Building an Incubator

A couple of years after I resumed keeping chickens, I started thinking about how cool it would be to hatch my own chicks.  I researched incubators and was shocked at how much they cost, so researched how to make my own.  With design help from HWA, here is what we came up with.

I started with an Omaha Steaks cooler.  This is important because there are grades of styrofoam and the Omaha Steaks coolers are much thicker and sturdier than your standard styrofoam.  I’ve never ordered from there, but I put a post on Freecycle looking for one and had two people contact me, so I ended up with two for….free.

For the heating element, I used a ZooMed heat mat.  I already had this because I also keep snakes but….they range in price from about $10-35 depending on size.  I use one that takes up as much “real estate” in the bottom of the incubator as possible.  The nice thing is that these come equipped with their own power cord so there is no wiring to do.  Simply make a hole in the side of cooler big enough to slip the cord through.  While you are at it, make more holes in the opposite side to allow for good ventilation (details below).

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The thermostat I also had already.  This thermostat is completely awesome because is designed to keep a herp habitat at a precise temperature and it does it very well.

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For a fan to keep the temperature uniform, I bought the fan made by Little Giant.  It is really easy to wire with a couple of wire nuts.  I first tried using the fan from an old PC but could not get it wired so that it would run.

thermometer and hygrometer report the temperature and humidity in the incubator.  I’ve spent a small fortune on these over the years.  What I can tell you from my experience is FORGET DIGITAL.  They are notoriously inaccurate.  What you want is a plain old analog readout.  Conveniently, analog is  far cheaper than  digital.  Calibrate the hygrometer using the salt test.

Finally, we need a dish to hold water (provides humidity) and a mesh cover (prevents chicks from drowning).  I went to the dollar store and bought a set of two wire baskets (2/$1).  I also bought a couple of cat food bowls ($1/each).  The wire baskets fit perfectly over the cat food bowls.

Okay, now that we have all of the component together, here is how they go together.  

To start, place the heating pad on the floor of the cooler, and slip the power cord out through the hole in the side.  Place the fan on the heat pad and slide its power cable  out through the same hole.  Having the fan just inside the larger hole allows it to draw in fresh air.  (You can see the probe here sitting on the heat mat.)

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Here is the outside of the cooler.  I used a bolt to attach a small plastic basket to the side, that holds the thermostat, and keeps the cords contained.  You can see the wire nuts I used to attach the fan to a power cord I cut off a non-working appliance.  This is the only wiring required and is so easy a kindergartener could do it 🙂

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Next add the water container(s) and cover with the inverted wire basket(s).  Although perhaps not completely necessary, I inverted wire baskets over my water dishes, to provide a solid base for the hardware cloth which comes next.  The goal is to create a platform on which the eggs sit and to protect hatched chicks from falling in the water or injury by the fan.  

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The H-cloth is not attached to anything; it is rigid enough that it sits on the wire baskets, creating the “platform”.  There is a 1/4″ gap on all sides of the hardware cloth  as if it fit too snugly it would be difficult to get it in and out.  Also, leave room for the thermostat probe since it needs to sit at egg level.

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Next add the rubberized mesh shelf liner, again making sure to draw the probe up to sit on top of it.  Note that I cut it slightly too large.  This allows me to tuck it in around the sides so that the chicks have no way to get a leg stuck in that 1/4″ gap between the hardware cloth and the sides of the cooler.

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Here is the opposite end of the cooler.  Note the large hole, and several smaller holes.  The smaller holes were made using a pencil – the sharp tip allowed me to just push the pencil right through the styrofoam.  The larger hole is sized to fit a cork, in case I ever need to plug a hole. (That hasn’t happened yet.)  By placing the ventilation holes on opposite ends of the cooler, the fan is able to draw in fresh air on one side and vent it out the other.

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Now for the lid.  You can see where I cut out the large “hole” in the lid.  You can also see in this picture just how thick the styrofoam is!  I purchased the picture frame from the thrift store in order to get a piece of glass that would fit, and then I cut the hole and “picture frame” to fit the glass.

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When the incubator is running, I place the cut out Styrofoam piece over the glass.  This helps to keep heat in, and keeps moisture from condensing on the under surface of the glass.  When I need to peek in, I push it to the side or remove it altogether.

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Total cost:

Omaha steaks cooler: FREE
Heating mat (Large): $20.99
Fan: $29.99
Thermostat: $34.69
Thermometer:$7.00
Hygrometer: $4.99
Cat food bowls: $1/each, $2.00 total
Wire baskets: 2/$1, $1:00 total
Hardware cloth remnant: (nil)
Rubberized mesh shelf liner remnant: (nil)
Thrift store picture frame for the glass: $2

Total cost: $102.66

I was fortunate to have the most expensive components already on hand but, even if buying everything new this makes an incubator that performs well for low cost.  I know others have used hot water heater thermostats; these are cheaper at around $10 but more difficult to program and users report difficulty maintaining consistent temperatures.  The fan is optional but I found it invaluable for maintaining a consistent temperature throughout the incubator.  The heating element is certainly more expensive than a light bulb, but creates a more consistent heat, and there isn’t the concern about eggs that are too close to the light bulb incubating at a higher temperature than those further away.

My first three hatches in this incubator were 90%, 100% and 100% successful from my own eggs.

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Poultry Coops and Interior Decorating Thereof

Having completed the external shell of Coop Knox, it was time to outfit the inside for me and my birds. First, I built an internal wall, dividing the space into a 10×10 coop and a 4×10 storage area with 2×4 framing including framing in a door.  (More on the door below.)  Next, I used a sheet of OSB to create a solid lower portion, and chicken wire covering the remainder.  The solid lower half prevents the birds from kicking bedding through while the open upper promotes good airflow and allows me  to see through.  I used chicken wire here since it is cheaper and doesn’t need to be predator proof.

Dividing the Birds and the Storage
The storage area has a large plastic shelving unit at one end (visible in this picture) and metal garbage cans as feed bins at the opposite end.  Having my feed and other supplies right there at the coop has been one of the best features of the coop.

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What the picture doesn’t show is a) the external door 4 feet on the other side of the internal door and b) that the internal door is hinged to open into the coop area.  That latter bit is a problem.  My original thinking was that the storage area was already small and I’d rather have the door open the direction I’m more often carrying items.  What I failed to consider was that the birds’  bedding would block the opening of the door making it, effectively, more wall.  Ooops.  Fixing that is on the “someday” list.

Nest Boxes
Next up was a place to lay eggs.  I built nest boxes from scrap lumber and installed them by screwing the back directly into studs.  The hens don’t seem to have any problem jumping directly from the ground to the top row of boxes.  Each box is 14x14x14.

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The very next morning my hens demonstrated that they recognized what the nest boxes were “for”:

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Roosts
The last internal item was to build roosts.  BOF and I completed this in an hour or so using more scrap lumber.  The  roosts consist of 4 parallel 2×4’s that are 3′ off the coop floor (less as the deep litter bedding layer builds up).  They are attached to the studs using lag bolts, allowing them to be raised up for cleaning.   An eye hook in the middle of the front roost, attaches to a cord hanging from the rafters, and holds them in the up position.

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The picture above shows the west-side roost.  Later HWA constructed a similar roost on the east side which incorporates some lessons learned on the first roost.
1) The roosts (2x4s) are screwed into the bottom of the supports extending from the wall; this change allows the roost to be folded up flush into the wall framing.
2) Where the roost goes all the way to the wall, it is supported by a length of 2×4 nailed to the wall rather than a leg extending into the litter.

These pictures show those details and also a) how the “rounding” of the roost support rail and the lag bolt design at the “hinge” permits the roost to be folded up into the wall, b) “framing out” sections of roost to avoid interference with the nest boxes, and c) the the space and ease of working provided by folding the roost into the wall. 

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The final element of Coop Knox is the absolutely fantastic, so-good-I’d-ditch-my-family-and-run-away-with-it-if-it-had-a-penis, automatic door, but let’s save that for another post.

What 3 degrees (F) or -16(C) looks like

Occasionally people new to keeping poultry will ask me at what low temperature they should add supplemental heat.  My answer, invariably, is “Never”.  Three reasons:

  1. Birds are built for the cold.  They grow a layer of down close to the skin that warms them, and the outer layer of feathers keeps the heat in.  They are actually far more cold-hardy than heat-hardy, so a bigger concern is keeping them cool in a hot climate.
  2. Risk of coop fire.  Every year coops burn to the ground because some well-meaning person left a heat lamp on for birds who didn’t need it, and either the lamp was knocked by the birds into the bedding, or an electrical fire started.
  3. Birds that are accustomed to a heated coop, may not fare well in the event of a power outage.

I’m not saying it is impossible for birds to freeze — consider the horrific examples here, here, and (most tragically) here — but so much do I believe in my birds’ ability to adapt to and survive the cold that I never completely close the coop windows on each side of my coop.  In summer I remove the glass altogether, to allow as much air flow as possible.  As the bottom of the window is in line with the roosts, in the winter I insert the bottom pane of glass so that there is no draft directly on the birds, but leave the top pane out to allow for ventilation.  The birds in the coop then, experience no wind chill, but otherwise, the inside of the coop is the same temperature as the outside.

Yesterday morning when I woke up, it was just 3 degrees F here (-16 C).  Cold.  Darn cold, in fact.  Cold enough that when I went outside and inhaled, my nostrils froze together.  Cold enough the heated dog bowl (outside the coop) I use for the “winter waterer” couldn’t keep up and the top was iced over.

So cold that even I worried about the youngest member of my flock, hatched only two weeks ago under a hen who thought November was the perfect time to go broody.  It has a few wing feathers but other than that, only baby fluff.  I was a little concerned about Mama and chick, alone in their nursery pen, in such extreme temperatures with NO heat, but I needn’t have been.  Here is a two-week-old chick when it is 3 degrees out:

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I have never seen this chick under its mama.  The high on the day it hatched was 24.  In the two weeks since, the temp has rarely been above freezing.  For the past few days we haven’t seen anything better than teens.  Since there is no heat in this pen, the water freezes quickly so 4 times each day I carry a fresh waterer down to make sure Mama and chick have water to drink. The chick now knows me as “The Bearer of the Water” so gets excited when it sees me coming and runs over to get a drink.  It has never looked cold, or shivered or acted as though it is anything but a balmy summer day.

People keep birds in Alaska without heat.  Poultry in the lower 48 will be just fine if they can get out of the wind and have access to good food and liquid (!) water.  If it’s really bitter outside, they’ll stay in the coop, so — if you simply must do something to help them, consider easing their cabin fever by furnishing playing cards, board games, or cable TV.

And the (tasty) Results Are In…

A couple of weeks ago we loaded up two lambs to go to the processor.  This week I picked up the meat.
Yield: 54 and 58 pounds from two lambs.
Cost: $173.88 total
Purchase price: $150 total
If expenses (grain, salt lick, minerals, etc) were $76.12 then
Total cost: $400 or $3.57/lb averaged over all the cuts.

Hardly cheap, but pretty good compared to the $18.52/lb this place asks!  Just for grins, HWA calculated the price including our capital costs ($6515.00 for fencing, water tank, heated water bucket, castrator & bands, etc) and got $58.17/lb!  He directed that we couldn’t eat it, but must frame it instead. But then I mentioned some benefits he had not considered:

Benefit Value
Lowered blood pressure from hours of watching contented sheep grazing Priceless.
Peace of mind from knowing the meat we eat doesn’t contain hormones, antibiotics, etc. Priceless.
Happy wife/bed-mate Priceless!

Now he agrees that it is a tremendous bargain.

While stocking the freezer I held out some lamb steaks to defrost and enjoy immediately.  The lamb steaks are from the shoulder and I found a recipe that involved simmering them in sauce for 40 minutes before serving on a bed of mashed potatoes.

I didn’t realize until we were eating dinner, that it was the first time HWA, SAB and BOF had even tasted lamb!  HWA found it a little tough but delicious.  BOF thinks it tastes a little like tuna.  Go figure.  We all enjoyed it however, which is a good thing considering how many more meals will be served featuring this meat over the next few months.

I was disappointed that no organ meats were included, and called the processor the next day to enquire.  I was told that they are not allowed to release the “offal” unless it has passed inspection and that goats and sheep rarely pass inspection.  This information was provided in a voicemail so I didn’t have the opportunity to ask what the inspection includes but I may call back to find out, unless someone reading this knows and can enlighten me?  Regardless, it really makes me wish we had been able to process at home, so as to keep ALL of the animal.  Even if we didn’t want to eat the organs ourselves, we have animals to feed who would have been delighted to have them.