Raise Your Best Flock Using Broody Hens

Keep a broody hen to hatch, raise and protect your flock’s new generations of chicks. Plus, learn which are the best broody chicken breeds.

| December 2012/January 2013

  • Mother Hen And Chicks
    Use a broody hen to hatch chicks for a new level of satisfaction in raising chickens. Silkie hens (shown here) are one of the best broody chicken breeds — you can set eggs of other breeds from your flock, such as the Buff Orpingtons pictured in the background, under your Silkie mother hen for her to hatch and raise.
    Illustration By Elayne Sears
  • Silkie Hen
    Using a broody hen is rewarding and fun, especially with a fluffy Silkie mother hen.
    Illustration By Elayne Sears
  • Freshly Hatched Chick
    Pipping, shown at left, is when a chick first pecks a hole in its egg. The chick will usually break out of the egg within 24 hours.
    Illustration By Elayne Sears
  • Egg Incubator Illustration
    Egg incubators, such as this Brinsea countertop model, offer another way to hatch chicken eggs if you don't have a broody hen.
    Illustration By Elayne Sears
  • Egg Embryo
    Candle eggs with a bright flashlight to ensure there is a viable embryo inside.
    Illustration By Elayne Sears

  • Mother Hen And Chicks
  • Silkie Hen
  • Freshly Hatched Chick
  • Egg Incubator Illustration
  • Egg Embryo

There are four main ways you can obtain chicks: from a mail-order hatchery (almost year-round), from a local farm store (mostly in spring), by placing fertile eggs in an incubator (anytime), or by placing fertile eggs under a hen that has “gone broody” (usually in spring). If you decide to order by mail, you can find hatcheries near you in our online Hatchery Directory. If you want to buy from a store, the Tractor Supply Co. chain offers a great selection of chickens and ducks during its annual Chick Days each spring. The stores will even process special orders so you can choose the breeds you want and also select “straight run” chickens (males and females) or females only. 

Now, on to working with broody hens. What follows is an adaptation from poultry expert Harvey Ussery’s terrific book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, which gives advice on pretty much everything you’ll ever need to know to raise your own chickens. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS 

Using a broody hen to raise your chicks provides several additional benefits to both the chicks and you. The mother forages natural foods — mostly insects — for her chicks, keeps her young ones warm even while ranging on pasture and through cooler weather, and provides devoted protection from predators. The flock-keeper who chooses to foster broodiness (the inclination for a hen to hatch her own eggs) will be rewarded with a healthy, self-sustaining flock.

Modern Breeding vs. Broody Hens

Commercial hybrid breeds lay lots of eggs, but they aren’t a good choice if you want hens that will go broody. In today’s era of mass production of chicks via artificial incubation, broodiness is considered not merely an unnecessary nuisance but an economic calamity. After all, a broody hen ceases laying eggs when she’s incubating eggs and caring for chicks. Thus, a major component of modern poultry breeding has been to select against the broody trait in favor of hens that simply lay their egg per day, having forgotten that doing so has any relation to reproducing the species.

Even hens of most heritage chicken breeds cannot be relied on as mothers. Hens of some breeds — Cochins, Brahmas and Buff Orpingtons — are more likely to brood than others, but trying to find good broodies among such breeds is hit-or-miss at best. To be assured of hens with sound mothering instincts, obtain a breed listed in “Best Broody Chicken Breeds,” below. My favorite breed for a working-broody subflock is the Old English Game. Other game breeds are also likely to have strong instincts to make good mother hens. Dorkings are an ancient breed, and the hens will likely brood for you. Bantams as a class are apt to retain the broody trait, but because of their small size, they are more limited in the number of eggs you can set per hen.

Best Broody Chicken Breeds

Asil • Dorking • Kraienkoppe • Madagascar Game • Malay • Nankin • Old English Game • Shamo • Silkie

11/17/2014 1:48:33 AM

I have a 2 silkie hens, 2 isa browns and 1 frizzle rooster. 1 of our silkies is broody and laying on a pile of eggs. Do we have to remove the frizzle rooster before the eggs hatched as last lot of chickens we had the rooster trampled all the chicks. (Different hens and rooster)

6/23/2014 10:31:34 PM

my broody buff orpington hen was allowed to sit on 6 eggs, after 25 days, I opened the eggs to see what went wrong, 4 had dead chicks in them, and 2 were rotten, I provided her with an old mineral lick tub and straw, she was very dedicated, I never saw her off of the nest the whole time, checking on her morning and evening, she seems to be lame now, what do I do, and what did I do wrong? She was in a seperate coupe from the other hens, but shared with 2 month old chicks that are just growing.

Sharon Rosenzweig
3/28/2013 11:54:46 AM

Thanks for this article. Here's one variation on the theme. My mom has a silkie who is very broody. I made a brood box and let her sit on the unfertile eggs we have (no roosters here) for a day. Then I bought some day old chicks from the feed store and put them under her in the evening, removing the eggs. She gathered them in and purred contentedly. I am excited to read about free ranging the new family early, though I'm always worried about hawks. Anyway, it's another great adventure



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