If you are looking for a fun family project that will increase the number of animals on your homestead, try hatching chicken eggs in an incubator. Hatching eggs is also a great way to start a flock of chickens for a minimal investment of time and money.
Since our flock is getting older, we wanted to add a few new hens to keep egg production going. Since we had a rooster, we hoped one of our hens would go broody and hatch eggs for us. Unfortunately, no one stepped up to the job. Instead, we decided to hatch eggs using an incubator.
How to Incubate Chicken Eggs
If you want egg layers, meat producers, or dual-purpose chickens, it’s easy to hatch fertile chicken eggs using an incubator. An incubator is an artificial way to hatch eggs without a broody hen. It provides the eggs with the proper conditions to develop and hatch.
It takes 21 days for a fertilized egg to hatch. During that period, the eggs must be kept warm and turned regularly. An incubator is an enclosed box that securely holds the eggs, provides the proper humidity, and keeps eggs at a steady temperature with a heater and a fan to circulate the heat.
Get an Incubator
We borrowed an incubator from friends, but if you plan on hatching chicks regularly this Brinsea Mini II Advance Egg Incubator is a great little incubator for hatching a small batch of eggs.
It does everything for you from maintaining the temperature and humidity, to turning the eggs, and even has a countdown clock on the top. Hatching chicken eggs in an incubator that has an automatic turner will make the process less time consuming for you.
If you are looking to hatch a larger amount of eggs, the larger Brinsea models are highly recommended for ease of use and cleaning up after the hatch. Every incubator is different. Whichever incubator you choose, be sure to read and follow the directions.
Prepare the Incubator
Whether it’s a new or used incubator, it will need to be prepared before the eggs arrive. Start by disinfecting the incubator with a mild bleach solution made by adding 1/2 cup bleach to 4 cups of warm water. Wipe the entire unit down with a clean sponge soaked with the bleach solution. Follow the disinfecting a wash in warm soapy water and a thorough rinse to ensure the eggs are starting in a sanitized environment. Place the cleaned incubator in a location that is free of drafts and has a consistent air temperature that is above 60˚F.
Test the Incubator
Test the machine to make sure you understand how everything works and all components are operating properly. Temperature and humidity inside the incubator are critical factors for hatching chicken eggs. Follow the instructions for your unit.
- Temperature: Temperature should remain between 99-102˚F at all times. The ideal temperature is 100.5˚F. The incubator has a thermometer, but you may wish to keep an instant read thermometer near the incubator so you can easily double-check the internal temperature.
- Humidity: Humidity level should be at 50% for the first 17 days, then it will need to be raised to 70% for the last 4 days before eggs hatch. Test the water channel and hygrometer to ensure they are working properly.
- Heater and Fan: Consistent heat and air circulation are needed to hatch chicken eggs. The last 4 days of gestation when humidity is increased, the air circulation will also need to be increased.
- Egg Turner: Ensure the egg turner is working gently and efficiently. If you are turning the eggs yourself, place a few test eggs in the incubator and practice turning the eggs a few times.
Find Fertilized Chicken Eggs
Sourcing quality fertilized chicken eggs is crucial for a successful hatch. The best way to get fertilized eggs is through a local source, such as a friend, local farmer, or your own flock.
Also consider breeders and hatcheries as a source, especially if you want specific breeds. Be sure to research and read reviews.
Keep in mind, not all the eggs are guaranteed to hatch. There may be some that are not fertilized, damaged in transit, or have other development issues. There is generally a 75% hatch rate with home incubators under perfect conditions. If your eggs are shipped, expect that rate to go down to around 50%. So plan for duds and get a few extras just in case.
- Friend or Your Own Back Yard Flock: Since we have a rooster, we are using fertilized eggs from our flock. It will be so cute seeing barnyard mixed breed chickens running around.
- Local Breeder: If you are looking for purebred chickens, a local breeder is a great place to source fertilized eggs. Ask around at poultry shows or your farm and feed stores.
- Local Poultry Farmer: A local poultry farmer with a rooster in the flock may be willing to sell some fertilized eggs.
- Through a Hatchery: Decide which chicken breeds you want on your homestead and purchase the fertilized eggs through a hatchery. Keep in mind, mail order can be tricky because of the way eggs are handled and stored during delivery. Order extra in case of damage.
- Also consider contacting your local county Extension office or 4-H club for ideas on where you can find fertilized eggs.
Storing Fertilized Eggs
Fertile eggs can be stored for a short period of time until you have enough to fill your incubator. Ideal storage temperature is between 55˚F. Storage temperatures that are too high or too low will reduce the chances of the embryo developing normally.
Store fertile hatching eggs with the small end down in a clean egg carton in a cool location for up to 6 days. Eggs that are stored should be turned twice a day to keep the yolk centered in the egg and prevent it from sticking to the shell. Instead of turning the eggs individually, tilt the entire egg carton by elevating one end and then the opposite end the next time.
Allow cool eggs to warm slowly to room temperature before placing in the incubator.
Steps to Hatching Eggs with an Incubator
Once you have your incubator set up and sourced your fertilized eggs, it is time to set your eggs and begin incubating.
Warm the Incubator
Turn on the incubator and review the instructions again to make sure everything is set up properly. Let the unit warm up for several hours.
Examine the Eggs
While the incubator is warming up, bring your fertilized eggs out of the cool storage area so they can warm up slowly to room temperature before setting the eggs into the incubator. Take this opportunity to examine each egg carefully for flaws. Always wash your hands before and after handling to avoid contaminating the eggs with bacteria. Handle the eggs gently and try not to jostle them around.
- Eliminate Bad Eggs: Take a good look at your fertilized eggs. Eggs that are cracked, thin-shelled, weirdly shaped, or very dirty should not be used for hatching. Avoid hatching small pullet eggs and excessively large eggs.
- Candle the Eggs: Candling the eggs will help you see hairline cracks in the shells that may not be visible on the surface. Cracked shells leave the egg vulnerable to bacteria and should not be used. Candling will also identify eggs that have two yolks. Reject double yolk eggs too as they rarely hatch successfully. See How to Candle Chicken Eggs for more information.
- Wipe Down if Dirty: If the eggs are slightly soiled, you can brush off the dirt with a clean, dry cloth. Avoid washing the eggs if possible. Washing the eggs will remove the outer bloom leaving the egg at greater risk from bacterial contamination.
- Mark Each Egg: If you are turning the eggs manually, use a pencil to mark one side of the egg with an “X” and the opposite side with and “O” before placing them into the incubator. You may also want to number the eggs to keep tract.
Day 1: Set the Eggs
Place the eggs in the egg tray of the incubator, with the larger end facing up and the narrow end facing down in the incubator. This is called “setting the eggs.”
Follow the directions of your incubator. Some require you to place the eggs on the welded wire platform horizontally with the large end elevated slightly, while some have little notches to hold the eggs. Either way, the pointed end should be down, and the large end up so the embryo to remains in the proper position to develop and hatch.
If you are manually turning the eggs, make sure all the Xs are facing the same way, either up or down.
Days 1-18: Turning the Eggs
Eggs will need to be turned 2-3 times per day to prevent the developing embryos from sticking to the inside of the shell. If you incubator has an automatic turner, the eggs will be turned for you, and it will save you a lot of time. If turning eggs manually, wash hands before turning eggs or wear gloves to prevent germs and oils from being transferred to the eggs.
Carefully open the incubator and turn the eggs from the X side to the O side, or the O side to the X side. Be careful, but try to do this quickly so the eggs don’t get too cold. Stop turning eggs on day 18 to allow the chicks to settle into hatching position.
Days 5-7: Candling the Eggs
Between days 5 and 7, the eggs should be candled to determine their viability. Hold one egg at a time up to a lit candle or a flashlight so you can see a glimpse of what is going on inside.
If you see veins or an embryo, the egg is developing normally. If the egg is clear, smells bad, or has a ring of red inside (which indicates a dead embryo) remove the egg from the incubator and discard.
Day 17: Preparing for Hatch Day
The end of day 18 is beginning of the incubator lockdown period. Lockdown stage is the last 3 days before the chicks are due to hatch. At this phase, we stop opening the incubator. This keeps the temperature steady, and humidity level high to help the chick hatch out of the shell.
Here are things to do before locking down the incubator on day 18:
- Candle the Eggs: It is a good idea to candle your chicken eggs right before lockdown. You should be able to see the dark shadow of the embryo filling most of the egg with an air cell at the large end of the egg. Some embryos may even be moving, while others might be sleeping. The embryo has died if it is small, cloudy, and moves freely through the egg. Also, if the egg smells bad, or sweats a dark color, or has a blood ring. Remove the bad eggs from the incubator and discard so it doesn’t affect the remaining eggs.
- Stop Turning Eggs: If you are using an automatic egg turner, remove the eggs from the turning tray and place them on the hatching tray. The last 3 days before hatching, the chick is fully formed and in the process of absorbing the egg yolk into the abdomen for nutrition, and get in position to hatch. Turning the eggs will interrupt this process.
- Increase Humidity: Follow the instructions for your incubator to increase the humidity level in the incubator so it stays at a level between 65-70%. This may involve topping off and/or filling an extra water chamber. Be sure to place the water guard over the water reservoir so the hatched chicks can’t fall in and drown. A humid environment helps keep the egg membrane moist enough for the chick to peck through. If the membrane is too dry, the chick will have difficulty breaking through and won’t be able to hatch.
Day 18-21: Incubator Lockdown Period
The chick hatching process actually begins on day 18-19. The chick begins absorbing the remaining egg yolk into its body for nutrition after hatching, and moves into hatching position with its beak towards the air space at the large end of the egg.
- Close Up the Incubator on Day 18: Try not to open the incubator during the lockdown period. If you do need to fill the water chamber, do so quickly and close the cover again.
- Set up Your Brooder: Get the brooder setup and turn the heat on so the baby chicks can be placed inside immediately. See How to Prepare for Baby Chicks for more information.
Day 21: Chick Hatching Day
I have to admit that watching a chick hatch is one of the most nerve-wracking parts of this whole incubation process. The best advice I can give is simply to let nature take its course.
Chicken eggs are expected to hatch on or around day 21. Chicks will hatch when they’re fully developed, and when the yolk has been absorbed into the chick’s body. Some may hatch earlier and some later. Hatching isn’t a quick thing either. A normal hatch can take up to 24 hours from first pip to complete hatch.
Don’t be alarmed if your chicks don’t hatch all at once. Keep the incubator on until day 24 just in case you have some late hatchers. Here’s what to expect:
The First Internal Pip: When a chick begins to hatch, it uses its egg tooth to break through the shell membrane into the air chamber and begins to breathe air for the first time. Sometimes you can hear the chick peeping inside the egg. This is referred to as, “internal pipping.” The chick may rest for a while before breaking through the shell.
External Pipping: When the chick is ready, it begins to break out of the shell. You should start to see tiny cracks in the shell as the chick uses its egg tooth to peck a hole to breathe fresh air. This first hole in the shell is called the, “first external pip.” The act of breaking through the shell is called, “pipping.” This can take time and the chick may stop to rest before going back to work.
Zipping: The chick will continue to peck a circle around the egg. This is called “zipping” because it looks like a little zipper. Hatching is exhausting work, and the chick may take naps throughout the process.
Hatching: Eventually, the chick breaks the shell open by pushing with its feet, and sprawls to the incubator floor. When chicks first emerge from their shell, they are wet and don’t look very cute. They often flop to the floor exhausted and sleep for a little while.
Within a few hours, the chick will dry out and begin exploring its new world. Baby chicks are perfectly happy in the incubator for a few hours until they are dry and fluffy.
Try not to open the incubator if other chicks are hatching because it can dry out the egg membrane making it difficult to break through. Early hatchlings are safe to stay in the incubator for up to 24 hours while they wait for their siblings to hatch. Make sure that the chicks are completely dry and fluffy before you open the incubator to move them into the prepared brooder.
Follow the incubator’s instructions for the proper way to clean up the incubator and store it for next time.
Chickens are addicting. Once you have them you always want more. If we had space for a hundred chickens you can bet we would have a hundred chickens. They would be gallivanting all around our yard. Since that would put us in factory farm status, we’ll stick with our small flock and add a few to it each year. I hope sharing our chick hatching adventures using an incubator helps you decide how you want to raise backyard chickens.
What’s next? Raising Chicks: What to Expect the first Six Weeks
Sources and Further Reading:
- Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks by Gail Damerow
- Raising Chickens for Dummies by Kimberly Willis
- Storey’s Guice to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow