Although asparagus and strawberries are a couple of the tastiest signs of spring around here, another one with taste implications — admittedly a delayed gratification sort of thing — is firing up the incubator. It’s not that our hens don’t set, but they don’t always do it according to my schedule, and the setting process can be disrupted by fights with other hens or the occasional bear who turns the nesting cage upside down, leaving the setting hen just a tad upset and disinclined to go for another ride. I like to make sure it will be warm enough that I don’t have to keep the chicks under the heat lamp any longer than necessary, but not so late in the year that they have trouble in the heat. All of which add up to the need to use an incubator. I’ve been collecting eggs for a few days and have three dozen ready to go, so today I hauled out the incubator and set it up.
An incubator should be in an area where the temperatures are relatively stable, which precludes putting it outside, as the temperatures are swinging about forty degrees between day and night. Our bedroom is the best spot in terms of keeping the egg-box out of the way, so I cleared off the shelf, and got it all set up. It takes about 24 hours of fiddling and adjustments to ensure that the temperature will remain close to 100 degrees consistently. The eggs are good for at least 10 days after they’re been laid, as long as they aren’t refrigerated. I put them in egg cartons with large letters that say “Eggs for hatching, don’t use!” and set them aside while I collect enough to incubate. Since mama hen would normally turn them at least once a day before she starts to set, I do the same — it keeps the chick from sticking to the shell once the incubation process starts.
I don’t normally wash my eggs unless they’re exceptionally dirty, and only do it then just before using them. It’s particularly important not to wash eggs for hatching, as washing destroys the protective coat and increases the risk that the embryo will become infected by bacteria that travel through the porous eggshell. Once I start them in the incubator, they must be turned end-to-end at least three times a day for 21 days, at which point I should have lots of little peepers. This year’s chicks will be an interesting mix, as we have three roosters in two different flocks. Our hens are Delawares (meat breed), Australorps (egg breed), Cornish (meat breed) and some Delaware/Cornish crosses that form the nucleus of my meat bird experiment. So the chicks could be pure Australorps, Delaware/Australorp crosses, Delaware/Cornish crosses, Cornish/Australorp crosses, meat bird/Delaware crosses, meat bird/Australorp crosses The only ones I really care about are the pure Australorps, as they are my main egg layers and I need about two dozen
Australorps laying to keep our two families in eggs year round. Any other eggs I get from the Delawares and crossbreds are a bonus, but I want to make sure that I hatch at least 24 Australorp pullets, so I may need to do a second batch of eggs after this one. Excess roosters become chicken soup, chicken stew and chicken pot pie.