The subject of incubation is never ending. Many people look at incubators wondering whether they are capable of hatching their eggs in an artificial way. These machines are not as complicated as it may seem, but what I must stress is that any machine, whether it is a computer or an incubator, is only as good as the person who is operating that unit.

To begin at the beginning, let's describe the incubator, and cover the glossary of terms involved in describing the operations etc.

Auto Turning.

This is just as it sounds. The unit, which is described as automatic, turns the eggs or rolls the eggs at approximately hourly intervals. This obviously means that the incubator actually does the work for you. Most of today's modern incubators are fitted with turner motors as standard and this type of incubator has become more popular due to the lack of time we have because of the pace of today's life style.

The way that the various makes of machines vary depends on the manufacturer. Some units have a motor which tilts the eggs in a tray from side to side, a little like a see saw; the alternative to this is in the style of a grid which lays on the floor of the incubator and is moved from side to side by the motor which in turn rolls the eggs gently first one way and then the other.

Manual Turning.

There are quite a few relatively cheaper units on the market which are manual turning incubators. These are normally quite easy to operate with you having to access the unit yourself and turn the eggs by hand. It is a simple operation which needs to be repeated at least twice a day (not a problem if you are available each and every day). If you want to go on holiday or away for the weekend then you will have to get someone else to do this job for you as the eggs must not be left in one position as they will fail to hatch.

Some of the small 6 or 12 egg units are manual as is the Hovabator which is a well tried 45 egg American Incubator. To turn the eggs you have to remove the cover to carry out this operation; this both allows humidity and temperature to escape. Once this happens there is then a time that it takes the unit to regain its correct setting. I personally like the manual units to use as hatchers rather than as an incubator. They are very good for children though as the act of turning every day does give a feeling of considerable involvement for the young person and are often used in schools (though someone has to turn them at the weekend of course!) Semi Automatic.

Again this is quite self explanatory. The good points on these types of units are that you can turn the eggs yourself by operating the trays from outside the incubator. This is normally carried out with a rod which you push or pull to operate the egg turning tray. With this unit as with the manual you have to remember to repeat this operation at least twice a day. There is also another good point with these units - they are generally quite a bit cheaper than their automatic brothers.

I tend to feel though that as fully automatic incubators are now available from as little as around £125, these are more likely to be the choice for most people beginning with incubation.

Terms Used in Incubation Humidity.

To many people, both new comers and experienced poultry keepers, this subject is the nightmare of incubation, I get numerous phone calls regarding humidity, it gets the blame for all bad hatches, chicks that have died, weak chicks and so on - all seem to be caused by humidity problems. In some cases it definitely can be the cause of losses but in many of cases the failure can be due to numerous other problems and can actually have nothing to do with how much water you do or do not have in your incubator. All types of incubators have some sort of humidity tray or container which is for adding the right amount of water needed for the incubator. I do not want to go into all the technical details in this overview as it needs quite a lot of explaining and we can return to this subject. Meanwhile, I have one very simple instruction which is basically no water from day one until the 12/15th day of incubation and then top up the water as needed and keep it topped up right up until day 21 and hatch day. Basic as this is I know it works, but you must bear in mind this is just a very basic way to set up your incubator to get a reasonable hatch rate.

If you decide to become very serious about hatching and set targets to reach then you may find the need to buy a machine which has a automatic humidity control fitted, but they are expensive to buy as in some cases the humidity unit alone can cost more than a standard incubator. Taking out the cost factor, they do make life a lot simpler as you have a digital control over the humidity. Even with this type of machine you have to keep a good track of what is happening inside and outside and adjust accordingly. There is no such thing as to switch the machine on and it does everything for you - all incubators from very cheap to very expensive need constant attention and your knowledge will grow the more you use them. Having said that though, the Editor tells me that one of the best hatches they ever had of Runner ducks was when her partner was carted off to hospital and they both forgot all about adding water, checking temperature or keeping records and much to their surprise, an almost full hatch of runners emerged. As it was January and very cold and as Mick was very ill, Liz panicked and put the ducklings in the bathroom under a heat lamp which is where she learnt how messy little ducklings really are! But that's another story.

What humidity should it be?

When the incubator is running normally you need to be working on an approximate humidity of 35 This is about what our normal humidity should be. When day 12 plus comes along you need to increase this to around 55 or more if the weather is very dry and hot.

To work out these figures is easy enough if you have a basic type dial humidity gauge which are relatively cheap, I think you could buy one suitable for about £8 this stands inside the incubator and gives you a basic reading, simple to use and although not perfect, they do work well.

Forced Air or Still Air?

The use of fans in incubators is now a standard item. There are very few still air machines now, and the ones that are usually are relatively cheap to buy and are also manually operated. The idea of the fan is to circulate the air round the incubator which will hopefully create an even temperature all over the inside of the unit. With still air you can get what is called hot spots. These are areas were the temperature is higher in one place than the in another area of the incubator. Having uneven temperatures can cause some eggs to hatch and some others to die back. The temperature needs to be an even 37.5 to 37.8 subject to the incubator in use.

I personally always use 37.8 and find the results to be excellent and, as with the humidity aspect, you have to try and see whatever suits your individual circumstances, some areas in the country vary both in temperature and humidity and you need to adjust your own machine to suit the environment in which they are working.

Where to site the Incubator?

One of the main considerations when you first use your new machine is were to situate the incubator, it is no use standing the unit in a centrally heated room, or in a cold shed or outhouse with lots of draft, the incubator needs to be in a position were it can work normally and operate with little or no temperature changes. Being placed near a door which is constantly opening and shutting both lowers and increases the heat of the incubator all the time and the unit then has to work overtime to counteract the temperature changes, Never place any incubator in direct sunlight, the ideal spot in most houses is a room which is not in use or a spare bedroom with the heating turned off or a nice dry outside shed or garage. Most of these points I have made are really basically commonsense but it is very easy to make a mistake and end up with very bad results and not to be able to understand why. Also when siting the incubator, it wants to be handy so you can look at it easily.

Purchasing an incubator.

If you decide to buy new go to a reputable supplier who offers advice and help and a good guarantee, ask if replacement parts are available and how long it takes to get the replacements. There have been cases of incubators being out of action for weeks due to lack of backup and support.

If you decide to by a second hand unit, the same type of care is needed when you purchase. It is like buying a second hand car, you need some sort of comeback, no working incubator means no chicks.

With the festive season comes the time to think about next year's breeding season. This is in my opinion one of the most interesting times of the poultry year. I have never lost the feeling of seeing newly hatched chicks in the incubator. It is one of the most satisfying achievements but also the most frustrating when you have a disaster and you will definitely get some of both.

Good luck with the hatching and next month I will look at possible problems.

Smallholder always has over 20 pages of poultry in every issue - also in December check out the new transport laws, new year resolutions, the silkie hen in profile