Guide to broody hens part 1: setting up

We’re only in our 3rd year of hatching chicks but the learning curve has been steep. We started not knowing much at all about chickens, then through reading blogs, articles and books and asking lots of questions on forums and Facebook groups, we have found our footing. I feel quite confident now about hatching chicks with a broody, although there is always more to learn!

I’m on a few smallholding/chicken related groups and I’ve found myself answering a lot of questions with the general gist of ‘help my hen is broody, what on earth do I do?’. I’ve always given a detailed response as to what we do and then to my surprise others, who seem very experienced, liked my suggestions and even better the original poster would come back and say that the advice helped. Given that I learnt through others being generous with their knowledge, it feels really good to be able to give back. So that is what I am doing here, hoping to write a post that someone can stumble across and be helped by.

So you think you have a broody chicken, what now? Firstly is she really broody? One of the signs of a broody chicken is being in the nest box overnight (or even worse, being missing over night due to sitting somewhere else). There are other reasons for this though. Your hen could be being bullied by the others so not able to perch, they might not be used to perching or could be avoiding the house for some reason such as red mite. They can also start sitting simply because other hens are sitting in the house. They won’t actually want to sit on eggs though and will be very flighty if disturbed. A really broody hen will be in a nest box most of the day, not just at night. If you try to remove her from the nest to get to the eggs underneath her she will be very resistant to moving and may well peck at you.

So the chicken is definitely broody. The next step is to decide what you want to do. This is really important, depending on the hen if you just leave her with infertile eggs or no eggs she can waste away. It’s not healthy. If she does steal eggs from other hens they can be a variety of ages and she can potentially collect too many. If she has too many under her then they don’t all get the right conditions, develop at different rates and possibly not hatch at all. I know of someone who had a hen sitting on 20 odd eggs and only had 1 hatch of the lot.

Lastly you need to think about what you will do with the chicks. Odds are 50% will be male, can you keep the males? Rehome them? Both have their own difficulties, males can sometimes fight between each other and not many people want to home a cockerel. The last solution for the boys is the pot (which we do) but you need to think about if you will do the deed yourself or send them off to a butcher. The hens are less complicated, you can eat them, rehome them or keep for egg layers but do make sure you have a plan in place. There’s also the extra costs of feeding the chicks as they grow which you should take into account. It’s bad practice to breed any animal without a plan for its life.

So, once you have had a good think about it all, you have two options really. The first is to help the hen to have a clutch of chicks and the second is to break the broodiness.

Now we hadn’t previously tried to break a hen of being broody, although we have had some give up on us. We are having a go at breaking a broody hen (Carrie) as we have enough chicks and she went down with wry neck when she was last broody. I’ll let you know how it goes. Having no personal experience with breaking a broody I can only regurgitate the standard advice. A wire dog cage raised by some bricks at each corner with food and water inside. The aim is to get cool air blowing underneath her and no way for her to nest. Leave her in there for 2 or 3 days (making sure she is safe at night and no predators can stress her) then let her out and see what she does. If she goes back to the nest then back in the cage (sin bin) again for a few more days. It should work. We have also had hens break broodiness by being disturbed too often, but this isn’t guaranteed and they probably weren’t going to be the best broody hens anyway.

Christie in our sin bin

If you’re letting your hen sit then you need to support her through the process. Ideally she needs her own accommodation. Other hens will badger her to get to the nest box, stressing her out and laying eggs in the clutch that you will then have to sort through. When the chicks do hatch there is a danger that other hens may attack them if they can and also the potentially for the other hens to eat the chick food, which if it is medicated is a big no-no.

A broody coop needs some certain features to make life easy for you and the hen. The most basic requirement is to be predator proof. Rats will take eggs and chicks from under a hen. Corvids will steal from nests too. Worse still a sitting hen can go into a trance like state, no challenge at all for a fox, think of the term ‘sitting duck’. A solid bottom so no one can dig underneath, a covered top so no one can swoop down and solid/wired sides so no one can wriggle in and you’ve got the basics covered.

A nice dark area for her to nest in is good. Large enough for once the chicks start running around a bit too. If you can have a covered area with more light that’s great too, the food can go there undercover and gives then hen somewhere to stretch her legs a bit if it is raining. An outdoor run is a great addition as when the hen does stretch her legs she can do a bit of digging for grubs and vegetation as well as the standard poultry feed, a varied diet is good, it also gives her a great protected space to show her chicks the world. For your ease something that allows the roof to open will be helpful. You can easily check on the hen then and push her off if needed, grab eggs to candle and introduce chicks after dark if needed.

A good broody coop

So you have accommodation sorted now you need something to sit on. If you don’t have a cockerel your eggs will be no good. If you have someone selling at the gate locally it may be worth asking if their eggs are fertile (we have had people do this with us). You can also buy in eggs, some breeders sell them for you to collect and there is wealth of eggs on places like ebay that can be posted to you.

The posted eggs

There are pros and cons to this. We have been able to source a wide variety of breeds that we just couldn’t get from our local area by buying via ebay, but we have also had hatched chicks that look nothing like what the breed should and had some truly awful hatch rates (1 out of 6). It’s a gamble and if you can collect eggs in person I always would but if there is no one locally selling what you want it is worth trying a posted batch of eggs. Hens can also incubate other breeds (ducks, turkey, geese etc) but I haven’t tried it so I can’t comment.

Once you get your eggs let them sit point down at room temperature for at least a couple of hours. If it’s your own eggs then as long as they are 10 days old or younger they should be ok. Viability drops off after that. We generally wait until after dark to set eggs under a hen. All chickens get more docile after dark and are much easier to move and to fool. The postal eggs all get candled now to check for cracks (white, cream and blue eggs will show this, possibly light brown but with dark brown eggs you’ll likely have trouble seeing much). I also write a number on each egg in pencil, going over it several times. The eggs get placed in the broody coop nesting box and the sleepy hen popped on top of them.

The next day I check on the hen several times. It’s ok if she is off the nest for a little bit. It’s less work for you if she is able to get herself up to eat, drink and poo. If the hen is out of the nest every time you check and pacing up and down searching for a way out then you may be in trouble. It’s worth in this case letting her out and seeing what happens. If you find her in a couple of hours back in the main hen house (or trying to get into it if you have a penned system) then she has probably imprinted on the place she was nesting rather than onto the eggs. Take her back to the house and shut her into the nesting area for a day or two, she’ll imprint onto these eggs and nesting area.

If she is walking about as happy as Larry and showing no signs of being broody at all then she was fickle and you no longer have a broody hen. If you had left her in the house where she had been sitting she’d have likely gone off the nest at some point later. We had this happen with Aurora, she appeared broody but bolted as soon as she had the chance.

Aurora when we thought she was broody

As you can get fickle hens we always test a hen’s broodiness post move now. So we place either rubber eggs or some eggs we don’t care about hatching or eating from our flock (generally small eggs that may or may not be fertile) into the broody coop and put then hen on them. If she sits on them for a day or two we give her the fertile eggs we want hatched. To do this we wait until after dark and then lift her up to take the temporary eggs away and pop the new ones under her. It only need be 1 or 2 temporary eggs you give her, hens can’t count very well so she won’t be bothered by 2 eggs being replaced by 6 or even 9.

So now you have a broody hen, sitting in a broody coop, on a clutch of eggs you want hatched. Give the hen access to her normal feed and water and a little bit of corn each evening might tempt her out. We push our broody hens off the nest every 3 days if there are no signs she has been off the nest (changed positions, been seen off the nest, broody poo to clean up). If we think she is getting up herself we leave her be.

Brienne waiting for her eggs to hatch

I should say something about broody poo, it is quite awful stuff, huge and smelly. You will know it when you see/smell it. It’s more of a cow pat in consistency than a chicken poo. Do be prompt at clearing it up and do check the nest. Some hens that don’t get up have been known to poo in the nest getting it on not only the bedding by the nest but also on the eggs themselves and eggs that are kept warm for 21 days with poo on them aren’t good for anyone.

Broody poo

Keep feeding and pushing off your hen if needed. You are all set for the broody hatching process though. My next post will be about what to do while the hen is sitting and getting ready for the eventual hatch. I’ll do another after that about what to do once the chicks are hatched and then, if I haven’t already covered it all, a trouble shooting post for all the little tips we have picked up when things have gone wrong! I hope that one day this is all helpful to someone and if you’ve seen something in here that you think is wrong or you think ‘I wouldn’t do that’ please do tell me, we are still learning and always open to different views on how to do things.

Dans

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