How to Hatch Chicks in an Incubator

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How to Hatch Chicks in an Inubator l Homestead Lady (.com)Curious to know how the process of hatching chicks in an incubator works before you fork over the money to purchase one? Wondering if it’s worth your time to raise your own chicks? Let us answer a few of those questions!

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For a broader discussion on homestead-based poultry breeding, check out our book, The Do It Yourself Homestead, in which we dedicate a whole section to this very conversation.  If you’d like to preview that section of the book, feel free to email me through the site and I’ll get you set up.  I may just toss in a little gift, too – you never know with me.

Why Incubate Your Own Eggs?

I’ve wanted to figure out a system for renewing our poultry flock for several reasons:

  1. I wanted to find a solution to getting new chicks that doesn’t involve shipping from great distances
  2. I was hoping we could save some money in the process, too.
  3. I wanted a way to control our genetics and select out bad roosters and breed the best hens.
  4. I was also inclined to let the broody hens raise up their own little chicks as often as they liked so I could increase the survival rate of my chicks.

The bulk of our breeding program will be taken up with replacing meat birds.  These are chickens we grow specifically to eat, as opposed to keeping them for laying. Our family consumes a goodly amount of chicken in a year, so that’s a lot of birds.

You’ll Need a Rooster, Lassie

Establishing a homestead-based breeding program means having a rooster, no way around it.  If you’re in a city, be sure to check any regulations that might exist about roosters on your property. 

Last year we got a rooster for the first time.  Several breeds of roosters, actually, in order to test drive the male mystique in chickens as well as to figure out which variety we might like to have for breeding. 

A Few Good Breeds

There are a lot of breeds that are considered dual purpose, good for eggs and meat.  While other breeds are particularly heavy and yummy, and are primarily used for dinner. 

We tried a Jersey Giant rooster to see if we could get a nice, robust bird.  But it turns out their “giant-ness” comes in the height he gets from his long, skinny legs. 

We also tried Russian Orlafs which are a lovely, lovely variety but not the buffest birds in the barnyard. 

We also had Red Broiler roosters who, as their name implies, were a good size for eating but they were sort of dial tone birds – boring. 

I think we’ve settled on trying a Buff Orpington and/or Australorp rooster next.  Both would be considered dual purpose breeds and they’re my favorite varieties of chicken).

What I Learned

With my rooster experiments, mostly what I learned is that roosters are a pain in the butt (literally sometimes).  However, like I said, they’re a necessary evil if you want to start your own poultry breeding program. 

Originally, I was trying to set up a natural breeding rotation with only a solid rooster and a few broody hens. 

You can read our experience with Silkies here – they’re one of the broodiest breeds and certainly among the greatest mothers of the chicken world.

Incubator – Great Tool for your Breeding Program

Eventually, I realized that I was going to need an incubator, too.  I’m just not in a phase of life that allows for a lot of time spent taking notes on birds and watching mating patterns. 

So, after a lot of research and reading customer reviews on Amazon, we bought this one – the Farm Innovators 4200 series.  The automatic egg turner is a must unless you have, literally, nothing else to do all day but babysit your incubator.  This model comes with a thermometer on the unit and a detached one for laying inside the incubator itself – the inside one was always more accurate.  There’s a humidity monitor on this model, too – very helpful!

We had to go purchase fertilized eggs (I am, despite the above, currently sans rooster); they’d been collected over several days and were a few different

After a lot of peeping and rocking, the chick finally starts to emerge.
After a lot of peeping and rocking, the chick finally starts to emerge.

varieties.  Apparently, as long as the eggs stay room temperature, it’s fine to get a nice group together over a couple days so you can fill your incubator.  Putting them in the fridge will make them too cool and they most likely won’t hatch out for you.  We didn’t wash them, although the instructions say to, because I figured the last thing a chicken yard is is clean so why bother; besides, washing removes the bloom, or protective coating, around the shell and that can allow pathogens to penetrate that permeable membrane of shell.  I knocked off the few feathers and blotches that were attached a plopped them in – gently. 

It takes about 21 days for chicken eggs to hatch, so you watch and wait.  As you’re waiting, check the temperature and the humidity level a few times a day and make slight adjustments to your dials, if needed.  If you have little ones around, make sure you have a conversation about which parts kids can touch and which parts are only for grown ups.  We had one day where the ambient temperature shot up to ninety degrees (we’d been enjoying blissful, seventy degree days and then all of a sudden…!) and I was so busy with other stuff that day that it wasn’t until the evening I noticed our incubator temp was way too high and they’d run out of water- I was so sure I’d killed them all!!!!  Miraculously, we had a pretty decent hatch rate by the end (especially considering some other kid mishaps we had) – we got 13 out of 22.  The reward for all those days of watching and waiting is to hear the first peeps of the chicks still in the eggs, telling you they’re just

Wet and spazzy, the chick tries to figure out what just happened.
Wet and spazzy, the chick tries to figure out what just happened.

about ready to come out. 

Within about three days of their projected hatch date, you remove the egg turner and place the eggs on the mesh.  From there,  they’ll start to rock back and forth a bit, then you hear the peeps, then they start pecking away at their shells.  You must NOT help them break the shell, but someone suggested using a water dropper to add a drop of two of water to the pecked out hole if the chicks were struggling to make progress; sometimes they dry out and get stuck, literally.  The water drops worked wonders for several of ours (Utah is so unbelievably dry, especially on windy days) but that’s all we did was add a bit of water – no touching!  We lost two that started pecking but just weren’t strong enough to make it out of the shell, which means they weren’t strong enough to survive.  Man this stuff can be brutal.  But, wait, there’s more…

Loss, Even When You Try So Hard

We had one hatch out with curled up toes; sweetest little thing but it just couldn’t walk.  (If you have a similar experience, here’s a good article that might help.)  We tried splinting her feet and helping her

Severely curled toes; she couldn't walk.
Severely curled toes; she couldn’t walk.

stand and my ten year old (our resident chicken whisperer) worked with her for several days but she ended up passing.  My daughter’s heart was broken – oh, we were all sad.  It was particularly touching for us all this year that we have our own baby in the house – we can’t imagine losing our dear, little baby and so every loss is personal.  Living with things that can die on you is a big part of this homesteading lifestyle, though, and you HAVE to get accustomed to it.  (I don’t think you ever get used to it but it

Splinting her little feet.
Splinting her little feet.

can become a familiar pain.)  I reminded my daughter that you can only love something if you’re willing to risk losing it; we’d rather have had our hearts broken than to have never loved and served that little chick at all.  It didn’t stop her from crying for a few days but I know it’s a lesson she’s internalized just by living with and loving these animals.

Once Hatched

Not pretty but it flattened her feet.
Not pretty but it flattened her feet.

Not nearly as sad, we had another hatch out yellow while all the other chicks were dark.  This wasn’t an issue for a few days but by the second week, everyone was picking on him; it can happen even in flocks of mature birds that the odd man out color-wise gets attacked. 

As the babies hatched out of their shells in the incubator, we put

Our lone blonde chicken who had to relocate.
Our lone blonde chicken who had to relocate.

them under our broody Silkie, Snowy,  in our chick pen so that she could raise them, which she has done for us in the past.  After having her raise our last few, I’m just so over taking care of chicks myself!  I’m a good human mommy but it turns out I make only a mediocre chicken mommy knowing very little about eating dirt and looking for bugs and sleeping in straw.  I wish I could have gotten a picture of them at night when they would pile under and over mamma so that when you approached the brooder, little heads would poke out from all over Snowy.  If you picked up mamma, babies would fall out from under her like chicken rain.  Unfortunately, every time I tried to photograph both scenarios, the chicks would scatter and Snowy would get pecky.  Snowy is an excellent mother and took over with food and water instruction BUT even she started picking on my little blonde baby.  So, we ended up giving him away to a nice lady with other light colored chicks – no worries!

Snowy is still tending the twelve we have left out in the barnyard now.  To be honest, I think we overwhelmed her with so many babies – she usually only sets a clutch of three of her own.  They’re older now and have more attitude and they can fit through the fence so they go off exploring where she can’t follow and keep them safe.  This drives her batty!  But she still makes room for them on cool nights, despite the fact that they’re almost as big as she is now – they’re all standard sized chickens and she’s a pint sized Silkie.  I love how she diligently keeps them in line and looks out for them and teaches them.  What difference does it make to her that they’re not technically her kids?  Love really is the universal language, whether used by people or chickens.

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10 thoughts on “How to Hatch Chicks in an Incubator

  1. We did our third batch in the incubator this week. 🙂

    Like you, we were totally newbies at it as well. Our first hatch had a 45% viability and we were not so impressed. The last batch had a 63%. Turns out that is pretty good with a home incubation process. 🙂 We are trying to do 3 different breeds this year to see which ones we like the best. (Americanas – that I got from our own hens, Giant Black Cochins, and Barred Plymouth Rock) I would love to try some Buff Orpington, or some Favoriles (sp?) as well, but the season for that is now over so next year it will be.

    Isn’t living and experimenting on the farm fun?! I pretty much love it!

    1. I’ve never had Cochins but I love Americanas, Buffs and Barred Rocks; let me know if you end up with Favaroles…
      Wish you were closer!

  2. I am incubating my first batch of quail eggs right now. I have NEVER done anything like this before and find myself wondering about them, checking them constantly, monitoring temperature and watching my lovely 3 year old telling me all about how the baby quail “have to peck OUT of their shells, mommzy. OUT, not in!” (Well. Thank heavens she’s around to set me straight.)

    I’m hoping for 50% hatch rate. I’m so glad I found this post. Thanks for making a newbie feel a little more comfortable with this process!

    By the way – loved how you explained about loss to your tot. About love and risk. Right on. Good way to say that.

  3. We incubated a couple of batches and although I don’t recommend helping a chick out I did have to do that. The humidity was so very low that the membrane was stuck to the chick. It had started the hold and the shell had separated from the membrane. I just peeled off the shell leaving the chick in the membrane, got a flour sack cloth wet with warm water and rehydrated the membrane. The chick was able to break out except for a piece stuck to its head. I dripped warm water on it and the membrane came right off. It’s doing wonderfully now.

  4. I just set my first batch of eggs last Friday. This will be my first incubator hatch in over 30 years! The last was way back before air circulating fans and automatic turners, heck we didn’t even have humidifier trays, you just poured water in the whole bottom and put a wire mesh on little blocks to keep the chicks up out of it. I am very excited to see how this turns out!

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