In my last post, I talked all about the joys of raising chickens from start to finish – or rolling your own, as my husband likes to say. Author’s note – he has asked me to tell you all that, despite our quirky vernacular that hints otherwise, we are not actually part of the seedy underground…we just think the casual references are downright hilarious.
Anyway, back to raising chickens. Besides providing you with fresh eggs and meat, raising chickens is an awesome learning experience that should be attempted by all “homesteaders.” Incubating your own birds is a great way to save money and to learn more about the process. You have ultimate control over how many birds you end up with, and it is not super challenging once you get started.
Unfortunately, as with everything, there is a steep learning curve involved in hatching your own eggs. Unlike waiting around on Mama Hen to do all the work, though, you can easily remedy your mistakes by learning more about common chicken incubating mistakes you might make – and learning how to fix them when you do.
1. Neglecting genetics and fertility
Now, I’m not saying you need to be out there in the coop making flow charts and spreadsheets of each of your chicken’s every characteristic. However, I am suggesting that you keep track of which birds have good genetics (evidenced by high laying rates, good hatch rates, adequate meat production, etc) and only breed those with excellent characteristics.
Now here’s the hard truth. Even if you only want to raise laying hens, and don’t care much about raising meat birds, you need to cull your flock from time to time. It’s all too easy – especially when we are conditioned in this modern day and age to personify and humanize animals – to ignore a chicken’s faulty genetics just because it’s cute or because you are too attached to it too cull it.
However, if you’re in the business of incubating your own eggs, you aren’t being kind by pardoning your birds from year to year. You’re being cruel. Here’s why.
When you allow birds who exhibit genetic flaws to reproduce, the embryos that they produce will be weaker and less healthy than those of other birds. Not only will those chicks have a harder time surviving through the challenging hatching process, but you also run the risk of creating a family line of birds that is unhealthy and fails to thrive. That’s not being magnanimous – that’s being unwise.
Our first year of raising chickens, we had a hen who had several deformities from birth – her feathers grew in an uneven, patchy fashion, and her toes curled inward so that she sometimes had trouble walking. She was endearing, gaily tripping over her own feet every time she got excited. As much as I loved her, we culled her as soon as she reached an appropriate butcher weight. It’s not fun, but you need to pay attention to the genetics of your birds when you are deciding which ones to use as breeders. Trust me – you’ll thank yourself later.
Don’t ignore the condition of your roosters, either. If your males are undernourished or there are too few males, this can result in eggs with little to no embryonic fertility. That being said, if there is too much competition among males, that can cause fertility issues, too, as roosters that are exposed to chronic stress will experience a decline in fertility. Younger males will be more fertile than older ones, as can poor nutrition or water quality.
2. Collecting and storing eggs improperly
This is a major mistake that most beginners make when incubating their eggs. If you only have a few birds, it can take quite some time to collect enough eggs to run an incubator (sometimes up to a week or more). Luckily, eggs can safely be stored for up to ten days without experiencing a drop in fertility. That being said, you need to make sure you are storing eggs properly to keep them virile.
Make sure you gather eggs at least once a day. Because we start incubating in early February, we collect at least twice a day. If eggs are exposed to freezing temperatures, there is a chance that they will lose fertility even if they don’t crack and explode. The same rule applies if it’s abnormally hot – make sure you collect at least twice a day. Obviously, only collect and store eggs that are in good shape – no damaged or cracked eggs.
You can be a bit selective when collecting eggs. While abnormally shaped eggs are fun to look at and usually taste great, they won’t give you good results in the incubator. This is true, too, of massive eggs that contain double yolks. There usually isn’t enough room in the shell for two embryos to develop.
Once you’ve brought your eggs inside, you need to store them at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit with roughly sixty percent relative humidity. Place them in egg cartons. Do not wash your eggs under any circumstances, as this removes the layer of bloom. Bloom is a crucial layer that prevents bacteria and other harmful organisms from affecting the embryo.
If you are storing eggs before incubating, make sure you take the time to turn them at least once a day, too. Hens turn their eggs even more often, so rotating your eggs two or three times a day won’t hurt, either. They need to be stored with the small end down in order for fertility to remain. Doing this protects the air sac and helps the yolk stay in place, which is necessary for your chicken embryos to grow.
3. Failing to adjust your incubator before you put the eggs inside
Even if you are using the same trusty incubator you have used year after year after year, you need to test it before the hatch. It’s very easy to bump the settings on your incubator, or for damage to have been incurred between hatch cycles. Inspect your incubator thoroughly before use, and make sure it is in good working order.
Once you have your incubator set up, turn it on and leave it for at least twenty-four hours (forty-eight is better). Monitor the temperature and humidity using at least two different thermometers and hygrometers, which will help you make sure the incubator isn’t fluctuating before you put your eggs inside.
This is one of the most common reasons for incubation failure, and ironically, it’s usually blamed on the manufacturer of the incubator. When we first started researching incubators, we were amused by how few positive reviews most incubator manufacturers had. However, upon further examination, we realized that most of those reviews were due to users’ failure in allowing the incubator to acclimate. Make sure you do this. Okay? Just do it.
4. Not including a tray on the bottom of your incubator
Improper trays can result in a number of issues, particularly chicks who become crippled shortly after hatching. Trays that are too slick can create abnormalities in the feet. Instead, use trays that have wire floors or place crinoline down to help them get a better footing inside the incubator.
Some people also recommend placing a cloth on the screen floor of the incubator. This will help protect the navel, or the place where the abdomen closes after absorbing the yolk, from any jagged pieces. It will also make cleaning the incubator a bit easier. We have had mixed results with this; if you do keep a cloth inside the incubator, make sure your humidity is adequate so it doesn’t stick to the chicks as they hatch out of the shells.
5. Forgetting to turn your eggs
Incubating eggs is a lot of work – this is especially true if you don’t have an automatic turner. Eggs need to be turned at least three times a day. If you don’t have time to do this, or you are raising chicks in a frequently-neglected setting (like in a classroom), invest in an automatic turner. It’s well worth your money. Not turning your eggs can result in dead embryos, which wastes both time and money, so consider it money well spent.
During the last three days of incubation, you should not turn the eggs. Your embryos are preparing to hatch and do not need to be turned. If you have an automatic turner, now is the time to take it out. If you forget, it’s not the end of the world, but stop turning immediately. Keep in mind that you could end up with many dead embryos or chicks that are crippled upon hatching.
6. Allowing the temperature to spike
When you allow the temperature in your incubator to run amok, you are playing Russian roulette with your eggs. Inconsistent temperatures can lead to a whole host of problems, including blood rings, dead embryos, early or delayed hatching, sticky embryos, crippled or deformed chicks, and more.
Check your incubator at least once a day. Incubators come with viewing windows so that you can easily see the temperature and humidity inside your machine. Avoid taking the lid off too often, as this will cause fluctuations in itself. Remember that direct sunlight and drafts can affect an incubator’s daily temperature.
That being said, mild fluctuations are nothing to worry about. Although 99.5 is the ideal temperature, a rise or fall of one degree or so is not a problem, as long as it levels itself back out. However, if temperatures reach higher than 104.9 degrees Fahrenheit, you can kiss your chicks goodbye. Cooler temperatures yield slightly better results (which makes sense, as in nature Mama Hen would need to move off her eggs every now and then to eat and drink), but you still need to keep an eye on things.
7. Ignoring humidity
Just as you need to monitor the temperature in your incubator, you also need to keep an eye on humidity. It’s easier to maintain humidity levels by adding water on a regular basis (this will vary depending on the style of incubator you have) but it can be more challenging once the chicks have started to hatch.
While you need to avoid opening your incubator lid while your chicks are hatching, you can still add water if humidity drops during the hatch. Insert a tube or small straw inside the air vent hole and add water with a syringe.
8. Not cleaning your incubator between uses
Failing to clean your incubator between uses isn’t just gross, it’s not safe. An unsanitary incubator can result in respiratory diseases, causing your chicks to have trouble breathing upon hatching. Dirty incubators can also cause a common navel infection called omphalitis, which results in mushy-looking chicks that die upon hatching.
The best way to clean your incubator is to give it a good soak in white vinegar or bleach. I do this by allowing everything without wires or motors to soak in the bathtub. I have a large soaker tub that was one of the non-negotiables with my husband when we built our house. I’m not joking – this tub is awesome.
What’s funny is that I think the tub has been used to fill water buckets for the animal troughs – or to clean and disinfect farm equipment – more often than it’s been used for actual bathing. And it’s been on more than one occasion that I’ve had to remind my husband to please clean the sheep turds out of the tub.
But that’s beside the point. I find that soaking the incubator parts in the tub is an effective way to loosen up all the crud inside. It can be hard to get some of the eggshells and hatching grime – which smells absolutely delightful, by the way – out of the incubator, so letting it soak for a bit can help do the work for you. Rinse everything thoroughly and wipe out all the gunk. Make sure your trays are dry before putting them back inside the incubator.
You’ll find that the remaining parts of your incubator, like the lid and the turner, become grimy, too, coated with a dust-like substance that has a rather unpleasant odor. Since these parts can’t be soaked, I usually wipe them down with Clorox wipes and let them dry before reassembling everything.
9. Helping your chicks out of their shells
It’s hard when you watch a chick struggling to hatch. The humane part of you really wants to help, but you need to avoid helping them out of their shells. There are a few reasons for this.
Chicks struggle inside their shells due to poor humidity, which causes the embryo to dry out. The struggle can also be caused by inadequate ventilation, low temperatures, or, perhaps the most common, poor genetics. While chicks can generally work through their problems on their own, perhaps taking just a little bit longer than their peers, those that can’t usually die inside the shell.
This is hard to watch, particularly if you have the natural inclination to want to fix any problems you encounter. However, helping your chick out of the shell won’t do it any service. If it does make it out with your help, it will have poor genetics and will likely die within a few days. Even if it doesn’t, chicks that we have helped out usually have malformities or other life-threatening issues.
In other cases, there is nothing actually wrong with your chick and it just needs a little extra time. Some of our healthiest, most successful birds were the last ones to hatch. But if you try to rush things along, you’ll do more harm than good.
Case in point – here’s what taught me not to mess with hatching birds. I had a chick recently who was struggling hard to get out of his shell, making all kinds of noise inside the incubator. It was nearing the end of the third day of the hatch cycle, and I was (stupidly) trying to rush things along so I could get the birds moved to the brooder and clean the incubator before we got ready for our next incubation cycle.
I decided to help the little fella out. I had read a few articles online about how to use a wet paper towel to keep the egg damp while you were extracting the chick. I followed the instructions to the letter, but, to my horror, the chick ended up bleeding to death within two hours after I had helped him out of the shell.
Even if you read a few stories about successful acts of helping the chick out of the shell, don’t risk it. It’s. Not. Worth. It.
10. Counting your chickens before they hatch
I am so guilty of this. I get so excited when the chicks are hatching, I have to remind myself not to open the lid of the incubator until the hatch has completed. Once you remove your egg turner three days before the hatch and the process has begun, you need to wait to open the lid until all of the birds have hatched. Even after your chicks have hatched, they need time in the incubator to fluff up.
Opening the incubator any time you want – particularly, to, ahem, count your chickens – is a recipe for disaster. When cool, dry air hits partially pipped or zipped eggs inside the incubator, the membrane dries out and it wraps tightly around the chicks. This can make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to get out. Even if you add water, your chicks can suffer, drowning inside their shells from too much imbalanced moisture.
If you’re like me, you’re probably guilty of making at least one of these mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up – it happens to the best of us. But by being aware of common pitfalls and how to deal with them, you’ll boost your hatch rate and be rewarded with dozens of happy, healthy chicks once the twenty-one days of incubation is over.
What other common chicken incubating mistakes did I miss? Chime in by leaving a comment with your top chicken incubating tips or advice, and be sure to follow us on Instagram @jrpiercefamilyfarm and Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm).