Solving Incubation Issues When Hatching Eggs

Hatching eggs seems straightforward, and it's a fairly simple project—so long as you follow a few simple rules to ensure success.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Shutterstock

“Hens have been doing this for thousands of years! Why can’t I get it right?” Beth, a fitness instructor in North Dakota, has been following my chicken antics online for years. She credits my flock for inspiring her to start one of her own and is now mom to a dozen Easter Eggers and Buff Orpingtons in addition to her teenaged son. And this spring, Beth decided to try her hand at hatching eggs.

She thought it would be a fun thing to share with her son as well as a way for her flock to sustain itself.

Her first attempt, however, resulted in not one egg hatching. Beth waited 25 days, then 28 days. At 30 days, she threw away the eggs, sanitized her incubator, double-checked the humidity and temperature settings, and made sure the egg-turning function was operating correctly.

She then started over with a dozen new eggs.

At 21 days, one Buff Orpington egg emitted peeping sounds, but the chick within never breached the shell. For her third try, Beth stuck to just Orpington eggs, but the results were the same as the first. For her most recent try, Beth invested in a candler, then tried with a mix of eggs. Everything looked great at seven days. At 14 days, however, every egg had long stopped developing.

Exasperated, Beth finally reached out to me.

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Read more: Incubating eggs? These are the conditions you need to watch out for.

When You’re Doing Everything Right

It seemed to me that Beth was doing everything right in order to properly incubate her flock’s eggs. She guaranteed that her rooster was quite active with the ladies and that she had thoroughly read all the instructions that came with her incubator. She had even contacted the manufacturer to clarify a couple of things.

She’s set the eggs pointy side down, placed the incubator in a low-traffic area of her home, and made sure the machine was set at the proper temperature and humidity. The only time the eggs were ever handled was when she candled them on her fourth attempt … and when she had to dispose of them.

“They’re not even old eggs,” she assured me. “I’m literally taking them from the nest box and putting them into the incubator. Could that be it?”

Age Does Matter

Some poultry scientists advise flock owners to let fresh eggs rest for three to 10 days after hatching before incubating them. Others believe the best success rates come from hatching the freshest possible eggs.

Similarly, some experts advise not to use eggs that are older than 10 days. Others consider two weeks past lay the maximum age for hatching eggs.

I have had success with eggs fresh from the hen as well as from properly-stored 2-week-old eggs. Since Beth’s eggs were coming directly from her nest boxes, age of the eggs was not the issue. And since Beth’s flock was less than 3 years old, the age of the laying hens was also not an issue.

Read more: Here’s how to get started hatching chicks of your own in an incubator.

Such a Thing as Too Clean

Beth’s conundrum became clear when I confirmed how frequently she was handling the hatching eggs. She reiterated that only she handled the eggs:

  • putting them in the incubator
  • candling them
  • throwing them away

The only other time she touched them was when she collected them … and when she cleaned them for the incubator.

Aha! It turned out that, in addition to sanitizing her incubator, Beth was also carefully scrubbing every single speck of dirt and dust off her eggs with a little scrub brush she’d bought just for this purpose. She seemed quite stunned when I gently informed her that all that scrubbing was removing the all-important bloom—the protective coating that seals the eggshell’s pores to keep moisture in and bacteria out.

Without this layer, the porous shell could be and most likely was penetrated by harmful bacteria that sabotaged Beth’s incubation attempts.

The Scoop on Soil

It’s easy to understand why poultry keepers would assume a soiled egg would need to be cleaned prior to being incubated. Dirt, droppings, and even egg splatter from neighboring broken eggs become breeding grounds for bacteria inside a hot, humid incubator.

These microbes can then penetrate the hatching eggs, killing embryos and, occasionally, even causing the hatching eggs to explode inside the incubator. Because of this, soiled eggs should never be chosen for incubation.

However, there’s soiled and then there’s soiled. An egg with a couple of dirt or poop spots—nothing totally an area bigger than a dime—can be gently cleaned with a dry cloth or paper towel. Never use a wet cloth or towel, sandpaper or anything abrasive. These will remove both the debris and the bloom.

Beth is now on her fifth attempt to hatch eggs. She now regularly changes the bedding in her nest boxes, which results in cleaner eggs for both eating and hatching.

This time around, she carefully selected the cleanest eggs her hens laid for incubating. Her 14th-day candling showed all 12 eggs developing healthfully, and she and her son are looking forward to finally having a bunch of baby peeps joining them soon.

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