Traditional hatching system alternatives (Poultry Specialist)
(Editor’s note: Jennifer Timmons is an associate professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.)
The broiler hatchery is the maternity ward of chickens. Fertile broiler eggs are placed in incubators and carefully monitored to ensure that correct temperature and humidity levels are maintained throughout the entire 21 day incubation period.
During the last three days of incubation, the eggs are placed in hatching trays where the chicks hatch out by pecking their way through the large end of the egg.
It is during this transfer stage to hatching trays, the developing embryos will be vaccinated in ovo.
Once the chicks hatch, they will be processed, counted and delivered to the grow-out farm.
This process is very familiar to chicken growers.
Once chicks hatch in the hatching trays, they do not have access to feed or water until they are placed in the broiler house.
This delay of access to feed and water may have a negative impact on broiler health and performance.
Studies have suggested that immediate access to feed and water after hatch may improve the chick’s intestinal and immune system development.
As a result, on-farm hatching and supplying water and feed to chicks in the hatcher are two systems that are currently being investigated.
These systems would provide newly hatched chicks immediate access to feed and water.
One alternative to hatching eggs in a hatchery is on-farm hatching.
This system is being investigated in Europe. With the on-farm hatching system the steps in this process are a little different.
Eighteen day incubated eggs are transported to the farm and placed in racks or in the litter where they hatch in the broiler house.
There are many proposed benefits to this system. Some of these include providing the chicks with immediate access to feed and water.
Other proposed benefits include less chick handling and reduced stress from transportation and delivery to the farm.
These benefits would promote bird welfare and may improve broiler health and performance.
A study conducted in the Netherlands evaluated the effects of on-farm and traditional hatching on broiler welfare, health and performance.
In this study the average percent of non-hatched eggs was 4.25 percent with the eggs that were hatched at the hatchery and 2.3 percent with the eggs that were hatched on-farm.
However, the on-farm hatched chicks had worse naval and hock scores at day 0 compared to the scores of the chicks that were hatched in the hatchery.
The authors reported that the on-farm hatched chickens were heavier at 21 days of age compared to the weight of the chickens that were hatched at the hatchery.
However, the weight of the birds at 40 days of age was similar regardless of the hatching process used.
Differences in flock mortality were reported between the two hatching systems.
The total mortality at 40 days was lower in the flock that was hatched on-farm (3.4 percent) compared to the total mortality of the flock that was hatched in the hatchery (4.01 percent).
A hatchery fed system is another alternative to the traditional hatching system. With this system, newly hatched chicks are provided feed and water in the hatchery.
Similar to the traditional hatching system, the chicks are transported to the broiler farm after they hatch.
A second study compared chick quality and market age broiler performance of chicks that were hatched from three hatching systems (traditional hatching, hatchery fed, and on-farm hatched chicks).
The authors reported no differences in hatchability between the three hatching systems.
However, the day old weights of chicks hatched from the traditional hatching system were lower compared to the weights of chicks from the hatchery fed and on-farm hatched chicks.
In addition, birds that were hatched from the hatchery fed and on-farm hatching system had higher 39-day-old body weights compared to the body weight of birds hatched from the traditional hatching system.
However, there were no differences in the feed conversion ratio and flock mortality of birds hatched from the three different systems.
The outcome of these two studies showed different results in hatchability, flock mortality and final body weight gain. Therefore additional studies should be conducted to address the broiler health, welfare and performance implications of these non-traditional hatching systems.
Since this is new technology there is still much to learn about managing the system.
As management is improved additional benefits to this system may be observed.