A guide to brooding and rearing naturally.
At this time of year now almost certainly we should all be seeing signs or already have Lincolnshire Buffs broody. I have found the breed good sitters at just about any time of year!
The use of a broody hen is in my opinion indispensable to the poultry keeper, although the use of incubators in early parts of the year and by the sheer number of chicks hatched they can of course be extremely useful. The broody hen can be used in a variety of ways to help the stockman and fancier alike.
In writing this article I have gleaned so much using resources from old poultry books, essentially the principles of our hobby have not changed for the management of fowls remains the same and it seems to me that to move forward with poultry a look to the past can prove very useful. Never more so than with the broody hen and her management.
The first signs of the broody hen are easily noticeable, the tell tale clucking, fluffing up and of course general reluctance to leave the nest box are all key indicators. It is essential that the broody hen is removed from the main house so as not to encourage other hens to become broody, one broody hen is enough to encourage the others to follow suit!
Before you know it you could have a pen of broody hens and of course, a stop in your egg production! This can be an all too common problem for those of us that only have a trio of Lincolnshire Buffs, one hen goes broody halving the supply of fertile eggs. The law of averages indicates that at least half of chicks produced will be cockerels so using a trio and allowing your Lincolnshire Buffs to sit their own eggs can produce small numbers of chicks. This can be very dishearting and severely hampers your progress in increasing your own flock.
The use of another breed at this time can be useful. A Silkie-Sussex cross is the hen of choice for brooding and rearing chicks, and using this method will allow your Lincolnshire Buffs to maintain their supply of precious eggs for hatching, therefore increasing your averages and hopefully increasing your flock.
Should you find your Lincolnshire Buff hen broody and wish to stop this feat of nature and resume her laying, the best method is to remove her from the poultry house and place her in a pen with a wire floor, a light and windy spot is ideal for this. Overhead shelter and of course feed and water will keep her safe and well. After 3-4 days, possibly more for those hens who are ‘sitting tight’ should see her back to normal, and placing her back in the main fowl house at night should cause minimal disruption.
Back to brooding, the next step is to put together a broody box and find a good location to house it in. A sitting box is easily made, take a wooden box of suitable size so as to afford the hen comfort. Fix a board to the bottom of the opening to keep the nesting material in. Fix a similar board across the top of the front and drill some holes in the side of the box for ventilation. A door can be fitted hinged at top and clasped at the bottom.
Alternatively a box on its side with a Hessian sack covering the front and weighed down with a brick will suffice. When locating the box ensure that no vermin can access the nesting box and disrupt the broody hen and damage her eggs.
Line the bottom of the box with fine soil free from stones and create the shape of the nest by lowering out the centre slightly and rounding up at the corners. This helps to keep the nest together, the soil helping to replicate a nest as nature would have it. Once the soil has been added place soft straw in the nest and again mould this into a nest shape.
Now that the sitting box is ready, take the broody hen and dust her adequately for mite and lice with a suitable powder. Nothing is more certain to upset the hen and cause her to leave the nest than a heavy infestation of parasites. Once the hen has been placed on the nest, preferably at night when the darkness will help her to settle, place a few ‘croc’ (pot) eggs in the nest to encourage her to sit tight. If you do not have any ‘croc’ eggs to hand some small potatoes will suffice.
Allow the hen to sit like this for a couple of days until you are adequately satisfied that she is sitting tight and ready for the hatching eggs. Nothing is more frustrating than allowing a hen to commence sitting on the precious eggs and then for her to leave the nest and change her mind!
Once you are confident, remove the ‘croc’ eggs and place the hatching eggs under the hen, again the best time for this to take place is in darkness so to cause minimal disruption.
Feeding of the broody hen should be hard grains, wheat being the preferred choice. The protein afforded by her regular layers meal/pellet is not required when she is in this sedentary state. Fresh water should also be provided. Lifting the hen off the nest daily at a regular time ensures that she received enough feed and water, ensure that she has attended to her droppings and then returned to the nest after this has been achieved.
When removing the broody from the nest, do so with great care as the eggs can become very tightly tucked up under the bird and fall out from under her during the removal.
The eggs should be checked for fertility at 7-9 days and any clears removed. A further check at 16-19 days should give a good indication . On the 19th-20th day before the hen returns to her duties on the nest, the eggs can be lightly sprinkled with warm water to add humidity for hatching on the 21st day.
If hatching is delayed and no chicks have emerged from the eggs by the 22nd day theremay be cause for concern. However, I have known chicks to have a day or two later so if any doubt, nesting can be continued.
During hatching the hen is best left alone while she sits tight, in any case she will be aware that they are hatching and be reluctant to leave the nest. Once the chicks have all hatched remove the empty shells from the nest. There is no need to feed the chicks initially as the main priority is keeping them warm under the hen for the first 24-48 hours. Once a day or two has passed since hatching, water and chick crumbs can be provided and left down in the pen. The hen will determine when to bring the chicks off the nest for their outings.
As an observation, chicks reared naturally are bolder and stronger than their peers raised under the lamp. Mother nature seems to know best and chicks will thrive with their mothers. Weather permitting, the hen and her brood can be moved to a combined coop and run as soon as they are strong enough.
Early march winds and April showers should be well guarded against where chick are concerned. Ensure that she always has somewhere warm and dry in which to brood them, especially so if outside in a coop. A word of warning, it has been known for rats, crows and magpies to take chicks so ensure their coop is as safe as can be.
The hen should moult out with her chickens and at this stage the chickens may be weaned and moved to grower pens. This early moult of the hen can be of valuable service to the poultry fancier as the hens early onset of new feathers may add to her chances at the later Autumn shows when her peers may only just be starting to drop their feathers.
I hope you may find this article helpful, there is no greater sight than a hen with her chicks. On a personal note I have enjoyed writing this article and reminiscing through old poultry books from days gone by, where hens are the same as they are now!
Good luck with your breeding in 2009, Nicholas Taylor. Breed Liaison Officer