Hatching Chicks in an Incubator 101
No doubt this process can seem daunting and confusing all at the same time. I hope to break through some of the scary and confusing parts of hatching your very own chicken eggs in an incubator!
You might be asking yourself, why do this process at all? Why not let nature do it for us by using a broody hen? Great question! And while that is an excellent option, hatching eggs that have been hand selected in an incubator has many perks.
I just mentioned one! You can hand select the eggs you want to set to hatch. This can improve genetics, eggshell color and you can hatch the breeds you want to add more of! You control the hatch dates, so time is on your side as well. No more guessing when the eggs under your broody hen will hatch. You have the ability to prepare and you’re better set up for success that way!
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here and start from the beginning. First you should do some research and pick out an incubator that best suites your needs. I use a Harris Farms Nurture Right 360 Incubator and love it! It’s perfect for most all backyard chicken keepers. Bonus, it has a built in candler! Once you have your incubator picked out, before setting it up you will need to make sure you have the hatching eggs picked out that you want to go in the incubator! There are many ways to source hatching eggs. You can select them right from your coop if you have a rooster with your hens, you can purchase from a reputable local farm, or you can buy hatching eggs from a hatchery and have them shipped to your local post! All of these options are suitable, but my biggest advice offering if this is your first time is to source locally so that they eggs have an easier route right to the incubator! It goes without saying you want to choose clean and well-sized eggs for the best hatch.
Now, lets set up your incubator! No matter what incubator you choose, there will be instructions. I have found that a spare bathroom in my home is the best place to hatch. You want to set up your incubator out of direct sunlight and in a non-drafty location. Chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch. When collecting your eggs to set for hatch, even if they were laid on separate days that is okay! The incubation process or the chick development doesn’t begin until that little egg goes in the incubator.
For hatching chicken eggs, the basics you’ll want to remember are this. He temperature should be 99.5 and you’ll want your humidity around 40-55% for the first 18 days, and then you’ll increase your humidity to about 60% in lockdown! More to come on that but remember those numbers!
Okay, now here is a little bit of science surrounding incubation and the schedule you’ll want to follow. Like I said above chicken eggs take 21 days or 3 weeks to hatch. Most of your commercial incubators will come with pre-set temperature gauges, and you just have to add water to the reservoir to achieve the correct humidity for the time frame. My best advice for this is to set your incubator up 24 hours in advance and get those things regulated. When you add eggs it will fluctuate!! Don’t panic, it will balance back out to the settings you had before adding the hatching eggs, and you have the ability to make some minor tweaks if need be. The other thing most incubators come with is an automatic egg rocker/turner. Set it and forget about it until day 18, then you must unplug it, remove it and set the eggs down on the floor of the incubator! If the incubator doesn’t have an automatic turner, you become that automatic turner and you’ll need to turn the eggs at least 3 times a day, 5 is best. Be sure to mark with a pencil on the egg the different sides. I use an X and O.
The reason for the eggs needing to be turned is the scientific part here. In simple terms this prevents the developing chick from sticking to the shell inside the egg! We don’t want that! In more detailed terms, the developing chick or the embryo should be resting on top of the yolk. You’ll notice (you will see when you candle) that the yolk floats upwards and sits on top of the egg white inside the shell. If we don’t turn the eggs, the chick developing inside the egg will get stuck between the yolk and the shell; leading to a fatality or no development at all!
So, now that we covered all of that! Turn your incubator on, set those eggs and wait and see!
On day 18, we call that “lockdown”. No more egg turning, that’s when you raise your humidity and don’t you dare open that lid to check them out anymore. If you want to do one last candle, you can at that time and then we wait! You might notice some ricking of the eggs and sometimes you can even hear the chicks cheeping inside the eggs!
On hatch day, day 21, don’t become worried if you don’t see any activity yet. A chick can take up to 24 hours to hatch! You first have the internal pip; we don’t see this part on the outside of the egg. The internal pip takes place usually around day 19-20. Which again is why we stop turning before that and let that chick get into position. This is where the embryo separates the egg contents from the air cells and they begin respiration. Then we have the external pip, the tiny little first crack on the outside of the shell. This is always so exciting. Most often the external pip happens on the round end of the eggshell and from there the chick will work its way around, we call this unzipping. This is the process that can take a day or so, be patient! Be sure in this time to not open up the incubator lid, even if you have some that have fully hatched already. If you do so and you have a chick in the middle of hatching, you can vacuum seal the hatching chick to its shell and it would be fatal.
Baby chicks (ducks, geese) are fine in the incubator for a day or two with no worries!
You can be getting your chick brooder ready during this time if you haven’t already!
Hatching chicks takes a great deal of patience but it is so worth it, trust me!