If you’re looking to increase your flock by adding new chicks, you may want to know how to incubate eggs. Incubating your own eggs is a way to inexpensively increase your flock. I raise heritage breed poultry because we practice natural selection. We’ve found the chicks hatched and raised by their mom’s are better birds. However, some people prefer incubating their own and that’s just fine. Knowing how to incubate eggs properly is essential to those who choose to do it.
Many of those who raise heritage breeds choose to incubate eggs instead of setting a hen. The joy they receive from watching the chicks hatch is important to them, after all a hen will not let you get too close!
Incubators can be purchased or you can make our own. They range in size from holding a dozen eggs to holding thousands. Making your own incubator is a bit tricky, but I know many people who do it. You can incubate eggs from your own flock, fertilized of course or you can purchase them from a local farmer or farm supply. Even if you order them, they are much cheaper than chicks.
You can expect a hatch rate of about 70%, but more than that is not uncommon. I have a friend who recently lost their incubated eggs due to power failure following a storm. There are a few nonelectric models available, but most of them run on electricity. A backup power source is a good idea.
Be sure you read the instructions that come with the incubator you choose. I know we don’t like to do that, but it’s important to familiarize yourself with the workings of your incubator as each is a little different. It’s universally known to run your incubator for at least 3 days before you add eggs to it. This is just so you can determine any problems without risking the life of your eggs. It’s especially important to be sure the incubator is keeping the correct temperature and humidity level for the type of eggs you’ve chosen to incubate.
How warm should it be?
A brooding temp of 99.75 degrees is universal among chicken breeds. You won’t be surprised to know it’s the exact temp under a mother hen! There have been some odd ways of hatching chicks which aren’t reliable and have low hatching rates. Some old-timers were know to wrap fertilized eggs in cloth and place them in a bucket beside the wood stove in an effort to hatch them. Some people have used light bulbs as a heat source. They suspended the bulb directly over the top of the bucket of wrapped eggs.
Making your own
The most important part of making your own incubator is consistently maintaining the proper temperature. I’ve know people to use cardboard boxes, wood, or even styrofoam to make their own incubator. The size of your incubator should be at least 11 inches high, 11 inches wide, and 16 inches long. A see through top hinged door will allow for easy access and visibility of the eggs and the thermometer. Opening the incubator should be avoided to prevent heat loss.
Your incubator will have to be well ventilated. Put holes at the top of two sides and at the bottom of the ends to allow for good air circulation. A wire mesh bottom, fastened 2 inches above of the bottom of the incubator will leave room for a pan of water to be slid under it. This will provide the necessary humidity. I have to tell you the hatch rate of homemade incubators is 50% or less because it’s tricky to maintain proper humidity and heat consistently. I don’t mean to discourage you. Some people have higher success rates than others.
A wet bulb thermometer is used to measure humidity. You can find these at any farm supply and maybe even a hardware store. Most incubators include them. 85% humidity is ideal. During the last week of incubation the humidity level should be raised to 90%.
The incubator should be housed in a well ventilated, temperature controlled room. Avoid placing it in direct sunlight, next to a heat source, or in a drafty spot. Any time your eggs get over 103 degrees F, your undeveloped chicks will die.
if you make your own incubator, you’ll have to turn the eggs yourself. If I were to get an incubator, I’d get one that turns the eggs for you! They may cost more, but I wouldn’t want to have to remember when it’s time to turn them or to be strapped to monitoring them so closely.
Start turning your eggs on day 2 of incubation. If you don’t turn the eggs regularly, you’ll have chicks which die from not hatching properly and from deformity during development. The mother hen turns her eggs instinctively. You’ll need to turn each egg a quarter turn to halfway around at least three times a day. Turning them more often will cut down the risk of losing some from their staying in one position all night while you sleep.
Placing a mark on each egg will help you keep track of which way you last turned them. You should never use anything but a pencil or non-toxic material to write on your eggs. The shells are semi-permeable and what you use to write with can be leeched into the egg, possibly harming the developing chick.
Starting on day 10, turn the eggs so the larger end is facing straight up or to the side pointing up. This is important because the chick is beginning to lengthen in the egg and it’s head will develop in whatever end is up. The larger end is it’s natural place of development.
On day 19, stop turning the eggs. It takes 21 days for a chicken to hatch. The mama hen will stop turning them and talk to them in low chattels as she listens for them to peck and chirp. I’ve been able to hear the little cheeps when I’ve checked on my setting hens. Even after 35+ years, I still get excited!
Someone asked me why you have to place them in a certain position when they’ve seen them in other positions under their hens. That’s a good question. The answer is simple. A mother hen does what we cannot do. She’s with them all the time. Constantly turning and repositioning the eggs underneath her. Just because we don’t witness it, doesn’t mean she’s not doing it.
I know it’s hard, but don’t help the chick out of the shell! It can take several hours up to a couple of days for the chicks to completely hatch. A freshly hatched chick will be wet and tired. Rushing the process can harm them as they are busy drawing the last of the yolk into their bodies so they have something to live off of the first three days of life.
A freshly hatched chick may appear sick, but don’t worry. Give him some time. It will hobble around and may even appear disoriented, probably because it is. Let the chicks dry and gain some strength. Soon enough they’ll look fluffy and cute.
If you’re hatching something other than chickens, don’t worry. While the basics are the same, every incubator comes with directions for how to incubate eggs of various poultry. You can read more about incubating chicken eggs on Countryside Daily blog.
Do you prefer to incubate eggs or let your mama birds do it? Do you have incubation experience you can share with us?
Safe and Happy Journey,
Rhonda and The Pack