Hatching chickens can be fun and rewarding. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to make a business of your hobby or if you are just curious about the process and want to learn more about chickens and their life cycles.
There are two basic ways to hatch eggs. First is the old fashioned way: allowing a broody hen to use her body heat and skills in turning eggs regularly and providing them with the perfect humidity from her own body.
The next way requires electricity and an incubator. You can spend from about $50 – thousands of dollars to purchase an incubator capable of hatching chicken eggs. You get what you pay for, but for the hobbyist, just starting out you might want to invest a little to begin with.
WARNING: Hatching Chickens can become addictive! Before beginning any new project it’s a great idea to think a few things through. The incubator is only good for hatching eggs. Once the chicks hatch they need a brooder.
You can spend zero to thousands of dollars on these. A card board box with a hanging heat lamp can do the trick to start out with, plus a wall thermometer to make sure the temperature is right where the chicks will be. Some shallow dishes for food and water will be adequate unless you want to purchase containers made just for chicks.
As chicks grow, the brooder needs to be larger. Once feathered and wanting to fly a bit and roost, a brooding cage or pen is necessary. Keeping young chickens safe from large rodents and other predators is important.
When hatching chickens it’s important to consider what you will do with the chicks and if you have room to house them properly. Will you keep any and all roosters that hatch? Will you want to sell them or use the meat?
Once they hatch, the adventure begins. Chicks grow fast. If you’ve started them in the house, be prepared. The bigger they get, the more they eat, the more they poop and the louder they will be. If you already have adult chickens, it’s not safe to assume that you can just put the chicks out with them when they seem big enough.
When hatching chickens and raising them, it’s my rule to never put young chickens out with the flock until they are near adult size. This gives them the advantage of being nearly equal to the rest of the flock and able to defend themselves. Another consideration is that adult roosters will mount young hens for breeding, so if pullets are near adult size it will go easier for them.
The actual process of eggs hatching begins inside the hen. Her ovaries contain small potential eggs. Once eggs are released from the ovaries the hen must be bred by a fertile rooster. Once laid, an egg can be stored for about 2 weeks around 50 degrees. Hatching eggs should not be washed. Placing all eggs in the incubator at the same time will allow the chicks to hatch close to the same time.
For hatching chickens incubation takes approximately 21 days and requires humidity, good temperature control and turning the eggs. In my opinion, a hen does the best job of this, but she can only handle about a dozen eggs.
Humidity prevents moisture from being drawn out of the egg. If eggs become too dry inside, incubation may stop, killing the developing chick or the chick may have trouble hatching through the membrane lining inside of the egg shell.
Warmth mimicking a hen’s body temperature will cause the cell division creating the embryo and resulting chick in a fertile egg. Lack of warmth may slow the incubation process or stop it completely.
Turning the eggs by hen, by hand or mechanically assists with blood flow inside the egg and prevents the yolk sack from sticking to one side. It also helps keep the membrane inside from developing a dry spot.
When hatching chickens it’s possible to check on fertility of the eggs and development of the embryos. Candling eggs allows us to see what’s going on inside the egg. The simplest equipment for this is a small, but bright pen or small flash light and a dark room.
An infertile or none incubated egg will have a yellow-orange glow, depending on the darkness of your shells and yolks. After 5 – 7 days of incubation, red blood vessels will have grown inside the egg and cause a more intense reddish glow inside the egg.
Veins near the shell will be visible. As the embryo grows it will show as a dark area and you may see it move in response to the light.
When close to hatching, the embryo fills most of the shell and the inside looks dark when candled, except for the air pocket.
In the day or so before hatching you can hear the chick peeping inside the egg and he will soon use the “egg tooth” on his upper beak to crack the shell from the inside.