Incubation Tales

Chicken Egg Incubation

We are on day 15 of our incubation adventure here at Raggedy Hen Farm. This means, we only have 6 days to go until hatching should begin. Of course, we’ve all heard the wisdom about not counting one’s eggs until they’ve hatched, so we remain cautiously optimistic. While we haven’t had the winter storms and power failures like last year (fingers crossed), we have had some incubating adventures…

We candled the eggs early on (around day 5) and since this year’s eggs are rather dark-shelled, it was difficult to determine whether all the eggs were viable and developing. We’re still novices, but we do our best. We did a second (and last) candling on day 14 and it was a little easier to see the dark shadow and air sack on most of the eggs. Those green Ameraucana eggs are a challenge, however!

Later in the evening on day 14, we went to turn the eggs and found one of the eggs had little droplets of a very sticky, syrupy substance on one end. From all of our reading and research, we knew this was NOT a good sign.

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When incubating eggs get this oozy substance, it is because the embryo had died and the egg is basically rotting from the inside. Gases are building up and if left unattended, these eggs will explode and cause quite the contaminating mess in the incubator. Then we’d have to discard all the eggs and start over.

So, we pulled the egg immediately and carefully, putting it on a paper towel. After it cooled, we took it outside (just in case it had an awful odor) and broke it open. It cracked with a bit of tension–meaning there was some gas build-up inside. Sure enough, there had been an embryo developing in the egg, but it looked to have died around day 9 or 10. It could have been from something genetic, or bacteria (more likely) that got into the egg.

We’re feeling wary now, hoping that this egg did not contaminate any of the other eggs in the incubator. It is certainly a possibility and since all the eggs came from the same place, there is always the chance that they could have similar problems. We want to make sure we catch anything that might be going wrong before lock-down on Day 18–the day we stop turning the eggs, boost the humidity, and leave the incubator closed for the possible hatch!

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We started with 9 eggs this time around…now there are 8!

A Year’s Worth of Eggs

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Here we are…the very first day of 2015. It finds us with exactly twelve hens–even though 2014 saw a few more chickens coming and going from our little flock. We keep track of our eggs, expenses, and the little bit of income we make from selling our eggs and we thought we’d share last year’s results!

Our food expenses for the chickens came to about $142. This does not include straw or table scraps. We earned exactly $34.50 from selling eggs. Of course, we gave away dozens and dozens too!

Our gals laid us 120 dozen eggs over the course of 2014 and they cost us right around $1.12 per dozen. Not a bad price for fresh, organic eggs from very happy hens.

What we haven’t really calculated is the value of the chickens who ended up in freezer camp, or the value of having a broody hen hatch and raise new chickens, or the value of all the tilling, fertilizing and compost management our gals do. Of course, there is our labor involved in caring for the chickens, but it has also provided us with an active hobby and a grand urban adventure!

Eggs!

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Every chicken keeper knows that spring is truly here when the hens start laying eggs like mad! It doesn’t matter if you have 3 hens or 300, when you start getting about an egg a day from all the gals, you know that the stark days of winter are over.  We are currently getting almost three dozen eggs from six laying hens a week. I can tell you that pulling those brown orbs out of the nest boxes never gets old and we feel like the richest folks on Cedar Street!

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Dottie, a Silver-Laced Wyandotte, tends to be the first one on the nest in the early mornings.

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Mitzy, a Dominique hen, is going about her almost daily egg laying.

Our hens do not lay every single day. Each one lays what is known as a “clutch.” A hen will start laying early one morning and then lay a little later each day after that until she’s laid 5 or 6 days in a row this time of year. A good layer will then take one day off and begin again early the next morning. In the mid summer, when the days are long, a hen might lay 7 days or more before taking a day off.  Our oldest hens–Trudy and Hilda–are laying less now that they are in their third year of laying. They lay about two days on and one day off. Now that they’ve been through a couple molts, however, their eggs are larger than they were when they were newbies.

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Hilda, a Buff Orpington, and the bossy chief of our flock, is still laying, but not quite as often as the last couple years.

Freshening the Nests

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Warming spring weather and more action in the nest boxes means the ideal environment for little bugs and critters. It is so wet and humid here in the Pacific Northwest this time of year, that we try to pay close attention to keep the nest boxes dry and clean. Last year, we started adding dried herbs to our next boxes having read that they can serve both as air fresheners and antibacterial/antiseptic additions–giving the hens a little extra boost in anti-bug action. Whether it actually does that or not, it does make for pretty little nest for the girls to leave their gorgeous eggs.  We’ve added a combination of organic dried rose petals, calendula, red clover blossoms, and lavender.  That way, if the hens decide they want to try a sample, they are all edible and toxin-free!

More than Halfway

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Today marks our passing into the second half of the incubating adventure.  In other words, we are more than halfway through the 21-day incubation period and we still have no idea what will happen! We’ve been turning the eggs regularly three to five times each day; recording temperature, checking humidity, and we’ve even given candling our best shot a time or two. As near as we can tell, the majority of the eggs seem to be developing, but there  are a couple where we just aren’t sure what we’re looking at. What we do know is that the dark shadows are continuing to grow in most of the eggs. In the lighter-shelled eggs, we can sometimes see the embryo move, but in the darkest shelled-eggs, we just see blobs…

This is not our photo, but one we borrowed from an online forum–it shows the shadow of the embryo, as well as the growing larger shadow with in the egg. This is a good example of what the eggs look like when we candle them now.

At this stage in incubation, the embryo has done most of its early development. He or she has little wings and feet and feathers, and the beak is starting to harden and the bones calcify. Today marks the point where eyelids are developing over the eyes and downy feathers should be growing all over the little critters. For the next week or so, we’ll continue to turn the eggs and the viable embryos should continue to grow larger, while the air sack at the fatter end of the egg should get a bit bigger too.  This time next week, we’ll be getting ready for “lockdown”–the time when we up the humidity levels, stop turning, and allow the embryos to prepare themselves for hatching. That is, of course, if it goes according to plan!

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Nature vs. Nurture

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We will spare you the hour-by-hour details of our snow storm that turned into an ice storm except to say, we lost electricity.  This would not be a huge deal if it wasn’t for the fact that we are incubating those ten chicken eggs in an electric incubator. Crud.

The power went off at 5 pm on Saturday evening and when we called our local electric board to report the outage, the lines were busy, the phone messaging was in a loop, and it took several tries before we were able to report. So many folks are without electricity with the ice snapping branches and trees and power lines all over the valley.

We fussed. This is only the second time we’ve lost electricity since being in our home on Cedar Street and the first time was only for about 20 minutes. We got our our “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens” by Gail Damerow and studied every word of the section on power outages. She advises to open the incubator and let the eggs cool and then, when the power goes back on, put the lid back on and start things up again.  Seems attempting to keep everything warm will actually cause more problems by keeping oxygen from getting to the eggs and messing with the humidity.  According to Ms. Damerow, if the power is out less than 12 hours, it shouldn’t affect the hatch significantly–especially in the early stages of development.  She says that chicken eggs (and probably other bird eggs) are designed so that they go dormant when they get cool. While this was hard for us to believe, we decided to follow orders.

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Since we had the lid off the eggs anyway, we decided to candle them–even though we may not be able to really see anything until about 7 days.  We figured if we were going to lose them all to Mother Nature and the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), we might as well see if any were fertile, viable and developing. Besides, it was dark anyway and that should make candling easier!

We weren’t able to see much in the dark-shelled eggs, but in the lighter-shelled ones, we could see the veins and tiny embryo indicating that the eggs were fertile and developing normally.  This was exciting and nerve-wracking as we now knew that at that point, they were viable. Whatever happened with the temperature could definitely affect that.

As the hours passed and the eggs got cooler, we talked ourselves through the cranky frustration and accepted the fact that we may very well have to start over when all was said and done. At 1:15 am–after being off for just over 8 hours, the electricity came back on. We crossed our fingers, put the lid back on the incubator, turned it on and went to bed. We will have to wait a few days before we candle the eggs again and see if they are still developing, or they were victims of the storm of February 2014. Now we are just hoping our power woes are over.