Hatching Baby Chicks on the Homestead – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Spring is almost here and this is when I hear many newbies mention how much fun it would be to try hatching baby chicks themselves. And that’s great! Hatching baby chicks is fun, educational, and rewarding. But, it’s not always just cute little bundles of fluff. Sometimes it’s difficult, and even downright disgusting. So I thought it would be a good idea to tell you exactly what to expect when you have baby chicks hatching.

chicks

Hatching Baby Chicks: The Good Part

Hatching your own chicks is good for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is cost. Looking at one of the hatchery websites, fertile chicken eggs for hatching can cost as much as $10 each for some of the more rare breeds and as low as $3 each for the more common breeds. Chicks, on the other hand, range from over $17 per chick for rare breeds to less than $2 each for the common meat breeds. Of course, you’ll usually need to add in shipping costs as well, though sometimes you can score free shipping. But I’ve paid as much as $40 for shipping on day old chicks. That’s a chunk of change.

The most cost effective way to get hatching eggs is to use fertile eggs from your own flock, or the flock of someone local. Look on Craigslist or the buy/sell community pages on Facebook and you’re likely to find many people with fertile eggs to sell at a decent price. They may not offer the same guarantee as the hatcheries, but personally, I’ve never had a problem.

Pro tip:

Do you know if the eggs from your flock are fertile? When you break open a fresh egg, look for a white dot with a ring around it on the yolk. This indicates that the egg has been fertilized. If you are seeing this in most of your eggs, you should have eggs that are good for hatching. (see this image)

If you have kids, hatching baby chicks is an experience they will never forget. In fact, if you’re new to all of this, you probably will get very excited over the process yourself, even if you don’t have any kids. It’s also really satisfying to know that your chickens were hatched and raised on your farm by YOU.

Hatching times

  • Chickens – 21 days
  • Ducks – 28 days (except Muscovy ducks which take 33-35 days)
  • Geese – 29-31 days
  • Turkey – 28 days
  • Quail – 17-18 days (Bobwhite take 23)
  • Guineas – 26-28 days
  • Peafowl – 28 days

The Bad Things About Hatching Your Own

Well, maybe not bad, but things you should keep in mind. First of all, this isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it type of thing. You do need to monitor things like the temperature and humidity of your incubator. You also need to turn your eggs several times a day if your incubator doesn’t have an automatic turner.

6 Steps for Hatching Baby Chicks

1. Get fertile eggs for hatching. Keep in mind, eggs stay fertile for a week to 10 days, so don’t save them for too long. Store eggs for hatching in an egg carton, pointy end down. Ideally, they should be stored at around 50 to 60 degrees with a 75% humidity until you’re ready to put them into the incubator.

2. Place your incubator near a reliable source of electricity, away from the windows and in a place where the temperature stays fairly stable. This will make it easier for the incubator to do its job.

3. Pour water into the tray of your incubator. It doesn’t usually need to be full, but you’ll want enough to maintain a 50 to 55% humidity (65% the three days before eggs are expected to hatch). Set the thermostat so it stays between 99 and 102 degrees. Check it often in the first 24 hours to make sure the temperature and humidity are stable before adding eggs.

4. Ideally, you will have an incubator with an automatic turner. If not, place eggs into the incubator on their sides. You will have to turn the eggs yourself at least 3 times a day (except for the last 3 days). This is easier if you put a mark on each egg so you can tell if they have been turned or not. If you have an egg turner, place the eggs in the trays, pointed end down.

5. Three days before eggs are expected to hatch, turn off the turner and add enough water to increase the humidity to about 65%. Put cheesecloth under the eggs to make cleanup easier.

6. Most eggs should hatch within 24 hours. I usually give it an extra day to be safe. Once eggs are hatched, clean up the incubator by throwing away the cheesecloth and shells, and washing the whole thing with soap and water. Chicks can stay in the incubator for a day or two, or moved right to your brooder (a heated enclosure where your chicks grow up).

And speaking of incubators, you will have to factor in the upfront cost of a good incubator and also understand that running it will cost electricity. We were able to get our incubators used for a good price, but units similar to ours cost around $150 new. Larger and more elaborate incubators can cost much more than that. If you aren’t ready to make this kind of investment, it’s certainly worth it to ask around to see if someone has an incubator you can borrow.

One more thing to keep in mind when pondering the pros and cons of hatching your own. Sometimes eggs just don’t hatch. If you purchase from a hatchery, you’ll most likely have a guarantee on fertility, but even that isn’t a promise that they will hatch because anything can go wrong, and if you hatch enough eggs, they most certainly will go wrong. So be aware of what could happen.

The Ugly – Things Most People Don’t Tell You

Okay, these are the things I hate most about hatching my own baby chicks. I’m going to tell you these things in the hopes that you won’t get lazy like I often do when things get crazy busy here. The thing about short-cuts is that you may end up creating more work for yourself later on down the road. Which is generally what I end up doing.

Smell: Be prepared because your incubator can really smell bad unless you are very careful. Imagine that an egg is not fertile, or it was fertile but for some reason the embryo died. But you’re busy so you haven’t been candling your eggs to check their progress. Well, that egg will continue to be kept warm and moist until it cracks. When that happens, lots of disgusting liquid will come out, and when you open your incubator to add water, you quickly realize that you should have grabbed a gas mask.

A Word About Candling

You can easily check the development of your eggs by putting your hand around the end of a flashlight underneath an egg. This allows you to see if an embryo is developing. You’ll see a dark spot with blood vessels around it (they make me think of lightening). If there is no embryo after a week or so, it isn’t fertile and can be thrown away before it starts to smell. Check here for images.

Seriously.

If you have a weak stomach, this is not for you. Then, you have to find and remove the offending rotting egg/chick and dispose of it… but it may have become stuck to the turner making it difficult to remove. Of course if you force it, you may break the egg even more. I don’t think I need to go into much more detail here because my stomach is turning just thinking about it. (gag!)

Pro tip:

Candle your eggs to make sure they are going to hatch and get rid of the bad ones before they get nasty. Even if you don’t have time. Trust me. You need to make the time.

But it’s not just dead eggs that smell bad. When the eggs hatch, a certain amount of goo comes out with the chicks. It typically gets stuck to the bottom of the incubator and continues to… well… incubate. (gag again!) Of course you should always clean your incubator after each hatch, but sometimes that’s hard to do when you still have eggs that haven’t hatched yet. After all, they don’t all hatch at one time on cue.

Pro Tip:

Put cheese cloth in the bottom of the incubator. That way, when all the eggs have hatched, you can just pull out all the nastiness that would normally get cooked onto the grate. It will make cleaning your incubator much less icky.

Deformed chicks: I can’t decide if the smell is worse or if getting abnormal chicks is worse. Both make me a little ill, but the deformed chicks kinda break my heart. Sometimes they are mis-formed. Sometimes they seem to have an intestinal prolapse and their insides are basically falling out their back ends. Either way, it isn’t pretty. And you can’t fix it, so they have to be culled. I confess, I am the worst about culling. I can’t stand to watch them suffer but I can’t stand to kill them either. But if you want to homestead, you have to be able to do the deed (or have a husband who is willing to do it for you).

But It’s Worth It!

If I haven’t completely turned you off of the idea of hatching your own chicks, great! It really is worth the few bad experiences to see those fuzzy little babies. And the more experienced you get, the easier it will become. Now if you’ll excise me, I’m going to determine how to clean the incubator that I left in the barn last year. It had duck eggs that never hatched, and I just somehow never got to it. So now I have a nasty project. Ugh! At least they should be frozen so they won’t smell so disgusting. (Remember, do as I say, not as I do.)

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