Thinking of incubating your own chicken eggs? Here are some tips for success…
There are a number of reasons why you may consider incubating your own eggs. Perhaps you want to hatch some chicks, but you can’t get a hen to go broody – or your broody hen decided to abandon her nest. Or you’re starting your chicken flock from scratch, and you want to be involved in the whole process from start to finish – or save money on purchasing already-hatched chicks. Whatever the reason, it is certainly possible to incubate your own chicken eggs with just a bit of work and some special equipment.
You will, of course, need an incubator to get started. It is possible to build your own incubator, but that’s a lot of work, and you may end up spending as much as you would just purchasing one of the more affordable incubators, which start around $50-$60.
However you decide to acquire your incubator, you will need it to do accomplish 3 things, according to ModernFarmer.com:
Temperature: The eggs need to be kept at 99.5 degrees at all times; just one degree higher or lower for a few hours can terminate the embryo.
Humidity: 40 to 50 percent humidity must be maintained for the first 18 days; 65 to 75 percent humidity is needed for the final days before hatching.
Ventilation: Egg shells are porous, allowing oxygen to enter and carbon dioxide to exit; incubators need to have holes or vents that allow fresh air to circulate so the fetuses can breathe.
A high-quality thermometer and hygrometer (a device to measure humidity) are the most important tools of incubation; cheap models are usually not accurate enough. If you’re not working with an incubator that has these instruments built in, opt for a combo thermometer/hygrometer with an external display. These have a sensor that goes inside the incubator with an LED screen on the outside that shows the temperature and humidity readings without having to open the incubator and ruin your carefully calibrated environment.
One time-saving feature is a device to rotate the eggs automatically. Much of the fussing that a hen does over her eggs comes from an evolutionary instinct to constantly move them about. The finely tuned ecosystem inside a chicken egg is kept in balance by constantly changing the position of the egg. High-end incubators have a built-in egg turning device, but there are also standalone egg turners that can be placed inside a homemade incubator to do the job. Or, you can rotate manually according to the instructions below.
The next thing you will need to do is find a good source of fertile eggs. Your own coop is the best source, assuming you have a rooster in your flock, but you can also find fertilized eggs to purchase on Craigslist or through a local farmer. Buying eggs online is iffy, as the delicate embryos can become damaged during shipping. The closer to home you can source your eggs, the better, and the sooner you can get them into the incubator, the better. If you do need to store them, you can keep them in egg cartons for up to 10 days at temperatures between 50-60 degrees, and 75% humidity. Just make sure to store them with the fat end of the egg up, handle them very gently, and NEVER wash them!
Once you have your eggs and your incubator set up, you’re ready to go!
Before placing your eggs inside, you will want to test your incubator to make sure everything is working properly. Turn it on, and closely monitor the heat and humidity inside for 24 hours. Adjust as needed to achieve the optimal environmental conditions as described above.
Once you’ve verified that everything is ready, place your eggs inside, and keep a close eye on everything for the next 21 days. Add water as needed to keep the humidity levels correct. You will also need to add extra water to boost the humidity at day 18, when the chicks should be getting ready to hatch.
If your incubator does not have an egg turner and you are going to turn them manually, Modern Farmer recommends this method:
- Draw an ‘X’ on one side of the egg and an ‘O’ on the other to keep track of which eggs have been turned.
- At least three times a day, gently turn the eggs over; more frequent turning is even better, but the number of turns per day should be odd (3,5,7 etc.) so that the eggs are never resting on the same side for two consecutive nights. Experts also recommend alternating the direction of turning each time—the goal is to vary the position of the embryo as much as possible.
- Continue turning until day 18, but then leave the eggs alone for the last few days.
Around day 21, you should experience the excitement of watching your eggs hatch! Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
In the final days before hatching. the eggs may be observed shifting about on their own as the fetus becomes active. The chick will eventually peck a small hole in the large end of the egg and take its first breath. It is normal at this point for the chick to rest for six to 12 hours while its lungs adjust before continuing to hatch. Resist the urge to help with the hatching process—it’s easy to cause injury!
Once each chick has finished freeing itself from the egg, leave it in the incubator to dry, and then move it to your prepared brooder, where you will then need to tend to your new baby chicks carefully for the first few weeks until they get large enough to move outside.
Incubating your own chicken eggs is a fair amount of work, but it’s also a lot of fun, and few things beat the excitement of watching your first chick emerge from the shell! Just be sure to follow the tips and cautions above for a successful hatching experience. (You can also find answers to some commonly asked questions on incubating eggs here.)