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Incubation and Brooding

 

This page is dedicated to all the teachers that buy my eggs for hatching, not so much to instill a love for poultry in their young students, but to teach them about the miracle of life.

These teachers are wonderful and dedicated people, and I am honored to help them in any way I am able at this time.


 

Sanitation

 

This is the KEYWORD when incubating eggs. You must thoroughly clean and disinfect your incubator before you use it! Remove all the debris ie., shells, fluff, dust, etc., with a vacuum or a can of compressed air. I have used small paint brushes to reach those hard to reach places, such as the fan. Afterwards, wash your incubator with a detergent and warm water, making sure to get all the cracks and crevices. An old toothbrush can come in handy at these times. Rinse the unit and then disinfect it. With what?

Well, there are several products on the market that do a fine job disinfecting, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. It's a matter of weighing the factors of cost, safety, and other factors. I always opt for the cheapest and easiest.....chlorine bleach. I use a spray bottle with a 1:9 solution of bleach to water, thus being able to cover the entire inside surface of my incubator evenly. Then I wait for a short while before thoroughly rinsing the bleach off with hot water. That's the disadvantage of using bleach....it corrodes metal if left on. You must make sure to rinse all the bleach off the incubator!!! Then let the unit air dry.

 

You are not ready yet!

 

Oh, I know that you are just dying to pop those eggs into the incubator and get them going, but not yet! First you must locate a good area for your incubator. This will be a place that's out of the way of little feet (and big feet), in a room with a steady 70 degree temperature and good ventilation. Don't set the incubator near drafty doors, heat vents, or sunny windows! Once you've found your ideal spot, it's time to fire up the incubator. Do this one-two days before setting your eggs!
Make sure you have your water already in place when you begin to heat up the incubator. Temperature and humidity are interrelated and extremely important elements of good egg incubation. It is a good idea to have a few, brand new thermometers. Test them against each other to notice the variation. (A good investment is an extremely accurate and precise thermometer. ) Keep the thermometer bulb parallel to the middle of the eggs if they are lying on their sides. If the eggs are in a turner, place the bulb just below the top of the eggs.
In a still-air incubator, you must maintain a temperature of 100-101 degrees with a relative humidity of 60-65%. During the hatch, humidity should be raised to 70-75%.
In a forced-air incubator, keep the temperature at 99.5 degrees with a relative humidity of 60-65%.
Once you have stabilized the incubator at these temperatures and humidity over a day or so, then you can begin to consider setting your eggs within the incubator!

 

Work and Worry

 

When setting the eggs in your incubator, do not crowd them and try to place them small end pointing down. The eggs will need to be turned 2-3 times a day (I have heard people recommend turning 5-6 times a day). It is helpful to mark each egg with an "X" on one side and an "O" on the other. This helps you to keep track of turned eggs. Make sure your hands have been washed just before turning the eggs also!
Don't worry about the time that the incubator is open and cooling. In a natural setting, the hen leaves her nest once a day to eat and drink thus causing the eggs to cool a bit. However, do the turning as quickly and GENTLY as possible. A good hard roll or jar can kill a delicate, growing embryo!
Now it takes chicken eggs 21 days to hatch so you will be turning the eggs and monitoring temperature and humidity for a good three weeks. Don't forget oxygen either!! The embryos need oxygen to live so make sure the bottom and top ventilation holes are not obstructed. Remember, a lot of eggs need a lot of oxygen too especially as they grow.
Approximately halfway into the incubation, you may see a rise in the temperature of your incubator. Don't worry. As the embryos grow, they naturally give off more body heat and you may need to adjust for it. However, try not to fiddle with the temperature settings too much. Fluctuations are a killer!
About the 18th day of incubation, you can stop turning your eggs and only open the unit to add water. This allows the fetus to get oriented and maintains proper conditions for the hatch.

 

The Big Day

 

The 21st day has come and you are excited!!! Will they hatch? How many will hatch? What will the chicks look like? Are you really ready to be a mother? Some eggs may hatch a day earlier also so be prepared. Increase the humidity at this time. I like to use a wet washcloth. Open the vents more too. The chicks will begin to "pip", cracking a hole in the eggshell. Chicks come equipped with a very hard, bony "egg-tooth" on the tip of their upper beaks. This helps them to crack the shell open. 
Against all temptation, do not open the incubator to sneak a peek! Hands-off! If you are a teacher and this hatch is for your students, hopefully you will have a clear-top incubator or a completely see-through unit. However, most incubators have small double windows to peer through to watch the hatch.
In a successful hatch, you will see the eggs begin to pip, perhaps one right after the other. Sometimes a few at the same time. Slowly, each chick will work at it's shell, chipping away around the perimeter of the large end of the shell. The chick is working very hard at this point, chipping and pushing against the shell. It will take many breaks to rest and regain it's strength so don't expect them to pop out like popcorn! Eventually, however, a chick will have a large enough hole and just enough strength to push himself out a bit. Then the chick will push itself out fully.
He's not very pretty at this stage. The chick is wet, scrawny, and clumsy, and will probably be peeping. The other chicks that are hatching will peep in response. I have noticed that a newly hatched chick will huddle next to the next chick that is about to hatch. They peep together, perhaps encouraging and comforting each other. Quite often, I will cluck like a mother-hen to a bunch of hatching chicks. This seems to encourage them also. I talk to my plants too, but that's another story..........
Keep the chicks in the incubator to dry for 12-24 hours. Going from hot to cold to hot again can be quite a shock to your little "peeps". During this time, they will dry and fluff out, and begin to get their coordination. Perhaps they will stand and peer up at you with one eye as you look into the incubator. Are YOU my mommy?

Unfortunately, this is not always the scenario. Sometimes a chick will not have the strength to push it's way out of the shell, being able to only make a pip. This can be due to humidity being too low or not very vigorous parent stock. Sometimes it is just nature's way of culling the weakest. If a chick pips it's shell and seems to be making no progress, you have a decision to make. Should you help the chick or leave it be? If you decide to help the chick, be careful in removing bits of the shell. Chances are that the chick is stuck to the dried-out membrane and shell, and if you yank off a big piece you may tear the chick's skin. I am totally opposed to completely removing a chick from it's shell this way. The youngster needs to work it's muscles, especially it's leg muscles, during hatching. Otherwise, it will most likely be deformed with splayed-legs and die soon anyway. 
What to do? You can increase humidity for one thing. You can also dip the egg in warm water making sure not to submerge the open part of the shell thus drowning the chick. You can chip a bit more of the egg away VERY carefully and slowly. You can also help the chick by giving it a teeny bit of warm water that has electrolytes dissolved in it using a tiny eye-dropper. After that, put the chick back into the incubator and cross your fingers. This is a very "iffy" procedure though, and chances are that the chick won't make it. However, miracles do happen, and I have heard many success stories when using this procedure!

Now What?

 

You can be quite sure after 2 days that any leftover, unhatched eggs will never hatch. After 24 hours of the hatch, you can feel at ease to move your newly hatched peeps to their brooder. What is a brooder? Basically, it's just a box with a heat source that keeps the chicks warm, and out of drafts. It will be their home for six to eight weeks. It can be a fancy and expensive brooder from the feedstore or mail-order catalog, or it can be a see-through plastic storage bin purchased at a discount store. I prefer using the latter for new peeps and use a four-tiered battery brooder for slightly older chicks.
For a heat source, you can use a special 250 Watt brooder bulb in a brooder lamp that has a ceramic socket. This is a good investment for brooding many chicks. The bulbs come in clear or red. I prefer using the red since it reduces pecking among the chicks. When I have only a few chicks, I use a normal 75 Watt bulb set close to the chicks
On the bottom of my plastic brooder, I place a layer of newspaper and then a layer of paper-toweling. Never use wood chips as the chicks will try to eat them and possibly die. Of course, the chicks do not need to eat or drink immediately as they absorb their yolk into their abdomen just before hatching, and live off those nutrients for 2 days. I usually have food and water ready for them anyway, feeding them a medicated chick crumble and warm water with vitamins and electrolytes. A waterer with a red base is a good idea. Otherwise you can tint the water red with some food coloring. As for the feed, I just scatter a bit on the towel. When they are older, the chicks will learn about feeders.
So what's the big deal about the color red? Well, believe it or not, chickens are meat-eaters as well as plant eaters. ( I guess that's called being omnivorous?) They are naturally attracted to blood thus... the color red. Suppose a chick in the brooder gets pecked and he bleeds a bit. The other chicks will instinctively continue to peck at that blood, eventually killing the wounded chick. It can start with some innocent toe-pecking (they look so much like tasty, little worms) and end up with an unnecessary fatality. If I use a red brooder bulb, then any blood from pecking will appear black, and that fatality is avoided. The red-base waterer and red-tinted water are used relying on that same instinct. The chicks will be attracted to the red color and find.....something really good to drink!
Chickens are just tiny velociraptors remember.:)

So your chicks are in the brooder set at a temperature of 100 degrees. Each week, you lower the temperature 5 degrees less. The chicks should stay in there about 6-8 weeks, and be able to go outside if the weather is comparable. During their stay in the brooder, sanitation is again of utmost importance. Clean and disinfect the waterers and feeders daily. The chicks should have a constant source of fresh, clean water, medicated feed, and their light. At some point, you may want to give the chicks shavings in their box (make sure they are older) or raise them on wire which I prefer to do when the chicks are a few weeks old.
Then before you know it, all your precious peeps will be teenagers and want to live on their own.....in their own coop. 

Here is a chart for several species of fowl

 

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