Today is Day One of “The Great Incubation” here at the Village Homestead. I’ve wanted chickens for so long now and I’m diving in head first. I rented the incubator from our local extension office for $10, plus a $20 refundable deposit, providing I return it in good shape (here in New York it’s Cornell Cooperative Extension that provides the incubators). I bought one dozen fertilized eggs from them as well, Red Sex-Links. I also sourced 10 eggs from a friend of mine (Liz, who also makes the fantastic sandwich bread I keep eating at home). She has a variety of chickens in her backyard: Orpingtons, Cochins, and Wyandottes. I put them all in the incubator at midnight last night and today I start acting as the mother hen, turning them, making sure they are safe, and keeping track of which ones are viable and which are not.
For all you other new Mother Hens, I’ll share what I’m doing as these next weeks go by.
I will stop here for a moment and say that today is also my youngest child’s 5th birthday – a big day for me and an even bigger one for her. She is so excited to be 5, to be a Big Girl, and to have a day where she is extra special because she has something to celebrate. ‘H’ is 5!
Back to the chickens!
If you want chickens, the easiest way to get them is not to incubate them as I am, but to purchase them from a hatchery. It’s not that expensive. I did explore that option but found that the big hatcheries required a minimum order number (25 chicks! That’s a lot) or they allowed a small number but the shipping was very expensive. I found out about the incubator rental and jumped on it. All told, I will probably end up with 25 chicks anyway (after I take the extras from a friend who is also incubating at home), and it will probably cost me just as much in feed as it would have for the expensive shipping. But because I like to live life fully and with gusto, I am finding that the process of hatching eggs for X amount of money is significantly more satisfying than purchasing day old chicks for the same price.
There are a few things to know about storing your eggs and preparing them for the incubator.
When I brought the eggs home I stored them in the cellar, where the temperature is 55 degrees F, until a few hours before they were ready to enter the incubator. When I brought them up from the cellar I washed my hands, then looked them over and with a paper towel I brushed off any fecal matter and feathers that were on the shells. It’s important to keep the shells dry and not wash the eggs before incubation. This is a tough concept for the modern day clean freak like myself. On one hand the eggs should be as clean as possible to avoid the risk of transmitting disease to the newly hatched chicks, but at the same time the eggs must not be exposed to running water or they may not hatch. So when you are looking at a poo-covered egg, what do you do? I decided to scrape it off as best as I could with a paper towel, send some loving energy to it, and add it to the mix. I suppose I could have omitted the really poo-covered ones from the hatch all together.
First of all, store them in a cool, dry place until a few hours before incubation time. At that point, bring them out to a warm area to start getting them up to temperature. The incubator is set to 100 degrees and the eggs will get up to that temperature once they are placed inside.
Secondly, you will be turning the eggs 3-4 times a day for a maximum of 18 days (starting from Day One). You turn them to keep the yolk centered and ensure that the chick develops properly. A mother hen turns her eggs instinctively. To make it easier on yourself, mark one side of the egg with an X and the other side with an O. Place them in the incubator with all of the X’s facing toward the ceiling. When it comes time to turn them, make sure the O’s are all facing up. And keep going like this, 75 more times.
After you mark the eggs with an X and O, return them to the carton with the big end up. This helps to keep the yolk centered.
Setting up the incubator
The incubator I’m renting is a styrofoam one with a plastic water tray in the bottom, a wire screen on which the eggs sit, and a heater that is pre-set to 100 degrees. I have a thermometer in the incubator (kept at egg-level) that I can look at to reassure myself that the temperature is close to 100 degrees. I also took care to plug the kit into a socket that was not loose and not hooked up to the wall switch (don’t laugh, it happens). The incubator isn’t in direct sunlight, so it won’t get super hot during the day, and it’s not sitting right in front of the window where it will pick up drafts. I’m plugging in a digital clock right next to it so if the power goes out I’ll know how long it’s been out.
A few things that are important: the temperature must be kept at or about 100 degrees F. The humidity must be enough so that the eggs don’t dry out, yet not so much that the eggs are too wet and don’t hatch. The water tray in the bottom of the incubator adds moisture to the air. Humidity level is one of my biggest questions about the incubation process right now, and I’ll be finding out more about it in the next few days. I live in an old house with great air exchange. It’s dry here. What does that mean for my incubator? How will I know if it is too dry, too wet, or just right?
Something you might also keep in mind if you share your home with any heat-seeking, adorable cats, as do I: Grace will lay on anything that provides a little warmth, so I put a few lightweight items on the top of the incubator to keep her away. I used plastic cups with sharpened pencils in them. It’s enough so that she’ll pass it by should she happen to be sniffing around in the area.
If there is anything at all to know about me, it’s that I’m not a record-keeper. But it’s important to keep good records about the eggs and I have embraced the idea without very much prodding at all. I made a booklet where I will be able to write down what time of day I turn each egg on each day and write down any notes about them. My booklet looks something like this:
|Day 1||Thursday, March 8|
|Turn Eggs #1|
|Turn Eggs #2|
|Turn Eggs #3|
|Turn Eggs #4|
What do I take note of each time I turn the eggs? I’ve turned them once today and so far I found that one egg, the most crud-encrusted one that went into the incubator, is showing a hairline crack. I removed it and threw it out. Because this is Day One I threw it out as I would any egg from my fridge. If it were further along in the incubation stage, I would have placed the egg in the freezer for 24 hours first to permanently stop the incubation process. I also checked the water level in the pan to be sure it was full, and noted that the temperature is not yet up to 100 degrees. It will take a day to get there now that I’ve added the eggs.
I have a separate booklet I use for candling results.
What is candling, and why would you do it? Candling is the act of looking at each egg with a bright light shining through it. Starting on Day 3 you can see if the egg is fertile, and as the days go on you can track the progress of the incubation to be sure things are going along on schedule. Not all eggs are fertilized, and not all fertilized eggs will develop and hatch. The eggs that don’t make it will begin to rot and smell. One way to keep the incubator clean and fresh is to make sure that all eggs in it are viable and on track for hatching successfully. I’ll be candling this batch for the first time on Saturday night (March 10) and will post photos of the process sometime after.
So here we go! A new adventure. The eggs will take 21 days to hatch, giving us a Thursday, March 29 target date for meeting the new chicks. After that, we’ll have lots of fun figuring out what to do with all these chicks. I’m looking forward to it! Stay tuned.