The Road Home

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Chickens Hatching and Incubating

Hello, Frank here.

Hope everybody had a nice Christmas. I know personally a few turkeys that did not enjoy the Christmas season, but they were yummy.

As we talked earlier, there is no perfect chicken breed. Some birds may give you all the eggs you want, some might give you a nice big carcass with lots of meat, but it's like a lot of things in life, you need to find something that you like and try it. Don't forget that in your preparation, birds are going to need so much square footage inside the chicken house. The general recommendation is about four square feet per bird. I like to use five. You can get by with a whole lot less if the birds are out foraging all day. The chickens that I raise, which are called Easter Egg chickens, would not walk on snow covered ground. So, my little birds were happy to stay in the house while that white stuff was on the ground. 

It is seriously a good time to order your chickens if you are going to use a hatchery. As time gets nearer to March and April you will see a lot of breeds sell out. So, I would not waste a whole lot more time. If you have a neighbor or friend that raises chickens, you can get a styrofoam incubator and hatch your own, which is going to be the topic today, how to hatch your own birds. But first, I want to remind you of a few other things. Remember when you are picking out birds, or breeds, that is, always remember that birds can scare little kids. Like I said earlier, I know adults to this day, that are afraid of chickens because of something that happened in their childhood. So if you have little guys around your chickens, take care of them. It's also a time to consider less aggressive breeds. 

When your baby birds come, no matter how you get them, from the local feed store or through the mail, be prepared. Make sure you have tested your equipment. I can't say this enough, these are babies, so have feed, have water, have everything you are going to need and make sure you have tested all of your equipment. Temperature is critical for these little guys. And don't forget, you'll have to give them their first drink. Pay attention for the first couple of weeks for a crusted vent, or poopy butt. 

Okay. On to today's topic. Let's say you have a buddy down the road that raises chickens. He has a flock of birds that you like and that he likes and he'll be happy to save you up about four dozen eggs. A little side note here. Lots of hatcheries sell eggs for hatching. I have never tried this technique, but if it didn't work, they wouldn't sell them. Food for thought. But I have hatched eggs from my own chickens and some of my friends and neighbors chickens. So, here is the way I do it.

Whoever is saving the eggs for you, whether you pick them up every day and take them home, or your buddy does it for you, it doesn't make any difference. Get you about six empty, clean egg cartons. The eggs need to be as close to fresh as possible. Let's say your buddy gets 12 eggs a day he can spare. Clean the eggs off, the excess poop and dirt, but do not wash them. An old toothbrush comes in handy here, but be gentle. Don't under any circumstances use your wife's toothbrush if she is not looking. If the eggs have wet poop on them, let it dry and brush it off very gently. DO NOT refrigerate the eggs and DO NOT wash the eggs. Keep them at room temperature.

Okay, you've got your eggs, they're clean. Take a pencil, not a pen or magic marker, and put the date on the top of the egg. Today for example is: 12-27. You say, "Which end is the top?" Well, the pointed end is the bottom. This is very important. The pointed end goes down. According to G.Q.F. Manufacturing, "During incubation, eggs must be turned several times a day to prevent the yolk from setting to one side and to exercise the embryo." You have 12 nice clean eggs, dated with the pointed end down. Take one of your empty cartons and put it under one end of your full carton. That means it will be raised up maybe two inches. Six or seven times a day, move the empty 
carton to the other end, therefore, effectively rotating those 12 eggs. When you go to bed, do it then. When you get up, do it then also. And a handful of times during the day. If you don't have enough eggs to fill a whole carton, just space them around evenly. If you're not home during the day, when you get home, do it then. When you get your next dozen eggs, do the same procedure and you can put two dozen eggs on that one empty carton. Continue doing this until you have four dozen eggs. The fresher the eggs, the better your hatch rate. So if your buddy gets 40 eggs a day, then you'll have all the eggs you need in two days.

Okay. What now? I have always used a rectangular, styrofoam type
incubator. You can pick these up at your local feed store or you can buy them online. The basic styrofoam unit has a top, a bottom and some type of temperature control with a heating element. It will come with a thermometer and a tray or screen for the baby chickens to stand on when they hatch. Some come with a fan inside to move the air around. Some come with an automatic egg turner that will tilt the eggs back and forth so you don't need to. All of the styrofoam incubators will have water troughs in the bottom. This is to help maintain proper moisture content. If you go with a complete package, test it before you start saving eggs and make sure it
works. Also test to make sure your incubator doesn't leak. If you got the automatic turner, put it inside the incubator and run it for a couple of days, along with the incubator. Reason being, everything you add to the incubator, like the fan and the automatic turner, both produce heat. So you will need to adjust your incubator temperature accordingly. A little bonus here. If you decide to buy the automatic turner, put the eggs in the automatic turner with the top of the incubator off, completely off not just turned off, but removed. Instead of doing the egg carton routine, the automatic turner will keep your eggs rotated for you. Do you have to have the automatic turner? Absolutely not. But it is a very handy tool.

Okay. So you have your eggs, don't forget the date in pencil.
They're clean with the pointed end downward. Most automatic turners hold 41, 42 or 48 eggs, something like that. You have tested your incubator's temperature with the egg turner in it. Okay. Now let's go. Put the top on with the eggs in it. I would do this on a Saturday morning, that is if you have weekends off. Watch the temperature very, very closely. Some instructions recommend 99.5 degrees, others recommend 99.9 degrees. I shoot for 99.5 degrees. Some will say this is too cool. This is one of those times where opinions differ. 

It takes chicken eggs 21 days to hatch. The last three days you will need to turn the turner off and remove it. This is no big deal. Open the lid, lift the turner out and place the eggs back into the incubator. Don't drop one. Okay. This is a good time to mention washing your hands. Don't handle your eggs any more than you need to. Wash your hands before you do, because the egg shell is porous. Good point for your kids to do the same thing too.

Now your eggs have been in the incubator for 18 days. You have kept the temperature set at 99.5 degrees. Every couple of days along the way you have filled the water troughs up. The birds are starting to produce their own heat. You might have excess humidity develop. Follow the instructions that came with the incubator. Most incubators come with little plugs for holes for ventilation. Keep the instructions. Read them and follow them. You should start hearing cheeping sounds. Remember these are baby birds and they don't understand clucking yet, so you will need to start cheeping. No joke. If you will cheep, they will answer you.

These last three days do not disturb the eggs. One day you will look through the viewing window of your incubator and if your viewing window is too wet, your humidity is too high and you just had some birds hatch.
When your birds start hatching, your humidity level will rise quickly. You will start to notice peck holes on the eggs. A baby chick has a little bitty chisel on it's beak. It will start by making a peck hole and then it will work it's way around the top of the egg. Be patient. Some chicks will hatch in a matter of minutes, others will take a couple of hours. Not trying to be funny here, but it's kind of like labor. It will push and push and it will eventually come out of the egg. This is one of the reasons for the moisture. The chick has to be able to move around inside of the egg. When it does hatch, it will lay there for a while. It may have some goo attached here and there. Do not under any circumstances help the bird out of the shell. Also do not remove any empty shells until the bird has completely cleared from the shell. 

Wa-la! Your first born. What now?

Some birds will hatch a whole day before anyone else hatches. Just leave the bird in the incubator, it's fine. When you have a half a dozen baby chicks running around, and they are good and dry, kind of fluffy looking,
gently tilt the lid up, grab your new baby chicken and give it a drink. Do that with the next four or five that are good and dry, or mostly dry. This is a good time to remove the empty shells also. Do this quickly because your heat and humidity are leaving your incubator and any chicks laying there are getting chilled. With practice you'll get better. More hands are sometimes better, too. Again, gently tilt the top up, have your helper grab the baby chicks, give them a drink, and you can do this one at a time, and remove the empty egg shells. When you take these birds out, you need to put them in your prepared brooder with appropriate water, feed and heat. We talked about brooders last time. Remember, these guys are just babies. Their brooder has to be dry, warm, draft free and predator free. Dogs and cats love baby chickens, too.

Okay, continue this process for a day or two. Then you're going to have to determine how much longer you're going to wait. The vast majority of the chickens will hatch in one day. A couple will be early, a few will be late. So what do you do about the guy that's late, he got a peck hole going all the way around his shell, but he just can't push out? That's a tough question. General accepted policy is to not assist chickens during birthing. The concept is you will help produce a weaker strain of chickens.
My recommendation is gather up all the eggs that didn't hatch or in the process of hatching and get rid of them. After the majority of your chickens have hatched, wait one more day. This is always difficult, but that's part of raising animals. And this is just my recommendation. If you want to, wait two days. I have hatched hundreds and hundreds of baby chickens and my experience is that if a chicken doesn't hatch within two days of hatch date, they are not going to. And if they do, they normally have some type of problem. So, put them in one of those Wal-Mart type baggies and put them in your outside trash and get rid of them and don't look back. 

When you are finished hatching, clean your incubator immediately. And remember when you are cleaning it that it is styrofoam. Be gentle. This incubator works well sitting still, but if you try to sling out the moisture after washing, you will have a handful of styrofoam still in your hand, and the incubator on the ground. Trust me. Please do not wash down the electrical components. A nice gentle wipe will do well here. I have some of these gizmos that have lasted for years. Keep the original box, get it good and clean and dry, put it back in the box and it's good to go next year. If you're going to use it again immediately, still clean it up and follow the instructions. Remember, the box that you kept and didn't throw away?
What you've just done is start your 6, 12 and 18 month cycle. In 6 months the hens will start to lay. In one year you can hatch their eggs again. In 18 months, if you choose, you can replace your adult birds. If you have a certain hatch date that you want, and you're going to start saving eggs, your incubation time is 3 weeks. Plan accordingly. Use the freshest eggs you can, test your equipment and be prepared. The birds you just hatched will provide you with meat and eggs, generation after generation.

One topic we didn't cover. If you choose not to use an automatic turner, when you are ready to start incubating the eggs, use a pencil and place  
an 'X' on one side. Lay the eggs down flat with the 'X' up, and every three or four hours, turn the eggs over with the 'X' down. When going over night, try to alternate 'X' down one night, 'X' up the next night, and follow the same time frame, temperature and humidity. You can get more eggs in the incubator if you do not use an automatic turner. Again, make sure your hands are clean since you will be handling them more often. Everything else is the same after hatch date. Remember, don't turn the eggs the last three days.

You will get about half and half, male to female. Your hatch rate might be anywhere from 50% to around 90%. Use well shaped eggs. In about 12 weeks be prepared to butcher the roosters. Some roosters you will butcher earlier and some you will butcher later, depending on the breed. Let's say you have 42 eggs in an incubator and you get an 80% hatch rate. That will give you about 32 birds, about 16 roosters and 16 hens. In about 12 weeks you butcher 14 of the roosters. Now you have 2 roosters and 16 hens. In about three more months, depending on the breed, you will start getting about 12 to 14 eggs a day. In about six more months, you do the whole thing over again. Ta-da!

For you folks that live off the grid, I have located a 12 volt VDC incubator. Here's the website. But, don't be fooled by the 12 volt AC turner. It is AC. So, food for thought. Something to play with.

If you're going to do this little experience, you need to have solid plans soon. About how many chickens do you want? What breed? Do you want to have a rooster? What kind of chicken coop are you going to buy or build? And you need to just get prepared. Hope this helps.

We'll cluck more later. Frank 

P.S. Don't forget to practice clucking, or in this case, cheeping.


  1. The only thing I can add is that when you start saving your eggs and they are in the egg cartons waiting to be set that we start turning them immediately. Just flip the carton over in the morning and again at night before bed until they are set.

    I raise chicken every year from my own eggs and butcher the extras. I replace my laying hens every other year.

  2. I have a question. I have 7 eggs in my incubator, they were laid under one of my mommas that we were letting have one baby while she was off the nest one day, we have no idea how long they were under her. When the baby she was hatching hatched, we put the rest in our incubator, they have been in there for around two weeks. We have two that are starting to look dark, but there is no smell. Could this be that these two are getting ready to hatch and that we can see the wet feathers? I appreciate any insight.

    1. Hello. There's really no way to know what is happening with your eggs. If you wait one more week, and it's already been two weeks, then your eggs should hatch if they're going to hatch. The last two days of that seven day period, quit turning the eggs, assuming that you have been. That will give you your full cycle. Those last three or four days, also increase your humidity. If your birds hatch, wonderful. If they don't, then very gently put them in a bag and dispose of them as you see fit. Or, you can take them to your neighbors house and drop them on the front porch. That's your call. Let us know what happens.