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We have talked about WHY we need to bring some food production back to our local communities, now comes the fun part! Hatching your own chicks! I am convinced that hatching eggs is the most fun you can have without breaking the law. Many first time hatchers who discover the joy of watching their eggs develop and hatch, become obsessed for life. Get ready to become a crazy chicken keeper!
www.backyardchickens.com is a forum dedicated to keeping chickens. They are an invaluable resource for beginners and pros of all kinds. If you can think of a question about chickens, they have the answer.
Some terms to know:
Candling- Candling is the act of taking an egg into a dark room and shining a light through the large end of the egg to be able to see inside. You can tell a lot about your eggs and chicks by candling them.
Incubator-While commercial incubators of all kinds are on the market, many have a great deal of success making their own! An incubator is just a container with a proper heat source that can keep a steady temp and humidity. You can search online for all kinds of home made incubator designs.
Air cell- This is the empty space at the large end of an egg. It holds the air that the chick will breath after it pecks it's way through the internal membrane, before it can manage to chip the shell for more air. You can tell how well your chick is doing by checking its air cell size. In the beginning the air cell is very small but as moisture evaporates through the shell it gets bigger.
Blood ring- This is a red ring that appears in an egg that you can see while candling. It indicates that the chick inside has died. Be carful to make sure that it IS a blood ring before discarding the egg. People have mistaken the air cell or even the yolk for a blood ring and disposed of a perfectly health egg.
Pipping- When a chick pecks it's way through the internal membrane of the egg this is called "internal pipping" When a chick pecks a hole into the shell itself it's called "external pipping" Once a chick has pipped it can take another 24-36 hours to get completely out of the shell.
Zipping- Once a chick has pipped it begins pecking in a circle around the egg. Once the chick has made it all the way around it is "zipped" Once a chick has zipped it will rest for a time before the final push to get out of the egg. Ideally a chick will begin zipping at the large end of the egg where the air cell is but some get a little turned around and can zip in any direction.
Lockdown- On day 18 of the incubation you candle and turn the eggs for the last time. Remove any that are clearly dead, raise the humidity to at least 80% and then close the door until the hatch is over on day 23. This keeps the humidity and temp up so that the chicks can hatch safely. Otherwise they can become "Shrink wrapped"
Shrink wrapped-This is something that can happen if you open the incubator after the chicks have begun to pip. The incubator rapidly loses temp and humidity and the membrane of the egg can shrink, trapping your chick. You do NOT want the disaster of having a shrink wrapped chick. It is very hard to get them out and the chick usually dies.
Getting fertile eggs.
There are several ways to get your first batch of fertile eggs. The most preferable way is through a local chicken keeper. Look for someone selling fresh eggs on Facebook, Craigslist and local farmers markets. Most will be happy to provide you with fertile eggs for a very low price. Most local eggs are "barnyard mix" meaning they are not pure bred. I however love the fun of all the different looking chickens that come out and most are excellent egg layers. You can get pure bred chicken eggs locally but they will cost more.
You can also order online from large hatcheries. My favorite is Cackle Hatchery. They have a great variety of breeds and very reasonable prices. Murray McMurray has both hatching eggs and live chicks that can be shipped to you including some rare breeds. Meyer Hatchery is another favorite among chicken keepers as well. Any of these hatcheries can provide you with great quality eggs for hatching.
You can also order hatching eggs on eBay. You need to make sure to check the reviews but you can get good eggs for a low price. This is my first time hatching shipped eggs and I went right for the challenge of getting eggs on eBay. Wish me luck!
IMPORTANT: When getting shipped eggs you MUST let them sit undisturbed at room temperature for 24 hours. Use an egg carton and make sure you point the small end of the egg down with the large end up. This allows the yolk and air cell to settle and the egg to reach the same temperature all the way through. Don't just open your shipment and pop them in the incubator. Chicken eggs can be kept for 10 days after they are laid in a kind of suspended state. The cells only begin to divide when the temperature reaches 97F or around 36c.
Make sure to run your incubator for a full 24 hours to make sure the temp is stable. The range for hatching chicken eggs is 98-102F or 36-38C The ideal is 99.6-100.5F or 37-37.5C. You will hear a lot of debate about humidity regarding hatching eggs. Some prefer what is called "the dry method" where humidity is kept low until day 18 of the hatch. Then they add water to the incubator water tray, or if it doesn't have one, a wet sponge in the corner raising the humidity to at least 80%. Others insist on keeping the humidity at 60% for the entire hatch until day 18 and then raising it to 85%. Some strickter adherents to the "dry method" don't add any moiture at all, trusting it to go up on it;s own when the chicks begin to pip. If this method is used, the lockdown is even more important. The door must not be opened at all until the end of the hatch.
Personally I use the dry method as long as the humidity is over 45%. I live in a very damp climate so I never have to worry about that. The reason for this is that evaporation must happen in the egg throughout the hatch to make the air cell big enough for the chick to breath while hatching. Once I hit day 18 which is called "lockdown" I crank the humidity up as much as possible to make sure the chicks are moist enough not to get "shrink wrapped" from the shell membrane drying out once they have broken the shell.
If your incubator doesn't come with a humidity gauge you can buy one online. Many come with a temperature gauge as well. You should always have an extra thermometer kept in the same spot as your eggs as a secondary temp control check.
Lockdown is the one thing ALL hatchers agree on. On day 18 you candle the eggs one last time to make sure they are alive. Remove any that have clearly died. You will see the chick taking up 3/4 of the shell space and moving around. At this point you crank up the humidity and you DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR until either all chicks are hatched or it's day 23. It is VERY tempting to check on the progress but the risk of shrink wrapping a chick is too great. Opening the incubator causes a rapid and drastic change in the heat and humidity. It is tempting to want to "help" the chicks hatch. Don't. It almost never goes well and you usually do more harm than good. It takes someone with a lot of experience to attempt this so I will not cover how it's done becuase i don't want people to be tempted. Just let the hatch happen.
Now lets look at the hatch schedule. Keep checking back on this article because I will put up my own candling pictures to go with the day as my hatch progresses. I will also post pictures of the chicks when they hatch!
-1. The eggs arrive in the mail. They are checked for damage and then placed in an egg carton small side down to sit undisturbed at room temp for 24 hours. Make sure to wash your hands before and after touching the eggs every time. DO NOT WASH FERTILE EGGS! They have a protective coating on them to prevent germs from getting to the chicks.
Day 1. The eggs are candled to see what shape the yolks and egg sacks are in. Make sure to candle eggs in as dark an environment as possible. The more light in the room, the harder it is to see. A flashlight can be used but it is more difficult than an egg candler. Each egg is marked with a pencil on one side with a number so I can keep their orientation the same over the course of the hatch. As I am using egg cartons to hold the eggs, I will face all eggs with the numbers towards me. Begin a hatch log with the date and numbers of the eggs. Trace the outline of the air sac so you can track it's progress. It will get bigger as time goes by. Do this at each candling. Eggs are placed into the incubator either on their side with the number facing up, or in a carton or egg turner with the numbers all facing the same way and the large end facing up. Do not begin turning your eggs until the third day.
Day 3. Candling the eggs today, you may begin to see very faint lines in the eggs. These indicate blood vessels forming and are a good sign. Do not worry if you don't see any yet. Mark the ones you see in you hatch log using the egg number you wrote on the egg. Eggs must be turned at least twice a day from now until day 18. You can buy an egg turner or do it yourself. If you are placing your eggs on their sides you will use the number to tell which way they should be facing at each turn. Alternate between numbers up and numbers down. If using an egg carton simply prop an end of the carton up by about an inch and a half and alternate which end you prop. I am using the egg carton method as new research says that eggs kept with the air cell up have better hatch rates. I have had good hatches with the eggs on their sides before as well. Turn eggs as many as 5 times a day. Try to open the incubator as little as possible for as short a time as possible to keep temp and humidity steady. Only candle on the days indicated as it requires taking the eggs out and too much candling can ruin a hatch.
Day 5. Candling the eggs now, you should see the blood vessels clearly and even a tiny embryo. Mark the results in your hatch log. Do not discard any eggs yet if you can't see the blood vessels, only discard if you see a blood ring. Make sure it is actually a blood ring and not something else.
Day 7. All eggs that are viable will be clearly showing blood vessels. Discard any that are blank. Mark results in the hatch log.
Day 10. When candling you should begin to see clear movement in the egg and the chick should be growing in size. By now you should see that the air sac is enlarging more. You can tell if the humidity is too high by the size of the air sac. There is an illistration above that can help you figure out where you should be.
Day 14. The chick will now be taking up about half of the space in the egg. You may be able to see individual features such as beaks and feet! If your air sac is too small make sure to lower your humididty and check each day to make sure it is catching up. This is your chick's air supply for the hatch.
Day 18. Lockdown day. Candle your eggs and dispose of any that have obviously died. Increase humidity in the incubator as much as possible by adding water to the tray or a wet sponge. From this point on you will not open the incubator until either all eggs are hatched or day 23. Chicks that hatch first will be fine. They absorb the yolk right before they leave the egg and do not need anything for 48 hours.
Day 19. You may see the first external pip by the end of this day. Some eggs may start to gently rock back and forth! Don't worry if none of them are, they still have days to go.
Day 20. Some really ambitious chicks may hatch by the end of the day!
Day 21. It's hatch day! This is the day when the majority of chicks will be pipped, zipped and making their way out of the shell! In some cases rambunctious chicks must be removed if they are kicking the hatching eggs or pecking at the eyes of hatching chicks. If you absolutely must remove them, do so as quickly as possible to have the incubator open for as few seconds as you can. You may want to spray a bit of water in the incubator when you do it to keep the humidity up for hatching chicks.
Day 22. The hatch continues! Some chicks hatch a little later than others. it's nothing to worry about.
Day 23. At the end of day 23 all the chicks that are going to hatch, will at least be pipped and zipping. The eggs that have not done so will not hatch. Take all remaining chicks and put them in the brooder with their brothers and sister. Congradulations on your hatch!
For invaluable information and experience go to www.backyeardchickens.com It's a forum of chicken keepers from first timers to pros. If you can think of a question, they have the answer. Good luck, and stay safe people!