Incubator – Getting Started

My next few posts will outline my experience with our new incubator here at Polyface! I’ve recently had the privilege of setting it up to start breeding laying hens. We normally order our chicks from a hatchery, but according to the Salatins, the quality of the chickens has steadily declined over the years. As such, Joel wanted to experiment with breeding  so he ordered an incubator!  The incubator arrived earlier this summer and sat in the box for a while.  I would eye it each time I walked by and finally decided to ask if I could set it up and start hatching chicks. Well, the answer was yes!

To get started we had to work out the logistics of the breeding stock.  We decided to build a pen similar to our broiler pens with the addition of nesting boxes.  We placed 50 hens and five roosters in the pen since you need a one to ten ratio of roosters to hens to ensure optimal fertilization.  At this time, we are breeding Rhode Island Red hens with Barred Rock roosters.


The pen on the left contains our breeding stock. The other pens contain broilers.




An access door was built into the back of the pen to access the eggs.





Stay tuned for more!


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About Heather Juda

Heather was born in Atlanta, GA, but spent 19 years in Colorado before moving to Virginia. She came to Polyface for the 2012 internship and has stayed on as the first female apprentice. She became interested in the food industry when she was in high school, and over the years sought to eat in a healthier way through community gardening, hunting and supporting local farmers. She had a very blessed and “comfortable” life in Colorado complete with a good IT career and condo, but on a calling from the Lord, she left it all to start a new life in farming at Polyface. She looks forward to seeing what the Lord has planned for the future and hopes to use what she learns at Polyface to provide healthy food for people!

14 Responses to Incubator – Getting Started

  1. Charles says:

    Black Sex Link……I like it. What are you guys going to do with the extra boys?


  2. Annie says:

    We’ve noticed a definite decline as well and have had this same conversation about breeding chickens ourselves. I’ll be waiting for your next post!!

  3. Dave Shuck says:

    We have an urban farm in Kansas City and have always bought our chicks through a hatchery. I was buying straw a few weeks back and found a hidden cashe of eggs that the other farm didn’t know about. They let me keep them. We are 11 days into incubation and are all very excited. Our home schooled daughter cried with joy over the idea of hatching our own chicks. I am looking forward to more posts about your success and I hope to pick up pointers from you. How many eggs will you start?

  4. Sandy says:

    We just visited Polyface last Thursday and saw this shelter. I was wondering what it was all about. As pastured poultry producers in the Midwest, we follow Polyface closely. It will be interesting to see how your project turns out. Thanks for boldly stepping forward so others can follow your lead!

  5. says:

    Love hearing about all your methods and adventures. We visited 2 years ago and just want to say a big THANK YOU. I know it is a busy life but really enjoy seeing the photos and stories.

  6. I’m wondering why you’re using RIR hens and BR roos. Black Sex Link is a barred hen crossed with any non-barred roo.

  7. Leslie says:

    What an INTERESTING turn of events! I’m so pleased to follow this journey and hope there are very regular posts about it. I’ve got egg customers asking about meat, and though I had great success with a very small batch of Cornish X I raised for personal use, I don’t like the way the supply of those is controlled by a few big breeders. So I’ve been investigating the possibility of starting with a Dual Purpose Heritage breed. I’m especially curious to see how your portable pens work. My experience with multi-rooster flocks is that close quarters aren’t a great idea … and even with more than 100 hens, I can’t get more than 4 roosters to amicably co-habitate my large coop/run … Please, please keep us posted. Thanks!

  8. Jef says:

    I’m going to try this as well, it’s hard to justify the money spent to the hatcheries. However, if you are after the sex linkage trait of the black sex-links, your cross is backwards. Your hens need to be barred rocks and your males need to be the rhode island reds. The offspring that hatch, males will have a white dot on their head and the females will be solid black.

  9. I had to abandon my try recently at breeding my own due to lack of space. The roosters are so hard on the hens even with a 1 to 16 ratio. I had to butcher all of the roosters so the hens could have a relaxed life while laying the precious eggs. I bred Barred rock hens with Red Ranger rooster. I incubated them and had nice healthy hens and roosters. The hens all turned out black some with a little red collars, the roosters looked like Barred Rocks on steroids. I think it is a great idea of producing your own and love what you all are doing. I visited 3 years ago and it really helped me get back into feeding myself and caring for the land again. I will be watching closely. Good luck!

  10. Erin Herner says:

    That sounds really cool. What were some of the ways you’ve noticed quality declining? I only ordered chicks for the first time last year… Thanks!

  11. Bev Ferguson says:

    Raising my own chicks has been an adventure, so I’m looking forward to any details and pics you share. I have a small flock (around 75 birds) of wheaten/black copper marans and “easter eggers.” The marans hatch rate is low, so I’m trying to figure out better incubation, but have been blessed with broody moms who eagerly adopt the new hatchlings. I incubate due to having to start large numbers of eggs, more than they could sit on. Evaluating the roos for breeding is the toughest part of selection, and unfortunately culling has to be done earlier than I would like. Good luck with your work, it is full of complications, details and most importantly, joy!

  12. Hey, Heather! Just found your blog here, and am glad to have a way to reach you. My husband, Bobby, and I took the Lunatic Tour on August 12 this year and you drove our tractor. If you remember, we promised to pray for your dream of owning your farm in the near future. We continue to do so. We have a backyard suburban farm of about one acre and have 30 laying hens. I also love the chickens and since we are in our mid-60’s have decided that it’s a bit late to start a “real” farm, but are busy building and adding to our organic raised beds, a six-tree dwarf fruit orchard, our new greenhouse we just built, and our “girls” who have a 150 ft. x 30 ft. run and a two-room coop which I am always trying to improve and rearrange for the birds’ comfort and convenience for us to keep clean. It’s been a fun 4-year journey! I recently discovered that out of the six black orpingtons I bought back in the Spring, one has suddenly started to crow and shows the tell-tale spur nodules on the legs. Because I’ve fallen in love with these birds, I’m thinking about incubating their eggs and selling the chicks. So now, the run will be divided in half and the two-room coop will become two separate coops. I’m looking forward to “watching” your success with incubating and hoping to learn from your experiences. Keep up the great work, gal!

  13. Ruth Sponsler says:

    I am really happy yo read that Polyface is starting its own breeding program. The low number of hatcheries contributes to genetic weakness of stock because of genetic “bottlenecks” IMHO. The more breeders there are, the better the overall gene pool will be. I am happy to see both backyard projects involving ornamental and show chickens and also your efforts.

    Please keep us posted on the results of your crosses, and also how you chose this cross (as pointed out above, opposite of the usual sex-link cross).

    Plans with the excess roos? Sell as small fryers before they mature while meat is still tender?

  14. silver price says:

    The eggs I put in today (OH away on a holiday) are Improved French Marans and a few tests from breeding pens after rooster swapping, which is a mid season way of gene swapping in a strain/line. Using the best of the hens still looking fit and healthy and still producing with another rooster, usually related to the out coming rooster to see if a different gene mix throws out any interesting chicks.