It's a bit later than past years, but this week we're dusting off the incubator and filling trays with fertile eggs. We invested in a large incubator that lets us set about 60 eggs per week. This year, we'll be hatching Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Delawares, Golden Phoenixes, and Blue Cochins. There will probably be some crossbred chicks from the other breeds as well, but we don't keep aggressive roosters, so I don't have an Ameracauna or Polish rooster at the moment. That may change as spring moves on, but for now we're not planning to offer them this year.
I've missed hatching, so I'm happy to get this underway. Even after hatching literally hundreds of peeps the past couple years, it's still exciting to get up in the morning and see small fluffy birds where eggs were the night before. We set on Sundays, and the chicks will hatch about 21 days later. We have three levels for trays in the incubator and a hatching box in the bottom, so once we start setting we will have 50+ chicks hatch every week. An 80% hatch rate is pretty good, although we've hatched 95% or better in some batches. Some batches were below that too, which is why it's important to keep good records to find out what happened. Once the eggs are set, it's pretty low maintenance; our incubator has a bucket on top for water to keep the humidity up that doesn't need filled often, and the trays turn every 4 hours, eliminating the need to do it by hand. A mother hen will rotate the eggs by shifting around on her nest, but a mechanical incubator just tilts the trays at an angle one way, then the other. If you have an incubator that doesn't come with that feature, you need to turn the eggs over by hand every few hours (at least 3-4x per day) or the chicks will develop lopsided and stuck to the inside of the shell and won't hatch. The incubator beeps every time it shifts the trays, and after a week or so we don't even notice, it just becomes part of the normal noise of the house. (The incubator is inside, in a small heated space off of the kitchen.) However, guests notice the noise right away and tend to look at us slightly alarmed, since it does sound a bit like a smoke alarm or other such warning!
Dan and I started this project 2 years ago, the first batch was hatched in a small Styrofoam incubator in a spare bedroom in a trailer I rented at the time. Most hobbies give the encouragement that you, too, can learn to do this, but we were a little apprehensive about incubating eggs. The catalog we got our first incubator from also had a book called A Guide to Better Hatching. The description said that hatching was possible now with this new book. The book itself was no more reassuring...humidity too high? Nothing will hatch. Too low? No hatch. Too warm? They might not hatch, or they might be deformed. And so on...we were partly worried we'd never get it right, but tried to reassure ourselves that it couldn't be that hard, since after all, a chicken could do it! I can still remember the excitement of looking through the small plexiglass window and seeing small cracks in the shells on day 21. I must have called Dan three times between the time I got home from work and the time he came to my house with updates! Having a large incubator, we set up brood pens with heat lamps out on the enclosed porch, but for a time the brooder was right in the house too. I was a bit worried that Puff, my big fluffy house cat, would think the chicks were kitty play toys and bat them through the bars, but he's lazy and just thought that the heat lamp was set up for a nice warm kitty sleeping area near the pen. While it will probably never be quite as exciting as the first time, it's still a joy to get up on a Sunday morning and hear soft peeping coming from the incubator while you put the coffee on! Another sure sign of spring!