It's inevitable — every single year I get the urge to hatch chicks or ducklings, and every single time I decide to hatch them during the coldest months of the year. My logic is simple and honest — if I hatch in the Fall or Winter, then they will be laying by the time Spring and Summer come. But hatching during cold and unpredictable months can be a set up for heartache and failure. Between varying temperature's indoors, the threat of loosing power during a snow storm, and having to keep chicks indoors until they are fully feathered - it's a mess, to say the least.
Never-the-less, I always end up outweighing the pro's to the con's, and the hatching begins in October and normally ends in March — only to start back up again in the Spring and Summer. It's never ending. My most recent hatch was just this fall, when I welcomed a new and ancient breed to our homestead — Icelandic Chickens.
Over the past two seasons I've learned quite a bit through trial and error, and ultimately, hatching through the Winter isn't as scary as it once used to be. Here are some things you'll need to consider and prepare for when taking on this commitment during the harsh Winter months.
Being Prepared for the Electric to Fail Your Incubator
More likely than not, if you're living in a Central or Northern state, you'll receive at least one significant snowfall during the year. In Virginia, the temperature and weather are so unpredictable that I need to be on guard at all times. This means I need to find a few easy ways to keep my incubator warm, if I'm not using a miraculously broody hen indoors.
Having an alternate heat source in your home is certainly a bonus. Using a kerosene heater, wood stove, or hooking up a space heater to a generator will help keep your incubator warm when placing it near the heat source. We heat strictly by wood stove, therefore, I am able to place the incubator near the wood stove and adjust the heat with distance. Humidity, of course, is also something you should constantly be aware of. A dry heat source will quickly wick away the water in your moisture wells. Placing a wet sponge into your incubator helps hold moisture longer.
If having an alternate heat source isn't an option for you, then you can easily wrap your incubator with multiple towels or a blanket and close all of the vents in order to keep the humidity and heat locked inside for a short amount of time until the electric comes back on. Eggs should stay warm this way in your incubator without an alternative heat source for about 2-3 hours, depending on your indoor heat condition. With no guarantee that your power will return within a couple of hours, another easy hack is placing stones in the bottom of your incubator (before the power goes out), as they hold heat inside for a longer amount of time, which is even helpful on a regular basis for when turning your eggs manually.
Some other ways to keep your incubator warm without an alternate heat source — if you have a gas fireplace or oven, you can warm up water and other things on or in it. Warm up water or rice, and place hot water bottles or warm bags of rice inside of the incubator, replacing as needed. Most of all, do not open the lid unless completely necessary to do these things.
No matter what route you choose to keep heat inside of the incubator, you'll need to ensure that you are measuring heat and humidity at all times. I use this digital reptile hygrometer and thermometer meter.
Keeping Hatchlings Indoors
I'm extremely fortunate to have a basement. This means that the smell of chicks isn't nearly as bad as it could be. The wood stove is located downstairs as well, so when the electric goes out, they remain warm and comfortable. Being near the wood stove in the Winter allows me the freedom not to use a heat lamp indoors. Heat lamps are dangerous enough in coops, and I highly discourage them. But they are even more dangerous inside of your own home if not secured properly.
Whether you choose an indoor or outdoor brooder, a heat source that doesn't run off of electric is necessary, unless you have a generator. Once again, a wood stove or kerosene heater may be the best option for you, or other safe DIY heating options that you can create yourself such as the above bags of rice and hot water bottles. These work excellent for chicks as well, as they can lay on or beside them to keep warm.
You more than likely understand how to set up a brooder, but if not, there are plenty of wonderful articles on this website that can help you set your brooder up. In the Winter months, it's a bit different, as they will be indoors longer if you don't have an outdoor brooder set up with a heat source. We choose to keep our chicks indoors until they are completely, or almost completely, feathered. They then go outside into their own "mini-coop" with a regular watt light bulb so that it takes the bitter chill off. We've also used an outdoor brooder with chicks that weren't fully feathered. It is a small and completely enclosed dog house that has been re-purposed into a small coop. It houses a very secure heat lamp with a thick layer of hardware cloth between the bottom, where the chicks are housed, and the top of the coop. This gives us peace of mind, knowing that it can not be accessed by little chickens playing around.
While the chicks are indoors, it's important to change their bedding regularly. For the first few days, I simply add pine shavings over top of their regular pine shaving bedding. But once they reach a week or so old, their feces become much more pronounced. You will need to remove and add new bedding to the brooder daily or every other day. Make sure the bedding is never wet from them knocking water bowls over. If it is, remove and replace immediately. Leaving soiled bedding in a brooder can harbor E-coli, Coccidiosis, and other diseases that can be detrimental to your growing flock, and even to yourself.
Hatching and keeping chicks and other poultry or waterfowl in the Wintertime can be nerve wracking, but it can also be extremely rewarding. Your bond with your new hatchlings can be stronger, simply because of the fact that you are forced to tend to them much more often. Come Spring, there will be several happy pullets preparing to lay their very first eggs, and the satisfaction from them will far outweigh the work you put into them during those bitter months. Ultimately, it is safer to hatch chicks during the warmer months, but if you're hopeful for Spring layers, and you are completely prepared for whatever may come your way, Wintertime hatching may just be the perfect fit for you!
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