I’ve been incubating my own eggs for about 10 years now. My advice to anyone starting out is to get the most foolproof incubator you can afford. I tend to be a minimalist at heart when it comes to projects. If there’s a simple tool that can do double duty, or if a task takes me a little longer in order to save money or to avoid having to buy another gadget, I usually do. But with incubating eggs, if you can get an auto egg turner, or a digitized temperature control, or anything else that will help you, I recommend it.
I’ve used a variety of incubators over the years, all ranging in price and function. My opinion when it comes to incubators is that you get what you pay for.
Of all the chicken questions I get over at my blog, incubator troubleshooting has to be the highest. People are heartbroken when they wait the 21 days with anxious excitement. They see that first pip and then…nothing. The chick seems to wither in the shell and die trying to escape. I get a ton of people ask if they should assist a hatch that isn’t progressing. And to be honest…assistance often results in a dead chick anyway.
It’s sad all around and very disappointing.
Humidity in Hatching
The trickiest part of incubating is finding the right humidity levels. It’s fairly simple to rotate eggs with success and to keep the temperature at relatively the same level, but humidity is more complicated.
Chicks have different humidity needs throughout different parts of the hatch. Everything I’ve ever read about incubating chicks says that through days 1-18 the humidity level should be around 50 to 55% then increase to around 65% for the last three days of lockdown.
Lockdown takes place in the last three days of incubation where the incubator should not be opened to prevent humidity from escaping. Too little humidity during hatch can result in the chicks being shrink-wrapped by the shell membrane as they try to break through the eggshell. The membrane gets rubbery and the chicks can’t escape.
I’ve had problems with this over the years, so as a precaution, I’ve been diligent about adding water to my incubator, even errored on the side of too much humidity. My thinking was…”Let’s keep that membrane nice and pliable so the chicks can get out easily.”
But after a few hatches, I then started to notice a different problem. The chicks would pip (make the initial breakthrough the eggshell) and then that was it…they would never progress.
After losing 2 unhatched chicks earlier in the spring, I decided to do some more research on incubator humidity.
I kept coming across this term “dry hatch”…at first I ignored it because I honestly thought that that hatching dry would just compound my problem. The chicks needed moisture, right? To get through that tough membrane?
But then I came across a forum question that described exactly what I was experiencing in my incubator. Several readers suggested doing a dry hatch to solve the problem.
What is a dry hatch?
A dry hatch is exactly what it sounds like. You do not add water to your incubator for the first 18 days. Then on lockdown, you up the humidity to 65-70%.
It seemed counter-intuitive, but I felt like it was worth a shot.
This past week I dry-hatched out an incubator of French Black Copper Marans and Olive Eggers and every egg that was fertile hatched successfully!
Why it works
I didn’t realize that an egg NEEDS to lose humidity so that the growing chick can have space to move around in the egg in order to hatch. This is how it creates the zipper (an opening around the equator of the eggshell in a healthy hatch).
The chick also needs that extra air space so it can breathe during the last day or so of the hatch. At this point, the chick is fully formed and needs air to have a healthy respiratory function.
In essence, by adding too much humidity I was drowning the chicks in the shell.
Right now I have three incubators filled with Buff Orpington eggs. I am attempting again to dry hatch them. If this works as well as the other hatches, this might become my new method for incubating eggs. I will let the community know how it goes.