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Design, Construction and Performance Evaluation

of Automatic Poultry Egg Incubator

J.L. Taulo, D. Chimungu, and L. Mwakayoka
Malawi Industrial Research and Technology Development Centre
P.O. Box 357, Blantyre

Artificial incubation is rapidly becoming the predominant method for
incubation of poultry eggs worldwide. It is favoured in order to increase
the production of chicks and protein intake, particularly in the developing
countries. Electrical incubators are the best where the supply of electricity
is readily available and cheap. In this study, an automatic poultry egg
incubator was designed, fabricated and tested to evaluate its
performance. A total 3362 eggs [trial 1 (n = 683, BA1); trial 2 (n = 1404,
HL2); trial 3 ([n=398, BA); and trial 4 (n=598, HL and n =279, HL)] were
used for hatchability tests. The eggs were divided into two treatments:
treatment 1 (60% RH; temperature =38°C; n=1275) and treatment 2
(65% RH; temperature = 39°C; n = 2087). Each treatment group of eggs
was incubated in an individual incubator, according to its experimental
temperature and relative humidity during incubation. The incubating
chamber was maintained throughout the incubating period within a
temperature range of 35°C to 38° C and relative humidity range of 48 %
to 70%. The preliminary results of this ongoing study based on the four
incubation trials showed that the percentage fertility and hatchability of
eggs were 80% and 66%, respectively. Chicken eggs incubated at a lower
temperature (38°C) and lower humidity (60%) presented the highest level
of hatchability (73%) compared to higher temperature (39°C) and relative
humidity (65%). These results suggest that the locally- manufactured
electric egg incubator may be used for artificial incubation, aimed at
enhancing production of day-old chickens.

A major food security challenge in Malawi is meeting increased demand
for chicks and protein intake from poultry products. While the production
of chicken products appears to be on the increase, it is currently
estimated that 55% of farming households keep chickens (MoAIFS, 2004).
These have been reared for both egg and meat production. Estimates
show that in 1998, the Malawi chicken population was at 10,365,700 with
egg production of 28 million per month and 800, 000 chicks per month
(DAHI, 1999). These are not adequate to satisfy local demand. The
country had to import extra 900 tonnes of poultry meat and 28.6 million
eggs to meet the 1997 demand. During the same year, Malawi imported

1 BA = Mikolongwe Black Austrolop

2 HL = Hy-line (broiler)
910,000-day-old broiler chicks and 80,000 day-old layer chicks to bridge
the demand gap in broiler and layer industry, respectively.

Finding ways to increase the production of chicks and protein intake would
be a benefit not only to consumers but would also serve to stimulate
greater productivity on the part of small-scale producers. This would
include the development of small-scale hatcheries (incubators) to cater for
small-scale backyard system in households, and help reduce the waiting
period for commercial farmers for chicks from commercial hatcheries,
which ranges from two to three weeks (Stewart, personal communication).

Artificial incubators have been used since ancient times for hatching
poultry eggs in many parts of the world. Aristotle writing in the year 400
BC told of Egyptians incubating eggs spontaneously in dung heaps. The
Chinese developed artificial incubation as early as 246 BC. These early
incubation methods were often practised on a large scale, a single
location perhaps having capacity of 36,000 eggs. The application of
incubation principles was a closely guarded secret, passed from one
generation to the next. The proper temperature was judged by placing an
incubating egg in one’s eye socket for accurate determination.
Temperature changes were effected in the incubator by moving the eggs,
by adding additional eggs to use the heat of embryological development
of older eggs, and regulating the flow of fresh air through the hatching
area. Humidity was evidently not a problem as primitive incubators were
located on highly humid areas, and the heat source, often burning
materials, furnished water around the eggs. Turning was done as often as
five times in a 24-hour period after the fourth day of incubation.

Studies have shown that poor incubation success results from timely
combination of either high or low environmental temperature and
inadequate relative humidity inside the hatchery or incubator (Decuypere
and Michels, 1992), and when lack of ventilation affects oxygen renewal
(Alda,2003). Embryonic mortality may result from fungi contamination
during incubation, and hatchery houses are ideal environments for fungi
development-high temperature; high relative humidity and high level of
organic material.

Successful incubation environment depends on maintaining favourable

conditions for hatching fertile eggs. As is known, temperature, humidity,
ventilation and turning frequency during the incubation period markedly
affect the hatchability of fertile eggs and chick quality (Shafey et al,
2007). Temperature is a very important factor affecting embryo
development (Romanoff, 1972), hatchability (Deeming and
Ferguson,1991; Wilson, 1991), and post hatch performance (Lundy, 1969;
Wilson, 1991).

The temperature experienced by a developing embryo depends on three

factors; incubator temperature, ability of heat to pass between the
incubator and the embryo and metabolic heat production of the embryo
itself (French, 1997). Overheating speeds up the rate of development,
causes abnormal embryos in the early hatches, and consequently lowers
the percentage hatchability. Setting off optimum incubation temperatures
leads to best hatchability (Swann and Brake, 1990; French, 1997) and
chick quality (Decuypere &Michels, 1992; French, 1997). Optimum
incubation temperature of most avian species is 37 °C to 38°C and minor
deviations negatively affect incubator performance and embryo
development (Wilson, 1991).

Studies investigating the effects of incubation temperature on the

hatchability of poultry species have been reviewed by Kosin (1964) ;
Landauer (1967); Lundy(1969); and Meir & Ar (1990). Several broad
conclusions were drawn in these reviews: 1) optimum continous
incubation temperature for poultry is between 37°C to 38°C, although
hatchability is possible between 35°C to 40.5 °C. Egg temperature varied
greatly among the species in natural incubation (Kosin, 1964; Wilson et
al., 1979). Landauer (1967) reported that the increase in temperature
during incubation was very critical for embryos. Moreover, it was reported
that growth was retarded or ceased and the incidence of poor second
quality chicks increased as the temperature was raised (Wilson, 1991).

Humidity is another parameter in reaching optimal hatchability and chick

quality. Water accounts for 68.25% of total eggs mass before incubation
(Martin and Arnold, 1991). The amount of moisture lost from the eggs
during incubation can affect hatchability (Lundy, 1969) and chick weight
(Burton and Tullet, 1985). The temperature can highly influence the
relative humidity, and both contribute to water loss during incubation, this
way temperature and humidity must be carefully monitored during
incubation, because the embryo is not able to control the water loss of
egg (Ar, 1991). For optimum hatchability during incubation, eggs need to
lose 11-14% of their weight [in the form of water vapour](Banwell,2007).

Scientific research and extensive field tests have demonstrated that the
relative humidity of air in an incubator for the first 18 days should be
approximately 60%, and during the last 3 days, it should be increased to
about 70%. High moisture in the incubator prevents normal evaporation
and results in low hatchability. Low moisture causes chicks to stick to the

Egg turning regulates accumulation of protein in amniotic fluid, affecting

embryo growth, hatchability and consequently chick quality. Turning also
influences thyroid hormone levels and corticosteroid production, affecting
embryonic response to stress (Tona et al, 2005). It prevents the germ
from migrating through the albumen and adhering to the shell. The
importance of egg turning has been documented in several studies. Tona
et al. (2003) indicated that turning in the first week of incubation enables
proper formation of extra-embryonic membrane while in the last week
avoids embryonic malpositioning. In a related study, Elibol and Brake
(2004) confirmed that the absence of turning resulted in presentation of
the head in the small end of the egg. Egg turning facilitated the transfer of
york nutrients to the embryo via the sub-embryonic fluid (Deeming,
1989a). With modern incubators, automatic turning devices allow the
eggs to be turned on hourly basis. However, for table-top incubators,
manual turning of eggs is very crucial to the developing embryos.

Different types of poultry egg incubators have been recommended for

small-scale operations. Irtwange (2003) designed and constructed a
passive solar powered poultry eggs incubator to provide free energy from
the sun. Because of the high cost of electricity tariff coupled with epileptic
power supply particularly in some developing countries, fabricated table-
type paraffin incubators will be acceptable for small-scale hatchery
operations. The operation of such incubator for hatching eggs of domestic
fowls, turkeys, ducks, quails, etc will greatly expand and enrich the
poultry industry.

Artificial incubation is favoured in order to increase the production of

chicks and protein intake, particularly in the developing countries.
Electrical incubators are the best where the supply of electricity is readily
available and cheap. In Malawi, various designs of small-scale electrical
egg incubators have been developed and some designs are presently
manufactured commercially. Malawi Industrial Research and Technology
Development Centre has designed and tested three different models of
the technology: for small scale (up to 150 chicks), medium-scale (between
150 and 500 chicks) and large-scale (up to 2160 chicks) production.

The original design contained no moving parts other than induced draught
fans and manually operated swivel trays. The main supply of energy is
electricity through use of incandescent lamps to convert light into thermal
energy. Field tests proved successful as the unit attained hatchability
above 70%. A serious limitation of such design was that it requires a
person to monitor the environment inside an incubator to ensure that the
eggs receive the correct heat, air and moisture to hatch successfully.
However, to better-fit technology to the needs of small-scale day-old chick
producers, a need has been identified to re-engineer the unit, to allow
simple but automatic monitoring of the environmental conditions.

The present work on development of locally made small-scale, automatic

poultry egg incubator has been going on for several years. This project
was initiated as an answer to the long delays experienced by farmers in
Malawi in acquiring a consignment of day-old chicks and the forbidding
cost of imported incubators. By establishing local capacity to manufacture
efficient and affordable incubators, access to this product would be
improved and eventually lead to a sustainable production of eggs and
broilers to ensure food self-sufficiency.

Therefore, this paper presents the report of the design and construction of
an automatic poultry egg incubator using materials that are readily
available in the local market with the aim to increase the rate of chicks’
production among small-scale farmers in Malawi. The performance of the
incubator was also evaluated.

Automatic Electrical Egg incubator

The incubator used in this study (Figure 1) was designed in the

Department of Technical Services, Malawi Industrial Research and
Technology Development Centre. The incubating cabinet has two
compartments. Compartment one (top-most) which houses the induced
fans and heating element; and compartment two (bottom) which serves
as the setter and hatcher contains egg trays and plastic basin which works
as a humidifier.

The incubator measures 1.22 m (front wall) by, 1.56 m (lateral wall) by
1.78 m (height) and had 4 trays holding 360 eggs each. The structure is
made of angle irons and covered with chipboards. The structure houses
egg tray holders and its turning mechanisms. The frame is made of
30x30x3 mm angle irons enclosing 16mm chipboards.The egg tray turning
mechanism is made of 25x25x3 mm angle irons and 25x3mm flat bars.
Induced draught fans that are centrally position along the width circulate
the air; a heating element is positioned in the front of the fans. The frame
has side top holes that allow fresh air to enter the incubator and release
exhaust air at the side bottom holes.

The drive mechanism was designed to turn trays at 45 0C; the sizing of the
drive was based on forces created while turning the full load trays. The
calculations were based on the assumed egg weight of 60 g. A timer, limit
switches and contactors are used to control the turning intervals as shown
in the electrical wiring diagrams. One direction drive motor is used where
the angular movement is translated into longitudinal movement.

The temperature in electronically controlled through a temperature

controller, the heat is supplied through 1kw heating element. The heat is
circulated through the incubator by blowing fans that are positioned
behind the heating element.
Egg Incubation

Fertile eggs of two layer breeds, Black Austrolops and Hy-line were
obtained from Mikolongwe Veterinary and Charles Stewart Hatcheries,
respectively. The eggs were selected by size and origin, identified and
arranged onto the empty trays. The incubator was also fumigated and test
run for twenty four hours before egg setting. Eggs were placed in an
incubator, provided with an automatic turning facility, at a set
temperature of 37.5°C and 60% relative humidity. A plastic basin with
water was placed under the egg tray as humidifier. This relative humidity
of 60% was provided for these eggs in the incubator for 18 days and it
was increased to 70% until hatching.

Eggs were turned at an angle of 45° every hour. Fertility was determined
via candling on the seventh day of incubation. The eggs were candled on
the eighteenth day again, and those exhibiting embryonic mortality were
determined and removed from the machine. The incubation period was
determined and the hatched chicks were checked for deformities while
the un-hatched eggs were opened up to determine the type and cause of
mortality. The effect of temperature on the hatchability of fertile eggs and
the incidence of embryonic mortality and deformed chicks were
determined. The eggs staged as infertile were the ones with true infertility
or pre-incubation mortality. They were also staged as early dead embryos
or intermediate dead embryos according to embryo mortality stage.
Unhatched eggs classified as late dead were the ones with final stage
mortality or piped eggs with dead embryos.

The fertility and hatchability percentages were determined using

equations (1) and (2) [Okonkwo, 2002].
% Fertility=Number of fertile eggsNumber of eggs loaded(set) x 100 % (1)

% Hatchability=Number of eggs hatchedNumber of fertile eggs set x 100 % (2)

A total 3362 eggs (trial 1 [n = 683, BA]; trial 2[n = 1404, HL]; trial 3
[n=398, BA]; and trial 4[n=598, HL and n =279, HL) were used for
hatchability tests. The eggs were divided into two treatments: treatment 1
(60% RH; temperature =38°C; n=1275) and treatment 2 (65% RH;
temperature = 39°C; n = 2087). Each treatment group of eggs was
incubated in an individual incubator, according to its experimental
temperature and relative humidity during incubation. The incubator was
split into two areas (left and right) and thermometers and hygrometers
placed in the geometric center to register temperature and relative

Statistical Analysis

All experimental designs were completely randomised, with four

treatments and 8 replicates per treatment. The data was analysed using
general linear models procedure of SAS for analysis of variance,
Comparisons between treatments were made using least-square –means
test, and differences were considered significant at P<0.05, when not
otherwise indicated.

Table 1 shows the calculated hatchability tests parameters for the
electricity- powered automatic poultry egg incubator. There were
significant differences on percentage hatchability, fertility, and mortality.
The results obtained during the first trials show that out of 683 eggs set in
the incubator, 283 eggs were infertile. The percentage fertility of egg was
58.6%. Also out of 400 fertilised eggs, 224 eggs were hatched (Table.),
which resulted in a percentage hatchability of 66.87%. The second
hatchability trial produced the lowest results. Out of 1404 eggs set in the
incubator, 764 eggs were infertile. The percentage fertility of eggs was
45.58%. Also out of 640 fertilised eggs, 337 eggs were hatched, which
resulted in a percentage hatchability of 57.22%.

Parameter Trial

1 2 3 4* 4**

Number of eggs set 683 1404 398 598 279

Number of eggs hatched 224 337 225 498 29

Number of eggs, did not 95 247 70 100 253


Fertility (%) 58.6 45.58 86.2 90.7 69.3

Hatchability (%) 66.87 57.22 73.1 83.7 10.4

Dead in Germ 26 38 35 28 240

(%) 3.8 2.7 8.8 4.7 86

Dead in Shell 16 5 13 72 46.2

(%) 8 0.8 4.2 12.0


Hatchability results are shown in Table 1 above. Treatments 3 and 4 had

hatchability 7-15% higher than treatment 1 and 2. The study found that
out of 398 eggs set in the incubator, 49 eggs were infertile. The
percentage fertility of egg was 86.2%. Also out of 343 fertilised eggs, 225
eggs were hatched (Table.), which resulted in a percentage hatchability of

The ..treatment group resulted in 3 to 10% lower hatchability rate the ..

and ,, groups. Out of 626 broiler eggs set in the incubator, 61 eggs were
infertile. The percentage fertility of eggs was 90.7%. Also out of 598
fertilised eggs, 498 eggs were hatched, which resulted in a (broiler)
percentage hatchability of 83.28%. Out of 519 eggs (black austrolop) set
in the incubator, 104 eggs were infertile. The percentage fertility of eggs
was 69.2%. Also out of 279 fertilised eggs, 29 eggs were hatched, which
resulted in a (broiler) percentage hatchability of 10.4%. embryo mortality
and those piping reduced the hatchability of the ,,group by..% below,,
indicating distress embryos.
This reduction in hatchability was attributed to increased rate of live pips.
Temperature distribution

This research aimed at evaluating environmental conditions inside the

incubator. The incubator was split into two areas (left and right) and
thermometers and hygrometers placed in the geometric center to register
temperature and relative humidity.

Table shows production data after hatching. Differences in temperature

and relative humidity distribution on left and right, (as well bottom trays ),
and also a tendency of lower temperature in these areas were detected;
temperature and relative humidity was not distributed homogenously

Available hatchery technology should provide good incubation conditions.

However, hatchery equipment and machines frequently do not perform as
expected given that temperature adjustments in the setter are not
accurate enough to elicit uniform temperature distribution inside the
equipment, leading to poor hatchability (Bramwell, 2002). This information
was herein confirmed. Temperature values lower than those
recommended by literature (37 to 38C) were actually recorded at the
lower trays of the incubator, and considered critical points for
temperature setting.
Relative humidity
Figure shows a typical day diurnal variation of relative humidity of the
incubating chamber. A relative humidity range of % to % was maintained
in the incubating chamber throughout the incubating period. The
temperature and relative humidity obtained in the incubator were within
the limit of recommended environmental conditions for incubation[10,16].
The results obtained during the test show that out of 700 eggs set in the
incubator, 15 eggs were infertile(Table.). The percentage fertility of egg
was 67%. Also out of 78 fertilised eggs, 62 eggs were hatched (Table.),
which resulted in a percentage hatchability of 30%.

All sampled areas presented lower relative humidity (RH) values than
recommended in literature (Robertson, 1961; Lundy, 1969), ranging from
48% to 65% (Fig 2). These lay below threshold for maximum hatchability
(Wilson, 1991; French, 1997). Values of RH were not also homogenously
distributed in the incubator (p<0.05). Certain areas had comparatively
lower RH values (). Usually RH can vary more than temperature without
depressing hatchability. Values of RH lower than 50-60% may induce
evaporative cooling and consequent ambient temperature, which may
lead to embryo dehydration, increased incubation time and consequent
hatching depression or delay (Decuypere et al., 2003).

The effects of different temperatures on hatchability characteristics are

shown in Table.. Data obtained by the research indicated that the
temperature applied during the growth period in artificial incubation of
chicken eggs significantly affected the hatchability of fertile eggs and
embryo mortality. Hatchability of fertile eggs declined with temperature,
for maximum hatchability a lower temperature lower than 37.2 C is
desirable in the incubation period. Embryonic mortality tended to increase
at 37.2C.

Percentages of late dead and fertile hatchability were highest for the 60%
and 65% treatment, respectively. These data demonstrated that.. RH
appears to have a detrimental effect on embryonic development, as
evidenced by the increased percentage of late dead.

Simple and relatively cheap artificial incubators that are produced locally
are favoured for the increase in production of chicks and protein intake in
Malawi. Therefore, in this study, an automatic poultry egg incubator was
designed and fabricated using locally sourced materials to make it
relatively affordable to the average poor farmer dwelling in a rural area.
The incubator consisting of of .. 1440 capacity was tested in Blantyre, to
evaluate its performance. The results obtained showed high thermal
performance of the system. The incubating chamber was maintained with
a dry bulb temperature range of 36 to 38.5, and the chamber was also
maintained within a relative humidity range 58 to 61 % throughout the
incubating period. The percentage of fertility of egg and percentage
hatchability were found to be .., respectively.

This study was undertaken collaboratively with Mikolongwe Veterinary
Station with support of the Malawi Industrial Research and Technology
Development Centre on Agricultural Machinery Design Programme. The
authors express their gratitude to the staff of Technology Production Unit
(TPU) for their careful handling of the egg incubator unit. We also thank
R.W. Mkandawire, C.S. Chigwe and K.N. Kalonda for their critical review of
this manuscript and their valuable suggestions.

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