Thursday, March 10, 2011

On the Horizon - A Broody Hen

I can't tell you what a great thing it is to know a few local farmers on first-name basis.  I get all kinds of benefits from my acquaintance with them, and being a paying customer for the foods they produce is just the tip of the iceberg.  Last year my farming friend offered up a disabled turkey poult, and we had the experience of raising it for our table.  She also sends pork jowls my way for free because her customers don't want them.  So I get to turn them into guanciale.

This time we'll get a broody hen with some heritage breed fertile eggs under her.  The idea is that we'll foster her and give her a place to rear her chicks.  After that we might split the chicks with the farmer providing the hen.  I've toyed with the idea of raising chicks before, but could never motivate myself to place an order and then buy necessary equipment to set up a brooder for them.  Being a surrogate chicken mother has just never appealed.  The alternative - a broody hen with good mothering instincts sounded fantastic.  Such a hen is all the equipment needed to rear chicks.  But my laying hens are production model Red Stars with no mothering instinct, and besides, I have no interest in keeping a rooster.  I'm pretty sure my neighbors have their limits in my residential setting.  So the out-of-the-blue offer of a broody hen was another fantastic opportunity just dropped into my lap through the magic of personal acquaintance with farmers.

After last year's turkey+honey bees infraction, I'm trying to stick to my one new species per year rule this year.  The Black Soldier Fly is going to be this year's unglamorous species of choice.  But a broody hen with chicks is all sorts of excitement without rule breaking. Chickens we know.  Chickens we've done.  The brooding-hatching-rearing process is entirely new to us, but it still falls within my self-imposed and sanity-preserving limitation.  So I'm psyched!  Our homestead will be host to a new phase of animal husbandry.  At least I hope.  I'm bearing in mind that old adage about counting chickens. I'm especially eager to see this process through because in the back of my mind I've thought about using a bantam hen to brood quail eggs and rear the young, should I ever decide to try my hand at quail.  (Domesticated quail aren't known for their mothering skills.)  Working with a broody hen ahead of time seems like the smart move.

Details are still a bit unclear as to the timing and other issues.  Sometime around the middle of the month we should take delivery of a broody girl and "her" eggs.   They may not all be hers biologically, but I'm pretty sure she'll feel rather proprietary about them. I don't know whether the farmer will want the hen back with the chicks, or whether he'll want us to keep her.  Details should be forthcoming eventually; farmers are busy people.  In the meantime, a small DIY project is on the agenda.  I'm guessing she and her chicks will do best with a separate space from our layers.  At the very least she'll need her own nesting box for her fertile eggs.  I figure she and her chicks can use the poultry schooner while the other hens are kept in the mobile pen and coop.

I find myself wild with the hope that the brooding experiment works out.  I am uncharacteristically excited about all the potential cuteness of tiny chicks.  It's a good thing that they go through an ugly phase as they grow and molt for the first time.  I'm not sure yet whether we'll keep any of the female hatchlings.  We definitely won't keep any males, though if the farmer doesn't want them either we could always turn them into meat and chicken stock.

As for our current layers, if you were waiting for details on their conversion to canned meat and chicken stock due to the egg-eating habit, they've been given a stay of execution.  Securing a small number of layers this time of year isn't proving easy, and I don't want to get rid of the ones we've got before I know we can replace them.  The egg-eating has also eased up a bit lately, though I'm not at all convinced the problem is solved.  I'm keeping them for at least a couple more weeks as I try to figure out where the next layers will come from.


Wendy said...

So cool! We've never raised chickens from eggs, but we've raised many, many chickens to full-grown - both for meat and for egg production.

ing said...

We've incubated eggs and raised chicks sent through the mail as well as taken advantage of a broody hen by putting fertile eggs from a friend's farm under her.

The first year we set up our old dog crate for the chicks and that was a mess. This year we had a couple of very large cardboard boxes and that is much better as we keep the chicks contained, can clean up a layer of newspaper pretty easily and at the end will compost the boxes.

When we had the broody hen, she is a red sex link, she did well with the chicks but we separated her and the chicks from the other hens who might have pecked the chicks to death.

The cuteness at our house definitely increased by a factor of 10 with them around. It's so cool to watch them grow into beautiful birds with different personalities, too.

Michelle said...

One new species a year seems like a good rule. It is exciting to have a mama hen with her own clutch. The benefit of raising chicks bought from the hatchery is that you can choose breed & sex. Here, we have different breeds & they will be mixed with the current rooster. The new chicks hatched here seem to be 50 % or more roosters. Luckily, they have not been hard to re home & I now know about the auctions in this area.

It is entertaining to watch the chicks together with their mama. And very nice that she has all the responsibility.

Unknown said...

Kate, I'm late to the scene here, but have you tried golf balls in your nesting boxes to break them of their egg eating? I had a couple of hens doing this routinely and after several days they stopped altogether, however, I left the golf ball "eggs" in there for several weeks because once I removed them too soon and they started up again, but I caught it right away and they quickly quit again. It's been about 8 months and no pecking at eggs. I eventually had to remove the golf balls because my Marans went broody with them in there (no roosters here), so I then had to separate the Marans, but their broodiness broke up in 3 days without having access to a nesting box. All in all, a little juggling, but not too much work and success all around.

I'm excited for you to have the broody hen. I'd love to get a rooster so I could allow some of my girls to go through the entire cycle, but I don't think my neighbors are ready for an alarm clock!

Jessica said...

I like your rule. I've raised chicks before, but we're starting fresh this year with 12 babies arriving next week. Next year we'll do bees, and I'm hoping for some goats after that. I hope all goes well with the lil'ones.

Anonymous said...

That is great. I would love to have a hen to raise chicks, but haven't progressed very far on that idea. I think it would be way easier than taking the momma role myself!

Vera said...

It is a wonderful experience to see a hen on her eggs, and then those eggs hatching into little ones, and then seeing them wander around as a family. But the hen chose to nest in an old dustbin which lay on its side, which was alright when it was dry, but not very good when it was raining, so I had to rig up a temporary roof for her. I was amazed at her stoicism, because she would not get off that nest unless it was to grab a quick bite of food. Hope you are successful with the experience and that you enjoy it as much as we did.

Kate said...

I think a broody hen project would be great fun. One species a year rule is a good idea that we are likely to wish we followed this year. Bees and goats are up this year for us. Would love to read more about the turkey/honey bee infraction. I'll have to go back to read old blogs.

Jen said...

You can get chickens to forget about egg eating - golf balls help, especially if you move them around so they don't get used to them, and checking for eggs frequently so they don't get a chance to eat any. After a while they seem to forget about them as food. Having said that recurrence is likely if an egg gets cracked or they get bored - we built roll-out nest boxes in our new coop so we don't have to worry about that anymore. They work great!

Lynda said...

Last year I had 6 hens go chicks. This Spring they now have 2 roosters and I can't wait for them to hatch out chicks. Good luck with your *project*.

Lavina said...

If you have the space and inclination you can separate your hens and find out which one(s) are actually eating the eggs and cull only those keeping the rest of your flock intact...BTW I've been reading your blog for about three months now and really enjoy it. Thanks!

lisa said...

The idea of putting the golf balls in is a good idea. Also are you feeding them oyster shell?? perhaps they need some or some more in their diet?

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

That's a perfect situation -- it's like a trial run for seeing if you want to raise chicks from eggs for yourself.

We've opted against that system, and will be getting chicks from a hatchery in the spring. Even so, we're concerned about integrating new birds into the flock. I'll be curious to see how your Red Stars take to the newcomers.

jess s said...

I have always wanted to go through the process of the broody hen and her wee hatchlings, but since it's statistically likely that you're getting 50% roosters, well, that's too much for me. Maybe someday. I'm excited to live vicariously through you, though.

Unknown said...

Oh the excitement to find another who wants to try Black Soldier flies this year too. Me too! Me too!
I hope I have the time to get it started. Maybe when the spring has turned to summer. So busy in the spring that new things sometime have to wait --as I am sure you know.
Good luck with your broody hen.

Kate said...

Wendy, if successful, these may be the first chickens we raise specifically for meat (the males). They probably won't be meat breed birds, though perhaps dual purpose. And since we'll slaughter them young, they ought to be more tender than our old layers.

ing, your tales of brooding experimentation are exactly what I'm hoping to avoid. Good to hear that the hen did well for you. And a sex link too! Imagine that.

Michelle, it is a good rule, I think. Especially when it's followed. A few male chicks would be okay with us, since we'd eat them. I am looking forward to the entertainment value.

Amy, no later than I am with my replies. I've tried a number of things for the egg eating. Golf balls help reduce the incidence, but haven't eliminated it. Looking forward to hosting and posting about our broody girl.

Jessica, that was our progression too: chickens, bees, and maybe sometime in the future, goats. I really hope so anyway.

Ali, I certainly hope it's easier for us. I want our broody girl to succeed, but she'll have a lot of work to do, I expect.

Vera, I like the image of your stoic mama hen. Thanks for the good wishes. I'm sure I'll post about the process as and when we take delivery of the mama to be.

Kate, you can dig through the archives for the bees and turkey, though I don't think I ever blogged about both in the same post. The turkey was an unanticipated addition, courtesy of my friend who's a farmer.

Jen, thanks for the suggestions. That's what we're trying.

Lynda, wow, those are some broody chickens. Too bad you couldn't get some fertilized eggs for them. Good luck with this year's hatching out.

Lavina, welcome! Sadly we don't have space to separate the girls. Also, I expect they all participate once the egg is cracked and one starts eating.

Lisa, yep, they get oyster shell, and sometimes their own well crushed shells fed back to them.

Tamar, the integration is a concern for me. I'm not sure what to do about that, and I may opt to keep them separate until whatever young pullets we keep are full grown. The males we'll eat the minute they start to crow, if we haven't given them back to the farmer.

Jess s, I'll do my best to provide a vicarious experience for you.

M, I'm really hoping it works out. Building the BSF composter buckets was a fair bit of work, so it would be nice if it pays off. Will post about it sometime during the summer. Good luck with your project, and please drop me a line if you have any success with it.