Incubating at high altitudes

During incubation it can be challenging to achieve the ideal humidity and temperature. Under normal conditions, with the help of thermometers and hygrometers, we can adjust and readjust until we have the perfect environment in our incubator. When incubating at high altitudes, however, achieving the right humidity is a much more difficult obstacle. Below is more information on how you can handle this issue if you are incubating at high altitudes. 

Eggshell Porosity

Even though eggshells look solid, they actually have tiny pores all over them, some with almost as many as 20,000. These pores allow air and moisture to pass through the shell, which can be good or bad for the embryo inside. The more pores an eggshell has, naturally, the more air and moisture can pass through the barrier. 

These pores are what allow the air cell to form during incubation, and the pores are why an egg will lose weight over time. If you check out our Humidity in Incubation article you’ll see that there is an ideal amount of weight for eggs to lose during incubation. Depending on how porous an eggshell is the humidity level will need to be adjusted to ensure the right amount of weight is lost. It is also worth mentioning that eggs laid at high altitudes are smaller and have less albumen than eggs laid at sea level.

The Challenge of Incubating at High Altitudes

In places that are at a high altitude, like Colorado and Montana, there is less oxygen in the air. The lack of oxygen can have a considerable effect on human beings who haven’t acclimated to it, and the same can be said for birds and their eggs. 

On page 168 of Nests, Birds and Incubators, D.C. Deeming states that “at high altitudes the atmospheric pressure is lower, the partial pressure of oxygen is reduced and gases diffuse faster.” This means that there is a possibility that the developing embryos will loose excessive amounts of weight and will not get the oxygen they need to grow and survive.

On Instagram, @mountainwoodsfarm shared their experience incubating in Colorado with a Brinsea. They shared step by step how they are able to achieve high hatch rates despite the difficulties of the high altitude:

“I have 98-100% rates on my own eggs or eggs purchased from breeders from higher altitudes. As you know, eggshell pores are bigger at higher altitude due to the lack of humidity. On shipped eggs from lower altitudes, where pores are smaller, my rate sits right about at 95%, which I feel is still excellent! I let any shipped eggs sit pointy side down in cartons in a room that doesn’t get direct sun and stays about 60-63° for 2-3 days before setting. Days 1-10 53% humidity; days 10-18 55% humidity; lockdown 65% humidity. The above works well for me!” 

@mountainwoodsfarm makes a great point about where to gather your eggs from. As noted by Deeming, birds laying eggs at a higher altitude “will have adapted their eggshell porosity to the prevailing conditions,” but that won’t be true for eggs laid at a lower altitude. If possible, collect your own eggs for incubation. Otherwise, always make sure you purchase eggs from breeders that are at your same altitude. 

Buy Local or Hatch Your Own

There is a significant reduction in the hatchability of eggs incubated at altitude particularly from eggs laid at sea level but also from eggs laid at altitude. Buying eggs that were laid at higher altitudes may not always be enough, however, to ensure the right eggshell porosity. On page 92 of Nests, Birds and Incubators, Deeming notes that in some breeds of birds the “females are able to adapt their eggshell conductance in response to being transported to high altitude.” That is not necessarily true for all breeds of domestic fowl, however, so make sure you buy from a trusted breeder. 

In an article by E.L. Besch, A.H. Smith and R.R. Burton titled “The Influence of High Altitude on the Hatching of Chicken Eggs,” the authors make the interesting observation that “[in] an altitude adapted strain of white leghorn chickens maintained at 3,810m at the White Mountain Research Station, . . . it has been shown that hatchability progressively increased to about 50% after several generations.” This highlights the importance of allowing nonnative birds to acclimate to higher altitudes and eventually become genetically adapted to the environment. If you have the ability to collect from your own flock, granted that your flock has been acclimating and living at a high altitude for several generations, that is the best way to achieve a higher hatch rate.

Ventilation

When incubating at higher altitudes, over-ventilation is a risk that must be avoided. At higher altitudes there is less oxygen, which means most breeders or hatcheries will try and compensate for the lack of oxygen by providing more ventilation. This isn’t always a good thing, however, since the air at higher altitudes is usually colder and drier than the ideal environment for incubation. To compensate higher levels of incubator humidity are required to avoid excessive egg weight loss.

Learn More

The bottom line for a successful hatch at high altitudes is using local eggs, weighing them regularly to ensure they are losing the right amount of weight and adjusting incubator humidity accordingly. It is also worth noting that incubation times at high altitudes are extended by approximately a day. If you are interested in learning more you can get more Incubation Advice from Brinsea, The Incubation Specialists. Feel free to reach out to us by phone at (888) 667-7009 or on Facebook or Instagram. Happy hatching!