Ode to the hatchery

An ode is meant to be sung. You don’t want to hear me sing. I will forever, however, bestow praises upon any ethical hatchery currently in business and here’s why…

Before moving to Wisconsin, I was a suburban Denver mom with three kids under the age of two, taking ‘backyard chickens’ classes so I could raise them someday. If given the time and opportunity, I will always be a learner first…then a doer. One thing that class never taught me in that class was how to hatch an egg.

We moved to Griff Run and bought our first clutch of chicks by mail from Murray McMurray hatchery (highly recommend them). I was horrified that these one-day-old babies would be put in a box and sent through the mail in the dead of winter, taking up to three days to reach us, without food and water. My mom brain exploded. I was the person driving 1.5 hours to La Crosse, WI to get to the babies faster…then wrapping the box in my winter scarf and rushing to the heated car to keep them warm. It was February, so that first clutch was raised in the house…where we live. Disgusting. Lesson learned: don’t raise them in the house where you also breathe. On the upside, that clutch was the most friendly, dynamic and healthy we ever raised. One female, Poopshoe, lived to be eight years old, would always let you hold her, loved to help you garden and was sadly killed by a predator just last year. Still looking for that predator through the rifle scope to this day.

Fast forward to 2021. We’ve raised one to two clutches of birds per year every year for the past nine years – some are hens for eggs and others are what we call ‘meat birds.’ We have always ordered our chicks locally or through Murray McMurray. We have often thought of allowing the birds to do this for us naturally, but, too often, having a rooster is more of a nodus than a solution (nodus is another word for ‘problem’ or ‘difficulty’ and I credit a former mentor for sharing this word of the day with me – he must have known I could use it). About three years ago we upped the ante and started raising turkeys with our chicks (in the same brooder, same building, same coop without issues despite what you might read online). We noticed two things: organically and ethically raised turkeys raised on our farm were wonderful at Thanksgiving…and turkeys are excellent protectors of chickens.

This year, rather than raise the ‘broad breasted bronze’ turkey which matures in about six months and must be butchered or it will die from overgrowth, we wanted to raise heritage breed, old-school turkeys so at least two of them could live here long-term. Note number two. Number two pretty much sums up what happens for the next 31 days. Shit storm.

Heritage breed turkeys are hard to come by this year for any number of reasons. We could have ordered through Murray, but had to take 15 turkeys. We’d need a whole building for that. Our local supplier could not get heritage breeds due to supply problems. But, I remembered that our neighbors at English Ridge Orchard had been dabbling in raising a variety of heritage breeds so I reached out. Not only did they have fertilized eggs, we could also borrow their incubator. Less than 24 hours later, we were attempting to hatch 12 turkey eggs in an incubator on our dining room table. We cast bets. I had to smile when I saw H’s handwritten note stating how many live birds we each thought would result from the 12 eggs.

On day 28, we noticed at least four of the chicks had broken an air hole through their shells, right on time. The next morning, a single chick had completely broken free…shell wide open and his head firmly lodged in the gap between the wall of the incubator and the floor. PANIC. See, you shouldn’t open the incubator during hatching as humidity is lost and the chicks lose the moisture in their shells necessary to move around and break out of their prison. But we did it…we opened the box and carefully pulled him free. His name is LD…for Little Dude. For the next 36 hours, however, there was fretting. No other egg had hatched although we could see the chicks attempting their escape and even chirping inside of their shells. LD was running around the incubator rooting them on…but he would need to go into the chicken coop brooder in the building out back soon – he would need food and water. He also needs a friend…but no one else was hatching.

I called the local feed shop and asked if they had any extra chicks we could buy (my God we have no more room for chickens here) to keep LD company in the back coop. Yes. So H and I drove to town to grab chicks…any chicks. We picked out two and put them in a box and headed to the counter. Then we’re told that state law requires we buy six chicks…we could take our two today and come back tomorrow when a new shipment arrives and pick another four (here is where the slide toward doom begins). OK. We get home and put the two new chicks in the brooder out back with LD…the brooder that had been prepared a week in advance and had been warming for a full 48 hours before we needed it. LD seemed horrified that there were other chicks with him in the brooder. Little did he know, they would love him lots in just a bit.

We have a bunch of other projects happening at the farm right now, one of which is trenching for power and water lines to the ridge where we are excavating to place Eunice the Airstream. While H and I are frantic about chicks, Farmer Matt is trenching 200 feet from the house to the new camper site. About an hour after I put everyone in the brooder together, I thought I should go check on them. Upon entering the coop I noticed the heat lamp was off and quickly determined the power had been cut. The top of the brooder flew from my hands and I see LD getting all of the love he could have ever asked for from his two new friends who were stacked on top of him like an oreo cookie, all three of them faintly chirping and near death from the cold.

I grabbed them all in a single handful and put them into the box we had just brought back from the feed store…charged out of the building, past the dogs and ran straight up the stairs into the house, through the house with my boots on (gasp!). H is now on high alert that bad things are happening and scrambles to make sense of it all. “What’s happening?!” I, once again, opened the incubator with the eggs still hatching and put all three chicks inside. They were barely responsive. Two minutes later they still look terrible and I pulled an old trick I had tried once before in a similar situation and ran for the blow dryer. Put them all back in the small box and heated them up faster.

The power line that had been cut by the trencher was repaired and the brooder warmed up again. Went back to town for the other four chicks and they are all together (anyone need six organically raised bantams and easter eggers?!). I slept on the couch in the room adjacent to the incubator for two nights just in case the incubator alerted to a temperature drop or the cat decided to investigate the chicks chirping from inside of their shells. Only one other chick from the three that were hatching has survived to today – and only because we broke it out of its shell ourselves. We’re hopeful that it survives and can be a lifelong friend to LD.

Much like we learned nine years ago that we should never raise chicks in our home where we breathe…we learned this year to never take for granted mama chickens, mama turkeys and ethical hatcheries. I am exhausted and I sing your praises.


4 Replies to “Ode to the hatchery”

  1. Learning experiences are gold down the road. Not so much at the time they are learned though. LOL Good work, Incubator Momma!

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