Hatching Chickens can be a fun and educational experience for the entire family. How cool is it to watch a small egg turn into a tiny life! And of course when these chicks grow up, your understanding of chickens and their life cycle can be quite rewarding, something you will never forget. So how is this done? It's rather simple to do with these easy steps!
First thing you will need is an incubator. Many people purchase them new or used, some even build them. There are lots of great brands of incubators out there on the market that are affordable. For the sake of this article, I am not going to go into all the different brands and how they operate as that would make for a whole other article! However I will suggest you stop by our "Chicken Products and Supplies" review section here on BYC for lots of incubator reviews. https://www.backyardchickens.com/reviews/category/chicken-products-supplies.1/
I tend to lean toward "forced air" incubators as opposed to "still air". Heat has a tendency to settle in spots, usually in spots you don't want it occupying. Forced air will keep the air stirred up and moving. However this is just what I prefer. Don't let my opinion dissuade you from a "still air" machine. I like incubators with automatic egg turners. Egg turning is very important to grow healthy babies and who has the time to turn their eggs? I would definitely look for a machine that already has egg turners, especially removable ones. Some companies charge extra for the turners but they are well worth the extra cash!
If you are going with a pre-used incubator, I can't impress upon you enough to fumigate the incubator between each use. All the fluids and material left behind by the hatching chicks will regrow all kinds of bacteria in the warm moist environment and you don't want your newly hatched chicks to develop any health issues because of it. Dirty incubators spread deadly disease. I find that a vinegar/bleach/water mix and a good scrubbing does the job. Make sure to drain out all the liquid first, blow out all the debris that the chicks have left behind. Remove all parts of the machine that can be removed and spray with the solution and let set a moment. Get in there with a toothbrush or other small implement and scrub well. Scrub the lid, the egg turners, inside of the machine, everything. Rinse well and do it again. Rinse off for the last time and let it completely dry.
Seems like Hatching Eggs are everywhere these days. You can find them on-line on E-bay, Craigslist, Hatcheries, Private breeders. I will make a suggestion and recommend you purchase eggs from reputable breeders that you know, reputable Hatcheries or fertile eggs from your own flock. Check out our Buy Sell and Trade section here on BYC as well, we have lots of great breeders! The reason being you don't want to get them from a stranger from say Craigslist is that you have no idea what sort of deformities, poor genetic mishaps, or even diseases that can be passed through from the breeder birds to these eggs. Genetics are everything! You will be devastated if your chicks hatch poor and sickly or turn up with detrimental health abnormalities. You have no idea how these eggs were stored before shipping or even if they are what the breeder says they are. So do yourself a favor, do your homework and purchase eggs from a quality breeder or someone you trust.
When your eggs arrive you will want to carefully open the packaging and inspect each and every egg for cracks and other imperfections. Discard any eggs that are cracked or incredibly filthy. *IMPORTANT* "Let shipped eggs rest for 18- 24 hours before setting." Never set eggs you have just received. You want these eggs to come to room temperature, let all the air bubbles settle from shipping and reform the air cell at the top of the egg. So find a place in your home of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (warm temps will cause them to begin to develop, do not refrigerate) set the eggs in a clean empty egg carton or even the carton they came in setting them large end up. Every few hours you can give them a sideways twist to keep the yolk centered and from settling in one spot.
If you are collecting eggs from your own flock, you will want to start collection a few days before setting. Do not set freshly collected eggs as you want the air cell to develop at the top of the egg. Freshly laid eggs have little if any air cell, these few days of resting on the counter before setting will allow the outside air to dry out the egg enough to form the air cell. Same as shipped eggs, let them rest in a clean egg carton, large end up at 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Give them a sideways twist a couple times a day to keep the yolk centered and from settling.
Getting the Incubator Ready
I won't go into detail on the precise procedures on setting up your incubator as each one varies enough. I will suggest you read the instructions first however before getting started. Follow the instructions on filling the reservoir, setting the temp and humidity. Familiarize yourself with the venting system and opening and closing the vents. After your eggs arrive, get your incubator turned on, proper settings of temp and humidity. You never want to set eggs in a cold incubator. You also don't wan't to be fiddling around with settings after setting your eggs, so be sure to have the incubator up and running a full 24 hours before setting eggs.
But what are the proper settings?! For "forced air" the temp ranges from 99.5 to 99.8 degrees Fahrenheit. "Still air" the temps range from 101 to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. These temps are measured at the "top" of the egg. Heat rises and the difference in temp from the floor to the ceiling of your incubator can vary widely. So you only care what the temp of the egg is. Now I am not one to rely solely on the built in thermometer inside the incubator, although generally new machines are calibrated correctly. Older machines can and do come out of calibration, 1 or 2 degrees off can devastate the hatch. So it is a good idea to place a thermometer with humidity gauge inside the incubator as well. If you purchase a good thermometer from supplier that sells incubation goods, you should be able to rely on this meter to give you very accurate temperatures inside your incubator. Many of the good thermometers come with a humidity gauge as well, between your incubator and your added gauges, you should be able to accurately keep precise temperature and humidity levels. Too low of a temperature and your hatch can be delayed by a day or so. Too high and they can hatch early and adversely effect development of the embryo in a negative way.
How and why do we need to monitor humidity and what does it do? While temperature needs to be fairly precise, humidity is allowed to vary about. When it comes to the exact number you are shooting for, well ask 10 people what the proper humidity level is and you will probably get 10 different answers! Humidity can be difficult to control but it doesn't have to be an exact number, somewhere between 30% and 50% is what you are shooting for and will generally give you good results. The outside humidity and temperature level can effect the humidity inside your machine, the eggs as well the machine itself.
The humidity level in your incubator is going to control just how much moisture is lost in the egg. Egg shells are porous and humidity is lost through the pores of the the shell. And how much is lost is determined by your humidity levels. A good way to monitor just how well the conditions are inside your machine is to candle your eggs for air cell development. Here is a basic chart as to approximately where you want your air cells to be on what dates.
If the air cells are not shrinking fast enough, your humidity is too high. If your air cells are shrinking too fast, your humidity is too low. As you use your incubator with future hatches, you will learn what humidity works well for your climate, the time of year and the eggs you are hatching. Follow the instructions in your machine's manual as to adjust your humidity levels.
Some prefer to "Dry Hatch". A dry hatch works best if your incubator runs about 25% humidity on it's own without adding water and the humidity of the room is high. (In my arid climate I do not attempt to try them and stick with the standard hatching methods.) You will still need to follow the same protocol as the "wet hatch" and monitor air cell development.
Eggs and embryos need oxygen and CO2 exchange. The growing chick will produce and release CO2 at the same level. It will need oxygen to survive and grow. And your venting system will allow the entering and exiting of both of these. It will also allow more or less moisture and heat to escape depending on the opening hole size of your vents. At the start of the incubation cycle, less oxygen is needed, little CO2 is being produced by the growing babies and your humidity and heal levels should remain fairly constant. However at lock down, your venting system will play an even bigger part in the hatching process, which I will cover in the "Lock Down" section of this article. Some incubators come with fixed/open vents which works quite well as the adjustable vents. If you have adjustable vents, you will begin the incubation cycle with your vents open slightly.
Setting your Eggs
Ok, so your incubator is all warmed up and leveled off at 99.5 degrees F, your humidity level is somewhere around 40%, your vents are cracked and your eggs have been resting for 24 hours. You are now ready to set!
Always set at least 6 eggs. Things happen, not all eggs are fertile, an egg got damaged during candling, one had a blood ring, machines can malfunction, shipping was too hard on the eggs, you lost power during incubation, etc... so better safe than sorry and set a few extra eggs, more chickens than you originally planned for. Set your room temp eggs into your pre-warmed incubator. (Always set eggs large end up, this gives the chick a sense of direction for hatching out of the top of the egg.) Set them so that the large end is higher than the pointy end. Some incubators make this easier than others but do your best in getting your eggs laying on an angle with the larger end up higher than the pointy smaller end. (Some incubators have you set them standing, large end up.) The moment you get all the eggs in the machine and shut the lid, you are working on the beginning of day 1. Lets say you set your eggs at noon on Friday. Tomorrow at noon, day 1 is over and is now the start of day 2. Sunday at noon will be end of day 2 and the beginning of day 3 and so on. Chickens hatch approximately in 21 days. So it is safe to say if you set your eggs on a Friday, 3 weeks from that Friday they should begin hatching. Now 21 days is not set in stone, it's an average date to expect something to be happening. If your temps were a tad low or you lost power, your hatch may be delayed by a day or 2. If your temps were a tad high, your chicks might hatch a day earlier. Day 21 is used as reference.
So your eggs are all set in the machine, the lid is shut and you notice your temp and humidity has gone haywire, temp is dropping, humidity is sky rocketing!! Perfectly normal!! You added material that was of a lower temp and has it's own humidity level. DO NOT PANIC. (Easier said than done, I know.) Do not try and adjust the temp or humidity level, it will all be in vain at this point until the machine conditions settle down, none of this will harm the eggs. As long as you started with perfect temps and humidity levels, machine is running well, it's all good. It will take about 24 hours for the incubator to adjust itself, the eggs to stop steaming off and come up to temp. By the second day your machine will have stabilized and if you are not 100% satisfied with the temp or humidity level, you can then make changes. It can take an hour to see changes in your adjustments.
Turning your Eggs
I find egg turners to be one of the most important parts of your incubator. Turning eggs is EXTREMELY important for the growing embryo's. It prevents the growing embryo from adhering to the inner shell, it keeps the yolk centered and a constant food supply to the growing baby as it constantly consumes it. How often do you turn your eggs? Professional hatcheries turn their eggs once every hour. I have always had good luck with this method, however you can turn less, at LEAST 3 or 4 times a day. How are they turned? Turn your eggs from side to side, about a 1/3rd of a turn to the left at the first designated time to turn. At the next time for turning, turn a 1/3rd of a turn to the right. NEVER turn them end over end or 360 degrees all the way around. Imagine the rocking of a ship, at 1pm turn the eggs 1/3rd to the left. At 2pm, turn them 1/3rd to the right and so on. Turn them in this manner the entire cycle until Lock Down.
Candling your Eggs
At this point lets assume things are going well, all systems are running well and it's day 7 or 8. Sometime around day 8 you will want to candle your eggs. Now you don't HAVE to do this, however this will help you to know if your air cells are shrinking at the proper rate, you should be able to spot vein growth, blood rings or clears at this point. If an egg has cracked, you will want to remove it. Candling gives you the opportunity to look inside your eggs and see just what is going on!
Day 8 or 9
There are "candlers" sold on the market for just this purpose and even some manufacturers of incubators have them built into the unit. I have found that a good old fashioned VERY bright flashlight and a darkened room will make for great candling. Remove one egg at a time to candle. Go into a very dark room and gently hold the flashlight right up to the large end of the egg, even the side of the egg will work. By day 8, you should be able to see a few veins growing. If you see only 1 long line that appears to look like blood, that is called a "Blood Ring" and the egg has died. This usually happens around day 2 or 3, the egg was up to temp and experienced a cold spell and the chill killed the egg. If there are no veins present, you can re-candle these eggs around day 10 or 12. If they still have no veins by then, they are considered "clears" and should be removed. Either they were not fertile or for what ever reason did not develop. I like to candle one more time around day 16 or so, just before Lock Down just to see who is alive and will be proceeding to the final step. At this point, day 8, I like to open my vents about half way, the chicks are growing larger and need more oxygen. Watch your humidity and temperatures when ever you open or close vents.
Lock Down is a fun time however it can also be stressful if you are waiting on pins and needles to see what hatches!
1. Stop Egg Turners and Remove Eggs
Lock Down starts about 3 days before hatch. At this time you want to take out your egg turners or turn them off. If the turners do not come out or you cannot turn them off, you will need to make a false floor and lay something down to place the eggs on for hatching. Make sure it covers the turners completely and the chicks have no way of falling into the turners or any other parts of the incubator. Make SURE to line the floor with something non skid. Chicks need very sure footing at hatch because chicks legs and feet are very weak at hatch, it's wet inside the machine and slipping and sliding will cause splay leg and you don't want that. That rubber shelf liner with the holes in it will works really well or a small towel, just something with grip for the chicks feet. Be ready with the necessary floor lining, remove the eggs, place lining in and replace the eggs. At this point you can lay the eggs on their sides for hatching, it is not necessary to keep them tilted upwards. These 3 days of no turning will give the chick time to get into position for pipping and zipping. If you have a "hatcher", you can move all eggs to the hatcher to hatch and avoid the hassle of the incubator. You will still need a non skid flooring material for the chicks to hatch on.
2. Open Vents
Next, open your vents all the way. Chicks need all the oxygen they can get at hatching, it takes huge amounts of oxygen in the lungs and CO2 removal for them to bust out of the egg!
3. Raise your Humidity Level
Your temp will remain the same all throughout the cycle from setting the eggs to hatching. Your humidity however needs to rise during Lock Down and hatching. Here is another humidity question that if you asked 10 people on the humidity level at Lock Down, you will probably get 10 different answers! At this stage, humidity becomes extremely important. Humidity plays an important part in the softening egg and keeps the chicks from sticking to the inside of the egg after external pipping. If your incubator doesn't have a super high setting for humidity, you will need to increase it on your own.
What works for me is I put a small cup inside the incubator filled with distilled water and insert a clean brand new kitchen sponge into the water. This will wick off and raise the humidity inside the incubator. If the humidity is still too low, I add another sponge. If it's too high, I cut the sponge down to a smaller size. You will have time to do this that first day of Lock Down before it's important to get and keep the humidity high.
Now some people can get away with 65% percent humidity depending on many factors, some may need 75%. I like level of about 70% and I have learned to tell just how humid it is by looking at the viewing window. You don't want it raining inside, but you want a good steam on the window. Also, some people are fiddlers...we don't like to open the lid during hatching or pipping, but for some reason we find a very important need to do so...chicks are hatched and dry and others are pipping, machine needs more humidity, eggs are getting all tossed about by lose chicks, etc...so I open the lid. Some people are the completely opposite...they do not what so ever open the lid until all chicks are hatched and dried off, they do not assist a struggling chick, eggs get tossed and flipped around and they do not intervene. These types can get away with a lower humidity or 65%. Fiddlers like myself need higher humidity like 70% to 75%. I don't like to open the lid during the external pipping stage, it is a very vulnerable time for humidity loss and chicks can and do stick to the inside of the shells and die. So do your best not to open the lid. But if you absolutely have to, I like to have a spray bottle filled with warm water handy and what I do is reach in as quickly a possible, do what I have to do and douse the entire inside down, eggs and all with water, quickly shut the lid.
Pipping and Zipping
What is pipping? There are 2 types of pipping, internal and external pipping. By Lock Down, the chick has grown to large proportions and fills the entire membrane inside the egg with the exception of the air cell. The chick has turned itself, beak toward the air cell and at some point the chick decides it's time to bust out of this thing they have called home for the past several weeks. So it uses it's egg tooth and pokes through into the air cell beginning respiration for the first time, internal pipping. When the CO2 rises too high inside the air cell, nature signals the chick to poke a hole through the outer shell, external pipping. This hole may seem VERY tiny to you, but to that small baby, it huge, do not enlarge or mess with it.
At this stage the chick is gearing up to hatch. DO NOT be tempted to break the chick out after external pipping, they can stay in this position for 24+ hours. They are not stuck and do not need your help at this point. During this time they are busy detaching blood vessels from the inside of the shell wall and absorbing the last of the yolk. If you are antsy, do hop on BYC and post to anyone that will listen, you have a pipped chick!!!! You can also get your Brooder all set up and ready for your new babies.
About 24+ hours after external pipping, chicks should then begin zipping out of the egg. It's hatch time! Zipping out usually doesn't take long and goes fairly smooth at this point. However give the chick time to bust out of the egg, they zip out of the egg in their own time. (If the chick is still struggling later that day, you may need to do an "assist hatch". This is a whole other article, however I will leave a link at the bottom of this page should you need help.) During this time I do not like to open the lid because so many of them may be hatching and pipped and you do NOT want to dry them out in fear of them sticking to their shells and dying.
Let the chicks completely dry off before removing them from the incubator to the brooder as they can chill if they are still wet. Once they are all dry, transfer them one by one to your brooder.
As for those that did not hatch on time...I give all eggs 4 or 5 days after the due date to hatch. I re-candle, also you can do a float test by floating the eggs in warm water to see if they move (the embryo will rock and roll inside the egg when floating in water, if alive). If after 5 or 6 days and you feel the eggs are dead, then discard them. But many times there are late arrivals, so don't be too quick to turn the machine off or discard eggs.
Hopefully you have had a successful hatch! Nothing more magical than watching an egg turn into a tiny chick, watching it hatch and seeing it grow into an adult bird. Keep in mind that you will gain experience with each hatch. Sometimes the first hatch doesn't always go as planned, however with every future hatch you will learn tips and tricks to make it easier and more successful. Hatching can become addicting as well so be careful! If you need rehab though, plenty of intervention or enablers here on BYC depending on what you need.
Chicken Products and Supplies reviews:
If you need further help with your hatch, feel free to stop by Sally's Incubation thread, lots of help for you there.
You may also wish to join in on a Hatch A Long so you can share your pics, stories and excitement with other hatchers.
If you have a chick that needs an Assisted Hatch, you can stop by this thread for more help.
You can also start a thread in our Hatching and Incubation forums here.