Hatching Chicken Eggs Using Incubators

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This week in our “Basics” series, we’ll talk about chicken egg incubators and what type would work best for you. There are incubators available for sale that will handle whatever needs or future plans you may have. They can handle anywhere from a few eggs up to 75,000. There are kerosene or oil models available but most models are run on electricity. Each model runs a little differently so it is important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully…

There are basically two types of incubators available; forced-air and still-air.

A forced air incubator is large and has a fan to circulate air around the eggs. Large commercial hatcheries use this kind but many home hatchers prefer this model as well, on a much smaller scale of course. Forced-air incubators cost more but they give you better control of the environment within the incubator and therefore give you a higher hatch percentage.

Still-air incubators are smaller and less expensive but rely on gravity to circulate the air inside. The incubator will have air vents on the top of two sides and on the bottom of the other two sides. The stale warm air rises to the top and escapes from the upper vents while fresh cool air comes in from the vents at the bottom. You can have decent hatch ratios if you get things just right inside a still-air incubator but plan on there being a “learning curve” as you perfect the use of this model.

The cheapest models of still-air incubators are poorly insulated and do not have a thermostat. In my opinion they are not worth the cost. You’d be better off investing a little more to get a better model. It can be very frustrating when you first try to hatch your own eggs to have a very low hatch percentage. It takes a little while to get comfortable with the process, and set yourself up for success.

Whatever type of incubator you choose, the eggs will need to be turned at regular intervals.

If you do not turn the eggs regularly and properly, you could end up with deformed or crippled chicks, the chick could die before it hatches, or it might not be able to hatch out properly. The reason for the later is that the chick will stick to the surrounding membrane if it stays in one position too long.

Eggs must be turned throughout the day from the 2nd through to the 18th day.

Like most things, you can get fancy or stick with the basics.

If you can be home to turn the eggs yourself a minimum of 3 to 5 times a day, a model with a basic tray is fine. The next step up would be a model that has a mechanism that you trigger to turn the eggs. Finally, there are models that turn the eggs automatically. Of course they are the most expensive but they allow you more freedom because you don’t have to be home.

A word of caution here, in models that use rollers to turn the eggs, it is more likely some of the eggs will get cracked.

For continuous settings, meaning you have some eggs to set, others that are somewhere within the 21 day incubation period, and other eggs about to hatch, it’s important to use different incubators. You’ll need one for eggs incubated less than 18 days and another to hatch the eggs in because the humidity setting changes at day 18.

Ideally, you will have your incubator 1 week or so before you set your eggs. During this time, you’ll need to first determine where you will place the unit. Your incubator should be kept inside where you can regulate the surrounding temperature. Place the unit out of direct sunlight and in a draft free area.

The room also needs to have a constant supply of fresh air. Oxygen enters and carbon dioxide escapes through the shell of the developing chick. As the chick grows, its requirements for oxygen increase. A hot and stuffy room will affect your hatch percentages.

If the incubator has been previously used, it must be sanitized. Use a solution of 20 drops bleach per quart of water to thoroughly clean the inside of the unit, then rinse well with water. It’s not a bad idea to clean a new unit in the same way as well.

Next week we’ll move onto temperature and humidity within the incubator, these are the two most important factors in your success, or lack of, when it comes to hatching your own chicks.

Whether you're a complete beginner and don't know where to start, or you're a seasoned chicken keeping professional and just want practical "how to" advice on tap our guide to keeping chickens has got you covered...

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