4 biggest incubation mistakes

It's almost chick time! As spring gets near many of us like to hatch our own chicks instead of buying them from the feed store. Whether you're starting with your first incubator or you're an old pro at incubating chicks there are a few mistakes you can make, that can be disastrous for your hatch. Knowing what to pay the closest attention to, can be the difference between a successful hatch and heartbreak.

Fatal mistakes hatching chicks

I've been hatching my own chickens for about 10 years now. I started by making my own incubator, which is easier than it sounds. Within a few months I needed more space so I moved up to 2 styrofoam incubators. I hatched chicks, ducks, quail and guineas using those for a few years before moving on to small Brinsea incubators. Another year with those and I moved on to 1 then 2 cabinet incubators and I've learned quite a bit in all those years of hatching! Here are the 4 biggest mistakes I've made.

These are no ordinary mistakes though. These are the ones that end badly every single time. The definite worst of the worst....

Worst incubation mistakes


Not testing your incubator: Every incubator should be tested before every hatch. Whether it's a brand new incubator or the same one that you use every year, it needs tested before each hatch to make sure the temperature and humidity are correct. Settings can get bumped, the incubator shell could have developed a crack during storage or the heating element could have burned out. You want to make sure your incubator is holding steady before you add eggs to it. Now obviously if you're hatching in succession you don't need to stop and test between hatches, but if the incubator has been off for any length of time you need to test it before setting eggs.

To test an incubator, turn it on and leave it on for at least 48 hours. Use 2 different thermometers/hygrometers to check it. If my incubator has a built in thermometer I add another one inside. If it does not have one built in, I add 2 inside. You should also be checking your thermometers for accuracy before using them. I calibrate my hygrometers every year to keep my incubator humidity accurate. 

Dog watching chicks hatch

Letting the temperature spike: This goes along with the first point actually, but does deserve it's own mention. If you've tested your incubator for a few days as I recommended you'll know that your incubator temp holds steady. However, certain types of incubators do not have an automatic adjustment feature. If your incubator has a digital control panel then it will auto adjust to the room temperature. So if you raise your house temperature 2 degrees, it will automatically keep the temp inside steady.

If your incubator does not have a digital control then you will have to monitor it more closely and may have to adjust it during incubation to avoid temperature changes. I had a few styrofoam incubators like this and most homemade incubators are the same way. In this case the incubator temperature is set and remains steady. When you raise or lower the room temperature it will affect the temperature inside the incubator. You'll need to keep a very close eye on it to make sure the temp stays within the safe range.

Direct sunlight and drafts can affect an incubators internal temperature so if your incubator is in a room that has these issues you'll want to move it to a better area rather than fight with it all hatch long!

Now I'm going to tell you something very important about rising and falling incubator temperatures...low is better than high! If the temperature inside the incubator gets over 104.9° your eggs have no chance of survival. Zero. That's only 5 degrees higher than ideal! Even if it's a short temperature spike. However, even though 99.5° is the optimum temperature for a forced egg incubator, the eggs can get considerable cooler for a longer period of time and still survive.

When an egg is being hatched by a broody hen, she will leave the nest daily to eat. Because of this natural behavior the eggs are capable of tolerating short bouts of cooler temps. The takeaway lesson from this is that if you find your incubator suddenly struggling to maintain correct temperature, err on the low side rather than the high side. You have about an hour to get it adjusted that way.  

Opening incubator during lockdown: It's called lockdown for a reason! The incubator is supposed to remain closed from the start of lockdown till the last chick hatches. Of course sometimes you must get chicks out if they've been out of their shells for too long and you're still waiting on stragglers to hatch. However, just opening it any time you want to is a recipe for disaster. I know you're probably adding extra water or spraying with a mister bottle but it's simply not enough! 

When the cooler, dry air from outside hits the pipped or partially zipped eggs inside the membrane starts to dry out. That drying membrane contracts tightly around the chicks body and it can't move to break free and hatch. This is called shrink wrapping.

Even if you add moisture, adding the exact amount of moisture lost without adding too much (that makes them sticky) is almost impossible! Adding too much moisture to the incubator to compensate for opening it can also cause the un-pipped eggs to not lose enough moisture. These chicks run the risk of drowning in their shells after pipping. Basically, you throw the whole system off when you open the incubator during hatch.

Here's how to avoid opening the incubator when raising humidity...use the incubators air vent holes. Get a tube or straw small enough to fit through the hole and put a pieces of sponge under the hole before lockdown. Add water with a syringe through the straw during lockdown. 

The incubator should not be opened during lockdown

Helping a chick hatch: I know it is hard to watch them struggle to hatch, but it's often for the best. Most times when a chick is having a hard time hatching on it's own it is because it's simply too weak to survive anyway. They often die within a few days or need culled. I have helped many chicks hatch over the years and it has rarely worked out well. They almost always have some other problem that presented it itself after they were out of the shell, and helping them hatch only prolongs their suffering. Because of this, I no longer will help a chick hatch unless the situation is just so.

I'll tell you a little story...
A few years back in one of my online hatching-alongs, a new kid insisted on helping every chick hatch. This kid wouldn't listen to everyone saying keep the incubator closed and quit 'helping' the chicks hatch. They kept saying "well, this is how I do it". Every single chick died. Over a dozen. It was heartbreaking and a hard lesson to learn for everyone. Luckily though it was a lesson learned and their next hatch was successful. 

In this instance I simply think it was impatience and excitement. Yes, it's boring and frustrating waiting for chicks to hatch, but we simply can't speed up the process.  

A chick that needed help hatching out o her egg

Sometimes in the case of shrink wrapping there isn't anything wrong with the chick and helping it break away from the dried membrane is all it needs. This shouldn't be a problem though because you didn't open the incubator during lockdown, right? Of course it's hard to tell whether a chick is stuck because of lack of moisture or because of a physical problem. Opening up the incubator to help just adds to the lack of moisture problem for that chick and all the rest of the hatching chicks. 

That all being said, the picture above is a guinea keet who tried to hatch feet first. As you can see, the egg is out of the incubator and I did pop the top on this one and she was perfectly fine. The only time I will assist in a hatch is if the chick has done most of the work herself and just needs a little help at the end. If she has just pipped or only begun to zip I will not help.  

Since I started watching out for and avoiding these 4 incubation mistakes, my hatches have been much more successful!


Have you heard of dry incubation? It just might be the answer to your incubation humidity problems!

~L

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3 comments:

  1. A question, I leave (as you say) my incubator shut all the time when hatching chickens, now I am aiming to hatch some ducks and I read that after day 10 the the lid should be lifted for @ 10/15 mins a day and the eggs sprayed. Any thoughts on this?

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    1. I do spray duck eggs once a day when I incubate them. I don't leave the incubator open that long, but a few minutes while I spray and look them over. You'll still need to leave the incubator lid closed during lockdown though...which is the 3 days before and after the expected hatch day.

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  2. Thanks for the info, my incubator instructions say "lift lid for 15 mins and spray" which I have been doing but have always thought this was too long so I will see how the hatching's go (if any) then just lift and spray next time to compare.

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