A question I am frequently asked is “Which incubator do you like best?”. That’s a question with multiple answers, as our farm has grown I have used a few different incubators over the years. I can only offer my advice on the ones I have used, so here are my thoughts on the pros and cons of each type.
These are the most common incubators used, and can be found at many feed stores. Tabletops typically will hold anywhere from 7 to 48 chicken eggs. They are the perfect choice for someone just getting into incubating, or who only wants to hatch a few smaller batches of chicks each year. Tabletops can range in price from $50 for a still air styrofoam model to over $400 for a state of the art Brinsea Ovation 56EX.
Styrofoam is the most economical, and the type that many first timers choose to use. One thing I learned with incubators is you get what you pay for, so I recommend staying away from the cheaper versions. My very first incubator was a Little Giant, and I had horrible results. Much of that can be blamed on my inexperience at the time, but the Little Giant was also very erratic and inconsistent with the temperature, it could have swings of 8+ degrees, and that can be fatal to developing embryos. Read reviews on this brand, I’m not the only person that has had this problem. As far as the styrofoam incubators go, the Hovabator Genesis seems to be consistently the highest rated of them all. I’ve never used one myself, but have spoken to many people who have, and everyone says they are much more stable than other brands. They are a little more pricey, but a full digital model with forced air and a turner can still be bought for around $160. Hatching healthy chicks is much more rewarding than chicks that hatch sticky, late with curled toes or splayed legs, or don’t hatch at all because they died in the shell. An incubator that will hold consistent temperatures eliminates a lot of those disabled chicks.
When we started selling more chicks and wanted to have consistently high hatch rates we decided to purchase our first high end incubator, a Brinsea Octagon 20. I about choked when I shelled out $360 for an incubator that held 2 dozen eggs, but that turned out to be one of the best early investments into the farm. We found the Brinsea to be rock solid, set and forget. Temperatures never wavered more than 1 degree, and even after taking the lid off for candling the incubator would return to temperature in under one minute. Our hatch rates went from 50-70% to 85% and up. Fertile eggs that were put in the Brinsea just hatched. I work long hours during the week, so I needed an incubator that didn’t need to be constantly supervised, and the Brinsea truly didn’t. Since I incubate dry, I didn’t have to add water until lockdown, so with the Brinsea it became as simple as plug it in, add eggs, lockdown on day 18, take out the chicks on day 21-22. We were so happy with the Brinsea that we bought a second one the following year, and both of them are still in use as hatchers. Brinsea no longer makes the Octagons, the new tabletop model is the Ovation series, but given how impressive the Octagons were I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any Brinsea product.
High end tabletop incubators can be expensive, but if you are hatching frequently you will make your money back with just a few hatches.
As our farm and flocks grew, our need for more chicks grew as well. Although I am one of Brinsea’s biggest fans, their cabinet models are extremely expensive, so after reading many reviews and speaking with other people with cabinets, we decided to buy a GQF Sportsman 1502. GQF is the same manufacturer that makes the styrofoam Hovabator, and the Sportsman model has been around for years. With a capacity of 288 chicken eggs, the Sportsman ($795 new) is about half the price of a Brinsea Ova-Easy 190 ($1300) or 390 ($1529). I hated to leave Brinsea, but the Sportsman was so highly rated that I decided to give it a shot. The 1502 is the digital model that displays temperature, humidity, and has a turn counter. The turn counter is a great tool to have, because if for some reason the trays were to stop turning you would know. GQF also makes a 1202, which doesn’t have the digital display, and is a little cheaper ($675). These incubators seem to last for years, and replacement parts are readily available online, so if you are lucky enough to find a used one for sale I would snatch it up.
My Sportsman runs constantly. My favorite thing about having an incubator this large is the versatility. With 3 levels of incubating trays you don’t have to set all 288 eggs at one time. With a separate hatcher you can set as many eggs as you want each week and move the eggs to the hatcher at lockdown. We now use our two Brinseas as hatchers, so we can set 4 dozen eggs each week in the Sportsman, hatch in the Brinseas over the weekend, set the next batch in the Sportsman, and have the Brinsea cleaned up in time for the next weekend’s hatch. We have not turned our Sportsman off since firing it up in February, and our hatch rates have been just as high as incubating in the Octagons.
The Sportsman also has a hatcher in the bottom of the cabinet, but since we incubate dry we haven’t used it, the higher humidity needed for lockdown would cause a conflict with our incubating eggs, so we move to the hatchers. If we were only hatching once every 3 weeks, then everything could be done in the Sportsman.
GQF also makes a dedicated hatcher, the 1500 model, and that will be the next investment we make.
What it really boils down to with incubators is how many chicks you want to hatch, and how often you want to hatch. If you just want to hatch a few times a year to replenish your own flock, or to sell a few chicks, then styrofoam tabletops are the most economical solution. I just recommend that you spend a little more money and buy the Hovabator.
If you are hatching more frequently, and selling chicks to help supplement the cost of keeping chickens, then the high end tabletops by Brinsea are a solid investment. Ease of use and high hatch rates make the Brinseas worth every penny.
If you are moving into much larger hatches, or want to hatch more frequently, then the Sportsman by GQF gives you many options.
In the end, hatching healthy chicks is what really matters, and spending a little more money up front will greatly increase your odds of returning some of that investment with healthy, vigorous chicks