Perhaps you’re a new chicken keeper wanting to get into breeding, or perhaps you fancy rearing some replacements for your aging flock as opposed to paying the price for POLs, or perhaps you have a granddaughter or nephew who has some pet chickens and you think it might be nice for them to hatch some chicks of their own. Whatever the reason is, it’s likely you are thinking along the lines of buying an incubator to pop some fertile eggs in… but make sure you go into it with your eyes wide open.
I’m not talking so much about the range of models on the market but more the total cost. There is quite a variety of incubators around and whilst there are some very reliable brands, there are equally ones that tempt you with a cheap price tag and/or a small capacity. Success in using an incubator can be a bit of a dark art and although it is quite possible to take the incubator out of the box, turn it on and have a 100% hatch 21 days later, this isn’t usually the case. They are precisely calibrated pieces of technical equipment that are trying to simulate the natural know how of a mother hen. Many are quite capable of creating an equivalent environment, but operator error is not uncommon, not only in terms of the initial setup but through inexperience and a lack of understanding of the environmental factors at play during the incubation of an egg. Ultimately though you want to avoid the disappointment of having no chicks hatch, or worse still a single chick hatch, which aside from the obvious trauma of being alone, can mean it has the potential to be the most expensive chicken you have ever raised. Why? Well the incubator is only a part of the cost; newly hatched chicks need heat for the first few weeks of their life, and in the absence of the mother hen you will need to provide the heat source instead, 24hrs a day. They need shelter too, so a space indoors is essential. They will be too small to manage your regular chicken feed so specialist feed will be needed and quite possibly an appropriately sized drinker. Even when they no longer need heat it will still be a good 3-4months before there is any opportunity to introduce them to the rest of your flock, so additional housing and separate run space is another cost consideration.
This might sound like I’m preaching to the converted however it’s surprising just how many people I’ve spoken to who hadn’t considered the end to end cost. A cost incidentally that only really gets recouped if the investment is used more than once, and the investment could easily be in the region of £500 even if it’s only an entry level incubator that’s purchase.
Let’s take that £500 investment and do a bit of reverse engineering on it. Let’s assume it covers the cost of a 20 egg incubator and all the paraphernalia and running costs you’d need to raise the chicks to point of lay. Fertility as I’ve mentioned before is not 100% guaranteed nor is hatchability, but using a conservative estimate for the purpose of illustration let’s say 80% of the eggs are fertile and 80% of those go on to hatch and survive the early days. That means the 20 eggs will become 12 chicks. Not a bad result so far, however of those twelve it’s statistically likely that only half will be female. So £500 results in 6 hens, that’s £83 per pullet (a figure many a breeder could only dream of charging). Obviously you have some tangible assets that could be sold on but even if those recover half of the investment then it’s still over £40 a pullet, not so cheap is it?….and then there’s what to do with those six cockerels that have just started crowing….