What came first the chicken or the egg? I cannot answer this question but I am going to start with the egg.
Eggs can be incubated either under a broody hen or in an incubator. The hen should not be a large meat bird as these will crush the eggs. Many egg laying breeds do not seem to have the instinct to sit for the full three weeks. I have found bantams to be the best sitter and make excellent mothers. I have set a bantam at the same time as I filled my incubator and given her up to 40 chickens. Believe it or not she will cover all 40 and bring them. They do, in fact, seem to get a better start in life with a bantam as she will introduce them to foods that chickens on their own may takes days to recognise as food.
I will concentrate on incubation in this article but refer to a broody hen along the way.
Selecting eggs is important. They should be normal eggs, not deformed, too small or too large. Do not attempt to incubate double yolkers. They may not fit into your incubator and they may fall off your tuner. Eggs need to be clean. Do not wash any dirty eggs; discard them, as washing will remove a protective protein coat called a cuticle which protects the egg from bacteria infection.
Eggs should be fertile, for this you will need a rooster, 1 rooster for 20 hens is sufficient.
Coming out of winter many of the early eggs will be infertile and as a result are only good for eating. Egg fertility will depend on the age of you rooster and hens, younger rooster will do the job earlier than older roosters who may not get really into the job until the spring salsas (21stof September in the southern hemisphere.)
In any case every time you eat an egg check to see if it is fertile. Fertile eggs have a white structure hanging off the yolk. This is the embryo (baby chicken.)
Store the eggs point down, between 12 and 22 degree Celsius. This temperature is crucial as the embryos will die if stored outside this temperature. This includes the temperature of your hen house, if the temperature of the embryo falls outside this temperature range between laying and collection the egg will be no good…
I store mine in an old Esky which can be turned two of three times a day through a full 90 degrees. This prevents the embryo from become stuck on the yolk.
Many books say you can store eggs up to 14 days, I find more than 7 days is a risk and reduces fertility.
Once you have enough eggs to fill your incubator, turn it on and allow 24 hours for the temperature to stabilise. This should be 37.4 degrees Celsius for chicken eggs.
Incubators can be purchased├é┬áon eBay for between $200 and $300, I have seen them go at chook actions for between $50 and $100. These prices are for the Hova-Bator pictured above.
Here the incubator is full with 42 eggs placed point down on the automatic turner.
Note the remote weather sensor in the top right hand corner. This allows me to monitor the temperature and humidity from my lounge chair. The thermometer should read 37.4 .C; the remote sensor will read about 35 to 36. These can be obtained on eBay for less than $30.
The humidity should be between 45 and 50%.
Following instructions with your incubator, place water in the bottom as instructed and place the lid on the top.
Top up the water as required.
Incubation is a balance act between:
- Temperature (37.4)
- Humidity (between 45 and 50%)
- Oxygen, the incubator has holes which allow oxygen in, a fan also helps here.
- The room temperature which ideally should be 20 degrees C. (This is difficult to achieve.)
- Turn the eggs through at least 90 degrees at least twice per day. The Automatic turner will do this for you and well worth the little extra you have to pay.
You can also set your broody bantam at this stage and leave alone for 21 days; she will do all the work.
After five days you can candle your eggs.
This should be repeated on the tenth day.
This is my home made candling box with a light placed in the box. Infertile eggs will appear clear while fertile will have a dark shadow.
Some books will say to discard the infertile eggs. I keep them in the incubator, placing them around the outside. I believe that they act as a heat sink and help to keep the temperature in the incubator stable.
On the 18th day increase the humidity to above 50% by adding to the surface area of the water. (Follow your instructions here).
Remove the egg turner and place the eggs on their side on the tray provide.
Increase the oxygen by opening more air holes. (Follow the instructions here.)
On the 21st night you should have chickens, some eggs may take a couple more days to come out, and I find the larger eggs may take 23 days.
Do not open the incubator between the 18th and 22nd day unless something drastic has happened. Like all expected mothers the instinct is to worry about what is happening. You might even hear the chickens chirping during the days leading up to hatching. I think that they are communicating with each other, co-ordinating the big day. The first chicken out will chirp away all night; calling his mates out.
We all want to know how many we will get. The important thing is that the chickens require high humidity to dry. This may sound silly, but when hatched they are covered in the amniotic fluid that if removed from a high humidity environment will dry in clots and the chicken may loose its ability to keep itself warm. After all this is what their feathers are for.
Here the newly hatched chickens are in a brooder box with feed and water. A light at the top of the picture keeps the chickens warm. I keep them here for a few days to allow them to recover from the hatching and to gain strength. I also can easily check to ensure that they are eating and drinking. Sometimes chickens will not eat, in this case sprinkle a little food over the chickens, they will pick it off each other. If this does not work use your finger to pick at the food while making a clucking noise. This is called imprinting. The chickens should start to follow your finger and start picking the food.
I lost an entire hatch once because they simply did not learn to eat. Usually one chicken discovers food and the rest learn of it. But this does not always happen.
Your bantam should have chickens now. Place her in a large box with a light as a heat source. Give her your chickens from the incubator. As long as they are less than 2 days old she should accept them and they will bond with her.
After a few days, when I am confident that all chickens are strong, drinking and eating, I place them in a brooder containing 1 or 2 light bulbs, depending on the air temperature.
Tex counts the chickens.
My latest brooder is an old set of draws I found beside the road. The shelves removed and with a little adaption this makes an excellent brooder.
The lights I work off a time switch to encourage the chickens outside into a well protected enclosed pen. This brooder is on its 3rd set of chickens this season, thus the chicken litter on the top.
For the first weeks I feed them a commercial chicken start in the feeder in the foreground.
The tin beside this contains my mix of fish and Lucerne chaff.
Here the remains of fish, after cleaning, are being boiled for my chickens. To obtain true Omega-3 rich chickens you must feed them fish. See my section on Good Fats, Bad Fats.
Once boiled, I divide the mixture into take away containers and freeze. Defrost one or two a day and mix with rice husks to increase the volume.
This I introduce to the chickens after about ten days along with Lucerne and other natural foods. Within days the chickens will chose my feed over the commercial feed and this can be cut out all together.