Mothering chicken eggs is not for everyone, but if you believe it is your calling, here’s how to start.
Instincts take over when a hen lays a clutch of eggs. They continuously fuss over them, adjusting them all day, and rarely leave the nest for more than a few minutes. Motherhood is a great duty for a young hen; if she’s even slightly negligent, her babies won’t hatch. Worse, they may hatch with defects.
Modern hens, it turns out, are not always good moms. Who knows if it’s hereditary or cultural, but they become distracted, other hens evict them from their nest, and the rooster appears. There are plenty of things that may go wrong. As a result, most farmers and backyard chicken enthusiasts do not trust their hens with incubation and instead undertake the brood labor themselves. Although this is more expensive, you can also buy day-old chicks to avoid the incubation period. Plus, why would you pass up an opportunity to witness one of life’s miracles?
Step 1 – Set Up an Incubator
Incubators range in price from roughly $50 for the homesteader favorite ‘Hova-Bator’ to thousands of dollars for commercial-scale incubators, depending on how many eggs they can hold and how automated they are. With top-of-the-line incubators, you insert an egg, close the door, and three weeks later, the chick emerges. You can save money by doing it yourself, although it’s almost as much work as sitting on the eggs. All incubators, no matter how elaborate or jerry-rigged, must complete a few essential tasks:
Temperature: The eggs must be kept at 99.5 degrees at all times; even a few degrees higher or lower for a few hours can cause the embryo to die.
Humidity must be maintained at 40 to 50 percent for the first 18 days and 65 to 75 percent for the final days before hatching.
Ventilation: Because egg shells are porous, oxygen can enter, and carbon dioxide can depart; incubators must have openings or vents that allow fresh air to circulate so the fetus can breathe.
Homemade versions typically include some insulated box – an inexpensive Styrofoam cooler would suffice. An adjustable heating pad or a light bulb on a dimmer switch will do for the heat source, and a pan of water with a sponge in it will keep the air humid. Low-end commercial incubators are a little more than this, but the higher the price, the more automated the temperature and humidity controls will be.
The most critical incubation instruments are a high-quality thermometer and hygrometer (a device that measures humidity); cheap models usually need more accuracy. If you aren’t working with an incubator with these instruments, choose a thermometer/hygrometer with an external display. These contain an internal sensor and an exterior LED panel that gives temperature and humidity data without opening the incubator and destroying your carefully calibrated environment.
A mechanism that rotates the eggs automatically is one time-saving feature. Much of a hen’s caring over her eggs stems from an evolutionary impulse to move them around continually. The peaceful environment within a chicken egg is kept in balance by constantly shifting the egg’s position. High-end incubators include an egg-turning device, although standalone egg-turners can be installed inside a homemade incubator to complete the job. Alternatively, you can rotate manually using the methods below.
The incubator should be put in an area with minor temperature and humidity changes during the day – a basement is excellent, but a sunny window is not.
Step 2 – Find Fertile Eggs
If you already have a rooster in your flock, most of the eggs he lays will be fertile. Collect and transfer them to the incubator as soon as possible after applying. Whether you don’t currently have hens, ask a neighbor or a nearby farmer whether you can purchase some fertile eggs. Websites such as Craigslist and BackyardChickens.com might help you connect with people who may have extra eggs. In the spring, some feed stores sell viable eggs, and numerous providers sell eggs online.
The better the egg supply, the closer it is to home. However, the jostling and changes in temperature and humidity during transportation are stressful for the growing fetus. Hatching rates on eggs straight from the coop are generally in the 75 to 90 percent range; there is no certainty that any will hatch with mail-order eggs.
Choose eggs that are clean, well-formed, and full-size to incubate. Above all, do not wipe the eggs; there is a naturally existing coating that is critical to the embryo’s success. Hands should be washed before handling, and you should be as gentle as possible because seeds are particularly vulnerable to injury from abrupt movements.
Ideally, the eggs are transferred directly to the incubator, but they can be stored in egg cartons if necessary. The development of the eggs can be delayed for up to ten days if kept at temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 75 percent humidity. To keep the embryo alive, it must be stored with the fat side of the egg pointed up.
Step 3 – Incubate
Once incubation begins, an egg typically takes 21 days to hatch. Turn on the heat source and measure the temperature and humidity over 24 hours before placing the eggs inside, making adjustments to produce the ideal environment. If the humidity is too high or too low, regulate it with a sponge with more or less surface area. Raise and lower the heat source’s temperature in small increments until the thermometer registers 99.5.
Once the incubator is operational, maintaining the environment until the chick’s hatch is only a matter. Place the eggs in the incubator on their side, close the door, and check the levels regularly to ensure nothing goes wrong. To maintain humidity, water may need to be added to the pan. For example, on day 18, add more water to increase humidity.
If you want to spin the eggs manually, there is a typical way to simulate a hen’s efforts:
To track which eggs have been rotated, draw an ‘X’ on one side and an ‘O on the other.
Then, gently flip the eggs over thrice daily; more frequent turning is even better, but the number of turns per day should be odd (3,5,7, etc.) so that the eggs never stay on the same side for two consecutive nights. Experts also advise altering the rotation direction each time to vary the embryo’s position as much as possible.
Continue flipping the eggs until day 18, then leave them alone for several days.
Step 4 – Hatching
In the days leading up to hatching. As the fetus develops, the eggs may be seen moving around independently. The chick will finally take its first breath after pecking a little hole in the big end of the egg. After that, it is common for the babe to rest for six to twelve hours while its lungs acclimatize before hatching. Resist the impulse to assist with the hatching process – it’s easy to injure yourself!
Allow the chick to dry off in the warmth of the incubator before transferring it to a brooder, where it will spend the first few weeks of its existence.
Read more: Agriculture Facts You Probably Didn’t Know