Hatching chicks is one of the most rewarding things a person can do. Bringing life into the world from a seemingly lifeless shell. In 21 days, sweet chirps and fuzzy balls pecking at feed is the most delightful experience. All you need are eggs and incubators and you can make something wonderful happen.
If you’re looking for incubators, you have a lot to choose from with plenty of bells and whistles. If you don’t plan to use yours much, I would recommend looking for the basic, which works just as well as the ones that are bold and beautiful. I started with a simple foam incubator that had a knob to control the heat. It worked great. There’s plenty of options on the internet. Try looking for incubator reviews to get a feel for what you think would work for you.
Temperature and Humidity
The temperature when incubating should remain between 99.5 to 100-degree Fahrenheit and depending on your incubator the humidity needs to remain between 40% to 55% until day 18. I find that Thermometer Hygrometer work best for measuring the temperature and humidity. Thermometer Hygrometer combination can usually be found at a low price.
I find that having an egg turner included with the incubator takes all the worry out and adds more fun. If you don’t have an egg turner the eggs will need to be turned until day 18 at least 3 times a day, more is better. The way to keep up with which side to turn is by marking each side of the egg with a nontoxic marker X on one side and 0 on the other. When you turn it write down the time and which side the eggs were last turned.
Test the Incubator
Always check the incubator before putting in your eggs. The things you want to check for is fluctuations in the temperature and humidity. I don’t recommend incubators that are still air, though some people have great success. I have found the hatch rate much higher in incubators that have forced air.
Chicken eggs usually hatch within 21 days, though some may hatch a day or two late after the incubation period began. Incubation does not begin until after the first 24 hours; that’s day one. If you set your eggs on a Saturday, it will usually be a Saturday on day 2
You need to select or purchase clean, well-shaped eggs that are inspected for cracks. You do not want cracked eggs in the incubators. It’s better for your unborn chick if you don’t wash the eggs. The eggs are covered with a nature protective sealant called the bloom that prevents bacteria from entering the safe area inside the shell.
But if you don’t have any other choice than to wash, first get as much of the nasty off by gently scrapping without scratching. Then dip in 105-degree water that has 2 tablespoons of Betadine per quart. Then gently blot off the dirty areas. Water that is at 105-degree will not absorb in the shell, which is why you want to keep it at that temperature.
Not Old Eggs
Fertile eggs will lose their viability after 10 days, so don’t store them no longer than 10 days from the day of collection. Ideally eggs should be set within a week after being laid and after 10 days they’re probably only good as eating eggs. Store the eggs in a cool place no cooler than 55-degrees, and no warmer than 75-degrees. Try to turn them once a day to keep the yolks centered.
If you have received your eggs by shipment through the post office you should allow the eggs to rest. They need to rest around 24 hours prior to setting in the incubator. They have probably been shaken quite a bit, depending on the distance. If they’re getting too close to the expiration deadline then at least let have them set for 6 to 8 hours. Shipped eggs need to be taken out of their wrapping to allow them to breathe.
Place eggs upright with the fat end of the egg up and the small end down in an egg carton, or something similar. The fat end of the egg is the air pocket where the developed embryo will get it’s breathing air, so it’s important to place the egg so the air sac rising to the top of the larger end of the egg. Shipped eggs often have loose or damaged air cells and should ideally be incubated upright, with the fat end up.
Egg Fertility and Candling
I have had good success with shipped eggs except for 3 different times. I found that shipped eggs can give very good hatch rate. The trick with buying hatching eggs online is to read the reviews. I have found some that are excellent and give great hatch rates, and there are some that seem to be rip off and ship their very old eggs with no chance of hatching. It’s that way with everything, so if you get yours online, do the research, check reviews. Also, there are plenty of farms that sells hatching eggs, and chances are you have one around the corner. Check at the feed stores and farmers markets for your local poultry farmers.
Once incubation has begun, a light colored-shelled egg can be candled to see if embryos are developing. It’s difficult to see veining through a dark egg shell. In a dark room/area shine a bright light into the egg, and usually you can see something is happening by day 6. This is a process called candling.
When candling, the fertile egg will begin to show some veins and a small embryo inside the eggs. If you don’t see it on day 6, don’t be quick to toss the eggs. I have found some that were late to start and would develop and hatch later than the others. At this point, I recommend giving the eggs a little more time. Try not to keep your incubator open too long, losing humidity and heat. The loss of heat and humidity can be harmful to the development of the eggs. Unless you’re doing a teaching class, why even open the incubator except to add water? Read more under ‘Troubleshooting’.
If you decide to candle on day 14 and find eggs are clear, then it is probably not going to do anything, and it’d be a good time to remove them from the incubator. If you find that you have a fowl smell coming from your incubator, you need to search it out. Most likely it's a rotted egg and may possibly burst and explode over the other eggs, causing contamination of your sterile conditions. These rotted eggs will look dark with no air sac.
Most hatcheries wait until after day 14 or longer to discard clear eggs. Some eggs will hatch as late as 23 - 24 days in the incubation period. When candling, also check for blood rings (showing as a dark ring around the inside of the egg, along the shell, usually roughly in the middle of the egg, and other signs of problems.
The Air Sac in the Egg
Soon after an egg is laid, a small air bubble starts forming in the large end under the shell. This air sac serves as a "breathing space" for the hatching chick to pip into in giving it a place to breathe, during the hatching process. This is known as an "internal pip". The drier the outside air is, the more fluid is depleted from the egg contents and the faster the bubble grows. Correct humidity in the incubator insures that the bubble does not grow too big, depleting essential fluids, or deny the chick enough air by remaining too small. Therefore, it’s important not to open the incubator no more than is absolutely necessary.
The importance of correct humidity is more apparent at the end of incubation. The normal condition is that the air cell has enlarged to the point where the chick can reach his beak through the membrane wall, allowing it to breathe, before it pips through the shell, after which it will "zip" the shell open. If humidity has been excessive, the chick may pip internally into the air cell and drown in excess fluid. On the other hand, if humidity has been too low, the air cell will be oversized, and the chick may be unable to hatch.
Development of the air cell on different days of incubation
Positioning of the Eggs
An incubating egg could set in a normal position as it would on a flat surface; that is with the large end slightly higher than the point, or upright in egg cartons/turners, with the fat end of the egg always up. An egg that persistently has the small end elevated may cause the embryo to be disoriented with the head toward the small end. In the disoriented position, the chick is likely to drown on pipping. Therefore, it is quite important that in general, the large end of eggs should be slightly higher than the small ends; or as they would lie naturally on a flat surface.
Turning is essential during the first 18 days of incubation. Turning is stopped during the last 3 days. If hand turning, always turn the eggs an uneven number of (minimum 3) times a day, so the eggs do not spend two nights in a row in the same position. If not turned to a fresh position frequently during the early stages, the developing embryo touches the shell membrane and sticks to it causing abnormal growth. Turning the egg aids these movements within the egg, and mimics what a mother hen would do naturally.
The last few days of incubation, days 18–21, are known as "lock-down". When lock-down day comes, either switch off, or remove the automatic egg turners. These last 3 days extra humidity is needed. The humidity needs to be maintained at the least 65% for the last 3 days of incubation. Try not to open the incubator or the hatcher unless necessary and do not turn the eggs during this period.
After the Chicks Hatch
Once the chick’s hatches, they will need to dry off some in the incubator or hatcher before removing. It’s said that newly hatched chicks can survive for up to 3 days on the yolk they absorb during the hatching process, but once you put them in the brooder make sure there is at least water available and offer them food after a day or 2. In my experience, the chicks gain strength and vitality if food and water is offered as soon as they dry off. All mine begins to eat and drink on day one, unless they’ll be shipped. I prefer to do it that way, it doesn’t hurt, on the contrary it helps them become strong.
Feeding New Baby Chicks
Feed and water must always be available for the chicks after putting them in their warmed brooders. I find that if you sprinkle chick starter over the paper towel for the first week, they automatically begin pecking it. Then daily change out the paper towel and sprinkle with food, they’ll begin to eat and around a week old put feeders in their brooders. Never allow chicks to run out of food and water and keep the water clean. The first week in the brooder the temperature should be 90 degrees and then lower 5 degrees every week until it reaches 70 degrees. At 2 months old they usually have feathers and can keep themselves warm unless you’re in extremely cold climate.
Prevent Accidental Drowning
The first week of a chick’s life, they are clumsy and sometimes weak. It has been known for chicks to drown in their drinking water simply because they’re too weak and clumsy to get back out. This can be prevented by simply using marbles or clean pebbles in the water dish. Chicks are clumsy and can easily fall into water dishes and get drenched or even drown. The chicks will drink in the spaces between the marbles/pebbles.