From correct preparation to caring for a sitting hen, here’s everything you need to know about hatching chicks the traditional way with the help of a broody hen.
My hen is sitting on her eggs once more. When this happens, many chicken keepers become frustrated, but I enjoy her “broodiness” since it makes my job a lot easier.
Why waste time and money buying fertilized eggs, incubating them, and hand-raising chicks when one of my chickens can do it all for me?
The culling of the broody hen
When I initially became interested in getting chicks the old-fashioned way, I was astonished to discover how difficult it could be to get good guidance. This could be because farmers have been culling broody hens for ages.
Broody hens, after all, do not lay eggs, which costs farmers money. Modern hens are not adequately wired to hatch eggs as a result of this culling technique.
If you’re looking for broodiness, try heritage breeds. Because they haven’t been bred out to the same extent as modern hybrids, heritage breeds are more likely to go broody.
Still, a broody hen from a historical breed or a non-setter (a hen that will not go broody) from a modern breed are not guaranteed. To make matters even more complicated, there’s no way to predict if a hen will go broody; you’ll just have to wait and watch.
Fortunately, some breeds are more likely than others to go broody. Brahmas, Cochins, Orpingtons, Silkies, and Sussex are among the top breeds.
Even yet, not every hen in these breeds will care to hatch eggs since several factors, including genetics and environment, influence broodiness. And I’ve learned not to pass too early judgment on a hen because some don’t go broody until they’re at least two years old.
Seeking out fertilized eggs
If you live in a region where roosters are permitted, there are several advantages to introducing a male to your flock. He’ll keep your hens safe from predators and fertilize their eggs.
Young roosters may offer patchy fertilization, so you should wait at least a year before attempting to hatch any eggs. There is still hope if you don’t want or can’t have a rooster.
Many homesteaders sell fertilized eggs, and you can seek classified advertising in your area on sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
Giving broodiness a helping hand
Some seasons are better than others for egg-hatching success. Extreme temperatures make it more difficult for chicks to thrive, so avoid the warmest months of summer and the coldest weeks of winter.
Leave eggs in the nesting box overnight rather than collecting them immediately to encourage hens to go broody when you want them to. Homesteaders have reported success with fake eggs and even golf balls.
If she returns to the nest after being shooed away, refuses to leave the nest when you retrieve eggs and spends the entire day sitting on the nest, you have a broody hen. The hen will pluck feathers from her breast after a few days, and her body temperature will noticeably rise.
Preparing a nest
Allow the hen to build her own nest, although I propose making one for her separate from the rest of the flock. Other hens may lie in the broody hen’s nest if she gets up for a quick sip or bite to eat.
This might result in damaged eggs or eggs hatching later than others, which can be troublesome because some hens will not leave their unhatched eggs to care for their young.
Make a predator-proof nest in a separate cage that also provides shelter from the elements and enough space for the hen to sit near food and water. A rabbit hutch or tiny chicken run will suffice but make sure there is enough bedding.
Collecting eggs for a broody hen
Allowing eggs to accumulate in your henhouse nesting boxes for a day or two is the simplest way to acquire a clutch of eggs for your broody hen to sit on. The broody hen will be naturally drawn to these eggs and will begin sitting on them.
The disadvantage of this strategy is that any disruption, such as shifting the eggs to a different nest or cage, may deter a slightly broody hen from sitting on the eggs.
A more measured approach would be to gather all of the eggs before allowing the hen to begin sitting and then transport both the eggs and the hen to a constructed nest.
To do so, carefully collect eggs, as usual, inspecting each one for faults such as cracks, holes, and odd forms or sizes. Place the best eggs in an egg-keeping box that has been well-cleaned with hot, soapy water. Avoid using used cartons since these may introduce bacteria into the eggs.
Washing the eggs eliminates the natural bloom that protects the chicks from bacteria, so you should avoid washing the eggs.
Place the eggs point-side down in a cold, dry place away from direct sunshine; ideally 55 degrees Fahrenheit with 75 percent humidity.
Place a book under one end of the carton to prevent embryos from clinging to the eggshells; once a day, shift the book to the opposite end of the carton.
Allow the eggs to sit for a short period of time before beginning the incubation process. Each day an egg continues without incubation, its viability decreases slightly, reaching a halt after seven days.
How many eggs to collect is mostly determined by your need and what your hen can comfortably incubate. If you’re not sure, gather more eggs than you think you’ll need and discard the surplus once the hen has sat. Most hens may sit on up to 12 eggs of the size that they naturally lay.
When you’ve collected the number of eggs you want to hatch, move them to the prepared nest with the hen. Don’t be worried if the hen doesn’t sit on the eggs right away. She can sit in earnest for up to a day and still have a successful hatch.
Be aware that red mites and lice have the potential to kill sitting hens, so thoroughly inspect your hen before giving her a clutch of eggs. If your flock has had red mite issues in the past, sprinkle the hen with red mite powder before exposing her to the eggs.
Provide enough water and food for the hen, but don’t be surprised if she doesn’t drink or eat much. It’s usual for chickens to lose weight when sitting on eggs, which is why they should only produce one or two clutches per year to give their bodies time to recuperate between hatchings.
Keep an eye on how much the hen sits. Some hens are quite broody at first, but then lose interest and don’t sit long enough to keep the eggs warm. If that happens, you’re out of luck and must discard the eggs.
Some folks like to candle eggs to make sure that the hen does not sit on any bad ones. But keep in mind that every time you handle eggs, you increase the likelihood of hatching issues.
The advantage of candling is that you can remove any eggs that do not have developing embryos; if you leave them, they will decay and make a stinky mess if they break.
Remove any stinky eggs or eggs that the hen rejects. If you prefer to candle the eggs, take care to remove and replace them one at a time. Wait until day seven to candle the eggs, and don’t handle the eggs again after day 15.
Around day 21, the chicks should start hatching. They usually hatch within a few hours of one other, although the complete clutch can take anything from 12 hours to 3 days to hatch.
After a few chicks hatch, the hen will do one of three things:
- she’ll hop off the nest to care for her chicks, leaving the remaining unhatched chicks to die;
- she’ll stay on the nest and not do much for her chicks (this is OK if the hen is isolated and still allows the chicks under her);
- or she’ll tend to her babies, leaving the eggs for a short time but returning to sit if she senses the chicks.
Taking care of the chicks
When all of the eggs have hatched, check to see if the hen is a good mother. In rare cases, she may peck and kill the chicks or simply neglect them.
You’ll also need to include a chick waterer and feeder in the cage. A good mother will show her chicks how to use them within a few days.
I recommend separating the hen and chicks from the rest of the flock for at least a week.
Some people immediately move the mother and babies to the main henhouse, but mother hens aren’t always good at safeguarding their chicks, and if you have a raised henhouse, chicks may fall off the house ramp and die.
I keep the mother and chicks in an old wire run inside the main chicken run, which I cover with a tarp at night. This allows the mother and babies to have their own place while also allowing the rest of the flock to get to know the chicks.
When you introduce the mother and chicks to the flock, keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t hurt the infants, even though it’s typical for them to peck the chicks out of curiosity. A good mother would scare away any bird that approaches too close.
If everything appears to be in order, leave the flock for a half-hour before checking on them again. Check on a regular basis throughout the day until you are confident that the mother can protect her offspring from the flock.
The mother hen will continue to undertake most of the job of rearing the chicks, but you should make sure there are enough water sources accessible, as full-grown hens may bully chicks away from waterers on occasion.
Pay attention to the height of your waterers as well and if chicks can’t easily reach them, place extra chick waterers nearby.
Because adult chickens love chick food, if you’ve been giving the chicks medicated starter feed, you’ll need to switch to a non-medicated variety when you integrate them into the flock.
The chicks are ready for grower feed at around eight weeks, which increases the protein they ingest and ensures maximum growth.
Another approach is to transition directly to flock feed once the chicks have been integrated into the flock. Some experts argue that this does not supply enough protein for chicks, but this is less of an issue if your flock is allowed to roam freely.
Whatever feed you choose, avoid feeding layer feed to chicks because its high calcium levels can be detrimental. A decent rule of thumb is to move to layer feed between the ages of 18 and 20 weeks.
Suggested resources for preppers:
How to protect your chickens from their top predators
The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression
A few reasons why your hens stop laying eggs