Using an incubator to hatch your own chicks not only makes you more self-sufficient, but it gives you control over the when and who, which can make a big difference in your flock dynamics. Getting chicks at a feed store, or mail ordered, is an easy way to get started, and that's what we did our first year. It went okay, but we felt like the store bought chickens were missing something. The trait we were looking for the most is ability to forage. The more a chicken forages, the more bugs they eat, which makes the egg yolks healthier and richer and reduces the amount of money you spend on starter feed.
We found a good selection of hatching eggs on Ebay and paid about 35 dollars for 20 fertilized Black Australorp eggs, which is a breed we had heard good foraging reports from.
Humidity was a factor that took us a while to figure out. Hatching eggs need humid conditions. That can be tricky with the old styrofoam incubators, which is a big reason why we upgraded to the Brinsea Octagon 20 advance incubator. The Brinsea will tell you exactly how much humidity your eggs are getting, which is how we figured out what we call the dry incubation method for summer hatching in our climate zone.
Once you have live cute chicks hatching out you'll need a warm place to keep them. Most people use a heat lamp, which works okay, but can be dangerous and use more energy than necessary. We've had great luck with a new product called the Brinsea EcoGlow brooder. At 60 dollars it's not as cheap as a heat lamp, but we figured the savings in energy costs pay for itself within a small amount of time.
Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton have learned a few things about chickens and incubation they like to share at their chicken blog, where you can also buy one of their new chicken waterers that incorporate industrial poultry technology in a simple fashion that works well for back yard flocks.
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