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How to incubate chicken eggs

How to.., Raising chicks

Incubating eggs at home can be a fun project for those looking to grow their backyard flocks. Here’s how to incubate your own chicken eggs this season.

1. START WITH FERTILE EGGS

If you have a rooster in your coop you will more than likely already have fertilised eggs.

Without a rooster in your coop, your eggs will not be fertilised, and you will not have any hatching eggs.

If you lack a rooster, ask a local breeder or check out Find a chook for some fertile eggs before you get started, so you do not waste your time with incubation.

When picking eggs to incubate, use those that are clean, well-formed, and full-size. Above all, do not clean the eggs – there is a naturally occurring coating that is vital to the success of the embryo. Wash your hands before handling and be as gentle as possible, as the embryos are extremely susceptible to damage from sudden movements.

Eggs have the best hatch rate when stored for no more than 7 days before beginning to incubate, but you can leave them for up to 14 days.

2. FIND AN INCUBATOR

We stock River Systems Egg tech incubators, but you can purchase a myriad of brands either second-hand or new. The rule is to buy the best you can afford. Unfortunately, quality does come at a price but you will save in the long run as the hatch rate will be higher.

3. INCUBATION

Temperature

Before setting your fertile eggs in an incubator let it warm up and ensure that the temperature read-out is 38 degrees Celsius.

Generally, the temperature in your incubator should be maintained between 37 and 39 degrees Celcius. Do not attempt to overheat the incubator in order to speed up the process. This will result in speeding up the development of the embryo, but will also reduce the chance of hatchability and can also result in abnormal chicks. If your incubator experiences a short cooling period, do not be concerned as a brief period is not usually harmful. A longer period of low temperatures; however, can result in dead embryos.

Humidity

Humidity is controlled in order to prevent unnecessary loss of egg moisture. You will need to add water to a chamber in your incubator to achieve humidity. Some incubators feature a hygrometer built in. We also recommend using an independent hygrometer to make sure of accuracy.

The ideal humidity level for hatching eggs is still being debated among experts, but many agree that it should not fall below 25% or above 60% between setting and three days prior to hatching. During the last three days (the “lock-down” period), the humidity level should be increased to between 70-80%.

Please note that the humidity in your area will have an impact on how much water you’ll need in the incubator to keep it within the correct humidity range.  Check the water level periodically to ensure they don’t dry out.

Top Tip: Having a hard time getting the humidity high enough?  Try placing small sponges inside the incubator. This will increase the surface area that is wet, allowing more water to evaporate into the air which increases the humidity. 

Ventilation

The reason eggs are so sensitive to temperature and humidity is that shells are porous. The shells even allow oxygen in and out to keep the chick alive. Keep your incubator well-ventilated and allow for moving air to pass through. However, only open the incubator when necessary – doing so can let heat and humidity escape and can affect the success of the hatch.

Rotation

Eggs will only hatch if rotated correctly and placed in the right orientation. Always start with the larger end of the egg facing up, and the pointy end down.

Most incubators now feature automatic turning.

Should you need to practice hand turning, follow these steps carefully and delicately in your incubator.

  • Turn the eggs an odd number of times a day. Usually, three to five times is enough. An odd number of turns helps distribute the fluids in the eggs evenly, so they do not drown. An improperly turned egg is also at a higher risk for birth defects as it could stick to the inside of the shell.
  • Place two different marks on the top and bottom of the egg to remember their placement. Each night the egg needs to land in a new position, so keep track of the orientation every day.
  • Keep turning every single day until day 18. After that, you can leave them alone as you enter lockdown.

4. CANDLE THE EGGS

The best way to test if an egg is fertile or not is to use a technique called “candling”. 

There are two common ways of candling an egg. 

1. You can use a candler.  This is a special light, much like a flashlight, to see inside the egg.  While in a dark room, you simply hold the egg to the end of the candler and you can see much of what is happening inside the egg.  The key is to get the egg to fit snuggly on the end of the candler so no light emits from the seam between the egg and the candler. 

2. The second common method is using a candling box.  You make a small hole in one side of a box, just big enough for the egg to nestle well inside it.  Then you put a bright light inside the box and close the box (be SUPER careful not to let the bulb touch anything in the box…it’s HOT and can cause a fire).  Darken the room you are in and put the egg onto the hole you have created.  You should be able to see inside the egg, just as if you were using a candler. 

With a chicken egg, you should be able to see veins start to appear within 4-5 days after you have started incubating.  With quail eggs, you may see them after just 3 days!

What should you look for when candling an egg? 

You are looking for signs of life.  And what you will see will depend on how far along the eggs are in the incubation cycle.  For chickens, a normal length is 21 days.  About 4-5 days into it, you should be able to see veins spreading from the center out towards the shell.  A few days later, you’ll be able to see the large eyeball forming, and you may see something actually moving inside. As you near the end of the cycle, the egg gets very dark and about the only thing you can see is an air pocket, which should be at the large end of the egg.

5. LOCKDOWN

On the 18th day of the incubation process stop turning the eggs and increase the humidity in the incubator ready for the chicks to hatch. Depending on the breed, most chicks should hatch on around the 21st day of incubation. If the chicks hatch before this date, it is likely that the incubator temperature was too high. If they hatch after this date, it is likely that the incubator temperature was too low.

In the final days before hatching, the eggs may be observed shifting about on their own as the fetus becomes active. The chick will eventually peck a small hole in the large end of the egg and take its first breath. It is normal at this point for the chick to rest for six to 12 hours while its lungs adjust before continuing to hatch. Resist the urge to help with the hatching process – it’s easy to cause injury!

When the first chicks start to hatch it is important that the incubator lid is not opened. This will cause the humidity to drop and leave any chicks still inside the shell trapped and unable to survive.  

Once one chick starts to hatch its chirping is an indication to the other chicks inside their shells, so usually, all of the chicks will hatch within 36 hours.  Chicks hatch with enough yolk in their stomach to survive without food or water for around 48 hours.  

When all of the chicks have hatched you can remove them from the incubator and put them into their brooder.  

To read all about brooder chicks view our articles:

How to set up a brooder

How to look after baby chicks

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