One of the most exciting things about keeping chickens is getting to hatch them. 24 hrs after hatching they are a cute little ball of fluffy down, chirping and huddling under the brooder for warmth. Hatching eggs is a wonderful way for children to experience the joys of the birth of a new life. If you’ve never hatched eggs before you might not have the slightest idea where to start. I’m going to help you with that and by the end of this post you will be fully prepared and equipped to successfully hatch your own clutch of baby chicks.
There is some basic equipment that you will need to get started hatching. There is going to be some cost upfront as with any venture. You can spend as little or as much as you want but what I have found to be true with the power tools in my shop is that you generally get exactly what you pay for. I am not trying to sell you on purchasing the same equipment that I use because I might make a few pennies off of the sale, but because I found that it is the most effective equipment for the money for small scale hatching. You know my personal story and that we live on a single income so I certainly understand money issues but when it comes to hatching I would encourage you to take the money you save by building your new chicken coop out of reclaimed lumber and spend it on quality hatching equipment. Ok. Enough about the financial aspect of the equipment. On to the list!
- Incubators – There are various options available from homemade to very expensive commercial options costing thousands of dollars. As we will see later, hatching eggs require a fairly stable environment so I haven’t found many success stories with homemade incubators.
One very popular incubator on the market is the Hova-Bator Incubator. Our local feed store as well as our local Tractor Supply Store carry various models of Hova Bator incubators. The price depends upon assorted options such as turning trays, thermometers, extra tray inserts for different size eggs such as quail eggs, and more. These incubators are made from styrofoam and are reasonably priced starting in the $50 range and up. The Hova Bator 1602N incubator will hold 50 chicken eggs which is a lot for the price of the incubator. The con to the Hova Bator is that there are several reviews that complain about the ability to regulate the temperature which is crucial in hatching eggs, however this incubator model carries a 4 star rating on Amazon. Little Giant makes a very similar model incubator with very poor reviews in regards to ability to regulate temperature or humidity.
Another option for smaller scale hatching are the Brinsea line of products. We have two different models of Brinsea incubators and both have performed phenomenally for us in the past. The Brinsea Mini Ecoand Mini Advance models carry a 4 star rating on Amazon just like the Hova Bator. The downside to these two models is that you are limited to 7 chicken eggs. The good news is that Brinsea makes a larger model, the Brinsea Octagon 20 which will hatch 24 eggs and the Octagon 40 which will hatch 48 eggs. Just like the Mini there are two models, the manual and the advanced option which comes with everything. The Brinsea products do cost a little more than the Hova Bator models but they are outstanding products. The advanced options eliminate the need for any further purchases for the incubator as they come with digital temperature and humidity controls as well as a fan. The unit will warn you when it is time for lockdown. The Brinsea models are easier to clean than the Hova Bator since they are plastic instead of styrofoam. Styrofoam can harbor bacteria which would be deadly to your incubating eggs.
Homemade models that I have come across attempt to mimic the Little Giant and Hova Bator style incubators by using a styrofoam cooler, a small fan, a heating lamp, and a bowl of water to create the right environment. I believe that in theory it would work but maintaining consistent temperatures and humidity levels would be difficult. My friend Jess at The 104 Homestead attempted to make her own and had limited success the first time around, although she believes that she can get the kinks worked out to have greater success. I have faith that she can work it out, however, I do not have any personal experience with making my own so I will have to leave up to you and Google if you attempt to go that route. If any of you have made your own I would love to hear from you, regardless of wether you were successful in your hatch or not.
- Optional Equipment – Should you opt for a basic model incubator you may find later that you would like to add some additional equipment to your incubator to make life a little easier for you. Most incubators come with the option to add different sized trays for eggs besides chicken eggs such as quail and reptile eggs. Most also come with the option to add either a moving tray or a cradle for the incubator itself to make sure that the eggs are turned as needed (more on this later). Some models could possibly be upgraded with a fan or humidity controls later, although you might have to do some “engineering”. The upside to purchasing a basic model and upgrading as you go is that you can start out with a cheaper model and slowly add to it as you get the money. The downside to this route is that some options are available as an upgrade. It is very hard to add humidity controls later and many units can not have a fan added later either. Should you decide that you would like those options later you might have to purchase a whole new model costing you more money in the end than if you had simply purchased the upgraded package deal from the start.
- Egg Candler – Candling eggs to see the process of the developing embryo is a really neat part of hatching. It can also help you to quickly eliminate eggs that will not hatch, reducing the risk of having a rotting egg explode all over your healthy eggs and infecting them with bacteria. There are numerous options available from expensive but handy candlers like the Brinsea OvaScope Egg Candler to a simple LED flashlight. We have used the flashlight method in the past and it works fairly well for light colored eggs. It does not work as well for dark colored eggs.
- Brooder – Once your chicks hatch and are ready to come out of the incubator, you will need a brooder to help keep them warm. There are many different options in this area as well and would require a whole new post to delve into. If you would like to see our brooder set-up and what equipment we use for our brooding area you can check out the post I wrote on Creating a Brooder Area.
Purchasing Hatching Eggs
You’ve done your research on the various incubators available and you’ve decided on one. Joy of joys it has arrived in the mail and you are ready to start hatching, so you sit down to decide where to get your eggs. Where do you get hatching eggs? Eggs can be purchased locally from Craigslist, for sale ads, for sale Facebook groups, and sometimes feed stores. They can also be purchased from online sources such as out of state hatcheries, Facebook chicken keeping groups, rare breeds groups/sellers, and through some feed store catalogs. There are a few pros and cons of each so let’s take a quick look.
- Pros – One of the great things about purchasing local eggs is that they won’t need to be shipped, eliminating a lot of the risks associated with shipping. Local eggs can be picked up at your convenience making it much easier to get them in the incubator when you want to. Local purchases also means that the eggs will be fresher, increasing hatchability. It also means that you can keep the eggs from being exposed to fluctuating temperatures in transit also increasing hatchability. If you pick up the eggs at the place you purchase them from (as opposed to meeting at an intermediary site) you can see the condition of the breeding stock and the condition of the coop/property where they are raised.
- Cons – Local purchases usually means limited resources. Many breeds are only available from hatcheries specializing in those breeds so unless you happen to live close to a specialty hatchery then you will be limited. The safety aspect of meeting strangers in person (depending on your personal comfort level) could also be a potential downside.
- Pros – You have a wide variety of breeds available to you including rare, endangered, and heritage breeds which would allow you to contribute to conservation efforts. You also have access to proven blood lines from well known breeders. Shippers must be NPIP certified at the very least which gives you a certain measure of confidence that their flock is healthy. A larger market could mean lower prices for common eggs, although you can expect to pay much more for rare, endangered, and heritage breeds than for common meat, laying, or dual purposes breeds such as certain Orpington lines, Rhode Island Reds, and Cornish Game Crosses to name a few. It is also easier to obtain large orders from large hatcheries than from smaller, local hatcheries. We have some excellent breeding stock but due to the fact that our flock consists of 17 laying hens we have a very limited number of eggs available at any given time versus large hatcheries where you can order hundreds or even thousands of eggs at a time should you so choose.
- Cons – Shipping significantly reduces the rates of hatchings. Typical hatchings from shipped eggs are generally in the 50% range although they can be much higher or lower depending on a number of factors. Shipped eggs can be exposed to a wide range of temperatures in transit, especially when ordering eggs from a northern hatchery to a home in the desert. Humidity levels also fluctuate greatly from mountainous areas, to deserts, to costal regions. Although I am sure that there are plenty of good people in the shipping business, I also know that there are plenty who get a kick out of shaking, kicking, and tossing boxes marked fragile. This can, and generally does, result in separation of the chalazae from the yolk or the shell. The chalazae is what helps to anchor the yolk in the egg. Some yolks that have been separated can be salvaged but their viability goes way down. Another con is the fact that while you know a breeder is NPIP (verified) you still don’t know exactly what the conditions are on the farm where the breeding stock are raised. Eggs that are shipped are typically 3 days old, have 3-4 days in transit, and must sit for 24 hours before being placed into the incubator. The maximum age of a viable hatching egg is 7-10 days so shipped eggs can result in lower hatch rates simply due to the age of the egg.
A few tips before you load your eggs up in the incubator:
- Always wash your hands prior to handling your eggs to ensure that you do not introduce any outside bacteria onto the surface of the egg.
- While storing your hatching eggs they should be handled with care to reduce the chance of breaking the chalazae. The eggs should be gently turned a couple of times a day to prevent the yolk from sticking to the side. Eggs should be stored pointed end down to prevent damage or dislodgment to the air cell. *Special note on storing shipped eggs: Upon arrival you should candle the eggs to determine if the air cell has been dislodged. If it has not, treat it the same as any hatching egg but if it has been broke loose and the air cell moves around inside the egg shell you need to place them in the carton, pointy end down for 24 hrs without any further handling to allow the air cell to hopefully reattach.
- Store your hatching eggs in a humid area (but don’t get them wet). Dry air will cause the egg to dry out and the viability will drop drastically.
- Store the eggs in an area where the temperature is between 50 and 60 degrees F. Do not refrigerate the eggs.
- Place your incubator in the area where you plan to keep it during the hatching process. Pick a place that is out of direct sunlight and has a fairly steady temperature of between 60-75 degrees F.
- Make sure that your incubator is clean and sanitized.
- Set your incubator up 12-24 hrs in advance so that it has time to come to temperature before you must place the eggs in it. This will allow you time to make sure the the temperature is holding steady to help reduce the chance of a fluctuating incubator. Follow the manufacture’s instructions for setting up the incubator to ensure optimal temperature and humidity levels.
- Allow the eggs to come to room temperature before placing them in the incubator to ensure that they do not start sweating which would risk introducing bacteria into the egg.
Now that your eggs are in hand, it’s time to load them up in the incubator. Depending on what incubator you chose you will place your eggs in the incubator either pointed end down or on their side. If you have an incubator where you must manually turn your eggs make sure that you turn them when you place them in the incubator and then follow a schedule of turning the eggs. I recommend turning the eggs 1/4 turn 3-5 times daily. Mark the eggs on one side with an X and the other side with an O (or really any sign or symbol you wish) so that you know which eggs have been turned and which have not. When markin eggs make sure that you use a non-toxic option. I use non-toxic Crayola wax pencils to mark my eggs. Using an incubator with an auto turn option will reduce your interaction with the egg and will allow the egg to be turned more frequently, such as hourly. Hourly turning may result in higher hatch rates. Research has shown that turning the eggs periodically during the first 7 days significantly increases vascular development in the embryo resulting in better growth and that turning them throughout the first 18-19 days results in increased hatch rates. (Egg Incubation: Its Effects on Embryonic Development in Birds and Reptiles) (Effect of Angle of Turning and Shaking Agitation During Incubation on Embryo Development and Hatchability)
Many people will tell you that once you place them in the incubator, your eggs should stay at a constant temperature throughout the process. I tend to disagree with this because it doesn’t mimic nature and that is ultimately our goal with the entire incubation process, isn’t it? If you’ve ever observed a broody hen, you will find that she sits on her eggs to maintain constant temperatures but during the first 18 days of incubation the hen gets up to eat, drink, and use the bathroom. This means that for that period of time the eggs cool to ambient temperature before the hen returns to continue sitting on them. There is research to back-up both sides of the argument and wether or not you decide to follow the idea of periodic cooling is a decision you must make for your eggs.
Eggs should be candled before placing them in the incubator, then at day 7, day 14, and day 18. You can candle more frequently but if you do so, just know that it could potentially decrease hatch rate success by causing temperature and humidity fluctuations. If you are following the idea of periodic cooling, during the cooling period is a perfect time to candle. Remember to wash your hands before handling the eggs. The purpose of candling the eggs is to ensure that they are developing properly. Any egg that fails to develop should be removed immediately as well as any egg that starts to smell bad. A non-developing egg could potentially rupture in the incubator which would introduce bacteria to the other developing eggs and could potentially result in a 0% hatch rate. When candling, take the opportunity to make a small mark on the shell with a non-toxic pencil (I use non-toxic Crayola wax pencils to mark my eggs) where the air cell level is. An enlarging air cell will help you to determine if the embryo is developing.
We do not currently own one of the nice Brinsea OvaScopes that I mentioned in the equipment section so we use a flashlight. Simply hold the flashlight in your left hand with your first finger and thumb encircling the top of the flashlight. Rest the egg on your finger and thumb, allowing the light to shine up through the egg. It is a bit difficult to see in the picture below due to lighting but if you look carefully you can see how I am holding the egg with my forefinger and thumb while using them to seal the light in. If you are using a non-LED flashlight for this method be careful about the temperature of the bulb as standard flashlight bulbs can get very hot. For periodic hobby hatching I recommend the flashlight method, just be careful not to drop the egg. For the more frequent hatcher, adding the OvaScope or a similar product will be very handy and well worth the investment.
Lock Down Phase
It’s day 19. Time for full lock down of the incubator. It is at this period in nature that the hen will sit on the eggs without getting up for even bathroom breaks. She will remain on the eggs until they hatch, making sure that the eggs have the optimal temperature and humidity but not moving off of them. You must mimic this part of nature with your incubator. Before lock down begins, make sure that the water reservoirs in the incubator are at the recommended levels. It is at this time that you will want to put some type of non-skid mat in the bottom of the incubator. I use the little non-skid drawer and cabinet material from the dollar store, cut to fit the bottom of my incubators. This is important in any incubator with an even slightly slick surface. If you do not, your new chicks could develop spraddle leg which will need to be corrected. Once the incubator enters lock down phase, it is very important that you not open it again except for an emergency. Humidity levels are absolutely crucial to the ability of the chick to get out of the shell and even a slight dip can result in a chick getting stuck in the shell and requiring assistance which lowers the survivability level of the chick and all the other eggs. The only time I would risk opening the incubator during lockdown phase is if one of the chicks died or one required assistance to give it a chance at survival (which I will address in a moment). Leaving a deceased chick in the incubator could allow bacteria to be introduced into the other eggs or onto the other hatched chicks resulting in additional fatalities. Once the first chick pips through the egg then you know you are into the final 24 hours of hatching.
The final day is here! So exciting. The anticipation that has been building for the last 20 days or so is absolutely ready to break you. You’ve noticed the first tiny crack appear in the first egg and you haven’t walked away from the incubator for hours now. You leave for a quick bathroom break and when you come back, low and behold, another egg has piped! We have found that the “watched pot never boils” saying applies quite accurately to hatching eggs. Our first time hatching we waited by the incubator, and waited, and waited, and waited some more. It seemed like every time we left the room for a brief moment another chick would pip. I don’t know if it was simply psychological, or if the noises we made while in the room that prevented the chicks from piping, but we finally gave up and left the room with just occasional peeks to see how they were progressing. So how long exactly does it take a chick to hatch after the initial piping and should I help them get out? When should I jump in and assist?
Emergency Assistance During Hatching
Chicks can take much longer to hatch than you may think so don’t jump the gun and assume that a chick requires assistance. It is reasonable for the chick to take between 12-24 hours to completely break free of the shell after the first pip. After 12 hours have elapsed the chick should be showing progress in continuing to break the shell. If they are not, then they may require assistance. However, as we have previously discussed, opening the incubator, even for a brief moment, could potentially cause problems for the remaining chicks. Deciding to intervene on the behalf of a hatching chick is a personal decision that you must make, weighing the risks against the reward. We have had to intervene before with one of our chicks and we managed to have a successful hatch with no further complications but it very well could have resulted in additional problems and we had to be prepared for that outcome. Should you decide to assist a chick in hatching you need to quickly remove the chick from the incubator, minimizing the amount of time that it is open. Holding the egg in one hand you need to work methodically and quickly to remove the little pieces of the shell without injuring the chick. If you notice any bleeding you must stop. Assisting a chick in hatching can result in severing a blood vessel and killing the chick.
Prior to hatching, a chick absorbs the yolk and all of the blood in the membrane. If this is not completed the chick will not survive. The chick that we assisted in hatching was not completely done with this process and so the part of the shell that we removed allowed him plenty of room to breath and move. The bottom half of the shell that was still attached to the chick was left alone, the chick was placed back into the incubator. By the next morning the chick had finished absorbing what it needed and the remaining part of the shell had fallen off. The chick remained healthy and survived to be our gorgeous Lavender Orpington rooster.
The final 24 Hours
Now that all of your chicks are hatched it’s time to move them to the brooder, right? Not so fast. We still aren’t there yet. The chicks need to remain in the incubator at the very least until they are completely dry and fluffy. However, the chicks will be just fine staying in the incubator for 24 hours. What about food and water? Surely they need to be removed quicker than that so that they can eat and drink, right? That is the purpose of the chick absorbing the yolk just prior to hatching. The yolk will provide the new chick with all the nutrients it needs to survive for the next 24 hours no problem. They will roam around in the incubator, chirping and flopping around like any newborn animal. They will be wobbly and weak. They will chirp, flop for a moment and then rest. You might even think there is something wrong with the chick but rest assured this is perfectly normal. The chicks moving around and chirping will encourage the remaining chicks to hatch. Think of it as a tiny, newborn cheerleading squad.
Finally, the chicks are dry and ready to move to their brooding area. If you need help trying to decide how to set up your brooding area, make sure that you check out our post on Creating a Brooding Area. Warm the brooder in advance so that the chicks can go straight from the incubator to the brooder. They will gather together and just bask in the warmth. Soon enough they will be exploring their surroundings, eating, drinking, and learning all sorts of fun, new chicken things. Enjoy your new chicks. Have a great day and God bless!