The battered red pick-up truck bucked its way up our driveway, pulling into our parking lot with a puff of black exhaust. Its driver, an older gentleman in well-worn overalls with a beard Santa would envy, knocked on our door shortly after. He’d seen our farm’s sign on the road and wanted to buy a dozen eggs. No problem! Which would he prefer, brown, blue, a mixture of the two?
He wanted to buy a dozen eggs for his broody hen so she could hatch some chicks. Problem!
“But you’re a poultry farm, aren’t ya?” he exclaimed when I replied with regret that no eggs were available. Why, yes, we are, sir. But there’s a lot more to hatching eggs than simply collecting them from the nestbox.
The Mating Game
Our boys are decidedly disinterested in their female counterparts during the cold months. (No, there’s no chicken equivalent of football season.) In the spring, however, a rooster’s fancy turns to thoughts of love— and not lightly. When I see our males repeatedly “romancing” our hens—and our hens laying consistently—I know it’s time to schedule a fertility check. Being in Michigan, I don’t test any earlier than April: egg production is practically dormant then and the boys might as well be.
Torpedo shapes, golf balls and other geometric oddities in eggs make awesome conversation starters but give chicks a pretty poor start to life. Select textbook ovals to provide those potential babies with plenty of space to grow. That old wives’ tale about pointy eggs yielding cockerels and rounded eggs resulting in pullets? Ignore it. Egg shape does not influence chick gender. Egg cleanliness, however, does. Dirt and fecal matter contain bacteria, which can pass through the porous eggshell, contaminating the embryo within. Your best bet for a positive fertility test starts with clean, well-formed eggs.
Not quite ready to test? You can store your hatching eggs for up to 10 days before fertility begins to deteriorate. A quiet, humid spot with an ambient temperature of 50 degrees F is ideal; we keep our eggs under our cellar stairs. Store the eggs point down for proper air-sac positioning, and turn them daily to keep the yolks from sticking to the membranes. Allow the eggs to slowly come to room temperature before incubating to avoid temperature shock.
The cleanest, most properly stored eggs from the most amorous poultry couple haven’t got a chance of developing if your incubator isn’t functioning correctly. Thoroughly read the owner’s manual, plug the machine in properly, and learn how to maintain the necessary temperature and humidity levels. Using a living incubator (aka, a broody hen)? Make sure your hen is setting on a clean, draft-free nest and has no distractions that might break her brood.
Thanks to candling, we no longer need to crack open eggs at various stages of the 21-day incubation period to determine fertility and viability. This option is still practiced by some poultry breeders, but I (being somewhat sensitive) prefer to peek at developing eggs through my candler. Whichever method you choose to use, I recommend testing your eggs for the full three weeks. If 80 percent of your eggs develop, your fertility test is a success. Less than that, and your birds may need a little more breeding practice (the exception is Araucana eggs, for which a 25 percent rate is successful due to the breed’s high embryo-mortality rate).
It was early March, my hens had only just started laying again, and what eggs I’d gotten were resting at room temperature on my kitchen counter. I had no proven hatching eggs to offer my unexpected visitor. I’d started explaining this when a little boy dashed over from the truck, gave me a huge smile, and then eagerly asked Granddad if he’d gotten the eggs yet. My somewhat sensitive soul tossed my explanations out the window and, any day now, there may (or may not) be nine or so Orpington chicks hatching somewhere in Southeast Michigan.