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Egg Hatching 101: Eggs & Incubator Prep

Many chicken owners, whether they are backyard pet chicken owners, small family flock owners, or larger scale breeders or farm egg producers, opt to hatch eggs with an incubator. I originally put this series together on our former blog a couple of years ago, when we followed along with one of our live hatches.  We got so much interest in that series from readers, that we felt it's the time to take a look at it again and update it as necessary, as well as move the series here to our new home on the web.

This post will be a little more lengthy because there is a lot of background info to cover, but following posts over the next few weeks in this series will be shorter and more specific to that day and/or stage of development. Please also note that like everything else in this world, everyone has a different way of doing whatever it is they do. This series is how we choose to hatch eggs and what we have personally learned from our hatches and research.

While it isn't rocket science, there is a fair amount you need to know before you get started. Of course you will need fertile eggs and a reliable incubator. But where do you get the eggs? What kind of incubator?

EGGS: You'll need fertile eggs. Eggs in the grocery store won't work (although there are random freak stories of people actually hatching grocery store eggs, it doesn't happen often, and though it sounds like a cool harmless thing to try, the chances of you ended up with a nasty, smelly, disgusting, catastrophic mess are far, far greater than a live chick emerging from one of those eggs. You weigh your own curiosity risks here, people, but I'm not going there.) You can obtain fertile eggs from a breeder. You can obtain eggs from your own flock if you have healthy hens and a breeding rooster (which we've done multiple times before). Or you can also buy fertile eggs from some of the chick hatcheries and have them shipped to you. Know that shipping is notorious for lowering your hatch rate success, though, so if you go that route you may want to start with more eggs than you think you need.

Fertile eggs must be as fresh as possible and have been carefully handled. If they are waiting to be put into the incubator, they need to be kept cool (55-60 degrees F) and stored carefully "upside down" (ie with pointy ends down). They also need to be moved on a regular basis. Our incubator has an automatic slow rocker so we store our waiting eggs in that without the heat and humidity turned on. You can simulate this by storing your eggs (remember, pointy side down) in an egg carton and propping one end up by an inch or two and every 12 hours, change the carton position so that the other end is now lifted up. This rotation helps form a more stable air pocket in the egg at one end of the shell, which will be a vital role in the embryo's development. Eggs can put "on hold" like this for several days but of course their chances of hatching slowly decline with time.

NOTE: Never wash eggs that are going in the incubator. Also do not submerge them in water. Egg shells are porous and you are inviting bacteria into the egg that could cause major issues down the road. If you have an egg that is lightly soiled, wipe it carefully with a warm damp cloth. Do not scrub it.

INCUBATOR: There are all kinds of incubators on the market. Big ones, small ones, cheap ones, overpriced ones, styrofoam ones, plastic ones... you name it, they make it. No matter how snazzy or simple your incubator is, it needs to be reliable.

The major (and vital) role of your incubator is to keep the eggs at their required temperature and humidity level for 21+ days. It needs to be stable in both aspects, and you need to be able to make minor adjustments to both to fit the needs of developing eggs. My best advice is to read, research, and ask questions. Find a good one that functions properly, that gets good reviews, and that is within your budget. Often you can find used ones for sale, though they are swiped up pretty quickly.

We settled on a Brinsea Octagon 20 Advance, which is pictured above. We are not getting paid or compensated for promoting their product at all. We just did a lot of research and decided that this was the option we liked best, and I can tell you that after several very successful hatches, we love it. In short, here's my Pro/Con list for this one:

  • PRO: Digital display takes guess work out of tracking heat and humidity

  • PRO: Reviewers constantly mention it's stability in both aspects

  • PRO: Easy to make minor adjustments of heat and humidity with little to no interference to the eggs

  • PRO: Super easy to clean and sterilize

  • PRO: Has option to purchase an auto rocker (so we don't have to turn eggs. Less handling = good)

  • PRO: Easily adjustable rows to accommodate different size eggs.

  • PRO: Simple design and quiet. Reputable company. Good price range.

  • PRO: Small and compact. Can easily get it into a warmed cooler if power goes out.

  • CON: Would like eggs and hatching chicks to be a little more visible. (fan and display area on top make it a little tricky to see everything sometimes)

  • CON: Lid can be a little tricky to safely remove and put back. You have to be careful not to lose your grip. (People have solved this by attaching adhesive velcro strips for better gripping on the sides.)

  • CON: Can be a little tricky to add water to boost humidity during hatching without removing lid. You can purchase their humidity pump, but it is PRICEY for what it is. We solved this issue instead by using a syringe. You'll see this in operation later on in the series I'm sure.

The Brinsea Octagon has several additional thingamajigs you can purchase, of course, that are said by the company to increase hatching, make things easier, be less invasive, and do your laundry all at the same time. OK, maybe not that last part, but every company tries to upsale you with something, and Brinsea is no different. Here's a short list of some of the "extras" they try to sell you on, what we went for, what we didn't, and how we adapted with things we already had on hand:

  • Automatic Egg Turner: DID BUY. We knew we wanted auto-turning from the beginning to rule out 1) us forgetting to turn the eggs and 2) unnecessary egg handling several times a day.

  • Humidity Pump (~$120): Didn't buy.

    • Our solution: A large 60cc syringe and a jar of water.

  • Humidity Management Module Evaporating Pads ($3.50 for 2): Didn't buy. This makes me laugh. Seriously these are just way over priced disposable paper towels. 2 sheets for $3.50... you make the call.

    • Our solution: An old t-shirt, or any kind of fabric, cut into squares. Free, reusable, smart.

  • Humidity Silicone Tubing ($2 per foot): Didn't buy. Goes with above mentioned humidity pump, which we didn't buy either.

  • Egg Candler or Egg Scope ($29-$49+): Didn't buy. Cool, but really unnecessary.

    • Our solution: A small high output LED flashlight ($3 from Tractor Supply or Advance Auto, etc)

  • Egg Candler Bulbs ($5.99 for 2): Didn't buy.

    • Pricey bulbs for pricey gadgets. Seriously, people. A cheap LED flashlight works great.

INCUBATOR PREP AND SET UP: Your prep and set up will be specific to your incubator, so check the booklet or instructions that came with it. If you're borrowing an incubator, or purchased a used one, Google is your friend. Forums are invaluable too, and you can find loads of helpful information from people using the incubator you have by poking around the forums on Backyard Chickens.

For ours, we make sure the equipment is clean, sanitized with a mild bleach and water solution, air dried completely, and working properly. Most companies suggest you turn it on and let it stabilize for several hours before you add your eggs.

You want to put your incubator in a place where it won't need to be moved during the incubation period, won't be bumped or knocked over by kids or pets, and well away from drafts and sunlight that will alter its temperature and humidity levels (and/or make the incubator work harder to stay stable). We keep ours in the living room on top of a dresser so it is out of the way but still in a location we frequent, keeping us aware of its current status several times a day.

ADDING EGGS: Read things that are specific to your incubator, but in general, you want to place your fertile eggs in pointy end down and you want to brace them so that they don't fall over. Our Brinsea incubator has adjustable guides (seen above) that holds the eggs in rows. These guides can be moved and, toward the end of the incubation period, removed all together so that the eggs can lay on their sides for hatching. Our particular incubator will hold 20-24 eggs depending on their size. We bunch our eggs in the middle if we don't have a full load and use paper towels to fill in the gaps to prevent the eggs from falling over. In our incubator, the eggs are actually in a tray that sits above water wells.

Above is a photo of the incubator with the lid off and the tray of eggs removed. You can see the two water wells in the center. And remember those "Humidity Management Module Evaporating Pads" that I mentioned earlier? Well their only function is to help increase the humidity level as needed during incubation. They do this by increasing the surface area of the water, giving it more room to evaporate. You simply lay them on the floor of the incubator and dip part of it into the water wells, and the water is wicked up over the floor, increasing the humidity. Why you need to spend $3.50 on two pieces of heavy duty paper towels to do this, I don't know. You can use regular paper towels and achieve the same goal, or do as we have and cut an old scrap t-shirt into a square, draping it over the floor and pushing it down into the wells as shown above. Note: You probably won't need to do this until way later in the incubation process. But use this for future reference when the time comes, ok?

I keep this post-it note above my incubator every time we are hatching eggs. It's my cheat notes version at a glance of what my incubator should be doing.

  • Days 1-18: You want your temperature to be around 99.3 to 99.6F and the humidity to stay between 40-50%. This is the average of a setting hen. In the past, people believed that this temperature needed to be very accurate and constant in order to increase hatch rates. However studies are showing that eggs actually benefit from short "cool down" times and some newer incubators are now being designed to do this. It actually makes sense, if you think about it, because in nature a hen gets off her eggs once a day or so to eat, drink water and, well, poop of course. During this short time, the eggs do cool off a tad. Our incubator does not have the cool down feature but since we open the lid and candle our eggs regularly, it somewhat does the same thing. So while I don't recommend removing the lid a lot, playing with your eggs, or chilling them in the fridge as a "cool down", I really don't think that opening the incubator once or twice a day for a very short time is hurting anything. Especially if you know your incubator and are confident in its ability to recover lost heat and humidity in a short amount of time. As for humidity, during this stage I keep a small amount of water in the wells, checking daily to refill if needed to maintain the 40-50%. I typically do not need to add the t-shirt scrap until way later in the game after day 18.

  • Days 18-21: While the temperature needs to stay about the same, the humidity needs to be increased. As the chicks develop inside the eggs, and the whites of the eggs naturally evaporate slowly through the permeable shell, the humidity level will increase some on its own. However you'll probably have to help give it a boost by adding in those t-shirt scraps as we talked about before (or go buy you some of those nifty Humidity Management Module Evaporating Pads and lemme know how they work for ya). The reason the humidity needs to be increased, if you wanna get technical, is because the inner shell membrane needs to stay very moist so that the chick can break it and get out of the shell.

So that's your prep work and filling your incubator. From here, we will follow along day by day what happens in those eggs. Chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch, so stay tuned.
This post is part of a series about hatching eggs on The Farm at Beaman's Fork blog.
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