Already have chickens? Then you are ready for the next step – chicks! If not, start with our post on getting started with chickens here. We suggest starting with pullets (young hens) rather than chicks.
Chickens are awesome, and I think very cute, but they simply can’t compete with chicks. The cuteness of chicks is a large part of why we have so many chickens (pro tip: don’t leave your partner alone at the feed store during free chick days). There are different ways to get chicks. You can get chicks via mail order, at a local feed store, incubating fertile eggs in an incubator, or using a broody hen to hatch chicks.
We prefer to hatch our chicks the natural way by letting one of our hens hatch the chicks. This is the easiest and cheapest way to hatch chicks (no need to buy an incubator). Having a broody hen raise them is also one of the easiest ways to raise chicks, so bonus!
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What’s a broody hen? A broody hen is a hen that has decided she wants to sit on a nest and hatch chicks. Broody hens stop laying eggs once they have enough so in many commercial breeds the tendency to go broody has been selected against. Because of this, many hens will never go broody. For a production farm, it is a disadvantage to have broody hens (since they stop laying for a while), but on a homestead a good broody hen is highly valuable! We joke that our best mom (Big Momma) is worth her weight in gold.
Why do we get so excited about broody hens? Mostly because it is WAY easier to just let a hen hatch and raise her own chicks. A broody hen will hatch the chicks without any assistance from you – she’ll keep the eggs warm enough, protected (even from you), and be there to help the chicks out as soon as they hatch. It is also WAY cuter! Letting a broody hen raise the chicks means that she will take care of them from the very beginning –she’ll teach them how to be a chicken. She’ll lead them to food and water and teach them how to scratch to find bugs. She’ll also teach them how to stay safe, when to go inside for the night, and protect them from pretty much everything (again, including you). It’s even far easier than buying chicks from the feed store. If you buy chicks you’ll need a heat source and a brooder to keep them in and you’ll have to keep a close eye to be sure they don’t get too hot, or too cold, etc. A hen will do that all for you! Besides, watching a hen teach her chicks all the ropes is just good farm fun.
We’ll cover raising chicks in a future post – in this post we’ll talk about how to hatch chicks with a broody hen.
Convinced? You’ll just need a few supplies to hatch chicks the natural way!
1) Fertile eggs
To get chicks, you first need fertile eggs. If you have your own rooster that’s easy – your hens are probably laying fertile eggs already. Not all eggs are fertile – hens will lay eggs with or without a rooster present. That said, if you have a rooster in with your hens then you probably have fertile eggs. We have a handsome rooster who protects the flock, finds food for the hens, and fertilizes the eggs. If you’re not sure if your rooster is doing his job you can keep an eye out for breeding events. In a breeding event the male will climb on top of a female, usually holding on to feathers on the back of her head or neck. Breeding events are quick, so you may miss them. Even if you don’t see them, I’ve never had a rooster that didn’t breed his hens!
Of course, some areas won’t allow roosters or you may not want to keep a rooster. Don’t worry – there are other ways to get fertile eggs! You may be able to get fertile locally from a friend with a rooster (we are always happy to give some away to friends who want to try hatching their own chicks). If you don’t have any friends with roosters you can get fertile eggs from a local hatchery or you can even buy hatching eggs online. Make sure you trust the person you are getting hatching eggs from unless you want to learn how to tell if the eggs are actually fertilized (that will be another post).
2) A broody hen.
This is the most important thing you need – and possibly the most difficult.
How do you tell when a hen is broody? The biggest sign of a broody hen is that she gets very protective of eggs. She will refuse to leave her clutch of eggs and will peck at you if you try to collect them. And they mean it – I’ve had a hen draw blood! She also tends to “poof up” so to speak. She will fluff out her feathers over the eggs to keep them at the right temperature so she looks much bigger than normal. She’ll puff up even more if you try to take the eggs. Making herself appear bigger is a defensive strategy to try to intimidate any predator coming to take her precious eggs. A broody hen rarely leaves the nest, though she will sometimes leave for short periods to drink a bit, eat a tiny amount, and relieve herself. She rarely goes far from her eggs.
3) A quiet, preferably isolated, spot for her to sit on her eggs and her own food and water
Your broody hen needs a quiet place to incubate her eggs – and it’s best for both her and the other hens if it is somewhere separate from the rest of the hens. You should give her a nice fluffy nesting area (we use hay our goats refused to eat, but we’ve used wood shavings in the past too) to cushion the eggs so they don’t break. Don’t stress if she kicks one or two of the eggs out of the nest – they were probably infertile or stopped developing for some reason. Just dispose of them and leave the rest alone. You should also give her a separate food and water source – she won’t eat much while broody so don’t be worried if it lasts for a long time.
So now what?
We move our broody hens to a specific area we’ve set up for them away from where the other hens want to lay and confined so they can’t move their nest somewhere inconvenient. The easiest way to do it is to have a second coop. A second coop is useful as a broody coop and as a quarantine coop if you buy more chickens to add to your flock, but you may not have the space or money for a second coop. Another way to do it is to create a nesting area in your existing coop.
We also separate our broody hens from our other hens. We do this for a couple reasons. One is that broody hens are jerks and sometimes won’t let other hens near the nesting boxes. It only gets worse when the chicks hatch. Also, broody hens can sometimes stop being broody if they are disturbed too much – or decide to find a more secluded (i.e. annoying) spot. Sometimes just collecting eggs can disrupt them enough to move their nest!
Currently we use a second coop that our neighbor gave us when we agreed to give her chickens a safe retirement home. Before that, we made a broody area in our existing coop. The first time we just used chicken wire to construct a rough subdivided area in the main coop (complete with a chicken wire roof so the other hens couldn’t steal her food). It worked, but it was unwieldy and only lasted a season. After that we constructed a broody area under the main coop (the main coop is raised), that we fenced off from the other chickens. That worked much better and allowed the chicks a place to run around outside as they grew up.
You could also use something like a cat carrier as a temporary broody area in your main coop, but you’ll need to give them more space when the chicks hatch. They key is to give her somewhere that you can keep an eye on her without disturbing her much and keep her from harassing the other hens in trying to protect the eggs.
Don’t put too many eggs under a hen. If there are too many eggs she may not be able to hatch all of them. Even worse, sometimes a hen will try to hatch all of them by rotating them and none of them will stay warm enough to hatch. Our rule of thumb is 8-10 eggs under a full sized hen, 4-6 under a bantam hen (they are smaller). If in doubt, start her off with a smaller number of eggs for her first time. You can gradually increase the number of eggs next time.
Hopefully, your hen will go broody in your normal nesting boxes – many do. If your hen goes broody somewhere else you can move them. If they don’t go broody in your nesting boxes they usually choose the most secluded, hard to reach spot they can find. Makes sense in terms of predator protection, but not helpful for getting them to a truly protected spot. We recently had two hens go broody under a pallet of firewood in an unused barn stall – right in the middle where we couldn’t reach them without moving a ton of firewood. It was…fun.
If you need to move your hen, move them at night when they are more likely to settle back down on the eggs instead of abandon the nest after the disturbance. It’s easiest to have one person pick up the hen first (carefully – she will be aggressively protective) and the other person grab the eggs once the hen is held, then put them in your nesting area, and put the hen on top of them in the new nesting area. Then as tempting as it is, leave her alone! Hopefully she will settle back down on them and hatch adorable chicks in about 21 days.
In a future post we’ll talk about how to help your hen raise her chicks (sneak preview – mostly you let her do all the work).