Using Broody hens

My team is made up of my Welsh Black and Indian Game flock that will go down broody if I miss to collect any eggs laid in the coop. Once one goes they all seem to start wanting to sit and as I write this I have 3 sitting in a one nest box on eggs laid by the ones that are thinking about going broody.

IIG and chicks.

I only ever remove a sitter from the run if I need to incubate another breed and as the eggs hatch from under the hens that are sitting I remove 1 of the girls into a broody coop and keep adding chicks untill she has a good brood to look after. If multiple chicks hatch under hens and I run out of options with the broodies I put them under a lamp and build up a group along with incubated chicks of a similar age.

I find Indian Game are the best sitters and terrific mothers. They sit tight on 10 large fowl eggs and will protect the eggs and chicks from rats.
I only use proven sitters that don’t come off or break eggs or foul the nest and leg ring the trusted birds.


The first thing you notice is the hen is in the nest box and if you touch her or attempt to she fluffs up and sounds angry and may give you a peck or two.
If she is living with other hens they will lay eggs on top of her or along side her in the same box and before very long the hen that’s broody has a full clutch of eggs.

Unless you have a cock running with them there is no chance of them hatching because they are infertile.

If you do have a male with them there is a good chance they will hatch.
The broody will have to be moved or you will have an egg mountain and will not be able to eat them as the eggs will start growing chicks in them.

She need a safe place away from the others, preferably in a broody coop. This need not be a masterpiece of engineering just a good large solid cardboard box will be fine placed in a shed or garage as long as she cannot be attacked by dogs or foxes and even worse rats.

There should be enough space to put in some water and a corn only feed (no pellets).
She will come off to feed and will not starve to death if not removed.You can tell she has fed by her droppings in the box.

Build her a nest that can be shaped into a dish. I use shavings and wheat straw and dish it so the eggs stay in the center and are not likely to roll out from under the sitting hen when she moves around and turns them.

You can candle the eggs at about 15 days to see if there is a chick in the egg. Shine a light from under the egg and you will be able to make out a chick by how ‘full’ the egg shell is. If the light shines through and there is no sign of anything in the shell the egg is infertile.

Bantams eggs will take 18 days to hatch, so by day 19-20 you should see signs of broken egg shells and maybe a chick or two.
Large fowl eggs take 21-23 days to hatch.

Don’t panic when this happens the chicks will be fine for at least 24 hours without food and the water is available, as they have to absorb the yoke sac.
Between the time you first find her and the hatch you should have made or bought a broody run or coop and if you have move her into it and provide the hen and chicks some wheat and chick crumbs.You don’t give the hen any pellets, as she doesn’t need to be fed back into lay…Forget all you ever heard about the necessity of pellets it’s a load of rubbish and besides that the chicks as they get bigger will start eating them and that will cause them to be pushed into maturity far to early and could result in prolapse and death.

Never feed layers pellets to pullets until they are well into laying eggs.

In fact I never feed pellets at all, as god alone knows what they put in them. I feed grain only to all my birds after they have feathered up and have done for a number of years since It was realised the mills were putting reclaimed animal by products into sheep and cattle feed and thats what triggered BSE.

Years ago I used metal broody coops.They were shaped like a D on its side and had a handle to carry it by on the top.On the front held in place by a hook at the top and a slot at the bottom was a grill and a solid metal cover/door.They were made by a firm called Eltex.
The family were put in it, usually on straw litter and each morning the door was removed and the chicks came out through the bars of the grill, leaving mum going frantic locked inside.
They wouldn’t stray far, but were easy pray for magpies and crows.After about a week the hen was let out with them and locked back up at night with the front firmly in place.

The mother hen instinctively knows what to do with the brood.It is rare that a hen attacks her chicks,some do as the chicks grow and if they have a full covering of feathers move her out and let the chicks fend for themselves.
Put the hen back into the group after dark not in daylight.

By the time the chicks feather up you can start feeding growers pellets gradually mixing them with the wheat and chick crumbs. My chicks go from chick crumbs onto grain mix as soon as they are big enough to eat whole grain and I never give them pellets.As long as they can get at some grass for the protien it contains they will be fine.I add Cod-liver oil to the grain before feeding. Strips of fresh lettuce is fine if you haven’t any grass, but not to much and remove before it goes limp any they don’t eat.

As for the question of when to take the broody away from the chicks.

If they are carrying more feathers than fluff and are in a sheltered/warm coop the chicks will tell you that it’s time they were parted.

You will start to hear chicks making that tell tale ‘just been pecked’ sound. It’s a noise a chick makes when the broody has just attacked it or one of the other chicks is feather pecking. Do not ignore this sound or you will regret it. Just sit quitely by the coop and let them settle and when they do you will see what or who is causing the problem.

Incubation with an incubator.

In a perfect world you should use eggs from 2nd year birds and from a true example of the breed you have chosen.

There are a lot of shysters out there that have realised there is money to be made flogging eggs to new keepers that are not aware of the pitfalls of breeding poultry.

eBay has more than it’s fair share, fueled by people prepared to pay stupid money for eggs from stock that a few photographs claim to be top quality stock.

It takes years, and I mean years of careful breeding to get quality stock, unless you are lucky enough to find a breeder who doesn’t mind his birds being sold in egg form. I can not call to mind many top breeders willing to part with top quality eggs on eBay.

The so called quality birds have been hatched or bought in by the same people selling eggs from those birds they hatched last season; 1st year birds and pullets. Quick return on an investment. Last years Chocolate Orpington fiasco goes to prove that there are people out there with more money than sense.Eggs selling for up to £50 each.

Eggs from pullets (1st year birds) cannot be expected to produce chicks of the vitality and vigor 2nd year hens would produce, in the same way you would not expect a ewe lamb to produce strong youngsters because of the lack of maturity.

The Cock involved in this union should be a proven sire that ‘nicks’ with the hens in the pen he is in charge of or whats the point of the breeding group? They will be just another batch of chicks of that breed and probably average or below average.

This is fine if your only wanting to breed this sort of quality, but it costs just the same to keep rubbish as quality stock, except you may be able to sell good examples faster and for a better return than rubbish.

Eggs must be collected from clean nest boxes, which is difficult in wet weather, as the hens entering a nest box to lay bring mud in on their feet and dirty any other eggs in the nest.

When you have to clean eggs use warm water not cold, as cold water makes the inner lining of the egg contract and the air that goes through the porous shell to fill that space takes with it germs. If your intending to incubate the eggs it would be wise to wait for a spell of dry weather and collect from a clean nestbox and if at all possible more than once a day. Any dirty eggs used for incubation will be a perfect breeding ground for all the types of nasties chickens are subject to. Besides which, the chicks will be infected and remain carriers for the rest of their lives.

They need storing at room temperature around 55f, never in the fridge, and with the blunt end upwards which gives the air sac inside more room. They do not need turning if you are setting within 3/4 days after laying. I know everybody turns them, I never bother and have found it makes no difference.

The incubator is only as good as where you site it, this is as important as the incubator itself.

It needs to be in a place where the temperature and humidity are constant. Fluctuations of both have a detrimental effect on the hatch. The ideal place I have found is a small walk in area under our staircase.
This area contains a wc and sink, so the humidity is fairly high and the temperature is reasonably constant as no draughts.

I set up the machine and run it for 24 hours or so before I put the eggs in..It goes without saying that the incubator has been cleaned and sterilized after the last hatch…I use baby bottle sterilizer in tablet form, just soak all the dividers and trays and base in a warm water bath with a couple of tablets in the water.I won’t insult your intelligence by saying not to get the electric motor and fans wet..just wipe with a damp paper towel.
The selected eggs are put in and numbered with the pen number written on in pencil. I keep a book with all the details of the pens and the ring colour of the birds, so I know which pen produced what chicks and how well they hatched.

The machines I use are Brinsea 40DX autos and I find them very efficient. Do not fill right up with eggs..It says 48 hens eggs, but with that many the turning cradle gears cannot cope with the weight and starts slipping…Serious money for a new one.
Just a word of warning here.My Brinsea thermometer on the top of the machine reads 37.6, but at egg level it’s higher by to much to risk over heating the eggs, so I set the read-out on top to 36.8.  You need to check yours and buy a thermometer and lay it on the eggs or between them. Don’t  get a cheap one, as for a bit more money you get a better instrament that will give you a better reading. Incubation is all about covering all possibilities and I write down any problems and action taken and make sure it does’nt happen next time.

I only put about half a tea cup full of water in just 1 trough and put the lid on…I check it after about 6 hours to see if it’s up to temperature and again about 6 hours later…If all is well I just listen to the cradle turning from here at my desk, as the loo is feet away….very handy…
Check the vent on the incubator, as that controls evaporation and disperses any gasses.

After I’m happy with the set up I select my eggs.There is no point just putting every egg you have in, unless they are of quality and clean and from a worthwhile group of birds, again unless you just looking for a few pet birds. At least 50% are going to be cockerels I’m afraid and you will to dispose of these as soon as you know they are male.

This really will upset you and if you have children even more so, as those fluffy little bundles are now half grown cocks that any minute soon will be crowing/fighting and giving the pullets a hard time. This is where responcible stockmanship is of great importance. If you have set a hatch and know before you do, that this is going to be the outcome. Taking them to a market/auction they will end up just the same way,unwanted and if bought will end up 99.9% of the time in the pot and to be honest is passing the buck and giving the birds huge amounts of un-needed stress. Cull them or find someone that can. You dare not bring them back after being in contact with strange birds as they may pick up an infection and bring it home to give whatever it is to your home flock.

The eggs are put into the incubator and the lid goes back on. It should not be taken off again untill the eggs are candled at around 10 days.There is absolutlely no need to do this unless your looking to dump any empty (clear) eggs. Just let it do it’s stuff untill the 18th day (large Fowl and 16th day bantam). In all the years I have been keeping birds and using artificial incubation I have never had a ‘popper’ yet (exploding egg). The cause of this is a hairline fracture or infection in the egg and thats why you check them before putting them in.

The temperature will drop as the eggs take on the heat and will stay low for a few hours, (Depending how many there are in the incubator). This is normal, If you set up the temperature before setting the eggs it should come back to that setting. Check after 12-18 hours.

I candle the eggs at 12 days and remove any clear/infertile eggs and replace the lid…
I make a note of eggs that have come out and mark it in the breeding book…any more than the odd 1 or 2 in a batch from a particular pen and I usually invite the cockerel around for lunch.

All is left alone until the 18th day when I top up the water by filling the reserves in the base (Brinsea) I take the incubator off the turning cradle and remove the dividers that hold the eggs. Humidity and exchanges of gass given off by the chicks is controled by the vent. The chicks have been breathing air now for a couple of days..(air sac in the egg) so it needs to be fresh and oxygenated.

From here on it gets personal,as every body’s climate/altitude is different and all and any aspect can effect a hatch,you just have to figure it out whats best for you..An early spring hatch will be different from a summer hatch,not only in the incubator but the birds will be affected by weather conditions and what food they can get other than poultry feed.

Now the exiting bit..The eggs start to pip and if the incubator has been set correctly the chicks will be able to escape the shell. Do not be tempted to take the top off…yet!..If you do the atmosphere inside the incubator will be compromised.
The chicks will be fine for at least 24 hours in which time they should dry off and fluff up.
I keep my incubator in the dark and I find the chicks do not move around and roll the unhatched eggs about so much. There are schools of thought that suggest that the temperture should be turned down, as the emerging chicks generate heat and puts the temperture up. If your new to incubation just let it run as it is. As you get better and more confident you can then play with the hatch and get more out.

Do not be disappointed with a poor hatch, as it could be down to a number of things beyond your knowlage at the moment but by keeping a record of how you set the eggs you will learn by your mistakes.

I never help a chick out if it’s not hatching itself. If it’s not strong enough to enter the world, it will more than likely take every oppertunity it gets to leave this world anyway. If it’s not 100% right I cull it. Your not doing it any favors keeping crippled chicks going.

Keep your eye on the chicks and make sure you have enough ventilation happening in the incubator. If you see the chicks’s not that they are too warm it’s because they are short of oxygen, so open the slider wider to allow a change of air..or if absolutely necessary remove the top and take out the chicks out..only the dry ones. This shortage of oxygen will not show up until the chicks are a few days old and it will show up as a lung infection.
By the time you have the chicks beginning to hatch you should have had the brooder set up and running to get the temperature up and warm the floor of the brooder.

This change over from incubator to brooder is the most critical time in a chicks life..A chill now will be catastrophic and will result in loses.The first signs are dirty bums and from there on it’s downhill all the way.

The area you brood your chicks in should be again in a stable environment..draught free and totally secure against rats.

I have a first stage brooder that they go into as soon as they have fluffed up in the incubator.
It’s made up out of 4ft x 2ft plywood and a scrap window.It has a hole cut,slightly larger than the diameter of the lampshade above where the lamp hangs to allow an exchange of air.They stay in this brooder for about a week and then move into a chick run again with a heat lamp.

I have 6, 8ft x 4ft runs that I hang a heat lamp over and I have cut a hardboard sheet..8ft x 4ft in half long ways..(8ft x 2 ft) and bend it in a circle and clamp the overlap with some home made ‘clothes pegs’ that are tight and strong enough to hold the board together…This keeps the chicks from getting into any corners and when startled cannot smother each other into a corner.

Brooder pen.

The sides of the run and floor I scrape and scrub the crap off after each batch of chicks and give it a good coat of white textured exterior masonry paint,which cleans it up and the textured finish gives the chicks grip to prevent splayed legs….

When brooding ducklings I have a good thick quality pond liner…rubber..cut to the size of the run and a bit of overlap up the sides to make the run easier to clean the ring of hardboard is then put on top.They are right messy little buggers splashing the water from the drinkers all over the floor..wash off under the tap and scrub after use.

Don’t worry about the height of the lamp off the chicks…when they have settled down you will see if it’s to warm and need raising by the chicks being all around the outside of the circle trying to find a cooler spot.I tend to site the lamp very slightly to the side of the ring to give them room to get away from the heat.
To high and the chicks get right under the lamp and huddle if they are cold and they will cheep a lot more.You can tell by laying you hand palm side down on the floor under the lamp..after a minute the back of your hand should be warm but not hot..just comfortable.

I use a small chick drinker and have it away from the lamp…still on the floor…no shavings yet..
I put just a very small amount of chick crumbs on the floor, as it shows up against the white and encourages them to peck the crumbs…They will still be feeding off the yoke sac for about 36 hours, but the feed is there when they are ready..

Day 3 and the chicks should be moving around and crapping everywhere…I put just a dusting of dust free white shavings..bought in a bale from any horse feed store..enough just to start soaking up any moisture.I put the drinker on a base that lifts it above the shavings high enought but still reasonable easy for the chicks to jump up and drink from it. Watch the chicks closely any that hang back from the feeder or are hunched up are ill. It could be a chill from the move out of the incubator into the brooder.

If you have got the chicks to this stage I’d better drop a hint on what it’s cost so far..Incubators are not energy greedy really, but the lamp is..a 250watt bulb running 24/7 is going to rack up about £9 a week to run,so just having a few chicks under it is….how can I put this…ummm!..anyway…lets hope they are all pullets eh! I usually get a batch of about 30 which makes it more cost effective.

While on the subject of the lamp..There are 2 sorts..The infra red and the dull emitter and if you have a brooder that is well insulated you may get away with a 150watt bulb..I find that the red bulb gives light for the chicks to feed and drink by and as a result they get more feeding time and there is no check to their growth.I use a dull emitter when the daylight hours are longer in the summer and besides that the Other Half doesn’t know I have yet another brood going through the system.
After a day or so I start putting just a teaspoon full of Apple cider vinegar in their a drinker that holds about a ltr of water.This is to lower the ph of the gut.Chicks are very susceptible to many things that effect the gut, as they have no immunity to anything they are picking up from the world around them.

A major nasty is coccidosis, they start looking hunched up and there may be blood in the poo on the floor..where the others get infected from eating it..I have found that putting the chicks on Cider vinegar lowers the ph in the gut and helps prevent the bug getting established.Now that is only my opinion, but I used to get chicks going down with an illness as described above and I put them on CV.

Having so many chicks going through my system here..around 400 a year..I am careful about hygiene and keep a spray of Jayes Fluid on the go in the granary where I have the youngsters.
I clean the runs of soiled shavings before it gets to a point that the chicks/growers are living in their own excrement as each dropping could start off an infection.

The water fonts are a vantage point for youngsters to perch on top of and they will foul the water this need a cover put over it that stops them.

At the stage they start feathering up and coming out of fluff I give them some greens usually clover as it’s small and easy to eat,longer grasses may give them problems.I’m lucky to have a large area around the farm and have established large areas of white clover and collect large handfuls for the growers at least twice a day.

They have their first around 8am and before I re fill the feeders with feed.The first time they have it put in they are startled, but after a few days as soon as I walk through the door they look for it.
It’s a conditioning or training ploy, as it helps to calm them down if you need to work cleaning out their run or moving them on.Bit like a comfort feed.They are stressed by me moving them out of the run when I clean and disinfect and as soon as I put them back on clean shaving they stress again (you can tell by the way they nearly all defecate as soon as you put them back in on new shavings) a handful of clover/grass has an immediate effect and the stress levels drop.

Growers in youngstock runs.

Just as soon as they are into the feather stage I give the first small feed of wheat and rolled barley just glistening with Cod liver oil.I find it best if they have cleared the chick crumbs and are looking to feed. Any they fail to clear within ten minutes or so, I remove and refill with crumbs.
Cod-liver oil is sunshine in a tin and I find it indispensable.It has vitamins that will go towards giving the chicks a good start in life.

Putting growers outside.

The chicks by the time they have all their feathers should be coming off crumbs and on to a grain diet, but you need to back up the grain with grass,so out in a run on mown grass is a must to give them some extra protein.It needs to be mown because your after the growing tips and a mower set correct will just take to top off and it will re-shoot,do this a couple of days before you move the run onto it.
Don’t leave them on that bit for to long, as they will be defecating into it and if you leave them on it they will be eating it..bad idea.
They will need grit given add -lib in a container.I cut a side out of a plastic milk container and cut the bottom of the handle and use it as a hook to hang it up.Till they are a bit bigger I use a smaller pigeon grit or budgie grit.Up till now they have been getting grit from the chick crumbs.

These birds have just moved outside. The weather is dry and mild and they are well grown and healthy.No sign of any problems with this brood all feathered up at the same rate,no sniffles and no feather pecking, even though they were fairly close by the time the weather was forecast mild and fairly sunny for the next few days,by which time they will have hardened up and acclimatized to being outside.
I truly believe that the use of Cider Vinegar from the first few days of life makes so much difference to rearing chicks.

The sex of the birds should by now be apparent and the separating of cockerels and pullets should take place asap after you can tell the difference.
The cockerels will constantly harass the pullets and hold them back.

This is one of the most distressing parts of keeping poultry,culling fit, healthy youngsters because they are males.After years and years I still dread doing it,but finding homes for spare males is almost impossible and they could end up in the wrong hands. You need to be aware of this as 50% of your chicks could be male.