Friday, June 14, 2013

Hatching Fertile Chicken Eggs

This year was our first foray into hatching fertile eggs.  We don't have a rooster right now and we also don't have any hens that have ever shown even the slightest inclination of broodiness, so while a broody hen is your best bet for hatching we decided to go against Mother Nature this one time and purchase an incubator.  With the intent of mimicking nature as much as possible and making this delicate process a little easier on us, we also purchased an automatic egg turner and a fan to circulate air in the incubator.  Originally I tried to purchase the Brinsea Octagon with the turning cradle after reading many glowing reviews, but there was a screw up with the order and my eggs arrived before the incubator!  I panicked, ordered the Hova-Bator Genesis on Amazon with overnight shipping and cancelled the Brinsea.

There are some rare breeds that I had been dying to get my hands on - Cream Legbars, Welsummers, and Black Copper Marans.  I ordered 14 Cream Legbar hatching eggs, 5 Welsummers, and 5 Black Copper Marans.  Our Legbar's are 2nd generation out of Greenfire Farms stock.  I'll write a later post with details about these beautiful breeds, but for now I'll just mention that CL's lay gorgeous blue eggs, Welsummers lay dark brown speckled eggs, and BCM's lay DARK brown, sometimes almost black eggs.  A colorful egg basket is definitely in our future!

We decided on the dry method for hatching our eggs.  Most of the guidance I got from the following post:

To start, we set up our incubator and let it come up to a consistent temp.  Some places I read to let it stay at 100 degrees F for 24 hours, some places I read to have it up to temp for 1 week before setting eggs.  We had time constraints, so a few hours of steady temps was good enough for me.  I should note that for a few days while our eggs were waiting to go into the incubator I kept them in a cool room and rotated them several times a day.  Before you set them in the incubator it is imperative that you place them in a carton, large end up, for 24 hours so that the air cell can settle prior to setting.

Finally into the incubator they went!  Temp was at 100F, humidity at about 45%.  Every day I checked the humidity several times.  When it fell into the 20's I cracked the incubator open a bit and added water to bring it back up into the 40's.

On day 7 we candled the eggs.  The dark eggs from the Welsummers and the Marans were almost impossible to candle at this stage.  The Legbar eggs were glorious though.  Beautiful red veins running through them.  We were so excited!  It looked like almost all the eggs were developing.

It is worthwhile to say here that there are many, many reasons why eggs can stop developing or not hatch out.  For your own fertile eggs from your backyard a 50-80% hatch rate is considered good.  For shipped eggs a 30-50% hatch rate is to be expected.  Eggs that are shipped get jostled about in the mail, exposed to unpredictable temperatures, etc.  That said, when you stop and think practically about eggs hatching in the wild....ok you need heat, humidity, and turning.  The mother hen spends weeks collecting eggs before she sits on them.  So the fertile eggs are probably going to be ok for a week or even two before they get set, if you are mindful of storing them in optimal conditions.  The mother hen also turns her eggs many, sometimes up to 50, times a day, so if anything hand turning or having an egg turner produced less movement than eggs would have in the "wild" so don't worry about moving them!  She (mama hen) also has to get up from time to time to eat and use the bathroom so don't panic too much about opening the incubator every few days.

We replaced all the eggs after candling.  Since it was our first time we were not confident diagnosing infertile eggs or those with arrested development.  There were no cracks or anything that would cause the eggs to spoil and explode, so there was no harm in continuing to incubate them all.

On day 18 we prepared for "lockdown."  This is the period where the eggs are removed from the turner, the humidity is bumped up, and the eggs are left undisturbed to hatch.  Most will hatch on day 21.  Some may be early bloomers, some may be late.  It depends a lot on the heat and humidity in the incubator among other factors.  Before lockdown we candled again.  Several eggs appeared obviously empty at this point.  Those were infertile eggs.  Several appeared to have something going on but definitely not enough of a dark area to be a fully developed chick.  The eggs that had developed fully were almost completely dark when candled, with just a small light area at the narrow end of the egg (the air cell).

We still replaced them all just to see what would happen.  I added water to the incubator and plugged the vent holes to bring our humidity up to 65%.

Then we waited.

On day 20 the kids came running down the stairs saying "Mom!  There's cheeping!!"  Sure enough, we had an early bird. :)

Cogburn was our first to hatch.  He is a one-eyed Cream Legbar rooster.  The convenient thing about Legbars is that they can be sexed at birth, which is very rare among chicken breeds.  Most commercial hatcheries have a trained vent sexing expert and even they can't get it right all the time.  Legbar roosters have an easy to distinguish white spot on the top of their heads, whereas the hens have a dark chipmunk stripe down their back.  Besides missing an eye, Cogburn has a crooked beak.  We were concerned he would not be able to eat on his own, but he is doing great!!  Many people would have killed him at birth for his defects, but instead we gave him a cool name and he has become our farm mascot.  If his birth defects are not infringing on his overall health and quality of life, I don't see why he can't live out a happy life in our backyard farm.  We just won't use him for breeding or anything like that.

Later that evening we had a little Welsummer hatch out as well.

The next day, day 21, we had the greatest number of eggs hatch.  6 more eggs - 2 Legbars and 4 Welsummers.  On day 22 we had a single Black Copper Maran hatch and another Legbar pip.  We carefully watched the pipped egg but nothing happened....

26 hours went by and still no progress.  I decided to take matters into my own hands.  Normally you should not interfere with the natural hatching process.  You can tear the membrane and cause the chicks to bleed to death.  If they don't push themselves out of their shells it can also affect the strength of their legs.  Some people believe that if the chick cannot get out of its shell without assistance that it shouldn't be helped and should be left to die (which it eventually will, from exhaustion).  I figured since this little guy had at least pipped (that's when they break a tiny hole in the shell to breathe - usually they then proceed to "unzip" around the girth of the shell and release themselves) that he deserved some assistance.

First I candled the remaining eggs.  I replaced the ones that seemed to have developed chicks in them and discarded 7 which were clearly empty.  Then I candled the pipped shell.  I could see the chick breathing inside the shell.  In what my husband has now dubbed the Eggsarean or E-Section, Tiny Tim was helped out of his shell after several hours of effort on his part and mine.  I will chronicle this experience in another post!  The end result is that we had another Cream Legbar rooster who was healthy and happy and has quickly caught up with the other chicks.

7 eggs remained in the incubator.  Nothing for days.  I did the float test.  They seemed viable.  We waited....and waited....nothing.  After 2 extra weeks of waiting, just to be sure, we discarded the eggs.  There are many reasons why those chicks died before hatching and never pipped, but we'll never be sure.

All in all we ended up with 10 baby chicks.  4 Cream Legbars, 5 Welsummers, and 1 Black Copper Maran.  By breed that was a 100% hatch rate on the Welsummers, a 28.5% hatch rate on the Cream Legbars, and a 20% hatch rate on the Black Copper Marans.  For the Legbars we have 3 roosters and 1 hen.  For the Welsummers I think we have 4 hens and 1 rooster.  The Maran can't be sexed just by looking so we'll wait for maturity and HOPE we get a hen!

The babies are growing FAST!  They are 4 weeks old now and in a couple of weeks they will move to their outdoor home.  It might astonish some that we have been keeping them in our guest bedroom, but honestly they are much less messy than some sources would have you believe!  We haven't had a single shaving outside the brooder.  They do tend to make a mess of their waterer, so you do have to clean that out and refill it frequently, but other than that they have required very little fuss. :)  We housed them in a large, deep rubbermaid tub with pine shavings, a feeder, waterer, and a heat lamp with a stand my husband built.  All in all the cost of the brooder set up was about $40.

Here is one (of many) short home videos of a hatching chick!

Here they are in the brooder!  More pictures coming soon!

No comments: