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Incubation of Hatching Eggs

The amount of eggs a hen can hatch depends on the size of the chicken. A big hen can easily hatch 12 eggs and a bantam 7-9 eggs

Caring for eggs before the incubation period

Your eggs need to settle for at least 24 hours if they came through the mail

It is recommended that most eggs be stored no longer than 1 week. Storing eggs longer will produce a greater incidence of hatching failures.

Storage - Store eggs in a cool environment. The optimum temperature range for storage of hatching eggs is 55 to 67 F. When storing eggs less than 10 days, use the upper part of the temperature range and when storing for longer periods use the lower part of the range. If possible, maintain relative humidity between 75 and 80 %. 

Hatching eggs should be collected soon after lay and maintained at 50-65o F. Daily egg turning or repositioning is recommended to prevent the yolk from sticking to the inside surface of the shell.


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Cleaning your Eggs? 

The washing of hatching eggs is not recommended although many producers think that visual cleanliness will increase their chances of incubation success. It is more important to stress providing good nesting facilities and frequent egg collection to reduce egg contamination. Cleaning of eggs will then become unnecessary.

The reason that washing is harmful is that washing aides bacteria to penetrate the egg shell through the small egg shell pores. The egg has many natural defenses to prevent the bacteria from moving through the shell. Washing removes the egg shell's natural defenses against bacterial entry, and water provides an environment that allows the organisms to literally swim through the shell pores. When this occurs, the egg is overwhelmed by more bacteria than it can destroy and egg contamination results.

If dirty eggs must be used for hatching, it is recommended that they be incubated in an incubator separate from the clean eggs. This will prevent contamination of clean eggs and chicks if the dirty eggs explode and during hatching.

Selection. Inspect the eggs for quality. Eggs with moderate to severe shell deformation or eggs that are filthy should not be incubated. Shell problems usually result in too much moisture loss during incubation which dehydrates and kills developing embryos. Even worse, these eggs are very susceptible to bacterial penetration and contamination. One contaminated egg may spread contamination to every egg and embryo in the incubator

Ideally you should have two incubators. One for incubating the eggs until the first egg pips, and a second incubator to be used only for pipping and hatching. The pipping and hatching process can produce a lot of contamination. Eggs in the incubator that are not scheduled to hatch until several days later are susceptible to contamination when there are older eggs in the same incubator that are pipping and hatching.

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Incubator Preparations:

By the time you have gotten your eggs your incubator should have been running at least 24 hours- even better 2-5 days to insure a good steady temp. 

Getting Started:

To get a good hatch, it is important to consistently do the following:

Maintain temperature. For chickens the ideal incubation temperature in:
Still-air incubator (no fan):101.5 degrees measured at the TOP of the eggs.
Fan Forced incubator:  99.5 degrees measured anywhere in the incubator.
Humidity:   60-65% for the first 18 days, 80-85% for the last 3 days
  1. This should be held within a half degree. Set up the incubator a few days before your eggs arrive so that you can adjust the thermostat to hold the correct temperature. Make sure you are using an accurate thermometer and that you are measuring temperature where the eggs will be located. When you first introduce the eggs into the incubator, it will be several hours before the temperature returns to its set value because the entire mass of the eggs needs to be warmed. Your incubator was probably designed to operate in a room at or near typical room temperature. If you locate your incubator in an area that is too cold it may not be able to maintain correct incubation temperature. Don't locate your incubator near a window where it will be in sunlight. It will get too hot possibly killing some or all of the developing embryos. Monitor temperature closely, especially if the temperature of your house is not closely regulated.
  2. Maintain humidity. A good target humidity is 60%. Humidity is maintained throughout incubation by putting water in the bottom of the incubator. If you are getting a large amount of condensation on the windows, you may reduce the amount of water used. For the incubator I used, I tried to maintain the humidity at a level such that there was a small amount of condensation (non-dripping) on the windows. About three days before hatching, the humidity should be increased by introducing a wet sponge or rags into the incubator. This makes it easier for the chicks to peck their way out of their shells.

  3. Turn eggs. A broody hen does this instinctively. You, acting as mother hen, must turn the eggs yourself. When you first introduce the eggs into the incubator, mark one side of each egg with an "X" using a pencil. (Do not use a pen or marker) Starting on the second day and continuing until about three days before hatching, turn the eggs 1/4 turn three to five times a day. If this is not done, the developing embryo may adhere to the shell making hatching very difficult. It is also important to keep the pointy end of the egg slightly lower than the rounded end. If you notice any bad (e.g. rotten-egg) smells while inside the incubator, identify the offending egg and throw it away.

  4. Candle the eggs at three days for white eggs and five days for brown eggs. I candled my eggs a couple more times before hatching to assure that the embryos didn't die. Discard any eggs that are not developing. (See below.)

  5. Keep a record. Make a table where you can record turning times, temperature, and notes for 23 days. This will help you do everything consistently and the record can be used for troubleshooting if there is a high mortality.

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21 Day Hatching Chart:

It is important to make sure the incubator has proper humidity, Keep the reservoir filled!


What you do DAILY!

1 Incubator should already be set up and at desired temperature and humidity. When eggs are put into the incubator, the temperature will drop for several hours as eggs are warmed.
2 Start turning eggs minimum 2-3 times per day.
3 Keep turning eggs. Check the water level.
4 Keep turning eggs.
5 Keep turning eggs. Candle eggs.
6-14 Keep turning eggs. Check the water level.
15 Keep turning eggs. Candle eggs again. The developing embryo should be a dark mass filling a significant portion of the egg. If most of the egg is clear , slushy or cloudy, the embryo is not developing.
16-17 Keep turning eggs. Check the water level.
18 STOP turning eggs. Increase humidity. In a still-air incubator, this is often done by adding a damp sponge to the incubator.
19-20 Wait and watch, maintaining temperature and elevated humidity.

If the correct temperature was maintained the chicks should start hatching. It could be a day late or a day early depending on how well temperature was maintained.

First they will pip, pecking a small breathing hole in the shell. Then they may rest for awhile. They tend to peck at intervals often chirping loudly inside the shell. It is important to let them hatch out on their own. Typically it takes a few hours for each chick to hatch completely although it can take as long as a day or more.

Leave the chicks in the incubator long enough to completely dry. When their down fluffs out they are ready to introduce to the brooder.

It is occasionally possible to let a brooding hen adopt new chicks, provided your timing is right, best to sneak them under her at night when all is quiet and her eggs are also hatching! I have had great success with this.

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Bantams as Incubators

Bantam hens can serve as excellent incubators. They are better than a typical cheap incubator and cheaper than an expensive incubator. Sure, there are a few drawbacks, but what could be more natural than having a broody bantam incubate your eggs? She turns them, she provides the humidity, and then she raises them and keeps them warm.

Many cheap incubators fail because they are unable to maintain temperature and humidity within the required narrow range. Most incubation failures are temperature related. Bantams will provide the correct incubation conditions for most species of eggs, and they will care for and mother the hatched chicks as well.

There are certain instances when bantam hens will not work as incubators, such as:

  1. eggs from species that have unusual temperature and/or humidity requirements;
  2. extremely large eggs
  3. out of season (bantams will be broody only from January to June when daylight is increasing)

If you are interested in using bantam hens as incubators, provide artificial lighting to the bantams early in the year. This will stimulate bantams to go broody earlier than usual, and they will be ready to set at the time you are collecting the first eggs.

Before the season starts, treat the bantams for worms and lice, we use Diatomaceous Earth on a regular basis so that is not a problem. If not, the bantams may pass these parasites on to the newly hatched chicks.

Place nesting sites in the bantam pens early in the season. 

Optional but very helpful: Keep a log book describing the bantams' nesting and incubating behavior. This way you can match your most valuable eggs with the best bantam hens.

If broody boxes are used where the hen is confined until feeding time, make sure that they are released from the boxes and fed at about the same time every day. A good bantam hen will need only ten minutes to feed, drink, and excrete before going back to her broody box. Some broodies will have to be put back in the broody box by hand. The first day or two, the bantam will not want to come out of the broody box on her own and will have to be removed by hand. After a day or two, most will be eager to come out. Keep them in the boxes with this routine for five days before placing any valuable eggs in with her. Perform any routine maintenance on the nests and broody boxes during the 10 minute period the hens are out and feeding.

Use a pencil to write the date and code on the eggs. Routinely candle and remove clear eggs during the feeding period. Do not place too many eggs under a hen. Make sure all the eggs under a single hen are scheduled to hatch on the same day, otherwise later hatching eggs or chicks may be abandoned.

Joseph M. Mauldin
County Extension Coordinator/Agent
Extension Poultry Scientist

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