Hatching Chicks? Incubator vs. Broody Hen
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Chickens are often called the gateway animal. And while many of us won’t (and maybe shouldn’t) admit to how many chickens we have, there’s one thing for certain: we always think we need more. There is always the option of buying chicks, but today we are going to discuss the pros and cons of a more self-sufficient way to add chicks to your farm: hatching chicks by way of an incubator or a broody hen.
We have done both ways of hatching chicks here at our farm several times so let me walk you through what we have found to be the pros and cons of hatching with either a broody hen or an incubator.
(Don’t want to read all the words? This blog post is also a podcast—just press the triangle play button on the little black bar at the top of this post!)
Pros to hatching chicks with broody hens
The great thing about hens that go broody is that they can turn in to mama hens—and 9.9 times out of 10, mama hens are completely self sufficient in caring for their chicks. That means hatching chicks this way is super easy for you!
One important pro worth specifically pointing out is that a batch of chicks hatched from a broody hen (and kept with their mama) do not need a heat lamp. Mama hens are nice and warm and if you turn a heat lamp on to keep those baby chicks warm, you will be cookin’ your mama hen. She will not appreciate it—trust me. Those chicks will climb right under mama when they are cold. Mama does not need extra help. Have you seen all those feathers she has?
Generally speaking, you don’t have to separate mama hen and her chicks from the rest of your flock because mama hen will protect her brood —no questions asked! The plus about this is that you don’t have to make any special arrangements to integrate the grown chicks into your existing flock at later date. While hanging out with mama, and going wherever she goes, they’re already integrated.
Cons to hatching chicks with broody hens
First of all, if you’ve got a plan for hatching chicks this way, you have to have a broody hen—and that’s a nature thing. You don’t have much to do with it. Sometimes hens won’t go broody when you want a batch of chicks, and other times they will go broody when you’re actually thinking you need to decrease your numbers.
If you do find yourself with a broody hen, you should know that broody hens can be mean. It’s not that they purposely try to be psychotic, they’re just being protective of their nest. And you may find yourself with a peck to the hand if you get too close to what they’re guarding.
Occasionally, broody hens won’t stay on the nest long enough to complete a hatch (21 days). They get bored at 14 or so days, abandon the nest, and don’t come back. This is not to be confused with some broody hens who do step off the nest momentarily to get food and water. Other broody hens never leave the nest once they start setting. If you’re paying close enough attention to your chickens, and have determined a clutch of eggs has been abandoned, you can try to finish them in an incubator. But the success of this will depend on just how long the eggs were left and how much they cooled off. Sometimes the hatch will be slower, sometimes it won’t happen at all.
In rare cases (it’s only happened once in the ten years we’ve had chickens) you will have a broody hen who just doesn’t know what she’s doing. We had one hen who appeared to have killed all her chicks as they hatched and then left the nest. Again, it’s super rare—but it does happen.
If you do have a broody hen hatching chicks for you, you will have to be more careful about what waterers you have set out, if there are any small holes in your fenced chicken run, etc. Basically, you will need to do a little baby proofing to your coop and outdoor run—if they aren’t free range.
If they are free range, it’s all up to Mama Hen.
Pros to hatching chicks with an incubator
Unless you’re setting eggs under a broody hen, you don’t really have control over whether she’s attempting to hatch two eggs or or 22 eggs. In an incubator, you can set as many eggs as will fit in your incubator. You also have control over when they will hatch. Hens sometimes go broody at the craziest times and aren’t necessarily paying attention to what’s happening on your farm calendar 21 days from now. With an incubator, you can set those eggs to hatch when you’re going to be home, not when your farm sitter is watching the homestead during your one and only summer vacation.
When hatching chicks with an incubator, you get to watch the process more closely. With the right incubator set up, you could potentially watch the entire hatch—pip to zip—on your kitchen table if you wanted. It’s a great learning process. We’ve watched it at least a zillion times, and it never gets old.
Back when we used to raise pheasants, we were lucky enough to catch the moment one hatched on video—which was amazing because our incubator only gives us 10 seconds of light at a time.
(And if you’re wondering — here are some tips on incubating and hatching pheasants — many of the tips apply to birds across the board. Be sure to check if a game farm permit is required in your area before you take on raising pheasants!)
Chicks that are hatched from an incubator can generally be handled more easily because they don’t have a mama hen chasing them around. Some folks argue that hatching chicks from an incubator means they will grow up to be friendlier because those chicks will always see you as the mama hen. I’m not sure if this holds true, though. I’ve found that most chickens—regardless of how they were hatched—quickly figure out who brings the food and the treats and they respond accordingly.
Cons to hatching chicks with an incubator
Obviously, hatching chicks with an incubator means you will need an incubator—which generally incurs some cost. There are several options to choose from, all with varying sizes and prices. I can’t make a recommendation on which to buy, though, because we’ve always built our own incubators from old coolers or mini fridges. And when enough of you remind me, I’ll finally get around to writing a tutorial of just how to do that.
If you’re incubating chicks, you are the mama. Not only do you take care of them, but you have to be the one that makes decisions. Like if you can open the lid after lockdown, if you should help a struggling chick hatch, and how to determine the hatch is finally done—meaning, when to accept it’s time to turn off the incubator. Those decisions are never easy to make, and it’s one of the biggest downfalls of choosing to incubate eggs.
When chicks are hatched from an incubator, your situation will be exactly like if you purchased those chicks. The chicks will need to be kept in a brooder with a heat lamp—separate from your existing flock. And while this isn’t necessarily a con, it does cost money to run heat lamps.
They will need to continue being kept separate until they can be integrated into your existing flock, which means you’ll need space or separate coops or runs or a chicken tractor to make this happen. It’s best to keep the incubator hatched flock separate until they are of similar size to the chickens you already have.
So which way of hatching chicks is better—an incubator or a broody hen?
It’s up to you and exactly what you’re wanting to do on your farm. Either method of hatching chicks has the potential to net you adorable itty bitties that will grow into productive chickens on your homestead. The best option depends on what you have available and what you’re willing to deal with.
Or…if you’re crazy enough, you could try hatching chicks with both methods! I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? More chickens?
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