Incubation

The process of incubation has changed over the years. From wooden setters where the chicks actually hatched in the setter itself, to modern fiberglass, computer controlled machines.

Essentially, the concept is still the same. You need a certain temperature, humidity and turning mechanism in order for the chicks to hatch. Technology has helped us improve on this allowing for better hatches and better quality chicks.

Different bird types have different incubation specifications. For example, quail eggs hatch in 18 days, require a lower humidity and temperature. Chicken type birds require 21 days to hatch, a higher temperature and humidity. Ducks require 28 days, a higher humidity and temperature to hatch. It is very important that your machine be set up properly for the egg types you plan on setting.

Several factors can influence hatchability (amount of chicks that hatch from a set number of eggs).

The farm management side of the equation proves to have a greater influence on hatchability than does the actual hatchery. This is why it is very important that the two work in conjunction.

Farm Level

As seen from the table above, there are several factors which can have a huge effect on hatchability. Some of these have been covered in previous chapters but I will cover them again from a hatchery point of view.

Bird Nutrition

It is very important that you feed your chickens (males and females) a proper feed ration. If you feed them table scraps, or home made feed, it is very likely that you can run into a nutritional problem. For layers, a specially formulated feed is essential in order for the hen to lay eggs with good shell quality, color and texture. The ingredients in the feed will also allow for a change in the color of the yolk. Yellow corn or marigold supplements will allow for a deep yellow colored yolk. White corn allows
for a pale yellow to white yolk. For breeders, which lay eggs for incubation purposes, have an even more refined feed. They need everything the layer has and more. They need to be able to feed the chick embryo during its developmental stage. For this to happen, they need all the vitamins and nutrients available to them. Male feed is also important for sperm production. If the males aren’t producing sperm, you will have a very high infertility count.

So, a poor feed source can produce poor quality eggs where the chick embryos will either not form or die in the early stage of formation making for a very poor hatch. Chicks that do hatch will most likely be weak and die at a young age.

So, make sure you buy the proper feed for the type of bird you are going to handle. For more on this, read the feed section of this site.

Illnesses and Diseases

Birds are very susceptible to illnesses and diseases during their relatively short life cycle. This is why it is very important to have a vaccination plan for your flocks. This can prevent many problems you can encounter with your birds like mortality, reduced egg production, reduced fertility and more.

Infertility

Infertility is a male problem, normally it is either a feed problem or a disease problem. Poor sperm count in males could arise from lack of phosphorus or some other nutrient in the feed or from one of the
diseases mentioned before. Poor fertility will make for infertile eggs or weak chicks.

Also, too many males can cause infertility in eggs. There should be about 10% males for the amount of females present. This works out to 9 to 10 females per male.

Obese males will also have a fertility problem besides the fact that they won’t be able to mount the female to fertilize her. So it is important to feed the males their own type of feed.

Egg Handling

Improper egg handling can reduce hatchability greatly. Egg should be picked up several times a day. Now, if you intend on eating the eggs, then you can keep the egg pick-ups to around two per day, but for fertile hatching eggs, you should pick up at least three to four times per day. This prevents egg overheating causing pre-incubation, and also preventsthe birds from becoming broody. A broody hen will want to sit on the eggs and stop laying any more eggs. Unless you want your hens to incubate the eggs, you should not leave eggs in the nests longer than necessary. Also, an egg left in a nest for too long can get piped by other hens damaging the egg shell rendering it a table egg.

The shape and texture of the egg is also important for a good hatch. You shouldn’t incubate extra-large eggs which are most likely double yolked eggs and no, they will not hatch two chicks, the embryos will die. Also, deformed eggs due to illness or poor feed quality will also reduce hatchability.

Egg Cleanliness

This is more of a health issue. A clean egg provides a healthy environment during incubation and hatching. A dirty egg will most likely kill the embryo and could possibly explode in the setter or hatcher contaminating the air and the rest of the eggs or chicks.

An egg with a soiled spot which is roughly the size of your thumb nail, could be cleaned with a soft cleaning pad. If the dirt doesn’t come off completely, you might want to think twice about setting that egg.

You can also fumigate your eggs. There are several products in the market, ask your local vet, with which you can fumigate your eggs before setting them.

Egg Storage

Unless you are going to incubate eggs every day (most likely you are not), you will have to keep the eggs in a cool place until you gather enough eggs to fill up the setter. A refrigerator is too cold and dry for this purpose and will kill the embryo. An ideal temperature for storing eggs is around 20ºC (68ºF). This should prevent embryo formation at least for a few days.

Never hold eggs for too long. After the 5th day of storage, you hatchability will drop by about 1% a day thereafter.

If the eggs are exposed to high temperatures after being laid, preincubation can occur. This is when the chick embryo starts to form. If you then take to egg to a cooler area, this temperature drop can kill or
weaken the embryo.

Hatchery Level

clean hatchery will always produce better quality chicks than a dirty one. Hygiene is very important at a hatchery. This goes with the biosecurity one should keep to a maximum at all times. It is good practice to fumigate the area around the incubators and hatchers regularly (or at least before and after setting). This will ensure a clean environment for the chicks to hatch in. If you see a rotten egg inside the incubator during the 18 initial days, remove it carefully so it doesn’t explode, contaminating the rest of the eggs.

Egg Storage

At the hatchery level, egg storage is also important. More so if the eggs are going to be held for an extended period of time. The reasons are the same as at the farm level.

Egg Handling

Egg handling is a little different here. There is a higher egg manipulation since the eggs need to be removed from their original trays or flats and placed into the incubator flats. It is very important to disinfect your hands regularly during this process.

Make sure you look out for deformed, piped or dirty eggs that might have slipped through at the farm level.

Incubator and Hatcher Management

This refers mainly to cleanliness, and monitoring the machines on a timely basis. Modern machines will display the front and rear temperatures as well as wet-bulb temperature (humidity) and turning direction. This information should be monitored several times per day. Mainly because you want to be able to catch any problems that might occur on time.

A sudden drop or increase in temperature or humidity can drastically drop your hatchability. Also, if the turning mechanism stops working, it couls also affect your hatch.

Chick Handling

When the chicks hatch, it is common practice to vaccinate them at least against Marek’s Disease. The reason is that this vaccine can only be administered on day old chicks. This is applied through an injection under the skin (sub-cutaneous) in the neck. Sometimes this vaccine comes paired with Gumboro, another disease that affects chicks at an early age, although this can also be administered on the farm at a later date.

Sexing the chicks, to separate males from females is also common practice for broilers. This can be done easily in chicks that have the fast feathering gene or FS gene. This comes from the parents.

It is very important that the chicks be handled with care and not just thrown around like an inanimate object. This will greatly impair you early chick mortality.

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