Storing fertile chicken eggs.

Got your eggs but not able to put them into the incubator yet? 

We need to make sure they're stored safely to keep them as healthy as possible until you're ready, so that they have the best possible chance of hatching.

How?  Easy!

Let's make like a hen!

In the wild, a hen will lay several eggs before she starts sitting on them - sometimes as many as twelve.  To her, incubating one at a time makes no sense.  So, as hens can only physically lay once each day, her eggs can be several days old before she begins to incubate them.

A hen incubates fertile hatching eggs

What can we learn from this?

As with everything in hatching our own chickens, our overall aim is to reproduce as closely as we can the way a hen will instinctively behave until she's ready to hunker down and start incubating.

Here are some pointers, learned from reading about chickens in the wild, watching how my own hens keep their eggs, and my own experience in successfully hatching several clutches after a three day journey from the UK to my home in Italy.

Nine baby chickens

This information is part of my ongoing step-by-step guide to "Hatching Happy Chickens".  Have a look at this page to see what it's all about, or use this sign-up box to receive my free e-mail series.

1.  Don't use a dirty nest box!

One of the most critical issues for hatching is to make sure the eggs don't become contaminated with bacteria.  By choice a hen will use a quiet, clean place to set her clutch.  If you're storing your fertile eggs for a while before incubating, try to copy that instinct.

Although you won't be able to see it, bacteria from previous eggs can remain in the material and unless you're careful with your hygiene in this way, you run the risk of contaminating your current clutch.

How to avoid problems?

If you're storing your fertile eggs in standard cardboard cartons, make sure they're new - don't use them for more than one set.   If using plastic or resin storage containers, wash them thoroughly before use.  I use a baby-bottle sterilising liquid but a mild bleach solution is fine : use one teaspoon of bleach to one litre (about one quart) of warm water.

An ideal container for storing fertile chicken eggs until you're ready to incubate.

A container like this one is ideal. It's strong, reusable, easily washed and after you incubate it can be used to store eggs for eating. Click here to buy if you're in the USA or alternatively use this link to buy from the UK.

2.  Make sure you're storing fertile eggs the right way up!

A hen will keep her eggs lying sideways, and that's the way smaller incubators also work.  But if you need to store them beforehand chances are they'll be kept on end.

If that's the case always store with the more pointed end facing downwards, even if it's only for a short time.  This makes sure the yolk stays properly suspended and it's the way they should be placed in the incubator, too. 

Store fertile eggs with the more rounded end upwards.

If the more rounded end faces downwards for too long there's a danger that the air cell will become dislodged and the developing embryo will die.

Experience shows that storing fertile eggs the wrong way up, and certainly incubating them the wrong way up, will result in few, if any, hatching.

3.  Turn them at least twice a day.

Hens store their fertile eggs in a clean nest.

If you watch a broody hen (a hen who is about to sit on eggs, or is already incubating) you'll notice that she turns her clutch every so often both before and during incubation. 

She knows instinctively that she has to prevent the embryo sticking to the membrane inside the shell. 

So we need to do the same.

If you're storing your fertile eggs in containers all you need to do is turn the whole box upside down - no need to turn them individually.  Make sure you mark the container so you know which side is which. 

Just a simple '1' and '2' will be fine - unless you're likely to forget whether you've turned them or not, in which case mark them something like 'morning up' and 'afternoon up' so you know which side should be facing upwards at which point in the day.

Remember if your eggs are smaller than the container you'll need to use some packing to make sure they don't break when you turn them.  Kitchen paper is ideal.

4.  Keep them cool and relatively dry.

A hen knows instinctively that an embryo won't start to develop until she sits on her clutch and they reach a specific temperature.  So we need to keep our own 'clutch' of fertile eggs cool and make sure they don't get wet.

This is really a question of balance.  Wherever you store your eggs, their fertility will be best maintained if they're cool - but not too cold - and dry - but not too dry.

Don't store fertile hatching eggs in the snow!

Store somewhere cool - but not too cold!

How to find the ideal setting?

Look for somewhere in your house that's not heated and not humid.  A garage or a dry basement or cellar is ideal, particularly if it's got a concrete floor. The best temperature for them is between 10º and 15º Centigrade (50º to 60º Farenheit).

Whatever you do, don't store them in your refrigerator - it's too cold and the air is much too dry.  In dry air, eggs will lose moisture through the shell - particularly if they're small eggs like bantams or have particularly thin or porous shells.

I've found a good way of storing fertile eggs in as humid conditions as possible without them becoming too wet is to keep them in a carton and seal the carton inside a plastic bag.

5.  Incubate as soon as possible.

If your fertile eggs have arrived by post, or if like me you've carried them long distances, they will need storing for a few hours to settle and come to room temperature before you set them in the incubator.  Twelve hours is plenty and, wherever possible, they should be incubated immediately after that.

The advice about how long eggs will remain fertile varies depending on which books you read.  What everyone does agree about, though, is that the longer they're left, the less likely they are to hatch.

If you're using your own fertile eggs, collect them daily.

Collect your own eggs every day

If they're kept in the best possible conditions, some authors (Gail Damerow, for example, in her book 'Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks') considers it's possible that they will remain fertile for up to three weeks.

My own experience has been that after about ten days, fertility drops - to the extent that I've never been able to hatch an egg after that length of time even when I've done everything possible to keep them safe and stored correctly.

But it's always worth trying!

So we've chosen our eggs and stored them correctly to make sure they remain as fertile as possible - it's nearly time to incubate!

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