The home hatchery (Backyard Flocks)
(Editor’s note: Dr. Jonathan Moyle is a poultry Extension specialist with the University of Maryland.)
When the economy gets rough, we often see an increase in home production of poultry.
Hatching eggs at home is a popular way to increase the size of your flock, while teaching family and friends about embryology.
While chicken eggs are the most common eggs to hatch, eggs from other species can be incubated as well.
As always, before starting a hatching project, make sure you have everything in place before you start and that you comply with all state and local laws.
In Maryland, for example, you will need to have a permit to keep and sell live poultry or hatching eggs.
Eggs used for hatching need to be fertile and come from flocks that have roosters housed with the hens.
Select only clean, normal shaped eggs of average size for hatching.
Avoid washing eggs. Hatching eggs should to be collected daily and stored with the big end up in a cool location (around 65-70 degrees F) with little variation in temperature and out of direct sunlight.
Eggs can be stored for up to seven days, if stored properly, with little loss of fertility.
Eggs can also be purchased online from reputable hatcheries as well as from local farmers.
If purchasing eggs, always look for a seller that is part of the National Poultry Improvement Plan, to be sure eggs are Pullorum-Typhoid free.
Inspect eggs upon arrival for damage and let eggs settle for 24 hours prior to placement in the incubator.
Eggs purchased at the grocery store are not fertile and will not hatch, as the hens do not have access to males and/or the eggs are stored at low temperatures that will kill any embryos.
Using an artificial incubator is one of the easiest ways to hatch eggs. By using an incubator, the hens can continue to lay eggs, thus preventing any loss in egg production while providing replacements for older birds. Additionally, some breeds will not set on eggs, so the only way to replace the birds is through artificial incubation.
Most incubators use electricity to provide the heat needed for incubation (99.5 degrees F). There are multiple styles of electric incubators that work well for home use. Some are made for just a few eggs while others can incubate several dozen eggs at one time. Most incubators available today can be programmed to the ideal temperature for the type of egg you are hatching and once set, will hold that temperature throughout the incubation period.
It is important that incubators are placed in a location that does not receive direct sunlight, as this will cause it to heat up too much. Internal rooms that do not have much temperature change throughout the day are the best locations for incubators. Start the incubator at least 24 hours before you place the eggs to allow the incubator to the reach the appropriate temperature.
This will also allow you to ensure that it is functioning correctly and fix any problems prior to placing the eggs. Placing a second thermometer in the incubator at egg level will assure you the incubator is functioning properly.
Temperatures that are too hot may result in an early hatch or dead chicks/embryos, while temperatures that are too cold may result in late hatches and increases in mortality of the embryos will be seen.
In addition to the proper temperature, the humidity in the incubator must be kept at the appropriate levels (55-60 percent).
Incubators have built in reservoirs for water that must continually contain water throughout the incubation period.
The amount, or number of reservoirs you use will depend on the humidity and the location of the incubator. Dryer areas need more water than those that are humid.
You will need to follow the manufacturers’ recommendations and water levels should be checked daily. Eggs need turned at least 5-6 times per day in order to prevent the developing embryos from sticking to the egg shell resulting in higher embryo mortality.
While hens will do this naturally, when using an incubator you will need to do this by hand or purchase a turner. It is advised to mark eggs on opposite sides so that you can tell if the eggs have been turned.
Using an automatic egg turner makes incubation much easier as you do not have to handle the eggs as much. Some incubators come with egg turners built in while others have turners that can be purchased separately.
You should stop turning the eggs at day 18, three days before hatch, so chicks can orient themselves before hatch. Fresh air is important for embryo growth so follow the manufactures recommendations for your incubator on how to ventilate properly.
Remember that ventilation requirements will increase as the embryos develop, that is they will need more fresh air.
Once eggs are placed, you can “candle” them after 10 days to check for infertile eggs. Infertile eggs and eggs with dead embryos should be discarded as they can adversely affect the hatch and pose a risk of exploding.
Candling eggs can be done with a bright pen light in a dark room. Infertile eggs will light up like a Christmas tree light, while growing embryos will make the egg dark (the air cell will still light up, but that is normal).
The first sign of a chick starting to hatch will be a small pip hole. At this time the humidity should be increased to 70 percent.
Once this hole is made, the time it takes for the chick to get completely out of the shell can vary greatly. Some chicks are not strong enough to get out of the shell.
If the hatching process takes too long, the chick will usually die. Helping chicks out of the shell also poses risks and may result in the chick dying.
If you decide to help a chick out of the shell, be extremely careful. Sometimes the membranes have dried and pulling on them will tear the chick’s delicate skin.
Break the shell slowly and if the membranes have dried, remoisten them with small amounts of warm water taking care not to get water on the chick’s face. Many times these chicks are too weak, so don’t be discouraged if you cannot save them.
Once the chicks are dried and starting to run around, they can be moved to a brooder with heat, starter feed and water.
Please note that while the chicks are developing, they absorb their yolk. This provides nourishment for the first day or two of the chicks’ lives.
Because of this, newly hatched chicks do not need to eat immediately after hatching; however, the sooner they begin eating and drinking, the better.
After the chicks hatch, it is important to clean and then disinfect your incubator using an appropriate disinfectant.
Make sure to follow the manufacture’s recommendations for both the disinfectant and the incubator to prevent any damage to your equipment while effectively disinfecting it.
Hatching eggs at home is a great way to teach children about embryology, and gives them the opportunity to see how nature works.
For more information contact your local county agricultural agent or visit https://extension.umd.edu/poultry.