The art of incubation
PUBLISHED: 16:21 03 May 2012
Terry Beebe has 'cracking' advice on hatching chicks using an incubator
Incubation is, for me, one of the most interesting and challenging parts of chicken rearing. I admit, I have always preferred to use the artificial method of hatching. This is, of course, a personal preference, as I find it gives me more control and also allows me to incubate the exact number of eggs I need. Broodies always make the incubation process a lot easier for the keeper, but they can also be unreliable; you have no control on when the hen decides to sit and become broody, and it always seems to be the case that you have eggs ready to incubate and no broody ready to sit them.
When you try your hand at incubation, do not expect instant success. No matter how experienced you are, there is always an element of risk involved when trying to hatch chicks in an incubator. Experienced poultry people, who have hatched birds for many years, do not have constant success either, and become accustomed to accepting that there are going to be failures. I get many questions on this subject, and the one that always seems to be at the top of the list is to blame the incubator machine itself. This, I admit, can sometimes be the cause, but I still find this quite amusing as the machine is only as good as the operator. If there are problems with the incubator, it could be positioned in the wrong place or set incorrectly (wrong temperature, etc) – something that is down to the operator and not the machine. If you are not sure on any aspect of incubation, either read up on the subject or ask someone who is more experienced. It does not matter how silly the questions seem to be – we all have to start somewhere.
Buying an incubator
Before buying an incubator, consider which type of unit best suits your requirements; how many eggs would you like to hatch, as you will need to choose a machine that has the egg capacity that you need; then look at one which you can easily operate and requires the least amount of attention, especially if you are at work or have to leave the unit unattended for long periods. Try to go for a unit that is simple to use and easy to understand, and one that is also easy to maintain, with a sound back-up for repairs and parts. There are quite a few companies that sell a wide range of incubators, and they will have one that is suitable for the beginner at a price that is affordable. One word of warning – the price will more than likely reflect on the performance of the incubator. Try to buy a well-known and tested machine. If you can find someone who will recommend a make they have used, this is the best way forward. The cheaper incubators will vary in price from around the £100/£150 mark. They are fine as long as you use them carefully and correctly and follow the instructions. Different types of incubator There are three main variations of incubator on the market. These are classed as the manual, semi-automatic and fully automatic versions. In the panel (above) I describe the difference in operation between these types of machines.
TYPES OF INCUBATORS
You operate and control the whole process. You have to manually turn the eggs at least twice a day, more if possible. Many of the manual incubators are still air (no fan) models; this means that the eggs do not have the benefit of moving air while being incubated. Moving air allows for a more level temperature all around the inside of the unit, as still air can create ‘hot spots’, which means the temperature inside the incubator may vary slightly at different points inside the machine.
Advantages: Reasonably priced; Easy to operate (in most cases).
Disadvantages: Time consuming (due to need to turn eggs); Not ideal if you need to leave the unit for any length of time; Variation in temperature; having to open the incubator each time you turn the eggs allows loss of heat and humidity.
Work by you moving the eggs manually as many times a day as possible, but using a rod attached to the egg tray. This is operated from the outside, so you do not need to open the incubator, making the turning a very simple operation. As with the manual, you have to be available to turn the eggs.
Advantages: Easier, quicker and smoother than a manual; Turning done from outside, so no temperature changes due to opening of the unit.
Disadvantages: You still have to be there in person to turn the eggs at least twice a day; Although many are fan assisted, some are still air models.
Put the eggs onto, or into, a movable tray, and they are turned by an electric motor at least once every hour. Once the eggs are set, the incubator basically does the work for you. Although you have to check that everything is operating correctly, this does allow you to go about your daily routine almost uninterrupted. This type of incubator is both convenient and easy to use and is the one I would recommend.
Advantages: Easy to use; Makes process simple for the operator.
Disadvantages: More costly to purchase.
Incubator set up
Your incubator needs to be positioned in the correct environment. Try to make sure that it is located in a dry, draught-proof area, and one where the temperature is unlikely to vary. Avoid centrally-heated rooms, areas that are affected by direct sunlight or rooms which are constantly in use, with doors opening and closing, as this can cause significant temperature variations. By placing the incubator in a suitable place, you are more likely to achieve good results; this will also always help the smaller machines to operate more accurately, giving better hatching results.
Set the incubator temperature to 37.8˚C, and then run the machine for at least 24 hours to make sure everything is running correctly. During this period, keep checking the incubator temperature to make sure it is stable and not fluctuating too much. There can be a slight allowance of a degree or so but, to be safe, this needs to be a very limited – varying temperatures affect hatching results. On most makes of incubators, the temperature will not vary and should stay exactly as originally set. Some incubators are actually supplied pre-set by the manufacturer and, therefore, do not even need adjustment – just plug in and go.
Preparation and setting
The collection of eggs is important. The fresher the eggs, the better the chance of success. As the eggs age, they start to deteriorate and, as each day passes, the chances of hatching decrease. Only ever use clean, well-shaped eggs. If they are soiled when collected, clean them using a recognised egg wash product. Do not submerge the eggs completely, but wash them gently in tepid water and stand and allow to dry naturally. While the eggs are in storage, turn twice a day if possible to prevent the egg from sticking to the shell. The eggs need to be thick-end downwards during the storage period.
How you set the eggs when you have the number you require will depend on the type/ make of the incubator. Once the eggs are set, they need to stay in the incubator for 21 days.
Eggs being turned in the incubator will need to be checked for fertility. To do this, you can use a special lighting tool called a Candler. This is a type of torch which is held on the outside of the egg and shines a light through the shell to show signs of growth inside the egg. This process needs to be carried out around day 10/12 of the incubation period as, by this time, the development, even for the beginner, will be reasonably easy to see. Candling is very important because it allows you to remove any infertile eggs. If these are left in the incubator they will go bad and cause infection, which may spread to, and kill, the other fertile eggs in the incubator. Any eggs that are infertile need to be removed immediately. (When candling any eggs, do not hold the light on the egg for long periods as this can affect the growing embryo).
From day one, you should make a daily check to make sure that everything in the incubator is running smoothly. (Never take it for granted that everything is OK). Many incubators have see-through tops or glass front doors that enable you to check your eggs without going inside the incubator. This is a good idea as you are not disturbing the temperature or the humidity. Always check the temperature, and make sure that the turner is operating correctly.
The humidity is a subject that always causes concern. Keeping the correct humidity in smaller machines is always a problem as it is very difficult to control, but provided you can run the incubator at roughly 45 per cent humidity, and then increase this to around 60/70 per cent during the last few days of incubation, you should have few problems. There are incubators that have a digitally controlled humidity system fitted, but they are normally very expensive.
Control of humidity is, in most cases, quite a guessing game, but if you add water to the tray inside the incubator, this will increase the amount of humidity, while removing the water will decrease the setting. Keep the incubator closed as much as possible. This helps keep the settings to a level, but towards the end of the incubation period, if it is difficult to increase the humidity to the higher level (60/70 per cent), then there is an old trick you can try. This involves adding an extra water tray and using a rolled up wet tea towel. This is very easy to do and there is no cost involved. Just get a tightly rolled up tea towel, tape it into a roll, and soak it thoroughly in water; this holds the moisture for an extra length of time, and will help to increase the humidity.
(1) Set the incubator to 37.8°. Once set, it must stay at this temperature for at least 24 hours. (Some incubators recommended 37.5°, but I prefer the slightly higher setting.)
(2) Clean and rest the eggs before setting in the incubator.
(3) Do not add water for the first 15 days. Humidity as near to 45%.
(4) Candle the eggs at 10/12 days and remove any infertile eggs.
(5) Add water to the incubator at around 15 to 17 days and keep this topped up until hatching time.
(6) Day 20 - Top up the water for last time and then leave the incubator closed until after hatching.
(7) Day 21 (Chicken) - This should be hatch day, but always allow a day extra for the late hatch chicks; above this time, there is little chance that the chicks will be healthy and, in most cases, they will fail to survive.
(8) Day 22 - After the hatching, always leave the chicks in the incubator for about 24 hours; this will give time for the chicks to properly dry out and fluff up. Note: Factors can vary depending on where you live, the type of incubator and the conditions in which you are operating the incubator.
Experienced poultry people become accustomed to accepting that there are going to be failures
References * Raising Chickens for Dummies by Kimberly Willis. Basic but good. * Incubation at Home by Michael Roberts. Good, all round, easy-to-understand book. * Practical Incubation by Rob Harvey. More complicated, but excellent.