By Thireena Connely
Do this. Do that. We read a lot of that during our search on how to incubate and hatch eggs. Some people would say you have to follow the directions accurately otherwise you end up with rotten eggs that explode (yes, they can explode)
Hatching chicks started when I was an infant. We lived in Japan at the time and had backyard chickens. My dad would also donate to schools (it’s not uncommon to have animals at schools in Japan). Long story short, I’ve hatched countless number of chickens in a variety of different ways. Let’s look at all the different ideas and methods floating out there today.
The basics behind hatch-able chicken eggs.
- Hens need roosters for fertile eggs. Just like with almost anything that reproduces, you need a female and male to produce offspring. I recommend that you have at least 7 hens per rooster if you plan on hatching. Some choose to go more and some less. This also depends on breed, preference, and flock attitude. I also recommend having at least two roosters, just in case one is infertile, which is not uncommon.
- You can tell if your eggs are getting fertilized by opening them up and locating a white spot on the yolk. A small dot will mean that it is not fertilized and a small dot with a circle around it (some call a bullseye) is fertilized.
- I usually eat the eggs that are odd shaped just because they aren’t always viable.
- Chicken eggs from the stores are generally kept in pens without roosters, HOWEVER, some people have had luck growing their flocks with organic/free range/ fertilized eggs. These eggs include ones from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
- An egg can be viable for almost a month! however, after a week or so, the viability of an egg will go down dramatically. Eggs can be stored room temperature or even in the fridge but the best is the temperature in between, around 60°F. Looking at hens who can lay once a day or every other day, don’t hatch eggs naturally one at a time. They will wait for a clutch before sitting so it would make sense that the eggs can wait for a little bit before being incubated.
- If not your own, incubate eggs that are from a reputable place. Simple things such as breed and hen diet can affect the viability and strength of and egg and eventually the chick that will hatch.
- Hatch rates can also depend on your elevation. Oxygen is extremely important during incubation which is why incubators have holes for ventilation. Anything over 5,000 ft can lower hatch rates.
Prepping to incubate
With a broody hen, you can just stick eggs underneath and wait. A good broody hen will hatch eggs successfully. The hens will generally have better hatch rates than most people. Broody hens vary by breed and temperament. The best broody breeds in my opinion include Cochins, Orpingtons, Silkies, and Brahmas. All breeds can go broody, but never expect it. In general, humans have adapted their hatching methods to be as similar to hens with minimal effort.
With fertilized eggs, it is recommended not to wash them before incubation. Sometimes if the egg has dirt or mud on the shells, I’ll scrape some of the excess off. The egg has a protective film that keeps harmful bacteria out. Although it may not seem like it, eggs actually have pores.
Getting a good incubator is a must. Many poor hatches are due to having an ineffective incubator. The best incubators are not cheap! Prices can range from $40-more than $2000. Generally you will be able to find a decent incubator for about $150 and always look at the reviews. Some people have had more luck with their own DIY incubators than store bought..
Thermometers are not always accurate. I despise using digital for temperature because they are almost always wrong and the temperature gets even more inaccurate over time. The best way for beginners, in my opinion, is to have two thermometers. A good digital thermometer should also include the humidity percentage and one non-digital outdoor thermometer that may also include a hygrometer. After many years of hatching, I usually just use a regular thermometer without a hygrometer because humidity is pretty easy to regulate when you are seasoned in the ways of incubation.
Turning racks are optional but preferable. Hens will sit on a clutch and turn instinctively a few times a day while a turning rack will tilt the eggs automatically. If your incubator didn’t come with a turner, a good turning rack will cost about $50. The cool thing about these racks are you can replace them with quail rails so you can effectively hatch quail also. Basically you can plug it in and forget about all the trouble of turning for a couple weeks.
Setting up your incubator includes a few more steps than just plugging it in. First, you must store your incubator in a temperature controlled location, usually in a location that is lower than room temperature. I always use the basement where there are no drafts or vents that will change the room temperature. Then you will have to leave it running and monitor for a day. More expensive incubators will be alright maintaining temperature digitally but ones that have an adjusting knob must be running, monitored, and fine tuned before any eggs can be placed inside.
The ideal temperature is 99.5°F . You generally don’t want to go more than a degree below or above. Chickens can still hatch in temps of 97°-103° but the viability goes down. Remember a hen will sit on eggs in unpredictable weather and temperature and can still hatch all her eggs.
Humidity can vary but is recommended to be less than 50%. More people are opting for dry hatching, which will involve not putting any water into the incubator for a couple weeks. Usually, I will put a wet paper towel sheet in the incubator during the first two weeks. This is also dependent on where you live, as moisture can go into your incubator through the ventilation holes.
The Incubation process, How and Why.
So now that you’ve set up your incubator. You want to stick your eggs in the turner (if you have one). always stick them in pointy side down. Why- As the chick starts to form, an air sac is created at the top of the eggs. This allows the chick to start breathing right before hatching. If there is too much humidity in the beginning of incubation, the egg will not lose enough water weight causing the air sac to become too small resulting in a drowned chick. Although most people worry about this stage the most, don’t stress too much. There is no “perfect” humidity percentage.
If you don’t have an egg turner, you must turn them by hand. Two ways work fine and one is a lot easier than the other. Option 1-Mark one side of an egg and flip the eggs at least 2 times a day. Option 2-Roll around the eggs a few times a day inside the incubator just as the hen would. Why-The embryo can easily stick to the shell if they aren’t being turned daily
Candling is the process of looking to see what going on inside the egg. There are special lights that can be purchased or you can DIY by using a piece of cardboard with a hole cut out and a flashlight. You want to do it in a darkened room to see properly. Candling will eventually show you the air sac, development, and even movement, depending on the stage of the egg. Why- Candling, although not necessary, is an important method to see chick development. Also, eggs that have no chick inside can explode if left in the incubator. You can candle at any stage. I recommend candling between 10-17 days after putting them in the incubator.
The final days is often called “lockdown”. Eggs hatch in around 21 days, although it is not uncommon that they can hatch a day earlier or later. Generally, you do not want to open the incubator for the last few days of incubation. There are stories of people throwing away eggs they thought had died and had them hatch in the trash can. (something I will get to later). Around the 18th day, you’ll want to stop turning your eggs, raise your humidity, and lower you temperature a little bit. Coincidentally I have an incubator that has a crack and hold the temperature at around 97. This is what I use for hatching out chicks. I will also line the bottom with a damp dishcloth to raise the humidity. In a larger incubator I also put a small tub of water inside to keep humidity up. I recommend around 70% humidity (again, doesn’t have to be exact) Why- In the final days, the chick gets into position to hatch so eggs should not be turned. When the chick starts hatching they must get through an internal membrane before cracking the shell. This membrane can easily dry out if there is low humidity and high temperature.
Around the 20th day, you may be able to hear some peeps and cracks coming from your eggs, It is common to see them moving and even a beak coming through. For the next couple days, the chicks will start breaking through their eggs. Although they look weak at first, in a matter of hours, they will start walking around and fluffing out. There are few instances when a chick will die while hatching. This can be for a number of different reasons, ranging from humidity to just a weak chick. Try to avoid opening up the incubator too much during hatching. Chicks can survive a couple days solely on the absorbed yolk before hatching.
Although this is a guide to effective incubating, there is more leeway than you think. These “rules” do not need to be followed exactly. I get the same hatch rates without following everything exactly.
- I do not use a digital thermometer. I use a regular old fashioned thermometer.
- I do not use a hygrometer. Exact humidity isn’t as important as many people say. I just use a little in the beginning then more at the end. Beginners should monitor humidity until they feel comfortable.
- I open the lid during hatching. People will tell you NEVER to do this. I have not lost a chick due to opening up the incubator. I would refrain if the incubator location is overly cold or very dry.
- After 24 hours if a chick has started hatching but hasn’t come through yet, I’ll keep a close eye on it. If a chick has passed the 24 hour mark with no progress, I will help it a little. This usually involves a small tearing of the membrane. I have noticed that some different breeds will lay a heavier membrane or thicker shell where some chicks may require help.
- Watching the length of time keeping the chicks in the incubator. I do not measure the time the chicks are in the incubator. I will take the chicks out and into the brooder once they are dried, fluffed, and walking around effortlessly.
- I do not throw away eggs before checking them, ever. People who have thrown away eggs too soon, know this all too well. Chicks can be late. Usually if they are a couple days late, I will listen to them to see if there is any internal scratching or peeps. I check for any cracks to see if they are on their way. If there is no movement or noise after another day, I will crack the egg open from the top (air sac). I have saved many chicks using this method. Sometimes, they have pipped internally (break into the air sac) but not externally (out of the shell). Again, I usually do not fully open the egg if the chick is alive but enough to help it break through.