Although it is still cold, spring has been in the air on the homestead. We have been starting seeds, making maple syrup, and our rooster has been active making baby chickens. We keep a small flock of chickens for egg production. Usually we have enough eggs to avoid buying any from the store. Last year one of our hens went broody (sitting on eggs to hatch them) so we bartered for a few fertile eggs from our good friend and put some under her. Only one of the eggs hatched and as luck would have it, the little chick was a rooster.
We really didn’t want a rooster, but we kept him anyway. He grew into a beautiful bird and we decided that this year we would hatch some of our own eggs. We try to keep our hens about three years or so and then rotate them out. Three of our hens are due to go to new homes, so this was a great way to replace them free of charge. It also allowed us to learn a valuable skill that could keep our flock self sustaining, and we would no longer be slaves to mail order hatcheries or the over-crowded chick confines of Tractor Supply. We started by looking for a used incubator on Facebook’s marketplace. Immediately we were offered free incubators to either borrow or have. We were so grateful. It is wonderful how homesteaders always come together when one of us has a need. We tried to set up the incubator in our partially heated garage, but we could not get it up to the accurate temperature of 99.5 degrees F. After some thinking we set it up in our mud room, because it was out of harm’s way, and has heat. We let it run for a few days and adjusted the heat to 99.5 degrees and added water to the bottom tray for humidity. We then collected eggs as soon as they were laid so that they were still warm. Which, by the way, if you live in the Northeast like us, is not always an easy to find a warm, just laid egg. They sometimes get cold very quickly with our ever fluctuating temperatures. We placed the eggs in the incubator and wrote the date on them in pencil. Eggshells are porous and ink can bleed into the egg killing the chick. We turned the eggs three times a day by hand, rolling them a quarter turn each time. Some incubators come with a fancy, automatic “turner”, but our experience is that turning them by hand works the best. Chicken eggs take about 21 days to hatch and on day 18 we stop turning them. Knowing that the big day was coming soon, we got our brooder ready for the upcoming births. We took an old plastic pond and put some bedding in the bottom. We then hung a heat lamp about 18″ above the bedding.
It is important to be sure the lamp is secure and not just depend on the clamp. We had a friend who nearly burned down his house when his lamp fell into the dry bedding. We give the chicks enough space to move away from the lamp if they are too hot. It is easy to tell if your lamp is in the right place once you put the chicks in. If they move away its too low, if they huddle together it is too high. We also get their food and water ready. Finally day 21 came and we could hear peeping in our incubator.
We looked in the incubator, there were no chicks, but we could see some of the eggs wiggling a bit. After a few hours we could see a tiny beak pecking a hole in the egg.
A few hours after that we had our baby chicks. We left them in the incubator until they were dry, and then we moved them to the brooder. They seemed much healthier and livelier than the chicks that we have had mail ordered and we have not noticed any pasting up (poop getting bound up). Our homestead was now a little closer to being self sufficient, and we went to bed that night of the first, and hopefully many more births-to- come, feeling very grateful to be able to continue our homesteading lifestyle.
Just like most things we do in homesteading, it is a learning process. We always ask ourselves, “how can we improve?” ” what can we do differently?”, but with raising our own chicks, the answers to both of these questions are clearly evident when we witness the hatching and birth, and then hold a baby chick in our hands for the first time. It never gets old and you realize that you have done exactly what Mother Nature intended, with a little help of an incubator, of course. And that early morning crowing from the rooster that you once loved, then hated, you suddenly love again. Thank you, Mr. Wing!