their right to their deposit and chicks. Whatever guidelines you choose, make certain they are in place prior to taking any orders in order to protect yourself and your home business.
Getting in Gear
Every business has start-up costs and a custom-hatch enterprise is no different. The size of your business will dictate your initial outlay. To get a basic custom-hatch industry underway, here are the bare minimum pieces of equipment you’ll need.
Your entire business will be based on your ability to hatch chicks reliably, so don’t skimp when it comes to selecting an incubator. Comparison shop online, ask farming friends for recommendations and read consumer reviews before making your selection. We strongly recommend buying an incubator with the following features:
- Temperature Gauge. Hatching eggs need to be kept at specific, constant temperatures in order to ensure proper development. Look for an incubator that has an easy-to-read temperature gauge (we prefer digital) and, even better, an alarm that alerts you to unexpected changes in temperature.
- Hygrometer. This is simply a humidity gauge. Incorrect and inconsistent humidity levels are a frequent cause of poor hatches. An incubator equipped with a hygrometer will save you heartache and headaches come hatching day.
- Egg Turner. Incubating eggs need to be turned several times a day to prevent the developing embryo from “sticking” to one side of the shell. Broody hens instinctively turn their clutches multiple times per day. You can turn your eggs by hand if you wish, but a built-in egg turner is a true time-saver. Make sure your incubator’s egg turner can be turned off for the final few days of incubation.
- Adjustable Interior. Egg sizes vary from teeny Serama eggs to hefty Orpington eggs. You’ll therefore want to select an incubator that adjusts to accommodate eggs of different sizes. This allows your custom hatching eggs to be snugly held in place instead of rattling around and potentially cracking.
- Generous Capacity. You may not need to hatch 28 or 42 eggs—or more—for your customers. You may not even offer that size hatch. It’s good, however, to keep your options open, especially as your business grows. Buying a tiny 10-egg incubator means limiting your growth potential without incurring further expense.
You’ll need a holding pen for your chicks once they’ve dried and fluffed out in the incubator. While a cardboard box is convenient—no mess to clean up, plus your client can simply take the box of chicks and go—you need to be prepared in case your customer is delayed in pick up or never collects their chicks at all.
We like Rubbermaid totes as they are sturdy, have high walls, and are easily cleaned and sanitized for subsequent uses. Be sure to outfit your brooder with the following necessities.
- Litter. From shredded paper to wood shavings, make sure some sort of absorbent (and preferably compostable) lines the bottom of your brooder.
- Litter Liner. Top off your litter with a rough-surfaced sheet of paper towels, gripping shelf liner, or some other nonslick cover to provide the newly hatched chicks with a supportive, nonslip surface to help strengthen their little legs.
- Thermometer. Newly hatched chicks need to be kept at a constant temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit. A thermometer mounted close to floor level inside the brooder will let you know that the temperature level is just right for the babies.
- Heat Source. Many safe options exist for providing heat in a coop, but these don’t necessarily work as well on a cardboard or plastic surface. Whatever heat source you choose, verify that it is correctly installed to reduce any risk of fire.
- Chick Feeder & Waterer. While your customers should be picking up their chicks before the babies need food and water, it’s best to be prepared in case their stay is prolonged. Make sure to buy a feeder that allows each baby to access food simultaneously. The chick waterer should be shallow enough to allow them to drink without the risk of drowning.
Keep a small bag of chick starter on hand just in case you need to start offering your hatchlings food. Many feed producers offer chick starter in small-size sacks of perhaps three or so pounds, perfect for your needs.
Ask your customers to bring a cardboard box or carrier in which to carry home their peepers. Chances are they may be so excited to come pick up their babies that they might forget. Prepare for this situation by having an assortment of spare cartons on hand. Shipping boxes from online shops such as Amazon serve perfectly as a short-term chick transport.
After years of mass hatching chicks and watching our flock sizes skyrocket, we switched to custom hatching and this is now our farm’s specialty. We still get to hatch and hold several dozen fluffy chicks before sending them onto their destined homes without worrying about being overrun by unsold infants.
The only potential drawback? We might end up infecting our clients with incubatoritis, too. It is quite contagious, after all.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Chickens magazine.