If you don’t have a lot of space to raise out chicks but have a plentiful fertile egg supply, consider starting a chicken hatchery. The time and space involved are minimal if you can turn chicks around within a couple of days of hatching. This works particularly well if you breed harder to find and rare chicken breeds. Chickens that produce colored eggs have been and will continue to be popular as a niche market.
Chicken Hatchery Initial Investment
Your startup cost will vary depending on the scale. Do you want to start by selling eggs your own hens hatch or do you plan to hatch large quantities? There’s a space somewhere in between too. One of the pros to this income idea is how scalable it is. You can choose to start small, growing naturally as your flock increases, or you can put extra cash into buying an incubator and brooding setup to get a bigger start as a full-fledged (get it?) chicken hatchery. A starter incubator will cost about $150-$250 with accessories; expect to pay in the thousands for a commercial setup.
Hen Hatched Eggs
If you already have hens that tend to go broody, you can simply wait for them to hatch their clutches. This is the lowest cost option, but selling chicks this way also results in a much lower return. If you can save the proceeds up, it’s also an easy way to work toward something bigger. Going this route, your primary cost is the cost of feed for the broody hen and the resulting loss of egg production when she is setting. The major drawbacks are the lack of scalability and the inability to control when hens go broody. Hatch rates tend to be more consistent with hens, but this method is really only effective for very small scale operations.
If you don’t have hens already, you’ll need to decide if you want to start with eggs, chicks or laying hens. The cost of each varies: hatching eggs tend to be about $1-$2 each, chicks from $1-$50 depending on breed and age, hens from $15 up to $40-$50, depending mostly on breed.
Hatching eggs are available on eBay or through local avenues. Standard chicks and some rarer breeds are typically available at the larger hatcheries, such as Meyer and Cackle, and often by special order through your local feed store. For specialty breeds, a Google search will often give you some options; I’ve found specialty breeders on Craigslist and Facebook before as well. Keep these sources in mind as you begin to market your own chicken hatchery business, because you can make use of some of them as well.
If you choose to start with hatching eggs, you will need to incubate them and raise them up to laying age, which is about 4-5 months. There is considerable cost to raise a chick to laying age, but the costs are spread out over time and that can help with tight budgets. It is not likely to be profitable to both buy your hatching eggs and incubate them, so I recommend buying hatching eggs only to start your own egg production flock.
Purchasing hens ready to lay will have the greatest cost up front but will provide an opportunity for a quick turnaround. Hens hatching their own eggs go broody on their own schedule, but if you have an incubator, you can collect and begin incubating as soon as a couple of weeks. In late summer and heading toward fall, Craigslist is a great source for low cost laying hens as folks start thinking of winter feed costs and making cuts. I’ve picked up young hens for a couple dollars each toward the end of season.
Incubator Hatched Eggs
Once you have hens and eggs, you can begin incubating on a schedule that is convenient for you. Chicken eggs need 21 days to incubate.
Acquiring an incubator is likely to be the single largest cost for selling chicks and the choice of incubator is an important one. Look for an incubator that automatically turns the eggs and has a built-in airflow to circulate the heated air. You can incubate without an egg turner, but it means you have to remember to turn the eggs 1-2 times per day, which is an inefficient use of time.
For small batches of up to 50 eggs, I like the Hova-bator incubator. It’s the one we used until we decided to let the hens just hatch their own. If you’re handy, you can make a homemade incubator for a fraction of the cost of buying one. If I were doing it over again, I’d probably make one with room to do larger batches at a time. With a larger incubator, you can batch incubate by adding eggs weekly and thus hatching eggs weekly to ensure a steady supply for a farmer’s market, online sales or however your market works out.
The biggest drawback to using an incubator is the need for absolute temperature and humidity control. While it is far preferable to waiting on a hen to hatch eggs, it is vulnerable to your power supply – a power outage can wipe out a hatch.
One of the things I like best about selling chicks is the short turnaround time. Chickens are incredible creatures, ready to forage and eat the day they’re hatched. If you intend to ship live chicks, they should go as soon as they are hatched because they hatch with enough food reserves to survive a day or two. Raised by a hen, they will often sit and wait a day or two for their siblings to hatch before mom leaves the nest to take them to food. This characteristic makes it easy to sell them immediately after hatching.
My personal preference is to get them well started under a heat lamp and on chick food for a couple of days before selling them locally. This ensures strong, healthy birds who have already figured out how to get food and water. Either way works, depending on your market.
A third model might be to grow them out to fully fledged and selling at a premium for people who are intimidated by or uninterested in brooding their own chicks. The cost, turnaround time and space required all go up considerably with this method, but there is likely a market for older chicks, especially if you live near a city. This can add value to the common breeds if attaining specialty breeds is not an option for you.
Total turnaround time depends on whether or not you start with an existing egg source or have to raise up new hens. You can be selling chicks anywhere from 3 weeks to 7 months in.
Another benefit to running a chicken hatchery is the minimal space required. If you already have chickens, the only additional setup is an incubating and brooding area. We have a roughly 3’x3′ corner of the chicken coop sectioned off with wire to create a small nursery for newly hatched chicks. Set up with feeders, waterers and a heat lamp, we only need to add a layer of shavings and it’s ready to use.
For small hatches, a storage bin or water trough in the house works well, assuming you will be selling chicks within a few days of hatching. Growing chicks create a lot of dust that can be harmful to breathe, so this method really only works for small numbers and a short time frame. It can be an easy, noncommittal way to try out a small time chicken hatchery without cost or infrastructure.
Daily Time Required
Selling chicks is a great option for people with little time to spend. With a good incubator, this can be a “set it and forget it” operation for the most part. The humidity needs to be checked and adjusted daily. If you don’t have an egg turner, eggs need to be turned, but you can do your daily tasks in under 5 minutes. The longest time investment will be in marketing your chicks.
The biggest cost in a chicken hatchery operation is going to be your incubator. Additionally, you have the cost of producing the eggs (hens, feed costs, fencing, etc.), the electricity to operate the incubator(s) and brooders and the cost of feed after the chicks hatch.
Income potential depends on how many eggs you can hatch. With a commercial incubator, you can hatch 200-1,000 eggs per month. If you have the means to produce that many eggs per month, you can fill several niche rare breed markets and see a very nice profit potential, indeed.
If you like working with chickens, a chicken hatchery can be a natural extension of your current farming operation. Its scalability makes it easy to start small and grow as demand for your hatched chickens grow, or keep it small as a side operation, hatching extra chicks as they become available from your hens. A chicken hatchery can be as small or as large as you want it to be, making it an excellent and adaptable small farm income idea.