The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Baby chicks hatching! (video)

Two baby chicks hatched in our homemade incubator

It’s been an exciting few days here at the Grovestead! Our flock has grown with the healthy hatches of two new baby chicks. If you haven’t been following along, be sure to read part 1 (egg incubator) and part 2 (candling eggs) to catch up.

After building a homemade egg incubator, we set four eggs laid by our own chickens. A week later we were able to see growth inside two of the eggs, meaning they were fertile. So we kept these in the incubator for another two weeks and watched them very closely! The eggs had to be turned three times a day, the temperature had to be just right, I had to increase the humidity the last three days using wet sponges…  I’m pretty sure I stressed out more over these chickens hatching than I did either of our children being born. Don’t tell Becca I said that.

But the day FINALLY came. After being 24 hours overdue, I noticed slight movement in one of the eggs. I set up a camera on a tripod to catch all the action. This animation comprises several hours leading up to the first hatch:

Egg started to move just before hatching

The last frame was about 5:30AM. And let me tell you I was totally disheartened that my birds weren’t hatching. I came back at 7:00AM and saw this:

First egg broke open, chick begins to emerge

New baby chicks first few steps

The first baby chick emerges and takes his first few steps.

The reason baby chicks can go days without food or water is because they literally suck the egg’s yoke into their abdomen in the final hours before hatching. This is why its so important not to disrupt the process or intervene. Everything that happens in the final hours is essential to the chick’s ability to survive outside the shell.

It took an entire 24 hours before the second chick began to hatch (again inspiring much anxiety). Its sibling stayed close by the whole time:

Chick stays close to other egg

The first piercing of the outer shell is known as a “pip”. It occurs on the same end of the egg as the air sac that forms during incubation. Once the shell is pipped, the chicken can start breathing air and working its way out of the egg.

Second egg pips (chick breaks open outer shell)

The baby chick doesn’t just peck a hole and try to crawl out. It pierces in a complete circle (known as “zipping”) so the whole end of the egg falls off. Then the chick simply pushes the shell off and rolls out. The whole process took about 30 minutes.

Sibling watches the hatching closely

Loyal from birth, the sibling stayed close by and watched, even assisting during the hatch as you’ll see in the video.

 

 


Candling eggs

Candling eggs showing unfertilized egg

We are now two weeks into our little egg-hatching experiment. It’s mostly uneventful, other than turning the eggs three times a day and occasionally checking the temperature in the middle of the night. Becca tells me I am a good mother hen.

People have asked me, where did we get our eggs? We keep chickens of course, and a rooster.

Our rooster

So we are using eggs from our own flock. But that doesn’t mean all the eggs will hatch. In fact, it’s impossible to know which eggs are fertilized until after they have been incubated for several days.

There are three possible outcomes:

  1. The egg is unfertilized.
  2. The egg is fertilized but stopped growing.
  3. The egg is fertilized and the embryo is growing!

After incubating the eggs for about 1 week, you can “candle” them to distinguish between the various stages. Candling simply involves shining a flashlight through the egg to see what’s inside. Apparently this was done by candlelight back in the day, hence the name. Being the nerd that I am, I built a little contraption to hold the flashlight and egg in place so I could take pictures.

The box I used to hold the flashlight and egg

Initially, I was quite disappointed that the first two eggs I candled did not appear to have anything growing in them. But the next two did have growing embryos, and it was thrilling to see them moving around inside! I couldn’t believe that two new chickens were actually growing inside this rinky-dink contraption I threw together.

Here are more pictures from candling:

Another unfertilized egg

This is second unfertilized egg from the first batch.

Unfertilized egg, showing yolk

This is an unfertilized egg from a batch I started a few days later. Notice the egg yolk (dark spot) towards the top of the egg, and otherwise transparent color all the way through.

Now compare the above unfertilized eggs with these:

Candling egg showing developing embryo with blood vessels

The sure sign of a developing chick is blood vessels spreading out from the embryo. The opaque part towards the top of the egg is the actual chick.

Air sack is formed at the bottom of a developing egg

Same egg, turned upside down. Here you are seeing the air sac that forms on one end of the egg, also an initial sign of healthy embryos. The air sac contains the oxygen the baby chicks will need while they’re hatching.

Different egg developing, air sack is visible

This is the other developing egg. You can see all the components: blood vessels, embryo (dark spot), and air sac.

It’s exciting, but I haven’t named them yet. The hardest part is yet to come. A lot can go wrong in the final few days of incubation. If the temperature or humidity is off by just a few degrees, the chicks won’t be able to hatch. We’ll just have to wait and see.

 


The $3, 30-Minute Egg Incubator

Three Dollar, 30-Minute Egg Incubator

I decided this was the year I wanted to try hatching our own chickens. After all, we wake up to a crowing rooster most mornings. Might as well get a few new chickens out of the deal. When I asked a breeder about hatching our own chicks she had one piece of advice: don’t use a styrofoam box. Rather, she recommended a certain brand of incubators and even gave me a coupon code to try online.

Then I found out the name-brand incubators were going to set me back nearly $200! I’m not an astute investor, but back-of-the-napkin calculations told me this wasn’t a good investment. I could buy 100 chicks for less than that. So I dismissed the idea altogether and went on to the next harebrained farm project.

But in the back of my mind, I still really wanted to hatch chickens. Then one day it hit me (probably while lying awake at 5am, listening to our rooster): Why not just try a styrofoam box? I mean, how bad could it be when the alternative is sitting under a chicken’s butt for three weeks?

DIY incubator plans online were all levels of complexity and I couldn’t find anything really simple. So I set about gathering the supplies to make the CHEAPEST and SIMPLEST egg incubator possible. I think I succeeded.

Caveat, I already had some supplies on hand such as lightbulbs, thermometer and scrap wood. But other than that, my total out of pocket was $3. This included the styrofoam bait box ($2) and a lightbulb socket ($1). I also set a goal of making it in under 30 minutes, which if you don’t count the time taking photos for this blog post, I easily pulled off.

Supplies for the egg incubator

Supplies you will need:

  • Styrofoam box
  • Light bulb socket that plugs into standard extension cord
  • Incandescent light bulb (wattage depends on size of box)
  • Scrap wood to make a frame
  • Screen, hardware cloth, or fabric to wrap over the frame
  • Thermometer with humidity gauge (hygrometer)
  • Shallow cup for holding water (the sour cream container in your recycling bin works great)

 

Building frame for the egg incubator

Step 1: Build a frame to fit the inner dimensions of your styrofoam box. Mine was 12″ x 10″.

Cut out screen to fit the frame

Step 2: Fit screen/hardware cloth/cloth over the frame and staple in place.

Attaching screen to the frame

Finished frame for the egg incubator

Installing socket into the styrofoam box

Step 3: Cut or drill a hole into the side of the box and install the lightbulb socket.

Lightbulb in the egg incubator

Your lightbulb wattage depends on the size of the box. Generally, 10-40 watts should be sufficient. Appliance lightbulbs are perfect because of their compact size.

Drilling vents for airflow

Step 4: Drill some holes into the side and lid for venting. I put 2 holes on each side and 4 holes in the lid.

Final assembly of the egg incubator

Step 5: Final assembly. Put the water cup in first, followed by the frame. Then install the lightbulb and place a thermometer inside. I set down several eggs to test out the weight.

An optional step is to add a viewing window. I used the glass from an ugly 5×7 frame:

Picture frame glass

Cut out a slightly smaller hatch in the lid, then tape down the edges for a slick viewing window:

Finished egg incubator with fertile eggs

Incubating the eggs

After we had the incubator, the hardest part was fine-tuning the temperature. Hatching chicks requires a very fine tolerance, 99 to 102 degrees F. And you need to hold that temperature for 21 days. You also need to maintain the humidity around 40% for the first 18 days, then 60-70% the last 3 days. With cheap supplies, this can be a challenge, but not impossible. Basically, you have three options:

The Free Way

The simplest, but crudest way to manage temperature is to cut small holes in the lid until you find the right temperature (you can always tape over them if you overdo it).

The Easy Way

A very easy way to manage temperature is to buy a dimmer switch for plug-in lamps. These cost about $5 at the hardware store and make it extremely easy to find the right temperature.

The Foolproof Way

Even with a dimmer switch, you don’t know for sure if the temperature will hold for long periods. If it is increasing at 0.5 degrees per hour, you might wake up with hardboiled eggs in the morning (I lost a few nights’ sleep this way). The only surefire way to keep your eggs from overheating is to purchase a water heater thermostat and wire it into the power source. This will automatically turn off the lightbulb when it gets too hot, and turn it back on again when within the desired range.

Other stuff

Humidity

It has been difficult to keep the humidity high enough during the dry Winter months. I’ve found a wetted sponge does the trick.

Turning Eggs

It’s also important to turn the eggs a few times each day. This keeps the developing embryo from sticking to shell wall and deforming. I turn my eggs 3 times each day, so it is always a different side overnight.

 

I’ll get to some of the other topics later, such as candling eggs to check for fertility, so check back for updates on the progress of this batch. Even in the best of conditions, success rates vary widely. I don’t know what will come of this latest experiment, but I’ve learned so much already.

 


Keeping warm

Kittens keeping warm

The cats pretty much sum up the mood around here in Winter: snuggle up and ride it out. We have brief respite from the harsh cold now and then. The sun breaks up the monotony and we soak up all we can. Minnesotans are known for their love of outdoors, for good reason.

Rolling the snowman

Building a snowman

Completed (almost) snowman

When the snow is packing right we build a snowman and go for sled rides (with daddy as the draft horse).

But even in this dormant period, the days are getting longer. Seed catalogs start arriving and garden sketches can be found. Soon the seeds will get planted under grow lights and there will be non-stop activity until the Fall frost.

But for now we’re still.

Rural snowscape


Planting a No-Till Garden, Step-by-Step

No-till garden planted

A few years ago I watched the documentary Back to Eden, which describes how master gardener Paul Gautschi uses a revolutionary but forgotten method to suppress weeds and rebuild soil fertility. If you do any gardening at all it’s a must-see (the whole video is free on the website).

This past season I finally got a chance to test out the method, which has come to be known as “no-till” gardening. Unlike traditional gardening where the soil is tilled under every season, with no-till gardening the soil is always covered and therefore never becomes hard and compact. Also, the weeds are virtually non-existent because of the thick mulch.

I sectioned off a portion of the garden and set about converting it to a no-till plot.

No-till garden plot

I’m pretty sure there’s no wrong way to create a no-till garden, as long as you put down enough organic matter. My no-till recipe goes like this:

  • 1-inch compost
  • Sugar (carbohydrates activate the microorganisms in the soil. can also use molasses)
  • Biodegradable paper mulch (for weeds)
  • Another inch of compost
  • Organic fertilizer (a.k.a. chicken droppings from the last coop cleanout)
  • Leaves
  • 4-inches shredded woodchips

Dumptruck leaves giant pile of woodchips

Wood chips arrive.

Layer of compost added to soil

Bare soil is covered with 1-inch compost.

Paper mulch laid down over no-till garden

Paper mulch from the garden store acts as a weed block.

Added organic fertilizer to no-till garden plot

Pine shavings from the chicken coop.

Leaves added to no-till plot

A layer of leaves.

Woodchips spread over no-till garden plot

The shredded wood chips are put down last.

Watering no-till garden

Final step is to soak everything thoroughly.

I came back two weeks later to plant the tomato seedlings and found the ground beneath the wood chips was still moist from this initial watering (it hadn’t rained since).

Seedling transplanted into no-till garden

While the ground right next to it was hard and cracked.

Bare soil is dry and cracked

The results speak for themselves:

Comparison of corn grown in no-till garden

Comparison of onions grown in no-till garden

comparison of plant growth till vs no-till

There was a significant difference in both the growth of the plants and the size of the produce from the no-till plot.

However, there were a couple of drawbacks. There is a cost to getting the woodchips, and the general prep was a little more than just hoeing dirt into rows. But the time saved weeding more than makes up for it. The biggest problem I experienced was low germination rates. Many of the direct-sown seeds did not germinate. But of the ones that did, or of the transplants, they grew significantly better with far less input (I never watered the no-till plot after initial planting the whole summer). I have a couple of theories as to why the seeds didn’t sprout. Mainly, the wood chips have a tendency to fall back over the soil where the seed was placed, making it more difficult for the seedling to sprout. Also, since the black soil wasn’t exposed, the ground would have been cooler in that plot. Some vegetables like corn require very warm temps to germinate.

So as I said it was definitely a success but also had some challenges. I will continue to grow the no-till plot next year and, as always, keep learning.

 


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