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Ask a Poultry Farmer

Advice from a man with sixty years of experience with chickens, turkeys and waterfowl. With community blogger Dale Wheelock.

Ask a Poultry Farmer: How do I incubate or set eggs?

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By Dale Wheelock
Monday, March 20, 2017

There comes a time when chicken owners want to incubate eggs from their chickens. Your new incubator should come with detailed instructions. It’s best to closely follow these instructions for the first few hatches. After that you can try new things that you have thought about or heard about.

The incubator's directions might not tell you how to check your thermometer for accuracy. The best kind of thermometer I've found is a digital meat thermometer. Fill a glass with ice water, let it set until the ice is melting. The thermometer should read 32 degrees Fahrenheit. If it doesn’t, just consider the difference when adjusting your incubator. A still-air incubator should be kept at 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit and a forced-air incubator at 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Turn the eggs at least twice a day. For incubators that require hand-turning, the eggs will be on their side. Mark the side with a pencil so you know how far to turn them. The directions may say that if you have an automatic turner, on the 18th day take the turner out, lay the eggs flat and don’t open the incubator until the 22nd day. The reason is the chicks can get caught in the turner plus you will have to clean the turner. We have a 1940s Humidaire Incubator where the eggs are set upright and the whole incubator rotates. The chicks hatch fine standing up while the incubator turns.

While you are waiting to set your eggs, store them in a carton pointed end down (also how they are placed in the turner). Place a piece of wood under one end (a 2x4) and switch the end twice a day. You can keep fertile eggs in a cooler room for up to two weeks. Do not wash them or put in the fridge. Before setting we spray them with a 50/50 mixture of Original Listerine and water. This works to disinfect them before you put them in a hot, wet environment.

You can help the slow-hatching chicks. We keep a eye dropper filled with mineral oil in the incubator. If they don’t get out right away the membrane on the inside the shell dries on the chick and they can’t move. The oil will loosen the membrane. You might see chicks with  “splay legs”  or bad wings.

Remember there’s no big hurry to get the chicks out of the incubator. They will be fine without feed or water for up to 72 hours.  

If you don't have an incubator, you can set eggs under a broody hen. Depending on the size of the hen, you can put up to a dozen eggs underneath her. A few days before setting move the hen to a place of her own. Any kind of box or basket works well. Make sure that it won’t tip over when the hen gets off to eat and drink. Mark a couple of eggs for her to start with. Change these every day (they are fine to eat or set) until she is ready. Just put a dozen or so fertile eggs under her. All this is best done when it’s dark. Then just wait 21 days. If you find an egg rolled out of her nest just pitch it. Somehow a hen knows if an egg is bad.

As always, ask questions in the comment section.


Dale Wheelock has been raising chickens, turkeys and waterfowl since he was a farm kid in the 1950s. He owns and operates the Wheelock Family Farm in Walworth County with his wife, Barb, and has been an agriculture leader in the community for decades. Read more about poultry farming at askapoultryfarmer.blogspot.com. Dale is a community blogger and is not a part of The Gazette staff. His opinion is not necessarily that of the The Gazette staff or management. Have a question for Dale? Send him an email at askapoultryfarmer@gmail.com.


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