I often get comments when I discuss incubating eggs, that fall along the lines of "I prefer to let my hens hatch our chicks naturally", etc. Of course, I applaud every one of you that are raising chickens and making it work for your situation. And I can see where incubating eggs with a machine can be construed as unnatural. It certainly requires electricity and a hen is nowhere in sight when these eggs hatch. I get that.
I'd also like to point out that incubating eggs, dates back to Egyptian times. Yep. It goes way back. Before electricity. And in modern days, farmers have been using incubators to hatch their chicks for more than a century.
Incubators are kind of like a greenhouse for chicks. You wouldn't hesitate to give your garden plants the best start in life, right? Maybe you put a grow light on those tiny tomato starts and a heating pad underneath to warm the seeds. You probably don't think of that as artificial incubation, but it is. In fact, you won't have to look very hard to find examples where the term "natural" could be challenged where it relates to our food supply.
Is it natural to keep a dairy cow or goat in milk long after her baby is weened, in order to provide drinking milk? Is it natural to refrigerate our food electrically? Is canning natural? Is it natural to use tractors and implements to plant our crops? Is it natural to supplement water on our gardens when the rain doesn't fall? Where do we draw the line at Natural?
Back to incubation. Here are some fun facts:
* The egg incubator was invented by Lyman Byce and Isaac Dias, in Petaluma, California. The patent was granted on June 2, 1885.
* The Egyptians used large oven-like structures powered by burning camel dung to incubate.
* By candling (holding a concentrated light source against the egg in a dark room) you can see the developing embryo in a light shelled egg, after just 3 days of incubation.
In our situation, the reasons to incubate, far outnumber the reasons not to. For example, a broody hen will stop laying eggs while she is sitting on a nest and for a period after that. That means NO EGGS for a month or so each time she goes broody. To raise enough chicks for our purposes, we would need to have several broody hens each year raising chicks full time. That is neither practical nor healthy for our hens.
We are raising a breed that isn't heavily broody, which means, that if we didn't incubate, our flock would eventually die off.
Our Barred Holland chickens are pretty rare, so if we needed to purchase additional birds it is likely we would have to ship live birds from another farm through the mail (which I avoid due to the stress on the birds) or order hatching eggs, which, of course need an incubator. Or a broody hen (see above).
Incubating eggs, depending on the incubator, can be an extremely efficient way of producing quality, healthy chicks. More efficient than even a broody hen. Since the conditions are controlled and optimal, the chicks are able to develop in a best case scenario and thrive. In the two years we have been incubating and hatching well over 100 chicks, we have only lost one.
On our farm, we raise chickens for eggs and meat. This requires us to produce new birds each year. We do this because we are working to be sustainable and to produce the best possible food for our table. Using an incubator allows us to make this possible in our situation. We have not purchased eggs or chicken from the grocery in two years. So, while we aren't entirely "natural" in our approach to our sustainability, this is the balance we have sought.
Incidentally, that chicken that you purchase from the grocery store? It's highly likely it was raised from chicks hatched out in incubators.
Stop by and visit us at fb.com/thepocketfarmer to let us know where you stand on the sustainability scale. Or follow us on Twitter @thepocketfarmer. Hope to see you there! :)