Chick Business

Biddy the setting hen is losing her squatter’s rights —This year mechanical incubators will hatch about 70,000,000 chicks in Canada

BRUCE McLEOD April 1 1944

Chick Business

Biddy the setting hen is losing her squatter’s rights —This year mechanical incubators will hatch about 70,000,000 chicks in Canada

BRUCE McLEOD April 1 1944

Chick Business


Biddy the setting hen is losing her squatter’s rights —This year mechanical incubators will hatch about 70,000,000 chicks in Canada


BIDDY, the setting hen, is out of a job. Manmade incubators in Canada during 1944 will set an estimated 70,000.000 baby chicks popping out of their shells. A few hens here and there are still able to sit around fussing with their eggs until they hatch, but their number is almost negligible and barnyard Biddies everywhere are finding the machine age has stripped them of their squatter’s rights.

Right now across the Dominion chicks by the hundreds of thousands are being mass-produced in mechanical incubators at a rate never before undertaken in Canada. Not long ago I watched 10,000 downy little “cheepers” breaking shell at the Hamilton, Ont., hatchery of Fred W. Bray, largest chick hatcher in Canada and one of the largest in the British Empire. During 1943 his 18 hatcheries turned out 4,750,000 chicks a 50f increase over their 1939 production. During the height of a hatching season— which is April—Bray plants handle a million eggs every three weeks.

The spectacle of thousands of chicks pushing themselves out of their eggv prisons is something to see. Chicks that have just tumbled out of their shells lie on the bottom of the hatching tray, bedraggled, pinkskinned and breathing deeply while dozens of their older brothers and sisters stomp and trample them with unconcern. Soon, however, they begin clawing at the wire bottom of the tray, their heads wobble erect and seconds later they are hopping around as spryly as though being born was an everyday occurrence. In an astonishingly short time they are dry and fluffy.

On one table was a tray of New Hampshire chicks, buff-colored and perky. Another tray held White

Leghorns, lemon-yellow with piercing black eyes and a saucy tilt to their downy heads. Here was an egg cracked and chipped but not yet open. Over there a chick still encased in its oval-shaped prison had started chipping a hole in the shell with the horny growth on its tiny beak. The shell was breaking easily because most of its calcium content had been absorbed by the chick during its incubation growth to form its skeleton. Soon, by pushing with its head and feet, the chick had cracked itself free.

I asked about the several eggs in each tray which showed signs of life inside but from which no chicks had yet emerged.

“They’ll go back in the incubating compartments for another chance,” explained Bill Golding, one of the experts at the hatchery, “but if a chick can’t free itself of its shell we don’t usually bother about it. The egg is destroyed, because a chick not strong enough to hatch properly is likely to be a liability.”

The chick hatching business is no place for sentimentality. Weak chicks usually become dead chicks before long and no hatcher wants a shipment to arrive at its destination bearing casualties. It was a relief, however, when Golding reached into a tray and assisted a couple of struggling chicks out of their shells.

“Don’t look so glum,” he smiled. “We do help a few. Not the invalids, mind you. Just those that appear in trouble for the lack of a little push.”

Egg Comes First

WITH hatchery men the egg comes first, though Fred Bray explains that he doesn’t buy an egg to hatch a chick until he knows all about the hen that laid it. Every hen in each of the more than 500 approved flocks producing eggs for the Bray hatcheries has to submit to regular examinations and blood

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tests by government inspectors. Because of these tests for bacillary white diarrhea, chick mortality is cut to a minimum. No hen escapes and all reactors are removed immediately from the laying flocks and killed. No chances are taken, for disease can be transmitted from an infected hen to her chicks through the eggs she lays. Breeding stocks must pass other rigid tests, too—tests involving head conformation, constitution, length, breadth, bone and egg capacity. If she I makes the grade the hen gets her I “wedding ring”—a metal band bearing a serial number. This is fastened to her leg, and only so long as she remains healthy enough to merit it can she produce eggs for Bray hatching purposes.

“Chicks all look alike when they hatch,” says Fred Bray, “but they don’t all live alike, grow alike or lay alike later on. It’s what’s behind a chick that goes a long way toward deciding what’s in front of it. Big eggs from big well-fed hens are most likely to produce big sturdy chicks.”

It takes three weeks to make a chick and during the busiest months— February to early June—two hatches a week roll off a Bray chick assembly line. Practically all of these thousands of chicks must be sold, packed and shipped within 24 hours of their birth.

Eggs for the hatches arrive in a steady stream from flock owners adjacent to the Hamilton hatchery. Most producers of hatching eggs ship regularly—not lass than once a week— and while holding eggs for shipment must avoid letting them become chilled or overheated. A fertile egg if left in a warm room will begin to incubate of its own accord at about 67 deg. Fahr. Since two thirds of an egg is water they must also be kept in a moist atmosphere, preventing evaporation of the egg content through the shell.

Eggs from each shipper go through the 21-day hatching process as a unit, for by not mixing one shipper’s eggs with another, hatcherymen can determine how many of each shipper’s eggs actually become chicks. Flock owners whose hens produce eggs of high percentage hatchability get a bonus. Hens laying these hatching eggs are fed differently to hens laying for marketing purposes. Special hatching rations have been known to raise the hatching percentage of a flock’s eggs from 20% to over 70% in a few weeks. Such rations contain a lot of milk, cod-liver oil and are vitamin rich. Chick * hatchers say the hen was vitamin conscious long before man and that more is known about poultry nutrition than any other.

“During incubation,” says Fred Bray, “the developing chick feeds on the food material inside the egg. How good that food is depends entirely on i the ration the hen ate before the egg i was laid.”

When the eggs first come in they are carded for identification purposes, carefully sorted and graded. Eggs 23 ounces and larger are used. Those with cracked shells, dirty casings or poor ! shell construction are thrown out. Then the good eggs go, large end up, into incubator trays which hold about 180 eggs each. The incubators—large, streamlined machines, each hold about 26,000 eggs. Through glassed doors you can see the trays inside, racked one above the other for their 18-day stay. Each incubator is electrically heated and the air inside is hot—100 deg. Fahr. The temperature is automatically controlled to within an eighth of a degree. A power failure could prove disastrous to the hatch.

Air inside the incubators is moist too (about 86 deg. on a wet bulb thermometer) and is constantly circulated by a large, four-bladed fan which somewhat resembles an airplane propeller. Moisture usually is provided by a series of water pans. Once every six hours the eggs are turned to keep the yolks moving freely inside the shells. Were this not done the yolks would tend to come to the surface where they might dry out, killing whatever chances the eggs had of hatching.

Eggs Are “Candled”

But with all these precautions, not even the most optimistic hatcheryman would kid himself that all of the 26.000 eggs in the incubator will become baby chicks. Some eggs are not fertile, to begin with. In others the embryo chick dies. To detect such eggs they are removed from the incubator along about the eighth day and subjected to “candling.” By passing eggs over a light the candler is able to determine their fertility. Those showing up clear are discarded. Those showing chicks inside go back into the incubator for another 10 days.

During the 18th day of the Bray hatching system the eggs are transferred from the “forced draft” incubator to a ‘still-air’ compartment incubator. This is the real maternity ward of the Hamilton hatchery and every chick chips shell in one of these compartments. These “still-air” compartments resemble the drawers of a filing cabinet. Actually, they’re trays with wire net bottoms and they fit, one above the other, into the compartments. Each tray contains about 150 eggs and each is isolated from the others. There’s a glass panel in the flap front which drops over each tray and locks shut, and through this you can watch the eggs inside.' Narrow slits at the back of each compartment feed air into the tray but it is “still air.” Inside each compartment the temperature is 103 degrees and the humidity is high. The room in which the compartments are located is fitted with ceiling faucets, which send a fine spray of moisture into the air. Under these conditions baby chicks start chipping shell on the 20th or 21st day.

Fred Bray experimented with various hatching methods for many years and found the “stiil-air” method the best. “Chicks hatched in “still-air” compartments,” he says, “are peppier. There are no drafts to sap the strength of the chicks or spread germs.”

Once out of its shell a chick doesn’t take long to dry off and become a robust little chirper. Alone he can’t make much noise but a few thousand of them can make quite a chorus. They cheep loudest when chilly and huddle together for warmth. Chicks are smart, too. They can distinguish between light and dark when born and a day later will walk around an object instead of into it. Experiments have proved that a chick knows instinctively how to balance its diet—something a turkey never catches on to. Most chicks are out of their shells only long enough to dry off before being boxed and shipped.

At first food is no problem, because after emerging from its shell the chick can, if necessary, sustain itself for about three days, having stored up food from the egg.

Handling orders and shipping chicks is a big job in itself. Chicks have been shipped from St. Catharines to Newfoundland but such lengthy trips are not recommended. They have been shipped by boat and airplane but most go by train. One of the big problems is to arrange for chicks to arrive at out-of-the-way rural stations or express offices on days they are open for

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business. That’s why chick hatchers must be up on their railway schedules. If a customer orders “mixed chicks,” he gets them as they come from the incubators. No effort is made to distinguish between males and females. If a buyer wants all pullets or all cockerels, however, he buys “sexed chicks.” Bray’s chick sexing department occupies a whole section of the Hamilton hatchery and though only 90% accuracy is guaranteed, his sexers have scored as high as 98% on some shipments.

Originally all chick sexers were Japs. Dr. Kiyoshi Masui of the Imperial University at Tokyo announced to delegates attending a poultry conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., about 1933, that he had discovered a method of distinguishing between male and female chicks. Later the white man was able to learn more about the Jap “secret.” But even today qualified chick sexers are few and far between in Canada. In 1942 a Saskatchewan school was operated for eight weeks at a cost of $8,000 to teach eight students the difficult art. Other courses have been held in the various provinces, but most chick sexers aren’t anxious to divulge their techniques.

Exhausting Work

It’s not easy work but it pays well. Commercial sexers have been known to work seven days and nights without rest during the peak of the hatching season. Some earn more in a year than a busy executive. Competent sexers require keen eyesight, small tapering fingers. Some use special glasses but neither of Bray’s two girl sexers do. They say glasses slow them down because the lenses need constant adjustment. Betty Birdsall, one of the sexers, can sex about 1,000 chicks an hour 40,000 a week.

Pullets are more in demand than cockerels, a fact more easily understood when you consider that this year Biddy and the more than 33,000,000 other laying hens in Canada will be asked to cackle for victory to the tune of four and a half billion eggs—a lot of omelets in any man’s language. Nor need Biddy feel too badly about bowing to the wonders of the mechanical hatcher, for man still counts on her to lay the eggs from which will come this record hatch of 70,000,000 chicks.

In this department, too, though she gets no medals from Ottawa, Biddy has proved herself a regular barnyard heroine. Since about only 70% ot the eggs passing through mechanical incubators become chicks, about 100,000,000 hatching eggs will be needed this year. These will be laid by selected flocks in which there are seven roosters for every 100 pullets to assure fertility. Ordinarily poultrymen producing eggs for domestic consumption keep no roosters, for the modern hen turns out her eggs, usually in the mornings, whether or not she receives encouragement from the rooster.

Mass-producing chicks in 1944 is a far cry from that day years ago when Fred Bray, then a teen-aged youngster in short pants, came running up from the cellar of his St. Catharines home to tell his mother that the 100 eggs he had been watching anxiously for three weeks had finally hatched into 60 chicks. That, says Fred Bray, is the biggest thrill he ever got out of the hatching business. He learned about chicks the hard way at first—in his mother’s backyard. Later he took a course at the Ontario Agricultural College, following which he launched himself upon his chosen career as a chick hatcher in the St. Catharines district. That was 25 years ago and today chick hatching has become big business with him - and he runs it with the smoothness of a railroad system.