Incubation for Beginners

Posted by Susan Lenz on

Incubating Basics

(including extra tips on hatching shipped eggs) 

Let me preface this resource by saying, I’ve hatched out a lot of shipped eggs. Honestly, more than I would care to remember., and have been breeding poultry for nearly 25 years. Coming from a Island where there are limited bloodlines and availability after a while of keeping chickens, I started wanting something a little different. Generally I fit into the category of the “Don’t tell her it’s unusual, hard to find, or hard to hatch, cause she’ll want it!” … I like left of centre and I love a challenge so receiving eggs from all over Australia is a great way of having different bloodlines in your flock. It also increases your knowledge on hatching and is an extremely educational process.

At times, I’ve saved a lot of money adding new breeds to our flock by purchasing eggs, and other times. . . not so much. Hatching shipped eggs is always a gamble as there are so many variables that can affect their viability such as: rough handling during shipping, x-ray machines, changes in air pressure, exposure to extreme temperatures, etc. Even though I regularly have 100% hatch rates with our own eggs, I usually only expect to have 40-60% with shipped eggs (the best I’ve ever had with shipped eggs was 97% and the worst is, of course 0%). Please keep in mind these tips work for me, but they may not for anyone else. So here goes:

Storing eggs ready for incubation

Ideally eggs used for incubation should not be older than 14 days, (7 days for smaller species such as Quail), 5 - 10 days is ideal. Eggs older than this are likely to have poor growth and/or hatch rates. It is important to use the freshest eggs possible for hatching.

When storing eggs in egg cartons, make sure the carton is clean. Egg residue can carry bacteria and other pathogens, potentially infecting your eggs. Eggs should be positioned so that the pointed end is downward into the carton, this way the yolk will be suspended in such a way to prevent sticking to the sides of the shell. The cartons can be rotated from side to side daily prior to placing eggs into incubator. Eggs should never be washed at this point in time. Eggs that have flaws, cracks or uneven shell or those that are particularly dirty should not be used for incubation.

Preparing your eggs for incubation

When you are ready to set your eggs into your incubator, make sure you prepare and turn on your incubator 24 hours in advance. This allows the temperature to stabilise and time for you to ensure everything is working correctly. Follow the manufacturers directions, to turn on. Make sure the water reservoir is filled correctly and the incubator has reached temperature correctly. Leave the incubator on for at least 24 hours without eggs and check temp with a min-max thermometer if possible. Ensure the correct temp for species of egg chosen.

Wash hands carefully with soap and water, including any equipment you intend to use.

Wash egg trays with Brinsea disinfectant, F10SC disinfectant to ensure incubator is clean, clean down the surface you intend to work on.

Never place a dirty egg into an incubator

When you are ready, open cartons check all eggs are clean and free from cracks or impurities. Never immerse them in water, however you should also not be putting eggs that are not clean into your incubator (any bacteria introduced to your incubator has the potential in infect other eggs or even chicks as they hatch). If there are eggs that are particularly dirty, these should be discarded as they have a much higher risk of carrying bacteria that can harm other eggs that are fertile and are able to develop.

Shipping. Try to avoid having eggs shipped to you from the other side of the country during months with extreme temperatures, and during inclement weather. I usually stick to purchasing eggs from reliable sellers with the preference given to the “closest to home the better” I also try to avoid buying eggs during the extremely hot summer months (particularly from hotter states like Queensland) and the much colder winter months. Having said that I often send eggs to Western Australia and have super results reported to me!

Cracks. Once your eggs have arrived, carefully unpack them and examine each one (preferably candling them). If any of the eggs have hairline cracks, you can try melting candle wax and dripping it on to the crack to seal it. This doesn’t always work, (in fact, I’ve only ever had one chick to successfully hatch out from a repaired egg), Keep in mind, though, that you will need to be on guard for possible bacterial problems. Should the sealed egg develop a blood ring, begin to smell, or seep fluid immediately remove it from the incubator (Believe me, you don’t want to leave it in and risk the chance of it exploding – cause that has got to be the worst smell ever!). 

The Bloom. I don’t wash hatching eggs – Ever. Eggs have a protective coating called a bloom that works to keep out bacteria. Washing them removes that. If any eggs have dirt on them, I very lightly rub it off with a paper towel. Only ever use the cleanest of eggs in your incubator is my suggestion.

Settling. Allow the eggs to sit upright in an egg carton (large end up) for 24 hours at room temperature (in fact, I set them out in the same room that the incubator is in).

Checking for Fertility

At approx. 5 - 7 days into incubation it is possible to check for fertility. This is tricky for the untrained eye, however there is nothing like good practice. Generally though, eggs should not be removed from the incubator in the first 7 days as this time is critical, a lot will depend on the type of incubator. I personally don't touch my eggs until day 7. The larger the incubator the less chance there will be any issue for the delicate developing embryo’s, as the temperature reaches the correct point very quickly in a large incubator and so there is less disturbance for the chick and things can return to normal quickly.

When checking for fertility, shine a candling torch behind (while blocking the other light around the sides) and carefully look at the egg. A dark room at night with the light off is ideal.  Inside you will see something similar to blood vessel network and a small dot in the centre, at about this time or a little later. The network of blood vessels are what you should focus on and look for.

At day 14 it is important to candle (shine a light behind) the eggs and discard those that are not fertile. If you are not confident at this point, then place them in a separate place in the incubator. At day 14 (for a hen egg) you should see that most of the egg is dark and at one end there will be an obvious air sack. See our candling pictured and what to look for HERE - You may also see the chick moving around.

Location. Location. Location. You wouldn’t think it, but location and ambient temperature is a big part of incubating eggs – particularly if you’re using a still air incubator. Make sure your incubator is located away from drafts, direct sunlight, and in a room that isn’t prone to temperature fluctuations. I prefer the room my incubators are in to be kept at about 20 - 23 degree
Damaged Air Cells. Air cells are basically a small pocket of air located on the large end of an egg. One of the most common problems you’ll encounter with shipped eggs is damaged air cells. Rough handling during shipping will cause the air cell to become misshapen, detached, etc. To combat this and give the air cells a chance to settle, sometimes (depending of distance travelled) I will rest eggs for 48 hours before putting in the incubator and sometimes I don’t turn them for at least the first 4 days of incubation, depending upon how badly they’re damaged. The longer you rest eggs, the less fertility as the eggs are getting older. It’s a hard juggle to know what is right.
Turning. If you have an auto turner, that’s great . . .sit back and let it do the work for you. If you don’t, then make sure to turn the eggs an odd number of times each day. When I hand turn shipped eggs (which I always do with waterfowl and sometimes with other birds like peafowl), I do it one of two ways, depending upon how badly damaged the air cells are and what type of bird it is. The first option (and the way I usually do waterfowl) is the normal hand turning method – I mark each egg with an X on one side, then I lay the eggs on their side in the incubator and turn them by rotating until the opposite side is facing up. The second option for hand turning is the method I use if the air cells are really badly damaged – I set the eggs upright (always large end up) in an egg carton in the incubator and use a block of wood underneath the carton to tilt them from side to side (similar to how an auto turner works).
Candling. The first hatch I ever did, I almost candled everyday (due to excitement!) . Not surprisingly, that hatch was completely unsuccessful. . . not a single chick hatched. I learned my lesson and now, I usually candle at day 15, and the day the eggs go on lockdown. I use a small handheld candling torch for candling. It’s best to handle the eggs as little as possible lest you risk the transfer of bacteria to them or even accidentally dropping them (No matter how careful you are, there’s always the chance that an accident can happen ). When you do handle the eggs, wash your hands thoroughly and ensure they’re completely dry beforehand. Remove any unviable eggs before lockdown. This is important as infertile and rotting eggs can let of a toxic gas in your incubator that can kill any developing embryo in viable eggs. They can also explode or seep a fluid that can contain bacteria. As eggs are porus any viable eggs can be contaminated causing deaths in shells. Read more on CANDLING HERE

Lockdown. Three days before your eggs are due to hatch (day 18 - for chicken), the incubator should be placed in lockdown. Lockdown means exactly what it sounds like. At day 18 the eggs no longer need to be rotated, at this point in time, you need to lay each egg out into the hatching section of your incubator, for some this may be left in place. Remember wash your hands before handling your eggs. At this point the chick can move itself around inside the egg, and does not require rotating. You may also hear chirping noises or scratching, sometimes clunking noises if you hold the egg close to your ear, this is all quite normal. Once you place the eggs into the hatching tray, the eggs must be left undisturbed. After this time, if you want a good hatch rate, the incubator must not be opened until 24 hours after the chicks hatch. In saying this, we all know the temptation is far too great, so I'll list the important points

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water before handling eggs or very young chicks
  • Maintain the correct humidity
  • Don't turn the eggs
  • Limit the opening of the incubator
  • Leave the chick in the incubator until all dry, don’t rush them out as they can live off the yolk inside them for 3 - 5 days
  • Don’t help chicks out of the egg. I know some of you will (see this article on assisting HERE so... if you do, only do so if the chick has already made a good attempt to hatch naturally and you are assisting with the last bit for a “glue chick” for instance.

You don’t open the incubator AT ALL. Opening the incubator will cause the humidity to quickly drop at a time when you want it to be high to soften the eggs to enable the chicks/poults/ducklings/etc to hatch out successfully. Opening the incubator at this time can also cause the eggs to harden again and risk the chicks not being able to pip out. It is important that all unviable eggs and eggs that are not fully developed (or may have died in shell prior to this point) are removed from the incubator. This is done for two very important reasons:

1) unviable eggs may rot and weep sending off a toxic gas or liquid to all other developing embryo which could cause the death of viable eggs. Eggs being porus can absorb bacteria - You certainly do not want an explosion of a rotten egg in your incubator.

2) if all unviable and undeveloping eggs are removed you will then have a better idea that what is left in the incubator at lock down are most likely eggs that are viable and therefore you are not waiting to remove chicks from incubator and waiting on eggs that are not going to hatch.

Humidity. When you put eggs on lockdown, you also have to bump up the humidity. I usually don’t have any problems keeping the humidity at an appropriate level during the main part of incubation, but some incubators are more difficult than others to increase at lockdown. Humidity needs to be increased from 45% to 60% at lockdown (for chicken) 

Incubator Temperature + Humidity: Temperature is fairly critical in that too high a temperature and you will have chickens hatching with crooked feet. Much too high and they will die in the egg. Too low and it also has an effect with delayed hatching and poor viability. A good quality incubator will make ALL the difference to both how successful your hatch is and how enjoyable the experience. Cheaper incubators with unreliable temperature and humidity readouts will not only give you unsuccessful results, but many of our customers also report they put them off hatching in the future due to the issues they experience, and it becoming extremely stressful with hatching issues and deformities caused by incorrect temperatures and humidity - read more here about incubators and the best choices to ensure hatching is fun and rewarding!

You need to know what the accurate temperature is and not rely on what various temperature reading devices tell you. Further to that you need the eggs to be at about 37.5 degrees C. The temperature of the incubator is largely irrelevant in that respect as long at the centre of the egg is 37.5

Various incubators work in different ways and basically there are two ways. One type, the still air type work on radiated heat. That is like sitting in front of a fire on a cold night. The closer you are, the hotter it is so you move closer or further away until you find a comfortable zone. These type of incubators need to be adjusted to a higher temperature until you get the eggs getting just the right amount of heat to be at 37.7 C.

The second type is where the heat is share by convection currents. Its like being in an air conditioned room where the heat is being blown to all parts of the room simultaneously. No matter where you are it will be the same temperature so you set the temperature to 37.5 so that in time the centre of the eggs will be that temperature. These are the incubators that have the air being blown around by a fan.

Now that we have the types of incubators clear and how they work, we can get back to the thermometers. The need to be calibrated. Mostly you cant adjust them but you can calibrate them. This is best done using a known accurate thermometer such as a medical thermometer. You use the thermometer in either warm water or in the incubator. In warm water you test all three by inserting the probe over a range of temperatures. Say, 25 degree, 35 degrees, 37 degrees and 40 degrees. Assume the medical type is the accurate thermometer. Compare the differences. If the others are reading higher or lower then note the differences and make mental adjustments so that you are getting the temperature in the incubator at the centre of the eggs to a true 37.5 degrees C.

Just to say it again. The temperature at the centre of the eggs is what is important. Not the temperature of the air in the incubator above or below the centre of the eggs. 

My advice on Temperature in your incubator should be sitting at 37.5 degrees c

Humidity (Day 1 - 18) should be 45% and then at lockdown (day 19) increase humidity to 60%

- if you are running a cabinet incubator i would recommend running at 50% humidity all the way through 

Pip. Zip. Hatch. There are three main parts of the hatching process. First, a chick (or poult or whatever it is you’re incubating ) will make a tiny hole through the eggshell (this is the pip – there’s also internally pipping, but for now we’re just talking about the stages you might be able to witness through your incubator window). They’ll usually rest for a while after that (after all, it’s hard work making your grand debut into the world). . . although some are in a hurry and burst on out into the world not long after. Others take their sweet time – in fact, it’s not unusual, 24 hours later, to still be waiting on the next stage to begin.

But during this time, the chick is not just resting, it’s also making it’s final preparations to enter the world, such as absorbing the yolk, allowing the blood vessels to dry up, etc. Which brings us to the next stage. . . zipping – the chick will begin to break through the shell all the way around the egg. Almost like it’s unzipping it.

Once the chick has zipped all the way around the eggshell, they’ll usually hatch fairly quickly. . . which is our third stage. The chick will hatch out wet and not at all like the cute, fluffy little things people usually associate them with. They may even have bits of eggshell or even an umbilical cord attached (and if they were in a real hurry to hatch, even an occasional unabsorbed yolk). Have no fear, give them a little time and the chicks will dry out and fluff up. Chicks can be left for up to 36 hours in incubator and it is important not to continually open the incubator at hatch. Minimise your opening to remove chicks to every 24-36 hours otherwise your remaining chicks that are hatching may get stuck in the shells and be unable to pip if your incubator looses humidity at this point of incubation. Chicks can be left in incubator for up to 48hrs.

Brooding your chicks

There are many products on the market theses days, however I have found a good solid timber box, with a water resistant base, protection from predators with a heat lamp or chick warming plate perfect for the job.

Place a good layer of chaff (low dust) in the base, place in a water and food container and make sure it does run out of food and water while you are at work etc.

Make sure you give chicks and those species susceptible to coccidiosis a preventative (Chick starter contain this) or otherwise change chaff frequently and do not allow chicks onto muddy ground.

Setting your heat Lamp

As a general rule, if the chicks are in a circle and no chick is sitting directly under the light, then its too close to the chicks, if the chicks are all standing up and huddled in the middle under the light, its too far away or not strong enough for the quantity of chicks. If the chicks are all spread out, some under, some out a bit and some eating and drinking then your lamp is at the perfect height. Sometimes it takes a bit of fiddling around so its best to bring the chicks out of the incubator when you have time to wait and watch what happens.

How long for...

There are so many factors at play, as to how long you should keep your chicks under the brooder, however as a general rule I would always have a transition period where the lights are off for a few hours a day while they are still in the brooder, then on to lights off all the time while they are still in brooder box, then out into a protected place night and day provided they are not going to get wet or too cold. You can always bring them back into the brooder if you find they are not ready. Chicks should be perfectly fine at 6 weeks in warm climate, 8 weeks in cold climate, however if you have a meat breed variety then sooner is possible, bantams types, perhaps longer. Quail mature (can be laying) at 6 - 8 weeks depending on climate and can be outside by then, light off by about 4 weeks. Ducks may need to light off at three weeks but outside a little later. However as I mentioned above, many variables therefore try transitioning them while they are in the brooder, to having not lamp on and then outside on a day you are home all day so that you can watch, particularly at night. 


Happy Hatching!

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