A Basic Introduction To Small Scale Egg Incubation

Revised May 2021 NS
The purpose of this series of writings is to introduce new comers into the very special world of hatching your own eggs and breeding your own flock. Fast approaching my 70th year, I am still intrigued and excited by putting an egg in the incubator and three weeks later a baby chick struggles out into the world. There is no great mystery or technical complexity involved. It is really a matter of common sense and choosing the most appropriate setup for you and the species of egg you are trying to hatch.

Until about 15 or 20 years ago there was very little choice in small incubators, just a few major brands making mainly larger type cabinet style machines. Today, May 2021, there are many branded small table top machines available with 6 to 50 egg capacity, most of which are perfectly adequate and generally very reliable for small scale hatching by novice or professionals. My personal opinion is always to keep matters simple and small scale to start with. There is little point in purchasing too large a machine to start with, you may not enjoy the experience (highly unlikely) but more likely you will not have the space to bring on 50 full size birds. The down side to this is that most people get hooked straight away after the first few hatches and want to be in almost continuous production!

Whatever type of incubator you purchase make sure that it is compatible with UK mains voltage and CE marked, there are some very cheap imports that are not compliant with electrical safety regulations. Your incubator should come with a standard 13amp plug or Euro adaptor that plugs straight into your home sockets, if this is not so ask a qualified electrician to check the electrical safety and electrical insulation. The unit will at some time have water in the base to control humidity and as we all should know water and electricity present a possible hazard of electrocution unless properly insulated. All reputable suppliers will have checked these issues before you purchase but it is your responsibility to check before use. There are also many second hand /used machines for sale in all the usual places. If you are inexperienced take someone with you who knows about their operation and use, replacement parts can be expensive and there are a lot of obsolete non repairable machine still being offered for sale.

The first really important choice has to be the capacity/size of the machine. Personally I would go for something in the range of 12 to 24 egg capacity. However if I was purchasing on behalf of a child as a gift or even in the classroom I would certainly look at one of the globe style machines that take between 6 & 12 eggs. You do not have to fill the incubator to its maximum egg capacity, so a 50 egg size may also suit your own requirements now and in the future.

 Next choice would be still air or forced air (fan type). The very small units, including the globe style, are still air only so the choice has been made for you. As there is very little difference in price between the two types in the next sizes I would always go for the fan assisted forced air type. This helps distribute the heat more evenly over the increased number of eggs and in my view also helps with more even humidity levels, more of which later.

You now have the choice of digital or electro-mechanical temperature setting. Again there is very little difference in cost, so always go for the digital control as this type tends to be more acurate and sensitive and easier to set.

The final really important choice is manual or automatic turning of the eggs. This is probably the most challenging choice as some manual machines cannot be upgraded to automatic at a later date. The cost difference here can be £50 or even more so a little extra thought has to be given, but if you can afford it go for automatic turning. This has two quite important advantages over manual turning.  You will not disturb the eggs too much as a beginner and your eggs will be moved during the day and night which is very important if you are not at home all day. Most automatic machines have two sets of wiring and plugs so that the cradle can be switched off as required near to the hatching time without having to move the eggs.

You should now be in a position, with perhaps a little help and advice, to purchase your new incubator. It may be worthwhile if not essential to purchase a small glass thermometer and small hygrometer (humidity meter) to help set up your new machine. There are small egg sized digital thermo-hygrometers (all in one unit) which do the job very well for less than £20.

Once you have your incubator at home read all the instructions provided before plugging into the power socket. Decide where you are going put the incubator, preferably out of the way of draughts and not too close to windows or doors and not too bright light , either daylight or artificial. Avoid placing the incubator near central heating radiators or any other heat source as this tends to reduce the overall humidity. For best results the ambient room temperature should be between 20 & 25 degrees C. Top up the trough or base unit with water as indicated in the instructions. You can now connect to the power supply and set the controls to the desired temperature which is usually 37.7 degrees C, this may differ with various species but for hens or pheasants this is ok. Leave the incubator set up for at least 24 hours to settle down before you introduce any eggs. During this time check that the temperature is stable and that the humidity is within the limits suggested in the instructions based on the species you want to hatch. 

Always ensure that you have purchased, tested and regulated your incubator well before ordering any fertile eggs.

The next part of the series will be concerned with egg selection and the biology/science of incubation.