Thursday, 6 August 2015

What to expect when incubating eggs (or at least our experience/method)

Today is the last day that we turn the eggs in the incubator; you are not supposed to rotate/turn them for the last 2 days. In theory chicken eggs take 3 weeks to incubate. But ours generally start ‘pipping’ from 20 days, so as we generally make the last turn on the morning of the 18th day.

So now we just sit, wait and hope.

As we currently have eggs in the incubator and our young ‘Eatwells’ (heritage style table-bird chicks) in the brooder box it has brought up a lot of questions from people about the various stages of chicken rearing. So thought it wouldn’t hurt to have a refresher- at least as to how we do things. (*as, as always this is our experience, not a definite method)  

These are always and exciting and dramatic times. During which, any issue does make you question what you have done, or if you could have done anything.

So incubating you obviously need fertile eggs. This time we purchased some eggs from another breeder. Something we have often been asked to do; though we have been reluctant to guarantee our eggs as ‘fertile’. More that the hens run with a rooster. But whether they are purchased, or home produced you begin with storing the eggs, as they take time to collect.

First tip; store eggs intended for incubation in an egg box “pointy end” down.

We were informed that this is so the “egg cell” rises to the top in the wider egg.

Second tip; store your eggs at “room temperature” if possible.

Obviously this depends on where you are. Most people reference “room temperature” to be roughly 20°c, a comfortable temperature not too hot or too cold. Given we are in the tropics this can be more difficult. But a pantry or other “cool, dry place” is preferable.

I have also been told you “cannot incubate refrigerated eggs”. I know this is untrue, as we have successfully done it. Though the eggs refrigerated and then incubated were only in the fridge for a day or two. Generally the longer the refrigeration period, the less likely they are to activate.

Third tip; Collect eggs for a maximum of 7days, any older and the eggs ‘activation rate’ appears to drop. (This is personal preference and general observation)But it is worth noting that just because an egg doesn’t develop, does not mean it was not fertilised; as there are a number of factors that affect whether a fertilised egg activates. And time is one. 
No these are not
turkey poults... but chickens
Proud mum with 'her' babies
So once you have your eggs then you need a means of incubating them. Some people will purchase ‘fertilised eggs’ to go under a brooder chicken. We have had varying success with letting a broody bird sit on a clutch (of her own acquiring, we have never placed eggs for a bird). We have also had one species adopt another’s eggs- turkey, ducks and chickens hatching chicks, ducklings etc. But we warned if you have a mixed clutch that they do have different incubation periods and the hen may abandon the rest once the initial ones hatch.

We have also had good and bad experiences with the parenting abilities of the hens (losing babies or allowing them to wander off). And the welfare of the hen during the nesting period (not leaving to eat or drink, or even suffering with mites).

Our basic manual model

So generally for these reasons and the added bonus of being able to plan our hatchlings we generally incubate. To do this you need an incubator. Some in the poultry communities (this is generally more accessible on a local level now with social media etc.) may rent space in their incubators. Or you can purchase them. They come in varying levels of complexity and size.

Ours is very basic; it supposedly holds up to 60 chicken eggs or 48 duck/turkey eggs. And we turn the eggs manually.

We have loaned an automated one from a friend. And we were not overly impressed with the advantages- not having to turn the eggs, over the disadvantages- noise, having to prepare for hatching (if you miss this, it can get messy), too many controls (these are addictive).

Automated turning incubator
Am saying too many controls as heat and humidity affect the development of the eggs. So the more settings and dial there are, the more we seemed to ‘fiddle’. So this is why we like our basic one. TO be honest, given how technical some machines are, it is amazing that nature achieves all these factors!

So we prepare by cleaning the incubator. Though we always do this before placing it in storage, would rather be safe than sorry. Since eggs absorb almost everything through their shells, its just better to ensure their environment is clean to begin with. So we clean ours with enviro-friendly dishwashing liquid and warm water and then sterilise with ‘Breath ezi’ a biodegradable oxine- so kills bacteria, fungus etc.

Then we need to warm up the incubator. So setting it up and adding warm water (not hot or cold). Ours has a well in the base with some raised guides. We fill ours to the lip of these and it appears to have worked out well to date. This will need to be topped up (with warm water) throughout as this is what creates the humidity- never let your incubator run dry.

We run our incubator for at least 12 hours prior to using. Once we are around 12 hours we check to internal temperature. We do this using a digital thermometer inside, as we have never trusted the dial.  Depending on the external temperature, humidity etc. this can vary. Ideally the internal temperature should be 37°c, with 1 degree of tolerance. Any lower and they may not develop, or may have issues. Any hotter and they may also develop problems, or cook.

So once in, leave them for 2 days before turning. We then manually turn ours twice a day- morning and evening. To turn the eggs we turn them width ways- not point to point. This is continued for 16 days and then as I mentioned earlier left for the last few days til they hopefully hatch.

 Now you can candle your eggs during then incubation. We do so around the 1 and 2 week marks. You could do earlier and it is tempting from around 4 days onwards. However we try to hold out until the one week mark; we refrain from discarding eggs, though we do group any slow or nonstarters together. Then assess their progress (if any) a week later.

When candling you are looking for a dark matter, possibly some veins or a defined air sac. The mass shouldn’t move, or moves slower. An inactivated egg will be light and whilst you probably will see the yolk it will float to the top easily.

A word of warning, candling can be addictive. And you could damage your chances of successful incubation by ‘over candling’. As you are interfering with the eggs environment; temperature, humidity etc. and all these factors affect whether incubation is successful. So whilst it is tempting, try to keep your curiosity to a minimum. At the end of the day even a fertile and well developed egg does not guarantee chicks.


The next stage you have no real control over, it’s just a matter of wait and see. And it doesn't matter how many times we have done this, it is always exciting!

To break out of the egg the chick has to effectively suffocate, twice. The initial takes place once the air sac within the membrane is exhausted. Prompting the reflex to break through the internal membrane, a similar scenario takes place for the little bird to break through the shell. These can take place in reverse. Sometimes the initial reaction will break the outer shell, whilst the membrane remains mainly. 

This is an exhausting process for the chicks, and not all are successful. This is where there is often debate about ‘helping’ the bird out.

Sadly some are just too exhausted :(
In the lead up to a chick ‘pipping’ there is often noises- chirping and tapping. If this activity drops and the ‘pip’ then its possibly too late.

For a bird that has done the hard work and “pipped” they may take some time to actually hatch. It is at this point we have been known to help birds out.

Many argue that it’s a matter of survival of the fittest. There is also a risk that by assisting the bird you may unintentionally do more harm than good.

If the bird is too exhausted to hatch it could dry up inside the egg. By picking the shell and/ or membrane to help them out, you could nick a vein/artery and the bird could bleed out. It’s also worth noting that they will initially still be attached by a cord. They absorb all the nutrients from the egg sac through this and it will dry up and fall off in time- so never pull it off.

New hatchlings can stay in an incubator without food or water for 24- 48hrs. Generally we leave them until their nice and fluffy. At this point we transfer them to their next stage/home, their brooder box.

This is also the stage that you would be if you were purchasing day old chick- like our ‘Eatwells’... (something I convered recently, but am sure there's another post on the topic coming soon).


Tuesday, 4 August 2015

'Eatwells'; Heritage tablebirds

'Eatwells' Heritage Style tablebirds
Well our new ‘Eatwells’ have arrived; the heritage style meat chickens I struggled to source. There are a few producers hat are developing lines such as these, however they are generally only available to free range farms that meet a set of criteria. Other than not being commercial, our biggest downfall to most of these is our regional location.

Anyway we did manage to source some and purchased them as part of a syndicate, and had them shipped up. They are not the common commercial broilers; big give away being their variety of colours. But are a cross of heritage breeds, that should reach table weight within 12-16 weeks (as opposed to the 5-8weeks of the commercial broilers) and should be better suited to free range conditions.
The syndicate purchase- all collected within a few days


You may wonder why we have gone to such lengths to source a ‘heritage style table bird’ when commercial broilers will be table ready in half the time. And the answer is simple. Today’s broilers have been selectively bred for the purpose of maximum productivity. And are significantly heavier than the original crosses from which they were developed.

We have raised broilers in the past, under what we consider free range conditions. And even with access to grass and daylight they would sit in their shelter (generally in their own mess) and eat constantly. We resorted to taking their food away. And would have to place them our doors to clean out their shelter.

We also had a few busy weekends, leaving the birds grow out a few extra weeks. To which it became a matter of we needed to cull them as their quality of life was suffering (they could barely walk) and before they died of other causes (heart attack etc).  I guess commercially they reach their target weight in 35-40 days. So 10 weeks would be quite old.


So we are hoping that raising these ‘heritage style’ birds should produce a reasonable table bird. Faster than a purebred (the Sussex or Indian Game’s we breed can take up to 12 months to reach a reasonable table weight), but with a better standard of life than our experience with the broilers. And part of this is that our purebred birds have access to grazing, so am hoping these will exhibit more natural instincts; scratching, grazing etc.

So far they are only a week or so old. They arrived ranging from day olds to possibly 3-4 days of age. Some had dramatically more feathers than others. But all appeared to understand where the food and water were when they were introduced to the brooder. They huddle together when colder and spread out and stretch their wings to cool off. And they are already displaying some promise in hunting, as they scratch and peck at the odd bug or marks on the side of the brooder.

They will need to stay in the brooder for a few weeks yet, until they are fully feathered. And even they, depending on how the season progresses they may be transferred outside during the day, but returned to their brooder with its toastie lamps at night until the temperatures pick up a little.

So I cleaned out their box over the weekend. Depending on the number and size of the birds we generally give them a quick scrape out and top up of fresh saw dust during the week, and then a thorough clean out once a week. Obviously the more and larger the birds, the greater and quicker the mess develops.

So I prepared the other side of the box and took the opportunity to weigh a couple of the birds, before I transferred them. Mostly out of curiosity, and given the variety of ages it is going to be difficult to track them accurately, or particularly scientifically. Though there are a few distinct ones that I am going to try and track as a comparison til the end.

We have also begun tracking the cost for rearing these birds. As we often get asked is it worth it? To which we always agree it is, but when people want to know figures we generally couldn’t say.  So we are hoping to have an accurate figure to table.

As we are also incubating some Sussex eggs, that should hopefully hatch in a week or so (ever count your chickens before they hatch). I guess we should be able to compare these ‘table birds’ to a heritage dual purpose bird and hopefully in the future to that of any Indian Game we may hatch.