As I’m sitting down to write this blog post I’m thinking to myself “who on earth am I to give you guys advice on incubating chicken eggs?” Aaaaaand to be perfectly honest, the answer to that question is that I’m really nobody. I’m just a girl living in the middle of nowhere Montana, trying to build a loving hobby farm that gives our animals the best lives possible. However, while I am basically no one in terms of chicken expertise, I couldn’t let an incredible experience like hatching the first batch of my very own chicks pass by without a post telling you how fulfilling and exhilarating of an experience this has been. Not only that, but it has connected me to so many new friends in person and on social media alike.
I know this isn’t the most optimistic of outlooks, but I went into this process acknowledging that I am a total newbie, and telling myself that even if none of our chicks hatch, we will at least be able to learn something from it. If you follow me on social media or spend more than 10 seconds with me in real life, you will know that I am an absolute control freak and the definition of a Type A personality. Once I decide I want to do something I will spend days, weeks, months (and sometimes) even years preparing for it. Alas, after researching how to incubate eggs for 2 months, chatting with friends, and evaluating whether we have the facilities to add more chickens to our flock, I decided it was time to move forward and give it a try.
Since we currently only use our chickens for eggs (and not meat) I wasn’t overly concerned with getting any specific type of chicken. We decided to incubate a few eggs from our own easter egger hen, in addition to eggs that a local friend graciously provided for us. I know that there are a million and one ways to have a successful hatch so I am not saying that our methods were better, worse, or otherwise than anybody else’s; I am just feeling so happy and rewarded by the process that I thought it would be good to share what we tried.
We don’t have a large farm and didn’t have a need to hatch a big number of chicks in this batch so I scoured the internet for incubators with good reviews that would hold anywhere from 6 to 12 chicken eggs at a time. I chatted with a local friend who had also been incubating chicken eggs recently and she mentioned that it could be hard to maintain humidity during the final days of incubation so I focused my search more narrowly on incubators that specifically mentioned their ability to maintain humidity (we live in a very dry climate, so if you live somewhere humid this may not be an issue for you). After yet another couple weeks of research, I decided to purchase this incubator. This one comes with an auto turner and I found that to be extremely helpful since I work a full time job. I had a few buddies express concern to me about the functionality of auto turners so I took a pencil and lightly marker each egg with an “X” on one side and an “O” on the other. To make it easy on myself, I would just take a photo of the eggs each morning (because I had to open the incubator to check the hygrometer once a day anyway) and then compare the photo to the eggs each night to make sure the turner was working correctly. After about 4 days I was satisfied in its turning abilities and I stopped this process. The only downside to the incubator I purchased was that it didn’t have a built in hygrometer to monitor the humidity; but I had no problem finding one in the reptile section of my local pet store, and I just placed it inside the incubator (you can see the one I used here).
Majority of my information in regard to what humidity levels to use during incubation came from websites, and overall I felt they said basically the same thing:
For the first 1-18 days of incubation, we maintained humidity inside the incubator between 50 & 60%. More often than not we were closer to 60% than 50%. The incubator we used held this humidity without issue; we just added a little water every couple days and the incubator did the rest. Also, if you have lighter eggs (cream colored or white) you can “candle” your eggs around days 7-10. This is a great way to check whether or not there is development happening in there. Some of the darker eggs as well as the blue and green eggs can be extremely difficult to candle, but you can certainly try those too! You can buy special “candlers” at your local farm store, but you can also just use a flashlight (which is what I did). Go into a completely dark room and turn on your flashlight. Hold the egg up to the flashlight and look for the formation of veins or look for the development of the air sac (this is what the chick uses to breathe during hatching). I was able to candle one of our white eggs and determine there was no development. I knew this because I was able to turn it a bit and see the yolk moving around in there. This allowed me to presume that this egg had not been fertilized by a rooster and thus could not produce a chick. I went ahead and removed this egg from the incubator. If you are at all unsure of whether there is formation or not, I would leave it in. You never know!
On day 18 the eggs go into what is called “lock down”. The incubator we purchased has a special design that has you remove the egg turner and the first floor when the eggs go into lock down. Basically what that does is allows the embryos to settle inside the eggs and get themselves positioned correctly to hatch. Lock down occurs from day 18 to day 21 (HATCH DAY!) and it is extremely important that you move the eggs as little as possible during this time (no movement is ideal). Additionally, the humidity inside the incubator has to be increased during lock down in order to make the egg shells more malleable so the chicks can break through. Again, I’m a total newbie over here so I apologize if you are a seasoned chicken farmer and I’m not using the appropriate terminology (I’m trying my best and I’m sure I’ll laugh at this post down the road). We increased our humidity to 70% during lock down. The water reservoir in our incubator was already full when we had the humidity as 60% so I added a couple strips of cloth soaked in water and that bumped the humidity up to 70% no problem.
Once the eggs were removed from the turner and the humidity was up to 70% the waiting game began. We had our first pip on day 20, and over the next 72 hours we watched, as one after another, our chicks made their way into the world. Much to our surprise, all 8 of our eggs hatched into healthy fluff balls. 100% hatch rate on our first try?? I think I better quit while I’m ahead and never hatch any chicks again. hahaha. I kid, I kid. But really, I am attributing our success to sheer luck more than I am to the hours and hours of research I spent preparing for this. However, there are a couple things that I would call “controllables” that I believe helped us succeed with this hatch:
- We used the freshest eggs we could find. We used two eggs from our Easter Egger, and the other 6 came from a friend with a farm close by. All eggs entered the incubator at under 2 days from their lay date. A lot of websites and resources will tell you that eggs are viable to enter an incubator for 7 days after they have been laid. Then on the 8th day, POOF, you should not use them anymore. When I read this I took it to mean that every day after being laid, the egg’s chance of successfully hatching decreased a little bit more; ergo, the sooner you can get them into the incubator, the better your chance of them hatching. (of course if you are ordering your eggs from a hatchery, you can only control this so much due to shipping time)
- We monitored our humidity like crazy people. The humidity in the incubator during the first 18 days was always at 59% or 60% and nothing else. I do not know this for a fact, but I would think that having a steady humidity (rather than it fluctuating between 50% and 60%) is more stabilizing for the embryo. Again, I am NOT a medical professional, this is just my personal thought. For days 18-21 we actually used a plastic straw (it fit perfectly through the small hole in the top of our incubator) to add water to keep the humidity at exactly 70%.
- We only allowed the incubator to be opened once a day on days 1 through 18. This minimized the temperature and humidity fluctuations the eggs experienced to almost none. As I mentioned above, our incubator holds humidity and temperature extremely well. By day 3 of incubation I was able to open the incubator, add water, and close it without the temperature fluctuating more than a tenth of a degree.
At the risk of making this post even longer, I will just leave you with this thought: give yourself a lot of grace and be as patient as possible when incubating your chicks. I think I told my friend and fiance four different times during the hatch days that I didn’t think we were going to get anymore out of this hatch…but then another 18 hours would go by and two more would pop out. I am about the least patient person in history, so if I can do it, you can too! As I mentioned before, this was our first time doing this and we are definitely amateurs, so please don’t take my words as the end all be all of chick incubating; I do hope that this post at least provides a small level of help and insight for you. If nothing else, just know this: you CAN do it. And you’ll never know if you don’t try. So go out and hatch some eggs!