Incubating Chicken Eggs
Obtaining Hatching Eggs
Fertile eggs can usually be obtained from hatcheries, poultry breeders, E-bay, Craigslist, and other sources. You can look online or in the yellow pages of your phone directory for names of hatcheries and poultry breeders. If possible pick up fertile eggs instead of having them shipped. Many things can go wrong when eggs are shipped, such as x-rays, rough handling, over heating or under heating, etc. All these factors can play a roll in whether a fertile egg will hatch or not.
Care of Eggs Prior to Incubation
Proper care of eggs prior to incubation plays a vital role in the hatch-ability of the eggs. Because it may not be possible or practical to place the eggs in the incubator as soon as you get them it is important to take proper care. Ideally, eggs should not be more than 7 days old before setting. If collecting eggs prior to incubation turn the eggs daily and keep them at about 55 degrees F, with a relative humidity of 70% - 80%. Temperatures below 40 decline the hatch-ability of eggs, while temps above 80 may result in an abnormal chick.
Location of Incubator
Your incubator should be placed in a room with no drafts and minimum temperature fluctuation. This room should be between 70 and 75 degrees F. Do not place your incubator near windows where the sun may raise the temperature in the incubator.
Readying the Incubator for Operation
Before setting your eggs, make sure the incubator is in good working order. Add water to the water pan and turn on the incubator. Adjust the temp until it consistently stays between 99 and 103 degrees F. Check your owners manual to your incubator to see how to adjust the temperature.
Preparing the Eggs for Incubation
During incubation eggs need to be turned unless you have an automatic turner. If turning by hand, use a pencil to draw a "X" on one side of the egg and an "O" on the other. This will help to tell when the egg has been turned because either all O's or all X's will be facing up at one time.
It is detrimental to the incubation process to control humidity. During the incubation process an egg looses approximately 11% of its original weight by drying out. Water must be placed in the incubator to avoid excessive moisture loss.
The size of the ventilation holes on the incubator also play a roll in the level of humidity. If humidity is to high open more ventilation holes, if it is to low nearly close ventilation holes, but do not close them all the way.
The ideal humidity in the incubator for the first 18 days should be 50% - 55% and 65% for the last 3 days. This percentage can be determined by the placement of a Humidistat in the incubator. To much water in the incubator can cause the chick to drown, to little water in the incubator can cause the chick to stick to the shell and not survive without help.
Eggs should not come in contact with water at any time during incubation.
figure 1: Size of air cell in the egg on the 7th, 14th, and 18th days of incubation.
In a still-air incubator temperature can vary from 99 to 103 degrees F without harmful effects. If the temperature stays at one extreme or the other for multiple days it is possible that it may reduce your hatch rate. Overheating is much more serious than under heating. As a result of overheating , embryos may develop too fast and become abnormal. A thermometer should be in place in the center of the incubator level with the top of the eggs.
During incubation proper ventilation is critical. During the development of the embryo, oxygen enters the shell and carbon dioxide exits the shell. During hatching the chick needs higher levels of oxygen. To do this the vents need to be gradually opened to increase the air flow.
figure 2: Ventilation locations on Little Giant still air incubator
Length of Incubation
Chickens require a 21 day incubation period, while other poultry species vary. Below is a list of various species and their incubation periods.
Chicken - 21 days
Turkey - 28
Duck - 28
Muscovy Duck - 33 to 35
Goose - 29 to 31
Guinea - 26 to 28
Pigeon - 16 to 18
Ring-neck Pheasant - 23 to 24
Peafowl. - 28
Turning the Eggs
When placing eggs in the incubator place them on their side. It is best to turn the eggs a minimum of three (3) times a day but more is better, i.e 5. Keep the turns to an odd number to ensure the side that gets the most resting changes from day to day. When turning the eggs move them to a different part of the incubator to offset temp changes. Turn the eggs from day 1 to day 18. VERY IMPORTANT: Do not turn the eggs from day 18 to 21 !!!!!
Candling the Eggs
Candling the eggs helps you see where they are in development and lets you know if any stopped developing. An egg that has stopped developing will have a muddy brown look to it. An actively growing embryo will look pinkish and veins will be present. If there is any doubt whether the egg stopped progressing, play it safe and leave it in for the duration of the incubation. Eventually the embryo will grow large enough to block any light and will look like a dark mass. Before day 5 it is hard to see development, for this reason its best to candle for the first time on day 7.
To candle use a bright flashlight,a purchased candler, or make a homemade candler. To use the flashlight method, turn off all the lights to make the room as dark as possible. Holding the head of the flashlight turn it on and with your other hand hold an egg, over the flashlight head. The brighter and smaller the flashlight the better.
figure 3: Candling with a flashlight
Final Stage of Incubation
After day 17, the incubator should not be opened unless absolutely necessary. This portion of the incubation period is called "lock down". During this time the chicks move in the eggs to get situated before hatching. Once situated (around day 19 - 20) the chick will pip the egg. Pipping the eggs means the chick will break little holes into the shell and move its way around in a circle until the top of the egg is completely pipped. This process can take two to four hours. All chicks should be hatched by day 21 unless there was operation difficulties during the incubation period. In this case there may be a few eggs delayed in hatching. When most eggs are hatched , lower the temp to 95 degrees F to allow the chicks to dry. Also open all air vents at this time.
After the Hatch
As soon as chicks are dry and fluffed they can be removed from the incubator. From here they get moved into a brooder. They will need a temperature of 95 degrees F for the first week and decrease by 5 degrees each week after until they reach about 70 degrees. Chicks can survive on the yolk they consumed during the hatch for 3 days. After this point chicks will need around the clock access to water and feed (More on the brooding process in another handout.).
Cleaning the Incubator
After the hatch is complete and the chicks are transferred to the brooder, disconnect the incubator. Remove all shells and unhatched eggs. Wipe the interior of the incubator with a warm soapy sponge. Let the incubator air dry for a couple days before using again or closing . To lessen the cleaning process a layer of cheese cloth can be placed in the incubator on the rack. After incubation simply throw away and wipe down interior.
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