Hatching Eggs in an Incubator

By Kelly Klober

The purchase of a cabinet incubator with a capacity of several hundred eggs was what marked the real launch of our work with rare and heirloom chicken breeds. Into that machine goes eggs of all sizes and colors and, if all goes well, out of it comes an equally wide array of baby chicks of nearly every hue and stripe. At the end of each hatching season and again the following spring, I give the unit a most thorough cleaning. I scrape down all of the surfaces and wash it out with a solution of bleach and water. The clear door is washed, the door gasket checked carefully, egg trays and racks washed, and they and the humidifier tray set out to catch some sun. I try to expose the trays to the naturally disinfecting rays of the sun often during the course of the hatching season.

Along with a second spring cleaning, everything mechanical is given the once over. Thermostat wafers are examined and replaced, every surface is wiped down again, and the unit is turned on for a full trial run several days before it will be actually needed. The test run is to see that the turners work, temperatures are held, and that all racks are free. Signs of thermostat wafer wear or failure will include a squashed or swollen appearance or surface discoloration. We use a digital thermometer to gauge operating temperature and like it much better than the dial-type with stem that came with the unit. It does take a bit of time to get operating temperatures right after a restart from a prolonged rest or when wafers have been replaced.

marked eggs in incubator
I have friends that will mist their eggs with warm water once each day with a spray bottle.

I am especially conscious of keeping the tray topped up when eggs go into the hatcher tray at the bottom of the cabinet on their eighteenth day of incubation. Too low of a humidity level and the chicks will have trouble hatching and dry too quickly. Too high and they may emerge, but die soon after, looking wet and swollen.

To better maintain the healthfulness of the cabinet environment, some will add a bit of chlorine bleach to the water in the humidifier tank. They add one teaspoon of bleach per pint of water and may do so once or twice a week. Too much chlorine may kill incubating embryos.

If you do have eggs go bad inside the incubator and especially if one goes off “hand grenade” fashion, a full take down and clean up of the cabinet interior may be in order. The bacteria released can really take a toll on embryos.

egg hatching in incubator
A misting product called Oxine is also good for maintaining health. It is OMRI listed.

During a power failure, an incubator can be wrapped with wool blankets (hit up the surplus stores) or other insulating material such as a water heater cover and if the cabinet is kept closed, the eggs will be at least partially protected for several hours. The hatch rate will be reduced, but it will buy some time and help to save at least a portion of the hatch. While on the subject of emergency management, always have on hand a backup kit. In this should be extra thermostat wafers, an extra thermometer, operating instructions, and other spare parts.

With the incubator up and running, the next component of the successful hatching equation is the egg — “ovum” in Latin. There is both a bit of science and a bit of art to the successful handling of “hatch eggs.” Not every egg will hatch, not even every fertile one. The task is to keep them fertile, viable, and moving into the incubator in a timely fashion.

Handling Eggs for Hatching

When gathering and handling eggs meant for hatching, there are several things to consider.

hand collecting eggs
Fresh and clean are the two keys to successful hatching egg management.
  • Gather eggs to be hatched a minimum of two to three times a day. In cold weather gather the eggs a minimum of three times each day.
  • Keep nests well bedded with straw or other soft, dry, and absorbent material. Giving the birds as clean an environment as possible into which to lay their eggs will both save labor and improve hatchability.
  • In wet, muddy weather hold the birds indoors until at least 10:00 a.m. to get the eggs laid into dry nests. Provide added nest space if doing this.
  • If eggs are lightly stained try to clean them with a light scraping using a dull blade or gentle buffing with fine grit sandpaper. Discard any badly stained eggs and those stained with the liquids from broken eggs.
  • For best results store hatching eggs for no more than seven days. This figure can be pushed to ten days, with fourteen days about the maximum to push your luck. I’ve seen texts that report fair results with eggs held for up to twenty-one days, but then I’ve also heard stories of eggs pulled out of a refrigerator after many days and still hatching. I don’t want to take such a chance nor own such a refrigerator.
  • The best temperature level at which to store hatching eggs is in a range between fifty-five and sixty-five degrees F. In very warm weather I will hold hatching eggs in an all-wire rabbit cage, in an open incubator tray, and have it suspended in a shaded area. It generally takes us two to three days to fill such a forty-eight-egg tray.
  • Store the eggs in cartons or flats of extra incubator trays. Elevate one side by placing it on a brick or empty egg carton. Then each time you pass them by, turn and elevate the opposite end. This will prevent the air cell from sticking or becoming mispositioned.
eggs in incubator storage
Store the eggs small end down.

When hatching for yourself, eggs can go into the incubator at just about any time of the week as long as they won’t later overtax brooding and growing facilities. Hatcheries generally set eggs to hatch on a Sunday or Monday to get the chicks shipped and arriving at their new owners by early to mid-week. Producers can likewise schedule hatches to arrive in a timely manner for growing out birds for show or to arrive for specific marketing events such as farmers’ markets.

For all of the best efforts there also seems to be that element of luck needed to bring off a good hatch from time to time. Even the definition of “good hatch” can be something a bit different with the rare and exotic breeds. With White Rocks in big cabinet incubators, we often approached one hundred percent hatches. With some of the rarer breeds and those from small, closely related populations, a fifty-five percent hatch may be something to crow about. Sixty-five to seventy-five percent hatches with a smaller incubation unit are always quite respectable.

Another one of those much-discussed subjects among poultry raisers is how best to ready eggs to go into the incubator. Everyone seems to have their own list of do’s and don’ts and what works for one person may not work every time for another. One of the most controversial practices was actually taught to me by a commercial hatchery operator. He wanted all eggs delivered to him to be dipped in warm water to which a bit of bleach had been added and then they were to be wiped clean with a soft cloth. This water was around 101 degrees F. and we would add about a tablespoon of bleach to two quarts of the warmed water. This practice is a real anathema to many, but this man regularly reported ninety percent plus hatches from our washed eggs.

I don’t wash eggs often, but will if it keeps me from having to discard some very rare or valuable eggs.

Increasing Hatchability

Setting day is also an important one when hatching eggs and includes several point to increase hatchability.

  • Be mindful of the day the eggs will hatch. Don’t set them to hatch on holidays, times when you will be away or to arrive in busy seasons on the farm.
  • Many will candle the eggs before placing them in the incubator. They are looking for fine cracks and other structural anomalies. Do not incubate overly large, double yolked, misshapen, rough shelled or small and pullet eggs. As noted earlier I have violated this pullet egg caution and especially when trying to build numbers of a really rare variety.
  • Maintain a careful log as to the incubator’s loading and operation. Document when eggs go in, where they are positioned in the unit, the breeding behind them, and when they are due to hatch.

On the eighteenth day of incubation, eggs should be removed to the hatching tray of the incubator or to a separate hatcher unit. Many do not like to hatch within their primary incubator believing that chick fluff and hatching wastes can build up and affect components or contaminate the cabinet environment.

candling egg
Before placing the eggs in the hatcher, we candle each one and remove those that are not bearing a viable embryo.

Some will candle eggs multiple times during incubation, including around the seventh and fourteenth days. I don’t always trust my old eyes for an early candling and prefer to keep my entering the incubator and handling of the eggs to a minimum.

Tips for the Hatching

In the hatcher, when the eggshells break away, the background identity of the chicks written on the shell can be lost unless some specific measures to safeguard them are taken. As the eggs are candled on the eighteenth day they can be positioned in the hatcher in certain ways that will then enable you to pinpoint the origins of newly hatched chicks. There are several ways to accurately identify chicks as they hatch.

  • Use simple bags made from the legs of old pantyhose. One end can be knotted. The egg is placed in it in a manner that leaves the emerging chicks plenty of flex and the other end knotted shut. These securely separated eggs can then be placed in the hatcher. The hatched chicks are then removed from these porous containers that are then discarded.
  • A dot of nail polish can be used as a very short-term method to denote different chicks.
  • There are hatcher trays that are segmented with thin wooden or wire mesh dividers. Eggs from different matings are placed in the different segments and their location in the tray written into the incubator log. The hatcher tray top then holds the newly hatched chicks in position until they can be toe punched or otherwise identified.
  • Small, pedigree-mating baskets can be made from fine wire or plastic mesh. In them the eggs are completely contained, as are the chicks that hatch from them. Some have even cut down plastic berry boxes for this purpose.

When it comes to hatching, one tough call to make is whether or not to help a chick that is having a hard time emerging from the shell. A first step might be to mist them a bit with warm water or even dip them quickly into the humidifier pan if they appear dry. If they appear wet and bulbous, the problem is too much humidity.

Just how much to help is the real question. I have helped to make an initial pipped opening larger or even pick away some shell pieces and have had a bit under a forty percent success rate with helping late hatchers. These measures should be done very carefully and only by removing very small areas of shell. If blood should appear stop immediately and put the egg back in the hatcher, but sadly, if that happens, too much damage has probably already been done. Where absolutely every chick counts you will have to rush the envelope, but those slow hatchers could still come back to haunt you by producing more of the same kind.

Hatchability is the first proof of a mating. Clear eggs, those that were not fertilized, will result in a need to reevaluate your breeding birds, the weather, ration choices, and a number of other things.

Source: Talking Chicken

Working with Broody Hens

By Kelly Klober

The two big problems with broody hens are their somewhat limited capacity to cover eggs and the simple fact that they don’t always go broody when you need or want baby chicks. I know of no way to make hens go broody although it has been said that if the trait is in them it can be sometimes be triggered by switching them to an all grain ration in warmer weather.

A clutch of hatching eggs traditionally measures fifteen, an unusual number even for our non-metric system. It is the near ideal number for a good-sized hen to fully cover and then brood successfully.

brooding hen
Some old hands will trust their most needed and valued eggs only to proven broody hens.

Some standard bred hens can have this number bumped up to about eighteen eggs and some bantams will do best with just eight to ten large eggs. The tendency to have a broody nature has now been bred out of a great many breeds and strains within breeds. Although I have heard reports of even the odd Leghorn going broody over the years, the trick now will be finding dependable setting hens. Most who use broody hens now maintain a special small flock that has been selectively bred just for this trait. There are a few Standard breed varieties offered as retaining the broody instinct, but wade into those waters rather carefully. If you do find a line in which the hens will take to the nest and hold to it consistently by all means propagate them. However, good setters are generally not high output layers.

One of the few good reasons for a smallholder to do much in the way of crossbreeding is to develop a small flock of dependable, broody hens. An acquaintance has a set of hens based largely on some old line Buff Orpingtons that will even hatch peafowl eggs and go on to breed and rear the peachicks. The best foundation birds for a flock of broodies may be best drawn from the bantam sector.

Silkies have a reputation for trying to hatch everything including doorknobs. I have seen Silkie hens go broody after laying as few as a half dozen eggs and they are truly staunch on the nest. They can handle up to twelve eggs and with a small flock kept just for broodies you can selectively breed for larger sized hens. Some will cross Silkies with other bantams to produce a somewhat more vigorous flock of broodies.

Silkies are very gentle, do not fly, and are the classic “floor” birds. They fall into a category of their own somewhere between bantams and standard birds although they are most often seen and shown with the bantams. Due to their truly gentle nature they should not be penned with some of the more aggressive breeds.

Silkies will raise almost anything in an egg, including geese and even turkeys.

Some have opted to keep a small flock of purebred Silkies with which to do their hatching and maintain the purebred theme of their other flocks. They always sell well, too. Some will say that the only true Silkie is the White variety with its very dark, mulberry colored skin. It is a highly valued table bird in some Asian cultures and is also esteemed for certain medicinal properties. It is seen in a number of other colors and patterns than just white, but as I have handled them I have noticed that nearly all had at least a few hard feathers.

Cochin bantams have been used often for natural incubation, but with their feathered legs there can be problems with cleanliness and even eggs being pulled from the nest. They may be more useful for this purpose if crossed with a similar, clean legged, larger sized bantam such as the Wyandotte. Among the standard varieties some lines of Rocks, Wyandottes, and Orpingtons retain broody tendencies. It is a trait that seems to manifest itself stronger in the rarer and minor strains within some of these breed categories. Blue Wyandottes and Buff Rocks may have been among the broodiest large breed birds we’ve owned, but birds from a different strain may not be nearly so strong to the nest. Standard Games often retain quite strong broody character and can be real chick raisers, but they can be quite aggressive toward other birds.

brooding hens in nest boxes
Before trusting a hen with a clutch of rare and very valuable eggs make certain that she will hold fast to her nest. To do this, test her with a nest egg or two for a minimum of forty-eight to seventy-two hours. 

The containment for brooding hens should be some distance from other birds to keep the broodies calm and to prevent other hens from laying to their nest. A quiet, darkened area is best and many once built small, broody hen coops. They were, essentially, a two-wide stack of nests made of solid construction to a height of six or seven feet. Often they have a house-type door with some screening for natural ventilation.

The hens would be let out for an hour or so each day. The birds would be supervised and the nests then be checked for broken eggs, parasites, and soiled nesting material. Most now just partition off a darkened corner of a larger building or use a small outbuilding to contain broody hens shown to be solid to the nest. Such setting hens can be penned together if their nest sites are clearly established and they can get off the nests to feed and water themselves. Their nests will still need to be regularly inspected.

For best results broody hens should be healthy and free of parasites. Nest boxes should be size appropriate for the birds being employed. Nest size can range from twelve inches by twelve inches by eighteen inches to a full twenty-four inches by twenty-four inches by twenty-four inches.

Such nests will need some preparation before introducing the hen and eggs. It should have been cleaned thoroughly — including a scraping of all surfaces. Treat the surfaces with a miticide if there have been a previous problem with them. Old timers will apply a lime-based whitewash to all surfaces before each new use. Organic producers might want to look into using MiteGard for mite control.

Apply a layer of cedar chips or shavings to the bottom of the nest box. These contain a natural insecticide. Over them apply a layer of clean straw or other nesting material to a depth of two to four inches. As time passes this material may have to be supplemented and badly soiled spots removed carefully.

hen with brood
If given the needed space and protection, a broody hen can be entrusted to raise her chicks, also.

Allowing a broody hen to raise her chicks will require added time and facilities and will have a hen out of lay for many weeks. A great many prefer to pull the clutch of chicks once hatched and brood them in regular chick brooding units. This does give an added element of control over how the birds are fed and tended.

By removing the chicks it is possible to have a broody hen bring off two or even three clutches in a single season. Some will even have Silkie and Silkie-crosses incubate two clutches of eggs in succession. I once had a little Silkie hen take up residence on a bare nest on Labor Day and hold to it until Christmas Eve.

For those who want true and natural simplicity, the broody hen may still be the way to go. They lack a certain predictability as well as time and volume controls, but they do have longstanding history and old Mother Nature on their side.

Source: Talking Chicken

Ordering Hatching Eggs: What to Expect

By Kelly Klober

There is a long history to the hatching egg trade and among my grandparents’ antiques and collectibles were a number of hatching egg shipping crates. One was made of one half inch by one-half inch hardwood slats fitted together to form an open-weave box that would accommodate several flats of eggs. It had a solid wood bottom and fitted top and a wrought iron handle for carrying. Another had a box made of aircraft aluminum and had egg dividers made of rigid cardboard with metal reinforced top and bottom edges.

Hatching eggs were once shippable when live birds weren’t and that happened again one autumn just a few years back. Under prodding from animal rightists and due to economic maneuvering, a number of airlines refused to handle live shipments as a part of their mail handling contracts. Hatcheries and poultry groups became organized to form a shippers’ group and brought about a Congressional mandate requiring that live shipments continue as a part of the services provided by the U.S. Mail.

Today, for ease of shipping and handling, most hatching eggs are sold by the dozen. Even with great care hatching eggs are far from a certain proposition. The key is to buy the freshest eggs possible. Swallow hard and pay for the best and fastest shipping option available to you. Be realistic with your expectations and accept that this is probably the longest route to flock establishment.

chick with egg
There are certainly no sexing guarantees with hatching eggs and the safe assumption will be that of every ten chicks hatched, six will be little cockerels. To build workable numbers you should order hatching eggs in at least two dozen lots whenever possible and figure on having to order multiple lots in the early going.

The Internet now is home to a great many hatching egg auctions and marketing sites. It has certainly revived interest in this purchasing option and in the early stages of revived interest in them some rare breed genetics are only available in hatching eggs. Such eggs are often offered in very small lots (three or four), are offered in mixed lots with eggs of other breeds, and sell for some quite high prices. I have seen eggs of some of the rarest of the rare offered for as much as ten dollars per egg plus shipping costs. Also, bear in mind that some states have regulations on shipping hatching eggs that are every bit as restrictive as the rules and limits on shipments of live birds. Nor is it currently legal to have hatching eggs simply mailed in from abroad.

There is not a lot of difference between hatching egg and baby chick prices when packaging and shipping costs are factored into the price equation. Getting a hatching egg from point A to point B is a challenge worthy of the best design engineers; in fact, one major university in the nearby St. Louis area each spring has an egg-based design competition for its engineering students. They are to create containment for a raw egg that will enable it to survive a one-story (ten feet) drop on to a hard surface. A very, very few eggs survive this challenge despite some most elaborate container designs.

How Eggs are Shipped

The recommended hatching egg shipping procedure is to begin with a heavy weight shipping box that will allow at least four inches of padded space all the way around each smaller container of eggs to be shipped. Into the larger carton begin by laying down a four-inch layer of styrofoam peanuts or balled sheets of newspaper. The smaller, internal containers are regular one-dozen egg cartons. The eggs go into these cartons small end down, but before sealing it, wrap each egg in one sheet of paper toweling. Draw the edges of the towel up over the egg and twist them closed to form a small pouch. It holds each egg more securely in place, provides a bit of padding, and should keep other eggs in the carton cleaner if one does break. Some will use a square of bubble wrap rather than paper toweling, but it is not absorbent.

eggs in carton
Some people will fill all twelve segments of the egg carton and others will alternate or stagger the position of the eggs in the carton placing just six eggs in each carton.

Then close the carton, secure it, wrap it in bubble wrap and secure it again. Place one or two cartons on the base packing layer and pack all way around them with at least four inches of the packing material. With a deep carton, lay down a four to six-inch layer of packing material below the first eggs and place one or two more dozen on top of this. Then pack around them — up the sides and top with at least four inches of your packing material. It is probably best to try to ship no more than four-dozen eggs per shipping carton with this method.

Our local postal workers have always been considerate of egg and chick shipments. Becoming available now are a number of new shipping containers and foam packing materials that should do much to facilitate hatching egg shipments. Much discussed is the need or advisability of insuring hatching egg shipments and to what level. Some have reported that postal authorities will only award table egg prices should hatching egg shipments be damaged or lost.

At first glance, hatching eggs would seem the least-cost option for making a start with chickens, but they do not fare well in transit even with the best of packing. Handling, jarring of the egg air cell, and time in transit all combine to reduce hatchability. With shipped eggs, getting thirty to forty percent hatched has to be considered quite successful.

Some of the rarest breeds and emerging hot varieties are often only available as hatching eggs. Also, hatching eggs are the shipping option with which a number of the smaller breeders feel most comfortable. They will sell only hatching eggs and only after they have introduced enough hatching eggs for their own needs. Thus such eggs are often offered in what might be termed the off-season for hatching egg production. At the height of interest in the Penedesenca breed you would often see their eggs offered in lots as small as just three or four eggs and in assortments with eggs of other breeds. This is certainly not the best way to make a start. The numbers are just too small to create viable populations, but sometimes it is the only game available.

newborn chicks
For a brief time one recent fall, the only way to access poultry genetics nationally was through the purchase of hatching eggs.

There are a number of steps to consider for bettering your chances of success with purchased hatching eggs.

Helpful Tips

• Have your incubator up and running in good working order well in advance of any egg delivery date. You will need a minimum of seventy-two hours of optimum running to assure that the incubator is operating at the correct temperature settings.

• Request that you be sent eggs that have been laid for no longer than three days. Yes, eggs up to two weeks old will hatch if stored correctly, but after about seven days, the hatching percentages easily start to decline. An older egg age and lengthy shipping time combined are just too big a deterrent to a good hatch.

• Do not order eggs to be sent when weather extremes are apt to occur. If at all possible, drive to pick up any hatching eggs or try to work with fellow producers who are traveling to transport eggs back to you.

• Notify your post office if you are expecting a hatching egg shipment, ask them to call you when they arrive, and open the container at the post office in case some sort of damage in transit has occurred and a claim for loss is to be filed.

• At home unpack the eggs, remove any broken or cracked eggs, candle them for fine cracks, and then let them stand for twenty-four hours to allow the air cell to reposition if it has been moved out of position.

• Do not attempt to incubate eggs stained with the yolk and white of broken eggs. Wipe them with a soft cloth. Scrape lightly or even buff gently with fine-grained sandpaper if the egg material has dried.

I know it is a most controversial practice, but I have had success with dipping hatching eggs needing cleaning into a bowl of warm water, about 103 degrees F. I may even add a bit of household chlorine bleach to it. Dip them for no more than thirty seconds and wipe them carefully with a soft cloth.

Use light pencil strokes to denote their origin and other essential data on the eggshells. Also note such data in your incubator operation log.

Source: Talking Chicken