Best Hatching Results ā€” Incubator or Momma Hen?

| 6/13/2013 3:06:00 PM

Broody HensOur farm is home to rare breeds of poultry, including Dorking chickens, Ancona ducks and Narragansett turkeys. Having offspring each year is essential to our mission of helping to save these rare breeds, but hatching and caring for chicks presents different challenges each year. We purchased an incubator four years ago to give us more control in getting consistent hatches; it has done well with both chickens and ducks. However, this springtime has shown us that we have a lot more to learn when hatching out turkey eggs—and that sometimes having chickens as a back-up still works best. Here are some of the pros and cons we’re finding with an incubator versus a broody hen:

• You can plug in an incubator anytime, but a bird will begin to brood only when she is ready. Last springtime was a warm one, and there were two Narragansett turkey hens that were willing to sit and brood in March. Heritage breed turkeys take a long time to grow, and beginning in March worked out perfectly to having turkeys for our friends’ Thanksgiving tables. Although turkeys had begun laying eggs in this year’s cooler spring, no hens were yet broody. Being “broody,” or being willing to sit like a “Buddha” on eggs for four weeks, is essential for a successful hatch. That is why we collected eggs in the root cellar, at 55 degrees F., until we collected 15 eggs to put in the incubator.

• You can “candle” eggs when they’re in the incubator—and that’s a lot of fun! Our candling set-up is merely a box over a desk lamp with aCandling Equipment small florescent light inside. I cut an oblong hole in the box, barely the size of an egg, to hold the egg against and get a shadowy picture of what’s inside. Eggs are candled the first week to see if vessels are developing, and later to check the size of the air-sac. I’ve discovered that holding the egg with one hand, while cupping the other hand around the egg, allows me to see the actual movement of the embryo. I think this is as thrilling as a fetal ultrasound! After one week there is the marble-size blob. After two weeks the blob is bi-lobed and moving. After that it’s possible to see a wing or a head move. It takes less than 30 seconds to look at each egg, and leaving the incubator open that long is equivalent to the mother hen leaving the nest for food and water. I love getting in on the miracle of this new life!

• Mother hens have proven more reliable than our incubator this year. We just completed our second incubator hatch of turkeys, and neither could be considered a success. Four poults survived the first hatch and there are only two healthy babies from the second.

incubated eggsThere were technical difficulties with the incubator both times that may have been factors - the turning-bar for the eggs wasn’t working for two days on the first hatch and the electricity actually went out during the second brood. You would have enjoyed watching us running those precious eggs out to the chicken house for the broody hens to sit on! The embryos were still alive when tucked back in the incubator and candled later that day. Such drama on the farm!

But the broody hens have also been our heroines other times these past two years. We had so many broody chickens, but no broody turkeys, early last springtime that I put seven eggs under two of the broody hens for the “fun of it.” Because chicken eggs only require three weeks of incubation, I didn’t think they would sit the four weeks that turkey eggs require. But the chickens not only sat, they hatched out 100 percent!

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