Incubating Eggs


Incubating Eggs


It’s that time of year again, when you are or thinking collecting eggs for incubation. This is one of the most exciting times of the year, no matter how many years you have been hatching fowl, and it makes little difference how old you are as it is always a learning experience.

Selecting Hatching Eggs

To begin with you need good hatching eggs. Try not to use dirty eggs and if needs be gently buff clean and maybe actually wipe down with a sanitised cloth to reduce the likelihood of contamination. Stay clear of eggs that are misshaped, fine cracks etc. Generally poor quality eggs will lose too much moisture (cracks and thin shells), be infertile or be contaminated.  If the eggs are precious and there is little choice, what sometimes works is a little nail polish directly on the crack, as it seals it up, but only a little as it will close up the minute breathable pores also.

Pre incubation

If the eggs have been through a journey or very fresh (just laid) it is best to let the eggs settle with point end downwards for 24-48 hours. 

If the eggs are being stored for a time, it is best to turn the eggs once or twice daily to prevent the embryo sticking to the side of the egg.

The eggs should be stored in a cool, dry environment 16-18 degrees Celsius; the longer they are stored then the lower the temperature, possibly 12 degrees Celsius in extreme cases of holding eggs for a 2-3 weeks.

When the eggs are ready for incubation, particularly with multi stage incubators, the eggs should be slowly preheated (room temperature 18-24 degrees Celsius) for 12-24 hours, this prevents the eggs from sweating, causing contamination through the eggshell pores, and stressing the future embryo.

Artificial or Natural

If you are a first timer to hatching chicks, then the question is what way to incubate, naturally using a broody hen or artificially with an incubator.

Broody Hen

Personally, if the intention is only to hatch a few then the broody hen is the preference, with the only difficulty is to have one broody when you need her. The benefit with a broody is that there is no need to care for the incubated eggs by way of humidity, turning, and temperature. The broody hen does it all and cares for the chicks until they are old enough to fend for themselves without the need of heat lamps etc, with the only need being dusting for parasites. The downside is there may be a chance the broody could abandon the nest but if cared for properly the chance of this occurring can be minimized.

My preference is for a large bantam/miniature, possibly a silkie X sussex. The reason I prefer not to use pure bred silkies is that although fantastic broodies, their feather type can be lethal to the newly hatched chick, as it can get tangled up in the fine feathers. I find also to use a large breed there is a greater chance of trampled eggs or chicks.

Artificial Incubation

Where the intention is to hatch numerous eggs then of course incubators are the way to go, but think carefully what you want out of it, as there are so many different options available like still air, forced air, egg number capacity, egg size (quail, chicken, duck, goose etc), humidity application, whether turning is manual, semi automatic or automatic, and what you are willing to spend on the future incubator.

Firstly it is very important where the incubator is situated as draughts, variations in external temperature such as not in direct sunlight, beside radiators etc.

Still air is just that with no fan which can result in hot and cold spots whereas forced air uses a fan to circulate the air which helps prevent these variations in temperature.

With manual turning, if you have available free time periodically to turn the eggs 2-3 times a day then this is fine but can be time consuming, particularly with a lot of eggs.

To be certain the eggs are turned properly, mark one side with an X and the other opposite side with an O. This way you can have the eggs with the O side facing you and when you go back to turn them, it is a matter of having the X facing you.

The eggs should be turned an odd number of times so that whatever side is facing up does not consecutively be the same each night as this is the longest period the eggs sit without turning.

Again with turning the eggs by hand you are affecting the environment in the incubator as you have to open the incubator. Semi automatic is where there is a turning cradle but you still have to turn the eggs by way of some device on the outside of the incubator. This at least means the environment is not altered in the inside. Automatic means just that, with the use of a turning motor and clock that turns the eggs without you having to intervene. For the additional cost having an incubator that turns eggs automatically will be a great benefit in case of times you may forget or unable to do so.

Humidity is important, especially towards the end of hatch so be meticulous about dates so you know when it needs to be increased. Again there are some devices on the market that allow the automatic application of humidity but with the older incubators and smaller ones generally it is usually water in a tray or cup. Without humidity the chicks will not be able to hatch, as it is needed to soften the membrane and shell to allow them to pip out, as well aiding in the diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide which if not attained will result in the embryo dying. The one aid in this country is the weather conditions which help humidity levels up to the period up to 20 days incubation  If there is difficulty reaching the humidity level for pipping, the addition of another tray, wet cloth or even closing air vents slightly will help.

Of course temperature is crucial, and I strongly advise that no matter what size the incubator, be it bought or home made, have a separate independent thermometer for checking the temperature. Lower temperature will result in delayed hatches, lower hatch and possibly not as good chick quality, whereas high temperature will shorten hatch time, decrease hatch and decrease chick quality. It’s amazing how the broody can do all this!!!

Sanitation is very important in the incubator, as this prevents disease and cross contamination. There are different products on the market, that can be placed in the incubator while it is running, but if the machine is cleaned and disinfected thoroughly between hatches with smaller incubators this should eliminate most bugs, whilst with the larger incubators which are running for a longer period, as eggs are incubating at different stages, then sanitation blocks or liquid is needed.

Eggs should not be turned the last three days of incubation to allow the chick to move to the hatch position.

Eggs can be candled from 7 days on. This is where a strong light (egg candler) is positioned behind the egg.  If you can see through the egg then it is infertile and if there are dark spots/blood vessels then the egg is fertile.

Where egg carriers/trays are used it is important to ensure eggs are placed point down, as if set blunt end down the eggs will generally not hatch because the chick needs the air cell (which is at the blunt end) at the top. 

With all incubators follow manufacturer’s guidelines and run for a period before incubating eggs to monitor temperature etc.

Of course there are different incubation times, temperatures, humidity levels for different fowl. Below is a guide for the main types.

Fowl Days Temp (F)1 Humidity (F)2 Do not turn After Humidity last 3 days (F)2
Chickens 21 100 85-87 18th 90
Ducks 28 100 85-86 25th 90
Muscovy Duck 35-37 100 85-86 31st 90
Geese 28-34 99 86-88 25th 90
Turkey 28 99 84-86 25th 90
Pheasant 23-28 100 86-88 21st 92
Peafowl 28-30 99 84-86 25th 90
Guinea Fowl 28 100 85-87 25th 90

1-In Forced air incubator, for still air add 2-3 degrees F.

2- Using a wet bulb thermometer, can be converted to relative humidity.

This is one of the most enjoyable and intuitive aspects of the poultry calendar and hopefully this brief overview of this vast topic will be a some help.

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