Hatching Chicks Is Lots of Fun!
Many backyard poultry enthusiasts will tell you that owning an incubator and hatching your own chicks is not only a great way to save money, but it is also a fun and exciting endeavor. When you have fertilized eggs to hatch, you’re able to increase your flock without ever having to buy chicks from outside sources again. Using an incubator is also a great way to maintain a good flock of layers by adding new hens to the group every year.
It never gets old watching baby chicks hatching from their shells beneath the glass window of a warm incubator. The day before they emerge you’ll hear the peeping of the little one ready to make his entrance, and you know it won’t be long. It begins with a tiny crack, which with slow but consistent pecking turns into sections of the shell falling away. Before you know it, the chick will kick with his big feet and make that final push to freedom. After several hours of drying, the slimy creature will fluff up, get steady on his feet, and will soon be an adorable, fuzzy chick ready to explore the world.
If At First You Don’t Succeed… There’s Probably A Good Reason Why!
The first time we attempted to hatch eggs in an incubator, it was a total failure. Only three out of a dozen eggs hatched, and all of the chicks died shortly after emerging. I had collected eggs from our own hens, but I hadn’t given much thought to the eggs I selected, other than making sure the shells weren’t damaged. There were several things I did wrong with that first hatch, but I was diligent in researching what I should have done differently and I learned from my mistakes. The last time we hatched chicks, 31 out of 41 hatched. I’d say that’s pretty darned good, considering that a 100% hatch rate is nearly impossible to get without fancy gadgets and expensive equipment.
Hatching chicks in an incubator should never be taken lightly. You are playing with life, and the choices you make during those critical 21 days of gestation will determine not only whether the chicks live or die, but also whether they’re born healthy or crippled. Don’t just go into it haphazardly and hope for a good outcome. There are definite do’s and don’ts at play.
For the absolute best results, follow these important tips for a successful hatch in an incubator…
Choosing The Right Eggs
Egg selection is the first most crucial choice you’ll make in determining a successful hatch rate. Not all eggs will hatch into baby chicks. There are actually several factors you need to keep in mind when choosing the perfect eggs to fill your incubator trays.
Be Careful Where You Get Your Eggs
Grocery store eggs cannot be used for hatching. They’re infertile, old, washed and refrigerated– all of which will make hatching impossible.
Shipping eggs from a breeder can be risky. Even if you find a reputable source of hatching eggs, the shipping process itself can reduce your chances of a successful hatch. Poor packaging can result in damaged eggs. Rough handling by the delivery man can injure or destroy the embryo. Subjection to extreme heat or cold can ruin an egg’s viability. If the eggs are flown they may be stored in a nonpressurized hold. If the eggs are delayed in transit, they may expire.
Buying from a local breeder may be a good option. Before making your purchase, check out the flock to ensure they look healthy and are living in a good environment. Also make sure a rooster has regular access to the hens- otherwise the eggs will not be fertile. Even with local breeders you are taking a chance not knowing how the eggs were handled, how long they’ve been stored, and if they have been stored properly (not getting too hot/cold, etc). If you can get recommendations from other people, that would be a good idea.
Hatching your own hen’s eggs is the best way to go if you already have a few layers of your own. This will lend the greatest results as you are in full control of the quality of the eggs collected.
Choose Only The Best Eggs For Hatching
There are a few things you need to look for when choosing which eggs you will try to hatch. Here is a good checklist to go down when making your selection.
- Collect eggs in late winter/early Spring– the chicks will be stronger and healthier than those hatched at other times of the year. The best months to begin collecting eggs to hatch are February through April.
- Choose eggs of normal size for your chicken’s breed. Eggs that are abnormally small or unusually large tend to hatch weak chicks.
- Choose eggs that are properly shaped. Young pullets and older hens may lay eggs that are too round, too oblong, or too pointed on both ends. They may even lay wrinkled or otherwise misshapen eggs. You want to select an egg that is typical of shape, size and color for your breed. Hatching a double-yolk egg is not recommended (believe me, I’ve tried it) as more often than not both chicks will die, or the one that survives will be too weak to live for very long.
- The shell should be sound, with no cracks, chips, or thin spots. Look closely to make sure there aren’t any hairline cracks in the shell. Candling the egg by holding a light up to it in a dark room will help reveal any hard to see cracks.
- Don’t try to hatch your hen’s first egg, or the hen’s first egg of the season. These are likely to be infertile.
- Avoid collecting dirty eggs to hatch. Shells which have poop, egg yolk from other broken eggs, or other yucky stuff on them will only serve to grow dangerous bacteria in the incubator. Plus, it can make it hard for the chicks to escape from their shell when it’s dirty. It is better to select only clean eggs for hatching. Place lots of clean bedding in the nesting boxes, and provide a proper roost for the hens to avoid soiled eggs. If the eggs are only slightly dirty, use a dry toothbrush to gently brush the debris away.
- Only unwashed eggs can be used. Fresh eggs have a protective coating called the “bloom” which helps protect the chick from bacteria entering through the porous eggshell. If you wash that off you can contaminate the embryo.
- The eggs must be no older than 14 days. For best results, use eggs no older than 7 days whenever possible.
- Only collect eggs from hens who have been in the constant presence of a healthy rooster. No daddy = no babies.
Proper Egg Handling and Storage
As you collect eggs for hatching, use a pencil to write the date it was laid on the egg. This way you can keep track of how old each of the eggs are.
Eggs must be handled gently and stored in the proper conditions for best results. Too much jarring around and exposure to extreme temperatures will damage an embryo. Also, it’s important that you wash your hands before and after handling the eggs to reduce the spread of bacteria.
If you are collecting eggs from your own flock, it may take several days before you have enough for a full incubator load depending on how many laying hens you have. As you gather the eggs, store them in a clean egg carton to keep them safe. Store the eggs small end down in the carton, with the larger end of the egg pointed up. This helps keep the yolk centered and best protected.
If you are storing the eggs for longer than a week, the eggs need to be tilted to keep the yolk from sticking to the inside of the shell. A hen will naturally roll her eggs around in the nest while she’s brooding– this action needs to be emulated until incubation time. An easy way to do this is to slightly elevate one end of a full egg carton for a day, and then elevate the opposite end the following day. Continue rotating in this way until incubation.
Choose a cool, dry location out of direct sunlight for optimum storage conditions. Do not put eggs for hatching in a refrigerator. Try to keep the temperature between 50* and 60*F.
If you have a way of controlling air moisture levels, it is best to store eggs in 75 percent humidity. If condensation begins to form on the eggshells the conditions are too humid. If you are afraid the conditions will be too dry, store the filled egg cartons in a sealed plastic bag to reduce moisture evaporation from the eggs.
To avoid temperature shock, allow eggs being brought from cold storage to warm to room temperature before being placed in an incubator.
Using An Incubator
Obviously it’s important to know how to use your incubator before loading it up with eggs. Hopefully you have an owner’s manual to refer to. If not, try to find one online or contact the manufacturer to see if you can get a replacement copy.
Getting The Right Temperature
Maintaining the proper temperature inside an incubator can be trickier than it seems. If the unit isn’t well insulated, the conditions surrounding the incubator will contribute to fluctuations in internal temperature. Never place an incubator in a drafty location, underneath a ceiling fan, near a window, next to an air vent, or near a fireplace or stove. The room temperature around the incubator should be between 55-90*F, with 75-80*F being ideal.
You’ll need to place an accurate thermometer inside the incubator within view from the window to keep an eye on the temperature. Placement of the thermometer is key to a proper reading. The thermometer should be positioned to read the temperature of the air at the top of the egg height, not on the floor of the incubator tray. One way to do this is to lay the thermometer across the tops of the eggs.
The right temperature will depend on what type of incubator you have. Typically, forced-air incubators should be set at 99.5*F; still-air incubators should be set at 102*F. Be sure to consult the owner’s manual for proper temperatures, as they can sometimes vary slightly.
Don’t forget to pre-heat the incubator for 24 hours before filling it with eggs to make sure it consistently maintains the proper temperature.
Correct humidity is just as important as the proper temperature in an incubator. Remember at the beginning of the article when I told you about our horrible first hatching experience? I know exactly what happened. Not only was I somewhat haphazard in collecting the eggs, I also forgot to continue to add water to the incubator. No doubt the humidity was way off.
When the eggs are exposed to inadequate moisture levels in the air, they begin to dehydrate. Eggshells are porous, and quickly lose their moisture content when outside conditions are too dry. As the chick develops, the membranes surrounding it will begin to dry up and stick to the forming embryo. Even if the chick survives until hatching time, it will become shrink-wrapped within the membranes and it will be impossible for the chick to escape the shell. This is exactly what I saw happen to several of our unfortunate chicks.
On the other hand, too much humidity is also a bad thing. Chicks growing in an environment where there is an excess of moisture will grow too large within the shell and may suffocate. The eggshell may also become rubbery, making it nearly impossible for the chick to peck through it at hatching time.
Humidity is affected by many things: water pan capacity in the incubator, ventilation, egg capacity, ambient humidity, elevation, weather conditions, storage length and condition, egg size, the shell’s thickness… It can be hard to regulate it accurately.
A hygrometer is a great tool to have to accurately measure humidity in an incubator. If you’re serious about successful hatches, you’ll want to get this tool. I’ve also had success simply keeping a close eye on the water levels in the water pan, and making sure the incubator is properly ventilated. Proper procedure will depend on your particular incubator, so refer to the manual for exact instructions to follow.
The temperature of the incubator and the humidity are interrelated. As the temperature rises, humidity decreases. Typical temperature-humidity combinations include:
Still-Air: 102*F at 58% humidity
Forced-Air: 99*F at 56% humidity
Again, your particular incubator will come with manufacturer’s instructions for proper settings. Please follow these guidelines and make notes on your hatch results. You may find that you need to change the settings slightly for optimum results.
Ensuring Proper Ventilation
There are two types of incubators to consider: forced-air and still-air. Forced-air incubators use a fan to circulate fresh air around the chambers. Still-air incubators use vents to draw in cool air from the bottom of the unit and release hot air through the top, circulating oxygen naturally.
Your unit will come with instructions for proper ventilation. Be sure to follow them closely, as ventilation plays a big part in maintaining proper humidity levels. Underventilating results in too little oxygen being circulated and increases humidity levels. Overventilating circulates too much air and results in too low humidity.
Turning The Eggs
As previously mentioned, a mother hen will naturally rotate her clutch as she’s brooding. To mimic this action, we need to slightly rotate the eggs during incubation. You can rotate the eggs manually, however your hatch rate may be affected by the constant opening of the incubator. Every time you lift that lid it causes the temperature and humidity to drop, often drastically. The best thing you can do is invest in an automatic egg turner, which ever so slightly tilts the eggs back and forth every day.
Turning eggs is important for several reasons:
- it prevents the chick from sticking to the shell membrane as it grows.
- it helps keep the temperature within the egg even.
- it moves metabolic wastes away from the growing chick.
- it allows the chick better access to the albumen’s nutrients.
If you have to turn the eggs manually, there are a few tips you’ll want to keep in mind:
- The first week of incubation is the most important time to focus on rotating the eggs regularly. If you can turn them 5 times a day, that would be ideal.
- After the first week, rotating can be reduced to 3 times a day. It helps me to remember to rotate the eggs by doing it at meal times: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- The eggs will be laying on their side on the incubator tray. Use a pencil to mark an X on one side, and an O on the opposite side. When you rotate the eggs, roll them half-way over from one side to the other. Never rotate an egg in a full circle (from the X side back to the X side), otherwise you risk killing the embryo.
- Always try to keep the pointed end of the egg positioned slightly lower than the rounded end.
Stop rotating the eggs three days before they are due to hatch. If you are using an egg rotating device, gently remove the eggs from the rotation tray and lay them on their side on the screen in the bottom of the incubator.
Cleanliness and Sanitation
The warm, moist environment of an incubator is the perfect place for bacteria to breed. It’s important for the health of your newly hatching chicks that the equipment you use is clean and sanitized to reduce the chances of illness.
Always begin a new hatch in a clean and sanitized incubator, and always thoroughly clean all of your equipment after the hatching is complete. The best way to do this is to remove any debris from the unit, and give it a good washing with warm, soapy water. You may need to use an old toothbrush or something to get into deep cracks and crevices. Be sure to avoid getting any electrical parts wet.
Once it’s all washed up, place the incubator out in the sunlight to thoroughly dry. Nothing more is necessary if you’re going to be storing your incubator after it has dried. If you plan on using it for another hatch soon, disinfect the incubator top, bottom, trays, and any other interior parts with a solution of one part vinegar (white or apple cider) to 5 parts water. Then dry it in the sun for several hours.
Candling To Judge Fertility
No matter how careful you are when selecting eggs, there will always be some that simply won’t hatch. These should be removed from the rest of the viable eggs as soon as possible.
In order to separate the good from the bad, we use a method called candling to examine the contents of an egg. I usually wait until after 7 days of incubation to candle the eggs– allowing time for a possible embryo to begin forming. By holding a flashlight to an egg in a dark room, you are able to see what’s going on inside the egg. An unfertilized egg will illuminate completely, with no dark spots inside the egg. If a chick is forming in there, you will see a dark spot with blood vessels around it, and the air sack will clearly be visible at the tip of the egg. Unfertilized eggs need to be taken out of the incubator as soon as they are discovered. I’ve heard some nasty stories of rotten eggs exploding after being incubated for 21 days!
Time It Right
My last piece of advice is to time your hatch right. Yes, it is best to hatch chicks in Spring. But it is also important that you hatch them at a good time for your own personal schedule. You’ll need to be available to monitor the chicks every single day throughout the 21-28 day incubation period. Make sure you don’t put eggs in an incubator 2 weeks before you’re supposed to go on a week long vacation! Plan ahead so that you can keep a close eye on the incubator’s temperature, humidity, ventilation, and egg rotation.
And remember, a 70-80% hatch rate is typical for home breeders. Don’t be discouraged if you lose a few eggs. Expect it. There are some great books on the subject that I would highly recommend you check out: Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks by Gail Damerow and Storey’s Guide To Raising Chickens are two of my favorites.
For more information specifically on the incubation process and how to brood chicks once they’re born, check out our article: How To Incubate & Hatch Chicks.