Artificial incubation is a process where chicken eggs are kept in climate-controlled incubators until hatching occurs. It is widely practiced today and can be a rewarding experience for all involved if the right conditions are maintained.
Artificial Incubation Methods for Chickens
Advantages vs Disadvantages
Artificial incubation is a long and detailed process, however, it has great results if done properly. As with any artificial process, there are the advantages and disadvantages of using an egg incubator to hatch chicks.
- Can hatch more eggs at one time
- Provides is a sense of accomplishment
- Don’t have to wait for a broody hen
- Can be very unsuccessful
- Very time-consuming
- Starting out is expensive
Types of Incubators
Incubators come in basically two sizes, small-scale and large-scale. The small-scale incubators sit on a table and usually hold only a few eggs at a time. These incubators are for the family who wishes to raise a small amount of fertilized eggs at home fairly easily. The success rates with the smaller incubators aren’t as high due to the fact that there are fewer factors being automated than in large-scale incubators.
The large-scale incubators sit on the floor. They can hold up to 300 eggs, depending on the size. Some large-scale incubators come with a built-in turner, which makes it easier and less time-consuming for the individual taking care of the eggs. Large-scale incubators also come with thermostatic controls, which makes the process of controlling the temperature inside much easier.
Controlling the airflow in the incubator is very important as it helps control the heat and humidity inside. There are 3 ways to do this. A still-air incubator has holes placed at the top and bottom. These are usually less expensive but also less consistent. The second is with forced-air models. These models have a fan that constantly circulates the air within the incubator. While these models are more expensive, they are also more consistent. The final type of air control is a natural draft, where the air follows the gravity within the incubator.
Parts of the Incubators
Common tabletop incubators
Most tabletop incubators come with a see-through plastic lid, which allows a clear view of what is taking place inside. Many tabletop incubators have a rack to place the fertilized eggs on, a heating element, which controls the temperature inside, and a thermal switch to turn the heat off and on. At the bottom, you will find a water tank for humidity. All models have holes for ventilation. Automatic egg turners can be purchased separately. Invest in one of these if you don’t want to be turning your eggs every 15 to 20 minutes by hand.
Larger models of incubators come with more advanced features. Some larger models have more than one water tank, which means less stress over humidity levels. These larger models come equipped with turning trays, a plastic hatching drawer, and an electronic thermostat. Some include a hygrometer for humidity. Some models have wet/dry bulb thermometers. Determining your budget and what options are important to you will help in the process of choosing the right incubator.
The placement of your incubator is very important. There a few considerations to take in mind when doing so. The first is to be aware that you should never place an incubator in direct sunlight. It will cause fluctuations in heat and humidity, something you don’t want. The second consideration is to keep your incubator in an area that maintains a temperature of between 70° and 80° at all times. One final consideration is to keep the incubator away from children, pets, and especially predators.
Preparing the Eggs for Artificial Incubation
Follow all instructions that come with the incubator precisely! Below is a checklist to use when choosing your eggs.
- should all be as close in size as possible
- be completely dirt free
- all the same age
- have the common egg shape
- mark all eggs on one side if you plan on turning the eggs by hand.
One special note here: Do not wash your eggs with soap and water! Shells are very porous and the soap residue can clog the pores resulting in the death of the embryo inside.
Guidelines During the Artificial Incubation Process
Turning the Eggs
If the incubator is equipped with an automatic egg turner to skip this process and go on to the next section. Otherwise, these are the general guidelines for turning your fertilized eggs. Turn the eggs three times per day. Continue in this manner until three days before hatching (eggs hatch in 21 days), remove the turner from the incubator. At this time place the eggs on their sides in the tray for the hatching process to begin.
Temperature During Incubation
Read the instructions that came with the incubator. Keep in mind, no matter what style incubator you use, fluctuations in temperature can cause death to the tiny embryo that is developing within the egg. Most incubators keep an average temperature of between 99.5° and 102°.
Humidity During Incubation
The temperature inside the incubator aides in determining the humidity levels within, which is important to embryo survival. If the humidity is too high, the eggs won’t evaporate moisture correctly and can cause “mushy naval disease” in newly hatched chicks. See Common Ailments in Chickens for more information on this and other diseases. If humidity is too low, the shell will become too hard for the chick to peck and break out of at hatching. The trickiest part of artificial incubation is getting it right. The common practice among individuals with smaller incubators is to place a humidifier in the room that holds the incubator.
Candling is done by placing a light source in a box in a dark area to check an egg for fertilization. This shows the embryo inside the egg and later the position of airspace. Follow the article How To Build a Candler for more information.
Hatching from Artificial Incubation
The entire process of artificial incubation takes 21 days from start to finish. Between 19 and 21 days, the chick takes the yolk through its naval, which provides the food and water necessary for the first 24 to 48 hours of life. Do not disturb the incubator for the last three days. You will hear chirping and squeaking from within the egg about 24 hours before hatching.
The first stage of hatching occurs when tiny cracks form at the widest part of the egg, called a star crack. Piping occurs when a tiny hole is made in the crack. The chick uses an egg tooth to make tiny holes in the shell and uses its legs to push the shell open. Remove the newly cracked shells immediately.
The chick enters the world wet. Place the chicks in the bottom of the tray for 18 to 48 hours until dry. After the chick has dried, place the chick in a brooding pen. Keep the temperature of the pen at 95°. The brooding pen should be kept at least 17 to 20 inches off the floor.
Artificial incubation can be a stressful process, especially for the busy individual. Time and precision are very important in the process. One mistake can be fatal for the embryos growing within the eggs, which is devastating to the person who worked so hard. Those new to the concept of raising chickens should probably avoid using artificial incubation methods until they are more educated and experienced with chickens. However, it can be a rewarding experience, and with a little bit of perseverance and patience, the rewards could be great!
Have you tried artificial incubation to raise your own chicks? Do you have any advice you could share? Leave a comment in the box below!