Should you use an egg incubator?
Whether or not to use an incubator for hatching chicken eggs depends on your circumstances. I will briefly discuss what incubators are, the main benefits and drawbacks of using an incubator, and end with whether an incubator might be a good choice for you.
What is an egg incubator?
Egg incubators are machines that try to create the best possible environment for your eggs. Fertilized chicken eggs are very vulnerable. A too high or too low temperature can kill them within a few minutes. Wrong levels of humidity, bacteria, air currents and improper turning can kill hatching eggs over time, or at least cause severe complications. Egg incubators are made to keep the temperature stable, control the level of humidity, protect the eggs from bacteria, and regulate the air flows. A good incubator can be a valuable tool in the hatching process.
For an example of an incubator, check out my Brinsea Octagon 20 Advance review, or my best egg incubators comparison. The Octagon 20 Advance can be seen below:
The other option is to use a brooding hen. Chickens have been hatching their own eggs for a long, long time. The hen will sit on top of the eggs for most of the incubation period, keeping the eggs warm and humid. In this review I’ll compare using an egg incubator with letting a hen brood the egg.
Temperature is the most important factor when it comes to hatching eggs. If you live in an area where the local climate goes either very hot or very cold during the incubation period, your hens may not naturally be capable of successfully brooding eggs in those temperatures. In that case you definitely will need to go with an incubator, or put the brooding chickens inside your house. Also, some breeds of chickens aren’t the best at brooding the eggs themselves anymore. Sometimes the hens will randomly wander off while brooding, or get into fights with the other hens. This depends a lot on the breed of chicken.
Incubators may seem like a safer choice at first, but if you live in an area where power outages happen, a single outage during the three week incubation period can kill all the hatching eggs. If you live in an area with power outages, you will need to always be alert, or buy a separate back up power source. Besides power outages, some of the cheaper incubators can also harm the eggs. Especially still air incubators can have major temperature fluctuations inside. It is well possible that the temperature is 5 degrees colder in the corners than in the middle of a cheap incubator.
Humidity is an important factor, but eggs are surprisingly resilient to swings in humidity. What is most important when it comes to controlling humidity is making sure the average humidity is correct, and the air cell is developing as it should. See my article on how to control humidity for more information. As such, as long as you live in a not too extreme climate, you can check the eggs regularly with an egg candler and adjust the humidity if necessary. If you have a hen brooding the eggs you can increase humidity by dropping a little bit of water on the eggs every so often. Decreasing the humidity is more difficult when you are not using an incubator, but that is rarely necessary.
Incubators aren’t much better at keeping the humidity constant, if at all, unless you buy a very expensive incubator. Still, most incubators let you check on the humidity easily. Something that is more difficult to do with a hen sitting on top of the eggs.
Despite most incubators being made of anti bacterial materials, it incubators do get dirty very easily. And when one of the eggs is infected, chances are all your eggs will end up infected. When you have hens brooding your eggs, the chances of infection seem to be lower, and when it happens you usually lose just one or a few eggs. When it comes to bacteria I would say that natural brooding is better than using an incubator.
It is important that eggs are turned regularly during the incubation process until the lockdown period. Eggs should be turned at least once a day, but preferably three times a day or more. This is to prevent the embryo from sticking to the shell. The easiest way to remember which side should be up when is to mark each side differently, and turn them at least once a day. Some incubators offer automatic turning, which usually works fine. Still, you might want to check up on the eggs regardless. When a hen is brooding the egg, she might turn the eggs herself every so often. Usually this doesn’t cause any problems, but be careful that when you turn the egg the hen does not turn it back immediately afterwards.
There are a few more factors that play a role. One of them is the cost. Incubators can be quite an investment, especially if you are looking to buy a high quality incubator. Which is something I highly recommend despite the extra costs. Another issue to keep in mind is that hens that are brooding eggs are no longer laying eggs. When you use an incubator the hens can keep laying eggs every single day. Lastly, if you have kids that you want to show about the hatching process, or like checking on the eggs yourself, an incubator often gives an amazing view. If you have a hen sitting right on top of the eggs the view will be a lot worse at least.
Overall I would start with looking at your environment. Does your local climate allow brooding? If not, definitely get an incubator. However, if your local climate is good and you experience regular power outages, I would strongly recommend natural breeding.
If your local climate is good, and you aren’t suffering power outages, the decision is a more difficult. I would recommend getting an incubator if you are planning on incubating chickens regularly. It is a onetime investment, and high quality incubators can last for years. If you are looking to incubate just a few eggs only once, decide whether the better view is worth the investment for you.