Hatching chicks using an incubator is an exciting way to expand your flock and learn about the life cycle of birds. While it is not a fool proof process, being well researched and prepared can make the process run more smoothly.
Step 1: Choosing Your Eggs
First you will need clean, well shaped eggs. It is important that you do not wash them as it removes their naturally occurring protective barrier. Dirty eggs may harbor bacteria and will contaminate your incubator. If you already have hens and a rooster you can use their eggs. You could also buy fertilized eggs from a breeder or feed store. Healthy eggs come from healthy hens so make sure that your flock is getting proper nutrition and disease free.
Step 2: Setting Up the Incubator
Once your eggs are ready, you can set up the incubator. Plug it into a reliable power source 12- 24 hours prior to starting your hatch, in order for it to achieve an accurate and consistent temperature for the species of fowl you are hatching. Temperature fluctuations can damage the eggs. The incubator should be well cleaned to provide a healthy and bacteria free environment. It is important that you have your temperature and humidity settings adjusted according to the species of fowl you are hatching. The Mississippi State University Extension Service has an informative fact sheet that lists the required temperatures and humidity levels for hatching different species of fowl.
Step 3: Humidity Level of Incubator
At the bottom of the incubator you will notice there are shallow pools to add water as well as small drainage holes to drain off excess in case you overfill. It is important that enough water is added to maintain proper humidity for the type of eggs you are hatching. Refer the the Mississippi State University Extension Service's fact sheet on the previous page for humidity level information.
Step 4: Adding an Egg Turner
If you intend on using a egg turner, add it now. It will also need to be properly cleaned and plugged into an electrical outlet. The use of an egg turner is not necessary but helpful. If you choose not to use one, you will have to turn the eggs frequently (~3 times a day for chickens). Once your equipment is set up, you are ready to add eggs and start hatching.
Step 5: The Waiting Game
This is where the fun begins! In as early as 3 days you will be able to see some signs of growth when candling your eggs. Candling is the process of looking at an egg in a dark area with a bright ray of light to see inside the egg. A well placed flashlight and a cupped hand can sometimes do the trick. While over-handling eggs can cause problems with development, it is necessary to remove infertile eggs from the hatch. Backyard Chickens' Progression Through Incubation of Chicken Eggs will help you determine if your eggs are developing as expected.
Step 6: Hatching
During the final few days (day 18 for chickens) you will remove the egg turner, add enough water and shut the incubator to prepare for hatching. Unnecessary opening at this point should be avoided to prevent temperature fluctuations and hatching problems. Baby chicks can and should stay in the incubator until they are dry. They are safe to stay for up to 48 hours. Then they will need to move to a warm brooder.
Step 7: Watch Them Grow
Congratulations on a successful hatch! Now that all of your viable eggs are finished hatching, you will need to move them to a warm brooder. A heat lamp that is safely installed so the chicks cannot touch it or so it cannot catch fire is necessary for maintaining proper temperature. The first week they should maintain a temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit, being reduced five degrees every week. They should have access to water that they cannot drown in and free choice to chick starter feed. Make sure that their area stays warm, clean and dry. Have fun!