Hatching your own eggs is an interesting experience that many of us are tempted to partake in or may have already done. For 21 days, we wait and watch excitedly for baby chicks to appear, eagerly welcoming them when they finally do. Options for hatching include letting the hen act as a natural incubator, incubating eggs laid by your own chickens in a manmade incubator, or incubating eggs purchased elsewhere and possibly shipped. Whichever option you prefer, the end goal is the same: baby chicks!
If you choose to hatch a selection of eggs laid by your flock, be sure to choose undamaged eggs for incubation. It is possible to switch the eggs on which a hen is sitting in the event that one is imperfect, although she may strongly object to being disturbed. If you are selecting eggs for an incubator, be sure to get them into position before too much time passes. They need to be in the incubator within a week of being laid; beyond that your odds of a hatch decrease significantly. In the event you are using shipped eggs for a hatch, give them a day or so to rest before you place them in the incubator. They will need to settle after being jostled in transit and may have loose or damaged air cells, so placing them upright in an egg carton will help right them in hopes of a hatch.
Before moving eggs to an incubator, it is important to make sure it is functioning properly and that the temperatures are as they should be (for forced air, 99-99.5 degrees Fahrenheit and for still air 101-102 degrees). Proper humidity is important as well and should fall around 45-50% initially and then rise to around 65% 3-4 days before the hatch is to occur. Humidity is important as it regulates the air bubble within the egg, which is what allows chicks to breathe. If air is too dry, this air bubble will grow too quickly and deprive chicks of necessary fluids. Alternately, the air bubble can deny the chick enough air if it stays small. High humidity can also allow chicks to drown in excess egg fluid whereas too little can cause chicks to appear shrink wrapped in membrane and unable to hatch, hence the importance of adequate humidity. Having thermometers on hand as well as a hygrometer will help you achieve the correct temperature and humidity.
Eggs inside of the incubator should be rested with the large end slightly elevated and the pointed end down, just as the egg would naturally sit if you placed it on a flat surface. Keeping the large end up will better orient the chick inside and help prevent drowning. Once you've established proper positioning, mark the egg with an O on one side and a X on the other (use non-toxic markers for this) to make turning easier. Turning should occur up until about three days prior to an expected hatch. Be sure to turn an uneven number of times daily if doing so by hand so that eggs do not spend multiple nights in a row in the same position. Turning prevents the embryo from making contact with the shell membrane which can cause growth to become abnormal.
Remember that fertility is never a guarantee and it is wise to candle eggs to check for signs of a developing embryo. While natural fertility is higher than that of shipped eggs, neither are likely to give you 100% success all of the time. To save yourself effort and heartbreak, go ahead and candle eggs to determine fertilization. If nothing has developed by about the 10 day mark, discard those eggs. Eggs that are not fertile but remain in the incubator will rot and affect air quality.
When the time finally arrives for your chicks to hatch, leave them in the incubator until they have dried completely and their feathers have begun to appear fluffy. Only then should you move them to the brooder where feed and a drown-proof waterer (such as nipples) are present. Now that the work is done and your chicks have arrived, the fun of raising them can begin! Enjoy those new babies!