By Dr. Charles Everett
Natural incubation is, well, natural! However, that does not mean it is something to be taken lightly. As we are dealing with domestic fowl being raised under-less-than natural conditions, there are some basic points to keep in mind.
Under normal conditions, I tend to utilize artificial incubation from mid-December on through March of each year. I do this because I usually don’t have any broodies until spring of each year and, I desire to start my hatching earlier than is “natural.” Once I begin using broodies to hatch my eggs I continue to brood the chicks artificially because I have a limited number of pens in which to keep one hen and a few chicks. That said, I do admit that there is something almost magical about seeing a chick looking out from under a mother hens wing.
Contrary to what some may say, there is not set number of eggs that a hen will lay before she gets the urge to begin setting. Each breed and each hen are different. For example, I had three Nankin hens in with a Nankin cock bird. Nankins are known for there broodiness. Well, I decided to let the eggs accumulate in the nest until one of them decided to set, then I planned to take all the rest out. After they had laid 24 eggs and know one wanted to set; I simply gave up; collected the eggs and set them under a Blue Asil hen. On the other hand, I had an Asil hen go broody after laying only two eggs. Often, you will see sitting hens in your hen house that have no eggs under them at all. Nature does not program a hen to the number of eggs she should lay before going broody. She cannot count! You will have hens of breeds known for there broodiness that seldom go broody and you will have hens of breeds known for there lack of broodiness go broody at the drop of a hat.
I think it best to collect your eggs daily from your breeding pens. This will keep them from getting soiled or broken. It also helps to discourage egg eating which can be taken up by the hen or cock at any time. If your hen desires to sit, she will sit: eggs or not. Once she is sitting then you can simply remove the cock from the pen and place any eggs under her you desire to hatch.
When I need a broody, I usually just get one of the girls that is sitting in the hen house to do the job for me. She has no idea whose eggs she is sitting on, nor does she care. However, do not let her hatch the chicks in the house where other hens are present. If you do you are heading for problems. As soon as the non-broody hens hear the sounds of those little peeps they will be on them like a kid on chocolate. That’s right, they will eat them! As a matter of fact, they will relish every morsel as if it were the finest steak.
A sitting hen needs a quite pen of her own in which to properly hatch the chicks. I use a nesting box design that was suggested by Lewis Wright more than 125 years ago. It is basically 2 foot square with a solid top and sides. The sides are connected on the front and back with 1” x 2” boards (ground level). There is no bottom. This nesting box is place on the ground and straw is placed directly on the ground in the box. Chickens naturally nest on the ground; thus, this mimics their natural choice of a nesting. The ground thus covered with the straw also provides the needed moisture for the eggs. The open back and front provide plenty of ventilation for the hens and the solid sides and top provide her with the sense of security she desires. This box is placed into any wire enclosed pen. Mine are 5 foot square.
The trick is moving a broody hen from the hen house to the nesting box which is in the private pen. The best success will be to move the hen after night. Place her in the nesting box on several dummy eggs; I use golf balls. Then, cover the open front and back with feed sacks to make the box completely dark. These should be secured in such a way that they are both easy to remove and so that she can not get out. Leave her in this enclosure for 24 hours. She does not need water or food during this time. DO NOT DISTURB HER. The next evening, after dark, remove the feed sacks. In the morning you will know whether or not she has taken to her new nest. If so, wait until evening and remove the golf balls while placing in the hatching eggs. (If she is off the golf balls the next morning you might as well put her back in the hen house and try another hen. If you don’t you are just wasting your time.)
Once you have a hen setting your eggs, you should provide her with fresh water and food. However, be aware that she might not get off the eggs every day to eat or drink. Again, it depends on the breed and on the individual hen. Though I have always heard never to rely on a pullet for hatching eggs, I have found they make just as good of sitters as hens do. If a pullet is broody she is broody. That has been my observation.
The disadvantages to natural incubation are two: first, you might not have a broody hen when you have hatching eggs and, second, you cannot hatch as many chicks as you can with artificial incubation.
The advantages are numerous. You don’t have to worry about power-outages, turning eggs, or maintaining the right temperature and humidity. The hen’s percentage of hatched eggs versus that of any incubator are better. Period. Finally, as I have already stated, there is something magical about watching a hen hatch a batch of chicks! It makes the incubator seem, well, artificial at best.