The incubation of chicken eggs is a simple 21-day process that you can easily do at home. This is the most thorough and complete how-to on hatching chicken eggs that will guide you through the entire process step-by-step and answer your questions and troubleshoot any problems you may have.
Whether you are a homesteader, hobby farmer, breeder, or small flock/backyard flock keeper — this guide will answer all of your questions on hatching chicken eggs.
First, we will quickly cover the basics of incubating and hatching in a handy and practical bulleted list you can always double-check for quick reference before diving into each section in-depth.
(Don't worry, I have included a Table of Contents below the list to help you navigate between sections and jump to the part you need.)
Lastly, we will troubleshoot any problems and issues that arise before getting into equipment basics and recommendations, and my suggested reading list for raising chickens in your backyard or on the homestead.
Overwhelmed? Don't be. Chickens are incredibly easy.
QUICK REFERENCE Guide: Chicken Egg Incubation & Hatching
- If using an automatic egg turner, place eggs into the turner with the pointy side down.
- If not using an automatic egg turner, mark one side of the eggs (not the ends, but rather the sides) with an X and place them on their side.
- Set the temperature to 99.5º Fahrenheit (or 37.5º Celsius.)
- Add the appropriate amount of water into your incubator's water channels in order to maintain the humidity at 55%-60% (unless you are doing dry incubation).
- For dry incubation you do not add any water at all and just keep the humidity above 15%.
- If not using an automatic egg turner, eggs must be turned at least 8 times in a 24-hour period and the X you marked down will help you keep track of things. Set an alarm to remind you.
- Check your incubator daily to make sure the turner is working and that the temperature and humidity levels are right.
- You may want to add an additional thermometer inside the incubator as well as an additional hygrometer to measure the temperature/humidity levels. This is not necessary.
- ON DAY 18 OF INCUBATION LOCKDOWN STARTS!
- On Day 18 or "lockdown" the eggs are taken out of their automatic turning trays (if using) and placed on their sides on paper towels (being careful not to block any air vents).
- Humidity is now increased regardless of whether you are doing standard or dry incubation!
- Increase humidity to 65% - 70%
- DO NOT OPEN THE INCUBATOR OR TOUCH THE EGGS! Hence — 'Lockdown.'
- By Day 21 all of your chicks will have hatched although some will simply not make it for whatever reason.
- When the chicks are dry transfer them to their new brooder space with a heat plate, water, and feed.
That is it and it is really not complicated.
Read on for more in-depth information on each of these stages as well as answers to common questions and troubleshooting tips.
You can use the Table of Contents to navigate easily between sections.
Preparing Chicken Eggs For Incubation
If you have purchased fertile hatching eggs from a breeder there is very little in the way of preparation.
The eggs should be clean and fresh. Check to see if there are any visible cracks.
You may want to candle them to check for intact air cells before placing them in your incubator (more on that below) but this is not strictly necessary.
Do not under any circumstances wash your eggs and make sure you handle them very gently.
If your incubator does NOT have an automatic egg turner and you plan to manually turn your eggs, this is the time to take a pencil and mark each egg with an X on one side.
If your eggs were shipped, let them settle for about 12 to 24 hours at room temperature first.
If however, your fertile eggs are being collected by you from your own flock and you need to collect a certain number before having enough to fill the incubator — read on.
How Long Can Eggs Sit Before You Put Them in The Incubator?
Without a broody hen to do the work, you as a human must carefully collect your fresh fertilized eggs and store them at the correct temperature for a specific period of time until you have enough.
Fresh is always best but fertilized eggs can stay dormant for a surprisingly long time before the heat of incubation starts the process of embryonic development.
For best results:
- Store the eggs carefully as you collect them.
- Do not bother keeping misshapen, cracked, damaged, unusually small, or very dirty eggs.
- Do not wash or wipe the eggs in any way as this will remove the bloom, the natural protective coating and potentially introduce bacteria into the egg.
- Use eggs that are no older than 10 days. You can technically use fertile eggs as old as 20 days but this is not recommended as hatchability rates drastically decrease after 10 days.
- Keep the temperature between 55º to 65°F (13º to 18º degrees Celsius) where your eggs are stored.
- Maintain relative humidity at 75% percent.
- Turn the stored eggs periodically after 7 days of storage.
Incubating Chicken Eggs (Dry & Wet Incubation Instructions)
Setting & Maintaining Correct Temperature & Humidity
Temperature is the single most important factor followed by humidity.
The correct temperature is 99.5º FAHRENHEIT or 37.5º CELSIUS.
Although I'm Canadian, I set my incubator using Fahrenheit controls.
Now humidity is much less straightforward of a thing believe it or not.
We have standard incubation which sees us ading water into the built-in channels of our incubators until a humidity of 55%-60% is achieved.
OR we have someting called "dry incubation" where we keep humidity levels above 15% but otherwise do not worry about them at all until lockdown on day 18.
On day 18 we will add water to raise the humidity regardless of the method of incubation.
So what gives? What is the difference between wet/standard and dry incubation?
Which method should you use?
The First 18 Days
If you are using an automatic egg-turner there is very little for you to do except check the temperature and humidity levels daily to ensure they are where they are supposed to be.
If you are manually turning your eggs you will have a busy time of it as you must regularly turn your eggs.
5-8 times in a 24 hour period is a must but hourly is really best.
So set an alarm and gently turn your eggs using those X's you penciled on the side as a way to not get confused or lose track of which eggs were turned.
(Or just buy that automatic egg turner.)
Day 18 (Lockdown)
The 18th day of egg incubation is known as lockdown. It's when things get exciting.
On that 18th day, you will turn your eggs for the last time or remove them gently from the automatic egg turner.
Line your humidifier with paper towels ensuring no air vents are being blocked.
Whether you are doing standard or dry incubation you will now ramp your humidity up to 55% minimum and 75% maximum.
Ideally, you will stay in the 55%/60% range as humidity levels in the incubator will naturally rise as the chicks start hatching.
Do not be alarmed as the humidity levels spike and do not under any circumstance open your incubator as you risk losing the unhatched eggs.
This 3-day period is called 'Lockdown' for a reason — so do NOT open your incubator.
What's Better: Wet Incubation Versus Dry Incubation
Neither one is "better" per se.
I am not a scientist or an expert on chickens and their development.
Anecdotally my best hatches were dry, my most dismal, standard.
Anecdotally (there is that word again) many other breeders and hobbyists alike will make the same claim.
So what does the science say?
Not that much?
Here is my understanding of it as it was explained to me by a breeder with many successful hatches under her belt:
The single most common reasons for developed chicks that fail to hatch is the humidity being too high.
How is this so?
As the incubation period goes on, a certain amount of moisture must be lost from inside the egg.
When the humidity is too high, the moisture levels inside the egg remain too high and so the chick actually drowns before it can successfully hatch.
Dry incubation method allows for more moisture to be lost insde the egg and may prevent these drowning deaths.
If you live in a humid region, you may actually need a dehumidifier if your hatch rates are consistently low despite developed embryos.
Should You Help Struggling Chicks Hatch?
Leave the eggs and chicks alone as they hatch and let nature take its course.
You will likely disfigure, injure, or kill it by trying.
Even if you are successful there is a high probability there is something wrong with the chick and it will simply fail to thrive regardless.
However tempted you are it is best to leave them be.
How & When To Candle Your Eggs
Although candling is not strictly required, it is highly recommended.
Always candle your eggs in the evening in a dark room and never look directly into the light.
This is the candler I use and recommend. It is VERY powerful: Titan Egg Candler
Candling allows you to check fertility and development so that you may discard infertile eggs or those where the chicken embryo has died. I explain the importance of this further down.
It is very important that you do not candle your eggs too early or too often and that you are very gentle when handling your eggs or else you may arrest development or even damage or kill an otherwise healthy developing chick.
Candling Before Incubation: Checking The Air Cell
Before you place your eggs into the incubator at all you may want to candle them to check to see if the air cell is detached.
I do this for shipped eggs only as they are most likely to have been damaged during transport and handling. And the only reason I bother is to ensure my incubator is not the problem if I have a disappointing result.
Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to confirm whether the air cell is detached or not without significant experience and even if you suspect a detached cell, it may be best to make a note of the possibility for your records and continue incubating all the eggs.
This video explains the air cell and how to spot it better than words ever could:
Can A Chick Still Hatch With A Detached Air Cell?
Here is another video that describes what to do and if you are dealing with shipped eggs I highly suggest you take the time to watch it as it will tell you everything you need to know and do to increase your chances of successfully hatching eggs where the air cell has detached.
Candling After 8 Days
After 7 or 8 days have passed in the incubator is the first time I would bother to candle the eggs.
This is the most exciting one as you will be able to very clearly see signs of life pulsing inside your eggs. This first week of embryonic development is the most crucial so have patience and leave your eggs alone before that.
Candling is easy. Wait until nighttime (or go into a room without a window and turn the lights off) and keep the lights off.
Set up your egg candler and then gently and slowly remove each egg from the incubator and place each one on your candler light source.
What do you see?
Discarding Infertile & Dead Eggs
Why is this important?
Because there are decomposition gasses that can build up inside of a dead egg and cause it to explode causing a disgusting mess that won't smell great at best and will spread potentially dangerous bacteria to the rest of your eggs and developing chicks at worst.
After candling on the eighth day, discard any infertile eggs. These will be very clear to identify as there will be no veining or pulsing signs of life inside the egg. I compost these personally.
After The Hatch — Setting Up A Chick Brooder
Chick Brooding Basics:
Brooding your chicks is very easy and can be quite cheap too.
You need a container of some sort that has enough ventilation but no drafts, a heat source, some type of bedding (I prefer chopped straw), chick feed, and water.
Article: An In-Depth Guide To Setting Up A Chick Brooder
What Is The Best Incubator For Chicken Eggs?
This is a common topic that comes up in both homesteading and backyard chicken groups.
First of all — stay away from the myriad of cheap off-brand options you will find on Amazon.
While it may be tempting to buy a low-priced model you will pay for it in the end with eggs that fail to hatch or a machine that breaks down after the first use and after the window of return has passed.
I've been there. Many others have. It's not worth it.
Yes someone will always pipe up in chicken groups about how their cheap incubator worked out great — and I'm happy for them, but I'd like to see their cheap machine working consistently through multiple hatches and several years of use.
Two incubators that are frequently recommended and tend to be highly reviewed amongst homesteaders are:
This is what I use and highly recommend. Get the automatic egg turner. It's worth it.
Where To Buy
If you can find it locally, support your small farm supply store first!
Amazon — HovaBator Incubator
Amazon — HovaBator Incubator
Barry Hill Online (Where I bought mine)
I nearly bought a Brinsea but the much higher price tag (especially here in Canada) made me change my mind.
So while I currently have no personal experience with this machine it is very highly recommended by numerous other chicken keepers that I trust.
Where To Buy
Amazon — Brinsea Incubator
Amazon — Brinsea Incubator
Can You Hatch Chicken Eggs Without An Incubator?
Short answer: no.
There are too many variables. Too many things outside of your control. Is it technically possible? Sure. But it will be a happy accident and not something you can easily replicate.
High quality hatching eggs from reputable breeders with outstanding stock are expensive. I'm not risking my investment or wasting my time.
Can You Make Your Own Egg Incubator At Home?
I have never done this and while I have no personal desire to ever do this, for some people it poses an interesting challenge and perhaps even a way to save some money.
You are on your own here so research and spend money wisely.
What Happens If The Humidity Gets Too High In An Incubator?
Your embryos will die, or at least, many of them will.
What Happens If Eggs Are Not Turned During Incubation?
They will likely not hatch. Or you will only have a few eggs survive.
The chicks that do manage to hatch may be deformed, weak, and fail to thrive.
Turn your eggs. Hourly is best but at least get to it 8 times in a 24-hour period.
An automatic egg turner is really best.
What To Do In Case Of A Power Outage
Hopefully you have a backup generator.
If not, hope that the power comes back on quickly.
After about two hours without power you are entering the danger zone and decreasing your chances of a successfull hatch.
What you should do immediately is wrap the outside of the incubator with a thick towel.
Full List Of Equipment & Tools For Hatching Eggs & Brooding Chicks
These are the basic things you will need to get started:
- A good quality incubator like the HovaBator with an automatic egg turner
- An egg candler
- A fire-safe heat plate
- A container to brood your chicks
- Dust-extracted chopped straw for bedding (HIGHLY recommended. I use The Straw Boss brand and the Deep Litter Method)
- Chick Starter Feed (you can also look online for recipes and make your own)
- Chick waterer and feeder containers that are small enough for them to use (you can just use very shallow plates too)
Recommended Books & Further Reading
Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens. This is a classic that everyone should have if they are planning on raising chickens. This book technically has everything you need within the pages. That being said, if you are looking for more organic and natural approaches to chicken-keeping, I recommend this book alongside something that will serve that purpose too.
The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers This is my favourite. The most comprehensive guide to date on raising all-natural poultry for the small-scale farmer, homesteader, and professional grower. The Small-Scale Poultry Flock offers a practical and integrative model for working with chickens and other domestic fowl, based entirely on natural systems.
Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens. This unique book is a must for the gardener and chicken keeper, especially if you want to combine the two in harmony. Start by planning your garden and learning strategies and tips for keeping your plants safe while they grow. Plant with purpose, choosing from a dozen plans for theme gardens such as Orange Egg Yolks or Nesting Box Herbs.