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Hens Raising Chicks – 5 Things You Need to Know Before You Start

by Victoria Gazeley

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That first little ‘peep peep’ from under the wing of your favorite hen, a chick the hen hatched, is something you’ll never forget.

That sweet little face is the culmination of the hours and days and weeks that you’ve put into raising your backyard flock.  In our case, my son strangely knew exactly which of our 14 girls would be the first broody hen – it would be Lucky Wattles, he said, and he would name the first baby ‘Pip’.  And so it was.

The Benefit of Broody Mamas

I wasn’t sure I wanted to raise chicks this year.  Our hens are only slightly more than a year old and because they’re pretty happy and healthy, we’ve likely got another year or so before their egg production begins to drop off (or so all the books say).  So when suddenly it was May and my son asked if we were still going to raise a small batch of chicks this year, I cringed a little.  No, a lot.  Not only do we not have room for a big brooder, but the idea of having to deal with thermometers and washing water founts every day made me want to run back to the city.  Well, not really, but you get the picture.

Now, conveniently, we had two hens go ‘broody’ right around that time.  I have to admit that I didn’t do a lot of research – it was one of my rare ‘dive right in’ moments.  We stopped collecting eggs for a couple of days, crossed our fingers that some of them were fertilized courtesy of our big Buff Orpington rooster, and hoped for the best.

21 days later, we had our first chick.  A day later, another 2 sweet little fluffballs.  All tolled, we ended up with 6 live chicks from 14 eggs between the two hens – 2 babies died when their eggs were broken before they were ready to hatch, and the rest either didn’t develop fully or weren’t fertilized in the first place.

And now, 11 days post- the first hatch, everyone is doing great and we’re well on our way to revitalizing our flock with new egg layer for next year.  That is if they’re all hens, of course.

Lessons Learned

To say this has been an adventure is an understatement.  There are things I should have known before we started (like the challenges of having two mama hens with chicks in the same flock), and things I’m glad I didn’t know (like the fact we’d find dead pre-hatchlings in the nest).  Mostly, it’s been a great experience (my son loves it), but it’s also been a lot of work.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you decide to give your broody hens the opportunity to do what hens are meant to do.  It’s not an exhaustive list, and I’m not an expert, but it’s a good place to start!

  1. Separate the Hen(s) – In the days leading up to the eggs hatching, I asked experienced chicken raisers on our Modern Homesteading Facebook page what their best advice was regarding separating the broody hens from the rest of the flock.  As is always the case, we got a lot of different opinions.  What I learned was this: there is no one-size fits all solution.  What will work for you will depend on a number of things: the breed and size of your flock, the temperament of your birds, the size of your chicken house, your nest box set-up, how much time you have to keep an eye on your new additions, and so many other little details.  But in our case, I should have separated the hens when they started sitting on their egg clutches – not after the babies hatched.  What happened was that some of the other hens were hopping into the broody hens’ nesting spots and depositing their eggs, which at first added more eggs to the clutch than I originally wanted (hence why we had two hens incubating the eggs – I couldn’t tell which ones were the originals and which ones had been recently deposited), and necessitated me marking each of the ‘sitting eggs’ with an X.  Then when the babies started hatching, we lost a couple, I’m assuming due to other hens stepping around in the nest boxes in a way nowhere near as carefully as the broody mamas and cracking the egg shells before the chicks were ready to hatch.  I tried to keep them safe with chicken wire set up around those two nest boxes (with water and food there for the mamas), but it didn’t work very well.  In the end, after the babies hatched, I set up one of those folding dog fences on the floor of the coop, configured into two compartments -  one for each new little family.  Unfortunately, that didn’t work so well either, as the two hens were at each other through the wire fencing, knocking over their food and water in the process and stepping on the chicks.  The set up now is one pen using the dog fencing for one family, and a large dog crate for the other, complete with food and water.  Everyone seems happier (myself included).
  2. Smaller Clutches are Better than Large – Our Lucky Wattles started out sitting on 14 eggs.  That’s WAY too much for a tiny little hen.  So instead of disposing of eggs, we moved 6 over to the other broody hen, Miss Snooty Pants (yes, we called her that for good reason), and hoped for the best.  Next time, we’ll make sure to only allow a certain number of eggs in each clutch (I’m thinking 8 is a good number) – it increases the chances of successful incubation and I assume is much less stressful for the mama.
  3. Mama Hens Know What They’re Doing – Compared to the constant diligence required when brooding chicks without a hen (or even more so, when incubating eggs in an incubator), letting hens look after eggs and chicks is a breeze.  There’s no need for thermometers or brooding lamps (unless it’s really cold), or showing the chicks where the water is – mama hen does all that and more.  Ours have been out free-ranging with their mamas since about Day 4 and it’s fascinating to watch her show them what’s edible, what’s not, where the water is, and keeping them warm.  Bottom line?  Mama definitely does know best.
  4. Other Hens Can Be Nasty – I was warned (thanks Facebook friends!) that part of the reason for separating the  mamas and babies from the rest of the flock is because other hens can be brutal with chicks, even killing them.  Since I didn’t really want that, I made an effort to keep them all separate.  But other people say that they just let the mamas defend the babies right from day one.  I’m not quite ready to risk a dead chick – not after all the work I’ve put into them – so I’ll be waiting til the chicks are older, wiser, and bigger and can fend for themselves a bit.
  5. You Don’t Necessarily Need Special Food - We’re feeding non-medicated chick starter and free-ranging somewhat, but I’ve heard from a number of people that they have their chicks out free-ranging with the mama hen right from day 1 and don’t use chick starter or any grit.  You’ll need to assess how much food is available for them while free-ranging to determine if there’s ‘enough’ for their quickly growing bodies.  As for me, I’d rather be safe than sorry and will continue to offer both to our 6 little cuties.  Note: chicks apparently can not eat layer mash, so it’s important to ensure they don’t have access to it.  Formulations for laying hens contain far too much in the way of minerals (calcium in particular) for chicks, so if you’re not free ranging your babies or making your own feed, you’ll need chick starter (preferably as ‘natural’ as possible, ideally ‘organic’, and if not, then at least non-GMO – it does exist).  Here’s a relatively updated list of organic chicken feeds in the US and Canada:  Organic Chicken Feed Suppliers.

We’ve learned so much more than this, but these 5 points stick out as important for the first week or two.  We’ll definitely keep you posted as things progress…

One of our Facebook friends said that there’s nothing cuter than a mama hen out with her babies, showing them the world and clucking softly.  Now that I’ve experienced it first-hand and spent a lot of time out in the rain observing our new little ‘families’, I’d have to say I couldn’t agree more.

Have you ever raised chicks with a hen doing most of the work?  Is there anything I missed in this article that you think would be important for new chicken raisers to know?  Are you new to this gig and have questions about hens raising chicks?  If so, share it in the comments below!  We’d love to hear your experiences!

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Mmrq1953 July 11, 2012 at 6:05 pm

I am also a first time chicken raiser, I have 14 layers as well, with no rooster.  My girls are at 15 weeks and have been nesting in their new boxes for several weeks. We converted an old pig stye to a coop. 

I was curious as to what kinds of popcicles you feed them.  Can they be made out of regular koolaid or even unsweetened ice tea.  I live in NE Texas and we have very hot dry weather. 
Recently I gave my girls a cup of yogurt and they loved it.  I also feed them all kinds of garden scraps including tomatoes, squash, zuccuni, black eyed pea pods and corn cobs.  I do not feed them onions, potatoes or garlic.  I have heard that the closer to their laying period between 20-24 weeks I will not feed them as much scraps as this tends to tant the flavor of the eggs.  I’ve also fed them pasta, rice, left over bread, pastry and lawn clippings.  We are building them a larger coop this fall out of an old high sided trailer so next spring we can move them to other areas of our property (we have 9 acres).  I just now applied for a permit to sell at the local farmers market in town and have been saving egg cartons to give to family and friends.  I just love my girls and was posting a Chick Pic of the day.  I enjoyed reading your articles and look forward to following more.
Sincerely
Marlene Shippy
Shippy Lane Farms
Quinlan, Texas

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Illoura August 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm

My first experience with this method went about like yours, (I used fold-up bed springs and stuff), but I learned a lot and no casualties. 
Out of 5 eggs, I got 3 roosters and one hen that laid her first egg last week (at 4 months). I would like to say most of what you learned is what I learned too, but one thing you missed was on #3, that the hens know what they are doing… maybe not.I suggest marking the eggs with an X on the up side when you can (asap), then checking that she is TURNING THEM. I went through THREE nice clutches of fertile eggs from my giant cochins before having to resort to a handful of unknown breed/fertility of a generous neighbor, because my hen wasn’t turning the eggs. Once hatched she was a perfect mamma.I’m now hatching one more clutch (2 eggs developing and due to hatch tomorrow- from organic store-bought carton, marked with a date of lay). One egg is green, one is blue. They are under a different hen and she didn’t turn them either! This raising backyard/homestead chickens is not always as easy as some make it out to be -as in ‘nature will take care of itself’, and the lessons can be very hard, but it is a learning process! Just never make assumptions, right?

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Victoria Gazeley August 2, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Good point! I guess not all hens know what to do instinctively, but I still prefer to let Mother Nature take its course and if it works it works, and if not, that’s OK too… ;) As for hatching from store-bought eggs, I’m very curious – I didn’t think that was even possible… would love to hear how you get that to work! :) Thanks so much for stopping by – it’s always great to get other perspectives. Adds so much to the richness of what it is we’re all doing.

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Illoura August 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Victoria, 
In answer re: hatching store-bought eggs, I’ve spent a lot of time online reading about raising chickens and the most informative places for experience-related info is on the chicken-raising forums like backyardchickens.com!
Some women had found they could incubate organic eggs from Trader Joes, although they were refrigerated.
It stands to reason that when chickens go broody in spring (mine started in late January) the temps are still near freezing much of the time. A hen may let eggs add up in a nest before setting on them and even in regular spring weather they can be good for up to 10 days that way, kept on the countertop (if you ever need to collect eggs for hatching so you have enough).
It was just something I wanted to try doing since I was having difficulty finding the green eggs that I wanted locally and I just happened to have a broody hen and just happened to find a brand of eggs which included one colored egg in each carton of browns & also a white egg. The date on the carton was 5 days previous, so I took the chance, not knowing if they were fertile until I cracked some of them into a breakfast pan! LOL 3 of 5 were fertile which told me that the organic free-range flock at least had a rooster attached. I tried to find pictures of the farm on the label, but they had no photos. They did sell a dozen green eggs for hatching for $15. I couldn’t use that many and was happy to try for two. I candled the 2 eggs after 5 days and they were both developing, and I candled again at 11 days… so fingers crossed they will see the world tomorrow! I really hope they are hens, lol. 

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Victoria Gazeley August 2, 2012 at 3:24 pm

That is SO interesting. I can’t imagine any of the eggs we have in our stores would be fertile, even the organic ones, but how fascinating that you’ve found some that are. I had no idea ­ everything I’d read said it wasn’t possible, and I guess in most cases it wouldn’t be. Except for this one! Thanks so much for sharing that… You learn something new every day!! :)

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Marie Hood January 17, 2013 at 4:22 pm

I’ve had broodies hatch eggs a few times. Twice I just had one mom and it went great. Once I had two broodies and they raised the chicks all together, co-op. It was quite cute. I’ve heard some of the horror stories, but I think the fact my girls are all free range helps some of the agression from others. The only down side is the chicks grow into a much more feral type chicken, so you don’t get chicken snuggles from them. :)

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Victoria Gazeley January 19, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Thanks for your comments, Marie! Ours were great moms too, and only one grumpy old lady. And you’re right – the mama-raised ones aren’t so fond of being held, though weirdly, the young rooster is a love!

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Gail Gardner March 2, 2013 at 6:37 pm

We had a young hen we raised who was barely a year old that decided to sit a nest and successfully hatch 18 chicks. She wasn’t even a very big hen and was half one of the more feral game type hens. We did move her and all the eggs she chose to sit on (most of them NOT hers) into a raised chick cage just before they hatched. Only one egg failed to hatch and no chicks were born dead or died.

You do have to be careful to only let chicks have access to regular chick waterers. Our older chickens drink out of flat tubs like the rubber kind made to feed grain to horses, (because they are much faster and easier to clean and we already had them), but chicks can drown in those. We keep those clean and full because chickens and guineas will try to drink from horse troughs and can fall in and drown.

We had a heat lamp in the cage so that they could move into or away from it, but in hindsight they probably don’t really need one since it almost never freezes here. I have a friend who turned 87 yesterday whose family farmed 160 acres with teams of horses. She is a great resource for questions like how did they raise chicks before electricity and how did they store food without a refrigerator.

They cold packed beans and did not even have such a thing as a pressure cooker, and she can’t remember anyone ever getting sick from food poisoning – so keep that in mind when you read official recommendations about how long food keeps and what is necessary to preserve it. Overheating kills beneficial enzymes and obviously people DID can long before electricity and pressure cookers became common.

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Victoria Gazeley April 2, 2013 at 11:50 am

Great tips, Gail – thank you!

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