It's All Trew

Setting Hens and Incubators

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An elderly reader recently shared her memories of when, as a little girl, her job was to feed the poultry, then hide in the barn loft, peeping through cracks, watching setting hens and turkey hens go to their hidden nests. The reason for this chore: Outlying nests of eggs were subject to bad weather, predators and calamity, reducing the live hatch. If the nest could be found, mother and eggs could be placed under protective housing, hopefully increasing the live hatch and providing extra revenue for the farm.

Artificial means of hatching eggs began in 1847 with the invention of a crude but practical incubator. In 1887, a much-improved incubator became available, with warnings that the user must fully understand the essential conditions needed for successful hatch. Some early models often caught fire, but new safety features soon corrected that flaw.

In 1896, W.P. Hall of New York invented and placed on the market a mammoth commercial incubator capable of hatching 5,700 eggs at one setting. This device gave birth to the huge commercial hatcheries of today. Since then, millions of baby chicks from some 26 breeds plus other poultry and wild game chicks are as close as the nearest U.S. Post Office.

The incubator is a device which provides controlled conditions for hatching eggs artificially. Most early models used a special kerosene lamp for heat, a pan of water for correct humidity and pull-out trays so the eggs could be rotated half a turn each day. Turning was absolutely necessary to prevent the embryos from attaching to the inside of the egg shell and dying. Originally, Mother Nature delegated this delicate chore to the mother hen, who moved the eggs as she climbed on and off the nest.

Incubators came in all sizes and prices, with many models still available today. Many appeared to be fine furniture, made of butternut or redwood with polished copper tanks and flues. Of all the inventions related to the family farm, this improved egg hatching process was in a class by itself, by adding greatly to the owner's income and quality of life.

- Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net