Big news: the next chicks are on their way! We now have a toasty warm incubator loaded with eggs, scheduled to hatch around March 4 or 5.
First off, some of you may be wondering why we don't just let the hens do all this for us, and save ourselves the expense of an incubator. Well, there are an awful lot of things that can go wrong in the time between laying and hatching, which is why hens lay so many eggs. Most people at all serious about hatching eggs end up getting an incubator, to properly control the conditions that affect successful hatching.
We learned very early on that there are incubators, and then there are incubators. There are really cheap do-it-yourself models and there are ones that cost $1000 and look like sleek, stainless steel wine coolers from the future. At first Kim thought she would build her own with found materials, but the technical requirements for maintaining precise temperature and humidity, plus the need to regularly turn the eggs so they develop properly, were off-putting for even someone as game for a challenge as Kim.
The incubator we ended up buying was a middle-of-the-road one: it has a heating element connected to a very primitive thermostat (no actual scale, just a lever you turn one way if you want it cooler and the other way for hotter), channels for water to maintain the humidity, an electronic thermometer and hygrometer, and a mechanism that automatically tilts the eggs one way and then the other, very slowly. What it didn't have was a fan, to ensure even temperature and humidity throughout the unit. So Kim visited a local computer store, where a nice young fellow whose mother also incubates eggs gave her an old hard drive fan for free, which she wired into the incubator. What a nice fellow. In all, the entire system cost about $155. Given that we paid $5 each for our day-old Buff Orpington chicks last year, and $25 each for the point-of-lay pullets we bought from Ev, we think this is a bargain.
Next Kim spent two or three days checking to see the whole system worked, and adjusting the thermostat and humidity until the fairly narrow specs for hatching eggs were met. Then on Saturday the eggs - 10 Australorp and 21 Buff Orpington - were loaded into the incubator and the 21-day countdown began.
You may notice that one of the eggs in the photo doesn't look like the others. It looks like a cyborg-egg. It's actually Kim's homemade egg-o-meter. No, I'm not making that up. Apparently the temperature inside an egg is not the same as the temperature outside the egg. So people buy fake eggs, filled with gel and connected to a thermometer, to put in their incubators. But they cost about $20, and Kim had read about a better idea on the internet. We blew the insides out of an egg, to get an empty shell, filled it with hair gel, and inserted the probe of a $7 thermometer we got at Walmart. We did have to buy the hair gel, since neither of us use it, but it only cost $1.99. What a deal, and it works great.
Being the ex-science teacher that she is, Kim is taking her record-keeping very seriously. That's half the fun.
She will candle the eggs in about 5 days (holding a bright flashlight underneath each egg in a dark room) which will allow her see enough of the inside of the egg to know if it contains a growing embryo. At that point, of the fertile eggs, we can expect about an 85% hatch rate. So, if all goes well, in three weeks we should have a brooder full of baby chicks!