Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Mother hen teaches her new chicks to peck and scratch.
This is the first half of a two-part post on hatching and rearing baby chicks.
After several years of raising chickens, and with many broods of chicks under our belts, I thought I would outline some of our experiences in hatching chicks using an incubator, vs. doing it the natural way — that is, by a broody hen. Should you go for nature or technology? What are the pros and cons of each option? Read on to find out what has worked for us.
It was in the second year of our chicken-keeping that we felt the desire to increase our flock by means of adding some new chicks. We wanted to observe the entire process, from egg to softly chirping ball of fluff to productive adult egg-layer. We also felt that a truly sustainable flock maintains itself, by addition of a new generation each year, without us having to buy new pullets to replace aging layers.
Experience Using a Homemade Incubator
However, circumstances played out in such a way that there were no broodies in our flock that year. As much as we desired to have at least one of our hens sit on some eggs, the girls just didn’t cooperate. And so it was that my husband launched his admirable project of a homemade incubator. It was done very simply and on a very small budget — a Styrofoam box with a thermostat and humidity detector.
I was skeptical, but what did we have to risk, except a few eggs? And so an experimental batch of five eggs was placed inside. Imagine my surprise when, 21 days later, we had five beautiful fluffy baby chicks!
We have operated our incubator many times since, but we’ve also had some broodies step up to the plate. Last year, we had so many broodies the incubator actually sat on a shelf gathering dust, and hatching and raising chicks was done in an all-natural way.
Comparing Incubators to Broody Hens for Hatching
I know many people swear by using broodies exclusively to hatch and rear chicks, while others love their incubators. Personally, I think there are pros and cons to both options. Here are a few points:
Convenience. I believe nothing beats a broody hen on this one. We put some eggs under a broody, wait three weeks, and see the new chicks. We don’t need to worry about adjusting temperature or humidity or turning the eggs, nor about providing heating for the chicks afterwards. We don’t need to clean an indoor brooder, change the bedding constantly, or deal with the smell. The broody hen takes care of it all; she rears the chicks, teaches them to peck and forage for food, and introduces them to the flock.
Economy. By dispensing with an incubator and a heating lamp for the young chicks, we save electricity. This is important in yet another sense – we live in an area where power shortages are common. Just last week, we experienced a spell of over 24 hours with no power. This would have been a potential disaster for a running incubator or young chicks that require heating.
Reliability. On this point I do see the advantage of taking matters into my own hands. We have had several instances when broodies suddenly decided they don’t want to bother hatching the eggs after all, or even broke the eggs — in particular, if moved from their chosen nest (which is usually one of the nesting boxes) to a quieter spot where they wouldn’t be bothered by other hens.
This week, a broody abandoned eggs in the final stages of hatching, and a newly hatched chick, because we moved her to the brooding area we have in the coop. We had no choice but to do that, since if we had left her alone, the chicks could potentially be pecked to death by older birds. Thankfully, with some prompting she returned to her eggs and the chicks survived.
I will admit, however, that we have never worked with breeds famous for their broodiness, such as Silkies or Cochins. Those “super-broodies” might be more dedicated and reliable.
Click here to read Part 2 with special considerations for the chicken owner to help make your decision between broody hens and incubators.
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.