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     Mail order chicks are a great way to start a new flock on your homestead.  However, if you have fertile eggs available, why not hatch your own?  A broody hen or incubator increases your self sufficiency while decreasing costs.  Families may use the experience as a lesson in embryology, livestock management, or home economics.  Hatching at home also allows you to breed for traits that are best for your environment and needs. 

     Hatching Different Species of Poultry

     Although chickens are the most common species hatched at home, you may also incubate turkey, duck, goose, and other eggs.  The basic instructions are the same, however the days to hatch vary according to species.

Incubation Periods for Common Poultry Species

Species

Days to Hatch

     Chicken

21

     Duck (most breeds)

28

     Mallard

26.5-27

     Indian Runner

28.5

     Muscovy

35

     Goose (most breeds)

30-32

     Canada & Egyptian Goose

35

     Turkey

28

     Guinea fowl

26-28

     Bobwhite Quail

23

     Japanese Quail

17

*Source - Storey's Guide to Raising Poultry by Leonard S. Mercia

Hatching is hard work! Just ask this White Pekin duckling.

 

     The following instructions are for hatching chicken eggs, with notes for hatching other species. 

     Broody Mamas

     Some breeds are good mothers, while others have been bred for increased egg production.  There is also a lot of variation between individuals of the same breed.  Watch for a bird that sets on a nest all day and resists if you move her.  She may be separated from the flock and given a clutch of eggs.  A broody hen, turkey, or duck may also hatch eggs from other species, so you can give her whatever eggs you want hatched.  Be sure to give her water and feed close by and a quiet place where the hatchlings will be protected from the rest of the flock.  Be aware that turkey, duck and goose eggs are larger and take longer to hatch than chicken eggs, so a broody chicken can't set on as many and she may lose interest before the hatch is complete. 

Species

Best Breeds for Brooding

     Chicken

     Silkies, Black Copper Marans, Sussex, Buff Orpington, other heritage breeds

     Duck

     Muscovy

     Goose

     Embden, Chinese, Pilgrim

     Turkey

     Narragansett, Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, other heritage breeds

     Guinea fowl 

     Any breed may hatch, but not reliable at caring for young

 

     If you don't have a broody hen, or you want to raise large numbers of offspring, an incubator is a great way to hatch eggs.

This desktop incubator has served its purpose for many years.

 

     Your Incubation Station

     For most home hatching a desktop incubator is sufficient for your needs.  They are small, inexpensive, and fairly reliable.  However, if you wish to hatch large numbers of eggs, a cabinet incubator may be worth the expense.  Cabinet incubators hold dozens of eggs or more, provide precise heat and humidity levels, and turn the eggs automatically.  They are also quite expensive.  For the do-it-yourselfer, there are heater kits for building your own incubator out of a cooler or other insulated container.  For the purposes of this article, we will be using a desktop model. 

     Desktop Add-on Features: Desktop incubators generally have a wafer style 'thermostat' with a small lever for adjusting heat levels.  This type is trickier to use than an incubator with an automatic thermostat, so this feature may be worth the expense.  Forced air incubators have a fan that circulates the air for more even temperatures and increased hatch rates compared to still air incubators.  You may also wish to purchase an automatic egg turner.

     Incubation Instructions from Start to Hatch

     Basic Hatching & Brooding Instruction List

  • Place incubator in a safe place, out of temperature extremes
  • Fill one humidity tray (check instructions)
  • Replace wire shelf and lid (Set up automatic turner, if using)
  • Plug in and adjust heat, allow temps to stabilize for at least 24 hours
  • Mark eggs and place in incubator
  • Mark important tasks on calendar
  • Turn eggs an odd number of times each day, at least three times
  • Candle eggs on day 7 - look for blood vessels & dark spot (embryo)
  • Watch for temperature increases around day 10
  • Candle eggs on day 14 - embryos should be moving
  • Stop turning eggs 3 days before hatch/ remove automatic turner
  • Fill both humidity trays 3 days before hatch
  • Do not open incubator for the last 3 days, except to fill humidity trays
  • Listen for peeping chicks up to 36 hours before hatch
  • When chicks are fluffy, remove from incubator and place in brooder
  • Teach them to eat and drink
  • Keep brooder clean, change water daily
  • Keep brooder temp at 95 degrees Fahrenheit for first week, decrease temp by 5 degrees each week until they are feathered out.

     

     Setting Up Your Incubator

     Choose your hatch location carefully.  It takes 3 weeks or more to hatch a clutch of chicken eggs and it's best if you don't need to move them.  The following conditions will provide the best hatching experience:

  • 24/7 room temp should be in the 65 - 80 degree Fahrenheit range
  • Position out of direct sunlight, away from drafts or heat ducts
  • Protect from children and pets
  • Clean incubator thoroughly
  • Place incubator on a level surface

     Check the incubator instructions before filling the humidity trays.  There will be two or more trenches  in the bottom of the incubator to hold water for proper humidity levels.  Usually one trench is filled until the last three days of incubation, then another tray is filled to raise humidity levels for hatching.  Too much or too little humidity can kill developing embryos.  (For more accuracy, you may use a humidity sensor and keep levels between 50 - 60% relative humidity until the last 3 days of incubation, then increase levels to 90 - 95% relative humidity.)

     Once the humidity tray is filled, put the wire shelf in place.  If you are using an egg turner, set it up now.  The thermometer should be situated level with the top of the eggs for the most accurate reading.  Do not add eggs at this point!

     Close the incubator, plug it in, leave it for several hours then check the temperature.  If you are using a forced air incubator, the ideal temperature is 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit.  For a still air incubator, increase temperature to 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit.  To adjust temperatures, move the thermostat lever in small increments.  Wait  an hour before making further adjustments.  Once the temperature is stable, leave the incubator running for at least 24 hours.  When the temperature remains in the proper range, you may begin incubation. 

     Just Add Eggs

     Select fertile eggs of normal size that are clean and free of cracks. Eggs may be stored at room temp, at a 35 degree angle for up to 10 days.  Turn them an odd number of times each day to prevent the yolk from sticking to the inside of the shell.  Do not wash or refrigerate eggs.  Before placing them in the incubator, mark one side with an X and the other with an O to keep track when turning them.  If you are using an automatic turner you will not need to mark the eggs, just place them large end up in the egg turner. 

Incubation Calendar for Chicken Eggs

Day 1

Mark Eggs with X & O,Fill Humidity Trays,Begin Incubation, Turn Eggs 

Day 2

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 3

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays   

Day 4

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 5

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 6

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 7

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays, Candle Eggs 

Day 8

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 9

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 10

Watch for Increased Temps,Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays 

Day 11

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 12

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 13

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 14

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays, Candle Eggs

Day 15

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 16

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 17

Turn Eggs,Check Humidity Trays

Day 18

Fill Both Humidity Trays,Stop Turning Eggs/ Remove Automatic Turner  

Day 19

Check Humidity Trays,Listen for Peeping!Get Brooder Box Ready

Day 20

Check Humidity Trays,Listen for Peeping!

Day 21

Hatch Day! Check Humidity Trays

     

     List of Important Tasks

     Check Humidity Daily: It is very important to fill the humidity tray with warm water.  If it dries out for too long the developing embryos may die.

     Turning Eggs: Be sure to wash your hands before touching eggs.  Neglecting to turn the eggs causes leg deformities and poor hatch rates.  Turn the eggs an odd number of times, at least 3 times each day so that the same side of the egg is not facing up over night.  The yolk may stick to the inside of the shell and cause deformities.

     Check Temperatures:  Position thermometer so you can see it through the observation window or use a remote sensor to track the temperature.

     Candle Eggs: It isn't necessary to candle the eggs, but doing so will allow you to remove eggs that don't develop an embryo or have a dead embryo.  On day 7, the embryo will be a small dark spot and blood vessels will be visible.  (On day 14, the embryo should be developed enough to see the legs moving, but will not fill the egg.  Day 18 should reveal a dark mass filling the egg, except for the air space at the large end of the egg.)

     Watch Temperatures on Day 10: The developing embryos begin producing their own body heat and this can cause temperatures to increase too much.  Make very slight adjustments to the heater to keep temps as close to 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit (100.5 F - still air incubator) as possible.  The temperatures can increase or decrease by a degree without causing harm to the embryos, however it is best to keep them as close as possible to the target.  Sustained temperatures of 102 F or greater, or 97F or lower may harm the embryos. Temps that are too warm may lead to early hatch and temps that are too low may delay hatch.

     Stop Turning Eggs, Increase Humidity: Three days before hatch, the chicks will move into place for piping and hatching.  It's important to stop turning the eggs and fill both humidity trays (check incubator instructions).  Resist the urge to open the incubator after this, unless the humidity trays must be filled.

     For the last three days of the hatch, keep both humidity trays filled by adding warm water.  You should hear the chicks begin to peep for a day or two before they hatch.

     Brooder Box: As you prepare for hatch day, get your brooder box ready for the new arrivals.  (See below.) 

     Hatch Day!

     You should see chicks piping through their shells today.  Leave them alone and be content to watch through the observation window.  Opening the incubator to remove chicks or help them hatch will chill them and lower the humidity, which could prevent them from piping through their shell.

     When the chicks have all hatched and are dry and fluffy, gently remove them from the incubator and place them in the prepared brooder.  If some eggs have not hatched by day 22, fill the humidity trays and replace the lid to see if they hatch in a day or two. 

     Caring for Your Newly Hatched Chicks

     Feeding: Chicks hatch with enough yolk to sustain them for up to three days.  However, it's best to provide food and water as soon as they are active.  Give them chick starter feed and clean water in shallow containers.  Dip the tip of their beaks into the water to teach them to drink.  Do not to dip up to their nostrils.  For extra energy, mix electrolytes or a tablespoon of sugar into a quart of water.  Do not give them honey as it can be contaminated with botulism spores.

     Make sure feed is fresh and there are no signs of mold or a rancid scent.  Nutritional content degrades over time, so don't use old feed.  Use a chick or game bird starter feed that has the proper protein content, vitamins and minerals.  Give chicks a small dish of fine grit to help them digest their food.

 

Percentage of Necessary Protein in Starter Feeds by Species

Species

Protein

     Chick*

18-20%

     Duckling

20

     Gosling

20-22%

     Turkey poult

24-28%

     Guinea keet/Game Bird    

24-28%

*Meat chicks may be fed 20-24% protein.

A simple brooder box using a plastic storage container and seedling heat mats to keep the chicks warm.

     Brooding: A brooder box can be as simple as a plastic storage container, or it can be constructed from plywood to house larger numbers of hatchlings.  It is important that their brooder is large enough for the water and feed containers and for the chicks to find warm and cool spots.  The sides should be high enough to prevent escape and a screen over the top will help contain and protect them.

     The brooder box needs a source of heat to keep the chicks warm.  This may be a 60 watt incandescent light bulb, or you may need a heat lamp if the room is cold.  (Be especially careful to attach heat lamps properly to prevent fires.)  Use a red light bulb to reduce stress and picking. The temperature in the brooder should be 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week.  As they grow the temperature is decreased by 5 degrees each week until they are acclimated to room temperature or are fully feathered out.  Watch for signs that they are chilled or overheated and adjust temperatures accordingly.  Chicks that are too warm will gather as far from the heat source as possible and may pant.  Chicks that are too cold will huddle under the heat source and may pile on top of each other to keep warm.

     Protect the brooder from rats, pets, children, direct sunlight, drafts, and moisture.  Do not use slippery materials to line the bottom of the brooder.  Newspaper and other slick surfaces can cause spraddle leg, a condition that causes their legs to splay out.  Paper towels provide better traction and make clean up easier.  Pine chips (not cedar) can also be used, but are likely to end up in the water and feed dishes.  

     Check on chicks often!

Feeding sick chicks a mixture of starter feed with yogurt and water.

 

     What to Do if Chicks are Sick or Injured

     Trouble Hatching: Chicks that struggle to hatch may have deformed legs due to improper turning.  There is little you can do to provide a normal life for them and you will need to be more diligent turning your next hatch.

If the humidity levels drop too low during hatch, chicks will have trouble breaking through the shell.  In this case you may remove small bits of shell until the chick is able to finish hatching on its own.  If blood vessels lining the shell break, put the egg back into the incubator with the opening facing up and give the chick time to hatch on its own.  Make sure the humidity trays are filled.

Mushy Chick: If eggs are dirty or the hatchling is exposed to excessive humidity, a bacterial infection can cause the chick's navel to get mushy and turn a dark color.  This is called mushy chick, and is usually fatal.  You may consult a bird vet for antibiotics.  Prevention is much easier than treatment.

Stress: Some chicks have a harder time recovering from the stress of hatching.   Feed them plain yogurt with a bit of mashed boiled egg to give them a boost.  In a pinch, you can mix some chick starter feed with water and yogurt to make a thin gruel.  Feed this mixture with an eyedropper by touching to the tip of the beak.  Do not force food or water into the chick's mouth or it could end up breathing the mixture and drowning.

Pasty Butt: Sometimes runny feces stick to the chick's vent.   Add electrolytes with probiotics to the water or feed plain yogurt.  Gently remove feces with a warm, wet cloth, being careful not to tear skin.

Coccidiosis: This disease is caused by parasites and causes bloody stools.  Feed them a medicated starter if they were not vaccinated for coccidiosis.  Losses can be very high.

Injuries: Injuries may be caused by handling the chicks roughly or dropping them.  Prevention is the best medicine, so teach children how to handle chicks properly and protect them from injury.  Small cuts or abrasions may be treated with an antibiotic ointment that does not contain topical analgesics.

 

  A brooder room in the barn houses large numbers of hatchlings.

     Start Your Home Hatchery

     Purchasing an incubator and setting up a brooder box will require an initial investment, but the number of chicks you may hatch over the years is limited only by the time, energy, and number of fertile eggs you have.  With a little luck and the willingness to learn, you can use these incubation instructions to increase the size of your flock, raise replacement layers, or sell young poultry from your homestead.  Home hatching is a fun and rewarding project! 

 

 

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