Raising Chickens: Breeding Resilience with Broody Hens

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Editors Note: Another article on chickens from R. Ann Parris to The Prepper Journal. If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share then enter into the Prepper Writing Contest with a chance to win one of three Amazon Gift Cards with the top prize being a $300 card to purchase your own prepping supplies!

Chickens are some of the most popular livestock worldwide, modern backyard enthusiasts to sustenance-level farms from China to the Balkans. There’s good reason. They’re economical, versatile on the table, and multi-function laborers. Most chickens have pretty short “working” lives, though, which means we need to replace them regularly.

(Full disclosure: I don’t actually like chickens, but they’re essential to my production capabilities and I respect them as such.)

Breeding capability builds our resilience against the personal and short-term disasters as well as the nation-shaking and world-altering crises. A good rooster and reliable broody hen are a gold mine in these days of ordering chicks.

Those broodies are worth identifying, especially. They can save us time, electricity, and effort, and even increase the efficiency of our other poultry. Watching for some key traits in our hens, both good and bad, can maximize our flock’s ease and success.

I’m specifically talking about chickens, but many factors also apply to other poultry, and the behavioral aspects apply to the other super-efficient, inexpensive, every-prepper, apartment to acreage meat source: rabbits.

*Not everybody who can/will shoot a person or a wild animal is capable of harvesting something they raised. Start small and make sure you can actually control the population before you go big or breed more.

Broodiness

Broodiness is basically when a hen is ready and willing to sit a nest. I have never successfully induced broodiness. If a hen doesn’t want kids right now, game over. Maybe somebody is managing, but don’t waste too much time trying on this one.

See, most of the suggestions miss a big factor: Successful mothers are usually older hens, 3+ years. The best are typically upper-echelon birds hitting 4-6 years old.

Because laying decreases significantly every year, a lot of people have already replaced hens by then, leaving mostly young birds. It’s expecting a toddler-teen to focus, earn, budget, and shop like a 30-40-year-old.

That said, do use breed reviews to help anticipate broodiness expectations.

If you want a laying flock to periodically reproduce or serve as surrogates, avoid breeds listed as “low” and “no/almost never” for broodiness.

If we want 3+ clutches annually, we might maintain a couple keepers from breeds listed as “high/yes, often broody”, but try to go with breeds that break off broodiness easier, not breeds listed as persistent (read: constantly, stubbornly broody).

For fewer over-broody frustrations but periodic clutches from our layers, choose a “moderate/occasionally broody” breed.

Laying Boxes

Most of us expect our hens to share laying boxes. That can be a problem for brooding. If a hen shows signs of being inclined but isn’t sitting the eggs we’ve left, see if she’s getting displaced by other hens.

If so, that box is too popular. You need more boxes, to try moving her and her clutch to a different box, or relocating her box and replacing it for the other hens.

*Bonus tidbit: You may need extra boxes even with only 6-12 birds in non-brooding daily layer life, although you should be able to have a minimum of 2-4 layers using each box. — If you’re having problems, check the placements but start watching for personality traits and your own habits. There’s usually a problem, and it’s usually our fault or a particular animal or two with unacceptable behavioral issues.

Insufficient boxes can also be responsible for full and partial-clutch abandonment (she started sitting, then abandoned her eggs).

Check the hen and flock for battle signs, although roosters are rough lovers. She’s a sitting target on the nest, so he may actually be the problem. If it’s not him, she’s fighting off other hens for her nest, and may eventually give up or lose.

*Bonus tidbit: Hens with “love torn” back feathers are actually the indicator for most-likely-fertilized eggs.

Mean Ol’ Bitty

A hen should not resist being nudged out of the box daily. Nor should you be pecked over every egg. That’s cause to assess how calm the coop is at collection time (checking for problematic human habits) and then send problem birds to the glass-jar coop in the pantry.

Since our birds are calm, cool, and cooperative, we can recognize a hen exhibiting broody behaviors: staring daggers as soon as you appear, racing from feed/calcium/water to occupy the box before you get there, becoming increasingly unwilling to leave the box while you collect, fanning out feathers, pecking your shoe, snatching your sleeve, trying to squeeze through the lift in back-access boxes to follow her egg(s), and-or trying to wedge into the collection basket or hovering over it.

*Bonus tidbit: Also watch for hens laying near their favorite box(es) but not in them. Sometimes they can’t get in to lay because a broody is defending it.

Those behaviors are – for this out-of-character, slow-ramping (3-8 days), and temporary behavioral change – acceptable.

So long as they’re not excessive.

We are not going to screw with this hen often, but we are likely to want in there.

We need to add, crayon (track), and candle (check the contents of) eggs. We may want to get our hands on the hen (briefly and noninvasively) to feel under-the-feather condition.

In some cases, we may need to relocate our hen and her clutch/box (extreme weather, coop companions, brooder or grow-out pens, changing conditions that affect nest safety).

We’re usually going to want to get our hands on the chicks somewhere through their “raptor” stage at least once or twice, even if we’re not sexing or weighing them and don’t handle/socialize our birds.

We need to be able to do this without the stress that excessive guarding creates within the flock and her clutch. Excessive guarding can also be contagious to the flock and chicks, and carry over to her post-clutch conduct.

We might let an over-aggressive bitty raise this clutch (be aware: the genetic inclination is there if it’s her chicks). We wouldn’t indulge her broodiness again, though, and she’s looking hard at the butcher-paper poncho.

(Apply that to rabbits and other livestock, too. There’s a line mothers need to walk between enough and excess.)

Successful Broody Traits

On top of her personality, a broody hen needs to check a few boxes successfully, and a few more if we’re not hand-rearing the chicks or she’s raising them inside a flock.

One, and it might seem obvious, but she needs to eat.

Two, she needs to be lickety-splickety, and then get back to the clutch.

(Psst … We usually need to feed her, not expect her to free-range forage.)

Some hens are easily distracted or not dedicated, and will leave a clutch too long. Flip side, some barely budge at all. We may need to provide her with some extra tidbits, or keep feed and water closer.

Good mothers of most species lose condition, but if she loses too much, it may be months before she recovers enough to lay again after her brood.

Also seemingly obvious: She needs to sit her nest for the 12-60 hours it takes all the eggs to hatch.

Flaky hens will sometimes only sit the first few chicks, then abandon the rest. It’s especially frustrating to find cool, wasted eggs that were abandoned half-cracked and chicks that have gone hypothermic. Check them frequently when hatching starts.

Some young hens are like any other new mother, and just don’t get it yet.

We may be able to finish the hatching this time, but if she leaves early a 2nd-3rd time, we need to not indulge her broodiness anymore (and weigh feed-productivity against a glass-jar coop).

Unless we’re taking the chicks away to raise and only wanted the non-electric incubator, our broody hen needs to walk another balanced line: showing her fluffy-fuzzies how to eat and drink, but keeping the late-cracking pips and wet peepers warm enough.

This is another one where a food-water station near the box can make a difference.

If she’s keeping her peepers, the bitty walks that narrow aggression line again: Being peck-happy enough to protect her chicks from other barnyard residents, but not being a feathered Terminator intent on keeping everything 50’ away from the shed.

*Chickens are brutal. Do let her keep other birds off the chicks.

I prefer flock-raised clutches, but it’s not always possible. Big-gap fencing, small hawks/big crows, free-range factors, and the broody spending too much time guarding can make it unfeasible.

*Watch for a particular bird harassing her/them; problem chickens get the Ziploc poncho.

Especially if we have a big, multiple-breed, or mixed flock, we’re likely to need a brooder pen. Usually multiple hens can share them, especially if the nests are within 2-4 weeks of each other.

Once they’re separated, we’re going to have to be careful with introductions/reintroduction’s to the flock.

Surrogates

While my preferred birds will raise guineafowl, quail, turkey, and waterfowl, I for-sure want hens that will incubate them.

Sometimes we can add 3-4 eggs at a time, so she has the 10-20 she can cover in just a couple days. Sometimes we can add a full dozen at once. Sometimes it has to be slower, adding 1-2 eggs at a time to the ones she’s laying.

Some will roll significantly different-sized eggs out of the nest. I don’t love it, but it’s not a glass-coop or never-again offense to me.

A workaround is swapping for her eggs. Sometimes we’re stuck with 1:1 egg replacement, but usually we can match the size/mass of what she had – 2-3 hen eggs for 3-6 quail eggs or 1-2 goose or turkey eggs.

*Hen size determines her max egg count. Chickens cannot fit over as many goose or turkey eggs/chicks as they would their own.

Some hens will take on not only foreign eggs, but live chicks. Some will accept even 7-10-day-old chicks into their clutch.

It’s a rarer hen that will let you add already-hatched other-species to her own chicks, but they’re out there. (Some bitties would happily sit a half-grown emu.)

If you’re going to lose a clutch anyway (power/heat light out, mother overwhelmed or killed), give it a shot but brace for carnage. The earlier you can add them, the better.

I love the surrogate trait, but I don’t want hens too crazy with their adoptions. Too-keen birds trying to steal eggs or chicks are too disruptive, especially in smaller flocks.

It can result in fights, serious injuries, production-stoppage (stress), broken eggs, and mangled, run-over chicks.

We spent 5+ weeks (minimum) doing without a layer’s production to get those young birds. Heaven forbid they be from slow-laying, low-production game birds. The problem hen heads to Camp Kettle.

Broody Birds

Reproducing our flocks takes some pre-planning and know-how, but it increases our resilience to everything from personal disasters to worldwide crisis.

Reliable, versatile broody hens further increase our capabilities, even beyond small (but devastating) crises like outages/gennie failure and burned-out incubators and brood lights. They improve the efficiency of all our poultry.

Older, slower-laying chickens can raise clutches for higher-yielding young hens, maximizing each’s strongpoints and minimalizing each’s inherent age weaknesses.

Chicken surrogates incubating slower-laying game bird eggs gets those hens back to laying faster, too.

They also give us a canny bird to raise clutches for species that are mortally stupid mothers.

However, excessive broodiness is a problem akin to clutch abandonment and fake broodiness, and there are other broody behaviors we want to remove from our bloodlines. It can be hard for some keepers, but it’ll give us a more peaceful and productive flock in the long run.

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