How to incubate eggs

Whether you are wanting to replace a laying flock, create a new flock, introduce some new birds or just do it for the fun of it, you will need to hatch some eggs. Incubating eggs is one option, but knowing how to incubate eggs is part of it as well.  

Why would one want to incubate eggs?

Some would say to just order your replacement birds, and they could be right depending on the circumstances.  But sometimes you can’t buy day old chicks and hatching eggs is your only option – as was the case for me.  I wanted Jersey Giants and so mail-order hatching eggs at 7.00 CDN (5.50 USD) an egg plus delivery (75.00) was my only option.  It is a reputable supplier and the eggs arrived very nicely packaged in foam – not a cracked egg to be found.  They will be expensive birds, but it is a long term investment as well. 

Photo of Jersey Giant eggs in shipping material

Why do I want the Jersey Giant and Buff Orpinton breed?   

I have been looking at possibly getting some breeds to replace the Cornish Cross and to have birds I can breed myself.  Thus, being less reliant on the hatchery.   So, I am trialing the Jersey Giant and I also ordered some day old Buff Orpington to come with my order of Cornish Cross arriving on June 2.  In doing the research they both sound like they bring different characteristics to be considered such as the Jersey Giant can take 15 months to mature and the Buff Orpingtons can go broody.  The research says the meat is different for each breed.   At the end of the day, we will see what direction I go.  The supplier sent me 15 eggs (I ordered 12) so rather than have a partially full incubator I decided to hatch out some of my own eggs – a barnyard mix of Danish Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, Barred Plymouth Rock, White Leghorn, Ameraucana, Columbian Rock, Cochin and a sex-sal-link brown.  It should be interesting.  I started collecting a few days ago and to ensure the yolk does not attach to the shell I tipped the eggs back and forth a couple times a day by supporting on one end of the carton and then reversed the next time. Photo of egg cartons containing eggs being tipped

What should I consider before hatching eggs?

When you are deciding to hatch your own eggs, the reason for the hatch needs to be considered.  Are you planning on butchering all of the birds you hatch?  Are you adding to your flock?  If you only want hens, what are you going to do with the roosters (typical hatch is 50 50 hen to rooster)?  For me, as I run about a 1 rooster per 10 – 15 ratio, I will be raising all the roosters from my barn yard mix for butchering, unless there is an exceptionally gorgeous one in there.  I don’t want to change that ratio.  For the Jersey Giants I will be keeping all for breeding purposes at a later date.  I will also be applying this same thought process to my Buff Orpington chicks I have coming.  As I am raising those two breeds for replacement meat birds, meat on the hoof if you will, I will most likely butcher one rooster of each just to see before I invest too much into them. 

What can I use to incubate my eggs?

There are many ways that one can successfully hatch eggs, although some are easier than others.   You can make a home made incubator out of a lined box or Styrofoam cooler with a light in it; you can put under a broody hen;  and my Dad even talks of hatching beside the wood cook stove or in the warming oven of the stove; or, you can use an incubator.  There are many varieties on the market but for years, I used my gifted old Hova-bator incubator and successfully hatched eggs.Photo of old Havabator incubator

It did not have an egg turner in it, so I laid the eggs on the wire mesh and would turn the eggs by hand a minimum of 3 times a day.  Putting an “X” on one side of the egg and an “O” on the other side aids in ensuring that you are turning the eggs back and forth vs a complete 360 degree turn.  I have always read that turning eggs 360 degrees can result in the yolk twisting and essentially choking off the chick from food.  However, some incubators rotate the eggs in this manner and successful hatches are had.  And to be honest, a hen does not worry about it.  So, I just don’t know if it makes a difference. Photo showing marking of eggs

Why would I want to use an incubator? 

Well the reason is simply one of convenience.  I can ensure all the chicks hatch on the same day, or there abouts, so setting up a brooder is easier.  And, I don’t need to set up a separate area for a hen and her chicks. 

What am I using to Incubate eggs?

Because my incubator did not hold water and the thermostat was temperamental, I decided to order myself a new one.  I ordered the Hova-bator 1588 but due to supply issues I ended up with the Hova-bator 1583.  The only difference between the two being the control.  The Hova-bator 1583 is manual, but that's okay for me.  If you want a more hands off experience the Hova-bator 1588 is the model for you.

As I did not open the new incubator till the day before I put the eggs in, I did not realize there was a supply issue.  I did not want to use it incase I could send it back.  But I have eggs that need to go into the incubator.  It had been 7 days since the Jersey Giant eggs were sent and although they would be fine for a few more days, I wanted the best possible hatch and as close to my ship date from the hatchery as possible.  So what to do…I dug out my old incubator. 

Because the Jersey Giant eggs were shipped, it is recommended to hatch shipped eggs with the air pocket up because the air pocket can dislodge vs when laying the eggs down it can shift, resulting in a failed hatch.  The egg turner would accomplish this, but because my old incubator leaks, bowls of water are necessary to keep the humidity in the optimum range.  There just is not the room for the egg turner. So I have to do this old school and will be doing so until I can get things straightened out with the supplier.  You make do with what you have I guess. 

Photo of egg turner for incubating eggs

How do I prepare the incubator for use?

I warmed the incubator overnight to stabilize the temperature at around 100.5 F with an optimal percent humidity of 50 – 55%.  Closing up the air vents helps to increase the humidity, but you still need air movement so I can’t close up all the way.  Although optimal humidity for incubating the eggs is 50 - 55%, my humidity will be a little low, but it will be okay for a bit because keeping the humidity low for a bit will help to stabilize the air pocket in the Jersey Giant eggs.

How do I prepare the eggs for incubation?

 Photo of an egg being candledI then went through all my eggs and candled them all looking for cracks and picking out the smaller eggs or the overly big eggs.  If you want to hatch some smaller eggs with the normal ones, you can add them to the incubator a few days after you start the incubator process. But having them all about the same size is desireable.  I also don’t want super pointy eggs, large eggs, round eggs or dirty eggs (a little is okay) so eggs 1, 2, 3 and 10 were eliminated from that group of eggs. Photo of eggs in carton

After candling, I then put into the incubator with pointy end down.  Because I can’t use the turner, I am using egg cartons to stand them up.  After I put the lid on monitoring the temperature to get it settled at around 95 – 101 F, with 100.5 being optimal, is done over the next 21 days.  A thermometer is crucial to ensuring this temperature.  Small adjustments will be made as required.

Turning the eggs

The eggs must be turned a minimum of 3 to 4 times a day.  Because I have to do so by hand, I will wash my hands first and then gently turn the eggs slightly and tip slightly from side to side.  The reason for turning and tipping is so that the yolk does not attach itself to the shell wall and continues to free float within the egg.   Continual monitoring of the temperature is necessary because as the chicks develop, you may have to adjust the temperature down to ensure it does not get to warm in there. 

Moving the eggs to the Hova-bator 1583

A couple of days after loading my old Hova-bator incubator, I contacted the supplier about the wrong incubator being shipped.  As there were no Hova-bator 1588 incubators available, I decided to keep the Hova-bator 1583 and order a Digital Hygrometer/thermometer to go inside. Photo of incubator with eggs

I followed the same procedures as I did for setting up my old Hova-bator incubator and warmed it prior to putting in the eggs.  But this time, I put the egg turner in it.  After the incubator was to temperature, I washed my hands to prevent oil transfer to the eggs and very carefully moved all 41 eggs to the new incubator.  I closed the lid and plugged the incubator and turner in.  For the remainder of the 18 days of setting, the egg turner will gently turn the eggs for me and all I need do is top off the water tray every couple days or so.

Candling to determine fertilization at day 7 -10

In 7 – 10 days after putting the eggs in the incubator, it is recommended that the eggs be candled to see if the eggs were fertilized and development has begun.  At that time all eggs that are clear or have blood rings will be removed and discarded.  Clears are eggs that were not fertilized.  Blood rings are eggs that were fertilized, started development but for some reason the embryo died.  Embryo death could be caused by such things as jarring the egg or extreme temperature fluctuations or just simply a poor egg.  The clears and eggs with blood rings are removed to ensure the eggs do not rot and/or contaminate the remaining healthy, viable eggs.

I did not get around to candling the eggs until day 10 after setting and so I could not get pictures to show the blood vessel development.  However as a result of the candling I had four clears in the barnyard mix and 10 clears in the Jersey giant eggs. A clear indicates non fertilization and so no development.Picture of egg

I also had 1 early death in the Jersey Giant eggs.  You can see the dark spot at the very top of the egg indicating early death.  This will leave me with four possibly viable Jersey Giant eggs.I had one egg with a blood ring.  You can see the dark ring about half ways down the egg.  This is an indication of embryo death part way through.

But the good news is that I had four viable Jersey Giant eggs and 22 viable barnyard mix.  You can see the dark "blob" in the egg indicating that the chick is developing.

What to do for Day 10 - Day 18 during incubation

For the remaining days I will continue to daily monitor the temperature and make small adjustments as necessary to ensure it stays in the optimal 100.5 F range.  I will also continue to monitor the humidity levels and make adjustments to ensure humidity stays in the 50 - 55% range.

What to do on day 18 of incubation process

On day 18, 3 days prior to hatch, I will stop turning the eggs.  Because the eggs are in an egg turner I need to remove the eggs so that they can lay flat for the chick to hatch.  Because there is gaps in the egg turner, it is possible for a chick to get hung up and die.  We don't want that to happen so we will remove the egg turner. 

As some of my eggs were shipped, I need to ensure the air pocket stays upright so the chick can orient itself during the pipping process.  Therefore I will be standing them in the egg cartons to aid in this.  For my barnyard mix, I will gently lay them on the plastic mesh at the bottom of the Hovo-bator 1583

After washing my hands, I lift the egg turner out of the incubator and then very gently transfer the Jersey Giant eggs to the fibre carton lids. I then lay the barnyard mix eggs gently onto the plastic mesh letting them lie as they wish.

Once all the eggs are transferred from the egg turner, the humidity needs to be increased to 70%.  With the Hova-bator incubators they have troughs in the bottom of the incubator that allows you to increase humidity by adding or removing water.  Adjustments, dependent on environment, will be required in the first hours to get the humidity to 70%.

What to do from day 18 to hatching day

Daily monitoring of the Hova-bator 1583 is required to ensure the temperature remains in the optimal range of 95 F - 101 F.  Small adjustments may be required to maintain this temperature.  Daily monitoring of the humidity levels will also be required to ensure it stays at 70%.  Adjustments of water levels may be required.  If you are having trouble getting the humidity to 70% standing a foam sponge in a container of water will help to increase the humidity levels.

Hatching day

It has been 21 days since the eggs have been put into the incubator and you can hear a chirping sound and can more than likely see spots where the chick is started pipping.  Pipping is where the chick breaks through the internal membrane between the air sack and the yolk and starts to chip away at the shell to get out of the egg.  Do not help them pip out because they need to do that on their own.  It makes them stronger. 

Also, avoid the urge to open the lid.  A sudden decrease in humidity from opening the lid can cause the membrane to attach to the hatching chick and essentially suffocate the chick like it was wrapped in cling wrap.  If possible leave the lid on until all chicks have hatched.  But if you must remove the hatched, dried off chicks do so quickly so as to not affect the humidity level too terribly.

Once all the eggs have hatched and the chicks are dried off and moving around, I move them to the brooder.

Hatching day and beyond

If not all the eggs hatch on day 21, I usually wait for a day or so before I call it quits.  After that any unhatched eggs are done and can be discarded.

What to do if there is a power outage during incubation

A power outage during incubation is of major concern, especially if it is a long term outage.  If it will only be a short outage you can most likely get away with simply wrapping the incubator in some blankets. The blankets will slow down the cooling of the incubator and get you through the outage.  Monitoring of the temperature is important.

If it is going to be a long term outage and you don't have a generator, getting inventive and hoping for the best is all you can do.  For a long term outage you could try moving the incubator to a warmer room in the house, wrapping in blankets, filling water bottles from water heated on the bar-b-que and laying inside the incubator or all of the fore-mentioned.  Basically, do whatever you have to so that the temperature stays as warm as possible whilst making sure that air is available to the incubating eggs.  Depending on the length of the outage, you may want to wash your hands and gently turn the eggs.

This process can be as simple or as complex as you want but can also be a lot of fun too.  Have you hatched out eggs using an incubator?  What kind of incubator did you use?: 

Be sure to join the My Boreal Homestead Life community to follow along as we near hatching day.

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