Saturday, June 20, 2015

Should you let your hens hatch chicks?

So if you are a rural homesteader keeping chickens, this is a question you will probably ask yourself at one time or another. I know I did.  I had two Buff Orpingtons who went broody on me on a semi-annual basis, and always wondered how it would be to let one of them hatch a clutch of eggs. All the chickens I'd raised to that point were brooder babies, and I was always under the impression that letting a mother hen do all the work meant no work or me.  So here is an honest look at my experiences, with the pros and cons openly discussed.  Remember, the following is based on my opinion only, so others may feel differently.

Is it, on the whole, easier?  The answer to that is a resounding NO. It is just difficult in a different way.  Sure, you never have to worry about the brooder temperature, barn fires from heat lamps or stuff like that, but you have other worries.  First, you have to make sure your brooding hen is kept isolated from the other hens, or its possible there will be competition for the eggs, and even egg-icide. (is that even a word?) My New Hampshire Red, Ginger, got into Ellen's eggs early on and broke all but two of the first clutch.  She's not an egg breaker OR eater so I think this was just a bit of Darwin-type natural selection competition going on.  (And I won't even re-hash the issue of Ellen herself turning on the two late-hatches in her clutch.  That meant that, unexpectedly, I ended up with two babies in the brooder and two under a live hen.  Not what I had anticipated, but it can happen.)

But what that competition from other hens means is that you may need to construct a coop within a coop for the broody hen -- or put her in a specially-constructed brooding area of your garage, barn, spare room, etc. -- to keep the her and her eggs safe while she's sitting and of course once they hatch into chicks. I luckily have a small coop, which we owned before we got the large chicken mansion the ladies currently live in, so that part worked out OK.

Ellen and babies in the condo.

But here is the other you are feeding, watering, cleaning and caring for two separate batches of chickens. Double the work, easily.

One other thing is that once your sitting hen has been isolated from her flock-mates for several weeks, she will have to re-establish her place in the pecking order.  Since Ellen has always been Head Hen, this only took about 15 minutes, and oddly enough it was the hen in the lowest spot on the pecking order who challenged her, but for me it was a stressful 15 minutes, full of fighting, comb-pulling, feather-grabbing, mounting, and pecking.  Luckily Ellen's babies were sequestered elsewhere, or there could have been a fatality there.

Then of course there is also the issue of the sex of your chicks.  Right now I am not sure if I have one rooster and three hens, or three roosters and one hen. The black bantams are extremely hard to sex, but obviously I'm hoping for hens. Brooding hens, of course hatch a "straight run" of chicks, where there is a 50/50 chance of the chicks being either sex, whereas at the Feed Store, there's something like a 90 percent certainty the chick you bring home is, in fact, a female. Luckily I already have a home for ONE rooster (at the winery), but if there are three of them I am not sure what we will do. Dine on Cornish Game Hen I guess.

Time will tell whether the naturally raised chicks are any better for having been raised by a real chicken mother. Ellen has been an excellent mother and has taught them a lot, however, the two chicks I have in the brooder seem to have learned the same things on their own -- scratching, dust bathing, etc.. They are also a lot tamer because they've been handled a lot more. But I'm open to seeing their differences once they're all integrated.

Claire and Otis in the brooder.

So was it worth it? Well, I am happy to have gotten a good education by doing this. But as to whether or not I would do it again, the answer is probably no. It IS nice to know a hen can survive the starvation and deprivation they put themselves through when they are broody, but the whole isolation thing has proved complex and a little more demanding of my time than I honestly anticipated, so our next batch of hens will probably come from the Feed Store and I will rest easy, in the near-certainty that they are all hens and therefore have a lifelong home here at the old homestead.

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