That time of year is almost upon us again – hatching season!
Many of us get the hatching bug and long to hatch out some of our own chicks – after all, they are very fuzzy, cute and endearing.
In our guide below we cover everything you need to know about hatching eggs; from setting up the incubator to what to do on hatching day, we have it all covered.
Choosing Between an Incubator and a Broody Hen
This is your first decision to make. If you have a hen that loves to go broody every year and will sit on the eggs for the required number of days (21 for chicks), she is the best show in town.
A broody hen will sit on those eggs and keep them warm, even plucking her breast feathers so that the eggs can touch her skin. She will turn those eggs around 50 times every day; she will also talk to the chicks through the shell so that her chicks imprint on her voice and will know who Mama is when they hatch.
Anyone who has seen a broody hen in action knows she will defend her nest with a mothers’ devotion – mind your fingers!
She is also much cheaper and easier than an incubator to operate.
Possibly the only downside to having a hen hatch your chicks for you is that they aren’t quite as friendly to you as they would be coming from an incubator – after all, you aren’t Mama.
If you choose to use an incubator rather than a hen, it does have some advantages, but also requires your attention daily (at least) for 21 days and beyond.
It should maintain a constant temperature between 99-102°F (99.5°F is considered optimal) and a humidity of 50-60%.
So you have to check the temperature and water daily. If your area is prone to power outages, then have a plan B in mind – a couple of hours shouldn’t be too bad but any longer could be disastrous.
When the chicks hatch the first thing they see is you – that makes you Mama. These chicks will be friendlier than hen raised chicks. They will rely on you to water, feed and protect them until they are old enough to be on their own.
Where To Find Fertilized Eggs?
Your next decision is where to get your fertilized eggs from. If your flock has a rooster you need look no further. If he is performing his duties your hens should be laying fertilized eggs.
If you don’t have a rooster, what’s next? Do you have a friend that would give or sell you some fertilized eggs? If so – go and fetch them yourself and bring them home as gently as possible, eggs do not travel well.
Your third choice is to buy from a breeder or hatchery that sells the eggs you want. Please bear in mind – eggs do not travel well – yes, I’m repeating myself but this is important to realize.
If you are hatching a rare breed and have paid a lot of money for the eggs it’s very disappointing to have few if any hatches and it’s not always fair to blame the breeder.
For example; you buy your eggs from California and you live in New York. Those eggs have to get from the farm to the Post Office where they are sorted (not gently either) into the appropriate bin. They are then taken to the airport and flown to your nearest airport.
At the airport they are picked up by the mail carrier and taken to the nearest post office where you will collect them.
I don’t know about you but after a long plane ride I always feel a bit scrambled – so do your eggs.
You will need to let them sit for at least 12 hours in a cool place with the pointed end downwards. Candle them if you like to see if the yolk is still intact. On a personal note, I have never had good success with shipped hatching eggs.
Since these eggs are from a different environment, it is worth sanitizing the eggs so they don’t bring any ‘nasties’ with them. You can use a sanitizing solution and water to do this.
Setting Up an Incubator
Choosing an incubator can be daunting, there are many different types out there and cost can range from just under $100.00 to several hundred, depending on what you want.
We have a complete guide to incubators here.
If you are hatching out ‘barnyard mixes’ and are going to be diligent about temperature and humidity, one of the cheaper circulated air (forced air) incubators may do you very well. Some of my best hatches have been with these cheaper models!
If you are hatching slightly more expensive or rare breeds, a step up to a something like a Brinsea may be better for you.
Remember, you really don’t need lots of bells and whistles on the incubator. You want something that will do the job well and that you can easily use and understand.
How To Set It Up
There is a short list of requirements for your incubator, so here is your check list:
- Incubator (with turning rack)
- Candling device
- Paper towels
The first thing to do is plug everything in and make sure the incubator and turning tray is working. Leave it on for several hours to make sure it comes up to temperature and humidity.
While you are waiting make sure you read and understand all the instructions that come with the equipment.
Although your incubator may have a thermometer and hygrometer already built in, it’s wise to double check with another thermometer/hygrometer. You can buy cheap digital ones online for under $10.00.
You will use the water to fill the water chamber as directed by the instructions – paper towels are for the inevitable mess.
Go to book – Hatching and Brooding your Own Chicks by Gail Damerow. This book will prove invaluable to you. It gives tips and tricks, sensible advice, clear concise information and a section that tells you ‘what went wrong’. I would not be without it.
How To Incubate Eggs
So, you have your incubator running, temperature and humidity are set, water trough filled – now to place your eggs! A turning tray makes it easy to place your eggs, but how do you position them?
The most consistent train of thought is that you place your eggs with the pointed end angled down, the egg should not be upright but lying slightly to the side – as it would be in a natural birds nest. Before placing your eggs they should all have been checked over for hairline cracks and any shell deformities. You can candle the egg to do this.
Eggs that are difficult to tell top from bottom, or long and narrow, should not be used as they are less likely to hatch.
Your eggs are placed, now close the lid and begin your countdown!
You will need to check the temperature and humidity in about an hour or so to ensure that everything has stabilized; adjust your settings accordingly and recheck if necessary.
Daily visual checks should be done to make sure the water level is ok and the temperature and humidity are correct. You may have to adjust the air vents on your incubator to maintain correct levels.
Caution: do not keep opening and closing the incubator. This causes temperature fluctuations which will affect your hatch rates…be patient!
This awesome video gives you a great idea of what is going on in the egg during those 21 days.
What To Do On Hatching Day
Day 18 is known as ‘lockdown’ day. This is the day when you make sure the egg turner is turned off and set the eggs on the level surface tray of the incubator.
Once you have checked that the water level is sufficient and ventilation is at the right level, put the lid on and leave it alone!
Do not open the lid, move the incubator or jostle it around, this is a critical period. The chick is getting into position ready to ‘pip’ the shell and emerge, so it needs to be left quietly to align itself.
For more information on what happens after hatching read here.
FAQs about Hatching Chicken Eggs
How Long Does it Take For an Egg to Hatch?
It will vary by species – chickens are 21 days; ducks 28 days; turkeys about 28 days; guineas 28 days and geese 30 days.
Do All The Eggs Hatch At Once?
No, but they are usually all done with 24-48 hours of the first pipping. Some hatches can last up to 4 or 5 days though.
An Egg Has Exploded, What Do I Do?
The egg exploded because it had bacteria in it. The best you can do is clean out the incubator thoroughly (keep the eggs warm) and if eggs are contaminated clean them off as best you can without removing the ‘bloom’.
What Temperature Should The Incubator Be Set To?
With chicken eggs your incubator should be set to 99.5°F.
This has been a whistle stop tour of hatching. We have hit the highlights but there is so much else to learn about hatching out your own chicks.
I really recommend that you read as much as you can about it before you try it. It will make you more confident about knowing what to do and how to do it.
It is unlikely that you will get a 100% hatch rate – even the professionals don’t. There are many reasons for that so don’t beat your-self up. Reading about failures to hatch and the reasons behind it will help you to understand that so much goes into the process of hatching an egg that whatever you did is not likely to be the cause.
Good luck with your hatching adventures and send up some pictures of your chicks too!
Let us know in the comments section below your experiences with hatching eggs…