Lynn was very excited about her chicken flock becoming self sustaining. She had purchased a dozen month-old pullets and a month-old cockerel in July, nurtured them through the Michigan winter, and was thrilled to gather her first eggs in March.
Her cockerel had been active long before then and, by mid-April, three of her girls had gone broody.
Lynn’s excitement about having springtime peeps, however, turned to dismay, then heartbreak. The fertilized eggs were continually crushed by the expectant mamas. As a homesteader, it was vital to her plans to be able to hatch her own chicks.
“Can I bring our hatching eggs to you?” she asked.
Knowing Lynn took homesteading seriously, I took the opportunity to guide her through the basics of hatching. She had specifically selected Buff Orpingtons, Light Brahmas and Black Cochins, all dual-purpose heritage breeds with strong tendencies towards broodiness. Lynn had also familiarized herself with the requirements for heat, humidity and egg turning … but these applied to eggs incubated in a machine, not under a hen.
Going old school necessitated my explaining three key guidelines.
Avoid Baby Broodies
Pullets who have reached point-of-lay may be old enough to produce eggs. But this is by no means an indication that they are mature enough to set them.
These young females may feel curious or instinctively drawn to a nest full of eggs. They may even sit down on them. But, beyond this, they may not understand what is expected of them.
This is especially true if there is no older hen present in the coop to set an example for the younger girls. Because of their age—pullets are female chickens less than one year of age—these young females most likely have not reached hormonal maturity.
The hormone prolactin is crucial to the onset and maintenance of incubation behavior. Pullets simply may not be physically ready to enter a broody trance. Lynn’s pullets were 10 months old when they began showing interest in setting eggs. Their jittery uncertainty may have led to cracked or crushed eggs.
Isolate the Mamas
A broody hen needs peace and quiet in order to stay in her trance and focus on incubating her eggs. Left in the coop with her flockmates, the poor broody can be continually disturbed by other girls who (of course) must lay their eggs in the same nest box as the would-be mama.
Even worse than two or three girls cramming into the broody’s nest box to lay? Two or three broodies trying to set the same clutch of eggs.
It came as no surprise that Lynn’s hatching eggs were damaged by multiple broody girls jostling them in their eagerness to set. If you plan on using a broody hen to hatch eggs, separate her from the rest of her flock. A Rubbermaid tote or a study cardboard box placed in a safe, sheltered location such as a barn, basement or spare bathroom works quite well.
Be sure to provide plenty of shavings plus food and water, as a broody will leave the nest once or twice a day to eat, drink and relieve herself. Broody droppings tend to be foul smelling, so you’ll want to remove these to keep her nest area clean.
Read more: You can help a broody hen hatch her chicks!
Offer Oyster Shell
Layer rations are usually formulated with additional calcium to help build stronger egg shells. Since laying hens require large amounts of calcium for proper shell development, it’s always a good idea to offer a supplemental calcium source, such as oyster shell or limestone chips, to your flock in a free-choice hopper or feeder.
This is especially true when a flock consists of laying pullets that are still growing themselves. They require calcium to help their bodies reach full maturity. The supplemental calcium will strengthen the eggshells, helping them better survive being accidentally stepped on or otherwise disturbed by a broody or other flock member.
Be sure, however, that oyster shell is not offered if your flock has chicks or pullets under 20 weeks of age. High levels of calcium can adversely affect growth and cause kidney damage.
Lynn separated her broody pullets from the rest of her flock and placed each girl in her own Rubbermaid Tote. Not surprisingly, two of the pullets lost total interest in setting eggs and soon returned to the coop. The third, a now-11-month-old Buff Orpinton girl, has become fully broody on a clutch of five eggs.
Lynn is eagerly looking forward to the chicks’ arrival and to a happy future homesteading with chickens.