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Chapter 5: Choosing an incubator & incubation tips
Buying an Incubator
If you want to go with artificial incubation, it's important to get an incubator that will work for your needs. You can see our selection of incubators and incubation equipment. There are many different models out there, and they will all hatch eggs efficiently when used correctly. So, how to choose?
The Less Money, The More Time
The least expensive incubators are styrofoam models. They hold about 4 dozen eggs at a time, which is probably more than most people will ever need to set for a small home hobby flock. However, these inexpensive incubators have manual temperature control, manual turning, and manual control of humidity. It's a pity that the least expensive incubators--those most likely to be purchased by folks new to the hobby--are also the most difficult to use. You can be very successful with the least expensive incubators, but you must be prepared and understand how much time and effort it takes to get that success with fully manual incubation.
If you choose this sort of incubator, you will need to be prepared to pay strict attention to what is going on inside it for 21 days. You just can't set your eggs and forget about them. You can't spend an evening away from home at an art show, a ball game, or the opera. The reason is that with manual incubation, your eggs will need to be turned by hand every few hours. It is a pain in the neck!--but will be worth it in the end to see those beautiful little baby chicks make their way out of the shell. You must understand what you are letting yourself in for with manual incubation: be prepared to stay at home for 21 days to turn your eggs; be prepared to monitor humidity; and be prepared to adjust the temperature yourself CAREFULLY--and to do it many times a day. With manual incubation, the success or failure of incubation is all on your shoulders.
Minor Upgrades Can be a Major Help
Better home incubators have some automatic controls. For instance, the styrofoam incubators can be purchased with a turner and a fan--this makes incubation easier to manage since turning is handled automatically, and it is simpler to measure the temperature, since it will be more constant throughout the interior. The fan circulates the heat so that the temperature can be measured anywhere inside, and there will not be hot and cold spots like there are with still air incubators. Even with the fan and turner options, temperature and humidity control are still manual on these incubators.
Fully Automatic = Worry-Free
At My Pet Chicken, we prefer the automatic home incubators. With fully automatic incubation, you can simply set your eggs, and then stop worrying. These incubators control the temperature without needing anything from you. Some control humidity, as well, while others at least provide a built-in hygrometer (an instrument that measures humidity) so you can more easily monitor what is going on. Automatic incubators will turn the eggs on their own--some even "count down" to hatch day and stop turning at Day 18 automatically. Buying a good incubator with automatic controls will mean that you have little to worry about besides, perhaps, power outages and rough shipping. However, they are more expensive because they have so many features and improvements. Be sure to make a decision that will work for your needs.
Incubation is incubation, and your eggs won't be affected one way or the other by how much you paid for an incubator. However, they absolutely need proper conditions for hatching. It can be nerve-wracking and time-consuming to provide optimal conditions in a completely manual incubator. If you are prepared to expend that time and effort for 21 days, a manual incubator will work very well for you. If you are not prepared for that, you will want to choose an incubator with more automatic controls.
Building your own incubator
If you don't want to purchase an incubator, you can always choose to build one yourself, if you are handy. Unless you are VERY handy, these are typically less reliable than those you can purchase. However, you would be able to build your incubator, often for little money, with your needs in mind.
Here are some web pages with instructions for building home incubators:
- University of Illinois (cardboard or plywood) Go Now
- Mississippi State University (Styrofoam) Go Now
- Mississippi State University (plywood) Go Now
- University of Nebraska (plywood) Go Now
- From a waterbed heater and an old fridge Go Now
- The "Matilda" styrofoam incubator Go Now
- From Feathersite Go Now
- Shankle Farm - The "Refrigeabator" - Part 1: Go Now Part 2: Go Now
General Hatching "rules" for chicken eggs
- Don't set fewer than six eggs. If you try hatching only two or three eggs, and especially if they are shipped eggs, a bad hatch is likely. You may get one chick, or none. The chick or chicks you hatch may well be males, or at best you may have one female. This is fine for some people, but if it is not fine for you, just don't do it. Chickens are flock animals, and need other chicken companions to be happy. One chick raised alone will be miserable, and can die from loneliness.
- Chicken eggs take twenty-one days to hatch when incubated at optimal temperature. Older eggs, eggs that were allowed to cool down and eggs that were incubated at too low a temperature, may still hatch--but they will hatch late! If it is Day 21 and your eggs haven't hatched yet, give them a couple of extra days, just in case!
- Still-air incubator temperature should be 101.5, measured at the top of the egg, while forced-air (or turbofan) incubators should keep a temperature of 99.5. "Still-air" incubator temperature must be higher because the non-moving air inside the incubator rests in layers, cooler at the bottom of the incubator and warmer at the top. In fact, the difference can be as much as five degrees at the top of the incubator when compared to the bottom--be SURE to measure the temperature correctly at the top of the egg.
- Turn eggs until Day 18, and then stop to allow the chicks to position themselves properly for hatching.
- When turning eggs manually, your hands must be washed and clean before each session to avoid transferring bacteria and oils onto the surface of the egg.
- Eggs should be turned a minimum of three times per day at regular intervals--five is even better! Some people like to lightly draw an X on one side of the egg so they can more easily keep track of which eggs have been turned. Otherwise, it is easy to lose track of which have been turned, and whether they have been turned all the way over or not.
- Eggs should be placed in the turner large end up. If you have an automatic turner and you think it may not be working, don't be immediately alarmed! Turners move slowly but regularly throughout the day and you will not "see" them moving by watching. Wait a few hours before checking again, and chances are good the difference in position of your turner will be obvious by then.
- Humidity should be 40 - 50% during the first 18 days of incubation. On Day 18, raise your humidity level to around 70%. Just filling reservoirs is not enough--it is best to have a hygrometer so you will know if your humidity is correct, since it can vary a lot depending on whether the ambient humidity in your home is high or low.
- Once you see a pip in the shell, don't worry if it takes the chick a while to get out--and DON'T try to help the chick out by pulling the shell off on your own. Chicks can bleed to death that way, because often there are still blood vessels around parts of the membrane that have not yet ceased flowing. A chick can take five or seven hours (on average) to come out of the shell, and even up to twenty-four.
- Open your incubator as little as possible, especially during hatching. Opening the incubator during hatching lets out humidity and increases the chances that later hatchers will get stuck to the shell and be unable to escape.