Buying fertile eggs?

With the increase in popularity of chicken keeping, more and more people are buying fertile eggs to pop under a broody hen in their backyard or for hatching out in an incubator.  After some research people quickly discover that some breeds and bloodlines aren’t readily accessible. They then work out that they can purchase fertile eggs and have them transported using Australia Post. This is all true, but there are risks involved.  Unfortunately many don’t learn of the risks until the experience is complete (often with a measure of disappointment at the number of chicks that result).

This article is to provide you with important information relating to purchasing fertile eggs.  At Suburban Chooks we do not offer customers fertile eggs posted, but we believe it is important to provide relevant information to chicken keepers about these risks. This article is not intended to put anyone off buying fertile eggs (regardless of the transport method) but merely to provide information so the risks are known and the hatch rate expectations are realistic.

All information provided is giving those who sell (and post) eggs the benefit of the doubt in their breeding, selection, storing and packing of those eggs.

In the beginning…

Egg fertility is largely determined by a combination of factors, including:

  • the health of the parent birds;
  • the diet of the rooster and hens, from growing up as chicks through to breeding rations;
  • successful development of the reproductive organs (a rooster can still perform his roosterly duties but be infertile, for example);
  • the ration of rooster to hens (if there are too many girls, the rooster may not ‘cover’ all his girls adequately)
  • seasonal fluctuations in fertility;
  • genetics (inbreeding can affect future generation fertility rates);
  • egg collection and storage,
  • egg age upon setting, and
  • transportation (if not setting/incubating at the same location as the eggs are laid).

Egg fertility is pre-determined (to a certain degree) by the genetics of the parent breeding stock and the quality of the feed given to them during the laying period. Most responsible chicken breeders test fertility levels before selling eggs, and over 80-85% is an acceptable level. Some breeds are known to have slightly lower fertility rates, such as those with rose combs.

It is generally accepted that anyone storing fertile eggs store them in clean egg cartons tilted on an angle and turned at least twice daily. Turning of the eggs is important to prevent the egg yolk from sticking to the shell. Eggs should be stored in a cool, dark place.

As a buyer you should be able to ask about their bloodlines (if this is important to you), diet, fertility rates and hatching rates prior to purchase.

How do I know my eggs are, in fact, fertile?

Obviously the pen from which the egg has been collected needs to have, or have recently had, an active rooster – just to state the obvious. Many people hearing this will assume that the eggs laid are fertile. The reality is that you, nor the person selling them, doesn’t know unless this is checked. There are only two proven methods to determine whether a resulting egg is, in fact, fertile and they are:

  • Incubating it. A healthy, fertile egg will develop (at least partly) into a chick.
  • Cracking it open and looking for the 3-4mm embryonic spot. Doing this will, of course, render the egg useless for hatching.

If you are cracking an egg open in a bowl to check for fertility, look for the characteristic ‘bulls-eye’ on the left hand egg yolk.

Fertile vs Infertile Eggs

Getting them home

Consideration needs to be given to the method used in transporting fertile eggs. Car rides can be rough on fertile eggs, which you will quickly realise if you are holding them on your lap on the ride home. You are transporting live genetic material after all, and too much jarring/jiggling can decrease the resulting hatch rate.

Personally, I have brought home many an egg carton of fertile eggs with them on the car seat next to me (on a thick layer of towels) or in the baby seat (which, coincidentally is the perfect width to prevent them sliding sideways) with no adverse effects to the eggs. Some people have also transported them long distances hanging inside the car (in a plastic bag or makeshift hammock) so they swing with movement.

The smoother you can make the ride, the better. If you are using a poultry transporter you might want clarification on how they are storing and transporting your eggs.

Once you get them home

All fertile eggs which are transported long distances (or posted) will need at least 24 hours to rest as they may have had a rough time getting to you. Obviously you may decide that this is unnecessary if they have only travelled a relatively short distance. It is a good idea to candle the eggs before setting them. The first thing to look for is hairline cracks, and although some people attempt to repair them the success rate of them hatching is low – often it is best to cut your losses a lot of the time and throw them away.

Secondly, the air sacks are normally small, at the end of the egg and should be attached to the egg shell. Air sacks can become ‘scrambled’, which means that they can fragment/break apart or ‘float’ inside the egg, which more often than not means that they will not hatch. These eggs will need to be discarded.

Using Australia Post to get them sent to you

Assuming that all care is taken in the selection, storing and packing of eggs by the seller, the resulting hatch rate lies in the hands of Australia Post and in your incubator. There is speculation amongst the poultry world that it is against Australia Post policy to send fertile eggs, but the following information was found on this Australia Post webpage.

“Within Victoria, posting “Poultry and hatching eggs OK within state and Restricted from all other states.
Within the NT,  posting “Poultry and hatching eggs OK within state and R from all other states.
Within Tasmania,  Poultry and hatching eggs OK with state and OK from all other states.”

Other states do not list hatching eggs in their tables.

Despite the restrictions on interstate movement and lack of information on other states there are a huge number of posted eggs which are sent all over Australia. This is done at the buyer’s risk as this is the most readily available method of accessing breeds and bloodlines that would normally be out of reach (literally).

Buyers need to be aware that posted eggs are not treated with the care that chicken breeders feel is warranted (as the parcels hold the potential for great joy and are not ‘just’ a parcel). Fertile eggs contend with depressurised aircraft cargo bays, cold exposure, heat exposure, vibrations and the often rough handling of the staff that process the parcels. It must be kept in mind that even if parcels are marked ‘Fragile’ (whether it be fertile eggs or other fragile content) they may be piled on top of each other and held in huge transport crates or bags – often rendering the labelling ineffective.

There is also a strong suspicion that some Australia Post employees ‘mishandle’ (read shake, drop, kick and in some instances, deliver boxes with a suspiciously boot-shaped imprint) fertile egg parcels. Marking ‘Fragile’ or ‘Handle with Care – Contains eggs’ on the package seems to have no impact either way on whether the parcel gets to its destination in a better state – most sellers offer you the option of labelling your parcel with Fragile (or similar) so to do so is your decision. 

The decision on whether to spend the extra on ‘normal’ versus ‘Express Post’ is also one that needs to be considered.

What is considered a good hatch rate?

Work on the principle that two or three healthy hatchling from a dozen eggs is a realistic goal with all other factors being equal. Generally, it is a realistic goal to have 2-3 hatchlings/chickens per dozen eggs, especially for a breed/colour that you normally couldn’t access using other methods. Although this does seem low, it is a risk that buyers need to be understand to avoid disappointment due to overly high expectations.

As we have outline above, there are a lot of factors which impact the hatch rate of the fertile eggs other than the breeders issues. It is common practice that sellers of fertile eggs take no responsibility for eggs once they have left their care, for those reasons…

What to do with the inevitable roosters?

When hatching fertile eggs you will need to also consider that a minimum of 50% of the hatch will be roosters. Unfortunately no amount of praying and hoping seems to impact on this fact (LOL). Often this isn’t a problem until the boys start crowing but this can be heartbreaking as the time approaches when you will need to determine the future of your (often-handraised) roosters. Especially given most Melbourne backyard chicken keepers can’t keep roosters due to Council restrictions.

The reality is that there is normally at least one rooster for each hen hatched, and that a majority will have a drastically reduced life span. Distressing as this realisation may be, it is the harshest of realities in chicken keeping…

Suburban Chooks are willing to take unwanted roosters (irrespective of how you gained them) and will do our best to rehome them where possible. But please be aware that for a majority their future may not be one long-lived, full of green grass and girlfriends. We are more than willing to go along with any story you have told your children (especially if they are young and aren’t ready for the truth – we have young ones ourselves and understand the need for this) when you come to drop off your rooster(s).

Is it worth it?

I personally (and a lot of other poultry keepers) would say ‘Oh God, yeah…” Some hatches you will have much higher hatch rates, some quite low. Some you will have are mostly rooster, others mostly hens. You take the good with the bad. But like most things in life, the decision to buy fertile eggs is about making an informed decision…

Hopefully you now have that information and make your decision…

HAPPY HATCHING EVERYONE!!!