If you are looking to grow your backyard flock of chickens, then hatching eggs at home is the perfect solution! Hatching chicken eggs takes 21 days and requires an incubator. An incubator is an artificial method for hatching eggs without a hen. It provides the eggs with the conditions of a brooding hen, including the proper temperature, humidity, and ventilation levels.
Here are some step-by-step instructions for successfully incubating chicken eggs:
It is best to get fertilized eggs from a local farmer or use your own chicken eggs (if you already have a flock with a rooster). Never use eggs from a grocery store as they are not fertile and will not hatch. Choose eggs that are not cracked, are normal in size, and evenly shaped. Do not wash the eggs as this removes the protective coating and can let bacteria into the shell.
You can also order fertilized eggs through the mail. Mail-order eggs are usually the 2nd best choice because they can get damaged in transit and tend to yield a lower hatch-rate. If you obtain the eggs through the mail, let them settle for 24 hours prior to incubating.
When storing your fertile eggs before incubation, they should be stored at room temperature. Store them in a cardboard egg carton with the pointy side down.
Sanitation is highly important because diseases can be transferred through the eggshell to the chicken embryo. Carefully wipe or vacuum off any visible debris from all the surfaces of the incubator. Then wipe down all surfaces with a clean cloth and allow the incubator to air dry thoroughly before plugging it in for use.
Place the incubator on a level and sturdy surface out of direct sunlight, in a room that keeps a consistent temperature. Each incubator has its own variables in order to set the correct humidity and temperature so be sure and check the user manual. Test your incubator for humidity and temperature prior to setting your eggs. Ideal temperature and humidity levels for chicken eggs can be found below.
Wash your hands whenever handling the eggs. This will keep any bacteria from potentially transferring to the eggs or their environment. It is ideal to set your eggs in the incubator when they are no more than 7 days old. When setting them in the incubator they should be placed horizontal with large end slightly more elevated than the pointy end.
Log and track the date you place your eggs in the incubator and the day you need to start the lock down period, which is on day 18 for chicken eggs. Each day is considered a 24-hour period. For example, if you place the eggs in the incubator at 8pm, you will put them on lockdown at 8pm on the 18th day.
Having the correct temperature for incubation is very important. If the temperature is too high or low, the embryos may die or become deformed, and the eggs will not hatch properly.
Chicken eggs need to be incubated at a temperature of 37.9°C (99.5°F). Adjust the temperature control on the incubator to 37.9°C (99.5°F) and do not set the eggs for incubation unless the temperature reads out +/- .5° from that degree.
If your incubator does not have a thermometer, or you would like to check and calibrate for accuracy, a separate thermometer is needed. Please note that average household thermometers (especially digital) are not very specific. They can have an accuracy range of +/- 3° or 4°. You will need a good thermometer to guarantee accuracy. If your eggs start to hatch before the 19th day it means your temperature was set a little too high. If they hatch after the 21st day, it means the temp was set a little too low.
When incubating chicken eggs, the humidity should average around 55-70% throughout the incubation period. If the humidity gets too low, the embryos could stick to the side of the eggshell. If the humidity is too high, the embryos could drown. During the first few days, it’s OK if the humidity is slightly lower (40-50%). During the last 3 days of incubation, known as the “lockdown” period, the humidity level should be increased to stay around 70-85%. In order to increase or decrease humidity levels, follow the instructions that come with your particular incubator.
A hygrometer is a device the measures the amount of humidity in the air. If your incubator does not have a gauge and you would like to check the humidity inside your incubator, you can place a small hygrometer inside. Please note that small household hygrometers are not very specific. They can have an accuracy range of +/- 8° so don’t worry if the humidity readout is not exactly where you want it. As long as it’s close you will be ok.
If you are using an auto-turning egg incubator, then the job is done! If you are turning them by hand, the eggs must be gently turned and moved at least 3 times daily. Be especially careful during the first week as this is when the embryos are most fragile. It may be helpful to put a unique mark on either side of the egg using a pencil. This will help you determine which eggs have been turned. Always wash your hands before and after handling the eggs.
The last 3 days before the egg hatches is known as the lockdown period. This is the stage where the chick will move into its final hatching position. Stop turning and rotating the eggs at this point. If you are manually turning the eggs, just stop moving them. If you are using an automatic egg turner, remove them from the turning tray and place them on the hatching tray. Increase the humidity level in the incubator so it stays at a level between 70-85%.
Try not to open the incubator during the lockdown period (unless you are adding water to sustain humidity).
Around day 20 the chick will move into the proper position for hatching. The first sign will be small crack or “pip” on the shell. It may take an additional 12-24 hours from when the chick starts pipping until they are fully out of the shell. Although it will be tempting, do not interfere or help the chick out of the shell. It may look like they need help, but they must get themselves out on their own.
Once hatched, they can stay in the incubator for another 24-48 hours, just enough time to dry off. Don’t worry, for nutrition they will survive on the nutrients they have absorbed from the yolk during the hatching process. After 12 hours, you may also put a little cap of water inside the incubator and help them dip their beak in just one time to show them how to drink. Don’t put a bowl of water otherwise they may drown. Once they are dry and fluffy, move them to a warm brooder. What is a brooder? Here is an article talking about the different supplies you will need after the chicken hatches.
Once you move the baby chicks to their brooder remove the empty shells from the incubator and thoroughly clean it. Once the incubator is clean and dry, you can start incubating the next batch of eggs!
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