How to Increase Hatching Success in your Chickens

I’ve had both the good fortune of good fertility and a great hatch during a year that seemed disappointing for others, and the opportunity to study some of the latest methods used in the commercial poultry industry to increase their HATCHING SUCCESS. Since this topic comes up frequently through email questions, I’d like to share some general information with everyone.

First, and foremost, please provide those laying females with a vitamin and probiotic supplement before, during, and after breeding. The before and during vitamin supplement will increase her eggs’ hatchability – yes, really. And, please provide her with a clean nest at all times.

Pick up your eggs three times a day if possible, and don’t wash them. Washing them removes the protective coating (‘bloom’ or cuticle), on the surface of the egg, which is nature’s way of protecting the egg from the entry of bacteria and prevents a too-rapid loss of moisture and CO2 from the egg. The temperature of the egg when laid is approximately 105oF. As the egg begins to cool, it creates a vacuum and simply ‘sucks’ in all bacteria the egg has contact with. If you wash your eggs 2 hours after lay, the damage is already done, and you’re doing more harm than good by removing the bloom. No sanitizer will reach bacteria that entered through the pores. Also, without the bloom, the egg is more susceptible to exposure to new bacteria. Heavily soiled eggs should be discarded and lightly soiled eggs should be gently wiped off with a paper towel. No sanding please – sanding also removes the bloom and forces bacteria into the egg.

(For those who won’t sleep unless they sanitize their eggs, here’s how. Spray them lightly with an egg sanitizer – I prefer Oxine – mixed in water warmer than the egg. You must spray them within 1-2 hours after they’re laid or you’re wasting your time. Let them air dry. No rubbing please.)

Place your (hopefully) fertile eggs in an egg flat in your basement, if you have one. Otherwise, shoot for 60-65oF for eggs stored less than 7 days or 55oF for storage more than 7. Do not refrigerate. Keeping the eggs at these temperatures will arrest the development of the embryo – which is what you want. When eggs are warm enough to begin development before incubation, the embryos often die once placed in the incubator. If you’re storing eggs for more than 10 days, store them UPSIDE DOWN in the trays. (This is the ONLY time you’d store eggs upside down.) The goal here is to prevent too much CO2 loss from the air cell at the top of the egg, and moisture loss during storage. I’ll talk about moisture loss later, but CO2 loss will change the pH and turn the environment toxic. This is one reason for losses where no bacteria or fungi have been identified upon studying the dead embryo. Turning (or rocking), eggs that are stored upside down is unnecessary. Eggs stored less than 10 days can be placed right side up and need rocking.

To rock, stick something small under one end of the tray in the morning, and reverse its location at night. The rocking motion will change the eggs’ center of gravity, and keep the embryo from ‘sticking’ to the air cell. (The embryo is located right at the surface of the air cell.) You may lightly mist the eggs once a day with water warmer than the egg – or – you can provide a small humidifier close by. Both water sources should contain 7 drops of Oxine per 1 gallon of water to eliminate new bacteria introduction.

Place your eggs in the incubator right side up or on their side please. If you’re using a large incubator that allows for humidity changes to speed up moisture loss if needed, then seal off the airflow for the first 10 days. This will retard moisture and CO2 loss, but more importantly, help prevent death from fungal or bacterial infection – which typically occurs within the first 5-10 days of incubation. Do not seal off airflow on small incubators. You’ll have a hard time speeding up moisture loss later if you need to.

Since everyone’s incubation method and equipment is different, I’ll only say that you must make sure that your temperature, turning, and moisture source are carefully monitored for the most stable of conditions. The obvious is that you disinfect your incubators and brooders prior to each use, and again, I recommend using Oxine. Oxine is 200 times more effective than chlorine bleach and less irritating to work with than Tek-Trol.

During incubation, you want no more or less than a 12-14% moisture loss from the egg. Hatchability and bird quality are effected by percentages above or below this. You can determine moisture loss simply by weighing the eggs. You should weigh them when they’re set, and then again when you put them into the incubator to see how much you’ve already lost. For those who hatch en mass, you can manage this by weighing an entire egg flat. Those with small flocks could manage this by weighing each egg. (If you weigh each egg while incubating, make it quick while you’re hand turning so you don’t chill the egg.)

If you think I’ve concentrated little on the actual incubation, you’re right. I believe in and practice good prevention. And that begins BEFORE breeding.