Hatching Fertile Eggs
Egg Incubators can be the most reliable method of hatching fertile eggs and can result in a higher hatch rate compared to under a broody hen. While automatic incubators minimise human intervention, incubators and broody hens should be checked every few days. The disadvantage of using even the best incubator is that once the chicks hatch, there is a greater reliance on looking after the chicks compared to them being raised by a hen.
Before setting your fertile eggs in an incubator let it warm up and ensure that the temperature read-out is 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) for a fan-forced incubator, or 39 degrees Celsius (103 Degrees Fahrenheit) for a still-air incubator. Many incubators sold today have automatic turning and temperature adjustments. If your incubator does not have an automatic turning function, then make sure the eggs are turned at least twice per day for the first 18 days. After the 18th day, stop turning the eggs in preparation for the hatch.
If your incubator does not have automatic temperature control then it must be located in a room where the temperature is perfectly stable. The temperature must also be checked and adjusted manually several times per day to ensure that a stable temperature of 38 degrees is maintained. High-quality fully automatic fan-forced incubators, including all of the incubators sold on the Poultry Australia website will deliver a 95% hatch rate from fertile eggs. Still-air non-automatic incubators will usually deliver a hatch rate between 60% and 80% of fertile eggs depending on the user's level of experience and the manufacturer of the incubator.
Setting up an Incubator
Poultry Australia is an official retailer of genuine Janoel fully automatic egg incubators.
For a manual turn incubator, a good tip is to draw a circle on one side of the egg and a cross on the other. These symbols can be used to check that all of the eggs have been turned twice per day. If you are using an automatic turning egg incubator, ensure that there is 5mm of space between each of the eggs and components of the turning tray to allow the turning device to move freely and avoid trapping the eggs in a stationary position. Some automatic incubators only tilt the eggs rather than actually turn them. This technique is perfectly acceptable and is used by most commercial hatcheries.
Check that the water reservoirs in the incubator are filled according to the instructions for your specific incubator. As a guide, the humidity for the first 18 days of the incubation process should be around 40% to 50% and then increase to 65% to 70% after 18 days. A hygrometer is a crucial instrument if you are hatching fertile eggs in an incubator. Incorrect humidity is the greatest cause of poor hatch rates. If you don't have a hygrometer or accurate thermometer, you can view Poultry Australia's range of accurate Hygrometers and Thermometers.
Setting Fertile Eggs
Once you have set your eggs make sure that they are not disturbed by opening the incubator regularly. If you wish to check on the progress of the chicks inside the shell, fertile eggs can be candled between 7 and 16 days into the incubation process. Candling eggs will allow you to view the development and estimate a hatch rate in advance. For information on how to candle fertile eggs see Poultry Australia's guide to Candling Fertile Eggs. You can also view our exclusive range of Egg Candlers and other poultry equipment here.
Preparing for the Hatch
As mentioned previously, on the 18th day of the incubation process stop turning the eggs and increase the humidity in the incubator ready for the chicks to hatch. Depending on the breed, most chicks should hatch on around the 21st day of incubation. If the chicks hatch before this date, it is likely that the incubator temperature was too high. If they hatch after this date, it is likely that the incubator temperature was too low.
Once the first chicks start to hatch it is important that the incubator lid is not opened. This will cause the humidity to drop and leave any chicks still inside the shell trapped and unable to survive. Humidity that is too high can cause chicks inside their shell to drown. Once one chick starts to hatch its chirping is an indication to the other chicks inside their shells, so usually all of the chicks will hatch within 36 hours. Chicks hatch with enough yolk in their stomach to survive without food or water for around 48 hours.
Once all of the chicks have hatched you can remove them from the incubator and put them into their brooder. If there are chicks still within their shells it is possible to help them out by hand. This method is highly debated with many arguing that if a chick is not strong enough to make it out of the shell, then it will not develop into a strong and healthy bird. In the end, the decision as to whether to help remaining chicks out of their shell is a personal choice.
Cleaning an Incubator
It is important that incubators are cleaned and disinfected between usage to prevent disease from spreading to the next batch of fertile eggs. Sterilising an incubator between hatches by disinfecting all non-electrical components will ensure the incubator is free of germs that could kill embryos during development.
For more information on raising chicks once they have hatched, please view our guide to Raising Chicks. To view Poultry Australia's high-quality incubators, please visit our Incubators & Equipment page.
Hatching Chicks with a Broody Hen
A reliable broody hen is the cheapest way to hatch fertile eggs. If you are using a hen that has not raised chicks before, it can turn out to be a frustrating process.
It is a good idea to keep her separate from the rest of the flock to ensure that she is not disturbed while brooding the fertile eggs. This will also stop other hens from laying eggs under her, which will end up half developed and take up space under her. Most hens will struggle to brood over one dozen eggs at once. Overcrowding the number of eggs that a hen is brooding can reduce the hatch rate considerably. It is important to ensure that the brooding hen is a breed that makes a reliable brooder, as many breeds such as Araucana’s are generally poor brooders and mothers.
While she is broody she will need supplies of food and water close to her nest at all times. It is also important that she is in an chicken coop that is protected from rats, birds of prey, and other predators that could take her eggs or harm her. At least once per day she will get up and spend a few minutes off her nest foraging. This is perfectly normal. At around 21 days after the fertile eggs were set the chicks should start to hatch. It is important to have chick starter crumble ready to feed the chicks when they hatch.
Also see Poultry Australia's guide to Raising Chicks.