Incubating Chicken Eggs

At the time of writing this, a heavy coat of ice has our woods hunched over and groaning like they would rather do anything but stay upright. I can relate with every passing year. Looking out the window it’s hard to fathom that we will be tending to baby chicks in 3 weeks (I should note that by the time you read this, we will have baby chicks. What good is a blog post about incubation without pics of hatching chicks?!). Alas, here we are. Spring is coming (as long as George R.R. Martin isn’t writing the novel for it).

Newly hatched chick
One of our newly hatched day-old chicks!

As we planned our poultry expansion this year, we decided to order more layers from Murray McMurray hatchery and do a trial run of Cornish Cross meat chickens. We chose McMurray again this year for a couple of reasons; One, we are giving Silver Grey Dorkings a go again and they had them available along with the other breeds we wanted. And two, they ran a promotion on Cyber Monday where you could buy a gift card for 15% off. Well, we knew we were going to be ordering more chicks this year, so we decided to snatch that offer up and save ourselves $15. Definitely keep an eye out for that offer this year if you or someone you know would benefit. Not sure they intended it to be used the way we did, but as the cool kids say, “treat yo’ self”. Anyway, since we lost a significant portion of our laying flock (and probably most of our readers after that last sentence) we took the opportunity to add some high volume layers and some more colorful layers to our flock. In the past we have done a few rounds of incubation with reasonable success, but since we’re working scale up our production we didn’t want to rely solely on that route. Plus, with our losses, we just wouldn’t get enough eggs during the optimal collection time for incubation to cover all our needs. So, this year, we decided to hedge our bets with hatchery stock and then have a little fun incubating to round out our needs. Oh, we should mention that another drawback to replenishing our hens through incubation is that about half of the birds that hatch will be roosters, so we would need to hatch twice as many eggs and well, I guess we would at least have a full freezer.

With our hatchery order scheduled to, well, hatch on March 12th we decided that we would coordinate our incubation so that we could brood all of the chicks at the same time. We like to get our chicks pretty early in the season because Aaron’s schedule is more flexible at that time and it allows someone to pick up the chicks and keep an eye on them for the first day or two in the brooder. The nice thing about a lot of livestock is that they have predictable cycles and gestation periods. Chickens might just be the easiest. From the time the eggs are set in the incubator to the time chicks hatch is 21 days. There can be some +/- to that based on the management of heat and humidity in the incubator, but if everything is dialed in correctly, it’ll be 21 days. So, with that easy math out of the way, we just counted back 3 weeks on the farm calendar and plugged in a new entry for starting incubation. (If you haven’t read it you can read a bonus blog about our little mail order chick hiccup!)

Now that our incubation date was set, we had to start planning for egg collection. Well, based on our handy dandy Kansas State University incubation guide from 1979, we know that eggs begin to lose their hatching viability after 7 days from when they were laid. Back to the farm calendar. Count back 7 days from starting incubation and look at that, that’s the earliest date we should start collecting eggs. In the past we have done a couple batches of 10-12 eggs and a bigger batch of around 20 or so, but this year we thought we might up that a hair to an even two dozen. But, once we started talking, and took into account that half would be roos, we decided that maybe we should up that number a bit. Well, based on the number of eggs we were getting a day, we figured that we could likely get 48 eggs in the seven-day period prior to incubating, so 48 it was. And since nothing ever follows a planned schedule, we ended up getting 54 eggs and settled on incubating an even 50.

So, with all of our eggs gathered we just pulled out the incubator, popped the eggs in, and fired it up. No, that’s not what we did. As any semi-responsible adult knows, it’s always best to test your equipment before you actually need to start using it. Back to the calendar. “Set up incubator”. If you are going to incubate eggs, it’s best to get your incubator dialed in 24-48 hours before you set your eggs. We set ours up the day before we began incubation and then proceeded to nail the temperate at 99.75 degrees while being totally incompetent trying to square away the humidity. The hatching manual for our incubator recommends 99.75 degrees for the incubation temperature for the first 18 days and 99 degrees for the final 3 days. The K-State manual recommends 102-103 degrees. We’ve had good success right around 100 degrees, so we are sticking with 100-101 to play in a safe zone. The K-State guide calls for a 50-65% humidity reading, which is 85-90 degrees on our wet bulb thermometer. The incubator guide tightens that up to 85-87 degrees wet bulb and 90-94 degrees for the final 3 days, so we try to stay closer to the 86 degree range. It’s pretty obvious that eggs need to stay warm to be able to hatch, but the reason humidity is so important is that if it’s too high the air bubble in the egg will be too small and when the chick goes to pip out of the shell it won’t be able to reach the air bubble and will likely drown in the fluid inside the shell. It can also create a chick that is really big from the excess fluid, which could cause the chick to not have enough room to get its head in position to pip out of the egg. If the humidity is too low, there will be a lack of fluid in the egg and the chick may not be strong enough to pip out of the shell or if it gets the shell pipped, it can get stuck to the shell as the infiltrating air dries the mucous membrane in the shell. The other critical factor in incubation is turning the eggs for the first 18 days. It is recommended to turn the eggs several times a day. Luckily we have an incubator with an automatic turner, so our eggs get “rolled” once per hour. The turning relieves pressure that can restrict nerves and cause improper circulation. Broody hens will use her head and beak to roll the eggs around when she’s sitting on them. We’ve had one that kept trying to roll the eggs back under her as we were trying to collect them one day! One way to test the fertility is to “candle” the eggs after 4 or 5 days in the incubator. If you can see a dark spot in the middle with blood vessels branching off of it, you have a fertile egg. You can also check the progression of development in the egg by candling them on days 7, 14, and 18 and checking the size of the air cell inside. We’ve never done that because we prefer to limit our disruption of the incubator to maintain temperature and humidity, but if you like to tinker, give it a whirl.

We mentioned in the past that our youngest son’s teacher excitedly invited us to bring the incubator into their classroom in the past so the kiddos could watch the chicks hatch. She has developed a lesson plan using 21 eggs that show the development inside the egg for each day during the process. It’s a really wonderful way to teach about the birth and growth that tends to happen every spring in nature and we’re really happy we get to share it. Our son is very shy, but you can sense his pride when we talk about taking the incubator in to share with his friends. Since the incubator requires specific management we keep it at our house until the last three days, when we increase the temperature and humidity and remove the auto turner and rolling tray. In the past we have wrapped the eggs in towels inside the incubator and wrapped the incubator in towels as we transport it to the school. Luckily we don’t live too far out of town and the travel doesn’t seem to impact the hatch.

If you have chickens (and a rooster), you should definitely try out incubation if you want to expand your flock. There are a ton of different incubator styles at a multitude of price points, so pick one that suits your context and give it a whirl. If you possess the ingenuity, there are plans online for building your own. Don’t feel like you need to spend a fortune to get started incubating. It would be better to outgrow a cheaper incubator and upgrade than to spend a lot of money and discover that it doesn’t really fit into your farm. We were fortunate to run across our incubator at a farm auction about a year before we even got our first chickens. It’s a Marsh Roll-X model that was postmarked to our local farm and feed store in 1980 and was purchased by a professor at the University of Kansas. It had been stored in a barn and was clogged up with mud dauber nests, so it didn’t attract much bidding. We weren’t sure if it worked, but we took a chance because it was neatly packed in its original packaging and came with the auto turner, thermometers, extra wicks, all the literature, and grids for Average Chickens, Large Chickens, Ducks, and Pheasant eggs. With a little elbow grease it looked almost brand new and you could tell that it had only been used a handful of times. These incubators have been around a long time and can still be purchased new. When we priced it out with all of the extra egg grids it would have cost us close to $900. We ended up getting it for something like $125-150, so we couldn’t pass it up. Well, we actually ended up getting it for free because Grandma was at the auction and decided sneak up to the auction cashier to buy her grandsons their very own incubator. She knew that it would provide a valuable learning experience for the whole family. Thank you grandma. Hopefully the boys won’t take it with them when they leave for college.

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