Let's Talk Incubators!
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
While the prospect of hatching your own eggs may seem exciting and fun, choosing the right incubator for the job is less so, and the consequences of a poor decision may be dire.
Have you ever been looking through one of those hatchery catalogs and thought to yourself, wouldn't it be so much fun to hatch a few of those mottled bantam cochins this year? Or you're sitting outside on your deck and think, look at how cute Mr. RumpleRoo is with Miss Henelope. I wonder what their babies would look like? That's exactly how it all starts!
Spring is the favorite time of year for hatching chicks because nature demands an automatic renewal of life in the springtime, especially where birds are concerned. When the buds start popping out on the trees, and the flowers start springing up out of the ground, something instinctual inside of chicken keepers cries out for the sound of peeping chicks and the feel of downy fluff in the hand. As many of us who have already been bitten by the broody bug of "chicken math" know, hens are not always to be relied upon to go broody when the desire to expand your flock arises. Indeed, many of today's laying varieties have no desire to raise chicks of their own, abandon the nest before hatch, or turn on their chicks out of confusion or inexperience, leaving their chicken keepers sad and peepless. Then again, maybe you just want to order some of those fancy varieties from a catalog and try your luck at hatching them yourself, so that you can brag to all of your other chicken keeping friends about your hatching expertise. Whatever your reasoning... you are going to need an incubator!
When the time comes to make that first incubator purchase, one needs only turn to Amazon, Walmart, farm supply stores, or any variety of online pet warehouses to find what they are looking for. The problem is, and trust me on this, incubators are like cars... you get what you pay for! For the average backyard chicken owner, spending upwards of $200-400 on an incubator for one or two uses seems like the biggest waste of your hard-earned money ever, but nothing could be farther from the truth. These units are highly efficient, come equipped with all necessary fixtures, include clear instructions, are tested for quality, and have the guarantee of a trusted name to back them. There are plenty of popular lower priced models available at farm retailers that average around $100, but they are usually made of styrofoam, have fickle computer gauges, are not inclusive of good directions or necessary control features, have random success rates, and tend to not hold up for more than a few hatches. Likewise, online stores around the globe sell cheap plastic models, like the one below, touting all manner of exciting features like cute shapes, viewing windows, built-in candlers, and countdown timers, but have lower success rates than their higher priced counterparts due to poor quality components. While those features are cool and make the experience more fun for you and your kids, functionality of the design is also a crucial factor in the success of your hatch, lest those $100 Ayam Cemani eggs you purchased never develop due to faulty design. It's not always about how cute the unit is!
Now I'm not saying that the Porsche of incubators like a $300 Brinsea is the only one with a high success rate, although theirs is quite possibly one of the best bators in the biz, just that success speaks for itself. Many a Hovabator with an auto-turner has hatched out a full clutch of eggs for the median price of about $150+. I'm sure there are also plenty of Mitsubishi models out there like the one above, that have happily birthed a chick or 2 to the delight of its $37 price tag, but it's not likely to happen repeatedly, and prepare yourself for instructions on how to use a waffle iron and not an incubator. I myself have something more like a Toyota, namely the IncuView All-In-One pictured top right below, and have had around a 99% hatch rate every time for the slightly higher price of $180. Plus mine has the added bonus of being able to see the hatch from all angles, holds up to 27 eggs, comes equipped with an auto-turner, has built-in digital instrumentation and clear instructions, and has easy to clean construction. Score! The problem I have with the model shown above is that the eggs are sitting on their ends. Now call me a crazy chicken lady, but no egg incubated under any bird I know of, is hatched in an upright position. The egg can't be turned properly, the air cell is under the developing embryo, chicks don't climb or fall out of their eggs during hatch, and there is absolutely NO room for an emerging chick to exit safely and then rest while fluffing up. So while I'm sure this pizza night price tag might work for 1-2 eggs if they were on their sides, and IF the controls work as planned, the design is more than likely going to cause egg death and certain disappointment for all those little eyes that are watching so intently through it's Lego-like walls for a peep to pop out.
When choosing the best incubator for your particular needs, there are truly as many factors to consider as reasons to buy one, but here are some important features to consider in your search that will improve your chances of hatch success.
Look for units with a sturdy design. Thin plastic models may be cheaper, but are not well insulated, allowing for heat escape and dangerous temperature fluctuations. If it looks like a dollar store shoe box, walk away!
Invest in an auto-turner, and preferably one with a shut-off feature. This feature will automatically turn your eggs 3-6 times daily, ensuring the best development of your chicks, then turn off 3 days prior to hatch. Plus, who has time to turn eggs manually for 18 days without risk of contamination?
Circulated Air units are better than Still Air units. Hatching eggs require fresh air that circulates through the pores in the shell in order for the chick to form. A circulated air unit will stir the air by way of a fan without heat loss, whereas a still air unit will not. If you do not purchase a unit with a fan, then you will have to make sure there are ventilation holes and/or open the unit once or twice daily for clean air exchange.
Buy a unit with digital temperature and humidity gauges. While you can purchase thermometers and hygrometers at any local pet supply, they are not always as accurate as the built-ins that are calibrated to the unit. Proper temp and humidity are crucial for a successful hatch!
Plastic mesh liners are easier to maintain than metal. Most incubators, Brinsea not included, come with a mesh sheet that rests between the water chamber and the eggs. Metal mesh is usually galvanized and can't be properly disinfected between hatches, whereas I can wash and bleach my IncuView's plastic mesh to my heart's content. Brinsea units have solid plastic bases, further illustrating my point.
Less important, but useful features to consider are see through lids and built-in candlers. While not a vital part of an incubator, being able to witness your hatch from start to finish is just more fun, and lights to help you see inside your eggs with less handling makes your hatching experience a safe and rewarding one.
With all of these pointers in mind, you should be able to make an informed decision when purchasing your first incubator. While price is certainly a fair consideration, practicality and functionality are equally as important for your hatching success. So invest wisely and buy the best you can afford because once you experience that first successful hatch, chicken math will demand that you do it again...next spring!