Consideration Factors When Selecting an Egg Incubator

There is more than one way to hatch an egg. Often, mother hens will take care of this process themselves. However, there are circumstances that may require purchasing an incubator in order to effectively hatch eggs.
calendar icon 9 March 2016
clock icon 8 minute read

Reasons why a breeder would choose to use an incubator

  • Starting a Flock from Hatching Eggs: There are many situations where a breeder would start a flock from hatching eggs. This could be simply that they are new to breeding and choose to begin with the incubation process, or could be due to predator impact on existing flocks. There have been situations where flocks have been a total loss, with only already collected eggs available for regenerating the flock.
  • Hens Not Broody or Inattentive: Just like people, some hens have a stronger maternal instinct than other hens. This is especially true with many of the larger birds. Even some ducks find that they have little interest in hatching eggs themselves. Early in season, it is especially difficult to find hens that are willing to sit on eggs. By using an incubator, you can start your hatching season earlier than nature would typically allow.
  • Increased Production: After a hen has gathered a clutch and began to sit, she will stop laying eggs until after the eggs have hatched. By removing eggs daily, hens are unable to collect a clutch, and thus less likely to go broody. Therefore, by incubating your eggs rather than allowing a hen to sit, you are able to keep your hens laying and get greater production overall.
  • Education or Enjoyment: Many breeders simply enjoy the process of hatching eggs. Often, this is used as an education tool for children, and many schools have integrated chick incubation projects into their classrooms. Candling eggs throughout the process provides great insight into embryo development, and fits in well with many elementary curricula.
  • Better Control of Hatch: Relying on a hen to hatch eggs can be a gamble. For breeders who are working with rare eggs, or simply want more control over their hatch rates, using an incubator is the ideal way to accomplish this. By collecting all eggs daily, and carefully selecting the eggs you want to hatch, you can have better control over how many hatchlings you ultimately have, and can typically get much higher hatch rates due to your ability to control the environment, specifically the turning intervals, temperature, and humidity during incubation and hatching.

Whatever your reason for choosing to use an incubator, selecting the right incubator for your needs will ultimately be the main factor in how successful your hatch is.

Determining your needs

When determining which incubator best suits your needs, there are a few questions that you will want to answer first.

  • What type of eggs are you incubating, and in what quantity?
  • What are your future incubation plans?
  • What level of functionality do you/your eggs require for hatching?
  • What is your budget?

By understanding your needs, you can better determine which incubators are going to meet those needs, and can make a more informed decision.

Incubator types

Before you can determine which specific incubator or brand is right for you, you will need to determine what type of incubator is best suited to your incubation requirements and plans.

There are four main types of incubators: Mini, Tabletop, Cabinet, and Commercial. Each of these have unique capacity, price, and functionality characteristics.

Mini Incubators

  • Egg Capacity: 1-12 eggs depending on model and bird type
  • Egg Types: Only for duck eggs and smaller
  • Functionality Levels: Wide range of functionality, from extremely basic to highly automated
  • Growth Potential: Low
  • Pricing: Basic models can start as low as $20, and go up to $400+ for top of the line models
  • Ideal User: Basic models are ideal for schools, science fair projects, and children. High end models are intended for rare eggs, parrots, or for scientific use.

Tabletop Incubators

  • Egg Capacity: 1-130 eggs depending on model and bird type, typically about 50 or less chicken eggs
  • Egg Types: Can be used with any size eggs, however ratite eggs will have very small capacity, usually 6 or less
  • Functionality Levels: Wide range of functionality, from extremely basic to highly automated. Still air with wafer thermostat and simple turn temperature adjustment on less expensive models, to models that come with USB connections and software for monitoring and data analysis of incubation parameters.
  • Growth Potential: Moderate, capacity can easily be increased by adding additional units for relatively low cost
  • Pricing: Basic models can start as low as $50, with no automatic turning, and go up to $1000+ for top of the line models
  • Ideal User: Most common choice for backyard or personal use breeders. Meets the needs of most breeders, and the functionality, capacity, and size makes this one of the most versatile incubator categories.

Cabinet Incubators

  • Egg Capacity: 130-1500 Quail Eggs, 50-500 Chicken/Duck Eggs, 13-60 Goose/Turkey, 4-16 Ratite Eggs
  • Egg Types: Can be used for any size eggs
  • Functionality Levels: Wide range of functionality, from extremely basic to highly automated. All cabinet incubators have automatic turning trays, and there are several inexpensive models that feature digital control panels and humidity readouts.
  • Growth Potential: Very high. There are several models of cabinet incubators available that are considered “all-in-one” units, which means that they have an integrated hatching tray and are intended to be used in rotational hatch by setting one egg level each week. By adding a separate hatcher, or additional units to your incubation system, you can dramatically and quickly increase your production. Also has a very wide capacity range, affording you a large potential for growth.
  • Pricing: Cabinet models start at $600+ and can go as high as $5000. The less expensive models are very popular, and are typically sufficient for most needs.
  • Ideal User: Small farm breeders. Many start with a single all-in-one unit and expand by adding more units as their operation grows.

Commercial Incubators

  • Egg Capacity: 1500+ Quail, 1000+ Chicken, 100+ Goose/Turkey, 20+ Ratite
  • Egg Types: Models available for all egg sizes, typically not ideal for rare or parrot incubation
  • Functionality Levels: Typically have high levels of functionality
  • Growth Potential: Moderate, depending on system used. Some do not have the ability to easily upgrade, whereas others can be upgraded simply by adding more shelves.
  • Pricing: Custom priced, based on needs. Usually start somewhere in the 5k-10k range.
  • Ideal User: Commercial breeders.

Understanding incubator features and requirements for incubation

Once you have determined what category of incubator you need, the level of functionality, price, and your personal preference will determine which specific incubator or brand is right for you. Whatever incubator you do ultimately decide to purchase, make sure that you understand what functionality is included, and make accommodations to handle those that are not.

Ultimately, you will need to monitor and control temperature and humidity, and have some process for turning eggs. Incubators that have these features integrated are often more expensive, where those with fewer features are less expensive.

Most incubators include a digital temperature readout, or come with a standard thermometer included. However, humidity control is typically an add-on product, and is only available for some models.

Most tabletop and smaller incubators do not even include a humidity readout. This means that you will want to purchase either a hygrometer or wet-bulb thermometer in addition to your incubator to determine if humidity levels are optimal for incubation and hatching.

If you choose not to add an egg turner to your incubator, then you will need to make a plan to have your eggs turned at the intervals appropriate for their type.

Final thoughts

Remember, incubation is a trial and error process. You shouldn’t expect to get 100 per cent hatch rates your first time, or most times. There are many reasons why some eggs hatch and others do not, from egg viability to disease.

However, to increase your hatch rates, make sure that you are starting with a clean and disinfected incubator every time you set eggs, and that your eggs are relatively clean and free of excess debris (scrubbing isn’t necessary).

Also, try to purchase your incubator early as possible in the season or in the off-season for fastest delivery. Many manufacturers get behind during the spring due to the incredible demand, so if you need to purchase an incubator from late March-May, understand that there may be a wait of up to a week or more before your order will even ship, and plan for that delay.

Incubating eggs is a challenging, exciting, and sometimes heartbreaking process. Most breeders feel that it is completely worth the time and effort involved, and enjoy not only the results, but the process itself. There is nothing quite like using a candler to peek inside a growing egg. Good luck, and happy hatching!

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