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How to Hatch Chicks- A Fun, 21 Day Homestead Project
The process by which an egg transforms into a chick is nothing short of miraculous.
Yet, it’s also a project that can be done in your own home with little effort or expense.
If you’ve never hatched chicks yourself before, I would suggest that you read on, and then give it a try.
What do I need to hatch chicks at home?
There are only 2 key aspects to hatching chicks: the eggs, and a method of keeping them consistently warm.
The eggs need to be fertilized, preferably pretty fresh and clean as well. I like the eggs to be of average size and have a “normal” egg shape as well.
Your options for keeping the eggs warm varies. The easiest option for you is a broody hen. But this is also the most finicky option, and the one furthest outside of your control.
If one of our hens goes broody, I encourage it, but I don’t place all of my eggs in her nest either. Instead, my usual method of hatching chicks on the homestead is by way of an incubator. Due to the reliability and control an incubator offers, that method will be the focus of this post.
How does incubation work?
Incubation is designed to mimic the conditions that a hen will create when she goes broody.
When she’s brooding a clutch of eggs, the hen’s body heat will keep the eggs warm enough to facilitate their development. She lines the nest with feathers and bedding, and then sets herself directly on the eggs. By fluffing up her feathers and pulling more nesting material around her, she can easily keep the eggs a cozy 100*.
Besides keeping the eggs warm, a hen also keeps the eggs moving. Rotating and stirring the eggs around prevents the yolks from sticking to one side of the egg. It will also help the chicks to build up strength and position themselves correctly to hatch.
Hens are also chirping and talking to the eggs as they brood. I personally think that this aspect of “natural” incubation is more valuable than we understand so far. By talking to the embryonic chicks as they develop, the hen is teaching her young to respond to and understand her voice. (Much like a baby will know and be familiar with the sound of its mothers voice and heartbeat before it is born) When we incubate chicks in an incubator, they won’t develop to the backdrop of a hens clucks. It’s hard to imagine that this doesn’t have any long-term ramifications on our domestic chicken populations. But I have yet to see anyone try to study it one way or another.
How long does incubation take?
It takes 21 days for a chicken to develop and hatch.
Variations in temperature, humidity, and even genetics means that your chicks could hatch somewhere between 18 & 25 days of incubation. I usually have chicks begin pipping on day 19 and hatching on day 20.
Incubation of ducks, turkeys, and geese take about 28 days. Guineas take around 25 days. Quail can take around 18 days. Emus are a much longer commitment at about 56 days- though I haven’t had the opportunity to try it myself.
Where can I get hatching (fertilized) eggs?
Finding a good source of hatching eggs can either be the easiest, or most difficult step.
If you have a flock of productive laying hens and a rooster, you’re already producing your own hatching eggs every day. (You’re probably eating them for breakfast) On our homestead, the only difference between eggs and hatching eggs is that the hatching eggs are in our incubator.
If you don’t have fertile eggs from the backyard, it can be a little more difficult to source them.
I would suggest starting your search locally. Posting in a local facebook group is a good first step (look for poultry groups, livestock groups, buy and sell groups, even your local farmer’s market page may have a lead). Craigslist’s “Farm & Garden” section is another good place to search for a listing or to make a wanted ad.
If you can’t find eggs locally, the internet has you covered. Large hatcheries like Meyer and Murray McMurray sell hatching eggs. Ebay has a long list of hatching eggs too. Finally, connecting with breeders through social media or breeder’s clubs can be a good way to find eggs of a specific breed or variety.
Okay but where do I get an incubator?
I have 2 different incubators, and I think both are a great choice for first-time-hatchers on a budget.
My smaller incubator is this MagicFly incubator ordered from Amazon. It has a built in turner and thermostat. Egg capacity is between 9 and 16- depending on how big the eggs are. I like to use this incubator for hatching smaller clutches of eggs- such as our guineas or bantams. (We only get 1 or 2 of each egg a day, so it takes awhile to build up enough even for the smaller incubator)
My larger incubator is a Hova-Bator- this specific model. Your stereotypical foam incubator that everyone seems to have. I bought a basic turner for mine and haven’t had any complaints. The capacity for this incubator is more like 40- depending on the size of the eggs. I hatch ducks and standard-breed chickens a few times a year with this incubator.
You can order incubators on Amazon (where I’d ordered both of mine). Or buy them locally. Tractor Supply Co. sells incubators year round, most local feed stores probably do too.
For the more brave homesteaders out there, you can also find a myriad of plans for home built incubators. If you’re just starting out, I’d suggest buying one and learning about incubation before going down the DIY road.
Finally: How to hatch chicks!
Once you have an incubator and some hatching eggs, you’re 90% of the way there.
Basically we’re going to plug in the incubator to let it preheat and maintain the appropriate temperature for a few hours.
I’ll usually do this by plugging in the incubator in the morning, and then adding the eggs in the late afternoon or evening. (The following day is what I count as day 1 of incubation by the way)
The appropriate temperature will be the 98-100*F range. Your incubator probably has this as its default setting anyway, but it helps to get an extra thermometer to confirm. My hova-bator came with an analog thermometer to set in the incubator at egg level. We’ve also used little digital reptile thermometer/hygrometers- they work just as well.
In your now-warm incubator, arrange the eggs as indicated by your turner. If you don’t have an automatic turner in your incubator, they should be arranged evenly throughout the space. Don’t try to cram them in as tight as you can either- you need space for rolling and moving them around, and they’ll need space to hatch in a few weeks.
(Also, if you’ll be turning the eggs manually, take a pencil and mark one side of each egg with an ‘X’ or some other obvious marking. When you’re turning you’ll be able to tell at a glance that you didn’t miss any eggs)
Add warm water (not hot) to your incubator’s reservoir. The instruction manual will explain how much water to add and where. I start out with 1/3 to 1/2 cup of water in the base of mine.
Place the lid on the incubator, and you’re all set. (Go write down on your calendar or in a planner that you started the incubator!)
Over the course of the entire incubation, you should be checking the humidity level and temperature a few times a day. If you’re manually turning the eggs, aim for 3 or 5 times a day so that the eggs are alternating which side is up each night.
Besides just sitting on your hands or pacing the halls like an expectant father, you can actually check on the progress of the developing chicks.
Candling is the process by which you shine a bright light directly onto the egg’s shell. If you do this in a dark space, the white of the egg is illuminated and the developing embryo will be dark. It is reminiscent of an ultrasound or x-ray, but without the risks and expense those technologies present.
I use the beam setting on a headlamp to candle eggs. I start by taking the eggs, carefully, into a bathroom or closet and shutting off the lights. Turn on the headlamp, holding it encircled in my hand with the beam shining out between my thumb and pointer finger. This forms a circle on which to set the egg, pointy end up. (Air cell/wide end down)
If your egg is developing properly and only a few days along, you’ll probably see a mass of spidery veins sprawling across the egg’s interior. If you can make out a very distinct dark “dot” amongst all of the veins- that’s the embryonic chick.
After another week or so, the embryonic chick will be significantly larger. You’ll probably be able to make out jerking movements as the chick works out its little muscles.
Further along in the development process, the chick will fill up almost the entirety of the egg’s interior. The only light spots left will be the air cell and a gap between the chicks curled head and stomach.
Besides the fact that candling is really interesting, it actually serves an important (but optional) step in the incubation process.By comparing the development of the various eggs a few times, you will be able to identify any embryos that have passed on. Identifying and removing these non-viable eggs will prevent the incubator from starting to smell.
I have used this same headlamp to candle eggs for years, but you can buy purpose-built candlers as well.
It’s been 21 days, bring on the hatching!
Before you actually reach that 21 day mark (somewhere around day 18 or 19 is ideal) be sure to turn off or remove your turner. This gives the chicks time to orient themselves to hatch. From this point forward, you need to leave the incubator closed.
Once day 20 or 21 finally rolls around, you’ll probably start hearing noise coming from the incubator. Rocking noises and very faint peeps will probably be your first hint that hatching has begun.
Before breaking out of the shell, hicks break into the air cell within their eggs first. This allows them enough air to survive the hatching process.
Now that they can breathe, they begin to work at the shell with their egg tooth. (A hard scale on the very tip of their beak- it falls off after a day or two) Once they’ve created a little round opening in front of their face, they tend to take a break. This is normal! Don’t interfere!
After a bit of a break, the chick (who has likely been chirping intermittently) will continue chipping away at the shell. They will gradually bring the break all the way around the egg, essentially cutting it in half like an equator.
Once the cut has been made all around the shell, the chick can force the two halves apart with some violent kicking and thrashing. It looks like the chick is distressed- it isn’t. (Sometimes the back half of the shell will remain stuck to the chick for a little while, again just leave it be. As it dries the shell will usually come off on its own)
If you’re been watching the chicks hatch with baited breath, this has felt like an eternity. I would like to really drive home the point that the less you intervene, especially at first, the better.
Hatching chicks are a lot like a woman in labor: when you come in aiming to “help” and “save them” from the process you will do more harm than good. Hatching, like birth, is a miraculously designed process that very, very rarely benefits from interference.
After the first chick pips, you’re probably still 24-48 hours away from when I would consider it wise to open the incubator. Opening the lid will reduce the temperature and humidity significantly.
If you open the lid to remove (or help) some of the chicks, the still-hatching chicks left inside are at risk of having membranes “shrink wrap” onto them. (The inner membrane on an egg shell can dry out and stick firmly to a chick, impeding the hatching process. 99% of the time this is caused by human interference. Patient waiting will prevent it)
After most of the chicks have hatched and are totally dry, you can carefully remove them and the empty shells from the incubator. Work quickly if there are still eggs left inside.
Carefully place the chicks into the brooder that you’ve already set up in anticipation of this hatch. (You have already set the brooder up right?)
Gently dip the chicks beaks into their waterer, but don’t be surprised if they seem disinterested in eating or drinking for a day or 2. They are still absorbing the rest of the yolk at this point. (This happens to be the mechanism by which you can send newly-hatched chicks in the mail without causing them harm)
Hatching chicks on the homestead is a pretty easy project. After a bit of waiting and some basic care, your eggs have miraculously become fluffy chicks.
I hatch a few times a year; both to produce replacement pullets for our flock and to sell chicks locally. It is one of my favorite parts of the spring, by far.
If you don’t have an incubator, or want to get into chickens by way of buying chicks, I have a post (here!) with some suggestions on where to shop. And keep an eye on this blog for upcoming posts all about brooding chicks and about moving them outdoors once the time comes.
Happy hatching, and thanks for reading!