When people are first getting started raising backyard chickens, itís best to buy chicks. But as you get more experienced with your chickens, you might want to try your hand at hatching chicks from eggs. Hatching eggs will require some time and equipment, but it can be an interesting and rewarding process.
First, if you want to hatch your own chicks, youíll need to obtain fertile eggs. You have a few choices. Your best option is to contact a local hatchery to see if they sell eggs for hatching. Typically hatcheries will sell fertile eggs at an affordable price. Buying from a local hatchery is an especially good option because you can pick up the eggs and safely transport them yourself. If you donít have direct access to a local hatchery, many hatcheries will also ship fertile eggs. However, eggs are fragile and can be damaged during shipment.
If buying from a hatchery doesnít work for you, you can also check online sources like Craigslist to find someone who is selling fertile eggs. As is the case when finding anything online, ask questions to make sure that you are getting what you want. Youíll need to be careful about ensuring that you get high-quality eggs.
Incubating the Eggs
In order for the eggs to hatch, you will need to incubate them. The purpose of the incubation process is to mimic what would happen in nature: a hen would sit on the eggs she lays in order to keep them warm and hatch them. It takes eggs about 21 days to develop before they hatch.
Eggs actually donít have to be incubated immediately. You can store them for a few days. If you store them, keep them between 50 and 60 įF (? 10 to 15.5 įC). Ideally, you should incubate eggs within a week after they are laid, and after ten days, the likelihood that the eggs will hatch decreases significantly.
In order for eggs to develop and hatch, they need to be in a closely monitored environment where the temperature and humidity are at appropriate levels. (More about temperature and humidity in a minute.) Also, the eggs need to be turned frequently to prevent the yolk from sticking to the shell.
This brings us to the key piece of equipment youíll need to hatch eggs: an incubator. Incubators are a place for you to put the eggs that will maintain the appropriate temperature and humidity. Incubators come with a variety of options and features, and youíll have to decide what will best meet your needs. Some incubators will monitor and control both temperature and humidity. Others rely on you to monitor these key factors. Some incubators will turn the eggs automatically. Others require you to turn the eggs. You can decide how much money youíd like to spend on an incubator and which features youíre interested in. The more the incubator does, the less you have to do, but sometimes it can be fun to be involved in the process. If you need to monitor the temperature and humidity yourself, you can buy thermometers and hygrometers for affordable prices.
As far as the temperature goes, if you use a circulating incubator (that has a fan to move the air around), the temperature should be at 99 to 99.5 įF (? 37.5 įC). In non-circulating incubators, the air temperature should be a little bit higher, around 102 įF (? 38.5 įC). Humidity should be at 45% for the first eighteen days and then increased to 65% for the last few days.
In addition to maintaining the temperature and humidity, you will also need to turn the eggs. As mentioned above, you can buy incubators that will turn the eggs for you, and this can be a feature worth paying for since the eggs need to be turned often. If you turn the eggs yourself, make sure you turn them at least three times per day. Itís best to turn the eggs at regular intervals. In other words, rather than turning the eggs three times in three hours and then letting them sit for the rest of the day, try to turn the eggs about every eight hours. Also, itís fine to mark the eggsí shells lightly with pencil so that you can keep track of which eggs youíve turned and how far youíve turned them. You should turn them a half turn each time.
Regarding the position of the eggs in the incubator, the pointed end of the egg should be at the bottom and the round end should be at the top. Itís also fine for the eggs to spend some time on their sides (the way they would naturally sit without any support), but be sure that you never put the round end at the bottom. This position can compromise the important air pocket in the eggs and also doesnít allow the embryos to develop the way they need to.
Candling the Eggs
In addition to incubating the eggs, you should also candle them to check on their development. Candling involves holding the eggs next to a bright light to see whatís happening inside. In the past, people used the flame of a candle to see inside the developing eggs. (Hence the name of this process.) People no longer use candles, but the process is the same: holding an egg over a light source. You have a couple of options as far as the equipment you use. There are commercially-produced candlers, many of them very affordable. Candlers can make it easier to steady the egg while holding it over the light source, and they can be worth the modest investment, but theyíre not absolutely necessary. A bright flashlight can also do the job.
When you candle the eggs, hold the eggs directly over the light source in a darkened room. The light source should shine through the eggshell so that you can see inside. You generally shouldnít candle the eggs before around day 7. There isnít much to see before this, and you risk damaging the eggs as you handle them. When you candle the eggs, itís fine to move the eggs around in order to get them in the position where you can see the most, but of course you should be as gentle as possible. On day 7, you should be able to see a relatively light area in the egg (which is the air cell), a dark area (which is the yolk), and, most importantly, hopefully you will see a spidery formóa dark spot at the center of a web. This is the embryo along with blood vessels that are attached to it. If you donít see the developing embryo at this point, donít despair. Some eggs can take a little longer to develop. You should continue to incubate them, but mark the eggs that donít seem to be developing. By the way, when candling the eggs, keep them out of the incubator for as little time as possible, not more than a few minutes.
Candle the eggs again around day 10. The embryo and the air cell should be getting bigger. If there are still eggs that arenít developing, check them one more time around day 12. If theyíre not developing, itís time to discard them. As you candle, you should also be looking for hairline cracks in the eggs. These cracks are often difficult (if not impossible) to see looking at the eggs in regular light, but candling can make them visible. If there are cracks in the eggs, itís probably best to dispose of them. Itís unlikely that the embryos will make it to maturity, and if an egg cracks early, it can compromise the other eggs by spreading bacteria.
You should candle the eggs one more time on day 18. At this point, you wonít be able to see much because the light canít pass through the almost fully-developed embryos, which are opaque. The eggs will mostly just look dark, and this is a good sign. When you candle the eggs on day 18, be especially mindful of looking for any cracks.
On day 18, youíre getting close to the end of the incubation period. (Remember the chicks will incubate for 21 days). At this point (about three days before the eggs are due to hatch), you should not to turn or candle the eggs anymore. The eggs need to be left alone in a constant position so that the embryos can get in the right position to hatch. Make sure that you maintain the same temperature, but you need to increase the humidity to 65%. Increasing the humidity ensures that the inner membrane of the eggs will remain moist as the chicks start to hatch.
The chicks should hatch on day 21, but they can hatch a day or two earlier or later. If your chicks havenít all hatched on day 21, continue to incubate the eggs. When chicks hatch, you will first notice the chick make a small hole called a pip. After the chicks have pipped through, they will make a line all the way around the egg. This step in the process is called unzipping. After the egg has been unzipped, the chick should be able to push its way out. The hatching process is exhausting and can take a few hours. Chicks often pip through the eggshell and then rest for a long time before unzipping. Donít worry if it takes the chicks a long time to hatch, and resist your impulse to help them. Chicks build strength through the challenging process of getting out of the egg, and if you help them, they will often be too weak to survive.
Once the chick makes its way out of the egg, it needs to stay in the warm environment of the incubator for a little longer. Leave it in the incubator until it has dried and fluffed out. The chicks might climb on unhatched eggs and on each other, but this shouldnít cause any problems. Once the chick has dried, you can transport it to your brooder.
Be realistic about how the hatching process will go, especially the first time around. Donít expect 100% of the eggs to hatch, especially if theyíve been shipped to you. You might get 100% to hatch, but the success rate is more likely to be between 60% and 80%. In any case, enjoy the process. Itís exciting to watch the chicks develop in the eggs. And once theyíre hatched, the fun is really just beginning as you put them in your brooder for a few weeks and then introduce them to your coop.