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Hatching eggs: How to use an incubator

Mar 2nd, 2017 | Category: Skills

by Corina Sahlin

Spring is chick time! Whether you keep chickens for egg production or meat, they all start from eggs and hatch into fluffy chicks.

For years, we have mail-ordered day-old chicks from hatcheries, but for the past couple of years we have hatched eggs in a little incubator, and our kids love observing the whole process.

Once the  fertilized eggs are set in the incubator, the process takes three weeks. PHOTO BY CORINA SAHLIN

Once the fertilized eggs are set in the incubator, the process takes three weeks. PHOTO BY CORINA SAHLIN

If chickens are on your list this year, you might want to try to incubate your own instead of mail-ordering them. Modern incubators make this super easy and low maintenance, because they control temperature and humidity, and some even turn the eggs automatically.

We borrow an incubator from a teenage chicken-loving friend, and it’s called “Brinsea Mini Advance Hatching Egg Incubator” that sells for about $200 on Amazon. You can buy various incubators at different prices, depending on their capacities. Check with your local country store, or online, to see what style will work best for you. We like the Brinsea one because it makes things so much easier, since the eggs need to be kept at 99.5 degrees F all the time. If it gets even just one degree higher or lower for a few hours, the embryo can die.

Humidity has to stay at 40 or 50 percent for the first 18 days, and then at 65 to 75 percent for the last three days.

Incubators need to have vents so that fresh air can circulate, since egg shells are porous and allow oxygen to enter and carbon dioxide to exit.  Fetuses need to be able to breathe in the right conditions.

The mother chicken turns the eggs over regularly, so your incubator needs to do this as well (or manually if you have a different incubator).

You can get fertilized eggs from friends, Facebook groups, craigslist or websites like BackyardChickens.com. Many hatcheries sell fertile eggs online.

If you get eggs from friends, choose clean (but not washed), full-size, well-formed eggs.  Never ever wash eggs that you want to incubate, since the naturally occurring coating  is important for the embryo.  Don’t store eggs that will be incubated in the fridge.  Instead, keep them between 50 and 60 degrees and 75 percent humidity, and don’t use eggs that are older than ten days.  Store the eggs with the fat side pointed up in an egg carton, and then put them in the incubator all at once, so they will all hatch at the same time.

Even if you get eggs from a good source, natural fertility is rarely 100 percent. Depending on the chickens, fertility can be between 55 percent to 95 percent. When eggs are shipped, hatch rates are more around 50 percent. Unfortunately, you cannot tell if eggs are fertile before you incubate them. However, you can “candle” them after 5 to 7 days to see if embryos have developed (more on that later).

After you set up the incubator and put the eggs in, it’s time to wait. And wait. And wait. It takes 21 days to hatch, and it might be a long three weeks if you have impatient kids who excitedly ask every two hours, “Is it time yet?”

When hatching starts (above), the chick will peck a small hole in the egg so it can take its first breath (the first peck may also look like a tiny crack). This process is called pipping. It will take several hours before the chick is fully out of the egg. Allow the chick to dry off in the incubator, and when ready move to a brooder with a heat lamp. Once settled, the fluffy chicks will grow well, like these pictured at five days old (below). PHOTOS BY CORINA SAHLIN

When hatching starts (above), the chick will peck a small hole in the egg so it can take its first breath (the first peck may also look like a tiny crack). This process is called pipping. It will take several hours before the chick is fully out of the egg. Allow the chick to dry off in the incubator, and when ready move to a brooder with a heat lamp. Once settled, the fluffy chicks will grow well, like these pictured at five days old (below). PHOTOS BY CORINA SAHLIN

 

Candling eggs

You can determine if eggs are fertile by “candling” them. This process illuminates the inside of the egg so you can see what’s growing inside it. It’s a good idea to do this because if you get eggs that are not fertilized, they can rot and burst inside the incubator, which can contaminate the good eggs. Plus, it stinks! All you need is a dark room and a very bright source of light, which used to be a candle (now you know where the name comes from!). The light source needs to be smaller than the diameter of the egg, like a flashlight.

Candle the eggs after they have been in the incubator for seven days.  It’s not a good idea to do it daily, because eggs are sensitive to temperature fluctuations. We candle them again after 7 more days (day 14 of the incubating process), and then we are done.  Don’t handle the eggs after day 16 because by then, the eggs should not be moved any more, since the embryos will be developed and can be damaged by turning.

It’s harder to candle brown and speckled eggs because they are not as transparent as white ones.

Hold the egg between your thumb and forefinger. Shine the light directly underneath the larger end of the egg, where the air sac is. If you can see blood vessels spreading from the center of the egg outwards, it’s fertile. You have a winner!

If you see a blood ring, it means the embryo died. If there are no blood vessels and the egg looks clear without any visible dark spots, the egg is not viable. Throw these eggs out.

We write numbers on the eggs with a sharpie and take notes on what we see on day 7, so that we can compare notes on day 14. If an egg looked questionable on day 7 as well as day 14, we know for sure we need to get rid of it.eva with chicks 5 days old

 

Hatching

It’s really trippy to watch the eggs in the incubator shifting around by themselves in the final days before hatching day. This means the baby chick is getting active and ready to be born soon.

The chick will peck a small hole in the egg so it can take its first breath. The  first peck can look like  a tiny crack, and this process is called pipping. Don’t worry if you see pipping and then nothing happens for six to 12 hours. The chick is resting and letting its lungs adjust to the air. Don’t help with the hatching at this point: you could injure or kill the chick! You can see their little beaks and see them breathing. It’s quite fascinating, and kids love watching this.

The chicks should hatch within a 12-hour period of each other. When one is out, it will sit there, spasmically climb over the other eggs, or sleep. Hatching is hard work!

Let the chicks dry off in the incubator. First, they will look like disoriented baby dinosaurs. Then they will fluff up and look like the cute baby chicks we all know. They can stay in the  incubator for 24 hours and survive for three days without eating, since they absorbed the yolk during the hatching process.

Once they are dry, it’s time to move them into a brooder with a heat lamp. A brooder is any kind of enclosure to keep the chicks safe and contained with a heat lamp hanging over it to keep them warm. A brooder can be fashioned from several materials: a cardboard box, a plastic storage box, an old fish tank, aquarium or any container that’s at least 12 inches tall so the chicks can’t fly out.

We use a cardboard box with wire mesh securely draped over it to keep the chicks in and the dog out, since the dog would love to “play” with them (a.k.a. eat them for a snack).

 

Breeds 

There are so many chicken breeds out there, it can be staggering and confusing which one to pick for your own flock. Pure breeds? Hybrids? Cross breeds? You can choose a breed for egg production, the color and size of eggs, meat production, looks, temperament or other qualities, such as chickens that can handle lots of heat and humidity (light bodied Mediterraneans like Leghorns and Minorcas).

According to a Mother Earth News survey, the most productive egg layers are hybrids such as Hy-line Brown, California White, Golden Comet, Cherry Egger and Indian River, or heritage breeds like Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, Australorp, Rhode Island White and Plymouth Rock.

If you want different eggshell colors, consider getting different breeds. Marans, Barnevelders and Welsummers lay very dark brown eggs. Ameraucanas and Araucanas are famous for their greenish or bluish eggs. If you want light to medium brown eggs, the Plymouth Rock and Black Australorp is your girl. Yokohamas and Aseels give you cream-colored or tinted egg shells. If you want good, ole’ white ones, stick with Leghorns or Silkies. There’s lots of info on eggshell colors on hatchery websites like this one, so feel free to dork out on researching egg color breeds (as well as other characteristics).

Breeds that tolerate hot, humid weather are light bodied Mediterraneans like Leghorns and Minorcas, as well as Malays, Sumatras, Javas and Cubalayas. For cold places, stick with Chanteclers, Buckeyes, and Brahmas.

The aforementioned survey also states that the breeds with the highest overall scores (including temperament, maturity, cold and heat tolerance, egg production, egg size, meat utility and meat flavor) are Rhode Island Whites, Plymouth Rocks, Orpingtons, Australorps and New Hampshires — all dual- purpose, brown-egg-laying breeds.

I can’t get over how many pretty chicken breeds are out there! Some can’t be called pretty, but rather… unique, and some look downright bizarre with their fluffy plumage!

Corina Sahlin homesteads with her husband and three homeschooled children on five acres in the Upper Skagit Valley. On their homestead, they teach homesteading and wilderness survival skills, and they also lead retreats and summer camps. Corina created a self-paced online chicken raising course that can be found at www.courses.marblemounthomestead.com.

 

Learn about chicks

Are you wanting to learn more about raising chicks and poultry varieties? Stay tuned for Chick Days, seminars, and chick lists at your local country and farm-related stores.

Peeps For Keep: Chicken Care 101: On Saturday, March 18, Dalia Monterroso, of the Welcome to Chickenlandia Facebook page, will present this free and informative workshop perfect for beginners or experienced chicken caregivers.

Topics will include raising chicks, basic supplies, creating your chicken coop, proper nutrition, and more. This class is free to attend, but space is limited and reservations required. To reserve your spot, contact  (360) 733-2080, ext # 3116 or email outreach@whatcomhumane.org. This class is hosted by Whatcom Humane Society, from 1-2 p.m. at the Whatcom Humane Society  Multi-Purpose Room, Bellingham. Participants are not permitted to bring animals to this class.

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