Raising Chicken Eggs for Hatching

A Few Simple Guidelines for Producing Hatchable Eggs, Including Hatching Eggs for Sale

Raising Chicken Eggs for Hatching

Raising chicken eggs for hatching and incubating chicken eggs is something many of us do every year. Some of us set eggs for our own use at home and are not overly concerned about hatching rates. We choose eggs from our favorite hens, including those that are several years old. Our “studs” might be pet roosters who, as my grandmother used to say, are “old enough to vote.” If we set 30 eggs in the summer and get six replacement pullets for our flock, we don’t mind. Six new pullets are plenty for home use, and we are happy.

Such a haphazard system, however, is a sure recipe for failure if you are raising hatching eggs for sale or are trying to produce large numbers of hatchable eggs for your own use or business. Producing high-quality hatching eggs is similar to raising quality eggs for eating, but with some slightly different twists. If you want to produce hatching eggs for sale, and hatchable eggs that will consistently produce lots of baby chicks, there are a few things to pay attention to and do differently. Selling fertile eggs that don’t hatch will not garner repeat-customers or very good business ratings.

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Commercial turkey hatching eggs in shipping box.

Providing your breeder or parent birds with proper nutrition is one of the biggest keys to success in raising viable hatching eggs. Breeder birds need peak nutrition at all times, not just during the breeding season. Poultry destined to become successful producers of fertile hatching eggs must have peak nutrition starting as day-old chicks. Adult birds being kept for hatching-egg production need more than just standard layer feed. While an all-purpose layer mash or ration is suitable for producing high numbers of eggs for edible use, it is can be short on some proteins and amino acids, as well as vitamins and fatty acids that are necessary for the development of the growing baby birds. Poultry raised to produce hatching eggs should be fed a breeding ration (sometimes called game bird breeder rations). These feeds are formulated with higher protein levels (about 20 percent versus 16 percent for most laying feeds), additional fatty-acids essential for the development of the baby chicks, and higher levels of certain vitamins. Each fertile egg contains sole nutrition for the developing bird it holds. If it is short on necessary nutrients, the embryo may die during development, or may not have enough strength to break-free at hatch time. Hatching eggs can be produced with layer rations and this may be fine for home purposes, but anyone raising hatching eggs for sale needs to ensure that the eggs have high fertility rates as well as proper amino and fatty acid levels to support full development of the embryo. This is the reason for using breeding rations in producing hatching eggs.

Baby chicks, or other poultry, destined to become breeding birds should be fed nutritionally complete starter and growing mashes when young. Do not try to cut corners, or cost, at this point. Maximum fertility and production ability of every bird, both male and female, is highly dependent on the nutrition they receive during the developmental stages. Breeder birds should be switched to breeder rations just prior to the start of egg production. Some owners start them on breeder rations about one month prior to starting to lay, and others switch over just when the first pullet eggs are produced.

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Fertile eggs ready for the incubator. Photo credit Christina Sauls, Happy Feet Hatchery.

Fertility rates decrease as birds get older. There are many schools of thought on how to breed chickens, including whether to use flock mating or breeding family lines, using individual birds. No matter which method is used, fertility rates in hens can decrease up to 20 percent each year they are in production. Roosters also lose fertility, but at a slower rate. Because of this, most hatcheries get rid of their breeding stock after about six to eight months of laying. Commercial hatcheries replace their breeders every year. If you want to increase your stock, including breeders for home use, buying some of this spent breeder stock is an affordable option for many hobbyists. If you do have older hens that you want to breed, mating them to young, vital roosters greatly improves fertility rates.

Daily light-hours affect both egg production in hens as well as the production of fertile semen in roosters. Breeder birds should have 16 hours of light daily. When enough daylight hours are not available, provide extra hours of incandescent lighting in the breeding pens or coops to supply the necessary light hours for maximum fertility. Start supplying the required light hours about 30 days before you want to use the fertile eggs for hatching.

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Candling reveals a healthy embro forming in a fertile hatching egg. Photo credit Christina Sauls, Happy Feet Hatchery.

Male-to-female ratios for your breeding flock are also important. Various breeders use different rooster-to-hen ratios. Some use seven or eight roosters for up to 100 hens. Others might use 12 roosters. One rooster for eight to 10 hens is usually okay for home production of hatching eggs. Sometimes, however, using one rooster for a small flock can be problematic; some roosters will only mate with a few favorite hens, lowering overall production of fertile eggs from the flock.

Condition and storage of hatching eggs, especially if you are producing hatching eggs for sale, needs to be carefully monitored. Hatching eggs should be gathered at least twice per day and stored in flats or cartons, pointed-end down. Clean bedding should be kept in the nests and replaced as soon as it begins to get soiled. The main reasons for gathering eggs twice or more per day is to keep the eggs from getting dirty. It also keeps the eggs from getting bumped and rolled around under all of the hens that will be using the nest. Replacing nest bedding frequently helps keep the eggs clean. Hatching eggs need to be kept clean. This is for more than just aesthetic reasons. Eggs which become soiled with manure, even if cleaned later, can get bacteria or viral contaminants inside of the egg that will multiply in the warmth of the incubator, damaging the developing embryo. Gases can also build-up in these eggs, causing them to explode. Eggs that are allowed to build up in the nests, and jostled by multiple hens, can develop microscopic breaks and fissures, which can also allow bacteria to enter. Eggs left in nests often go through a process of being warmed by a hen sitting on them while she lays her egg, and then cooling down when she gets off. Then another hen gets on and the process is repeated. Under such conditions, a little zygote, or embryo will start to form. The constant warming and cooling can soon kill the developing embryo.

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Keeping nests, bedding, and hatching eggs clean is very important. Photo credit Christina Sauls, Happy Feet Hatchery.

Unusually large eggs, unusually small eggs, and eggs with poor shell quality usually have poor hatch rates and should not be used. Hatching eggs should be stored at a temperature range of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Eggs should be set within 10 days, sooner if possible. If keeping hatchable eggs for more than two or three days, they should be “turned” at least twice per day. The easiest way to do this is to tilt the egg flat or carton, by propping one side up on a block of wood or other object for half a day, and then raising the other side for half a day. This keeps the fertile cell mass from sticking to one side of the egg. Avoid jarring or shaking hatching eggs. Jarring and shaking can kill the developing cell mass.

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Success at last! Don’t worry, this baby chick is healthy and okay. It is taking a well-deserved rest after working for 23 hours to break out of the egg. Photo credit, Christina Sauls, Happy Feet Hatchery.

If you should decide to produce hatching eggs for sale, many states require that your flock is NPIP certified. This is a guarantee that your flock has been inspected and is free from a number of dangerous diseases. For more information on how to become NPIP certified, contact your local agricultural extension office.

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