Once you've gained some experience raising chickens, I recommend starting to hatch eggs.
You can perpetuate your chickens by hatching eggs from your own flock instead of needing to buy chicks every few years.
It's interesting and enjoyable, and you can learn a lot in the process.
Hatching and raising chicks from eggs from your own flocks is a way to renew your flock. And it's essential if you're breeding your own chickens.
Two Ways to Hatch Eggs
There are two ways to hatch eggs: either under a broody hen or in an incubator. Each has certain advantages and disadvantages.
Hatching Eggs in a Tabletop Incubator
An incubator does three things:
- Turns or rotates the eggs (or you can do this by hand, but it needs to be done several times a day).
- Keeps the eggs warm (at about 99.5 degrees (F))
- Keeps the humidity at the right level to encourage proper development (45-55% relative humidity during most of the incubation period, then 55-65% the last few days)
My preferred incubator up to this point is a GQF 1588 Genesis Hova Bator.
About the 1588 Genesis Hova Bator
It's a table-top, styrofoam-shell incubator with a digital thermostat, a built-in digital thermometer and hygrometer, and a small fan to circulate the air for more even temperatures. I use it with a 41-egg turner from the same company. The turner rotates the eggs back and forth 4 times in every 24-hour period. This incubator keeps the temperature very stable and works very well. For the most part, all that's needed during the hatch (as far as managing the incubator is concerned) is to monitor humidity and add water to one of the water troughs every few days.
Selecting which Eggs to Hatch
When I'm getting ready to hatch in an incubator or under a broody hen, I store eggs for 7 days (10 days in a pinch). I don't like to incubate eggs older than that because few will hatch.
Although some sources recommend storing eggs at 55 (F) prior to incubation, I don't have a convenient way to do this, so I store them at room temperature out of direct sunlight. This hasn't seemed to noticeably affect the hatch.
I only use very clean eggs. You don't want dirt or manure sitting in the warm, moist environment of the incubator for 21 days.
I examine the shape and size of each egg. Any eggs that are oddly shaped or much bigger than normal or smaller than normal, I'll use for eating and not for incubating. For incubation, I want just the eggs that have a proper "egg shape," meaning large and round on one end and more pointed on the other end. If an egg is symmetric and football-shaped, I don't incubate it. Neither do I incubate eggs that are excessively round or excessively pointed. They simply aren't as likely to hatch.
Once I've narrowed down the set of eggs to just those of the best shape and size, I candle the eggs in a dark room to look for cracks. Sometimes fine, hairline cracks are hard or impossible to see without candling, but they show up easily when you candle.
When Is the Best Time of Year to Incubate?
I mainly incubate March through May. Why? Because in January and February, even though I'm getting lots of eggs, it's too cold to raise baby chicks conveniently. Warmer weather is better for that. In summer, when the weather's hot, the chickens are under more stress here in Texas. The eggs get warm sitting out in the nest boxes. Then hens aren't laying as well. And the eggs don't hatch as well as they do in spring. In fall, hens are molting, and we're not getting many eggs, except those from first-year layers (pullets), which it's not as good to hatch from. So I hatch in spring. This is the time when hens typically go broody.
The Incubation Room
For incubation, you need a room where the temperature stays under about 85 (F). The tabletop incubators can't cool -- they can only heat. You also want a place out of direct sunlight where the temperature will be fairly stable. This makes it easier for the incubator to keep temperature and humidity stable.
The Incubation Process
Once I've loaded the eggs into the incubator and filled the humidity tray and plugged in the incubator and egg turner, there's not a lot to do except wait. I monitor humidity and temperature a few times each day and write those down on a notepad along with the date and time and any other observations. On day 7 or thereabouts, I'll candle the eggs. This lets me see how the chicks are developing. I'll candle again on day 14 and again on day 19. On these later dates, if I find eggs that aren't developing (particularly "clear eggs") I'll remove them from the incubator. Candling also lets me see the size of the air cell, which can indicate if humidity is where it needs to be.
Eggs at Different Stages of Development
On day 19, I remove the egg turner and transfer eggs from it onto the mesh tray inside the incubator. Eggs don't need to be turned from this point forward. Removing the turner removes the chance that chicks will get injured by it once they start hatching. (It also keeps the turner fairly clean. Incubation becomes very messy once chicks start to hatch, but it's relatively clean prior to that point.)
Chicks will start fully hatching within about 24 hours. Eggs will continue to pip and hatch for possibly a few more days.
After the Hatch
I wait until the chicks have fulled dried inside the incubator. Usually, it's necessary to pull one of the vent plugs to keep the humidity from going excessively high once chicks start hatching.
After a few chicks have fully dried, I'll transfer them into the brooder. I introduce them into the brooder one by one, teaching each chick to drink water before letting him or her loose. I check to feel a gulp of water go down. If you're hatching under a broody hen, this step isn't needed because she'll teach the chicks to drink.
I also boil up a few eggs. I learned from Joe Claborn, owner of Claborn Farms, that hardboiled eggs that are still a little warm are an excellent starter feed for the chicks. That's the first thing I give them. Egg is what the chicks were eating prior to hatch, so it's natural for them to eat eggs after the hatch, too.
I crush the hardboiled egg in my hand and break it up into pieces, shell and all, and place it into the brooder. They're particularly attracted to the yolks. They don't eat a lot at this age, so one egg goes a long way. As they eat that, I add more, and I'll also start putting out some starter feed, on which I've sprinkled a little chick grit. Grit is needed for digestion.
Once the chicks have finished hatching, I'll clean out the incubator, wash it thoroughly, set it out to dry, then store it away until I'm ready to hatch again. I like to hatch in small batches (41 eggs at a time) because it makes the size of the newly hatched flock manageable.
Not only is hatching an essential part of keeping your flock going, but it's a lot of fun, and you learn a lot from it.
Children love hatching and chicks and caring for them. No matter how many times I hatch eggs I never grow tired of the miracle and wonder of it.
Once you've hatched your chicks, you can raise them in a brooder the same exact way you would if you had ordered them from a hatchery.
I recently came across the following video that shows an animated simulation of the embryo as the chick is developing:
I typically have not assisted chicks much if at all during the hatch. However, here's a detailed guide from BackyardChickens.com that goes over both the question of whether to assist during a hatch and how to go about it. It's an interesting read, and the author makes a good point of why you might want to assist:
Guide to Assisted Hatching (from BYC.com)
Cabinet Style Incubators
I've used tabletop, styrofoam incubators, which are relatively inexpensive. But you can also purchase larger, cabinet style incubators to hatch more chicks at once.
GQF makes several styles, such as the 1502 Sportsman. They also make hatchers, which can be used together with an incubator to open up the possibility of staged weekly hatches.
I've never used the GQF cabinet-style incubators before, but know people who have, and they've had good results with them. Well-made cabinet incubators are more durable than the styrofoam models, but they're also considerably more expensive (in the $700-800 range at the time of this writing).
- How Long Does It Take Chicken Eggs to Hatch
- Hatching Under a Broody Hen
- How to Get Started with Breeding Chickens
To Learn More About Raising Chickens
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