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).


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