We recently had our first hatch here on the farm! For Christmas my mother had given me a gift card to my favorite online-order hatchery Meyer Hatchery (Thanks, mom!) which I used to purchase an incubator for hatching eggs. Hatching eggs in an incubator is a pretty simple process really. The digital incubator I got has an automatic egg turner and digital thermometer and hygrometer for monitoring the temperature and humidity. All I have to do is put the eggs in, set the temperature, add water to the tray, and wait. The waiting is the hard part! We started with 9 Muscovy duck eggs gifted from our neighbors, 18 mail-order Silkie chicken eggs, and another 12 eggs from our own hens to fill up the turner – 39 eggs total.
The development process of the chick is really cool. A hen lays an egg several times a week or even (almost) every day with the most productive laying breeds. If there is a rooster around, they fertilize the eggs by mating with the hens before the eggs are laid. Once laid, the eggs are in a sort of dormant state. I don’t know the scientific terms. You can put them in your fridge or cook them and they’ll be just an egg. If the hen is “broody” she will lay a clutch of eggs over a period of several days and then sit on them. “Broody” is what it’s called when a hen is committed to setting and hatching a clutch of eggs rather than just laying them and forgetting they exist. Commercial egg-laying hens like Leghorns have their natural mothering instinct bred out of them and therefore do not go broody. For example, my Leghorns lay eggs just about every day but don’t have a care in the world about those eggs after the fact. In contrast, one of my Lavender Orpingtons is sitting on a clutch now. When the hens are brooding (also called setting) a clutch of eggs they stay with them 24/7 other than the few minutes once a day or less that they leave to eat and drink. They will puff up and squawk at any threat that comes near.
So back to the incubator… Eggs from chickens that don’t hatch their own can be hatched by a broody hen of a different breed or an incubator. It’s also convenient for hatching larger numbers of eggs than a hen will hatch on her own. You keep the eggs at room temperature (or cool, but not cold) til you’re ready to put them in the incubator. Freshly laid eggs are best, but properly stored fertile eggs will remain viable for up to 10 days or sometimes longer. Then you put them in the incubator which warms them up and the development starts. If all goes well, chicks hatch in 21 days.
How did our hatch go? None of the duck eggs hatched. Muscovy eggs are notoriously difficult to hatch in an incubator. They take 35-38 days to hatch, so we started them before the chicken eggs. I don’t know if the temperature or humidity wasn’t quite right for them or they got too cold before putting them in the incubator, or if they were too dirty and bacteria got in the eggs and messed things up. Some developed partially, some didn’t, but none made it close to hatch. Only one of the 18 Silkie eggs hatched. The ones I opened had no development or very little. I think they either got too scrambled or too hot/cold during shipping. The breeder I bought them from is sending me another set, so we will try that one more time.
Out of the 12 eggs that got from our own hens, 10 hatched! That’s a pretty good hatch rate for the eggs that I know were freshly collected and properly handled, so the incubator works. Chicks hatch slower than I would have thought. We heard a few tiny cheeps from the chicks within the eggs late Thursday night and a lot more cheeping Friday morning. When chicks start their hatch they make the first “pip” or tiny hole in the shell and then take a rest for several hours. Then they work on that hole some more, first making it a little larger, and next using that hole to start a longer crack, and working their way towards the opposite side. They push on both ends and when the crack is large enough the egg splits open. That part takes around 30-45 minutes if I remember correctly. They are wet and slimy for awhile afterwards, but eventually dry and look like chicks. We had our first egg pip at around 10:00 at night and the chick didn’t fully hatch til 6:30 the next evening. We were able to see that first chick complete his hatch and it was really exciting! The second chick was completely hatched not long after the first and the next morning another 3 or 4 were out. By the following evening the last chick had hatched and I was able to open the incubator and move the chicks to the brooder Monday morning. We lost one chick to a deformity shortly after he hatched, but ended up with a total of 10 chicks. There were a few Ameraucana/Leghorn and Ameraucana/Orpington mix, plus the single Silkie chick and 4 Naked Neck chicks! Yes, Bill F. Murray the rooster is a father! We sold the Leghorn and Orpington chicks and kept the Silkie chick and Naked Necks. The incubator got cleaned and is now holds 14 Guinea eggs! It takes up a good chunk of my work space, but it’s worth it to see the chick hatch. Hatching eggs is very much like being a kid on Christmas morning! There’s a lot of waiting, excitement, and surprise!