Project Incubation: successful!

On February 4, 2013 by Shawn

I bought my very first chickens at a rural side-of-the-road market in Soddy Daisy, TN from a guy selling a variety of farm animals. I talked to a co-worker at the time and he recommended that it was the best place to get a few baby chicks locally. I only wanted two or three, and I really had no idea where else I’d buy them.

This was about seven years ago, and those were some of the best chickens I ever owned. They were Buff Orpingtons and they were gentle, hearty, and great egg producers. That was enough to give me the bug and I soon discovered that I could get many more through mail order. Yes, I could actually order chickens through the mail! I researched the best hatcheries and settled on McMurray Hatchery, which has provided the last four flocks of my chickens with no problems.

Well, the thing with me is that I really like to do things myself if I can. Ordering these chicks from McMurray was easy and effective, but quite expensive once you factor in shipping. So last year I decided that I was going to try to hatch some of my own chicken eggs. Again, I hit the internet and found that popular opinion among the greatest of experts (i.e. chicken forums) pointed towards the Hovabator Genesis. I ordered one — and the highly suggested automatic egg turner attachment — and started saving eggs. The Genesis holds 41 eggs at a time (with the turner, but more without), which is really all we’d need for one hatching anyway. This being my first time, I wasn’t even expecting that many, and wanted to give it a shot to see how everything went.

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I started collecting eggs for a few days since my flock lays about a dozen a day. I read that you can store the eggs in 50-degree temps for up to a week before incubating them, but I didn’t want to push that. I saved up 21 eggs in three days and fired the incubator up.

One important tip I’ve read is not to rely at all on the onboard thermometer or barometer. So I picked up another cheap thermometer and stuck it in there to test it out. I left the incubator on for 24 hours without eggs to test the difference in temp readings, and they were off by about 2-3 degrees, which I’ve heard is quite significant. I decided to go by what the new thermometer read.

I placed the eggs in the incubator with a space between each one, evenly distributed throughout the egg turner tray. With everything plugged in and the temp already set, all that was left to do was to sit back and wait 21 days for baby chicks to come out. Right?

Well, kinda. I had read that after five days you’re supposed to take the eggs out and candle them. This basically means that you hold a bright light on one side so you can see “through” the egg, checking for a red line in the yolk. If there’s a red spot or line, that means your egg is fertilized and you’re set. The thing is, I also read that you never ever let the eggs deviate more than 5 degrees for even a few minutes, or the eggs will be ruined. So which was it? With household temperatures in the 50s (we only have space heaters in our house, and they’re rarely on), I decided to just not candle the eggs and let it ride. The only danger, I’ve heard, is that unfertilized eggs can explode in the incubator. Not a lovely thought, but I risked it anyway.

I set the temperature at 102, which made it 100 according to the new thermometer. They say to keep the incubator out of direct sunlight and in a room with a constant temperature, so we put it in our closet. Even though it’s FREEZING in our closet, we figured this would work best because direct sunlight can actually be the biggest enemy and fry those eggs in no time.

After about two weeks, I had this nagging feeling that this new thermometer I bought just wasn’t doing the trick. So I went back to the store and grabbed a slightly more expensive one that included a wired probe and a built-in barometer. Now this is what I wish I had from the start. The readings were much more accurate, recording the highs and lows for each day, and I could easily read the face of the unit since only a small probe was inside the incubator itself.

With my new secret weapon, I was getting more and more excited for the end of the 21-day period.

On the morning of day 20, I began to hear a slight peep as I was getting up out of bed for the day. Sure enough, a baby chick had pecked its way around the top of the egg and was pushing out ever-so gently. I watched it struggle for a bit and then plop right out. Soaking wet and completely exhausted, the chick laid on the turner rack, and I was afraid that it might wiggle its way down and get caught underneath. So, despite the wisdom of the internet, I picked it up and placed it in a new brooder that I set up minutes earlier. I made sure that there were fresh paper towels down and that the heat lamp had a chance to heat the brooder up to 100 degrees (hey that first thermometer came in handy after all!) before bringing the chick in.

IMG_1364I was quite worried at first, because it was almost motionless and I didn’t know if my jog from the bedroom closet to the laundry room brooder was too cold and breezy for the little thing. But after a few minutes basking in the red glow of the heat lamp, the baby chick was up and stumbling around. I’d only ever seen chicks at the age of two or three days old, and never fresh out of the egg before, so this part was new. And exciting!

IMG_1367I headed back to the incubator to check on the others. Sure enough, five more eggs had small convex cracks from the chicks inside. Throughout the next two days, we ended up pulling 17 baby chicks out of the incubator. I honestly only expected to see three or maybe four tops for my first try, but, to paraphrase Meatloaf,  17 out of 21 ain’t bad.

In the end, one of the 17 died in the brooder (the last one to come out), one died while trying to break out of the shell, and I later discovered that one more died before being fully developed in the egg. Only two eggs were unfertilized out of 21, and none of them exploded in the incubator.

IMG_1368I see this as a wild success, and it gives me hope for doing more hatchings soon. In fact, I think I’m a little bit addicted to this after my first time. Sure, it may have been beginner’s luck, but I learned quite a bit from doing this myself, and the rewards of having yet another type of animal that was completely produced on my own farm is beyond amazing.

So I think I’ll let the incubator rest for a bit before I try more. Next time, I’m going to try for a full 40 eggs and I’d like to see if I can eventually sell some chicks around Easter time. We also have some baby turkey poults coming in April, so I’ll need to make sure the brooder is vacant then.

And then I can start breeding turkeys!

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