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Written by Laura Bryant, author of Chickens: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising and Keeping Hens.
Once in possession of your set eggs, if you don’t have any hens to hatch them, you will need to put them in an artificial incubator.
The important part of the incubation process is keeping the outside temperature and the humidity of the incubator constant.
Incubators are a wise investment; they have been used in some form for over two thousand years. The main factors that you need to get exactly right in the incubating process are temperature, humidity, position, and movement. If any of these are not exactly right, the likelihood of you hatching healthy chicks, or indeed any chicks at all, is slim.
If you are handy with simple tools, you can build your own incubator, if not, you will need to buy one.
The size and type of the incubator you purchase depends on how many eggs you wish to incubate in one go and whether you will be incubating more eggs in the future. Incubators that have separate incubating and hatching sections are ideal if you are going to be continually setting and hatching eggs at different stages.
Single-unit incubators are better if all your eggs start at the same stage. The two main types of incubators are “forced-air” and “still-air.” For home rearing, a small number of still-air, single units are probably going to be adequate for your needs. However, forced-air units can give better results because they automatically keep temperature and humidity more constant.
Talk to your retailer before purchasing and do not choose your incubator on price alone, either because it seems like a bargain or because it is an expensive, all-singing, all-dancing design. Evaluate your needs and buy a unit on that basis. The following are points that should be followed to get the most from your hatch:
The ideal room temperature is 75°F with a relative humidity of 60 percent.
You could purchase a fairly cheap hygrometer to keep an eye on the humidity inside the incubator.
Sanitize the incubator and leave it on for at least twenty-four hours before putting the eggs in so that the temperature and humidity levels are correct.
The temperature in the incubator must be 99.5°F in a forced-air incubator and 101°F in a still-air; any deviation above or below this will result in a poor hatch.
To get an accurate thermometer reading, place the bulb of the thermometer at the same height as the top of the egg if it is lying in horizontal position, or 3–51/2 inches from the top if vertical. Do not let the thermometer touch the incubator or the egg—the reading will be inaccurate.
Eggs must be turned at least four to six times a day during incubation, but do not turn them during the last three days before hatching because the embryos are moving into hatching position. If the eggs need to be turned by hand, it may be helpful to mark each one with an A on one side and a B on the other in order to determine if all eggs have been turned. Make sure these marks are made in pencil— and when turning, ensure that your hands have been washed and are free of any greasy or dusty residue.
Take extra care when turning the eggs in the first week as the developing embryos will have delicate blood vessels that will rupture if they are jarred or shaken severely.
The air vents should be kept almost fully open during the latter stages of incubation in order to keep the eggs from overheating and to ensure that they have an adequate oxygen supply as they incubate and start to hatch. This is another reason the room temperature is so important.
If the power supply to the incubator is lost for some reason and the incubator is in a hot and stuffy room, the eggs are going to be more vulnerable to suffocation than would be the case if the incubator were in a room with a constant temperature of 75°F.
Cleaning Your Incubator
Whether your incubator is homemade or shop-bought, neglecting to keep it in tip-top condition can result in a significant reduction in eggs that hatch into live, healthy chicks. Microbial infections arising from a buildup of bacteria caused by not sanitizing your incubator need to be avoided.
The cleaning process should be part of standard operating procedures, and you must disinfect incubators after each and every hatch.
Begin by removing all eggshells, feathers, dust, and so forth with a dustpan and brush or a vacuum cleaner. Once all the debris has been removed, wash the incubator using a mild solution of nonbiological washing powder and warm water. Use a cloth and an old toothbrush to get into any hard-to-reach areas.
Follow by rinsing with a mild disinfectant solution and let the incubator dry naturally. When it is completely dry, you can turn the unit on, re-regulate the temperature, and begin the incubation to hatching process all over again.
Hen Hints: Candling
Whether you are incubating your eggs naturally or artificially, it is worth using a process called “candling” in order to see if the eggs you have are fertilized, as not every egg will have been. Candling means holding the egg up to a light bright enough to penetrate the shell in order to see what is going on inside. If the egg has been fertilized you will see a dark red spot with veins radiating out in every direction.
Approximately three days prior to hatching, insert a layer of cheesecloth on the screen, placing it beneath the eggs. This will make the incubator much easier to clean after the hatching process is complete.