The Basics of Incubating Chicken Eggs

Hatching Chicken Eggs Using an Incubator Gives you a Front Row Seat

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Photo courtesy of The Frugal Chicken

Incubating chicken eggs is a good method of increasing your flock. Especially if you have modern breeds. One of the reasons I choose to raise heritage breed birds is because of their ability to reproduce. Many modern chicken breeds have been bred for meat and eggs, but won’t go broody.

People who have heritage breed birds often choose incubating chicken eggs instead of hatching them with their hens. They just like watching the chicks hatch. A mother hen does not let you take part!

Incubating chicken eggs can actually be practical and cost effective. You can buy incubators for as little as a dozen eggs up to tens of thousands of eggs. You can even make your own homemade incubators.

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A 70% hatch rate for incubated eggs is average. Anything above that is excellent. Incubating your own fertile eggs or getting them from a local chicken keeper can be a great deal cheaper than ordering chicks from a hatchery.

Most incubators run on electricity, but there are nonelectric models available. You can buy an incubator from most any hatchery or farm supply. Before you add eggs to any incubator you should run it for a couple of days to be sure that it’s working right. Check to be sure it’s keeping the correct temperature and humidity level for the type of eggs you’re hatching. Of course be sure you’ve cleaned the incubator well before you use it.

incubating-chicken-eggs

Photo courtesy of The Frugal Chicken

Temperature

Almost all breeds of chickens need a brooding temperature of 99.75°F, the temperature found underneath a mama hen. I’ve read of some old-timers wrapping their eggs in cloth and placing them in a bucket beside the wood stove. I’ve also read of using a lightbulb suspended directly over the top of the bucket. Of course these methods of incubating chicken eggs are unreliable, but I do know some people who have been successful with these.

Homemade Incubators

If you choose to make a homemade incubator, the goal is to have a consistent heat source. It will need to keep a 2 to 3 ft. area approximately 99.75 degrees F. You can use cardboard, wood, or even styrofoam to make a box. The box should be at least 11 inches high, 11 inches wide, and 16 inches long. You’ll need a top hinged door for easy access. A see through one is preferred. If it’s see through, you can check the thermometers without having to open and close it often.

Be sure you have ventilation holes on the top of two sides and on the bottom of the other two sides. This allows for natural ventilation. The bottom of your incubator should be wire mesh. Fasten it to your frame approximately 2 inches above the bottom on the inside. This leaves enough room for you to slide a pan of water underneath the incubator. These are just general guidelines. The main goal is to have consistent proper temperature and humidity. The hatch rate with homemade incubators is 50% or less. This is because of the difficulty in maintaining proper humidity and temperature levels consistently.

Humidity

Humidity is measured using a wet bulb thermometer.  Some incubators even have this built in. What is the ideal humidity when hatching chicken eggs? The desired level is 85°F on a wet bulb thermometer. The last 5 to 7 days you should raise it to 90°F on the wet thermometer.

General Use

Once you’ve decided on your incubator, it’s important to remember to follow the directions. Each one has different operations, heat source, air circulation, and controls. You want to be sure the room where you keep your incubator is well ventilated. If the room is unheated, your incubator will not work properly. You don’t want it in direct sunlight, beside the heater, in a drafty place or even near a window. The ideal room temperature is 70°F. The eggs should never get over 103°F as this will kill the undeveloped chick.

Turning Eggs

Some incubators turn the eggs for you! These tend to be pricier than those you turn yourself. It just depends on how much you want to spend for incubating chicken eggs. If you can find a used one that works, it’s a nice feature.

Not turning the eggs regularly results in deformed chicks, dead chicks, or chicks who can’t hatch properly. The mother hen turns her eggs instinctively. I misunderstood this one time and put rotten eggs back in the nest. Unless you buy an incubator that turns them for you, you will need to do this.

Each egg needs to be turned a quarter turn to halfway around. You’ll need to do this at least three times a day. You may want to turn them more often during the day. Doing this will decrease the risk to them from lying in one position all night.

To help keep track, some people mark their eggs in some fashion and turn the egg so the mark is up one time and down the next. Never write on your egg with anything other than a pencil or maybe non-toxic chalk. Ink will leak through the pores of the egg harm the chick.

It’s important to remember not to drop or seriously jar the egg when turning. This is especially important the first 3 days. The blood vessels are forming then. Most incubators will not begin turning eggs until the second day.

From the 10th day forward, make sure the larger end of the egg is pointed up or to the side but up. The developing chick will begin to lengthen itself in the egg and its head will develop in whatever end is up. Its natural way is to develop in the larger end which makes it easier to hatch out. On the 19th day, you may quit turning your eggs. This is three days before a chicken’s expected hatch date of 21 days.

Hatching Chicks

The exciting hatch day arrives and the chick will begin to gradually pick its way out. The hatching chick takes many rest breaks. It’s hard work pecking your way out of an egg! It can take from several hours to a couple of days for it to completely hatch.

I know that it’s hard, but try to remember not to help the chick out of the egg. It’ll be wet and tired and if you rush the process, you may cause your chick problems. Remember, they are drawing the last of the yolk into their bodies. This is important because they live off that nutrition the first three days of life.

Just hatched chicks will rest on their tummy. You may think they’re sick, but they’re just tired and will try to walk after a while. Don’t be alarmed when it only hobbles and uses its wings to stumble around. As it dries and gains strength, it will begin to look like a fluffy cute chick. Depending on your incubator instructions, it’s usually best to leave the chicks in the incubator for 12 to 24 hours after they hatch.

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If you’re an experienced chicken keeper then you know how to raise baby chicks. If you are a beginner, no worries. You have 21 days of incubating time to have your brooder set up and be prepared.

Every incubator will provide instructions for hatching different breeds. The number of days required for hatching, temperature, and humidity will vary. For example, incubating guinea eggs takes 28 days (seven days longer than chickens). Their brooding temperature should be 100°F. Their humidity level on a wet thermometer is 85°F. Increase it to 94°F the last five days of incubation. This is because they have extremely hard shells.

Now you have the basics of incubating chicken eggs. You only have to decide which incubator you want, if you want to make your own, which breed to hatch and when you want to start. Happy hatching!

Be sure to contact me with any questions you may have. Share your own experience incubating chicken eggs with us in the comments. Have you made your own incubator? How did you do it and how did it work? I look forward to hearing from you.

Safe and Happy Journey,

Rhonda and The Pack

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Comments
  • My Easter Eggers and I are having a contest to she which of us is the better broody hen. Why must I turn my eggs in an incubator up and down when I her clutch on their sides.

    Reply
    • Rhonda C.

      Your hen does a perfect job with her eggs. You don’t see all the work she puts in to turning the eggs to prevent damage to them. When you incubate, you can’t turn them as much as she does or give them the undivided attention required. Turning them up and down is the best way to accomplish much of the same results she gets without the constant work. Hope this helps.

      Reply
  • I have one rooster and seven hens. Is i t save to assume that their eggs would be fertile? I am rather new at this.

    Reply
    • Rhonda C.

      Hello Debby, Yes, you can be sure your eggs are all fertile. The general rule of thumb is one roo for every 40-50 birds. Too many roosters can be stressful to your hens and decrease their egg laying. Oddly, too few hens can be stressful too as they get bred every day. Your girls should be OK. If you notice the feathers on the back of their hair look pulled out in one place, or on the wing where it attaches to the body, you’ll know they’re receiving a lot of attention from him. Let me know if I can help in any way. Don’t worry about being new at chicken keeping, we all had to start somewhere, I just happened to start out as a babe! Lol

      Reply

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