When it comes to starting your backyard chicken flock, you can either:
- Hatch fertile chicken eggs at home using an incubator
- Buy young chicks
- Buy pullets (young juvenile chickens that haven’t started laying eggs yet)
- Buy mature egg layers (most hens start laying eggs around 16-20 weeks of age)
In the above list, your options go from cheapest to most expensive. While buying mature egg layers is a plug-in-play method, these chickens are more expensive.
Your cheapest option on a bird-by-bird basis is buying fertile chicken eggs and hatching them in your kitchen using an incubator.
While it’s the cheapest way to start your flock, you do have to incur the additional expense of purchasing an egg incubator. Granted, if you plan on raising chickens for a while, this expense slowly pays for itself.
However, the average egg incubator for poultry eggs can be as cheap as $50 and as expensive as $2,000. Before investing in an incubator for your backyard chickens, know what features to look for (and which incubator features you can skip).
At the end of this article, we’ve included some of the top-rated picks so you can see your real-life options and begin to budget out your expenses.
Essential Incubator Features and Options
Egg shells are porous to allow the developing embryo and chick to receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide. A well-ventilated incubator is essential to allow this exchange. As the eggs get closer and closer to hatching, more ventilation is needed. A good incubator has automatic ventilation controls, whereas homemade incubators often rely on more passive options like holes punched into the styrofoam box.
Heating Element and Humidity Control
Once you take the fertile eggs out of storage and place them in the incubator, they must be kept at 99.5 degrees F all day and all night. If the temperature fluctuates by as little as one degree, all the developing chicks could die.
A specific level of humidity (40-50% in the first 18 days and 65-75% afterwards until the chicks hatch) is also essential.
The best incubators for backyard hobbyists have a high-quality thermometer and hygrometer built-in. If your incubator does not have one built in, or if you’re using a cheap incubator that doesn’t have reliable measuring devices, buy them separately. These don’t tend to be expensive. For example, accurate, easy-to-read advanced thermometers and hydrometers for egg incubators run under $15 on Amazon.
Most people won’t need to worry about this if they buy a quality incubator. For example, Brinsea Mini (pictured on the left) has a microcontroller for managing incubator functions, such as temperature, through a menu on a digital display. It also has fan-assisted airflow to keep the humidity and temperature even across all of the eggs.
The fertile eggs are placed inside the incubator on their sides and you need to turn them three times a day (preferably more). Normally, the mother hen turns the eggs, but as the surrogate this job falls to you. This keeps the embryo from sticking to one side of the egg.
Cheaper egg incubators typically require you to do this task, but some of the best chicken egg incubators have a tray that automatically turns the eggs at regular intervals. This can save you a considerable amount of time.
One of the best-selling and all-time highest-rated egg incubators is the GQF 1588 Genesis Hova-Bator Incubator by GQF (pictured on the left). It’s compatible with most egg turners, such as this popular turner, which you simply place in the bottom of the incubator and place the eggs on top of it.
Other Top-Rated Incubators
Besides the GQF incubator and the Brinsea Mini, the Magicfly Digital Mini Fully Automatic Egg Incubator is extremely popular with backyard enthusiasts. It’s much more compact than the GQF model and holds up to a dozen chicken eggs. It’s fully automated and includes an egg turner and automatic temperature controlling.
The Oanon Automatic 48 Digital Clear Egg Incubator Hatcher rounds out the list of our top four best incubators for raising backyard chickens. It’s at a similar price point as the Magicfly, but holds many more eggs (48 total). The best option for you depends on how much space you have for the incubator and how many eggs you plan on hatching at any one time.