Learning how to hatch chicks is a fascinating activity for you and your family. If you don’t have a broody hen willing to set on a clutch of fertile eggs, you will need to turn to hatching the fertilized eggs in an incubator. The entire process takes only 21 days for chickens. After a few weeks of raising the chicks in a brooder, they will soon be ready to integrate into the coop with your other chickens. If this is your start to a brand new flock, you will have the opportunity to care for your chicks from the moment you hatch chicks.
What is a Hatching Egg?
A hatching egg is the name for eggs that are freshly fertilized and ready to be incubated. Fertilized eggs require a rooster in your flock. If you have a broody hen, hatching eggs can be placed under her in the nest. This is usually done while she is sleeping. When no broody hen is available, buying hatching eggs to incubate (or using your own fertilized chicken eggs from your flock) is the other option.
The first step in hatching chicks is to decide which breed or breeds you want to raise. With so many breeds of chickens available, this can take some research and thought. One thing to keep in mind is that the more rare the breeds of chickens are, the higher priced the hatching eggs will be.
When a rooster is present in the flock, hatching eggs can be obtained for the incubator from your own flock or from a neighbor or friends coop. Some people will sell mixed farm bred hatching eggs for a small fee. These are often not purebred chickens but can still be an excellent source of fresh eggs in the future. Mixed breeds can also give you some wonderful egg layers, such as Olive Eggers and Easter Eggers.
Set Up the Incubator
When setting up the incubator, plan ahead. Get everything ready before setting the eggs into the machine. We highly recommend Brinsea Incubator products. Clean the incubator with a gentle, non-toxic soap or cleaner and allow to air dry. It’s good to turn it on and let it regulate for 24 hours before placing the eggs. Get the freshest fertilized hatching eggs that you can. After 7 days, the viability of the egg starts to decline. If you receive the eggs by mail, ask if the eggs are collected and mailed within a day or so. The eggs should be clean of mud or manure, and never washed.
Set the Eggs
Place the eggs in the incubator with the pointy end facing in or downward. Mark one side of the eggs with an X using a pencil. (I numbered the eggs on one side because I had different breeds.) This enables you to turn the eggs and determine if you have turned each one. For example, start with the eggs showing the X. Twice a day, turn the eggs (if your incubator doesn’t automatically turn for you). The first turn will place the X on the under side where you can’t see it. On the final turn, the X will again be on top. Turning the eggs helps the developing embryo grow correctly. With a broody hen in the nest, the hen will turn the eggs and rearrange them in the nest, naturally taking care of this need.
Some incubators now have humidity and temperature control features along with automatic egg turners. The recommended temperature for incubating chicken eggs is 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit with the relative humidity of 40 to 50%, and then bumping the humidity up to 60% during the final days of incubation.
After a week to ten days, using a candling light or small flashlight, check the eggs for development. At this point it should be clear that a chick (maybe you only see a dark mass) is growing in the egg. An egg that is not developing appears empty although you may be able to determine the presence of the yolk.
The Growth Period
Continue to turn the eggs twice a day until day 18. At this point, the baby chicks are almost completely developed and need to get into the correct position for hatching. The incubator goes into what is called “lock down”. Humidity is added by adding a wet sponge or shallow cup of water with a chick guard cover over it. The humidity is important because it prevents the membranes from sticking to the chick as it struggles to hatch. With too low of humidity, the membranes can almost shrink wrap a chick and cause it to not hatch successfully. But too high of a humidity can cause the chick to drown inside of the egg. Make sure you keep it around 60% humidity by using a hygrometer.
Waiting to Hatch Chicks
From day 18 to 21, watch for signs of pipping. This is the first break in the egg made by the small egg tooth on the chicks beak. The chick may take a long break after pipping. Don’t be too concerned if hours go by with no progress. Most chicks will completely hatch within 24 hours of pipping, but some do take a little longer.
Some Chicks May Not be Strong Enough to Hatch
Chicks that seem to be struggling to hatch make it difficult to watch without helping. The risk we run if we attempt to help hatching chicks is that we can make matters worse. It is a tough call to make. Some chicks are not strong enough to survive even if we help hatch chicks. Others may have begun to be shrink wrapped and trapped in drying membranes in a prolonged hatch. These may very well survive if the shell can be removed without tearing the chicks skin. Using a moist sponge to lubricate the membranes may be successful. The expert advice is often to not help hatch chicks that are struggling, or to wait until they haven’t hatched for 48 hours.
New Life Begins
Once the chicks have had time to dry off for a few hours, remove them from the incubator into the brooder that is ready and warmed from the heat lamp or brooder warming plate. Keep the newly hatched chicks in the brooder at 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week. Gradually begin to lower the temperature in the brooder as the chicks develop. It is very important to keep chicks in a warm environment until they can regulate their own body temperature. Often this can take 8 to 10 weeks. Chilled chicks get sick and die quickly, so it is best to give them time to grow and acclimate to the weather slowly.
Enjoy the next few weeks. As the chicks grow, they will be adorable sources of fun, joy and entertainment!
Janet Garman is a farmer and author, and shares homestead information from her property, Timber Creek Farm. They raise sheep for fiber, chickens, goats, and more! Follow their journey online at www.timbercreekfarmer.com