Incubating your own hatching eggs at home can be one of the most
rewarding parts of raising chickens. This free guide contains helpful information for the novice
and experienced hatcher alike. We must warn you, however: it's addictive! Once you begin hatching
your own baby chicks, you may never be able to stop...
Table of Contents:
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Chapter 1: Why is hatching eggs such an attraction?
There are several reasons you may choose to hatch your own eggs rather than purchase day-old baby chicks or juvenile birds.
Excitement and Reconnection to the Life Cycle
The hatching of baby chicks is a cycle of life that was once familiar to most people,
but that we are now divided from. Many people picture chickens as dirty, smelly, stupid creatures
whose only purpose in life is to produce food. That mistaken idea is difficult enough to countenance
if you have ever kept chickens yourself, and even more so if you have raised them from baby chicks. However,
starting your chickens from eggs brings that disconnect into even sharper focus. When you hatch your
own eggs, you get to experience the excitement of candling and seeing their little shadows grow
inside their tiny shells. You get to see the eggs begin to rock back and forth as they position
themselves for their struggle out. You even get to hear--in the quiet moments of the latter days of
incubation--tiny muffled peeping from inside the egg. That moment always brings tears to my eyes.
They are calling for their mommies: a hen would cluck right back at them reassuringly. Without any
embarrassment whatsoever, I do my best to mimic that sound so they will feel comforted and so they'll
know me even from inside the shell.
The Beauty of the Hatch
Watching the eggs hatch is its own reward, as well. I have had visitors over for hatching day, all
crowding around the brooder window watching a little baby beak work its way around the shell, all of
us talking in baby voices and doing momma hen impressions, encouraging the little babies to come out.
The baby chicks always seem surprised--surprised and exhausted--at that last push that finally parts
the egg. They are so tiny, even in comparison to brand new day-olds you can get shipped. Those day-olds
are two or three days old when they get to you. Who would have thought there would be such a difference
in size in only that small amount of time? There is simply nothing like it.
More practically, if you want chickens as pets, the younger you have them, the easier they will be to
tame. This goes for any breed, even those that are not traditionally friendly. Flighty breeds may never
be as friendly as breeds that are inclined to it genetically, but if they have had the opportunity to
see you every day from the very beginning, they will likely be less flighty and nervous than otherwise,
and they can conceivably become very tame indeed.
Super Rare Breeds
In addition, when purchasing hatching eggs, you have the opportunity to get exceptionally rare breeds and unusual
colors that may not be available as day-olds or juveniles. My Pet Chicken offers some extremely rare
breeds and varieties as fertile hatching eggs.
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Chapter 2: Is hatching eggs right for you?
Before you begin, you will want to consider whether hatching your own eggs is for you. There are three main considerations.
You WILL Have Roosters
The first important thing to keep in mind is that your eggs will generally hatch out in a 50:50 mix of males and females. If you
live in town, roosters can be a problem and keeping them is often against municipal regulations! If you can't keep roosters,
you will want to be prepared to find them homes. If you can keep them, you will have to consider what living arrangements
you will need so all those roosters won't overbreed and even injure your hens. We have heard it said that with enough room,
you can have many roosters, but alas! this hasn't been our experience, even with forty-five free range acres available to the
chickens. Overbred hens can have feathers pulled out from their heads and backs, their combs injured and, even worse, can get
accidental puncture wounds from rooster spurs. Too many roosters can fight amongst themselves, as well. The usual recommendation
is to keep about one rooster for every ten hens or so. This is also a good ratio to keep if you want decent fertility in your
home flock. Some breeders will keep one rooster for every seven hens--or even fewer! Fertility rates depend on breed, but, for
example, studies may show that for a given breed fertility is 97.65% at 7:1, and 94.89% at 10:1--so the small difference in
fertility is not likely to matter a great deal in the numbers of eggs you will be hatching at home, but injuries to your hens
WILL matter.) In any case, since hens don't hatch in 10:1, 7:1 or even 3:1 ratios with roosters, you will have to consider
carefully how to deal with any roosters that you will not be keeping before you hatch.
The second consideration is that you will want to be aware that when hatching small numbers of eggs, the "usual" hatching ratio
of a 1:1 mix of males to females can be quite different from your actual results. There are no guarantees, unfortunately! For
instance, the first time one of our hatching addicts tried hatching eggs, she hatched eight roosters and one hen. That does not
make for much of a laying flock. The next time, the overall ratio for all the eggs she hatched was right on target, but the
ratios of the individual breeds she hatched was not. She desperately wanted plenty of females of one breed, but those eggs gave
her mostly males... and another breed that was the one she wanted at least one cockerel from, didn't give her a single one: she
hatched all pullets! Unfortunately, there is no way to tell an egg with a male chick inside from an egg with a female chick inside,
so what you get will be the luck of the draw. A good rule of thumb (and a corollary to Murphy's Law) is that the more you want an
egg to hatch, the less likely it is to hatch... and that the more you want it to be of one sex, the less likely it is to hatch that way.
Be Willing to Practice
Thirdly, if you are new to hatching, shipped eggs may not be the way to go. Shipped eggs are more difficult to hatch than eggs from
your own flock or eggs acquired locally. Eggs that have never shipped may hatch at about 80%, while shipped eggs may hatch at about
50%. This is just the average. If the eggs are treated very roughly during shipping, it is possible none will hatch, even when you
are doing everything right. It is usually a good idea to perfect your incubation technique first so you will know if a low hatch
problem is caused by shipping or by your technique or equipment.
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Chapter 3: Where to find hatching eggs
If you have decided to hatch eggs, you will want to know where to get them!
Your Own Nest Box
Of course the easiest and least expensive
option is to hatch eggs from your own hens. If you have a rooster with your hens, you can expect their eggs to be fertile (contrariwise,
if you don't have a rooster, your hens' eggs will not be fertile and will not hatch). It won't matter if your rooster and hens are of
different breeds: the babies may be beautiful, funny looking or as ugly as a mud fence--you may not be able to predict what the offspring
will look like, but it is a joy to hatch eggs from your own flock, and it's exciting to see what they look like as they grow. If you have
roosters and hens of the same breed, of course you will be producing your own purebred hens: very exciting! Hatcheries and serious
breeders breed "to standard," meaning they choose birds that match the APA (American Poultry Association) guidelines for the breed,
which may include how many points should be on a comb, the precise angle tail feathers are held, slight color variations, leg color,
depth of plumage color and so on. If you are breedeing for your backyard flock, you can breed to standard, or you can try to choose
eggs from hens you like, whether it is because you value their beauty, their laying ability, their friendliness or some other quality.
I only hatch eggs from my friendliest, healthiest hens.
Another option is to find eggs from a local farm and feed store, or from a local breeder. You may often be able to buy fresh farm eggs
from someone who sells their extras. If they have a rooster, you may be able to hatch those eggs, and they may only be a few dollars a dozen.
Eggs have their best hatchability when they are stored at about 60 degrees or so, and occasionally turned. For that reason, buying eggs
that have been refrigerated for eating is not the best of all options, but if you want to try it before progressing to expensive, rare
breed eggs, it might be a possibility. Occasionally we hear of people buying fertile eggs at their grocery store to hatch them! This has
even less chance to work, since those eggs are old, most are not fertile, and they may have shipped a considerable distance, anyway. However,
if your store sells fertile eggs, there's something to be said for the inexpensive price, especially if you have never hatched before and
just want a practice run. We don't recommend it, but hey--we do hear of people hatching them, and there's nothing wrong with that so long
as you're prepared for whatever breed or cross hatches out! But keep in mind that very few stores will sell fertile eggs. Sometimes they may
be found locally or at specialty food stores. However, you don't know what you're getting, and you may be getting very high-strung
Ebay and Craigslist are other possibilities for buying hatching eggs. However, be sure to purchase hatching eggs from someone with an NPIP
compliant flock--otherwise, you don't know if you will be bringing in illnesses with the new birds. Flocks with NPIP certification have been
tested for the worst diseases that can be passed from a mother hen through the egg to a chick. You can find eggs from breeders, as well--this
is a great option. Again, be sure to ask for NPIP status. If you are looking for a specific breed, your best bet would be to contact a breed
club to get a list of breeders willing to ship eggs for hatching. If you buy eggs from a breeder of Orpingtons, you may have find a breeder
who has several different colors of orpintons to choose from. But if you would like Orpingtons, Marans, Rhode Island Reds and Mille Fleur D'Uccles,
a single breeder simply may not have them all. Getting eggs to hatch at different times from different breeders can be complex, as you must try
to integrate different broods of baby birds together, or try to arrange receiving all the eggs on the same day.
Rare Breed Specialists (Like Us!)
Hatcheries like ours often offer hatching eggs,
as well. My Pet Chicken has some especially rare breeds, and the advantage of buying from a hatchery is that you may already have an idea of reputation
when buying from an established business, and you may also be able to get many different breeds at once, some that otherwise you may have to make
arrangements with several different breeders to get.
Keep in Mind...
Wherever you choose to get your hatching eggs, there are three main things you should be aware of. First, remember that if they ship, their AVERAGE
hatchability will be about 50%. If they don't ship (that is, if they are from your flock or if you get them locally) the AVERAGE hatchability is
about 80%. So, even under ideal circumstances, not every fertile egg will hatch. It just doesn't work that way. Second, be aware of your guarantees
BEFORE you purchase. Third--to repeat--remember that the average hatch rate for shipped eggs is 50%; it is 80% for eggs that have not shipped. We
sometimes hear from people new to hatching who are LIVID that only 10 out of their dozen eggs hatched, and from old hands, ECSTATIC that five did.
If you want to hatch eggs, you must understand it is not a pursuit for the inflexible or the easily disappointed!
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Chapter 4: Choosing between an incubator and a hen
Once you have determined that you're flexible and determined enough to try hatching eggs, you must decide whether you would like to hatch them in an incubator or instead hatch them under a broody hen.
Why a Hen?
Reasons to have a broody hen hatch eggs for you include first of all that it's simply wonderful to see a momma hen with her babies--it's fun to see them ride on her back and peek out from beneath her wings. It's adorable the way she will teach them what is good to eat, and how to scratch and forage for food. It is the most natural way for baby chicks to be raised. Plus, it's practical: when a hen is incubating eggs, you needn't worry about the power going out and ruining the eggs in your incubator. There are no concerns about the temperature and humidity being right. You needn't worry about a heat lamp in the brooder, because the momma will keep them warm. It is, all around, a fabulous remedy to many of the things hatchers often worry about.
She Needs to be "Broody"
Your hen may not be broody when you need her to be, and there is no way to "make" her go broody. Timing is everything. Broodiness is a hormonal condition. In fact, the hormone that relates to ovulation in humans (as well as to breastmilk production) is the same one that causes a hen to become broody: it is an increase in prolactin that causes incubation behavior. We have our own theories about how to increase prolactin levels in a hen based on studies of other animals--but no one has done any research on hens, yet. (Any takers?) That said, studies of other animals have shown that high levels of calcium are associated with high prolactin levels; one wonders if the reverse is true: whether an increased intake of calcium will cause higher prolactin levels (and thus incubation behavior). Anecdotally, my little Silkie hen, so inclined to broodiness, goes broody nearly every time I refill the oyster shell in the coop!
You'll Need to Invest in Special Equipment
Another reason you may decide hatching under a broody hen is not for you is that it is really no way to save money on the equipment
you will need for a brooder. You will still need some special equipment, even for a broody hen. It is not the best idea to let her
hatch her babies right in the coop with the rest of the flock. The reason is that often she chooses the "favorite" nest to go broody in.
This is probably not such a big deal, except that she may have other hens crowding in and laying eggs on top of her. The crowding can
cause your precious eggs to break, and having new eggs added to the clutch later in incubation can mean that toward the end, she may
be sitting on too many eggs to effectively cover and incubate them, so some could die. Sometimes eggs can get broken or knocked out
of the nest by accident, even if there is no competition for nest space with other hens. In the case of a broody hen, the success
or failure of incubation is out of your hands, and depends on your hen.
For all these reasons, we recommend providing your broody hen with a safe "broody coop"
where she can sit on her eggs in peace and hatch her babies without being accosted. Plus, if the chicks hatch in the main coop with the rest of the
flock, the other birds may well attack the newcomers! While mother will try to protect them, the best scenario is simply to prevent this from
happening in the first place by giving them a safe place until they are larger and mother has recovered a bit.
These coops are our favorite broody coops, but if you don't want to buy one,
if you're handy, you can probably put one together for use based on a similar design. It works well for very small broodies like
Silkies, but it is too small for a larger bird to turn around in easily.
One Dozen Maximum
The last reason you may not want to have a broody hen hatch your eggs is that a hen can only reliably hatch a few eggs at a time. Bantams can't easily hatch more than six or seven large eggs at a time. (They will be able to cover more eggs if they are smaller.) Large fowl birds may be able to hatch 10 or 12 at the very most, depending on the size of the bird and the size of the eggs. When you choose to hatch under a hen, you are limited as to the number of eggs you can set. If you are hatching in quantity--and especially when you are hatching shipped eggs--you may want to try incubating two dozen or more at once, since incubation success with shipped eggs is less than for fertile eggs that have been laid on site. When that is the case, a single broody hen will just not do.
The Best Breed for your Needs
If you are decided on a hen, however, you will want to know how to choose the best or your hatching needs. Some breeds will never go broody, so if you are waiting for your favorite to get in the mood for hatching, it may be a very long wait! Our favorite broody breed for hatching eggs is the Silkie, but other popular favorites include:
There are plenty of other breeds that will go broody, but keep in mind that just because a hen goes broody, it is no guarantee she will be a good mother. For instance, some hens will go broody, but will not stay on the nest consistently, so few if any eggs will hatch. Some hens are so startled when the eggs finally hatch, that mother hen may attack the new chicks, not knowing what to do with these invaders, where before she had nice, round, warm (quiet) eggs! It is not a good scenario. Some hens will go out on their own, leaving the little chicks behind. Then, they may be "done" raising the chicks quite early, when the babies still may benefit from a mother's protection. If you have a choice, make sure to pick a good broody breed. If you find you have a hen that is a good brooder AND mother, thank your lucky stars, and be sure to let her hatch your eggs at every opportunity.
You can see a longer list of broody breeds when you use our chicken breed selection tool.
Other breeds may hatch eggs well, too, but at My Pet Chicken Silkie are our first choice to brood and hatch eggs, since Silkies are not only dedicated, but are also so friendly and fun. Broody silkies have even been known to adopt older chicks: mothering is just what they do.
If a hen will not work for you for whatever reason, you may want an incubator. Be sure to have your chosen incubator on hand before ordering eggs. The last thing you want is to have your eggs ready to set in three days, but have to wait ten more for your incubator to arrive! Good planning is key.
Choosing to use an incubator is a different proposition than choosing a broody hen altogether. With an incubator, you should be prepared for the anxiety of waiting twenty-one days for your babies, coupled with the fact that YOU and ONLY you are absolutely responsible for whether or not they hatch! Worse, many people just won't "get" why you may be so anxious! Three weeks certainly doesn't seem like a long time to wait... not until you're the broody mom hatching your eggs. Once you begin incubation, chances are good that you will be anxious for three full weeks!
If you need help making your decision, give our free Which Chicken tool a whirl!
When I'm incubating, I quake everytime we have a storm, because if the power goes out, it can adversely affect how many eggs hatch! If it goes out for very long, it can even kill the babies in the shell. I have contacted my power company and requested to be put on a special notification list to be called about any scheduled outages. (Storm outages are not within their power to predict!) My experience with our local company has not been good, though: they still haven't called me about their scheduled outages, and they are quite unapologetic about it. The truth is that most people will regard the eggs you are doting over as just eggs, and they do not realize how much they are valued and how much they are worth. They may not understand how rare they are, or what you went through to get them. They don't understand waiting lists or rare breeds. After all, you can buy (unfertilized) eggs in the local grocery store for a dollar or two. They think: "What's the big deal with losing a few eggs?" We even heard one story of a relative staying over who "kindly" unplugged her hostess' incubator overnight in order to save electricity. All the eggs were ruined, and the guest didn't understand why her hostess was so devastated.
For that reason, we have a few tips for making sure your eggs will make it through the entire incubation cycle:
- If your power company keeps a list of people to be notified about scheduled outages, request to be on it. (It can't hurt--perhaps your power company will be more responsible than mine!)
- Make sure anyone who has the opportunity to interact with your incubator is informed about how important it is not to lift the lid, much less turn off the power.
- If you have young children, make sure they understand what's at stake. If they're too young to understand that, then be sure to put your incubator out of reach. Many young children have been known to try cracking the eggs early so they can see the baby chicks they have been told are hiding inside!
- If you have dogs, cats or other pets, make sure your incubator is in a place it won't be bothered. It's no fun to discover that your puppy now knows just how delicious eggs are at the expense of all your fertile eggs!
- In general, it's best to keep your incubator on a sturdy surface that won't be knocked or stepped on, and in a place that has relatively stable temperatures, out of the way of drafts and direct sunlight.
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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 that 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 reasom 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:
- Ohio State University (Plywood step by step) Go Now
- From Mississippi State (Styrofoam) Go Now
- From University of Tennessee (Old refrigerator) 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
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.
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Chapter 6: Getting ready to incubate
Once you have your incubator in a safe place--and you have made certain everyone understands that these are not just inexpensive grocery store eggs that are easily replaced!--you will want to get down to the nitty gritty of incubation. Carefully read the instructions that come with your incubator so you will know how to operate your machine properly. There are many different types of incubators, and depending on the one you have, you will be responsible for varying things when it comes to incubation. Once you have read, re-read, and re-reread the instructions for your incubator, the first thing you should do is get your eggs into the incubator as soon as possible to preserve their freshness, right? Wrong!
Prepare Your Eggs
If you are trying to hatch shipped eggs, they may have been shaken and disturbed during their journey, even if they are perfectly intact and look to be in wonderful condition. (It is for this reason that no one guarantees results with shipped hatching eggs, because there is no way to know if they have been irrevocably scrambled internally during shipping, aside from the fact that it is impossible for a breeder to control the incubation conditions!) It is extremely important to place your hatching eggs large end up in an extra (clean) egg carton and allow their air bubbles to stabilize and move back to their proper places at the large end of the egg. For best results, leave them to stabilize and come to room temperature for about twelve hours, large end up.
Prepare Your Incubator
During this time, you can set up your incubator and get it running at the correct temperature and humidity before your eggs are placed inside. Keep in mind that with the popularly available styrofoam incubators, a tiny, tiny, TINY adjustment can cause a large change in temperature, so it's important to get the temperature right on before your eggs are placed inside. You don't want to put your eggs inside only to accidentally cook them! Even if you are not hatching shipped eggs, it's a good idea to get your incubator to the correct temperature first and to make sure it is running stable before adding your eggs. If you have an automatic incubator, just turn it on and make certain it is functioning correctly before you set your eggs.
Adding the Eggs
When you do add your eggs, the temperature will immediately drop. DO NOT ADJUST THE THERMOSTAT! The temperature will drop not only because you've opened the lid and let the warm air out, but also because you've put eggs inside that may be 20 degrees cooler than the interior of the incubator. It will take your incubator a while to warm them up. If you have a manual incubator and you turn the thermostat up immediately, you can accidentally cook your eggs. Wait several hours--four to six--and if the temperature is still low, make a small adjustment, as small as you can. Then you will want to hover over them to make sure it doesn't get too hot inside. We can't emphasize enough that small adjustments on the manual styrofoam incubators make large changes!
The Importance of a Thermometer and Hygrometer
The styrofoam incubators have manual temperature controls, and it is difficult (and nerve wracking) to get it set exactly right. Small thermometers do come with them to help you monitor and set your incubator temperature, but if those thermometers are off, your incubation can be ruined. With the manual incubators, we usually recommend getting a second thermometer so you can be certain of the conditions inside your incubator. If you don't already have a separate hygrometer, it can also be helpful to get a thermometer/hygrometer combo, since humidity level is so important and the styrofoam versions do not come with a way to check humidity. If humidity is too high, your babies can drown when they try to pip the shell. If it is too low, they can get stuck to the egg membrane: shrink wrapped inside the egg and unable to escape!
Remember, a temperature even one degree off can cause your eggs not to hatch, or it can cause the few chicks that do hatch to be weak and sickly and have other problems. A brief spike or drop in temperature for a few hours is not always problematic, but incubation at the wrong temperature over a long period of time will certainly adversely affect your hatch.
You might also consider a PROBE thermometer/hygrometer. This is a device that measures temperature and humidity remotely: you stick the probe inside your incubator, but the readings appear on the remote unit outside it. A probe can make conditions easier to monitor, but another reason to get a probe thermometer is so that you can better mimic conditions inside your eggs. Here's how you do that: You will need a probe thermometer and a "water wiggler," which is a toy often given out as a party favor at children's parties. You may be able to find one at your local toy store. Put your water wiggler in your incubator with your eggs, and put the probe of your thermometer inside it. You now have a rough way of determining what the internal temperature of your egg is. If you have a power failure, even if the incubator is cool for a while, your water wiggler will be able to estimate for you how the interior temperature of your eggs was affected. if the outage was of short duration, there may have been little effect at all.
You needn't use a water wiggler to incubate, of course. This is just a helpful tip! Using one, though, can be a comfort if the air temperature in your brooder jumps to 104 briefly! Maybe you have misadjusted the temperature, or maybe someone else has done it for you. Regardless, when you use the wiggler method, you will have a good idea as to whether the internal temperature of your eggs is likely to have been affected by the jump in air temperature. Remember, it can take several hours for the temperature of your eggs to rise, so just because there has been a brief mishap doesn't mean everything is lost!
Another helpful tool you can use to help with temperature modulation in the styrofoam incubators is something you may be able to find easy at hand: rocks. Yes, rocks can help you incubate your eggs. I like to add clean, flat rocks to my styrofoam incubator beneath the "floor" of the incubation tray, and within the water reservoir. The rocks absorb and hold heat. Especially when turning your eggs manually, having the rocks in there will help to heat the air up again quickly when you must lift the lid regularly to turn your eggs, because they will serve as low-tech heat sinks. Your eggs won't cool down as much with the addition of rocks used as heat sinks. Make sure they are clean, like everything else that goes into your incubator!
IMPORTANT: If at any time you find a bad odor coming from any of your eggs remove the culprit immediately. If your egg has gone bad, it will never hatch--however, it could explode and contaminate your incubator and all your other eggs!
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Chapter 7: Candling
Candling is not absolutely necessary, but it can be fun. You can purchase egg candlers, but with just a strong flashlight, you can usually see a little bit in a dark room by making a seal between your egg and your hand over the flashlight. Some eggs will be hard to candle: dark brown eggs like those of Marans and Welsummers can be difficult. Surprisingly, even more difficult to candle sometimes are the green eggs of Easter Eggers, because they have BOTH blue and brown coloration in them.
If you can manage to candle, though, it's exciting to see your little babies moving inside their eggs--it's like an ultrasound for chickens! Even better, if you have an egg that is not developing, you may be able to remove it before it goes bad or threatens your other eggs. You will want to keep your candling to a minimum, however, because every time you candle them, it cools the eggs and releases humidity. It can also transfer bacteria from your hands onto the porous egg shells and cause problems. Limit your candling to three times during incubation.
If you do decide to candle, the usual recommendation is to candle at Day 7 or 10, Day 14 and Day 18. If you don't see anything at Day 7 or 10, don't discard those eggs immediately. It could be that you're just not seeing the development! We recommend you wait until Day 14 to discard. By then, with light-shelled eggs, any that have not developed should be easily told from eggs that have begun to develop.
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Chapter 8: Hatch Day
Remember--if your eggs have not hatched by Day 21, don't give up! It is possible that despite all your precautions, your eggs were incubated at a temperature that was slightly low... or perhaps your newer eggs hatched first, and your older ones will take a little longer. Wait until Day 23 at the very least, and candle before discarding any eggs that haven't hatched just to make sure it is not alive.
When your babies have hatched, leave them in the incubator to dry off. Their peeping and noise will help encourage other chicks to hatch. It can take four hours or more to dry off, and you don't want them to get chilled. Once they are dry, transfer them quickly to your prewarmed brooder. Caring for baby chicks is discussed in Chapter Four of our free chicken care e-book.
The Dreaded Bad Hatch
It happens to everyone who hatches eggs at one time or another. You had beautiful fertile eggs, everything seemed to be just fine, but when hatch day comes, the eggs just don't hatch. It is devastating! When this happens, it's important to find out why. You will want to open the eggs (outside, in case there is an odor) to see if they developed and how far along they got before stopping.
|Early hatching || Temperatures too high, shipping problems (eggs too hot during shipping)|
|Late hatching || Temperature too low, shipping problems (eggs too cold during shipping)|
|Fully developed, pipped, died || Humidity too low, poor ventilation, eggs set upside down (large end should be up)|
|Fully developed, no pip, died || Humidity too high, poor ventilation, eggs did not rest large end up before setting|
|Open navels or bleeding || Temperatures too high, shipping problems (eggs too hot during shipping)|
|Staggered hatch || Hot and cool spots in the incubator (usually a still - air incubator), power failures|
|Chicks smeared with egg contents || Temperature too low, humidity too high, poor ventilation|
|Chicks stuck to shells || Temperature too high, humidity too low, incubator opened too often, incubator located in a drafty area|
|Crippled chicks || Temperatures too high, humidity too low, eggs set upside down (large end should be up), brooded on newspaper or slick surface|
|Weak or small chicks || Temperatures too high, humidity too low, poor ventilation, power failures|
|Large "mushy" chicks, dead with foul odor || Temperature too low, poor ventilation, navel infection|
|Developed substantially, but died early || Eggs not turned properly, improper incubation temperatures, poor ventilation, some diseases (be sure to buy eggs from an NPIP certified flock), power failure, incubation temperature spike or drop|
|Developed a few days, but died || Shipping problems (eggs got too hot or too cold during shipping), bacterial infection (eggs had hairline cracks from shipping or other trauma, or eggs were washed, introducing bacteria, or eggs picked up bacteria from a dirty incubator or dirty hands), incubation temperature spike or drop, power failure|
|Rotten or blood in egg ||Same as "developed a few days but died." These eggs can either present as some development or as "rotten" if the dead embryos deteriorated in the heat of the incubator|
|No development || Shipping problems (eggs "scrambled" during rough shipping, too hot or too cold), eggs not fertile, eggs not set promptly after resting|
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Chapter 9: Still Interested?
Hatching is not for the faint of heart. It requires good planning, dedication, flexibility and good observation skills. If you are interested in a classroom incubation experience, you will have to be prepared with plans for who will adopt your classroom chickens! If you hatch at home, you will want to have plans for rehoming any roosters or chickens you don't want to keep. In an extraordinarily short time, the baby chickens will be babies no longer. They need a lot of space, and they need outdoor access to pasture. If your students will be adopting them, make absolutely sure that they and their families understand what is required for their care. If you are hatching eggs at home for your family, you will want to have everything at hand that they need as soon as they hatch, and you will want to have a safe and secure coop and run for them as they get older. (You can read about Chicken and Chick care in our free Chicken Care ebook.)
You don't want to try hatching your own eggs if you can't rehome any unwanted roosters you may not be able to keep (many areas permit people to keep hens, but not roosters due to their crowing). In most cases, you won't want to try hatching only two or three eggs at a time, because you may get only one to hatch--or none! One chick alone may die of loneliness--they are flock animals and need companionship. If you have children, it can be very disappointing to deal with bad hatches, or to deal with having to give away half or more of your beloved little chickies simply because they are male. It is important to have a plan for all contingencies: people who hatch eggs must be very flexible. Don't buy eight eggs if your only plan is that four will hatch, and two of those will be females to keep for your family. If that is what you're counting on, Murphy's Law says that it is the last thing that will happen: four will hatch but they will all be males; or none will hatch and your children will be devastated; or all eight will hatch and they will *all* be females, but your coop has room for only the two hens you planned on!
As the old, and wise, saying goes: Don't count your chickens before they've hatched.
If you decide hatching eggs is for you, it can be an educational experience for youngsters, whether they are in a classroom or at home... and frankly it can be an educational experience for everyone, adults and children alike. It can restore that disconnect with the natural cycle that so many people suffer from. It is a joy and a wonder. It is intensely rewarding (and terribly addictive.) But it is also a responsibility you must be prepared for.
We wish you the best of luck! Please feel free to contact us at 888-460-1529 or email@example.com with any questions.