Wednesday, March 25, 2009

They Hatched...And I Learned Something.

Our collection of Cuckcoo Marans and homegrown mutts finished hatching today. It was a long "labor" which started with our first pip early the morning of March 23rd and ended kind of sadly this morning.

As I blogged before, we started out with 12 Cuckcoo Marans shipped from Ohio and 12 eggs from our own chickens. I did a final candling of the eggs on day 18 which gave the questionable eggs a chance to developed into something if they were in fact any good. We had 8 of our own eggs and 9 of the Marans eggs that definitely had growing, moving chicks in them.

From day 18 of the incubation to the actual end of the hatch, which is usually around day 21, the most important rule above any is: Do not open the incubator under any circumstances! Humidity plays such a critical role during incubation but even more so during the final days leading to and during the hatch. By opening the incubator during this time you can cause drastic drops in the humidity which endanger the chicks that are yet to hatch. The drier air can quickly wick the moisture out of the eggs' membrane and make them too tough for the chicks to pierce with their beaks and/or literally shrink wrap them in the membrane. Either way they will not be able to hatch and ultimately die in the egg.

Everyone has their "favorite" humidity that they like to incubate their eggs at. They arrive at this magic number through a lot of experimentation and experience. The optimal humidity for the incubator is affected by many environmental factors too such as the altitude, humidity of the house and ventilation rate of the incubator.
Our first hatch in our Hovabator 1588 was very successful and I planned on doing all of the conditions the same on this hatch, too. For days 1-17 the relative humidity was 40-50% and for days 18 to the end of the hatch the range was 60-70%. During the first hatch we had some very short-lived spikes in humidity each time a chick emerged from its egg but this was easily managed by taking the ventilation plug off the incubator for 30 minutes or so to get it back to the desired humidity range.

On this hatch I had no idea that high humidity would be a problem. We had more eggs in the incubator this time and of course more eggs means more chicks hatching. The hatch started very slowly on the 20th day of incubation with a single pip on one of the Marans eggs. This chick hatched and then another later in the evening. It was easy to manage the humidity in the desired range.
There was a point in the middle of this hatch when so many chicks hatched at once that the humidity spiked at nearly 80%. It did not worry me much because I thought low humidity during the hatch was the big danger. I opened the plug on the incubator and it took well over an hour to recover itself back down to 70%. We still had 4 eggs left to hatch 3 of which were pipped by the chicks. One still had not pipped.

The fourth to the last egg to hatch made its way cracking around the egg very slowly and seemed like it could not lift the top of the egg off. It cheeped and cheeped and seemed trapped in the egg even though it had cracked a complete circle all around it. We were perplexed..what was wrong?

I was deathly afraid of opening the incubator (remember the rule!) so we rigged this thick copper wire with a bend in the end of it and ran it through the vent hole in the lid of the incubator to help this chick out of the egg. Luckily we were able to get the egg shell off the little guy's head and scoop the chick out of the egg. The chick was unusually wet and there was about a tablespoon of fluid left in the bottom of the egg. It was also so exhausted from it's ordeal that it was just flopping around and kicking with it's eyes still shut. We thought that it must be deformed somehow. We didn't put two and two together that this chick's egg was so full fluid due to the high humidity that occurred a few hours ago. That was the last egg to hatch on day 21 of incubation.
The next morning the chick that we thought was malformed somehow was just fine walking around and hanging out with his mates. That made us scratch our heads...what was his problem and how did he recover from it? We still had three eggs left: two were pipped and still one was a "no show". The two pipped eggs started to crack and again one of the chicks got stuck in the egg even though it was cracked all the way around. I grabbed my trusty copper wire rescuer and was able to remove the top of the egg from this chick but it was still stuck in the shell. I couldn't get it out without harming it. So, we figured we had one chick that hadn't pip and one that was almost done cracking it's egg, it was worth rescuing this stuck chick. Oh, yes it was one of my Marans chicks, too!

We soaked a washcloth in very warm water, opened the incubator and laid the warm washcloth on the unhatched eggs and removed the egg with the stuck chick. It was just like the other stuck chick, very wet and exhausted to the point you thought it was sick or malformed in some way. We returned it to the incubator and it flopped around for a couple hours before it opened it's eyes and got its legs under it.

The last chick needed assistance hatching also but for just the opposite reason. It was stuck in its membrane because it instantly dried around the chick because we opened the incubator to rescue the wet chick! The wet towel was not enough to keep that egg moist. This chick was like a normal chick though. It had it's eyes open and started walking pretty shortly after hatching.

The final egg never hatched so I performed an "eggtopsy" on it and found a fully developed dead chick in it. This little guy was also a victim of the high humidity that occurred earlier. It was apparent that he had pipped the air cell, which all chicks do before they pip the shell, but was met by a gush of fluid that drowned him. It was a sad ending to an overall successful hatch. We had eight out the Marans and eight out of our eggs hatch.

The folks at the Backyard Chicken Forum were helpful in solving what seemed like a mystery to me. The humidity spike was just too high for too long. But I have leaned from all of this : to be much more careful about letting the humidity rise too high. Some have recommended a range of 60-65%. Also, I think I will go back to hatching just one dozen at a time....for now!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Chicken Update

I apologize for not making a post for over a week but my new hobby has taken up all of my time lately. What may this new hobby be you may ask? It's called being sick! I have had the worst bout with illness for the last week that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemies. It's started with the flu almost three weeks ago and ended up with a bevy of secondary infections including sinus and conjunctivitis in both eyes.

But enough about me, I want to give an update about my chicken hatching hobby. The ones that I hatched a little over a month are huge and way too big to be inside but it's way too cold to move them outside to the chicken coop. So, we have them in the basement in a big galvanized trough until it warms up enough.
They are a mellow group of babies. Their daddy is our buff orpington rooster, John who is a mellow fellow himself.

Now for an update on the incubating eggs. I candled them on day 7. Candling is a method of holding an egg in front of a focused bright light to see what's going on inside. I used a bright small flash light and hold it to the top of the egg. It works pretty good but I'm also very new at this. So, I'm not always 100% certain at what I am seeing at this early stage. Especially with the dark marans eggs which are much harder for me to understand what I'm seeing.

Here's a tally for the 24 eggs that we started incubating on 3/3/09:

4 eggs have been culled, 2 due to infertility and 2 were what we call "quitters." They stop developing in their first week of development for unknown reasons, possibly bacterial infection.

17 eggs (8 cuckoo marans & 9 from our own flock) look like they have developing embryos. The little buggers actually move a's really exciting to see them!

3 of the cuckoo marans eggs I'm giving a big"?" because I do believe that I am not seeing any chicks in them but they are too dark for me to be certain.

I crack my eggs into a cup when I cull them to see if there is any development and to reaffirm that I made the correct assessment. I haven't been wrong in my short career as an egg candler but I am so afraid that I might make a bad call on these dark eggs and kill an embryo that was developing. I'm going to give them a day or two more before I decide to cull or not. It's a double-edged sword because with the inside of the incubator at 99.5F you could either be growing a chick or one heck of a stink bomb! If a rotten egg explodes and splatters on the good eggs they could become damaged by any bacteria or toxins from the bad egg. It's not a good thing.

I'll have to get off the fence at one point! I will keep everyone posted on the three "?" eggs.
To be continued....

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Cuckoos Are Coming....I Hope!

Look what I got in the mail last Monday! A dozen Cuckoo Marans eggs from Meyers Hatchery in Ohio. They shipped them out Friday and they arrived here in Idaho on Monday. They packed them beautifully in foam and not one broke. I candled them to check for cracks or damaged air cells and they looked really good.
After resting over night they went into the incubator this morning with a dozen eggs from my own chickens that I collected over the weekend. My good friend Rachael wants a rooster and some hens so we are going to "cook" her up a bunch. We'll end up with some spare roosters, luckily they are edible!
I had such good results with our first hatch I'm going to do everything exactly the same this time around. With shipped eggs it's always a gamble because you have no idea what they have been exposed to along the way....rough handling, dropping or temperature extremes. So, we will keep our fingers crossed that some of the Cuckcoo Marans will hatch. I'll be candling the eggs and checking for development on day 7 of the incubation process.

To be continued......

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Jerky: the Easiest Way to Look Like a Pro

This last weekend I wanted to make something in the smoker that was really easy. Emma and I were just getting over a bad case of the flu and poor Greg was in the middle of it. So, to get the satisfying feeling of accomplishing something but not having to spend a ton of time in the preparation of it, I decided to make jerky from a Hi Mountain jerky kit. I highly recommend these kits that are available at sporting good stores and online. The variety flavors are great and directions clear and easy to follow. They work for whole meat jerky and ground meat jerky with two separate directions for both versions.

I'm not going to give all the details because one needs to follow the Hi Mountain 's directions for success but I'll share some pics of what my batch looked like at various stages of preparation. I started with 3+ pounds of venison roast. Hi Mountain's Original Blend is the flavor I used this time around.
I cut the venison into 1/4 inch thick slices. It is much easier to slice it when the meat is still partially frozen. Remove any fat, sinew or silvery membrane from the meat.
After trimming and slicing your meat make sure you weight it. This is how you accurately figure out how much season and cure you need to mix up from your kit. I love using my digital kitchen scale.
The slices need to be patted dry with a paper towel. Place the slices flat on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with the season-cure mixture evenly on both sides.
Once you are done covering the meat with the mixture, put it in a big bowl and mix it up to get the seasons and cure evenly distributed.
Now the seasoned and cure-added meat needs to cure for 24 hours in the fridge. After 24 hours it is ready to place on jerky racks and place into the smoker.
I cooked the jerky at 200F and applied an hour and a half of smoke during the first part of the cooking process. I used Bradley's Special Blend bisquettes since I recently received a variety pack from Bradley and had not tried the blend before. The entire cooking process took about 3 hours.
I'm not exactly sure how to take the internal temperature on a piece of jerky so I just check for doneness by touch. It should be dried but still flexible enough to bend without breaking. Also, there should not be much give when you squeeze it between your fingertips.

When cooked let it rest on the kitchen counter until cool. Then place it in a zip lock bag in the fridge. This will allow the jerky to release a little moisture to its surface and give it a beautiful glossy finish. Now you will have some great jerky that tastes and looks like a pro made it.