How to successfully collect and incubate your own chicken eggs.
Hatching is an art not a science. There are many dos and don’ts, but in the end you have to find what works for you. I pay attention to what we do when hatching and what gives the best results. We have learned a lot and the following guidelines are blend of what I have read, what we do and what works for us.
Choosing which eggs to collect
For pure bred chicks, the wrong breed rooster can’t have been in with the hens for 4 weeks before. They must be fenced out.
Usually allow a week when the correct rooster is in with the hens before collection for more chance of higher fertility.
Label all eggs on the fat end right as you take them from the nest. We label the date and the breed in pencil which won’t stay on the eggs with broody-hen hatching but is fine for incubator hatching. Sharpies work OK, but I prefer not to use them, they just put chemicals on (and in?) the eggs. Also pencils don’t leak ink all over your washing machine if you leave them in a pocket.
Choosing which eggs to incubate
This is a balance of keeping good fertilised eggs, and discarding eggs that are definitely not going to hatch. Eggs in poor condition can spoil in the incubator, infecting all the other eggs, and the whole hatch.
Look at the eggs, feel them and candle them. Candling is looking at eggs in a dark room with a light shone through the egg to show anatomy inside. With all three of these things you can tell if you want to incubate the eggs.
Candling eggs right when you bring them from the nest in reduces waste. If small cracks are noticed right away, you can still eat the eggs that day. If an egg has been stored unrefrigerated for 2 weeks before you find a crack sometimes there is a very hard set eggy mess to clean up, and you certainly wouldn’t want to eat them then.
Do not incubate…
· Cracked eggs. Cracks show up as a white line and eggs that are leaking are too far gone as bacteria will have penetrated the tear in the membrane.
· eggs with blood spots often don’t hatch as well
· eggs with damaged, displaced or ruptured air sacs, seen when instead of one bubble on the side of the egg, there are more than one
· partially incubated eggs with dead embryos in them
· oddly-shaped ridged eggs
· Paper thin or very rough shelled eggs - It is thought porous mottled shelled eggs don't hatch as well. The thin rough shell eggs lose water quickly, so the air cell grows quicker than it should.
· filthy eggs, my rule is no more than one big poop
· eggs over 3 weeks old
· eggs that smell
· less than 2 weeks old, fresher the better
· eggs that have been turned and stored in correct conditions
· eggs that are smooth rounded and intact
· inside looks normal, single yolk and no blood spots
· Normal air cell - look at size, shape and location. A normal air cell in a freshly laid egg is dime sized and up to quarter sized in a week-old or older egg. The air sac should be fixed at the fat end.
· clean-looking when taken from the nest
Only incubate these if desperate, usually if shipped or expensive…
· refrigerated eggs
· eggs 2-3 weeks old
· eggs with moving loose, shattered or rolling air sacs – common in shipped or nearly frozen eggs
· eggs that are dirty, covered in dirty footprints or have a substantial poop on them or overall grubbiness-you can wash them, but do it correctly or it may be more harmful than leaving them
· Hair-line cracked with membrane intact - cracks will show as white lines of light on candling. If you are desperate, you can seal the crack line with nail polish-a couple of coats incubate as usual but don't wash. Check those cracked eggs daily in the incubator and remove IMMEDIATELY if you notice a bad smell.
Storing and handling eggs
· Collect multiple times a day if weather is very hot over 20 degrees Celsius or below freezing
· Always store the eggs pointy end down in an egg carton to keep the air sack in the right position
· Don’t store fertile eggs any longer than 3 weeks
· Store in a cool constant temp area around 60-65 degrees F is best – basement usually works well, DO NOT REFIGERATE
· Tilt eggs 2-4 times a day in storage – I place them in plastic egg flats and put a 2 by 4 under one side. You can stack up to about 4 trays if the plastic is thick, tilting them all at once
· Try not to handle the eggs excessively – grease can obscure the pores in the shell
To wash or not to wash
It is about 50:50 whether people wash the hatching eggs before incubating or not. Whatever they do, they swear by it and you won’t change their mind! It is up to you if you feel it is better to wash them or not. There is a certain way to do this correctly and you are better not to wash them at all than use water that is too cold.
· Hairline cracked fertilised eggs - you may tear the membrane or let more bacteria in
· Really shattered air cell eggs - washing will disturb the air sac.
Wait til right before you are putting the eggs in the incubator before you wash them.
How to wash fertilised chicken eggs
This is a system for cleaning and it seems to work well.
1. Have 2 sinks of 90-100 degree F warm water – must be warmer than the eggs to prevent bacteria and dirt being drawn into the eggs.
2. The second sink for rinsing has a splash of bleach in it. You can buy special egg sanitizer, but bleach is fine and readily available at short notice.
3. The fertilised eggs get a quick dip in the first sink. Then make a light wringing motion loosely around the egg with both hands. So the right one cleans one end of the egg and the left the other. Go from cleaner eggs to dirtier in order. If chunkies or poops or yolk are on them, wash those last with a green scrubby. Scrubbing the brown egg colour off in one area is less harmful to an embryo than soaking it for 5 minutes possibly bacteria laden warm water. If the water in either sink stops looking crystal clear, empty it and start over.
4. Give the egg a quick dip rinse in the second sink. Never leave them to soak in either sink.
5. Let the fertilised eggs air dry on a clean tea towel or paper towel.
Setting up the incubator
· Set the incubator up perfectly level and have it running for at least 24 hours to make sure temp is constant.
· Incubator should be set in a room with very little temperature fluctuation and should not have sun shining on it or be in front of windows or in a draft
· There are many types of incubator, so read the instructions and for specific help on particular models, online poultry forums are excellent.
· Forced air incubator – temperature should be 99-99.5°F, over 103°F embryos will die, if the temp is low (over 96°F ) for a while that is better than too high, and may delay the hatch. The longer the temperature is wrong, the more if will affect the hatch. Best to leave the eggs in; give them a chance, discarding them only when you are 100% they are dead or damaged.
· Still air incubator – guideline say 100 to 101°F at egg height is recommended.
· I strongly recommend using a Brinsea Spot check thermometer with your incubator. Hardware store thermometers are not accurate enough, being off by 2-3 degrees may mean death for your entire hatch.
· Humidity is not as critical as temperature and if it fluctuates for the first 2 weeks don’t worry too much. For the first 18 days, humidity should be roughly 60-65%. I usually use an indoor-outdoor thermometer with sensor on a wire to measure humidity but there are more accurate ways, wet bulb hygrometers. I think the indoor-outdoor thermometer may be out by as much as 10% at times, but not enough to impact the hatches.
· How much water you have to add to get that range will depend on your location, if you are in a damp or arid climate and even the time of year. More water is needed in winter if temperatures are sub zero for long periods, in dry climates and with incubators with fans to move the air.
· A general and excellent gauge of correct humidity during the hatch is in the eggs themselves and the air cell. Air sac size increases over time and this diagram shows the ideal size at different times over the incubation. Sometimes incubating at the 60-65% means the air cell is doesn’t increase in size enough and humidity should be lowered.
· The most important thing to remember is as long as the air cell is a normal size, for the last 3 days humidity should be higher at about 70-75%. If the air sac is too small around day 14, lower the humidity for 2-3 days to try to dry the egg, then increase humidity for the last 3 days. If the air cell is too small, the developed chicks may drown and not hatch.
· If the humidity is too low the last 3 days the chick will stick to the membrane (“shrink wrapping”) and sometimes won’t hatch.
· Opening the door reduces humidity, so do not do it until at least 24 hours after the last chick is hatched, or 36 hours after the first. Some guidelines say even longer if you can, but that is as long as I am comfortable with leaving them in there. If you do need to open the door for an emergency and you know there are still more to hatch, fill a spray bottle with warm water and spray it into the incubator to quickly return humidity to more normal levels.
Eggs are naturally turned in the nest by the hen. It may be random, but a minimum is 3 times a day, many incubators with turners turn the eggs once an hour. As long as they are getting at least three turns a day, the chicks have a good chance of developing normally.
It doesn’t seem to matter if the eggs are incubated standing vertically pointy end down or laying on their side, or whether they are rolled or tilted to move them. It seems to be the movement that is needed. The chick will usually develop in whatever part of the egg is closest to the sky.
Some people candle daily, I prefer not to handle the eggs as much, so there is less oil from your hands and chance of dropping them. In the beginning, the more often you candle and pencil mark the eggs, the quicker you will learn. If you candle the eggs about every 3 days, you will soon learn what to look for. When you have more experience, you can just candle at 7 days, 14 days and 18 days, lockdown.
If you see egg contents you are not sure about, and nothing smells in the incubator, mark them with an X or a ? in pencil then 3 days or a week later, check again and see if you were right. If you are still not sure, keep them in till the end, and see if they hatch. Nothing is worse than discarding a live egg; I have never done it but know others who have. Generally a clean dead uninfected egg won’t blow up in the incubator in 3 weeks. Usually you can tell an egg is still alive if the line along the edge of the air sac is sharp and crisp not blurry and swirling.
Later in the hatch and with green or chocolate coloured egg if you can’t see the air cell line very well, it may be at an oblique angle. Place the fat end of the egg on the light and tilt it vertically into the end not the side of it. Rotate it and look for the sudden appearance of the air cell as you have the egg at the right angle.
It should be 21 days exactly if the temperature and conditions are right. Some breeds hatch earlier than others and D’Uccles and other bantams seem to hatch earlier than standards eggs in the same incubator. Euskal Oiloas and Black Penedesencas can also hatch earlier.
Day 18 is lockdown where the humidity is raised and the eggs no longer turned. I candle the eggs and leave the eggs in a vertical position. If they are being held in an egg turning mechanism, transfer them into ventilated egg cartons for hatching as the eggs hatching is messy and the turners hard to clean. You can lay the eggs on their side to hatch, but we have better hatch rates when they are vertical, and it is necessary to hatch upright of the eggs were in the mail.
I hope that helps. Here are a couple of great sites for more detailed guidelines. As I said we have fine-tuned them with experience to what works well.
Incubators often come with a trouble shooting guide in the manual for after the fact, the second site you can download user manuals. But ask questions, we can help you know what to look for along the way and get the best hatches