Hatching Eggs Using Broody Hens

Free Ranging and Training Chickens...

I hope you all had a great week, let’s get started talking about broody hens. The easiest way to hatch eggs is to let your hen sit on them. She keeps them at the perfect temperature and naturally incubates them. When a hen decides that it’s time to start a family, it’s called going broody.

In the past, she would lay an egg and just walk away, now she sits on the eggs longer and longer each day until eventually, she stays put. Her normal higher pitched clucking will change to a lower tone that she will use to call her chicks. She will not leave the nest for more than a few minutes at a time to eat, drink and stretch. When you try to shoo her away, she makes it clear that she’s not going anywhere. When you try to collect eggs from under her, she causes a ruckus. If you pick her up and remove her from the nest, she goes right back. Her instincts tell her that she’s got a job to do and nothing is going to dissuade her from doing it.

Once she has completed her clutch (group of eggs), she ceases to lay more eggs. She will not lay again for a few months, the time it would take her to hatch the eggs (around 21 days) as well as the time she would be caring for her new chicks.

Unfortunately, a good brood hen can be hard to find these days. As hens have been bred to be super egg producers, we’ve all but bred the broody instinct out of many of them, especially the popular commercial laying breeds. If you do find a hen that will brood from among these breeds, it’s probable that she will forget what she’s supposed to be doing and walk away after a few days. It can be very frustrating.

If you want a hen to hatch your eggs, the following breeds are more likely to brood: Orpingtons (especially the buffs), Turkens (also called Naked Necks), Partridge Rocks, Buff Rocks, Speckled Sussex, Dark Cornish, Columbian, Wyandottes, Buff Cochins, Partridge Cochins and Light Brahmas.

There is no way to cause a hen to go broody but there are some things you can do to encourage her.

First provide her a comfy nest that is private and dimly lit. Place some plastic or wooden eggs in the nest and leave them there. You could even leave some real eggs but mark them with a pencil so you know which ones are the fresh eggs when you collect and which ones you left there. See if she catches on. If she seems interested, let her sit for a day or two and then remove her from the nest a few times to see if she goes back. If she doesn’t return, don’t get your hopes up that she’ll stay put long enough to hatch any eggs.

If you are lucky enough to have a brooder, here are some recommendations regarding her egg-brooding box; your hen will need enough room to stand up and turn around, she will turn the eggs and move the inside eggs to the outside on a regular basis, if she is too cramped, she’ll end up breaking eggs by stepping on them. Remember though that she is more likely to brood if she has a cozy space so don’t make the box so big that she feels vulnerable.

Ideally you should give her a nest that is about 15 inches square and 16 inches tall. It should have a roof and the front should be open. This new brood box should sit on the ground to prevent newly-hatched chicks from tumbling out.

The box should be generously filled with soft bedding material that is concave in the middle so the eggs won’t roll out. The ideal nesting material would be two pieces of grass sod. Place one with the grass side down and the other with the grass side up. Pound down the middle of the sod to a saucer-like shape to keep the eggs safe.

If your hen starts to brood, try to get her to use this new box. You must be careful though because moving her could discourage her and she may give up the whole thing. She’s also not going to be very happy with you and may peck and fuss; it’s just her protective instincts.

If she takes to the new box and gets settled in, remove as many of her eggs as you need so that you can add the eggs that you have been storing for this purpose (see last weeks issue). Allow the eggs in holding to come to room temperature. You do not want the eggs to go from a temperature of 55 degrees F immediately to 99 degrees F (the temperature under the hen) because it will cause condensation within the egg.

Hens take well to others eggs; she’ll even hatch turkey, duck and goose eggs. A broody hen doesn’t care whose babies she’s hatching, she just wants babies.

As you place the eggs under her, she’s not going to be happy; she thinks you are messing around with her eggs. She’ll likely peck at you. Wear a heavy weight, long sleeved shirt. If you have gloves that allow you to handle eggs without fumbling them, by all means wear them. Understand though that big clumsy work gloves will probably not work, you have to be too careful with the eggs.

Only place as many eggs under her as she can keep covered and warm. For a large breed, like an Orpington, about 14 medium sized eggs should fit nicely, a bantam could handle 8. If she has to care for too many eggs, you’ll probably loose the whole clutch (group) because they get too cool when she rotates them to the outside.

Expect your hen to become cranky. She is protecting her young and sees you as a threat. Keep food and water close by for her. Even by taking this precaution, her food intake will diminish, she will loose weight and her feathers will become dull. These are all normal, natural occurrences.

Now sit back and wait.

Do not handle the eggs or mess with the nest when she leaves to eat and drink. On the first night she stays on the eggs, begin counting. It will take an average of 21 days for the chicks to hatch.

It is not necessary to candle the eggs, your hen knows what’s gong on inside those eggs. She’ll kick out any eggs in which the chick dies or if the egg is not fertile.

Next week we’ll discuss incubators before we move on to the chicks development in the egg and the actual hatch.

Have a wonderful week,

Wendy Cameron

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