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Chicken incubation questions

Newly hatched chickIncubating my own chicks this year allowed me to experiment with smaller batches than I could get from a hatchery while also trying out rare varieties of non-nursery stock.  There was a steep learning curve, though, and I soon learned that incubating is more complex than setting the temperature and number of days in the incubator and then forgetting the chicks until they hatched.  Here are some of the questions I asked as I went from a beginner to an intermediate incubator.

Brinsea Octagon 20 IncubatorWhat kind of incubator should I use?  We've tried three different incubators, and the only one that worked well for us was the Brinsea Octagon 20 Advance.  At $300, the Octagon 20 isn't an incubator to buy on a whim, but the lack of climate control in our trailer made the cheap Little Giant Still Air Incubator that we bought at the local feed store totally worthless.  The Brinsea Mini Advance Incubator worked a little better (we got one surviving chick out of seven eggs), but that incubator's utility is really in allowing you to see a hatch up close and personal.  It's agonizing to watch chicks who had an improper incubation period try to struggle out of their shells and fail, so if you're going to incubate, you should probably do it right.

Is every egg created equal?  No, and you'll have a much better hatch rate if you put only the best eggs in your incubator.  Eggs to discard include those with even a tiny bit of poop Light Sussex chickson the shell, porous eggs that seem to be speckled when you hold them up to the light, and eggs from hens more than two years old.  Of course, cracked eggs or eggs that have been stored improperly shouldn't be included.  In addition, more eggs tend to be fertile in the spring and fall than in the summer and winter.

How many chicks should I expect?  If you're doing everything just right, you should expect 75% to 80% of homegrown eggs to hatch.  Mail ordered hatching eggs will have been bumped around in the post office, so 50% is considered a good hatch rate there.  You can tell whether a low hatch rate is caused by your mistakes or by bad eggs if you count how many eggs were infertile.  If you're a raw beginner, put a lot more eggs than you need in the incubator --- I ended up with only one living chick my first time around and had to scurry to find it friends.  (A lone chick is an unhappy chick.)  By my fourth hatch, though, I got a 58% hatch rate from mail order eggs and felt very accomplished.

Weighing eggsWhat's dry incubation and should I do it?  Mainstream hatching literature tells you to add water to the wells in order to keep your incubator at 40% to 50% humidity for the first 19 days.  However, many experienced hatchers report that running the incubator dry gives them better hatch rates.  Whether dry incubation works for you will probably depend on your climate.  The best way to decide whether humidity in your incubator is in the right range is to weigh your eggs every few days and make sure they lose 13% of their weight by day 18.

Chicken hatchingHow and when should I prepare for the hatch?  No matter whether you practice conventional or dry incubation, you want to increase the humidity in the incubator to 65% or more on day 19 so that the chicks will slide right out of their shells.  This is also the time for you to turn off the egg turner and remove any dividers so that the eggs lay flat on their sides.  If the well of the incubator is chick-accessible, but sure to shield it so that no chicks can fall in and drown.

How often should I open the incubator?  You'll read that you can only open the incubator once or twice a day during the hatch period or the humidity will plummet, but I found simple ways to keep the humidity high while poking around inside as much as I liked.  Despite conventional wisdom, I've had best results moving chicks to the brooder an hour or less after they hatched so that they don't injure other chicks busy struggling out of their shells.

Should I help chicks hatch?  It's okay to help chicks hatch as long as you understand what constitutes an abnormal hatch.  A chick pipping at the narrow end of the egg should always be helped because healthy chicks will either die while trying to struggle out of this improper position or will injure themselves.  You might choose to help chicks that have pipped but not started to unzip for an abnormal length of time (generally 24 hours, or until the membrane starts to turn brown and dry), but in this case you're more likely to be aiding a weak chick which that might have to be culled.

How and when should I cull a chick?  After helping a chick, I generally put it in a spare incubator for a few hours to regain its strengh, then move it to the brooder to join the other chicks.  If they attack the chick, chances are it's too weak and would die on its own.  In that case, I put the chick in an airtight container with some baking soda and vinegar and it dies relatively painlessly within seconds.

Broody hen with chicksIs there an easier way to hatch chicks?  A broody hen can do all of the work for you, but only certain varieties will go broody.  We added Cuckoo Marans to our flock this year in hopes that we'll be able to raise chicks the easy way in 2012.

The only additional tip I would give anyone wanting to become a journeyman hatcher is --- keep lots of notes!  I had several hypotheses on why certain eggs didn't hatch, but only got real answers when I numbered each egg and kept notes on everything about them.  That way I was able to tell that temperatures in my incubator were slightly uneven.  If the broody hens don't come through for me next year, I should have even higher hatch rates in the incubator.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.



This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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