Written by: Dr. Jacquie Jacob, University of Kentucky
Once you have decided which type of poultry you are interested in raising, you need to choose a hatchery from which to obtain your birds. It is important that the hatchery you select be approved by the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP). The NPIP is a voluntary program developed in 1935 to eradicate diseases that can be passed from hen to chick through the egg. The first disease the NPIP tested for in breeder stock was bacillary white diarrhea (BWD), which is caused by Salmonella pullorum. Screening breeding stock has greatly reduced the occurrence of BWD.
Day-old chickens, ducks, geese, partridges, pheasants, guinea fowl, quail, and turkeys can be shipped by mail as long as they are not more than 24 hours old. The reproductive biology of poultry makes it possible to ship hatchlings in the mail. When an egg is laid it contains all the nutrients needed for the embryo to grow into a chick. Right before the chick hatches, the remaining yolk sac is taken into the chick's body cavity. This remaining yolk serves as a hatchling's main food and water source for the first 48 hours of life.
Since the establishment of regulations in 1924 allowing hatchlings to be shipped, the number of hatcheries able to breed, produce, and ship a wide variety of poultry breeds has increased rapidly. Hatchlings must be shipped in a box that is properly ventilated—boxes have been developed specifically for shipping hatchlings. The hatchlings must be shipped early enough in the week to avoid getting stuck in a mail room during a Sunday or national holiday.
Young hatchlings are not able to regulate their own body temperature for the first few weeks of life. It is important that the hatchlings be kept warm, especially while being shipped. Shipping boxes do not have an external heat supply, but instead rely on the body heat generated by the chicks. As a result, most hatcheries have a minimum shipping order of 25 chicks. The minimum orders for ducklings can range from 10 to 15. Chicks are shipped in cardboard boxes designed to keep them warm while still allowing fresh air to enter. The boxes come in various sizes, but the two most common sizes hold 25 or 100 chicks.
Most hatcheries offer options regarding the sex of hatchlings. You may purchase hatchlings "straight run"—that is, not sorted by sex and shipped as hatched. Alternatively, you may purchase sexed hatchlings that are either all male or all female. (Females are used for egg production and males are used for meat production.)
Chicks can be vaccinated against Marek's disease in the hatchery. Marek's disease is a highly contagious viral disease that causes nerve damage. It is carried by a number of wild bird species, so if you are planning to raise chickens outdoors, it is something to consider, especially if there is a history of the disease in the area. Waterfowl do not require the vaccine.
Some hatcheries are also able to offer a vaccine for coccidiosis or probiotic supplementation. These treatments are typically administered when chicks are in shipping boxes.
When the hatchlings arrive at your local post office, a postal worker will likely call you to come pick them up. In some cases, the chicks might arrive early in the morning before the post office officially opens to the public. You can usually pick up the chicks from a rear access door.