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Working with Broody Hens:
Let Mama Do It (Part Five)

Table of Contents

Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five

Breaking Up a Broody Hen

As said, a good broody wants to work. Indeed, some broodies will set a second, or even a third, clutch of eggs in a season. But her willingness to do so may outstrip your need for chicks. Hens who go broody after you have closed the breeding season must be “broken up”—i.e., must be gotten out of the mood to incubate. Actually, management of a determined broody you want to return to productive work in the laying flock is much like management of a broody you are going to set: Isolate her from the rest of the flock, with feed and water, but in this case without a shred of nesting material. My broody boxes have a wire floor—if I take the nest box out, there is nothing suggestive of nesting. I usually leave the broody in the bare box until she lays an egg, signaling the end of broodiness, then return her to the laying flock.

Another way to break up a broody hen is to isolate her with a vigorous young cock, whose undivided “attentions” will disrupt her urge to brood.

Care of the New Brood

I have found that two hens coming off the nest at the same time may be fiercely aggressive toward each other. (In worst cases, I’ve even had to remove one hen to another location and allow her opponent to adopt her chicks.) I have also concluded that the best thing I can do for new chicks is take them directly from the broody box to the pasture. Thus my current practice is as follows:

Broody-hen-halfway

Halfway Shelter
(Interior)

Halfway-shelter

Halfway Shelter

I schedule my first hatches for about the first of April (northern Virginia, Zone 6b). I take the new clutch with the mother hen from the nest to a “halfway house,” a low pasture shelter divided into two sections with a wire partition between. If there is another hen coming off the nest at the same time, that clutch goes into the other section. The two hens get used to each other’s presence, but cannot fight. After a couple of days I release both clutches to the open pasture, and there is rarely any aggression. (Note that the only problem of aggression is with other mothers. No member of the general flock would ever be so foolish as to threaten a mother hen’s brood.)

The weather in early April can of course be chilly and breezy, certainly nothing like Gail’s 95°F brooder. But Mama knows when the chicks are getting chilly, and gathers them under her wings and breast for a warming session before continuing foraging. She gets them under shelter if it rains.

Creep-feeder

Creep Feeder Shelter

Since the new clutches are on the pasture with the general flock, there are special considerations for feeding. As Gail pointed out, young growing chicks should never be fed commercial laying feed. I make my own feeds, omit any heavy boosting of calcium, and offer crushed oyster shell for the laying hens as a free-choice supplement. The feed itself is 16 percent protein, which any poultry book will tell you is not nearly enough for young chicks. However, the mother hen works diligently finding live animal food for her brood—earthworms, insects, etc. I think the presence of live food in the diet—food of a quality superior to anything I can offer them—is the main reason my chicks are so healthy, and why there is never any pasting up. Also, I have a second low pasture shelter set up as a “creep feeder.” That is, the doors are covered with slats 2-5/8 inches apart—the young birds can enter between the slats, but the adults are excluded. I give high-protein supplemental feedings for the chicks—crushed hard-boiled eggs, earthworms from a large vermicomposting project, Japanese beetles—inside the creep feeder. I open the creep feeder at night as an additional shelter.

I hope you have the chance to give a willing broody hen a try. Especially if you have young children, to see her hatching and nurturing her brood is to celebrate together the miracle of life.