When we first got our incubator three years ago, we were so excited and could hardly wait to use it. When we got home we grabbed the first two fresh eggs we could gather and stuck them straight into the styrofoam contraption. We figured we’d just add eggs as we got them, until we had as many as we wanted to hatch out. Fortunately for us, some of you quickly corrected me and advised that we collect eggs first, and then put them into the incubator all together at the same time. I quickly realized the wisdom in this, as we wouldn’t want some chicks hatching out sooner than others, disturbing the unhatched eggs.
Learning how to properly hatch chicks in an incubator before attempting it is vital to your success. A 100% hatch rate is nearly impossible to get without fancy gadgets and expensive equipment, but you can still reach a 75-80% hatch success if you follow a few simple guidelines. Still, don’t expect too much. There are a lot of factors that play into how well your chicks develop.
Hatching eggs in an incubator requires that you be willing to commit several weeks of your time and attention to your growing chicks. Be sure to start the process at a time when you will consistently be available to tend to the eggs and incubator for about a month, depending on what you’re hatching.
Estimated Days for Hatching (always add at least 3 additional days for any possible stragglers):
- Chicken- 21 days
- Bobwhite Quail- 23 days
- Cortunix Quail- 17-18 days
- Pheasant- 23-28 days
- Chukar- 22-24 days
- Turkey- 28 days
- Duck- 28 days
- Goose- 28-34 days
- Guinea- 28 days
The eggs are everything. If you don’t start with the right kind of eggs, you won’t get chicks. Eggs for hatching must be…
- Fresh. No older than 14 days; 7 days or less for best results.
- Fertilized. The hens must be accessed by a rooster. If there is no rooster, the eggs are not fertilized and there will be no chicks.
- Faultless. Make double sure that there aren’t any hairline cracks or chips in the shell.
- Unwashed. The outer protective layer on the shell, called the “bloom”, must not be washed off. This will ensure that no bacteria gets through the porous shell to the growing chick inside.
There are many types of incubators on the market, in all price ranges. We bought our ‘still air’ incubator from Tractor Supply for like $50. Incubators are also available on Amazon for about the same price. The egg turner was another $50-ish, and was well worth the additional investment. So much of the chick’s proper development hinges on how it is turned and rotated during the incubation period.
How To Have A Successful Hatch
Like I mentioned above, you’ll need fertilized eggs, so if you don’t have a rooster you will not get chicks. If you do have a rooster, and have seen him mount your hens, then you can assume that the eggs are probably fertilized. You’ll be able to check for positive fertilization later on in the process.
Some say for the best hatching success, your birds should not be eating a laying mash. Rather, a free-range diet with lots of greens and protein, and very little grain, is best. There is also a “breeders ration” feed that you can buy if you need to. However, it has been my experience that it doesn’t matter if your hens are being fed laying mash, you can still have a successful hatch. (We feed ours fresh greens, table scraps, laying mash, and corn.) If your hens are very young, and have just begun laying, give them several weeks before collecting their eggs for incubation.
When gathering your eggs, make sure to handle them fairly gently. Carry the egg on its side, or with the egg’s large end up and pointy side down so as not to cause the air cell inside to rupture. You needn’t be overly cautious with the eggs, just keep these tips in mind. Don’t wash the eggs. And try not to handle them too much, you want to limit the shell’s exposure to bacteria.
Try not to use very dirty eggs. If the eggs do have some dirt/poop on them, use a dry old toothbrush or something similar to brush the shell clean. It’s important that the eggs don’t have stuff stuck all over the shell, which would cause difficulty for the chick to peck through during the hatching process.
You can collect eggs for up to two weeks before incubating, but using them within a week is best. Keep them somewhere cool (around 60-70*) if possible. The fridge is too cold, so don’t keep them there. If you want to write the date the egg was laid on the shell so that you know how old the egg is, make sure you use a pencil and not an ink pen. If you have very cold nights, collect your eggs before they are exposed to the low temperatures.
The Day Before You Begin: Warm Up The Incubator
24 hours before you’re ready to fill the incubator with eggs, plug it in and do a test run to make sure that it can hold the correct temperature steadily. You’ll need a thermometer so that you know the internal temperature of the incubator at all times. Gradually adjust the heat on your unit until it holds steady at the desired temperature, and make sure it maintains that temperature for at least 6 hours before filling it with eggs. I like to run it overnight just to be sure.
Chickens, Bobwhite Quail, Pheasants, Ducks, and Guineas all need a 99.5*F hatching temperature. Goose and Turkey eggs should be at 99*F.
Fill Her Up!
Once you’ve kept a steady temperature for at least half a day, you’re ready to fill the incubator up. If you have an egg turner to go in your incubator, fill the trays with the desired amount of eggs. My turner holds 41 eggs. Make sure you put all of the eggs in at the same time. If you need to add more eggs the very next day, you may do so, but don’t add any more eggs after that second day. You want your chicks to hatch out at the same time, not staggered. Place the eggs small side down into the egg turner.
Egg turners rotate very slowly. It will probably look like the turner isn’t doing anything, but after several hours you should notice the eggs at a different angle.
If you do not have an egg turner, place the eggs on their side on the wire floor of the incubator. You will need to rotate the eggs by hand 2-3 times per day so that the chicks form properly. Rotating is not optional if you want your chicks to survive. Simply roll the egg gently to its other side to rotate. You might want to mark one side of the egg with an “X”, and the other side with an “O”, in pencil, so that you know which way to rotate it next time around. Be careful not to shake or jar the eggs. Turn until three days before the scheduled hatching date.
Do not put any eggs too close to the egg turner motor (keep about an egg’s distance away). I’d highly recommend an egg turner. Rotating by hand 2-3 times per day, for 3-4 weeks is extremely time consuming.
Your incubator needs to hold some humidity to ensure that the growing chicks don’t get stuck to the inside of the shell, so make sure you have a little water in the bottom of it. Each model probably differs slightly. Mine has little troughs in the bottom to fill with water. Keep an eye on it daily, and add lukewarm water as needed. Do not add cold water to the incubator, as this can bring the internal temperature down.
Watch The Temperature
Lay the thermometer across the top of the eggs for the most accurate reading.
Mark Your Calendar!
Make sure to write down the day you put the eggs into the incubator, so you have an idea of the expected hatching date.
Check the temperature every day to make sure it is staying constant. Also make sure there is water in the incubator. I’ve found that with my incubator it can be tricky to add water to the bottom when it is full of eggs, especially when you are using a turner. Gently lift the turner full of eggs, and pour lukewarm water into the troughs in the bottom of the machine. You may need to have somebody help you hold the turner up while you pour the water in. (Design flaw, in my opinion.)
Also, if you are rotating the eggs manually, don’t forget to do this three times a day. Scheduling to do it at meal times is a good way to help you remember when to rotate.
Any Chicks In There?
If you’re like me, you’ll be dying to know if there is in fact a chick in there or not. You can find out by using a process called candling. Candling is pretty much done by shining a light through the egg to check for fertility. You can buy expensive candling equipment, you can make your own setup using a shoebox and a flashlight, or you can simply hold the egg and shine a light through the bottom of it, like this…
You can test fertility through candling as early as the 3rd or 4th day of incubation, however, I find it easier to wait until 2 weeks, by which time the chick will be formed enough to see for sure. At about the 14th day of incubation, I take my eggs out of the incubator, one at a time, and bring them to the darkest room in my house. Forming my hand around the base of the egg, as shown, I shine the flashlight up through the bottom of the egg. If the light passes through it, I know the egg was not fertilized and I can toss it out. If it is dark, then that means that at least a chick has begun to form. Sometimes chicks die before making it out of the shell, so as they say, Don’t count your chicks before they hatch!
You can candle the eggs at any time during the growing process, just be super careful taking them in and out of the incubator. I wouldn’t recommend taking them out of the incubator more than twice. And don’t leave them out for long, or they will chill. Sometimes you can see the chicks moving inside of the shell, which is always exciting! If you have kids, this is such a great learning experience to share with them.
Three Days Before Hatching
Three days before your expected hatching date, remove the egg turner from the incubator and gently place the eggs on their side on the wire screen in the bottom. If you have been turning them by hand, you can stop doing so now.
Keep that thermometer on top of the eggs and continue watching the temperature, and water/humidity.
The day of the hatch, maybe even the day before, you’ll start hearing peeping from inside the incubator. The chicks are still inside of their shells, but they are actively working to free themselves by pecking from their now cramped quarters. The cheeping will be loud enough to make you think they’ve actually hatched already. It’s such an exciting time!!
It can take several hours for a chick to actually break out of its shell once it has started pecking, so be patient. You may be tempted to “help” a chick that looks like it might be stuck, but don’t ever attempt to remove the shell from a chick. If the membranes look like they’ve dried and stuck to the chick (which can happen due to a lack of humidity), use a medicine dropper to administer a couple of drops of warm water over the membrane to help loosen it. Although, usually when a chick has trouble hatching, it probably will not be formed properly and will be born sickly. In the past, I have tried my best to save chicks having trouble hatching, but I have found through experience that it’s just best to let nature run its course. As hard as that can be sometimes.
It’s a little tricky to take a picture of the chicks through the incubator window, but here’s my best attempt for you! These guys hatched out on April 25th (2013).
Once they’ve hatched, keep the chicks in the incubator until their feathers have completely dried. Once dried, you can remove them and put them into their brooder box. (You might wanna check out my post on Brooder Box Basics to learn everything you need to know about brooding your new baby chicks!)
If you have a lot of broken shells in the incubator, you may remove them while waiting for more chicks to hatch.
Give the unhatched eggs an extra couple of days to hatch, just to be sure. Then toss out the unhatched eggs, and clean your incubator and egg turner thoroughly before storing.
We had 31 out of 41 eggs hatch this time! They’re SO cute, too. These chicks are mixed breeds. We have hens that are Buff Orpingtons, Black Giants, Speckled Sussexes, and Rhode Island Reds. And our rooster is an Americana. Some of these will probably lay blue eggs.
My plan is to sell them all to recover some of the cost of feed for our hens.
Do you have any tips or advice to add on how to hatch chicks in an incubator? Have you tried hatching chicks in an incubator before? I’d love to hear your experience!