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June 03, 2011

What Is So Special About A Constant Incubator Temperature?

Most of you have incubators that have several different ages of eggs in them.  And you have your incubator set to one constant temperature.  Right?  What I learned the other day is you want one constant temperature during incubation.  But not the incubator temperature - the shell temperature!

Last Friday we were visited by Jerry Garrison and Phillip Percy, technical advisors from Jamesway, the company that built our new Incubators.  Jerry told me they are learning that the shell temperature is the important temperature, not incubator temperature.   And the reason you want to know the shell temperature is that closely follows the temperature of the embryo which should be stable throughout incubation.

We have single stage incubators for our duck and goose eggs, which means all the eggs in that machine are set to hatch on the same day.  We start the incubator temperature at 100.3 and by the time they start hatching it is set at 98.2.  But he said if we measured the shell temperature, it should always read about 100.2!

Why does the shell temperature differ from the incubator temperature?  Initially the embryo is very small and not generating any measurable heat.  But the egg shell is cooler than the incubator because small amounts of moisture are evaporating from the shell which cools it - just as our sweat cools us.  This water loss is normal as an egg loses 13-14% of its weight during incubation.

However, as the embryo grows, it starts generating more and more heat.  Eventually it is producing so much heat that it's shell temperature can be two degrees warmer than the air in the incubator.  The egg is warming the surrounding air - not vice versa.

So how do you know the shell temperature of incubating eggs?  You can get a infrared thermometer.  You can get inexpensive one for only $60 but they do not measure in 1/10's of a degree.  To measure as accurately as necessary you need to spend several hundred dollars.

The best way to maintain a constant shell temperature is to have a single stage incubator (only one age of eggs in the incubator).   To have a shell temperature of 100.2, you need it to be 100.3 in the beginning and then gradually reduce it until it is about 98.2 when they start hatching.  For more information on single stage incubation, click this link and select the third article.

If you are used to setting every week, how do you switch to single stage incubation?  You would need at least two incubators and set eggs every two weeks.  Your first egg set of the spring would be in one incubator.  Ten to fourteen days later (10 days if you are setting chicken eggs, 14 for ducks) you set all your eggs in the second incubator.  By rotating your egg set from one incubator to the other, you have created two single stage incubators!  Just be sure the incubator is capable of sufficient ventilation to cool itself when it is full of older, heat producing embryos.

The biggest advantage of the multi-stage incubator is that it is easy.  The disadvantage is the embryos will be slightly cool early in the incubation and slightly warm late in incubation.

I found the idea of a constant embryo temperature fascinating - and how that varies from the incubator temperature.  Do any of you have experience measuring shell temperatures or using single stage incubation?


  1. What is the payoff for maintaining embryo temperature? Higher hatch rate? Healthier hatchlings?

    In a natural incubation certainly neither the hen nor the embryos will be able to hold a constant shell temperature. Is there any evidence of any sort of instinctive behavior to lower the nest temperatures toward the end of the incubation?

    In other words, are commercial incubators getting better at mimicking natural incubation, or are they improving the process?

  2. Another thought...Let's say you have eggs of different ages in the same incubator, and you have an infrared thermometer. As we just learned, the older eggs will have higher shell temperatures. The solution? periodically spray the hotter eggs with water which will evaporate and lower their shell temps. Probably pretty labor intensive, but depending on what is inside the shell it could be worth your while.

    Any downside to this approach?

  3. Interesting article, look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

  4. Louis:
    I don't think we can assume that the shell/embryo temperature is not constant during natural incubation. Later in incubation the hen may simple stand and ruffle her feathers more to cool the eggs or raise herself slightly off the eggs for periods of time. There may be many ways for her to accomplish her cooling objective that we don't recognize.
    I know that the hatch rate is improving with these changes in artificial incubation, but we may be accomplishing the same objectives in different ways. It is amazing how little is known about the effects of elevated carbon dioxide levels early in incubation - other than it works. Are we copying? Possibly.
    You are correct about periodically cooling the eggs to lower the shell temperature. This has been done for many years by waterfowl hatcheries that were using multistage incubation. But those with single stage incubation rarely, if ever, cool the eggs now.
    Good observations and comments.

  5. possibly use a infrared thermometer that goes to a power meter like a fluke.

    would putting the digital thermometer on the eggs do it do you think?

    that is where mine is when i incubate.

    is there any link between temperature and the sex of the babies when born?

    1. As far as I know, there is no relationship between incubation temperature and sex in poultry eggs.

    2. is there a way to produce more females or boost the ratio of females to males

    3. No, there is no known technology at this time.

  6. in my duck hens, i see many ways that they cool the eggs, the main one is just not being on the eggs 100% of the time. they go here and there and eat and swim and play then go and sit again. Not the way of the incubator at all. Funny thing is that I get multiple hens wanting to sit in one nest. which is not successfull at all, they all go and all come back. the Rouens and Khaki, have been the most successful with the hatching of the ducks i have. i have some buff ducks that are intent on sitting on the nests but are not very successful in raising the babies. or have 5 ducks in one nest with 10 eggs, the eggs get lost from the nest, they hatch 4 babies, and argue on who can have the babies. End result is they all think the babies are theirs and all try to tend to them, what a mess.

  7. My incubator temp went down to fifty degrees I got it back up as fast as I could.
    it is day 30 and still no hatchlings will they make it?

    1. Unless you are incubating Muscovy eggs, I am not optimistic anything will hatch as they are two days past optimal hatching age. A brief drop to 50 degrees is not a problem but being two days late is not a good sign.