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Hatching Eggs in an Incubator

By Kelly Klober

The purchase of a cabinet incubator with a capacity of several hundred eggs was what marked the real launch of our work with rare and heirloom chicken breeds. Into that machine goes eggs of all sizes and colors and, if all goes well, out of it comes an equally wide array of baby chicks of nearly every hue and stripe. At the end of each hatching season and again the following spring, I give the unit a most thorough cleaning. I scrape down all of the surfaces and wash it out with a solution of bleach and water. The clear door is washed, the door gasket checked carefully, egg trays and racks washed, and they and the humidifier tray set out to catch some sun. I try to expose the trays to the naturally disinfecting rays of the sun often during the course of the hatching season.

Along with a second spring cleaning, everything mechanical is given the once over. Thermostat wafers are examined and replaced, every surface is wiped down again, and the unit is turned on for a full trial run several days before it will be actually needed. The test run is to see that the turners work, temperatures are held, and that all racks are free. Signs of thermostat wafer wear or failure will include a squashed or swollen appearance or surface discoloration. We use a digital thermometer to gauge operating temperature and like it much better than the dial-type with stem that came with the unit. It does take a bit of time to get operating temperatures right after a restart from a prolonged rest or when wafers have been replaced.

marked eggs in incubator
I have friends that will mist their eggs with warm water once each day with a spray bottle.

I am especially conscious of keeping the tray topped up when eggs go into the hatcher tray at the bottom of the cabinet on their eighteenth day of incubation. Too low of a humidity level and the chicks will have trouble hatching and dry too quickly. Too high and they may emerge, but die soon after, looking wet and swollen.

To better maintain the healthfulness of the cabinet environment, some will add a bit of chlorine bleach to the water in the humidifier tank. They add one teaspoon of bleach per pint of water and may do so once or twice a week. Too much chlorine may kill incubating embryos.

If you do have eggs go bad inside the incubator and especially if one goes off “hand grenade” fashion, a full take down and clean up of the cabinet interior may be in order. The bacteria released can really take a toll on embryos.

egg hatching in incubator
A misting product called Oxine is also good for maintaining health. It is OMRI listed.

During a power failure, an incubator can be wrapped with wool blankets (hit up the surplus stores) or other insulating material such as a water heater cover and if the cabinet is kept closed, the eggs will be at least partially protected for several hours. The hatch rate will be reduced, but it will buy some time and help to save at least a portion of the hatch. While on the subject of emergency management, always have on hand a backup kit. In this should be extra thermostat wafers, an extra thermometer, operating instructions, and other spare parts.

With the incubator up and running, the next component of the successful hatching equation is the egg — “ovum” in Latin. There is both a bit of science and a bit of art to the successful handling of “hatch eggs.” Not every egg will hatch, not even every fertile one. The task is to keep them fertile, viable, and moving into the incubator in a timely fashion.

Handling Eggs for Hatching

When gathering and handling eggs meant for hatching, there are several things to consider.

hand collecting eggs
Fresh and clean are the two keys to successful hatching egg management.
  • Gather eggs to be hatched a minimum of two to three times a day. In cold weather gather the eggs a minimum of three times each day.
  • Keep nests well bedded with straw or other soft, dry, and absorbent material. Giving the birds as clean an environment as possible into which to lay their eggs will both save labor and improve hatchability.
  • In wet, muddy weather hold the birds indoors until at least 10:00 a.m. to get the eggs laid into dry nests. Provide added nest space if doing this.
  • If eggs are lightly stained try to clean them with a light scraping using a dull blade or gentle buffing with fine grit sandpaper. Discard any badly stained eggs and those stained with the liquids from broken eggs.
  • For best results store hatching eggs for no more than seven days. This figure can be pushed to ten days, with fourteen days about the maximum to push your luck. I’ve seen texts that report fair results with eggs held for up to twenty-one days, but then I’ve also heard stories of eggs pulled out of a refrigerator after many days and still hatching. I don’t want to take such a chance nor own such a refrigerator.
  • The best temperature level at which to store hatching eggs is in a range between fifty-five and sixty-five degrees F. In very warm weather I will hold hatching eggs in an all-wire rabbit cage, in an open incubator tray, and have it suspended in a shaded area. It generally takes us two to three days to fill such a forty-eight-egg tray.
  • Store the eggs in cartons or flats of extra incubator trays. Elevate one side by placing it on a brick or empty egg carton. Then each time you pass them by, turn and elevate the opposite end. This will prevent the air cell from sticking or becoming mispositioned.
eggs in incubator storage
Store the eggs small end down.

When hatching for yourself, eggs can go into the incubator at just about any time of the week as long as they won’t later overtax brooding and growing facilities. Hatcheries generally set eggs to hatch on a Sunday or Monday to get the chicks shipped and arriving at their new owners by early to mid-week. Producers can likewise schedule hatches to arrive in a timely manner for growing out birds for show or to arrive for specific marketing events such as farmers’ markets.

For all of the best efforts there also seems to be that element of luck needed to bring off a good hatch from time to time. Even the definition of “good hatch” can be something a bit different with the rare and exotic breeds. With White Rocks in big cabinet incubators, we often approached one hundred percent hatches. With some of the rarer breeds and those from small, closely related populations, a fifty-five percent hatch may be something to crow about. Sixty-five to seventy-five percent hatches with a smaller incubation unit are always quite respectable.

Another one of those much-discussed subjects among poultry raisers is how best to ready eggs to go into the incubator. Everyone seems to have their own list of do’s and don’ts and what works for one person may not work every time for another. One of the most controversial practices was actually taught to me by a commercial hatchery operator. He wanted all eggs delivered to him to be dipped in warm water to which a bit of bleach had been added and then they were to be wiped clean with a soft cloth. This water was around 101 degrees F. and we would add about a tablespoon of bleach to two quarts of the warmed water. This practice is a real anathema to many, but this man regularly reported ninety percent plus hatches from our washed eggs.

I don’t wash eggs often, but will if it keeps me from having to discard some very rare or valuable eggs.

Increasing Hatchability

Setting day is also an important one when hatching eggs and includes several point to increase hatchability.

  • Be mindful of the day the eggs will hatch. Don’t set them to hatch on holidays, times when you will be away or to arrive in busy seasons on the farm.
  • Many will candle the eggs before placing them in the incubator. They are looking for fine cracks and other structural anomalies. Do not incubate overly large, double yolked, misshapen, rough shelled or small and pullet eggs. As noted earlier I have violated this pullet egg caution and especially when trying to build numbers of a really rare variety.
  • Maintain a careful log as to the incubator’s loading and operation. Document when eggs go in, where they are positioned in the unit, the breeding behind them, and when they are due to hatch.

On the eighteenth day of incubation, eggs should be removed to the hatching tray of the incubator or to a separate hatcher unit. Many do not like to hatch within their primary incubator believing that chick fluff and hatching wastes can build up and affect components or contaminate the cabinet environment.

candling egg
Before placing the eggs in the hatcher, we candle each one and remove those that are not bearing a viable embryo.

Some will candle eggs multiple times during incubation, including around the seventh and fourteenth days. I don’t always trust my old eyes for an early candling and prefer to keep my entering the incubator and handling of the eggs to a minimum.

Tips for the Hatching

In the hatcher, when the eggshells break away, the background identity of the chicks written on the shell can be lost unless some specific measures to safeguard them are taken. As the eggs are candled on the eighteenth day they can be positioned in the hatcher in certain ways that will then enable you to pinpoint the origins of newly hatched chicks. There are several ways to accurately identify chicks as they hatch.

  • Use simple bags made from the legs of old pantyhose. One end can be knotted. The egg is placed in it in a manner that leaves the emerging chicks plenty of flex and the other end knotted shut. These securely separated eggs can then be placed in the hatcher. The hatched chicks are then removed from these porous containers that are then discarded.
  • A dot of nail polish can be used as a very short-term method to denote different chicks.
  • There are hatcher trays that are segmented with thin wooden or wire mesh dividers. Eggs from different matings are placed in the different segments and their location in the tray written into the incubator log. The hatcher tray top then holds the newly hatched chicks in position until they can be toe punched or otherwise identified.
  • Small, pedigree-mating baskets can be made from fine wire or plastic mesh. In them the eggs are completely contained, as are the chicks that hatch from them. Some have even cut down plastic berry boxes for this purpose.

When it comes to hatching, one tough call to make is whether or not to help a chick that is having a hard time emerging from the shell. A first step might be to mist them a bit with warm water or even dip them quickly into the humidifier pan if they appear dry. If they appear wet and bulbous, the problem is too much humidity.

Just how much to help is the real question. I have helped to make an initial pipped opening larger or even pick away some shell pieces and have had a bit under a forty percent success rate with helping late hatchers. These measures should be done very carefully and only by removing very small areas of shell. If blood should appear stop immediately and put the egg back in the hatcher, but sadly, if that happens, too much damage has probably already been done. Where absolutely every chick counts you will have to rush the envelope, but those slow hatchers could still come back to haunt you by producing more of the same kind.

Hatchability is the first proof of a mating. Clear eggs, those that were not fertilized, will result in a need to reevaluate your breeding birds, the weather, ration choices, and a number of other things.

Source: Talking Chicken