Every spring we let some of our hens sit. This year I only have one hen that has gone broody. That’s fine as I need the other’s to keep laying for the table.
We do not have an incubator and have always used the ‘old fashioned’ way to hatch out both chicks and ducklings.
To encourage at least one hen to go broody we will watch for signs and then stop collecting the eggs from one of the nest boxes, this method has worked very well for us.
You will know your hen is broody when she refuses to leave a nest, starts to pluck her chest feathers to make a warm nest and will hiss/growl when approached.
Unfortunately you can’t make a hen go broody, they will or they won’t on their own. You can improve your chances of getting hens to sit by choosing a heritage breed of chicken, they are more likely to go broody. Dorking and Orpington’s are great dual purpose breeds that often go broody. Bantam breeds are another great option for broody hens, we have put regular sized eggs under a banty hen, keeping in mind that she will not be able to sit on as many eggs.
Our Dorking hens are very good mothers and go broody easily. You won’t be able to tell if a hen is a good mother or not until you try her. Some hens may leave their nests during the incubation period. Others will kill their chicks as they hatch and some may leave their chicks once hatched. If you are using an unfamiliar hen to hatch out chicks watch her carefully to prevent the loss of some or all of your chicks.
This is the first year that we will not be hatching purebred Silver-Grey Dorking’s. We have a mixed breed rooster and only two Dorking hens, so these birds will be for meat and egg layers only, not breeding stock.
(We are moving away from breeding Dorking’s because of the roosters. While the hens are great birds the roo’s have a hard time during our winters, their large combs are prone to frostbite. We have also found that some Dorking roo’s can be aggressive, they make great protectors but I would rather not have to fight off a rooster every time I go to feed the chickens. If you live in a warmer climate or have a heated/insulated coop Dorking’s are a great chicken to have around, they are a dual purpose breed that are good egg layers and great foragers.
My sister is raising and hatching out Blue and Black Orpington’s, another heritage breed that is known for being easy keepers. They are beautiful birds that are larger than the Dorking and are winter hardy. We are planning on adding some of her Orpington’s to our backyard flock this year.)
Hens will sit on their eggs for 21 days (give or take) during the incubation period. During this time they will leave the nest only once or twice during the day to eat, drink and poop.
Once she has started to sit I mark the eggs with a permanent marker (so I know when another hen is sneaking her eggs under her) and will move her to our brooder, a large dog crate. From experience I know that this hen will tolerate a move, some will not. If you have to move a hen it is best to do it at night when they are sleepy. If you are unsure if a hen will still sit on her eggs after a move try setting up a brooder area at the first signs of a broody hen and set your eggs in that nest.
To set up the brooder I like to lay down a thick layer of shavings and straw at the back, leaving room at the front for water and feed. I don’t close the crate until closer to the hatch date so she is able to leave and get her food and water outside of the brooder, this will encourage her to poop away from her nest . A brooding hen will poop once during the day when she gets off her nest and it is a lot of poop.
You can candle the eggs to make sure that the eggs are viable, I don’t. I will do a smell test if I catch the hen off her nest but that’s it. To do a smell check is easy, just smell the outside of the egg, if it is rotten it has a very distinct and foul odor. You can discard those eggs. Otherwise, I wait the 21 days and if any eggs have not hatched after 4 days from the first chick hatching I will discard them.
Within a few days of the hatch date I will start putting her food and water in the crate with her. The hen that is sitting now is a good mother and I know she won’t harm her chicks when they hatch, but I’m not sure how our current rooster will react, so I will keep them separate until the chicks are big enough to hold their own. In the past I have let a hen hatch her eggs in a nest box, I knew the rooster would not bother them and the other hens wouldn’t try to steal her chicks.
Around the 21 day mark start to listen for peeping from the eggs, once you hear this you know that the chicks will hatch very soon. You may not see the chicks for a few days as they will stay under Mom for a while. If you are impatient to see how your hatch went you could lift Mom off her nest, but she will most likely not appreciate this and may be very aggressive.
When the chicks hatch make sure that they have access to fresh water (in a container that they can’t fall into) and chick starter. Do not let new chicks have access to layer feed as it may make them sick.
After a few days I like to start letting them out during the day to explore and let Mom teach them all about being a chicken. When letting them out watch Mom and the other chickens, make sure that there is no aggressive behavior from anyone. If there is unwanted behavior separate mom and chicks from the other chickens in a different pen.
Whether you decide to hatch out using a hen or an incubator it is important to consider a few things first.
- Have a plan, it’s nice to think about the cute chicks running around the yard, but what is your plan for the full-grown chickens they will become? If you plan on keeping the hens great, what about the roo’s? In our area it is easy to sell hens but nearly impossible to get rid of roo’s, so we plan for that and know that any roo’s we hatch will eventually end up in the freezer. This is another great reason to keep dual purpose breeds.
- Know what you are breeding, I’m not a fan of breeding mixes as you never really know what you will get. This is the first time we will breed a mix and we know that these birds will be layers or table birds. I am not going to be selling them or breeding them.
- Housing, often while talking chickens with non-chicken people they get really excited about getting chicks, but when it comes to housing full-grown chickens they don’t have a place for them. Chicken tractors are a great option for the urban homesteader but in our winter climate housing chickens in an unprepared chicken tractor is unrealistic. We get temps lower than -20 degrees during the day and lower at night for extended periods, they need an insulated coop to prevent frostbite.
- Be prepared for some loss, not every egg will hatch. So don’t ‘count your chickens before they hatch’ :).
Once you have decided to hatch out chicks and are prepared for them it’s time to choose the method, an incubator or a hen. If you can spare a hen I recommend letting hens hatch out chicks. There are great benefits to having a hen raise your chicks.
- Less work for you, not having to worry about turning the eggs, monitoring temps, humidity, etc. The hen does all the work for you.
- It is a pleasure to watch chicks with a hen, to watch a her teach her young to scratch and forage is a very satisfactory sight.
- Protection, a hen will protect her chicks, which means you can leave the chicks outside. No chicken smell in the house.
- No need for a heat lamp, a good hen will continue to sit and keep her chicks warm until they are old enough to do it themselves.
Getting started with a broody hen.
- She will need access to fresh water and food through out the day, although a broody hen will only leave her nest once or twice a day, you will rarely see her do it and she needs to be able to access her food and water easily or she may not leave her nest. If you notice that the hen is not leaving the nest that is a problem and you may have to forcible remove her to make sure she is eating and drinking. While I won’t put her food and water in the brooder until closer to hatch day, I do keep it in the coop so she doesn’t have to leave.
- A quiet place, She needs to not be disturbed, if a hen is in a high traffic area she may become stressed and abandon her nest, whenever we have a broody hen in the coop only one person goes in the coop (me, who they know). This means the kids are not allowed in the coop to search for eggs, etc.
- Protection, a sitting hen is an easy target for a predator, she needs protection.
And there you have it, our method of hatching out chicks in the spring. I like to call it the lazy mans way, it requires very little effort on our part as the hen takes care of her little ones.
How do you hatch your chicks?