EGG BEFORE THE CHICKEN: Holli Powell loves helping with the process from the chook yard to incubator.
EGG BEFORE THE CHICKEN: Holli Powell loves helping with the process from the chook yard to incubator. Contributed

Broody hen likely to be best incubator for hatching eggs

SPRING is here and the hens and most other poultry varieties should be laying well by now.

Some may have gone broody already so it is a good time to start hatching eggs.

To achieve a good hatching rate and healthy chickens, it all starts before the eggs are laid.

The following is a guide to good hatching whether it by incubation or broody hen.

Nutrition:

To achieve good fertility in your eggs, diet is the first step.

Breeding poultry should be fed a good quality laying mash or pellet (some companies make a specific breeding ration, just ask at your local produce store).

If the flock is not let out to forage, it is a good idea to give them a handful of greens each day, eg lettuce, silver beet or lucerne, plus a bowl of shell grit left in the pen.

Feeding just wheat, sorghum or corn does not provide sufficient protein for good fertility, especially if the flock is not let out to forage.

Optimum fertility:

As well as nutrition, to achieve optimum fertility, you need to be mindful of the ratio of hens to rooster.

This depends on the breed.

For big heavy breeds - like Plymouth Rock, Light Sussex, Indian Game - one rooster per three or four hens is necessary.

Lighter breeds - like Ancona, Hamburg and crossbreds - one rooster per six to eight hens is ideal, but plenty of people hatch out eggs with a ratio of one rooster with up to 15 hens.

With such breeds as Silky, Pekin, Sussex and Orpington (or any breeds that have a lot of feathers around their backside), the feathers around the vent must be cut away to achieve any sort of fertility as often they get in the way of mating.

I find a sharp pair of scissors, the best way to do this, as plucking is a bit painful for the chook.

You need to do this to both the roosters and hens.

Note the bird's age as very old roosters will not be as fertile as younger ones.

Occasionally some older roosters will not be fertile at all.

Egg collection:

Eggs should be collected every day and stored in a cool place away from sunlight.

Eggs can be stored in egg cartons, always with the point downwards.

After a couple of days it is recommended that eggs be gently rotated 360 degrees, although it is not strictly necessary.

Only clean eggs should be collected. Eggs are porous so absorb dirt/bacteria.

Any egg too large (may be a double yolker) or too small should be discarded.

Also any eggs of an odd shape or texture should not be set.

Nest boxes should always have clean bedding/straw in them.

Hens should be free of lice. It is a good idea to either dust with a powder or dip with Maldison or similar at the start of spring.

Dust or spray nest boxes as well.

Duck and goose eggs tend to be a bit dirty even with a clean nest so I have always had to wash some of mine.

I wash them in slightly warm water with a bit of dishwashing liquid and a cloth.

I start with the cleanest egg and never leave them in the water for more than a minute or so.

I throw away any that are too dirty or soiled.

Eggs should be stored for no longer than 10 days, the shorter timeframe, the better.

If the weather is very hot (35degrees-plus) the eggs could start incubating by themselves but the embryo will die at night as the temperature drops so it is best not to try hatching eggs in this sort of weather.

Broody hen or incubator

Nature can do the best job any time so, if you are wanting to hatch small numbers a few times a year, I would stick with the broody hen.

She knows exactly what to do and also looks after the chickens after they hatch.

Some breeds however do not go broody often and some are not such good mums.

Some people keep a bantam hen just for this purpose - usually a Silkie, Old English Game or just a crossbred that is known to be a good broody.

Broody hens are also known as clucky hens or "hens on the cluck"

How many eggs to set under a broody hen?

This depends on the size of your broody hen.

Around six is about the right number for a bantam.

Double that for a large hen.

Suitable quarters for broody hens

It is preferable to relocate the broody hen from the hen house once she has been sitting fast for a few days.

Otherwise the other hens could keep laying in her nest and you will have eggs of all ages under her.

They may also fight over the nest, resulting in broken eggs.

The broody hen should only be moved at night and it is preferable to take nest box and all with her if possible.

Small guinea pig type hutches are great for broodies as they mostly have small wire so the chickens can't get out and turn into crow fodder when they are small.

They should be covered at one end with a small run at the other.

Care during sitting

A broody hen should generally be left alone when she is sitting on the eggs.

Fresh water and feed should be available to her.

Occasionally a hen will not get off the nest to eat, drink and defecate so she will need to be put out every few days.

Mostly they do this of their own accord.

I can't stress enough how important it is to make sure the hen and her quarters are free of lice.

If they are not, she is likely to abandon the nest.

After hatching

When hatching is complete and the broody gets off the nest, gather up the egg shells and unhatched eggs and also change the nesting material if you can.

Make sure the chickens can't drown in the water container you have for the hen, use a shallow one and put a rock in it.

I put some chick starter in the pen as well as the hens laying mash.

The hen will teach the chicks how to eat, drink and scratch for insects.

It is great to watch her scratching about and clucking to her brood.

Putting eggs in the incubator

Incubators come in two types: Fan forced and still air.

They also come in either automatic or manual turning.

For hatching chooks, either type is okay.

For all waterfowl, a fan-forced, cabinet type with digital controlled adjustable humidity works best.

This is because waterfowl require far more humidity for successful hatching than chickens.

I could write a whole chapter on incubators but I will just stick to the basics for now.

Read your instruction manual thoroughly first.

Your incubator should be placed in a well-ventilated room, not in direct sunlight and preferably somewhere where you will remember to keep an eye on it.

Have the incubator running for at least 24 hours before setting eggs and keep an eye on the temperature to ensure it does not fluctuate too much.

Easy steps to incubating

  • Day 1: Set eggs in the incubator. Eggs should be at room temperature during winter.

Don't place very cold eggs in a warm incubator first thing in the morning.

I try to set all my eggs around 11am.

If you have brought fertile eggs through the post, let them settle for 24 hours before setting them.

Check water level in incubator is correct as per manufacturer's instructions. Do not turn the eggs today if you have a manual turner.

  •  Days 2-10: Turn eggs twice daily (manual turners). Keep an eye on temperature and top up water if necessary.
  •  Days 10-14: On one of these days, candle the eggs (preferably after dark, especially if you are a novice or the eggs have dark-coloured shells)
  •  Days 11-18: Turn eggs twice daily keeping an eye on temperatures and topping up water.
  •  Day 18: Turn off auto turner if using or transfer eggs to bottom shelf if using a cabinet type incubator.

Adjust vents as per manufacturer's instructions.

  •  Days 19-21: Don't keep opening the incubator to see what is happening no matter how you want to.

In the small incubators especially, the humidity will be lost and take a fair while to build back up.

  •  Days 21-22: Remove chickens from incubator, along with unhatched eggs.

If the incubator is a single setting type, turn it off and clean it straight away.

Failure to clean it straight off will result in bacteria build up and problems with later hatchings.

If it is a cabinet-type multi setting, then make sure you reduce the humidity level and open vents until the next set of eggs is ready to hatch.

Notes

After setting the eggs, you may need to make a small temperature adjustment for manually controlled or still air incubators towards the end of the second week as the embryos start to grow and create their own heat.

If you have a small single setting type incubator, it is best to set all of your eggs in one setting - don't try adding eggs later.

This is for a few reasons.

If you are manually turning, it makes it hard to remember

which eggs to turn and when to stop turning them.

If you have an automatic turner - after 18 days, you must stop turning the eggs but, of course, the eggs you put in later still need to be turned.

Turning of eggs: Automatic turners turn more often.

My RCOM Maru cabinet type incubator is set to turn every hour but my large 1933 Multiplo Incubator has a handle on the side and I turn it just twice a day. I get similar results from both Incubators.

If you have an automatic turner, still keep an eye on the incubator to make sure the turner is working okay.

As mentioned earlier, only set clean eggs of a uniform shape and look closely for hairline cracks in the eggs before setting or this could spell disaster.

An egg with a crack in quickly goes rotten in the incubator and if not taken out can explode covering all the other eggs in rotten egg and allowing bacteria into those eggs - not to mention the awful smell and mess to clean up.

You may "candle" the eggs at some stage after seven days.

If they are dark brown eggs, they are harder to see through and around 14 days is good for candling these eggs.

Discard any eggs that are "clear" with no embryo inside and also any bad or rotten eggs.

These will show up as a dark mass with no veins.

Humidity Control

In the cabinet type incubators, the humidity is adjusted by the digital controller or adding extra water.

Your instruction manual should tell you how to achieve the correct humidity for hatching.

In single setting and still air incubators, you usually have to add water manually - either by lifting the lid and pouring water in the channels at the bottom of the incubator or via an external water pipe.

External factors such as the outside weather also affect humidity.

On humid, muggy days, less water will need to be added than on very hot, dry days.

The incubator should be opened as little as possible after the 18th day to keep the humidity stable.

After hatching is complete, remove chicks from incubator and place in a pre-warmed brooder.

The temperature inside the brooder should be approximately 36 degrees and gradually lowered as the chicks grow.

They should be fed on chick starter and have access to water via a purpose-made plastic chick waterer.

Anything else they will quite likely drown.

Biggest issues affecting hatching/incubation

  1. Incubators placed in a breezy shed that gets freezing cold and night and boiling hot during the day will never produce good results.
  2. Incorrect temperature and humidity levels - the latter especially from days 18-21.
  3. Dirty or old eggs.
  4. Incubator not cleaned thoroughly after last hatching.

Serious about hatching?

  • Two incubators - one for setting and the other for hatching will produce the best results. Stop turning all eggs three days before hatching. 
  • If hatching multi species, 99.5 deg F is sufficient. For still air incubators, check the instruction manual but it should be around 101.5 deg F .That is two degrees higher than fan forced.
  • Home made candler. For a simple home made egg candler, use a small wooden box (without a bottom). Cut an slightly smaller than egg size hole in one side of it - so the top part of the egg can fit part way in, cut a hole just big enough for a light fitting and place the light bulb inside. Turn on the light, hold the top (wide end) of the egg up against the egg hole and you will be able to see the developing embryo. This is best done at night.


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