Can there be anything more attractive and guaranteed to elicit the 'aah' factor than a brood of chicks and their mother? Jeremy Hobson looks at how to hatch chicks using a broody hen.
There would be something wrong with any enthusiastic chicken-keeper if, once they were well versed in the joys of day-to-day chicken keeping, they did not then consider the possibility of hatching a few eggs. There is, of course, the possibility of either hatching artificially with incubators or naturally under broody hens: if space permits and it is possible to hatch eggs under a broody hen or bantam, then I would most strongly advise the latter option; the hen is, after all, naturally more experienced at the job than even the most knowledgeable of incubator users and there are none of the problems concerning temperatures, humidity, egg-turning or any of the other potential difficulties that may beset those attempting to hatch artificially for the first time.
Choosing the right incubator for your particular needs can be a daunting task. There are many different models and variants to incubate your hatching eggs and each model is slightly different having different levels of functionality.
From the basic still air incubator where you turn eggs manually 3 times per day, set the temperature and add water to a reservoir to provide the correct humidity, to the fully automatic incubator that can set temperature and humidity for the right species with the press of a button, we look at the things you might want to consider before you invest some money and buy an incubator.
Using a broody hen to incubate eggs and hatch chicks is of course the most natural way possible and has its benefits as she will hatch and rear the chicks with minimal attention.
Not all hens will go broody, some are better than others - utility birds will rarely go broody as this has been selectively bred out of them: whilst they are broody, they are not laying eggs. The best broodies consist mainly of Silkie crosses.
Candling eggs is a straight-forward process but it helps to have some pictures to know what you're looking for explains Tim Daniels.
It is necessary to candle eggs for fertility when you are incubating eggs artificially using an incubator. Infertile or bad eggs can be discarded so that there is no risk of them going bad and exploding inside the incubator, contaminating the other eggs.
If you are using a separate incubator or hatcher for the last few days of incubation to hatch your eggs, the extra space can be used for more eggs, provided the incubator is kept sterile. Candling does not damage the embryos inside the eggs as long as you don't heat the egg up too much with the heat from the candling device or keep the eggs out of the incubator for too long, so it is ideal to get a glimpse at what is going on inside your eggs.
Getting good results from a hatch will depend on the correct operation of your incubator. You should of course be familiar with your incubator manufacturer's instructions before you make a start but there are a number of pitfalls to watch out for and subtle differences between different incubators. There are two basic types of incubators 'still air' and 'forced air' (contains a fan) and these need to be set up in a slightly differerent way.
It is very easy to forget about nest site hygiene when considering incubating your eggs. A dirty nest box or site can cause you problems and you can end up with more embryos dying (known as DIS or 'Dead in Shell') than would have occured had the nest been kept clean.
Sometimes, it is not so obvious and chicks will develop a yolk sack infection and although they may hatch, they die within a couple of days. Any amount of incubator cleaning or egg washing will not help if the eggs are contaminated to begin with.
Some people say not to clean eggs before incubation, others swear by it. The general idea is that mother nature doesn't clean her eggs before incubation and there's actually a protective layer around the eggs (called the cuticle) that protects them by preventing bacteria from entering the egg through the pores of the shell. I have tried both methods and have to admit that if done properly, cleaning and disinfecting eggs does seem to work and gives me a far higher hatch rate but there are a few things to consider.
Most of us take great care with our incubation but how much care do we take with egg storage before the eggs are placed into an incubator or under a broody hen?
If your hatching eggs are not cared for in the correct way, you will suffer from a reduced hatchability. We have put together a list of points to help you store your hatching eggs in the correct way before incubation.
When things don't go quite according to plan (which can and does happen when incubating poultry artificially) try using this incubation trouble shooting guide to work out what went wrong. This guide is a general guide and covers all poultry although we are using chickens as an example.
After candling, although it can be a smelly job, it is advisable to crack open eggs you are unsure about to get a better look at what went wrong.
During incubation, there is a suggested relative humidity range for the species you are hatching given by incubator manufacturers, based on tried and tested methods. Chicken eggs for example should be between 40% - 50% in order to get successful results.
Taking all of the possible variables into account, (room humidity at the time of year, number of eggs, losing moisture in the incubator, air flow in and out of the incubator etc.) it can become a bit of a guessing game to maintain the correct humidity unless you have a fully automatic humidity control on your incubator meaning that sometimes eggs fail to hatch under the conditions that had worked for you previously.