On-Farm Hatching Technology
Jennifer Timmons, Ph.D., Associate Professor, 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 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. On the placement date, growers will receive newly hatched chicks in their houses. However, just like many processes in the broiler industry, alternatives are being investigated.
The 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 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% with the eggs that were hatched at the hatchery and 2.3% with the eggs that were hatched on-farm. However, the on-farm hatched chicks had a worse naval and hock score at day 0 compared to the score 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%) compared to the total mortality of the flock that was hatched in the hatchery (4.01%).
In addition to bird performance, litter quality was also measured. The litter from the pens with on-farm hatched chicks was drier compared to the litter from pens with the chicks that were hatched in the hatchery.
This study suggested that on-farm hatching may be beneficial to broiler welfare since a reduction in total mortality was observed. However, overall bird performance (weight gain and feed conversion ratio) was not improved by the on-farm hatching system. 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.