(A little disclaimer: I am a stickler for detail. You can hatch eggs without all the record-keeping and weighing. Just follow the guide for temperature and humidity if this all seems way too complex.)
Get Ready! – The week before incubation
If you are new to incubating, you will want to start preparing about a week before you want to actually set the eggs.
- If you don’t have an incubator it’s time to find one.
If you are only planning to incubate once for education or fun, you might be able to borrow an incubator from your local extension office or another chicken keeper. Sometimes you can find cheap used incubators at poultry auctions or on Craigslist. Just be sure that you check your “new to you” incubator’s accuracy before you put in your eggs.
Your incubator may include a built-in thermometer and/or hygrometer. If not, you will want to buy one. I use this one. The thermometer should be at the level of the eggs. Depending on your incubator, temperatures may vary from the bottom of the incubator to the top.
If incubation is going to be a recurring hobby or business for you, you should buy a good quality incubator. I love my incubator from Hatchcraft, and I know that the Hovabator 1588 is a good incubator on a smaller scale. For more information about choosing an incubator, check out this post.
- If you are hatching eggs from your own flock, you can gather eggs for about a week before setting them.
You want to set all the eggs at the same time (staggered hatches are possible, but probably too complex for the beginner), so just gather your eggs and store them in a cool place. The ideal temperature is about 60 degrees, but anything cooler than room temperature but warmer than the fridge will probably be fine. Put them in an egg carton with the large end up, and use something (a book, a block of wood, whatever is handy) to tip the carton so it sits at an angle. Move the block 2-3 times a day to tilt the eggs back and forth. If you’d prefer, you can lay eggs on their sides and turn them by hand, but this is easier.
- A few days before setting eggs, turn on the incubator and let it come up to temperature.
You want to get a feel for how the incubator responds when you change the thermostat. You want to get it settled as close as possible to 99.5 degrees and keep it there. Better to work out problems like an incubator that cools off if your house is cooler at night before there are eggs involved. You will want your humidity at or slightly below 50% for the first 18 days of incubation (and then 70-80% for the last 3 days), so you might want to work to see how humidity can be adjusted in your incubator also.
Get Set! – The day before or morning of
- Print a set of Incubation Record Sheets from this post. (optional)
Decide if you will use an automatic turner or if you will turn your eggs by hand 3 or 5 times a day. Even if you will use a turner, it is a good habit to check the temperature and humidity in your incubator at least 3 times a day, so you can still use the record sheet to record those observations.
- Mark and weigh your eggs (optional)
Mark your eggs in some way to identify them. I number mine. If I have 2 or more breeds I use an initial with the number (like W1 for a Rhode Island White, or R1 for a Barred Rock)
- Verify one more time that temperature and humidity are holding steady on your incubator.
GO! GO! GO!! – Set those eggs
- Put in those eggs as quickly as possible (keep the door shut as much as possible)
If you are using a turner, place eggs with the large end up. If you are not, you can lay eggs on their side with the large end slightly elevated. You can also cut rings from a cardboard paper towel tube and use them to help position eggs. It keeps them from rolling around and makes it easier to elevate the large end.
- Shut the incubator and watch and wait
My incubator is wonderful about the temperature regulating easily and quickly, but smaller incubators can have a hard time with this. Don’t panic! The temperature will probably drop a lot right after you put eggs in and take a long time to recover. If you have had that incubator at 99.5 and know that it is capable of holding that temperature, do not touch the thermostat. Give it at least 3 hours to try to right itself. After 3 hours, you can make very small changes to the thermostat to try to get to that 99.5 sweet spot, but after you change it, give it at least an hour to see if it’s working before you touch it again.
Most ruined hatches happen when someone keeps adjusting the thermostat up and up trying to get to 99.5, then goes to bed, just to wake up the next morning and find their thermometer sitting at 105 and their eggs cooked.
Don’t stress too much about humidity right now. 50% is a good starting place, but it is more flexible than temperature. If your humidity is 20% or 70% it’s not going to kill your chicks unless it stays way to high or too low for the entire 21 days. I wouldn’t worry about it at all until Day 2 or 3, especially if you are having any problems holding your temperature steady. If you are turning by hand, you can try to adjust humidity any time you are going to have the door open anyway, but don’t open it up just to fix the humidity. The temperature is way more important.
To fix humidity, adjust the amount of surface area of your water reservoir. Some incubators have channels to fill with water. You can increase surface areas by using wet paper towels in the channels. My incubator can use any container as a reservoir. I like to use mason jars as reservoirs. I can make larger adjustments to humidity by adding or removing a jar. Finer adjustments can be made by floating folded tin foil on the water to reduce the surface area or by opening/closing the vent holes a bit. The jars of water also do dual purpose as a heat sink to keep the temperature more stable.
**Please Note: When adding water to an incubator that is in use, always add warm water. Using cold water will cause the temperature to drop.**
To Everything TURN, TURN, TURN
- Be consistent about turning your eggs
If you are turning eggs by hand, try to do it at regular times every day. You want to turn eggs an odd number of times every day (3 or 5 are common). This is so that they are in a different position each night when they will spend the longest amount of time in one place. You don’t want to always turn the same direction (always clockwise or always counterclockwise) so I keep track of which direction I turned eggs with a small arrow above the time on my record sheet.
It can be hard to be consistent for all 18 days. It seems like without fail, something will come up and I need to miss a turn. Often on those days I will get up in the middle of the night to turn them one more time. But don’t worry unless this happens frequently. Missing a turn here and there won’t kill your chicks. Just don’t let it happen often.
- Candle and weigh eggs on Day 7, 14, and 18 (optional)
I’m always anxious to see what’s going on in there! The printable record sheets include an instruction sheet explaining the way I do it, but basically you want your eggs to show obvious changes (larger shadows and larger air cell) at each candling and about 4% weight loss per week.
- On the 18th day, increase humidity to 70-80%, shut the door and wait
Continue to check temperature and humidity. If possible, set up a way to add humidity without opening the door. I have a tube running in a vent hole and into my water bowl so that I can pour in water without opening the door.
Opening the door at this stage will cause the humidity to drop drastically, and if that happens while a chick is trying to hatch it can basically glue them into the shell. The extra humidity is the best thing we can do to make the chick’s job of kicking out of the shell easier. When I have been forced to open the door, I have used a spritzer bottle to add humidity quickly, but I do not spray the eggs directly.
- Keep an eye on things through the window, but resist the urge to help chicks hatch
Most chicken keepers agree that chicks that are too weak to successfully hatch will be weak and sickly and may not make it at all. Some also believe that the act of working out of the shell actually makes the chick stronger. It seems cruel, but it is probably best to keep the door shut and wait it out to keep from jeopardizing the other hatches.
- Let chicks stay in the brooder and dry off for up to 48 hours while the other eggs hatch
Wow, it is tempting to get in there and pull out those cute little babies! But as much as you’d love to tell yourself that they need you to rescue them, they aren’t hungry, they aren’t thirsty, and they aren’t hurting the other eggs. Most people even think that the jostling and cheeping of the already hatched chicks helps encourage those that haven’t hatched yet to hurry on out and join the party!
- Day 21 should be hatch day.
If your temperature was off by just a degree or less, chicks might hatch a day early or a day late. Different breeds can also have the tendency to hatch a bit early or late. If you gathered eggs for a week before incubation, but kept them in an area that was too warm, those early eggs may be more developed and hatch significantly early (I had one hatch at 4am on the morning of Day 18 last time).
You need to remove chicks from the incubator within 72 hours (I prefer 48) of the first hatch, even if not all the eggs have hatched yet. I use the spritzer to bump up the humidity and get the chicks out quickly. Place chicks in a safe warm brooder. Try to resist the urge to handle them a lot for the first couple of days.
- If most but not all eggs have hatched by late on Day 22, I go ahead and open the incubator and try to see what’s going on. If most have NOT hatched, I assume my temperature was low and give it one more day.
I turn on the shower in the bathroom and let it get warm and steamy in there. I take a warm wet washcloth to the incubator to carry the egg from the incubator to the bathroom. I remove one egg at a time to check, spritzing the mister and shutting the incubator to try to keep humidity up. If any eggs have started to hatch and not finished, I start with them. I listen carefully (live chicks will cheep inside the shell). I candle and try hard to see if there is any movement. If there is no sign of life, but the shadow is large (showing a fully developed chick), I will carefully make a hole in the air pocket and check again for signs of life. If I find any chick alive, I quickly put it back in the incubator and let the remaining eggs incubate for one more day. Any eggs that don’t show signs of life go to Mr. Fix It and J-Bear who enjoy opening the shell and telling me how developed the chick was, etc. (YUCK!)
Good luck with your hatch! Feel free to message me if you have any problems, and send me pictures of your cute little fluffy butts.