So you'd like to hatch chicks but you're confused by the choice of gadgets on the market?
That's understandable - back yard chicken keeping has become a huge industry in the past few years and there are a lot of choices out there.
But in terms of hatching chicken eggs there's really only one "must have" - a reliable incubator. Even then, there are choices to be made. When I chose my first one I made mistakes, from which I learned some good lessons.
Here's the reason incubating is so popular - one of my newly hatched Wyandotte chicks.
Now I'm going to share those lessons with you, to help you on your way to deciding what will be the ideal chicken egg incubator for you, and for your family.
Incubators come in all shapes and sizes, from a few eggs to several thousand. It's unlikely you'll want to go the 'several thousand' route, but you do need to think carefully about how big you want to go.
It's unlikely you'll want an incubator as large as this commercial container!
I have three warnings about this.
Firstly, remember that whilst hatching is fun and exciting, it will leave you with chickens afterwards. Have you thought through what to do with them, and in particular with any cockerels you might have? If not, take my ten question quiz and make sure chicken keeping is definitely for you.
Secondly, remember that not all the eggs you set in any incubator, no matter how good it is and no matter how careful you are, will hatch. Even in the most ideal circumstances only around 80% are likely to be successful and, if your eggs have been sent to you by post, that will potentially drop to around 50%.
Thirdly, know that you will want to hatch more than you think when you first do it. Hatching chicken eggs is addictive!
This is linked to the first one. It's all very fine getting a large incubator - but do you have somewhere you can keep it safely for the 21 days it takes to hatch without getting in the way of family life?
Something like Brinsea's Octagon 20 (with turning cradle) is 17" (43 cm) wide whereas the little Eco or Mini Advance measures a mere 8" (22cm). Then there's candlers, humidity pumps, cameras ...
I use a spare bedroom and a large plastic garden table. What do you have, and what size of incubator would be best for that space?
My 'incubating station'. OK I admit it - I have a few gadgets!!
This is particularly important if you have kids who want to watch the chicks hatching. In fact, it's important for anyone who wants to watch the chicks hatching!
It's critical not to raise the lid of the incubator in the last days of incubation and during the hatch, so it's important to be able to see clearly without disturbing.
Some incubators have a small window in the front so you can see part of the egg. Some have a plastic lid, but it may be restricted by the incubator's fan and other workings.
The best incubator for viewing, in my experience, is the little Brinsea Eco or Mini Advance. It has a massively high, clear plastic dome which makes visibility very high.
My Brinsea Mini Advance - its high dome gives great visibility.
Another practical point, but an important one. It's really important that your incubator should be kept clean. Bacteria have a nasty habit of entering through porous egg shells and that can result in the death of the chicken embryos.
And trust me, the mess left behind after hatching is substantial. Dust, empty shells, the first poops of the newly hatched chicks, the down they shed while drying out ...
You need to make sure that whichever you decide on it can at least in part be dismantled to allow for post-hatch deep cleaning of the non-electrical parts, and a wipe-down of the electrical bits.
Inside my Brinsea Octagon 20 lid after a hatch - dirty, dusty and the fan is covered in down.
There are two critical issues during incubation : temperature and humidity. They need to be constant and any variation - particularly high temperature and low humidity - can potentially cause the embryos to perish.
So - how do you want to measure them? Do you want to use a separate thermometer which you keep an eye on yourself? Or do you want it to be done digitally so you set it and forget it?
My Octagon Advance digital readout warns me when temperature and humidity levels are low.
Humidity levels need to be kept at 45% during incubation but before hatching should be raised to around 65% or higher.
If this doesn't happen the membrane through which the chick has to 'pip' dries out, goes hard and before you know it, the chicken's in serious trouble because it can't get through.
So - can you risk that? Would you know what to do?
Do you want your incubator to have a manual humidity control, where you add water by hand to a sponge, pot or channel inside it?
Or would you prefer an automatic, digitally-controlled, state of the art humidity pump which takes the stress of humidity away, adds water to the incubator when it's needed and gives you a read-out so you can check levels are as they should be?
My Brinsea humidity pump - taking the stress out of calculating humidity levels!
If you ever have the chance to watch a hen sitting on eggs, you'll notice that from time to time she rolls them. Instinctively, she knows that moving them around stops the embryo sticking to the shell which can cause the hatch to fail.
Chicken eggs in an incubator need to be turned in the same way, consistently, through the first eighteen days of incubation, and ideally it needs to be done 24 hours a day.
So - are you happy to get up in the middle of the night and turn? Will you remember? Can you work out a system so you know which have been turned and which still need doing? Are you organised enough to keep records of when they were last turned? Will you remember that you need to stop turning three days before hatching is due?
Or do you want an incubator that does it all for you?
The best incubator - a broody hen - will instinctively turn hatching eggs.
It's important that chicken eggs in an incubator are not turned after day 18 - three days before hatch is due. The chick needs to be able to get into the right position for hatching so that it 'pips' - breaks through - into the air cell at the fat end of the egg. Pipping into another part will mean it has no way to breathe.
How are you with numbers? Will you remember which day your eggs are due and when they should be stopped? I once tried to do this and got hopelessly muddled - but then I accept I'm useless with figures.
Or would you prefer this too to be done automatically by the incubator?
My little Mini Advance tells me it has automatically stopped turning in time for hatch.
The decision about how automated you want your chicken egg incubator will depend entirely on your answers to the questions above.
The choices in front of you vary at one extreme from a basic, home made incubator to, at the other, a large cabinet machine which will hold anything up to 580 eggs and is completely automated.
And the cost will vary from a few dollars to upwards of $2,000 (£1,500). Which brings us to the final question.
My incubators are all automated to save me the anxiety of remembering what to do when!
This is one which affects us all. There are incubators out there costing thousands of dollars and there are others costing less than a hundred.
What's your budget? Is it going to affect your answers to the previous questions? Could you see yourself starting small and working your way to larger, more automated and more expensive?
Basically, the larger and more automated your incubator, the more expensive it's going to be.
In the links below you'll find chicken egg incubators at different costs, with different levels of automation.
Some of them can also hatch other types of bird, from guinea to parrot, and others are suitable only for chickens.
Think about your answers to the above questions first and then consider the options here.
Click on any of these images to have a look at the different types.
Making your own incubator isn't difficult - but is it reliable? Find out here.
A great semi-automatic starter option, particularly good for children - the Brinsea 7 egg Mini Advance.
Brinsea's Octagon Advance holds up to 24 chicken eggs - for the serious hatch-a-holic.
Come and join in the fun!
My hatching series takes you step-by-step all the way through the process of hatching your own chicks, from the very first steps of deciding whether keeping chickens is a good thing for you to do, to choosing the right eggs, what to look out for during each incubation day and finally the highs (and lows) of hatching itself.
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