Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
In my previous post, I discussed several points comparing the relative benefits of using incubators for hatching chicks vs. doing things the natural way — that is, assigning the job to a broody. Today I am going to cover some more factors influencing the chicken owner's decision on this matter.
Hand-raised chicks often turn out more sociable and friendly as adult birds.
Because our coop is small and we rely heavily on free-ranging, the brooding area we have for mother hens and newly hatched chicks is very confined, and so by necessity, the young chicks are introduced to the great outdoors quite early — especially if the enclosed space is needed by another new brood. Now, of course the young ones are protected by their mother, but still, there are unfortunate incidents in the form of stray cats, dogs, birds of prey, and objects in the yard that might fall and crush chicks (though we do our best to “chick-proof” the surroundings).
Another challenge is when there are several broods around — over-protective hens might be dangerous to another hen’s chicks, up to the point of pecking them to death because of some imaginary threat to their own offspring.
When we operate our incubator and rear the chicks ourselves, they remain indoors much longer. I gradually introduce them to the flock under my supervision, starting from only several minutes each day. Eventually they are ready to mix with the flock unsupervised, and finally, as pullets, they are moved to the coop full-time.
I do have to say that, theoretically, we could use the broody hens just for hatching, and then take the chicks away and safely raise them inside the house ourselves. However, it seems unfair to us, after the mother hen had done her best by diligently sitting on the eggs for three weeks, not to let her raise the chicks. We could also confine the mother hen and her chicks at home, but we found that it causes stress to a mature adult bird that is used to free-ranging.
In an ideal world, we would have a bigger coop and several larger enclosures for mother hens and their broods. However, this isn’t an option right now, so we make do with what we have and do our best to work around our practical limitations.
Ultimately, by making the choice to free range our chickens, we became mentally resigned to the fact that there would be more losses than if we kept them confined all the time. We pay the price, and reap the benefits in lower costs of chicken feed, less muck in the coop to clean, a yard nearly free of insects, and eggs richer in valuable nutrients. However, other chicken keepers might have different considerations and different choices.
From our experience, a broody hen can comfortably cover up to a dozen eggs, depending on her size. However, smaller hens will cover fewer eggs, usually 6-7. Out of those, suppose 5 prove fertile and hatch — 4 chicks survive to adulthood (realistically speaking from past experience), and out of those, two turn out to be cockerels, which we give away or sell very cheaply. This means that a hen might go off laying eggs for a considerable period, to hatch and raise a comparatively small number of replacement layers.
Incubators, on the other hand, come in different sizes, to fit varying needs. An incubator can allow you to hatch a bigger batch of chicks and so increase efficiency. Our small homemade one can hold about twenty eggs.
You can turn on an incubator whenever it is convenient for you; a hen, on the other hand, goes broody according to her whims/biological clock. You can try to break broodiness, you can try to encourage it, but ultimately nature will decide.
Fun is an important part in raising chickens; practical considerations aside, we wouldn’t keep our flock if we didn’t enjoy it. Now, when chicks are hatched in an incubator and raised in an indoor brooder, it’s a lot easier to handle them and play with them, due to the absence of an aggressively protective mother hen. From our experience, chicks raised by us grow into tamer, more docile birds which are more convenient to handle as they mature, too.
Bottom line: Both broody hens and incubators have their place on the modern homestead, and chicken keepers make different choices that work for them. Personally, if I plan to receive a batch of valuable eggs from pure-bred chickens, I probably won’t trust them to a broody and will choose to hatch them in an incubator and raise the chicks myself, the value of the chicks making such a venture cost-effective, despite the extra work involved. If, on the other hand, the eggs come from any old chicken and can be easily replaced, I’ll trust to nature and place them under a broody.
Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Connect with Anna on Facebook, find her as SmallFlocksMom on Earthineer, and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here.
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