Thursday, March 14, 2013

Testing, Testing...

Since we're going to be setting eggs to incubate on March 30th to hatch for our annual Chickam web broadcast on April 20th, I'm test running the incubators.

The chosen spot is back on top of my massively heavy kitchen island, in the dining room. The table we had them on last year transferred too much vibration from the floor, making the eggs jiggle suggestively and leading to false hopes for those eggs to hatch. NOTHING moves this thing, which is also good since it eliminates the danger of bumping the table and knocking over eggs you've been incubating for weeks.

I've been doing hours and hours of research online, reading scientific studies on hatching at high altitudes and picking fellow chicken breeders' brains for tips--last year our hatch was miserable and weird--we either had chicks hatching out 2 days early or 2-3 days late, and many chicks that died at day 19-20--they'd turned into hatching position but never did the internal pip of piercing the air cell. They'd been rocking their egg but then just died. When I did the after-incubation breakout of the unhatched eggs it was heartbreaking, and knowing that those healthy chicks got that close to hatching was frustrating.

I have gained some new insight and this year, although we weren't able to build the homemade incubator we want and are still using the old styrofoam 'bators, we will be making some drastic changes to our technique--things that absolutely wouldn't work at sea level we're going to have faith in here at 5000 feet in a dry climate. The hatching of an egg is a remarkably complex and delicate procedure and everything has to go just right.

Lower air pressure and drier air mean that we have to increase both humidity and ventilation--ideally pumping in extra oxygen would help during the last three days of incubation, but that isn't an option right now. Since we had chicks hatch early, I'm going to go against all instincts and lower the overall incubation temperature just a hair to about 99 to 99.5 degrees--no higher--we need to cook 'em slower! Last year we also had an overnight temperature spike of 106 degrees on hatch day, reason unknown. Also, getting the incubator humidity up to 65% for the final three days is nearly impossible up here. All the equipment is getting a thorough testing and calibration check.

We'll also make some more ventilation holes in the lids and bases of the incubators and buy some cap plugs so we can increase/decrease ventilation as needed.

I'm also hoping that using only high altitude eggs will make a big difference--trying to hatch sea level eggs at altitude makes for a poor hatch rate and lots of dead-in-shell, near term chicks. Sea level eggshells have larger pores and exchange O2/CO2 at a much greater rate than high altitude, smaller-pored eggshells do.

I had what I thought was a wild idea--somehow seal sea level eggs partway to balance the larger pore problem, possibly using a super thin coat of wax, strategically painted on in spots. Turns out someone else already tried it, with limited success, and wrote a scientific paper on it. I'm still kicking it around in my head as an artificial 'bloom' coat for hatching eggs, maybe with some other substance...

Meanwhile the girls are getting tons of vitamins, Omega oils, fresh dark leafy greens, protein & calcium to get the best eggs possible from them--last year they had only been here a couple of weeks and some of their eggshells at breakout were thin. Now we're getting lovely, healthy, strong eggs; the girls are happy and relaxed and the boys are doing their job. Who knows, maybe one of the girls will go broody and we'll have a mama for Chickam!

With my luck it'll be one of the HUGE hens and I'll have to make the brooder box accomodate a plus-size hen.

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