Collecting Fertile Eggs
To ensure that I would have the most viable eggs to incubate, some proper measures had to be taken. Because I wanted to incubate eggs from only two of my hens (Maran and Welsummer) I had to collect them for a few days up until the 27th when they would be shut in. Depending on who you talk to, if kept in the right environment, fertile eggs can be saved for anywhere from 7-10 days before you put them in the incubator. Seven days seemed to be the most common recommendation, and I wanted to stay under that number to give myself the best possible chance for success.
So, for the six days beforehand, I collected the eggs from my two target hens and stored them in my basement. They ideally should be kept in cool temperatures with high humidity. My antique house is heated with dueling wood stoves on the first floor which means the house is very dry. My basement however is a stone foundation that stays very cool and damp, and has the highest humidity anywhere in the house, leaving it as my only option. When the eggs were collected, any poop or straw was brushed (not washed) off, and they went into a clean egg carton pointed side down to keep the yolk suspended. Because I knew that it would be six days until I collected enough, every day when I put new eggs in I would prop a side of the carton up with a small Ball honey jar. The next day I would move the jar to the other side, going back and forth, left to right every other day. This helps keep the yolk from sticking to the sides which would cause an improperly developed chick.
Prepping the Incubator
Prepping the incubator and getting it regulated has been without a doubt the most difficult part of the process. There are a variety of incubators out there varying in price. With the higher price comes better technology, which takes a lot of the work out of it for you in regulating the environment, and ensuring a more successful hatch. This incubator has an automatic egg turner which is fantastic, but still air is "old technology" and is notoriously fussy. There is no fan to circulate the heat inside, and we all know that warm air rises. So, layers of heat are formed meaning that a temperature reading of 99.5° degrees at the top of the egg, means a lower temperature at the bottom of the egg. Here is how I handled two of the major factors and variables during the incubation process: temperature and humidity.
Proper temperature is crucial for a chick's development. Too hot the embryo cooks, too cold no development happens. It's a delicate process and there is a very small range to work within. To make things even harder, as mentioned above, this is a still air incubator which means there are layers of heat, and likely hot and cold spots without a fan to circulate the air. I set up the incubator and started playing with it days before I even set the eggs. I used three thermometers: one alcohol thermometer from my husband's brew kit, a Little Giant incubating thermometer, and a Therm Pro hygrometer and thermometer. Turns out none of them were accurate, or could be calibrated manually, so when I read their temperatures I factor in that they are -2°, +2°, and -1.3° degrees off of the true temperature respectively. I put each thermometer in a different spot of the incubator all at the level of the top of the egg. Because of the heat layers, the ideal temperature to shoot for in a still air incubator always measuring at the top of the egg is 101.5°-102°. After fiddling with the temperature knob until each thermometer was reading (once you factor in the calibrations) between 100°-102°F I knew I found my sweet spot.
Like temperature, proper humidity is critical in a chicks development. Humidity regulates how much moisture is lost in the egg and as a result, proper development of the air sac. There are all kinds of opinions and things you will read out there on what the ideal humidity is for Day 1-18 for incubating (after 18 everyone agrees to crank it up). I am not going to get into that debate on dry incubating versus wet as I am not an expert on either. Even in wet incubating there are different ranges that people will say to stay between, because that's what worked for them. It's a sliding scale, and there is no magic %. I have mostly kept mine between 40%-50%. Sometimes it has gone as high as 55%, others as low as 21%. Luckily by monitoring the air sac through candling you can tell if you need to increase or decrease the humidity based on its size. To add water to the incubator and therefore humidity, I put a sponge on the egg turner just below a ventilation hole. I can see the % humidity on the hygrometer through the viewing window, and if I need to add more water, I add it to the sponge with a turkey baster through the ventilation hole. This way I don't lose heat and/or humidity by lifting the lid. The first couple days I frequently monitored humidity, slowly adding water in small amounts to see how much it took to increase it so I got the feel for it. I did this so I was careful not to go too much over 50%, and certainly tried not to go below 40% (it hit a low of 21% when I woke up one morning)
Progress on Development
We are at Day 10 and there definitely is development happening in 9/13 eggs. I am not giving up on the other four, there is no blood ring, the shells are just very dark and speckled making it hard to see. As long as I don't see a blood ring, I will keep an egg in until the end. When I candled on day 5 (I couldn't resist) I was very disheartened to not see anything in any of the couple of random eggs I candled. When I candled again at day 7 I saw development in three, then again when I did on Day 10 there is definite development in nine. I am going to be patient and not candle again until Day 18 giving me the last opportunity to rule out any bad eggs before they go into lockdown.
As it turns out, it is seemingly impossible to get a picture that shows detail in the egg with a cell phone in the dark when candling. I wish I could master the art like others have managed to do so I could show my progress, but if you check out my Instagram I did manage to snag a video! I will post another update when I shut the eggs in for lockdown!!
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