With the help of an egg incubator, some simple household items, and a few weeks of your time and patience, you can successfully hatch eggs without the need for a broody hen. A few years ago, I became obsessed with the idea of hatching my own chickens and keeping them as pets in my home in Brooklyn.
I have a decent size backyard, where I built a chicken coop and during the spring and summer months, I have my chickens run around freely, feeding on the grubs in the dirt where I grow some crops. Besides making awesome pets you can also get fresh eggs without having to go to the supermarket. Depending on the breed, your hen may lay up to one egg a day during the summer. Hens typically start to lay eggs four to six months after they hatch.
One often common mistake is that you need to have a rooster for the hen to lay eggs. If you want fertilized eggs, yes, you will need a rooster. However, if you want to make an omelette, you just need to have healthy hens. In New York City, you are not allowed to have roosters, but hens are allowed as long as they are not a nuisance to your neighbors. If you live in the city and want to raise hens, first check with local state and city laws to see if this is allowed. Do your own due diligence before embarking on this journey!
After doing all the necessary research, I also needed to decide whether or not I wanted to purchase fertilized eggs or live chicks. After some back and forth, I decided to that I wanted to go through the whole process by buying a few eggs from an organic farmer in upstate New York.
I was extremely nervous and did a ton of research on egg incubators before I opted for the Brinsea Fully Automatic Egg Incubator, which many farmers and experienced professionals recommended for someone first trying out. It was a bit pricier than some of the other egg incubators, but it came with a lot of additional features such as a digital control system, automatic egg turning and automatic humidity control.
If you are somewhat more experienced with incubating your own eggs, I would opt for the GQF 1588 Genesis Hova-Bator Incubator which comes at less than half the price than Brinsea Fully Automatic Egg Incubator. However, keep in mind that you will have to manually turn your eggs, and since it does not have an alarm feature, you will need to regularly check the temperature and humidity.
Whether your goal is to be more self-sufficient, become part of the local economy, or just to have greater control over your food sources, using an incubator to hatch eggs is a straightforward process that offers life-sized returns once you put in the time and effort.
Before You Start Incubation
The time frame for hatching chicken, turkey, duck and goose eggs varies, but we’ll be focusing on chicken eggs, which take about 21 days to incubate. Before you start, make sure you have a draft-free location for your incubator, ideally in a room where the temperature remains between 70°F (21°C) and 75°F (24°C), and where the incubator won’t be exposed to direct sunlight.
Setting Up Your Incubator
Proper calibration and accurate settings for temperature, humidity and ventilation are critical to successfully incubating eggs. Whether you choose a basic incubator with manual controls, or an automatic version that turns the eggs and maintains the incubation environment, it’s important to read the manufacturer’s instructions before you begin. I personally opted for an automatic egg incubator because it was one more thing I didn’t need to worry about.
To calibrate your incubator, fill the pan with water, plug the unit in, place the thermometer(s) inside the incubator (about an inch above the screened bottom), and set the temperature to the recommended level for your unit, which is generally somewhere between 99°F (37°C) and 102°F (39°C). Monitor the temperature for 24 hours to make sure it remains stable within the allowable range, as temperatures outside of this will prevent embryos from developing and surviving.
A Word About Fertile Eggs
Your best bet for fertile eggs is to pick some up in person from a local poultry farmer or hatchery. When I was looking for fertile eggs, I did a simple Google search and found a place not too far at a decent price. If you purchase the eggs in bulk, you will probably be able to get a better deal than if you just purchase a select few. Bear in mind that eggs should ideally be incubated within a week of being laid, but even under ideal circumstances, chicken eggs usually offer only a 50-75% hatch rate. If you must keep the eggs for any length of time before incubating them, store them at about 50°F (10°C), and carefully turn them daily with clean hands.
Positioning Your Eggs
Because your eggs will have to be turned regularly, it’s very important to mark the opposite sides of each egg with an “X” and an “O”, using a non-toxic marker. This way, you’ll be able to tell when all the eggs have been turned each time. The eggs should be placed gently on their sides inside the incubator with all the X’s facing up, or all the O’s facing up. Make sure the narrow ends of the eggs are never elevated above the wide ends, and try to keep the eggs evenly spaced. Even though I use an incubator that automatically turns my eggs, I still mark them just to make sure and keep mind at ease.
Turning Your Eggs
You should turn your eggs over at least three times every day to prevent the embryos from sticking to the shells. It’s wise to do an odd number of turns each day, ending with a final turning before bed, so that the eggs spend their longest stretches of time (overnight) on alternating sides every 24 hours. Rotating the positions of the eggs at each turning will help to offset any minor temperature fluctuations inside the incubator, and will mimic the natural behaviors of a brooding hen. Turning of the eggs should continue until the last three days before hatch day.
Monitoring Temperature, Humidity And Ventilation
Humidity levels inside the incubator are best kept at about 45-55% until the last three days before hatch day. Refill the water pan regularly with warm water, taking care not to wet any of the eggs. Use a hygrometer or wet bulb thermometer to measure humidity levels in a manual incubator, and adjust the humidity by adjusting the ventilation openings. Increasing air flow will decrease moisture content, and vice versa, but always keep the vents at least partially open so the eggs can get sufficient oxygen. You should continue to monitor and adjust your incubator’s temperature on a regular basis to make sure it remains within the critical range.
Testing Your Eggs (Candling)
Besides the actual hatching, candling is my favorite part of the whole egg incubation process! You really get to see all your hard-work and dedication start to pay off.
It’s not really necessary to test your eggs for fertility, but it can help with the disposal of any duds along the way. To test your eggs by candling I wholeheartedly recommend you purchase the Magicfly Egg Candler, which works really well and is very reasonably priced. Even with my really dark brown Maran eggs, the Magicfly Egg Candler was bright enough to light them up.
If you want to save the money and build your own candler, follow the easy steps below.
- Cut a one-inch hole in the end of a shoe box or metal can – whichever will fit over a live light bulb.
- Slip the box or can over the bulb so the hole is facing upward.
- Turn on the light bulb, darken the room, and hold the wide end of an egg over the hole you’ve cut so the light can shine up through it.
- If you can see a darkened mass inside the egg, and the contents appear slightly pinkish, you’ve probably got a viable embryo!
Final Stages Of Incubation
During the final three days of incubation, you should stop turning and rotating the eggs, increase the humidity level to about 65% by setting a wet sponge or extra pan of water inside the incubator, and leave the incubator closed as much as possible. You’ll probably start to hear some of the chicks peeping inside their shells during the last day or two before hatch day.
Hatching Your Eggs
By the 21st day of the incubation process, most of the eggs should be starting to hatch. Hatching is a labor-intensive process for new chicks, and while it might be tempting to open the incubator and help them, they’ll be much better off if you resist and leave the unit closed. As they hatch, the chicks will need an increasing supply of oxygen, so you’ll need to gradually open the vents to increase air flow.
When most of the eggs have hatched, you can lower the temperature in the incubator to about 95°F (35°C) and allow the new chicks to dry off. While it only takes about four to six hours for the chicks to dry completely, you can leave them in the incubator for an extra day or two while they live off the yolk they absorbed during the hatching process.
A Final Note
If your final hatch rate was lower than you’d hoped, it’s important to keep in mind that many factors can adversely affect the success of incubating chicken eggs – from unhealthy parents to old or infertile eggs to inconsistencies in the temperature, humidity and ventilation settings.
But don’t give up – just start the process again. Like any new undertaking, trial and error will soon help you realize your goals because, in the words of American author Robert Collier, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” For me personally, I started to get a hang of the entire process during my third try, so don’t feel too bad if you’re not successful the first time!