Before I get started, this is just my experiences over the past 4 years of creating a hatchery/breeder's farm from scratch. Any advice I give should not be taken as "golden advice", its just from my experience; your idea may be better. Feel free to PM me with questions if you want further advice, I will answer it as soon as I can.
I grew up in southern Ohio, on a commercial meat bird farm. My dad raised both chickens and turkeys for slaughter. I was young when they quit, but dad did talk about it all through my life. I really didn't take an interest in chickens when I was young, I agreed with my mom - chickens were just smelly birds. It wasn't until i was 33 and on my second marriage that i got back into chickens, my wife wanted them for self sufficiency reasons. We bought either 6 or 8 from a local feed store as pullets, a couple white rocks, some gold laced wyandottes, and a couple golden comets. We enjoyed the chicks so much for the first week, we bought 10 more the following week; and so the chicken math began. - I hate to admit when my wife is right - We were shocked by the prices of young chicks, I can remember dad bringing home 25 rhode island red chicks he got for free when he bought a bag of feed. We decided to buy a rooster for each breed and hatch our own.
The first year: What did I let you talk me into?
On our first experience with the chicks, we raised them in our house. They started in the dining room, then went to a spare room until they were feathered enough to go outside. For just a few chicks this works pretty well, if you can keep up with the brooders and keep them in. I cannot count how many times we chased a chicken through the house when they got big enough to fly. If memory serves me correctly, we raised about 30 pullet chicks that first year, with 2 surprise roosters. I built our first coop to hold around 10 chickens, obviously it wasn't going to be big enough. We have an old shed that the previous owners built and never finished, with a lean to off of one side. with a few pieces of MDF and some chicken wire, the lean to became our second coop. It is about 12 feet by 16 feet, i put in a couple roosts and a couple lights in the winter. it worked out pretty well for us, until we decided to start hatching our own chicks at the beginning of year 2.
Year 1 lessons learned:
In the first year we learned a lot. I can remember panicking the first time i noticed their crawls. I also installed my first roosts to high and had a minor issue with leg injuries with a brahma. For your own information, its best to keep roosts below 4 feet. I can also remember the first time i noticed them dust bathing, I thought they were making nests! OK i admit it, i didn't know much about raising chickens. I remember when we got our first egg, the kids took pictures to school they were so proud.
Year 2: (and our first winter)
In January of our second year, we decided to separate all the breeds in their own cages. I had bought some used commercial battery cages with hangers and automatic waterers for $5 an 8 foot section of cage, on the grounds of I had them moved within 2 days and took them all. I borrowed my brother's truck and trailer, and moved 72 of these cages. My neighbor, who I really didn't know before this; came over and helped me take them all apart. We straightened the wire and made 3 foot by 5 foot cages. For payment he took a dozen eggs a week from our comets, who weren't fertile. He was a lifesaver helping me get things together here. We put the 4 chickens in each cage, and each day we would let them out one pen at a time to run and exercise. I found a homemade incubator for $100 and thought i was making a good buy. It didn't take long at all to realize the person had used the wrong heating element, the incubator wouldn't hold its temperature. After setting around 200 eggs and getting 6 to hatch, we decided to buy some Little Giant Styrofoam incubators. Before we knew it, there were 12 of these incubators sitting in our dining room. My wife put her foot down and told me i had to move the hatching process to the shed. We set aside $1000 to insulate and heat the shed, i ended up making a small area lined in plastic and buying my first GQF Sportsman incubator. i built 3 very crude wood boxes for brooders, we thought we were well on our way.
We were afraid to advertise to much, so we just stuck a sign out in the front yard. Believe it or not, on a country back road we ended up with more business than we could handle. We added a few hens and a couple more breeds (by request) to help. We realized very quickly that a lot of money was going to have to come out of our pocket to make this work. I found a second GQF incubator. We decided to save as much as we could through the second winter to add a second lean to, on the other side of our shed.
Year 2 lessons learned:
We learned more about individual breeds and their characteristics. We also learned people will take advantage of you if they can (the incubator). At the same time we learned that sometimes your best friends come from the strangest places. The biggest lesson we learned was: a 3 foot by 5 foot cage was not big enough for 4 large fowl chickens. Early in the breeding season we lost our only rhode island red rooster, we learned not to limit ourselves to one rooster after that. Another huge lesson learned was, do not mess with the eggs. Like most first timers I over candled the eggs, and I helped some chicks hatch.
A little trick we learned on Sportsman incubators:
Don't use the spacers when you originally set your eggs and you can fit more in. Prop one end of the turning tray up and stagger your eggs when you put them in, fill any spaces with newspaper. When you candle on day 10, add the spacers to take care of the eggs that weren't fertile. I also quit using the automatic humidity systems and put in 7x10 disposable cake pans. I change them every couple of hatches to minimize chances of leaking and for sterility. I have found that opening my incubator up for 15 minutes a day made for stronger chicks and better hatches. I do not adjust my incubator temperature if it goes a few degrees low, but I don't let it get above 100* Fahrenheit.
Year 3: Did I do that?
In January of year 3 we started the second lean to, and built some 3 foot by 8 foot cages for our large fowl. To start year 3, we had the 2 sportsman incubators; and about 60 chickens. We attended a chicken swap in April, and that's when it happened: I fell in love with old english bantams. My first purchase was a pair of brassy blues, then lemon blues - after that i pretty well lost track. I picked up another group of used 2 foot by 2 foot cages, divided the first cages I built and filled them full of bantams. It became evident real fast that I hadn't added enough space. I built several outdoor pens before the next swap in June. (Picture below) By the time the June swap was over my wife and i had added several new breeds, including the old english, silkies, golden and silver sebrites, and several others. We did all of this without thinking about winter time. Again not enough space, and we needed an area we could heat for spring orders the next year.
We hadn't kept proper track of our finances, but we knew the chick sales hadn't payed for the improvements we had made, the chickens we had bought, and the electricity we had used to that point. We "guess" the business was about $10,000 in debt to us, and we were looking at having to house 200 more chickens. We also had to add to our brooder areas to separate similar colored breeds, and bantams from standard fowl. The cure came by starting a 20 feet by 24 feet barn on labor day weekend. Due to our finances I couldn't afford to order all the materials we needed at once, and between orders material prices shot up. I ended up going to a local sawmill and buying rough cut lumber to finish the pens and outside of the barn.
I also built some grow pens out of 2x4s and a tarp. These work pretty well if you can stretch the tarp tight. In the heat of the summer you may need to add a fan.
The plywood on the end is what happens when you buy a 10x10 tarp instead of a 10x12.
Year 3 lessons learned:
Remember to count your chicks before they hatch, you can never have enough "extra" room.
Year 4: You might be a chicken addict if:
We are currently on year 4. Earlier this spring we bought yet another sportsman incubator. This year alone we have added: partridge rocks, black giants, white crested blue polish, rhodebars, lemon cuckoo orpingtons, black amaraucanas, golden cuckoo marans, sweedish flower hens, lemon cuckoo cochins, blue slate turkeys, and standard bronze turkeys. Ive also replaced quail and golden laced wyandottes, and added to my old english collection. I cannot tell you how many chickens we have, nor name all the breeds off the top of my head. My wife is a very understanding woman, and a chicken addict herself. We are planning on adding another barn and about 10 coops before winter. At the rate we are adding, we figure the business will pay for itself in year 5. We currently feed about 400 lbs of feed a week. We have this feed specially mixed for us, for proper nutrition of our chickens. I will share this recipe, but if your chickens free range its not right for you. We also plan on building a new incubator in the next month or so. that will be another article if i go through with it.
We also had our first severe animal attack in late winter, a mink killed several chickens over a 2 night run. Cages were modified to help prevent it from happening again.
Be careful of your lighting:
In August of this year we realized we have made a large mistake. When we built our barn, I had the "great" idea to put a light bulb in each pen. The idea was so the chickens had plenty of light, and warmth in the winter months. We used the bulbs all winter 24 hours a day to keep the chickens warm. During the spring we were afraid to turn them off because we were afraid the hens would slow down on laying, so we changed them to lower wattage bulbs. We finally turned them off during the summer equinox, within a couple of weeks we noticed almost every hen was starting into molt. I do not like the idea of forcing molts, I feel it is hard on the chickens; also it really kills your egg production.
This year we also became members of the National Poultry Improvement Plan or NPIP. In the state of Ohio you are supposed to be a member to legally ship eggs. The rules and fees for this vary from state to state, in Ohio its $50 for a 1 year membership. They do pullorum tests and throat swabs on a sample number of your flock. In the event there is an outbreak of an illness around you, they will let you know. Yes there is a little bit more paperwork involved, but now we can ship chicks and eggs anywhere; and our customers know we are tested for at least some illness.
Year 4 lessons learned:
Love what you do, and do it to the best of your ability. Give a few away to kids, they are your future and your future customers.
A few tips on breed selection:
Choosing breeders is probably one of the most important decisions you will make. I purchase from breeders who show their chickens as often as I can. If I see a trio that might be better than what I have, I buy it and compare it to my own chickens. For the following year's breeders I raise approximately 40-50 to choose one or 2. I start the culling process early, culling for slow growth, wrong eye color, wrong leg color, poor feathering, and wrong combs. These are usually grown for meat or egg laying purposes and sold as such. When I sell these, I recommend to the customer that they not be bred.
I raise the remaining chickens to about 5-6 months, and cull extensively for type and color. The culls from this group are typically sold as breeder quality (i wont sell a poor chicken as breeders)
A lot of times you can't find the breed your looking for from breeders. When I encounter this, I order 10-15 chicks from 3 or 4 reputable hatcheries. I sort out the best 2 pair or trios and start breeding up, always looking for better breeders.
Before you buy into a new breed, research it. Have in mind exactly how its supposed to look, its approximate size, and its features like leg and beak color. Never walk up to someone at a swap and ask "is this chicken this breed?", most of them are honest and will correct you if your wrong; but you do encounter a few dishonest along the way. Also research the tricks to breeding, for instance two frizzles bred together will probably not have good fertility. Breeding 2 fawns will make 1/2 sport chicks. Cuckoo patterns, self sexing, chocolates, extruded skull problems, and other issues will affect you along the way; the more you research the better off you will be.
When buying adults or juvenile chickens, look them over well. Check the things mentioned above, also check for leg mites, make sure their sinuses are clear, no eye bubbles, and look around their vent for mites and lice signs. Any time I buy a new chicken, I quarantine them for one month. Even if I don't question an illness, I will give them some water soluble antibiotics.
I am starting year 5 a little early. It is the beginning of November, and my wife and I have came to the realization we do not have enough room. We have purchased another place, with 4.5 flat acres, 2 electrical services, 2 water taps, and 2 septic systems. We are in the process of setting up a mobile home on the new property.
It appears setting up the mobile home is going to be the easy part. As you can see in the pictures, I have built my pens as part of my barn. The barn is getting moved to the new lot, so we have to figure out how to house around 275 chickens, so the barn can be moved. The temperatures are dropping, we have had a few mornings below freezing; the chickens are going to need protection from the elements, also we have to keep them separate for biosecurity; and we dont want any crossbred chickens. We are in the process of locating around 150 pallets to build pens. The plan is to build pens lined with chicken wire, and wrapped in plastic. I will cover them completely with metal, to keep them as dry as I can. The barn can then be moved and added to/improved upon.
Here is where we stand economically so far:
We have around 500 adult sized chickens, with another 100-125 younger chickens that are to young to sex, or males to young to butcher. We feed approximately 450 lbs. of chicken feed a week, with our custom mix the price is running about $125.00 a week just to feed the chickens. The barn's electric is around $200.00 a month, we average 40 gallons (estimated) a day in water. The average day is about 10 hours combined between my wife and I. We figure moving and resetting everything up will cost around $4,000 to $5,000.
We will recover about 100 roosters to our freezer, for an estimated savings of $500 a year on our grocery bill. We are selling extra hens for egg layers at $7.50 each for an estimated income of $200. We are also still hatching some chicks, with an income of about $50 a week. Our flock and equipment is worth an estimated $25,000 to $27,000. Our cost into this flock is well over that amount, due to the sorting process.
In the spring we will be hatching about 500 chicks a week, with an average price of about $2.00 each. This will go on for about 12 weeks, then slow to 250 chicks a week for another 8-10 weeks. Some extras will be kept to replace older chickens, and some will be sold out as meat or layers, depending on breeds.
Illness prevention is crucial to what I do. I try my best not to use antibiotics, but with our size of farm organics are usually out of the question. 1 day a week we add ACV to our water, we pull and give grass to the chickens who cant get to it. We also feed meal worm treats - for added protein and bug content. When we see a sign of a problem, we isolate the chicken and typically treat it as recommended by an educator on here. We also read OSU's research on the subject. If the illness is highly contagious and commonly fatal, we will also separate any birds close to the sick chicken. All cages are cleaned and sanitized, before any chickens are returned to them. Any chickens that have diseases that can be passed through the egg are culled and carcasses are burned. I know this sounds cruel, but is one bird's illness worth risking several thousand dollars worth of stock?
We also hire our vet (who fortunately does do farm visits), to come and check our chickens every couple months - once a month if we have any signs of sickness that need to be monitored. This is voluntary, but we find it very useful.
When you have hundreds or thousands of chickens, someone somewhere is going to be sick or injured. Make sure you have enough time to take care of these issues each day. Currently my wife and i work about 6 hours each day with our chickens, cleaning cages, trimming nails, medicating if needed, and just common care. Loss is going to happen in the chicken business, so again never limit yourself to one rooster. Expect it, be ready and don't take it personal; just do your best. If you take care of your chickens, they will take care of you with eggs, chicks and meat.
Selecting the right incubator:
If your are looking at this as a business, your probably looking past hovabators, and little giants. For our size of operation, I like the sportsman cabinets. I shy away from the digital ones, and keep a few extra spare parts around for the older styles. Your incubator is never going to break down on Monday morning. It always seems to happen at 10 pm on Friday of a holiday weekend.
To pick the right incubator, you need an approximate count on your eggs in the best period of production season. To do this I count the number of adult breeding hens, and multiply it times 5. this gives me my highest number of possible eggs for one week. Another issue you will run into will be keeping breeds separate. White leghorns and white rocks look very similar as day old chicks, throw in some light brahmas, some buff orpingtons, and some new hampshire reds and you will be scratching your head for weeks.
Now that you have your total number of eggs, multiply that number by 1.5 and look for an incubator with that capacity. With any luck your business is going to grow. Shipping on incubators is expensive, its a little more money up front; but cheaper in the long run. http://sunnycreekfarms.zxq.net/ is a good source for used commercial incubators in the United States. Also watch craigslist and Ebay. I've found several at chicken swaps, but they might need a little work. http://incubatorwarehouse.com/ is a good general source for parts, they may also carry an incubator that suits your needs.
Building an incubator:
Building an incubator is not that complicated, and may be the best way for you to get what you need. I can't give a design that will work for everyone, but I can help with the basics. For a heat source, you don't want something that gets way hotter than what you need to simply regulate the temperature. There are digital heating element/thermostat combinations available that might be exactly what you need. the heating elements are normally made of nichrome wire, you can buy this in 10 or so feet lengths if you think you need that much. You can also use a replacement element for another incubator. As far as thermostats go, its your preference. Your hatch rates will make or break you, so I don't recommend using a water heater thermostat. Wafers, and digital are both ok; I prefer the wafers myself. Humidity pans can be anything laying around that will hold water, you will have to experiment on what pan works the best for your incubator. The basic idea is to keep the heat from hitting the eggs directly, fan blowing from behind the element, through the element and over top of the water. The larger the surface of the water pan, the higher your humidity will be.
Turners are a bit more challenging, you will need a timer. You can use replacement sportsman turners, or turners from other brands. You can also fashion your own. You want your eggs to turn 45* each way minimum. You will have to be creative, I've heard of people using windshield wiper motors, door window motors, and linear actuators. you can find suitable components from www.surpluscenter.com, but you will have to be imaginative. https://www.backyardchickens.com/t/...home-made-incubators-whether-they-work-or-not this is a good thread on what people have used, and how it has worked.
Just a few facts for those who want to do the same thing:
To add a breed costs about $75 for a pair/trio pen, not counting the cost of the chickens you are buying.
No amount of vitamins will replace bugs and grass.
Listen to the "old timers" though some of their information is dated, they are your best source of information.
You cannot have to much brooder space.
The more chickens you have, the greater your chance of disease. Always quarantine new chickens.
To price a rare breed: add the cost of the breeders and the cost to feed them for one month. divide that by the estimated number of chicks you can produce in a month.
Never limit yourself to one rooster in any breed! Be ready to dispose of unhatched eggs, egg shells and culled chicks and chickens.
I will update this article as things change.