Although nothing beats the magic of a mother hen incubating and hatching a clutch of eggs, the incubator can produce its own magical clutch of chicks without the risks of natural brooding. Around my farm, the placing of eggs in the incubator is one of our first rites of Spring. I look forward to the soft whir of the incubator fan with all its promise of little precious fuzzy chicks!
Incubation of eggs is really very easy. In order to develop to hatching, eggs need warmth, air, movement, and humidity. An incubator provides the warmth – about 100-101 degrees F. Most incubators also come with a fan for keeping air moving over and around the eggs.
You can buy ‘hatching eggs’ for your incubator, or if you have a rooster, and thus fertile eggs, you can put eggs from your own chickens into your incubator. Mixed breed chickens are fun and usually very strong and healthy.
When we want to breed pure bred chickens, we place the rooster with hens of the same breed in a separated area from the other breeds of chickens we have. If you have more than one breed of rooster, wait 3 weeks before you start collecting eggs for your incubator from this separated enclosure, as sperm can survive inside the hens for 2-3 weeks. Once the 3 weeks have passed, you can then be assured that the hens will be producing purebred eggs.
Start up your incubator so it gets nice and warm about 9-12 hours before adding the eggs. Put all the eggs you want to hatch into the incubator at the same time. Depending on how many hens you have, it can take some time to gather up a brood of eggs. Keep the eggs you will want to hatch at room temperature until you have enough collected to put them in the incubator.
Once the eggs go into the incubator, and thus warm up to 100 degrees F, they will take 21 days to hatch. Although most incubators are set to keep the right temperature – I put an extra thermometer in the incubator as a double check.
I also put a hygrometer, which measures humidity, in with the eggs as well. Humidity is very important and must be monitored – for the first 18 days, you want to keep it between 45 and 50% humidity; after the 18th day, raising the humidity to about 65% is recommended. Various types of incubators have different means for adjusting the humidity, but in general it is a very simple process of either adding or decreasing water within the incubator. Always use warm water so you don’t cool the incubator too much. In last couple days, I usually add a wet washcloth to one side to increase the humidity to the 65%.
When a hen broods her eggs, she moves the eggs around quite a bit. Many incubators come with automatic egg turners, which will mimic the necessary movement. I usually turn the eggs myself though. I feel like I am starting the bonding process, and I like to move them in different ways rather than in the same direction every time. One important tip is to put some sort of penciled marking on one side of each egg so you can keep track of which ones were turned! And don’t just turn the eggs over, move them around the incubator space as well. At day 19, you should stop turning and moving the eggs.
The 21 days go by fast! I always mark in my calendar the day I put the eggs in, the 18th day when I stop turning and raise the humidity, and the hatching date.
In the final days, you don’t want to open the incubator very much, even though you may be really excited. The chicks have to do this all on their own. At around 20 days, you will start to see pip marks on the eggshells from the chicks pecking the shell from the inside, and you may hear peeping from inside the eggs. The chicks may peck a tiny hole in the shell and then take a break for hours. The whole hatching process can take a long time, and you have to be patient and wait. Don’t try to help the chicks get out of the eggs – the whole process is an important part of their physical development.
They can stay in the incubator overnight or for a day after hatching. Some of the earlier ones may seem to be jostling the ones still trying to hatch out, but that movement is encouraging to the ones still hatching even if it seems bothersome. When about half of the chicks are out of the eggs and dry, I usually open the incubator and take the dry ones out and put them immediately under a heat lamp in a protected brooder. After the next half are dry, they can be added to the brooder. Incubating eggs and watching the chicks hatch out never ceases to thrill and amaze me! Happy incubating!