When you’re considering different ways of starting your own backyard chicken flock, few options are as exciting as incubating and hatching your own chicken eggs.
It takes 21 days for a fertile chicken egg to hatch under optimal conditions. From hatching, it can take anywhere from 18 to 22 weeks (sometimes more and sometimes less, depending on the specific chicken breed) for your chickens to start laying eggs of their own.
In this online guide, you’ll discover some of the basic things you need to know when it comes to incubating and hatching your own chicks, as well as post-hatch chick care.
Getting Started: Fertile Chicken Eggs
If you have roosters and hens, you can likely collect some fertile chicken eggs yourself. Otherwise, you’ll need to source some fertile eggs from a hatchery, such as Murray McMurray or Ideal, or from your local feed or farm supply store. Additionally, you can sometimes find fertile eggs for sale or for trade in your local classifieds or in an online poultry forum like poultryCommunity.com.
The Timeline for Incubation
Incubate your fertile chicken eggs as soon as you get them. Don’t wait too long because fertility rates drop as the egg ages; 10 weeks after they’re laid is about the maximum time you can wait. If you’re not planning on incubating your hatching eggs right away and need to store them, keep them at 50 degrees Fahrenheit with the large end of the egg facing up. If you’re storing your fertile eggs for longer than a couple days, you’ll need to turn the eggs to keep the yolks from sticking to the egg shell.
The Equipment: Incubators
An incubator generates the heat and humidity necessary to hatch the eggs, sans a real mother hen. Because incubator models and settings vary widely, the best idea is to follow the instructions that came with your specific incubator.
There are many different models and types of egg incubators. The Mississippi State University says the following about egg incubators:
There are two basic types of incubators, forced-air and still-air incubators. The size and type of incubator selected depends on your needs and future plans.
Forced-air incubators have internal fans to circulate the air. Eggs are placed in stacks of trays. The capacity of these incubators is large. Most units have automatic equipment for turning the eggs and spray-mist nozzles for holding proper humidity levels.
Still-air incubators are usually small but may hold 100 eggs or more. They do not have fans. Air exchange is made by escaping warm, stale air at the top and entering cool, fresh air near the bottom. Air circulation is limited, so only one layer of eggs can be incubated. Incubating temperatures in these machines must be about 2 to 3oF. above the temperatures in forced-air incubators.
Hatching Eggs: Using Your Incubator for the First Time
An incubator regulates and provides heat and humidity. Both factors have to be just right to ensure optimal hatch rates and incubating success. The University of Minnesota says the following about incubator heat and humidity for hatching eggs:
Temperature— Maintain the temperature in the 99-102° F. temperature range (100-101° F., if possible). Place the thermometer to measure the temperature at a level at or slightly above where the center of the egg will be. Overheating the embryo is much more damaging than is underheating it; overheating speeds up embryo development, lowers the percentage of hatchability, and causes abnormal embryos. Avoid temperatures outside the 97-103° F. range.
Humidity — The moisture level in the incubator should be about 50 to 55 percent relative humidity, with an increase to about 65 percent for the last 3 days of incubation. Add warm water to the pan as necessary. If more humidity is needed, increase the size of the pan or add a wet sponge.
Besides monitoring and adjusting your incubator’s humidity and temperature, you will also need to turn the eggs. As the chick embryos start to grow, they have the potential to stick to the sides of the eggshells. In nature, the mother hen turns the eggs as she sits on them. If your incubator has the feature, it will turn the eggs for you. If your incubator does not have an egg-turning feature, turn the eggs manually at least three times a day. The last three days of incubation don’t require turning (and remember, a chicken egg takes 21 days to hatch).
Getting Ready for the Big Day
As the end of the three week incubation process draws to a close, you’ll become excited for the eggs to hatch. Channel that excitement and energy into preparing for the new chicks. The University of Minnesota says the following about preparing for your eggs to hatch:
Most chicks should hatch within a 24-hour period. Late-hatching chicks may lack vigor or be abnormal. After the chicks have dried and fluffed up completely, they can be removed from the incubator.
When most of the chicks have hatched, you can lower the incubator temperature to about 95° F. if the chicks are to be kept in the incubator for 1 or 2 days.
Feeding Chicks and Caring for Your Baby Chicks
Just like human babies, baby chickens are rather fragile and delicate. A cardboard box can serve as a fine brooder if you have a small batch of hicks. You’ll need to provide heat in the form of a heat lamp and keep it at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Every week, bring the temperature down by five degrees until the heat lamp can be shut off.
Your newly-hatched chicks will not need to eat right after they hatch. All chicks are hatched with a bit of the egg yolk inside of them that nourishes them just as it did when they were in the egg. However, you’ll need to provide food and water for your chicks soon enough. Fresh, clean waterers are important, as well as chick starter (high in protein, perfect for the little, growing chicks!).
Additional offline reading:
1. Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock
2. Feeding Poultry: The Classic Guide to Poultry Nutrition for Chickens, Turkeys, Ducks, Geese, Gamebirds, and Pigeons
3. Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens