big business — Biddy, the setting hen, now has to compete with 65,000-egg incubators
P. W. LUCE
THERE IS a baby industry in British Columbia that is thirty years old. It operates for only five months out of the twelve, and is nicely profitable to all concerned. Its raw material is an egg, its manufacturing plant an incubator, its finished product a day-old chick.
This year 2,600,000 fluffy little chicks will be hatched in British Columbia incubators, mostly in the Fraser Valley, near Vancouver, where twenty-five of the thirtyeight larger hatcheries are located.
It’s quite a business, this selling of baby chicks. The gross revenue is over a quarter of a million dollars annually, and the capital investment in the Fraser Valley alone is about $500,000; but it’s a business that does not concern itself overmuch about the credit ratings of its customers. It operates practically on a cash basis. It does even better than that in most cases—it operates on a cash-in-advance basis.
On the other hand, the hatchery man pays cash for his eggs. He has to. An egg that has been a couple of weeks in an incubator would be a mighty poor asset for a poultryman to seize for a shaky debt. So would a chicken that is two weeks old. There is no repossessing in this business.
It may seem odd that a poultryman with thousands of good laying hens should buy his chicks from a hatchery man, but it is no odder than that the hatchery man should buy his eggs from this same poultryman. The raising of baby chicks requires so much expensive equipment, and so much attention to detail, that it pays the poultryman to sell his eggs at $3 to $3.50 a hundred and buy back pullets at $26 a hundred. He can get the chicks out of his own eggs if he wants to.
The bulk of the baby chick business is done by four concerns, each with a hatching capacity of more than 100,000 eggs at one time. As each incubator can turn out five hatches in a season, this gives these four hatcheries a potential aggregate of 2,000,000 eggs from January to May, or just about half the total for the whole province.
Although 4,000,000 eggs are handled every year, only about 2,600,000 chicks are sold. The hatchability of eggs is around seventy per cent, and for some reason it is somewhat higher in an incubator than under a motherly old hen. Accidents, imperfect birds, and surplus cockerels, make up the additional five per cent depreciation.
The high reputation of Fraser Valley hens as heavy layers is responsible for a strong outside demand for eggs. Half a million eggs are sent annually to the 150 hatcheries in the three prairie provinces, and tens of thousands go to Ontario and Quebec, where there are five times as many hens as in British Columbia. The average Canadian hen lays 111 eggs a year, as against the Fraser Valley bird’s average of 150. Two trap-nested hens have each laid
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357 eggs in a year, a neck-and-neck world’s record, and British Columbia boasts more poultry championships than any other country.
The 4,000,000 eggs that go into B. C. incubators are not just eggs. They are the hand-picked product of pedigreed parents, and they cost twice as much as the Grade-A Large sold for family consumption. They must be perfect in shape, weigh twentyfour ounces to the dozen, and be not more than two or three days old.
The product of pullets is taboo, experience having shown that eggs from mature birds pioduce healthier and stronger chicks. Hens that lay less than 200 eggs a year are never used as breeders, for many of them go over the 300 mark. There’s no fooling about the count, either, with the system of trap-nesting in use on the ninetysix farms that supply eggs to the hatcheries. Every one of these establishments is under Dominion and Provincial government inspection that is thorough, constant, and very strict.
The male birds that are mated to the breeding hens must pass a stiff examination for type, color, size, conformation, health and pedigree, before receiving the official okay. The rooster has always acted as if he were conscious of being the most important member of the barnyard family, and now science is supporting his claims. The hen cannot transmit her good qualities to more than about fifty chickens in a
season. The rooster will pass his own, through twenty or more hens, to possibly 1,000 chicks.
Is it any wonder he crows?
One Incubator—5,000 Hens
T\ THEN incubators were first introW duced in the Fraser Valley about thirty years ago they were not exactly an unqualified success. The heating arrangements were apt to fail on occasions, with the result that the eggs would get cold and the whole batch would be lost. The dangers of chills, drafts, changes of temperature, and lack of humidity, were not sufficiently guarded against. There was a good deal of prejudice to be overcome.
I remember one pioneer poultryman who would have nothing at all to do with the contraptions, as he called them. He firmly believed that a chick hatched out in an incubator would turn out to be weakminded, a theory that he expounded at great length in the public market at New Westminster. He would place a few of his own hen-hatched chicks in a box with a number of incubator chicks, and point out the difference in intelligent behavior between the two lots. He never lacked an audience, but his supporters gradually lost faith in his credo as season succeeded season and the I. Q. of the Fraser Valley hen continued about the same.
Thirty generations of machine-produced
chickens have passed from egg to bubbling pot since the first incubator was set up. and the hen is as she always was. The crude 100-egg machine of those days, however, has long since gone into the discard. One of the leading hatchery firms of Canada, located at Langley Prairie, B.C., recently installed a machine the size of a large room, that hatches 65,000 eggs at one time. This incubator cost $6,500ten cents per egg capacity—and it does the work of 5,000 hens sitting on thirteen eggs apiece.
Most of the large incubators are electrically operated, but some have heat supplied by hot air or hot water pipes. The eggs are set in trays supported on rods which tilt to a different angle every four hours, this having the same effect as when the hen turns over the eggs with her beak several times a day. Thermostats regulate the temperature, which varies from 99 to 103 degrees, and other gadgets control ventilation and humidity. There is a good deal of gas released by a setting of 65,000 hatching eggs.
Though there are thousands of eggs incubating at the same time, the chicks do not emerge all at once. The eggs are set in the trays in irregular lots twice a week, the number varying in accordance with orders for delivery twenty-one days hence. Hatchery men keep no stock on hand for emergency orders, for the very good reason that a day-old chick is a day-old chick for only twenty-four hours, and every minute after that reduces the chance of satisfactory delivery to a distant point.
There is one peculiarity about baby chicks that has made the hatchery business possible in a section of Canada unfavorably located for other export trade. It is that the newly hatched birds require no food or drink for their first three days of existence, having sufficient reserve energy from what they absorbed inside the eggshell before pecking their way out. They are quite happy and contented so long as they are kept warm, and suggestions that it was cruel to “starve” them for seventy-two hours have long since been proved to be without foundation.
This three-day abstinence from food or water explains why baby chicks can be shipped from the Fraser Valley by express as far east as Winnipeg, as a matter of routine, and frequently to Fort William and Port Arthur. One rush order of 300 chicks is known to have reached Montreal with only two casualties; but luck and exact timing played their parts in this experiment. It’s not a thing that could be done often.
Shipments are usually made by express because of the facilities for heating and ventilation, speed in transit, and supervision by employees who are by this time well experienced in the care and handling of the fluffy yellow mites. Charges on 100 chicks from New Westminster to Winnipeg amount to $1.80, and are paid by the consignee.
Experiments have been made in shipping by plane, but so far these have not been encouraging. There are as yet no facilities for keeping the little fellows warm in the baggage compartments, and the high altitude and the rarefied atmosphere also add to the risks.
Small lots of chicks are frequently sent by mail to points not served by express companies, and the postal authorities have issued special regulations governing this traffic. While the legend, “This Side Up,” may not always be rigorously observed on ordinary parcels, it must be strictly fol-
lowed with chicks if they are to survive the journey. It is no secret that mail carriers handle such consignments with not too much enthusiasm.
SHORTLY after the chicks break their way out of the shells they are taken to a drying chamber where warm air currents rid them of the glutinous stickiness on their fuzzy feathers. 1 he chickens really enjoy this experience, but they are not so keen on the fumigation that follows, a treatment taken to rid them of lice and other insect pests.
Following this, all small, feeble, deformed. or otherwise unsatisfactory individuals are culled out, leaving only strong and vigorous stock. Because of the care with which parents are selected, the percentage of culls is remarkably low.
Now comes what is perhaps the most important detail of the baby chick business. the separating of the pullets from the cockerels. There is no way of telling whether an egg will produce a male or a female bird, so the hatchery man can’t do any sorting in advance. But once the chick arrives, an expert sexer can tell at a glance which it is. The points of difference baffle the uninitiated, but the sexers guarantee ninety-seven per cent accuracy for Leghorns, and ninety-five per cent accuracy for heavier breeds.
An expert can handle 700 to 1,000 birds an hour, and keep this up for eight hours a day. This means picking up the chick, holding it under a 300-watt light, examining it, and setting it down in the cockerel or pullet compartment—all in from three to five seconds !
Competency in this science can be acquired only by long practice after personal instruction. The method can’t be taught by books or charts, and some persons can never learn. Originally the business was a monopoly of the Japanese, but now nearly all the sexers in the Fraser Valley are Canadian or American girls.
Sexing costs approximately three quarters of a cent per chick and, taking one hatch with another, the sexes are about evenly divided. There’s a buyer waiting for every pullet that’s hatched, but almost no demand for cockerels of the lighter breeds.
Cockerels of the heavier breeds are sold in limited quantities for fattening as meat birds, but the supply of these is a side issue with the hatchery men, for the very good reason that there’s no profit in a young male. The egg out of which he came cost possibly three cents, and the transportation, incubation, service, sexing, overhead and incidentals come up to another cent. For this cockerel which cost him four cents, the hatchery man gets a mere two or three cents, depending on the season.
A pullet is worth nine or ten times as much as a cockerel, the price being on a sliding scale which is twenty-five j)er cent cheaper at the end of the season than at the beginning. In February, March and April, Leghorn pullets sell for $27 a hundred, Light Sussex sell for $28, and Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshires sell for $26. Prices are slightly lower for lots of 1,000 or more with terms of twenty per cent cash with order, and the balance before shipment.
One large hatchery that has been selling chicks for twenty years, specializes in the five breeds just mentioned, and most of the smaller hatcheries follow its example. There is not sufficient demand in British Columbia for Black Minorcas or Wvandottes to make it worth while hatching these, though prairie hatcheries still find a fairly good market for the two old-time favorites.
Any setting of eggs can be incubated at the hatcheries, so long as it conforms to government standards. Owners have their eggs labelled when these are picked up at their poultry yards, and these tickets stay with the eggs until the chicks emerge.There is no more chance of a mix-up in an incubator than there is in a modem maternity hospital, but if it did happen and it was
found out, the squawk would be just about as emphatic. A poultryman with a pet strain thinks as much of his pullets as a mother does of her first-born, and is often blessed with a finer command of forceful language.
When the baby chicks are ready for shipment they are packed in strong paperboard baskets in lots of twenty-five, the sides of the container being perforated for ventilation. The baskets are crated securely and taken to the railway station by specially constructed trucks when going to distant points, or merely racked when destined for Fraser Valley points. About three quarters of the chicks are disposed of within a fifty-mile radius of the hatcheries, and a few shipments are made to the United States, but the latter do not account for much more than 10,000 birds a year. The duty of four cents a chick is a handicap that keeps the B.C. hatcheries from making any serious inroads into the business of their American competitors.
TAST SEASON the British Columbia hatcheries shipped more than half a million chicks to the prairies, and they did this in spite of the fact that B.C. birds cost appreciably more than the same breeds anywhere else in Canada. Alberta Leghorns are $2 per hundred cheaper, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba Leghorns $3 per hundred cheaper. In Ontario, Leghorn chicks are about twenty-five per cent cheaper than at the West Coast, and the difference in cost is about the same for other breeds.
The reason? In its lifetime the B.C. bird will lay 150 more eggs than the prairie hen. Say an egg is worth two cents, that’s three dollars more gross revenue for an additional two or three cents investment.
While there is keen competition for business on the part of the hatcheries, there is no price cutting. All firms quote the same terms by a sort of gentlemen’s agreement arrived at at the beginning of the season, and as a générai thing each firm holds its same customers year after year. About the only difference in method is that some add three chicks per 100 for possible losses in shipment, and others add only two. Usually, all the chicks arrive in first-class shape.
The hatcheries of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta have a combined capacity of almost three million eggs, but in spite of this competition the Fraser Valley firms shipped 518,000 chicks to this territory last year, and prospects for increased trade are said to be excellent.
All chicks are produced under what is known as the Hatchery Approval Policy of the Dominion Department of Agriculture, though these regulations do not have
force of law in British Columbia except in so far as interprovincial shipments are concerned. Five inspectors, under the direction of G. R. Wilson, of Vancouver, visit the hatcheries at regular intervals, check the size of the eggs used, watch the sanitary arrangements, and make sure that all chicks sold weigh at least eight pounds per hundred, which works out at three quarters of an ounce less for each chick than the weight of the egg out of which it was hatched.
Censorship is part of the inspectors’ duties, too. All baby chick advertising has to receive an official okay before it is sent to the printer, and no exaggerated claims are permitted. The firms merely mention breeds, prices, parentage, production potentialities, service and health conditions. All advertisements read much alike, and are usually restricted to classifieds.
Health is considered of paramount importance, and all birds that are to be used as breeders are first given a blood test to make sure they are free from pullorum disease, a former scourge now so much under control that the percentage of reactors was only 1.86 out of 116,000 hens and roosters tested in 1939 by the research laboratory of the Poultry Department of the University of British Columbia.
Baby chicks have an irresistible appeal because of their fluffy loveliness, their lively curiosity, misdirected activity, and their cuddling willingness to be picked up and petted. Few of us can see a flock of chicks without stopping to admire them, a fact of which students of crowd psychology are well aware. It is for this reason that baby chicks are occasionally used as animated attractions in store windows. But some merchants have an irresistible urge to improve on nature, so they have their baby chicks dyed at the hatchery!
Chicks can be dyed any color or combination of colors such as no self-respecting hen ever visioned, even in her wildest dreams. They may be green, purple, mauve, blue, orange, or scarlet; they may be striped like zebras or spotted like the leopard; they may be black on one side and white on the other; they may be as weirdly camouflaged as a liner in wartime. They will certainly hold the attention of the passer-by; they may even make him suspect he is “seeing things.”
A harmless vegetable dye is used for these crazy color stunts. Sometimes the chick is dipped in a tub, sometimes it is dusted with a powder, and sometimes the dye is injected through the eggshell with a hypodermic syringe a few hours before the bird pecks his way out.
Of the millions of busy chicks that peck their way into our great world every spring, that chick certainly starts his colorful life early.