Hatching out little quail or chickens can be intimidating at first and a lot of things will convince you that you need expensive gear to do so or nothing will hatch. On my little homestead, I was alright as I had a couple of Blue Marans and one of them was near ALWAYS broody.
At first, I’d let her do the work and hatch out some chicks then move her to a pen where she could exist off in peace as I was concerned about roaming wild dogs we had in the area.
The issue is the hens don’t always stay broody and if you have someone asking you for chicks to start their flock then either they have to hatch them or you have to hatch them. Usually, with these things, it is easier for me to do it myself.
A lot of blogs out there will convince you that you need some specific model of incubator. I can say for a fact that those are more optional unless you have to hatch a lot of chicks. For smaller home operations a couple small incubators is all you should need.
I originally used an incubator I made myself.
Raising chicks and farm animals, in general, is a very satisfying experience. When I had my little homestead I raised up some baby chicks, as well as a baby goat. I had a couple of other things too though they were meant for different households after I experimented a bit with how they worked or didn’t work on my property.
At some point, it seems that every backyard chicken keeper grows an interest in hatching out their own eggs. When I was in my 3rd year I had a decent-sized flock and then due to different forces of the time I had a need for an incubator.
Usually, I let a couple of my hens do the mothering but one hatch there was a baby chick that wasn’t doing too well and needed a place to stay warm.
I did a search and something like this came up. In fact, that might even be the guide I used though that was 8 years ago so I can’t remember. My intent was to create a good heating box where the little chick could relax for a couple of days then return it to the mother when it had a chance to get stronger.
I got a crude thing together with the core pieces as I had a small light as well as a styrofoam box that hadn’t been used and basic stuff like that around the house. While I was doing that I sent my ex-husband to the hardware store for some other requests.
The only alterations I did to my model was I installed a thermostat so the box was guaranteed to not cook the chick and would stay right at ideal temps and I got 2 heat thermometers just in case, the humidity wasn’t as big of a concern at the time and was something I purchased things for later as correct humidity is important for eggs. I also installed a glass top into my styrofoam so I could see in and keep the heat and humidity in ideal ranges.
The chick had a good couple of days in there and after 3 days was very strong and in good shape to go back to the mother. He made it and turned into a fun little roo. So I saved a chick for less than $20 and now had an incubator to boot.
When setting up an incubator there are some things to think about and plan around.
- What breed of chickens or fowl are you hatching?
This might seem like an obvious thing, but it is important to narrow down. Being where I’m located outside of the city a lot of my old chicken breeds would not be very welcome here. The current yard I’m in isn’t so bad as it is on a corner so there is a lot of corner space and a road as well as a forested area that is very slim on the other side which acts as a slight divide from the neighboring school and park.
The back area behind the boundary fence is also empty and way back behind there are apartments. All this to say, a small chicken flock most likely wouldn’t annoy anyone though this area isn’t zoned for chickens to my knowledge and I would have to ensure I only bring in hens if I could get approval.
If you live within city limits these things affect you as you can only keep a small number of chickens so you need to choose a breed known for laying. You also may not be able to do much hatching as you won’t have a rooster. If you have children you probably want a friendly breed like Silkies, though my most affectionate hen was a White Leghorn named Charlotte. If you want the multi-colored egg layers then you want the Easter Eggers or Araucanas.
Personally, my plan is to add quail if I can figure that out. They aren’t against zoning, they are quiet, I can house them easily in a redesigned bookshelf with some DIY modifications, and they can give eggs or meat. My only hesitance is trying to figure out how I can give them decent free range time as I hate keeping animals locked in a box full time if I can avoid it.
If you opt for ducks or turkeys, they also have different profiles from strain to strain. Each bird has different hatching requirements as well so your incubator will need to be able to accommodate that.
Some basic questions to ask:
- Narrow down breeds you think will work for you.
- What are your goals as a homesteader?
- Will your kids be involved?
- What do you need your chickens or fowl to do? Are they for eggs, meat, income?
- Can you do what you want to do legally?
- Where do you want to get eggs to hatch out chicks?
There are many sources for getting some hatching eggs. Some like to ask around in local groups on Facebook, some go to eBay, and others from a few places that offer hatching eggs. I also hatched out a clutch of Trader Joe eggs once, though store eggs aren’t always reliable as you don’t know if the eggs are fertile.
Most of the time home hobbyists prefer to buy from other home hobbyists and avoid the big hatcheries. Typically hobby farms will have better quality birds though if you are wanting show quality birds you need to specifically look for a place that carries those.
Also, keep in mind that most hatches will have a loss. Usually, I’d only lose one or two out of 12 where the chicks just couldn’t make it. I’ve seen other people have a major hatch loss of around half of their chicks, usually due to bad humidity factors where the chicks get stuck. Anyway, it helps to add a couple of backup eggs to your planned hatch.
- What are you going to do with extra chicks from your hatch?
You might end up with more chicks than you intended and unfortunately, hatching makes it so you end up with roosters. Even on a country farm you often can’t have too many roosters because they end up fighting or hurting the hens as they will all be fighting over them. In a city setting or neighborhood setting, roosters are entirely too noisy and often not desired anyway even if you can get a permit.
They have to go somewhere. Roosters are harder to sell and remove unless you have a rare breed or a show-quality line. My easiest roosters to re-home were Easter Eggers as people would be hoping for some blue egg genes as all of mine laid blue eggs and my bantam roosters.
How To Hatch Chicken Chicks Using An Incubator
Most people new to all this I tell them they are better off with a mother hen. It is a lot less work and usually, the eggs have a higher survival rate. Some people with a lot of land will want a large flock so incubating more chicks makes sense for them.
Your incubator is supposed to mimic all the hatching conditions a mother hen lends to her eggs. An incubator should hold incubation temperatures around 99.5 degrees F and the humidity should be around 40% until you are about to hatch where it should be around 70-75%. It also helps to rotate the eggs so the embryo develops properly.
The fun begins when you pick your incubator. People have a lot of preferences and opinions about incubators though really it comes down to hatching goals. Given that I was doing small hatches and didn’t need a big operation and given that it wasn’t a business or income thing, I went with my styrofoam incubator for my hatches and it worked well for me and was cheap.
A lot of blogs and sites will list a bunch of different incubators but their prices range from around $70-$400 or even way higher once you move into the cabinet incubators. They do that mostly for the affiliate income though for the “serious” hobbyist they often aren’t bad picks depending.
If you are a small hobbyist who just needs to do small hatches of around 12 eggs at a time or so I highly encourage just saving your money and making the styrofoam hatcher. Worked for me for many years and after working out how to do it I had almost no losses. My problem, in the beginning, was the humidity.
The thing is that no incubator will give a 100% hatch rate all the time. If you look at any forum where people talk about their hatches even the best incubator you will have some losses.
How To Care For Eggs So they Incubate Well
It helps to collect eggs around the times you know your chickens lay. The best, freshest, and clean eggs should go to the incubator and you can collect eggs between 7-10 days for the best hatch rates. What I would do is store my eggs in egg cartons and leave them on a counter somewhere as my house stayed between 68-72 degrees anyway. Then when ready would go to the incubator.
Some people advise washing hatching eggs, but I never washed mine because it seemed like it would do more harm than good. Hens impart this egg covering called “bloom” that is specifically intended to be a protective coating and keep out bacteria. I just wouldn’t use any dirty or poopy eggs in my hatch.
It is advised to let any eggs that came in the mail to rest for about a day and then put them in the incubator. It is also advised to be a little lazy with the turning because of ideas of letting the egg settle.
I noticed no difference in hatch results during my own tests so I guess you can just figure out your preference there.
I used to mark one side of the eggs with a line with some sort of nontoxic marker so I could keep track of when the eggs were turned last
As to the incubator, it is good to clean it up before every hatch or use and I used some rag and dish soap for mine. Then I’d dry it out and allow the incubator to get up to the ideal temperature and check the temperature and humidity and then put my eggs in.
Each incubator has its own set of instructions, if you choose to go with a more complex incubator then you are best off following the instructions that came with it. Some of the larger ones advise letting it run for a day or two before putting in eggs. Each fowl variety also has a different set of instructions so be sure to check into the differences. I’m only going to cover chicken eggs as they are the most common.
Chicken Eggs in an Incubator
The first 18 days is basically just leaving your incubator alone and waiting. You check the humidity and temperatures and you should be turning them often. Some people do the egg candling thing though I advise against that until you are prepping for their hatch so you can remove the eggs you know won’t hatch if any reveal the egg failed to form correctly.
To candle you take your eggs to a dark place and shine a flashlight behind the egg, you should see the dark form of the chick, as well as veins, or you might see a dud where there is a lot of empty light space. If you candle at day 18 just remove the duds and put the viable ones back.
Candling is fun and all, though the less the incubator is disturbed the better, and handling the eggs is a great way to accidentally drop an egg and lose a potential chick.
Day 18 is also when you do lock-down. You do not open the incubator and the humidity needs to be around ideal humidity levels. Mine was usually 70%. When day 21 rolls around the chicks should start hatching. You don’t want to “help” or interfere as often you do more harm than good. The humidity should help them slide out of their eggs when they are ready. Opening the incubator risks messing up the humidity so you kill the chicks on accident.
The basic process if you will see a pip which is a bump on the egg from the chick starting to break out and usually there will be a bump or a hole. The chick will sleep a lot so don’t be alarmed by slow progress.
After the pip is the zip. The zip is when they start to try to move in a circle so they can pop off the top of the egg. Many are tempted to help at this point too though it is honestly best advised to leave hatching chicks alone.
After a while, you have a new chick! Then many chicks running around in the incubator. The chicks can be left in the incubator for around 3 days before needing to go to a proper brooder so I would usually let them alone a few days.
All the dry super active chicks go to a brooder within 72 hours of their hatch. The goal is usually to wait until all eggs hatch before doing any moves. When I had a chick in the brooder I would dip their beaks in a shallow and safe chicken water so they learned how to drink water, they usually learn to peck at the food on their own, and they understood getting under the heat lamp for warmth and moving away to get cool.
Any unhatched eggs showing no signs of life should be considered gone. If there is an unhatched egg and you still hear peeps, then you want to continue being sure the temps and humidity is good. The chick will most likely make it out. It is your call if you want to intervene near the end of a hatch, though definitely don’t get involved too early.