Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fom Hatch to Harvest

We did it. After several years of raising chickens for eggs, then adding meat birds to the mix, we finally accomplished a self-sufficiency goal: hatching our own chicken eggs, raising them to adulthood, filling the freezer, and replenishing the laying stock. (Previously our meat birds and new layers were bought as day old chicks from a hatchery.)

It was a sometimes disappointing, but overall exciting process. And I feel so satisfied opening the freezer to see 14 lovely birds, knowing what they were fed, where they lived, and how they were handled.

What a blessing to have the confidence to serve safe, healthy chicken throughout the winter. No recalls. No added yuck. Just pastured, organically fed chicken. Woo hoo!

So, to recapture the process, let me begin at the beginning. Which in our case started with the chicken, not the egg.

We are raising several breeds, trying to find the right mixture of egg layer/meat bird to food conversion ratio. (The most meat and eggs for the least amount of grain food.) Leghorns are fantastic egg layers. But as meat birds they just aren't worth the trouble, averaging out at about 2.5 lbs at 20 weeks. On the other hand, Cornish x Rocks make lots of meat in just a few short weeks, but trying to get them to propagate their own species is a no go...they need to be artificially inseminated. Plus they are just plain gross frankenbirds. (In my opinion.)

For the past two years we have worked with New Hampshire Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and Ameracaunas. So that is what we hatched. (I tried some Leghorn eggs, too, but only had one hatch and grow to Ameracauna Leghorn mixed rooster.)

I'll not go into too much detail about incubation — there's lots of info on the web about incubating eggs. But here are some of the highlights:

I collected the eggs over 8 days, placing them in cartons then putting the cartons in a cooler in my basement. One end of the cooler was propped up on a brick. Two or three times a day I switched the position of the cooler, simulating the rotating that a mama hen would do. Simultaneously, I started up the incubator to get it warmed up and at a consistent temperature.


Let me just say that my incubator sucks. It is one of those square styrofoam jobs, about 15 years old. A friend gave it to me, for which I am grateful, but it still sucks. It is hard to regulate the temperature, and there is no humidity gauge. So, I went to my local hardware store and bought a thermometer/humidistat, in addition to using the included mercury-style thermometer.  After a few days the temperature finally hit 99.5 steadily. Time to add the eggs.

The eggs were situated in the egg turner, which is in the incubator. I really didn't want to have to hand turn the eggs several times a day. Mostly because that means opening the incubator, and mine is so hard to regulate. One thing I learned
 — put the incubator in a place that has a constant temperature. In February my house warms nicely during the day, but gets pretty cold at night, since we use a woodstove. My basement proved to have the steadiest, albeit coolest, temperature.

On day 10 I candled the eggs. (Yes, I had to open the incubator!) I made a homemade candler with a toilet paper tube and a bright Christmas tree bulb. As I candled I marked my observation in a notebook. Any egg I thought was not developing received a penciled "x" across its shell. Everything you read tells you that unfertilized eggs could potentially explode in the incubator, but since I am new at this, I put everything back whether I thought it was growing an embryo or not. (My percentage of "guesses" was about 80% correct...determined at hatch.)

And then I left them alone for 11 more days, just checking to make sure the temp and humidity were ok.

And finally...they hatched. And I left them alone for a day, although I spent many hours just watching.

After removing the chicks to a brooder, I completed the very unpleasant task of opening any unhatched eggs (After leaving them go for another 2 days, just in case.) It was gross work, but I wanted to see 1) how correct I was at candling and 2) what stage the chicks stopped developing so I could adjust whatever was needed.

Cute and Fuzzy

I found that I did a decent job of candling, erring on the side of thinking there was something growing when there was not, rather than thinking it was a dead egg when it was live. I now know that in the future I can remove any eggs that I define as "nothing is growing" without too much fear of throwing out a live egg.

I also learned that the embryos stopped developing at various stages. It seemed that the majority died either right before hatch or in late development but not feathered yet. My research has led me to lots of possible conclusions, but nothing definitive.

After two weeks, the chicks were moved out to the brooder in our garage, where they had much more room to grow. And eventually, as the weather warmed, they were moved to an outdoor coop to fatten up on grass and bugs and yummy (to them) tidbits. At that time, I did a basic evaluation, noting which birds I might want to keep and which would go.

Barred Rocks

I evaluated again at 16 weeks, whittling down the keeper list. It was at this time that I realized the Barred Plymouth Rocks were putting on size faster than the other breeds. After much discussion we decided to get rid of all the New Hampshire Reds. We were starting to have difficulty with the rooster attacking us and his hens. And their laying:food ratio was not as good as the Rocks. I wanted to keep the Leghorns, because they are the best layers; and the Ameracaunas for their lovely blue-green eggs; and the Barred Rocks as they proved the best meat birds of my flock. The Reds could go. (Please note: the particular strains of Rocks and Reds that I have may be different than those of someone else, so their results may be different.)

At 20 weeks we separated out the keepers (5 hens and one rooster) and the remainder were packed up for a road trip to the butcher.

Average weight after dressing was 3.5 pounds, with one 2.5 pounder at the low end and a 7.5 pounder at the high end.

Joad Longshanks, the Ameracauna/Leghorn mix and his Leghorn harem.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for the comments!