Starting your own flock from scratch. Will you hatch under a broody hen or artificial incubation? With incubators there are many important factors to consider. Generally these factors can be divided into three categories: choosing the right eggs, selecting an incubator and maintaining proper incubator conditions.
If you decide to go natural with a broody hen things are a little less complicated. The other alternatives are buying in already laying hens or point of lay pullets.
Hatching with Broody henIf you've opted for the natural choice of buying a broody hen, or you already have one, that is a great place to start. You can buy fertilised eggs, let her incubate her own or set a mixture of your backyard flocks eggs for her to sit on, hatch out and raise herself. As a general rule a good sized hen will be comfortable on 15 eggs.
You can also incubate Cortunix Quail eggs under a bantam, and a larger hen will happily sit on and hatch out duck eggs, though she might get a little upset when her precious babies take to the water. Chickens will also sit on Pheasant, Guinea Fowl, Pea Fowl, Turkey and some larger hens may sit on Goose eggs.
There is no beating a mother hen when it comes to hatching and raising chicks. To tell if your mother hen is is clucky/broody is easy, she will stay on the nest almost 24 hours a day, depending on the hen, she may get off for 30mins to 1 hour, this is natural. For the first few days she may get on and off the nest irregularly, if this happens she is not 100% brooding.
It's important to set eggs all at the same time so the chicks inside all develop at the same rate. If you've ordered eggs or are collecting eggs to set at the same time a good way to keep a hen clucky is by placing golf balls or egg sized stones under her. You can also purchase fake eggs for this purpose from some pet shops, farm and rural supply stores. If you've ordered some eggs and they're coming through the post it is a good idea to rest the eggs for about a day so the egg sack inside the egg can return to it's normal size and the embryo can settle.
To set eggs under a clucky hen is fairly easy. This must be done at night. Pick her up, move her to one side, remove Golf balls or fake eggs and set the desired eggs! Try not to disturb her too much during incubation which could cause her to abondon the clutch.
After incubation usually 20-21 days the chicks can be fed starter crumble. Make sure the mother and chicks have access to water that isn't too deep for the chicks to fall in and drown
Hatching With Incubator
Care of Hatching Eggs
1. Keep the nest full of clean, dry litter. Collect the eggs early in the morning and frequently during the day to prevent excessive chilling or heating of the eggs.
2. DO NOT wash eggs unless necessary. If it is necessary to wash eggs always use a damp cloth with water warmer than the egg. This causes the egg to sweat the dirt out of the pores. Never use water cooler than the egg. Also, do not soak the eggs in water. If the egg is allowed to soak in water for a period of time, the temperature difference can equalize and bacteria has a greater chance of entering through the pores. Be sure eggs are dry before storing. Never place damp or wet eggs in a styrofoam carton for storage.
3. Store the clean fertile eggs in an area which is kept at 55°- 60°F and 70-75% humidity. Never store eggs at temperatures about 75°F and at humidities lower than 40%. These conditions can decrease hatchability dramatically in a very short period of time.
Slant or turn the fertile eggs daily while they are being stored. Store the eggs small end down and slanted at 30-45 degrees. Putting a piece of 2" x 4" under one end of the carton or storage container and changing it to the other end daily works well.
Do not store eggs for more than 10-14 days. After 14 days of storage, hatchability begins to decline significantly.
4. Just before setting the eggs, allow them to warm to room temperature (70-80°F) and remove any cracked eggs.
Concentrations of oxygen should be above 20 percent, carbon dioxide should be below 0.5 percent, and air movement past the egg should be 12 cubic feet per minute.
There are two types of incubators commonly used:
1. Forced-air incubators which have a built in fan to circulate the air.
2. Still-air incubators which have no fans, so the air is allowed to stratify.
The forced-air incubator should be set at 99-99.5°F and 60-65% relative humidity (83-88°F wet bulb). The advantage of the forced-air incubator is that it is easier to maintain humidity at a constant level because of air circulation.
Still air incubators are smaller and air flow is harder to manage. Set still-air incubators at 100 to 101°F at egg height. This is important since the air stratifies in these incubators. There can be as much as a 5° difference in temperature from the top to the bottom of some of the still-air incubators. Humidity should be 60-65% (80-90° wet bulb) during incubation and 70-75% (92-97° wet bulb) at hatching time. It is very easy to overheat the eggs in still-air incubators and difficult to maintain proper humidity.
Incubator temperature should be maintained between 99° and 100°F. The acceptable range is 97° to 102°F. Mortality is seen if the temperature drops below 96°F or rises above 103°F for a number of hours. If the temperature stays at either extreme for several days, the eggs may not hatch. Overheating is more critical than underheating. Running the incubator at 105°F for 15 minutes will seriously affect the embryos, while running it at 95° for 3 or 4 hours will only slow the chick's metabolic rate.
An incubator should be operated in a location free from drafts and direct sunlight. An incubator should also be operated for several hours with water placed in a pan to stabilize its internal atmosphere before fertile eggs are set. Do not adjust the heat upward during the first 48 hours after eggs are set. This practice cooks many eggs. The eggs will take time to warm to incubator temperature and many times in small incubators the incubator temperature will drop below 98°F for the first 6-8 hours or until the egg
warms to 99°-100°F.
In Case of Power OutageIf you experience a power failure, do not scrap the hatch. Most of the time the hatch can be saved. The key is to keep the eggs as warm as possible until the power returns.
This can be done by placing a large cardboard box or blankets over the top of small incubators for additional insulation. To warm the eggs, place candles in jars, light them and place the jars under the box that covers the incubator. Be careful not to put any flammable material closer than a foot from the top of the candles. The heat from the candles can easily keep the eggs above 90°F until the power returns.
Embryos have survived at temperatures below 90°F for up to 18 hours. You should continue to incubate the eggs after the outage; then candle them 4 to 6 days later to check for further development or signs of life. If, after 6 days, you do not see life or development in any of the eggs, then terminate incubation. Most of the time, a power outage will delay hatching by a few days and decrease the hatchability to 40- 50 percent.
HumidityThe relative humidity of the air within an incubator should be about 60 percent. During the last 3 days (the hatching period) the relative humidity should be nearer 65-70 percent. (Too much moisture in the incubator prevents normal evaporation and results in a decreased hatch, but excessive moisture is seldom a problem in small incubators.) Too little moisture results in excessive evaporation, causing chicks to stick to the shell, remain in the pipped shells, and sometimes hatch crippled.
The relative humidity in the incubator can also be varied by changing the size of the water pan or by putting a sponge in the pan to increase the evaporative surface. The pan should be checked regularly while the incubator is in use to be sure that there is always an adequate amount of water. Adding
additional water pans to small still-air incubators is also helpful to increase humidity.
During the hatching period, the humidity in the incubator may be increased by using an atomizer to spray a small amount of water into the ventilating holes. (This is especially helpful when duck or goose eggs are hatching.)
Whenever you add water to an incubator, it should be about the same temperature as the incubator so you do not stress the eggs or the incubator. A good test is to add water just warm to the touch.
Using a wet-bulb thermometer is also a good way for determining relative humidity. The wet-bulb thermometer measures the evaporative cooling effect. If the wet and dry bulb read the same temperature, you would have 100 percent humidity. The greater the evaporation taking place, the lower the temperature reading on the wet-bulb thermometer and the larger the spread will be between the wet- and dry-bulb readings.
To make a wet-bulb thermometer, just add a cotton wick to the end of a thermometer. Then place the tail of the wick in water. The cotton then absorbs the water. As the water evaporates from the cotton it causes a cooling effect on the thermometer.
VentilationThe best hatching results are obtained with normal atmospheric air, which usually contains 20-21 percent oxygen. It is difficult to provide too much oxygen, but a deficiency is possible. Make sure that the ventilation holes are adjusted to allow a normal exchange of air.
This is critical on home-made incubators. It is possible to suffocate the eggs and chicks in an air-tight container. However, excessive ventilation removes humidity and makes it difficult to heat incubators properly.
TurningEggs set on their sides must be rotated 1/2 turn at least 3 times daily. Eggs set with the air cell end up should be tilted in the opposite direction 3 times daily. This keeps the embryo centered in the egg and prevents it from sticking to the shell membrane. If hand turning, to insure proper turning, mark each side of the egg with a pencil. Put an "x" on one side and an "o" on the opposite side.
Stop turning the eggs for the last three (3) days of the incubation cycle (at 18 days for chickens, 25 days for waterfowl, etc.) and do not open the incubator until the hatch is completed to insure that a desirable hatching humidity is maintained.
Hatch TimeDo not help the chicks from the shell at hatching time. If it doesn't hatch, there is usually a good reason. Also, prematurely helping the chick hatch could cripple or infect the chick. Humidity is critical at hatching time. Don't allow your curiosity to damage your hatch.
As soon as the chicks are dry and fluffy or 6 to 12 hours after hatching, remove the chicks from the incubator. It is good practice to remove all the chicks at once and destroy any late hatching eggs.
Hatching time can be hereditary and you can control the uniformity of hatching by culling late hatchers. If you keep every chick which hatches late, in a few years each hatch could last 4 days or longer.
Sanitation of Incubator and EquipmentNo matter what type of incubation you use, it is important that you thoroughly clean and disinfect the
incubator before and after you use it. It is just as important that the incubation room and egg storage area are kept equally clean. The lack of sanitation will decrease hatchability.
Immediately after each hatch, thoroughly clean and disinfect all hatching trays, water pans and the floor of the hatcher. Scrape off all egg shells and adhering dirt. Wipe clean surfaces thoroughly with a cloth dampened in quaternary ammonium, chlorox or other disinfectant solution.