Incubating Eggs for Raising Baby Chickens
Hatching chickens artificially is both an art and a science. Successfully raising baby chickens by incubating eggs is not difficult, but does require attention to some important aspects. Here you’ll find tips for raising chickens eggs in an incubator.
Artificial incubation of eggs is never as successful as using a broody hen. However, if you don’t have one available, then incubating eggs is the only option.
Whichever alternative you choose, it is vital the eggs are of good quality.
Sourcing Quality Eggs for Hatching Chickens
Both the fertility of your eggs and the hatchability of those that are fertile are influenced by the management of the flock they came from.
To produce top quality eggs, breeding poultry must be in perfect health, have a great diet, and be managed so that each hen is regularly served by a fertile rooster.
Inbreeding, common in show bred birds, also detracts from the fertility and hatchability of eggs.
Success also depends on starting with clean, fresh eggs. This is because washing can dramatically reduce an egg’s viability by removing its protective bloom and providing an opportunity for germs to infiltrate the shell and infect the egg.
If you must wash an egg, do it gently and quickly using water that is warmer than the egg, and dry well before storing.
So source yours from a conscientious breeder who keeps her nest boxes filled with fresh, dry litter to prevent soiling, collects eggs frequently during the day, date stamps them and stores them correctly.
Egg Preparation and Storage for Hatching Chickens
For optimal fertility, eggs that have been stored at room temperature pointy end down, rotated daily, and are less than 7 days old are best. Longer storage – up to 14 days – is possible but requires cooler (e.g. cellar) temperatures (55°- 60°F).
We store ours on trays in a few inches of moistened vermiculite to create humid but not damp conditions (60% to 75% is ideal).
Never handle your eggs roughly or with dirty hands – to safeguard their health and hygiene use clean, dry hands and a gentle touch.
It is preferable to pick up the eggs you plan for raising baby chickens directly from the farm gate.
However, if you ordered your fertile eggs through the mail they will need to be kept still (pointy end down) for 12 to 24 hours to settle their air cells prior to being set in the incubator.
Wherever you get them from, allow the eggs to warm to room temperature (70-80°F) for 24 hours before you set them in the incubator.
Incubator Preparation for Hatching Chickens
Locating the Incubator
For raising baby chickens from incubating eggs, appropriate location of the incubator is paramount. Because temperature control is the single most important factor to successfully raising chicken eggs, you need to protect your incubator from extremes of temperature in the immediate environment.
This helps it to maintain even temperature conditions for hatching chickens from incubating eggs.
Locate your incubator in a room where it is out of direct sunlight, away from draughts and shielded somewhat from outside temperatures by being placed on an inside wall. Ideally, room temperature should be a reasonably steady 70 to 75° F (21 to 24° C).
First, ensure you get a reliable incubator with the right features.
Fill your incubator’s prescribed trays with water (check manufacturer’s instructions) and turn it on.
Ideally, you should run your incubator for a week before setting your eggs in it. Some, particularly those with an electronic temperature control, appear to need this time to “run in” after which they stabilize. If time is short, at least 24 hours is advisable.
While you’re waiting, check your incubator temperature with an accurate thermometer (note that the thermometer that may be supplied with your incubator may not be accurate and should be calibrated first using a high quality photographic or medical thermometer).
Once the temperature in the incubator has stabilized, allow any stored eggs to warm gradually to room temperature before putting them in. This is to avoid the eggs from sweating, as they are likely to do if warmed too rapidly, providing an opportunity for germs to enter the shell.
Set your eggs in the incubator either on their sides, or pointy end down.
Incubation Guidelines for Hatching Chickens
Expected Hatching Rate
Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched, or even after for that matter!
No matter how good, no incubator can fully replace the effectiveness of your eggs natural mother at hatching healthy babies. If incubator management is good, and only top quality fertile eggs have been used, the best hatching rate you can expect is 85%.
If the eggs have been posted to you, 50% hatching is a good result. And a normal post hatch loss of incubator hatched chicks is up to 10% on top of the other losses.
How long will incubation take?
When it comes to raising chickens eggs, it only takes 21 days of incubation to convert your fertile eggs into hatching chickens. This is the incubation period, and it varies from species to species.
The incubation periods and temperatures of other species eggs you may wish to hatch in your poultry incubator are shown in this table:
Please note that these temperature guides may differ according to the incubator manufacturer’s guide. Always check it first!
Top Tips for Hatching Chickens in an Incubator
Successfully hatching chickens that are healthy depends completely on maintaining a controlled environment for the entire period of incubation.
The main factors to be controlled are:
- Ventilation (oxygen)
While these factors are all important, the most critical of these is temperature, followed by humidity. When incubating eggs fail to hatch these two are the first that should be ruled out as the cause.
Every incubator model has its own unique temperature setting and means of measurement, according to design, and whether they are still air, forced draft or contact types. So ALWAYS FOLLOW THE MANUFACTURER’S DIRECTIONS when setting up and operating your incubator.
However, don’t rely on the manufacturer’s thermometer without first checking its accuracy! They are notoriously inaccurate!
Get yours here!
Testing has revealed that the corners inside incubators are often drastically cooler than the center – up to 4 or 5°F in still air models.
It is therefore advisable to operate your incubator at no more than 2/3 capacity, and cluster your eggs near the center of the unit.
Once a day we also exchange the position of the eggs so that those that were in the center of the cluster are moved to the outside and vice versa.
Embryo development is very sensitive to temperature. While sustained slight under-heating may simply cause them to grow slower, over-heating… even for a short period… can cause significant injury or even death.
So while a hatch might be delayed somewhat by lowish temperatures – say 98°F for several hours – the embryos in your incubating eggs may be killed if subjected to a temperature of 105°F for just 30 minutes.
As a guide, your incubating eggs are unlikely to survive several hours of temperatures over 103°F or under 96°F.
Marginally high temperatures can result in hatching chickens with a myriad of health problems including early hatching of chicks that are undersized, dead in shell, sticky (covered in egg white), malformed, weak, and/or with rough bloody navels.
Sustained low temperatures, aside from delaying the hatching date, can result in hatching chickens that are soft and mushy or have crooked toes.
Saving Incubating Eggs during a Power Failure
A power outage does not necessarily mean death for your incubating eggs. If you act quickly to prevent your incubator from losing heat, there is every possibility that the batch can be saved.
If the power outage is likely to be sustained, your best insurance is a back up power source!
A small (600W for a portable incubator) inverter like this one connects into your car’s cigarette lighter for instant power, and gives you peace of mind for less than AUD$100.
Recommence incubation as soon as mains power has resumed, then check for survival by candling them a few days later.
Humidity for Successfully Hatching Chickens
The humidity of the incubator environment affects how much moisture is lost by the incubating eggs during incubation. The more humid it is, the less moisture – and therefore weight – loss occurs.
Ideally, when hatching chickens and other birds that emerge from the egg as a well developed (rather than blind and helpless) chick, weight loss between laying and pipping should be between 13 and 15%.
Humidity levels on particular days (other than during hatching time) is not as important as the overall level and overall weight loss.
Humidity is created inside an incubator by the use of water trays. Remember to always use lukewarm water when filling them!
The humidity in an incubator can be measured using either a Wet Bulb Thermometer or a Hygrometer. However, since air flow is necessary for their operation, neither give reliable readings in still air machines.
A wet bulb thermometer is simply a regular thermometer with its end sheathed with a cotton wick the tail of which is immersed in water. Water soaks up the wick where it evaporates and cools the thermometer.
Luckily, unlike with temperature, precise humidity control is not critical to successfully hatching chickens, which is just as well as it is very difficult to achieve in portable incubators. Less is better than more, and “Near enough is good enough”, so long as humidity is kept within 15 % of the target level.
For hatching chickens, desirable humidity during the first 18 days of incubation is around 50% to 55% Relative Humidity (equivalent to wet bulb thermometer readings of 82°F [28°C] to 88°F [31°C]).
If hatching duck eggs aim for the higher end of this humidity range – 55% RH (84.5°F on wet bulb thermometer at a temperature of 99.5 °F).
When raising chickens eggs, this rises to 65% – 70% Relative Humidity for the final 3 days prior to hatching (equivalent to wet bulb thermometer readings of 90°F [32°C] to 93°F [34°C]). The higher humidity levels at this time keep the egg membranes soft and easy for the hatching chickens to escape from.
For hatching duck eggs at this stage a much higher relative humidity of 80% is needed (93°F wet bulb at a temperature of 99.5 °F).
Humidity Management in Practice
Most incubators have separate trays to be filled at these different stages of incubation, so in the absence of measuring humidity, follow the manufacturer’s directions.
Bear in mind, however, that you have to compensate for exceedingly dry or humid climatic conditions where the incubator is running. Incubator management thus varies season to season.
For very dry conditions, you can boost humidity using small pieces of damp sponge.
Under very humid conditions, humidity can be reduced by covering part of the incubator’s water tray with aluminum foil, taped into place.
Ventilation Requirements for Hatching Chickens
Embryos inside incubating eggs need oxygen which they get via their shell from the air around them. For this reason, it is important to ensure adequate ventilation by maintaining the patency of the ventilation holes in your incubator.
As they develop, the amount of oxygen needed increases. In larger incubators, this is the time to gradually open the adjustable vents till they are set on fully open by hatching time.
However, at pipping time higher humidity is also needed which is hard to achieve if air flow is too high. Thus a balance between the two must be aimed for.
Turning Your Eggs
For hatching chickens and most other species, the eggs must be turned regularly for the first 17 days incubation to prevent the embryo from sticking to the shell.
We turn ours three times a day – first thing in the morning, mid afternoon and last thing at night. On one of these turns we also rotate the egg.
To achieve this with incubating eggs set on their sides, we mark our eggs with a pencil – for example, an X on one side, and an 0 on the other.
At each turning all the X’s or all the O’s face upward. Turn them gently and ensure your hands are clean and grease free.
If your eggs are set at an angle (always pointy end down so the air sac is at the top) then they are simply titled in the opposite direction rather than being turned.
Turning is discontinued for the last three days of incubation of eggs.
So for hatching chickens, turn for the last time at the start of day 19, boost the humidity by topping up the water trays or sponges with warm water, and keep the incubator closed (except to add water) until 24 hours after the first chicks hatch so that humidity is not lost.
As soon as pipping starts open up any additional vents to increase the oxygen supply.
Pipping is when the hatching chickens begin to peck through their shell. It can take up to six hours for the chick to fully emerge, and a further six hours for it to dry, fluff up and begin to move about.
Since the chicks have reserves of yolk to draw on, they don’t need to eat or drink for the first 24 hours after hatching and can be left in the incubator until the stragglers have had a chance to hatch.
Any that haven’t hatched within 24 hours of the first hatching chickens are usually weak and unhealthy anyway. Don’t be tempted to help them out either! If they don’t make it out on their own they are likely to be weak and die anyway later on.
Once dry the chicks can be moved to a brooder designed for raising baby chickens.
A bedside lamp fitted with a 40 watt globe aimed into a cosy box makes a good brooder.
Keep the box safe from cats and other predators in a draft free, warm environment.
Remove the hatched chicks from the incubator and place in a heated box. The heated box should contain a 40-watt light bulb lowered to within six inches from the bottom of the box. Keep the box in a warm place and away from drafts.
Sanitizing Your Incubator
It is surprising just how thoroughly mucky your incubator will be after hatching! And the muck is just the sort of stuff that bacteria and fungi thrive on… egg shells, albumen, yolk, bum-fluff and chick poo.
Poor sanitation between batches of incubating eggs can result in infection and death during incubation or after hatching chickens.
To reduce the scale of cleaning needed people with large incubators often opt to transfer incubating eggs to a small, portable incubator for the hatching chickens stage.
So how do you do it?
First: read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. You will probably have to be careful to avoid immersing any electrical or other working parts in water and just wipe them clean with a dry cloth.
After wiping we also spray them lightly with an alcohol solution which effectively sterilizes then evaporates completely away.
The floor of the incubator as well as hatching trays and water pans get the dirtiest and warrant thorough cleaning and disinfection with a weak bleach solution (unless otherwise instructed by the manufacturer).
Unfortunately, foam incubators do not bear up to scrubbing.
Some manufacturers also stipulate that only water should be used to clean them. In this case, after cleaning leave the parts in full sunlight to help disinfect them. You could also spray them lightly with an alcohol solution.
Troubleshooting Problems with Hatching Chickens
Lots of Infertile Eggs
It is normal for around 5% of eggs to be infertile. Higher rates point to poor egg storage and handling prior to setting, or suboptimal breeding bird management and/or fertility.
Lots of Quitters
If your biggest problem is embryos getting started but then dying before hatching chickens, there are many possible reasons.
Ruling out a power failure as the cause, other factors can be inbreeding or nutritional deficiencies in the parent birds, rough handling of the incubating eggs, viral infection of the eggs, using dirty eggs, or poor incubator hygiene.
Eggs Pip but Fail to Hatch
If your chicks develop all the way up to pipping and then quit, it is normally because they have been weakened by a suboptimal incubation environment.
Go back and scrutinize your management of temperature and humidity levels particularly for possible problems.