Well, this is my 100th post and all you regular readers would be expecting to be reading about the grand Smallholder's Diary 100th post giveaway. Unfortunately, there has been a bit of a delay with producing the prize and I don't feel I can delay posting any longer. It will take place soon though......
As we are coming up to Easter, strangely our thoughts turn to rabbits, chocolate eggs and fluffy chicks. So I thought I would share with you our previous experiences of hatching eggs. Most people tend to use an incubator, perhaps because it is felt to be more reliable and you can hatch a larger number of eggs in one go. Our one and only attempt at using an incubator was a complete disaster. Most of the eggs started to hatch, but then the chicks seemed to give up and all but one died. I don't know where we went wrong; wrong temperature, wrong humidity? Who knows. Only one chick hatched successfully. But then that chick somehow went and got itself caught up in the heating element! How on earth it did that I have no idea, but unfortunately it burned itself badly and did not survive. Since then the incubator has sat in the garage gathering dust.
Our subsequent (usually more successful) attempts have been with the use of a broody hen. Firstly, what you need is some fertile eggs (about six to put under each hen). How do know if they are fertile? Well, if you have a cockerel with your hens then there is good chance that most of your eggs during spring to early summer will be. There is no definite way to check - just choose a few well formed eggs and hope.
You then need a somewhere for your broody hen to sit where she will be undisturbed. We use a cat carrier and this has worked fine. You will need plenty of bedding for the nest - I tend to prefer straw, but other people prefer wood shavings.
All you need now is one broody hen. We have found Pekin bantums particularly good for this as they will go broody at the first sign of spring. They are quite happy to sit on any eggs, not just their own - we have hatched bantums, standard size chicks, call ducks and runner ducks under ours and all of these have worked well. It also helps if your hen is quite happy to be handled.
What you do now is put your freshly laid eggs into the nest in the cat carrier and put your broody hen on top. You will need to shut the door of the cat carrier to keep the hen safe and then put it somewhere sheltered and shaded. We use our garage.
Once your hen is sitting, you will need to lift her off twice a day, every day without fail. The purpose of doing this is to allow her to eat, drink and go to the toilet. You will need to make sure that she does each of these before you put her back again, but at the same time you need make sure she does not stay off for too long otherwise the eggs will get cold. There is no need to turn the eggs like you do with an incubator, your hen will do this for you. Check the eggs every time you lift of your hen and if you see any that are soiled or broken then you will need to dispose of it.
After about five to seven days you can "candle" the eggs - i.e. hold the egg and put a standard torch underneath to see if there is any sign of a chick developing. If there is anything happening you should see a dark spot in the egg. If the egg is clear then it is probably infertile and you should dispose of it. Be very, very careful handling the eggs and don't be tempted to shake them as this will damage the developing chick.
All being well, your chicks should hatch after around 21 days. After that you have a choice of leaving your hen to look after them and keeping them warm or you can use a heat lamp. We usually let the hen be mother - even with the runner ducks!
It is, of course, a rather inexact process with variable results, but it is wonderful being part of bringing new life into the world. The children in particular love seeing the fluffy chicks arrive.
What are your experiences of hatchings eggs?