This year we hatched our own baby chicks for the first time. We have all heritage breed chickens: one black Minorca breed rooster, affectionately called “Black-Jack” (or “Sunday’s Stew” as I like to call him now that his neck is going to the chopping block later this week) and many hens of varying breeds including Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks, Leg Horns, and Turken Naked Necks. So, our new babies are all crosses of Minorca and these different breeds.
Farmer Debbie gifted Farmer John with a HovaBator egg incubator for Christmas this year, hoping to get ourselves off mail order laying hen chicks forever! The incubator is a very fancy styrofoam box with a temperature gage and humidity reader set into a plastic window on the top side. Included was an electric egg turner as well as a water well for humidity maintenance which fit into the bottom of the box beneath the egg turner.
Alternatively, you can use a broody hen to incubate your eggs naturally. Sometimes hens get broody. This is a sort of cycle they go through which happens to be around 21 days–the same amount of time necessary for a hatch. When a hen gets broody, she will sit in her nesting box through the duration of that cycle, not eat, and not get up for anything. At Pure Joy Farm, we amazingly have not had a problem with broody hens. At other farms I have worked at, the broody hens become somewhat of a problem. Unless you can push a broody hen out of her nesting box and shake her out of the broody state, you pretty much have to princess her for three weeks: hand feeding her things like yogurt and dry cat food (things a chicken could never reject).
HOW TO PICK WHICH EGGS TO HATCH
We collected eggs from our hens for a few days, making sure the eggs we picked were “perfect”: not too big, or small, not too round, or bullet shaped, and without abrasions, feces remnants, and calcium deposits. You can keep the eggs up to a week or sometimes longer if you turn them at least once a day and keep them at 55 degrees with a relatively mild humidity (to keep the embryos from “sticking” to one side of the egg and to keep the fluid in the egg from increasing or decreasing too much).
EGG SHAPE EQUALS SEX?
There are “Old Wives Tales”, generally on egg shape, about how to pick eggs specifically to hatch more females than males (Round=Female, Bullet=Male). However, we found there were contradictions in these and that they were generally old wives tales. Don’t get me wrong, old wives tales are great, especially as they demonstrate the legacy of folklore in the farming community!
A SHORT VISIT INTO CHICKEN GENETICS
Fun Fact: It is the hen who determines the sex of the chick, not the rooster! Hens have ZU chromosomes and roosters have ZZ chromosomes.
After giving into the fact that we didn’t have control of the sex of the chicks to be hatched, we realized that we may have inadvertently helped our eggs to turn out more females than males.
This is how: While we were collecting eggs over the course of several days, we kept them in egg cartons in the hen house. It doesn’t get too cold or too hot in there, especially as we were doing this in February on Cape Cod. However, it most likely got below the desired “in between being laid and being put into the incubator” temperature of 55 degrees. Actually, we know that it definitely got below 55 degrees while those eggs were waiting. Male embryos, it turns out, don’t do as well in lower temperatures. The female embryos are heartier and can withstand the cold better. Eggs kept at 40 degrees prior to incubation turned out more females than males in hatching (the males succumbing to the cold, embryos dying before maturation). In one study, it was found that the male embryos can, while maintaining their male chromosomal make up, become functionally and anatomically female (although, because of the male chromosomes, any eggs from them will always be male chicks) if the temperature drop is minimal and for only a short time. GENDER BENDING CHICKENS!
INTO THE INCUBATOR
So, after picking the eggs, storing them for a few days to get 42 perfect eggs for the 42 slots in the incubator’s egg-turner, we began the incubation process.
Keeping the Humidity Just Right with Tinfoil
Once we set the temperature to 99.5 degrees, the incubator did not stray more than 0.1 or 0.2 up or down. The incubator had to be checked every couple of days to make sure the humidity was at the right level. This was a finicky piece of the incubation process. The well in the bottom of the incubator labeled “#1” had to be filled and refilled with water. To get the humidity perfectly at 50%, we had to play around. You might think that to get a lower humidity, you would just fill the well a little less. However this isn’t true. The well is long and narrow, a rectangular strip running around the bottom of the box. It is not the volume of water within the well which indicates how humid, it is the surface area! So–the more water does not equal more humidity. However, more water does equal fewer times we had to open the lid of the incubator to fill the well. No matter how high the well was filled, the internal humidity would reach 78%! WAAAY too high! The babies would literally drown in their shells in such a humid environment. In order to get it down to 50%, we had to devise a way to decrease the amount of surface area! We used tin foil! We simply placed an amount of tinfoil over the water well–in between the egg turner and the metal grating. In experimenting with the amount of tinfoil being used, as well as where it was situated above the well, we were able to get the humidity to a pretty consistent 50% as long as the well remained filled with water.
During the last three days, we removed the tin foil to allow the humidity to rise to around 65% and then we waited. The began hatching on the 21st day as expected, and even on the 22nd and 23rd days we had a few more. Out of the 42 eggs, 22 hatched. We lost 5 in the first few days due to weakness or self inflicted injury.
The most memorable hatching was of our little Goldie.
Tessa and I labored over this chick as she hatched. She was the very last one. Little Goldie had a hard time getting out of her shell. Once a chick pips through the shell, there is a limited amount of time available to make their exit. This has to do with the inner lining of the shell slowly drying up and adhering to the chick within and the chick herself tiring out to the point of exhaustion during the process of hatching. Each chick must peck a line along the circumference of the shell. Little Goldie had only gone about half way around after 24 hours (far too long). At this point, Tessa and I interfered with the process of Mother Nature (not that placing 42 eggs on a mechanical egg turner in a styrofoam box isn’t interfering with nature…). Very carefully, without piercing the chick, we used the edge of a paper clip to finish the pipped circumference. We pealed away part of the shell and realized that the chick’s lining was very dry. Using a very warm, wet cloth (the hatchlings need to be at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit!) Tessa held the chick. This soaked the lining and shell and allowed them to be more easily detached. It was a thoroughly dramatic event, acting as midwives to this baby. It was totally worth it! She is strong and doing great at 2 months old now, the only golden chick out of the bunch!
SEXING THE HATCHLINGS
After they hatched, I attempted an amateur sexing of the hatchlings at day 2 using this video as guidance: Sexing Baby Chicks. From what I could tell, they were all female except 2 of them. As time goes by (they are 2 months old at this point), I am still confident that most of our chicks are female. Others have doubts since many of our babies have larger combs and wattles than others. While this may lead some to think that these faster developing head pieces designate them as male, this is not necessarily indicative of cockerels. However, what is, is their infant scratching, crackling crowing. I have heard it a few times, but never when I have been within eye sight of them. But if a number of them turn out to male, all the better for our CSA members who will get some fresh stew meat along with their veggies and eggs. We will not be keeping the roosters for anything other than meat. Even if we had a hundred chickens, more than one rooster would not be a good idea. Roosters get mean quick when there are other roosters threatening the hold he has on his girls.
THE FIRST WEEKS
The first month and a half the babies remained inside, their environmental temperature starting at around 95 degrees, decreasing by 10 degrees each week. This was not a precise science. At 6 weeks old, we brought the babies outside to an enclosure separate from our full grown hens. We left them with a heating lamp until a couple of days ago (at 2 months old). It has been getting down to the mid 30s some nights and the two-month-olds are doing fine! Now that heating lamp is being utilized by our second batch of fresh hatched chicks, all of which were born on Earth Day!!
At Two Months Old: