In-house hatching of broiler chicks
A new trend in the industry is to hatch the broiler in-house. It has some advantages and disadvantages, and for sure, climate and floor temperature are crucial to succeed with in-house hatching.
Hatching in nature
When looking at what happens in nature, laying eggs and hatching them does not seem too complicated. The hen will lay a clutch of eggs. She lays one egg per day until she has "enough." When all eggs are laid, she starts brooding. There are good reasons for not starting to brood from the first egg is laid. The hen needs minerals, energy, and protein to be able to produce the eggs. Secondly, it will be challenging to manage hatched chicks while still having to brood the eggs that are not yet hatched.
The embryo inside the egg does not start to develop until it has been warmed up to 36-37oC for approximately 24 hours. This temperature is the skin temperature of the hen. A broody hen is almost in a trance. The hen only stands up to turn the eggs and eat and drink. Feed intake is minimal during the brooding phase. After 21 days of brooding, the eggs start to hatch.
Hatching takes 24-36 hours. The hen will remain in the broody trance for two to three days. Meanwhile, the chicks will be protected by the hen, dry out and get ready to leave the nest to find feed and water. The chicks have a yolk sac which provides nutrition and water for the first few days.
Traditional broiler hatching
Traditionally, broiler chicks have been hatched at a hatchery. The standard procedure is to place the eggs in an incubator for 18 days and then transfer them to a hatcher for the last 3 days. Incubation and hatching are highly complicated procedures, which require human skill and advanced technology. Hatchery managers continuously try to improve hatchability to get the highest number of day-old chicks from the eggs.
Another critical factor is the "hatch window." The hatch window is when the first eggs start to hatch until the last eggs have hatched. The hatch window can be from 24-36 hours. The chicks are protected by advanced climate systems securing that the temperature, humidity, and CO2 are perfect for them.
After hatching, the chicks will be sorted, counted, and often vaccinated before being transported to the farm. The total time from hatch to placement on the farm can be 48-72 hours. It is close to the time from hatch to leaving the nest in nature and is not considered a problem for the chicks, since they have the nutrients and water they need in the yolk sac.
Lately, some innovative companies have tried to see if hatching can be done more smartly with the benefit of bird welfare and productivity. Research has documented the importance of early feeding and less stress on bird welfare, health, development, and performance. Chicks that have access to feed and water early after hatching and are exposed to fewer stress factors have lower early mortality and might even reach higher growth rates. There are two main ways to provide early access to feed and water.
One way is to design a hatcher, which includes feed and water. HatchCare© is a good example. Another way is to transfer the eggs from incubation to the broiler house instead of to the hatcher. The chicks will then hatch in the environment where they will live until slaughter. The newly hatched chicks will not be exposed to the stress from handling in the hatchery and transport to the farm.
The advantages are:
• Chicks exposed to less noise and dust during the hatch.
• More space per chick and less risk of contamination.
• Access to feed and water when the chick is ready.
• There is no unintended change in climate conditions than the conditions in the
hatcher, sorting room, storage room, and transport.
On the other hand, in-house hatching has some disadvantages that need to be respected:
• The farm manager is also a hatching manager, which requires new skills.
• The production period will be extended by 2-3 days, equivalent to the time it
takes to hatch the eggs.
• Day-old vaccination must be done at the farm.
• More handling on the farm with egg trays, selection, and eggshells.
Temperature is probably the most critical factor to control. The floor temperature must be high – a minimum of 30-32oC, depending on the thickness of the litter. In some of the in-house hatching systems, the chicks will hatch on the floor in the litter. They are wet when they hatch and are very sensitive to air and floor temperature. House temperature must be 35-37oC during hatching. When most of the chicks have hatched, temperature must be reduced to prevent overheating of the chicks.
During hatching, you measure eggshell temperature. It requires much attention and labor! You measure with an infrared ear thermometer or more advanced sensors that measure on several eggs continuously. The readings can be monitored on a smartphone or PC. After hatching, you measure body temperature with an ear thermometer or a rectal thermometer with a small probe.
Some examples of systems for in-house hatching: