High Altitude & Hatching – an Oil/Water Scenario?

All is not well in the hatching world at Willow Creek Farm.  Not well at all.

After our previous failed hatch we had come to the conclusion that the shipped eggs were the problem.  I checked my temperature, humidity, and turning and that is all that was left.  Or was it?  Remember I mentioned that maybe it might be something with altitude.  Apparently, I hit the nail on the head with that thought, but wouldn’t realize it until the second hatch started to show problems.

Monday morning dawned with our first pip, right on time on day 21.  The problem was that the pip was way down the side of the egg, not in the air cell at all.  Another mal-positioned chick.  All the chicks that died last hatch were mal-positioned.  Crud.  We let it sit all day long, and watched it closely.  It had a good, strong set of lungs and let the world know that it was fighting with its loud cheeping.

By 12 hours we began to worry.  The chick seemed to be attempting to turn and unzip but was stuck and unable.  We could see it through the pretty large pip area.  We are not really on board with intervening with chicks an eggs and lean more towards let-nature-take-its-course.  But something about having the chicks in the last hatch die trying to get out had changed us a bit in that department and we felt a desperation to make that not happen again.  Plus, we felt like there was a difference between helping a chick that is just too weak to get out versus helping a chick that is strong and healthy, but in the wrong position to be successful.  We didn’t have much time to hem and haw about it and decide.  So we decided to go ahead and very conservatively help the chick.

We had read through all the chick assist things on Backyard Chickens when the last batch failed so we knew what to do.  My husband very gently peeled off shell, giving her an unzip line.  He didn’t tear the membrane though.  Then, to check how she was doing with absorbing the blood and yolk, he made a hole in the shell down in the air cell.  She still had some absorbing to do so we put her back in and left her alone, moistening the membrane with water occasionally (being careful not to drown her).

After a few more hours she started really getting going with her cheeping again and be-bopping around.  It was clear that the circulation was all absorbed.  She couldn’t turn to unzip but managed to push enough that she was able to break out (because my husband had taken off the shell around, creating kind of an unzip).  She was hatched and strong and healthy!

Meanwhile, I had spent hours trying to figure out what was going on that was causing our issues and the mal-positioning of the chicks.  Then it occurred to me – altitude.  I then spent hours searching the internet, trying to find and learn whatever I could about hatching at high altitude.  What I found was very disheartening.  At our altitude, of approximately 8,000 feet, hatchability is greatly greatly reduced.  😦  The chicks do not get enough oxygen and thus suffocate.  I found a lot of people who were having the same issue as us – chicks dying fully formed at the last-minute.  This poses a big problem for our breeding program plans, but that is something to be figured out later.  The concern and question became what to do about the current hatch and the 15 eggs in the incubator that had yet to pip and were theoretically either dead or suffocating slowly?

Again, we hate the idea of intervening.  But now we had one chick, with no brooding buddies (again!) and we didn’t want our friends to be stuck trying to buy chicks like we did.  Not to mention we hated the idea of healthy viable chicks suffocating inside their eggs more than we hated the idea of intervening.

But what is the proper intervention at this point?  Nothing on the net talked about that.  Nothing discussed how to save them if you have just realized your altitude is killing them because they can’t get enough oxygen.  All our vent holes were open.  Everything I read discussed the fact that porous shells do better at altitude because they can get more oxygen.  So we figured, what if we did the external pips for the chicks, that way when they did their internal pips they would be exposed to as much oxygen as possible.  Granted, any mal-positioned ones might not make it anyway because they wont be pipping into the air cell anyway.  But it was worth a try.

At this point we were already 36 hours past the first one pipping, and about 10 hours past the first one hatching out.  And no others had externally pipped.  Only a few were even wiggling around.  We figured we had nothing to lose.  So my husband carefully cracked open the air cell end of each egg with tweezers, one little chip at a time, and wet the membrane to see what was happening with the egg.

First egg had an internal pip, but was dead.  😦  Died trying to get out.  I really don’t like that.  7 more were dead, but not fully formed.  They all died at day 18 or earlier.  7 were still alive.  2 of those 7 had internal pips – 1 mal-positioned, 1 not.  Those two were cheeping away at the top of their lungs.  The 5 not internally pipped but alive have only 1 that is clearly in the right position.  The rest may or may not be mal-positioned.

We moistened the membranes and set all of them back in the incubator, pips up (if they have one).

And now we wait.  We are keeping the membranes moist and watching for more internal pips and for the pipped chicks to absorb their blood and yolks.  It will be hours and hours before we know what will happen.

This is not at all how we planned for this to play out.  We do not like it.  But we do the best with the hand we have been dealt.

Once we get through this hatch we are going to have to spend a lot of time researching, discussing, and deciding what this all means for our breeding program and future hatching plans.  Are there things we can do to increase our success?  Should selecting for hens with high hatchability at high altitude be the very first selection criteria on our list at this point and we worry about the other criteria later?  Do we even want to attempt a breeding program now?  What would happen if we were to use broody hens like we want to?  Where do we go from here?

Is hatching and high altitude an oil and water scenario – they just don’t mix?

6 thoughts on “High Altitude & Hatching – an Oil/Water Scenario?

  1. Wow! Who would have thought! That’s so sad… I love high altitude living. It makes you wonder how it would be different with a broody hen and eggs that were from your own high altitude hens? Perhaps when the eggs are sent to the high altitude something happens…an expansion from the pressure that affects the growing, changing cells…Good questions! I’m curious to know what you find out.


      • No. It was their second hatch, too. I think they are just going to go with raising mountain quail now which are naturally adapted to high altitudes. They also tried to raise freedom ranger chicks from a hatchery and most of them died by the time they were 3 days old. He had ordered 50 for meat chickens and I think ended up with 16 survivors. They just didn’t have the lung capacity for it.


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