For many who have their own chickens (and always for commercial producers), broody hens are are considered a nuisance. Once they go broody, they stop laying. When you’re trying to raise your own, however, a good broody hen is a pearl beyond price. I know many people like to just turn the whole issue of raising chicks over to a hatchery, but I have a strong aversion to being dependent on outside sources. So (as with most things) I do my chicken raising a bit differently.
Any hen has the potential to go broody, but you’re most likely to see broodiness in certain breeds. Bantams, silkies and cochins are noted for broodiness, and older breeds like Delawares, Orpingtons, Dorkings and the Sussex and Cornish often go broody. Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks, New Hampshire Reds and Rhode Island Reds rarely go broody. Interestingly, crossbreds of the various breeds are more likely to go broody, which makes me suspect it’s a recessive gene. I have found Australorps will go broody fairly often, but my Barred Rocks are less likely to do so. You can certainly keep a few of the strong brooders around just to raise some eggs (hens don’t care if they brood their own eggs or not), but I like to encourage broodiness in my flock so I don’t have to deal with multiple breeds and sizes of chickens and eggs.
It’s pretty easy to recognize broodiness. The hen sits on the nest and won’t move even when you gather eggs from under her. She’ll greet you with raised, fluffed feathers, spread her wings over the nest, lower her head and may even peck. You’ll also hear a warning — a long-drawn out “sqwark” — when you reach for the eggs under her. Letting a hen set in a communal area can cause some problems, however. She may go out for breakfast and get back on a completely different nest. Other hens may try to lay in the box she has staked out, leading to squabbles and broken eggs. And once the chicks hatch, other hens may try to steal or hurt the chicks.
Once a hen shows clear signs of broodiness, I like to move her to a broody box. This fancy term can encompass anything from a wooden, wire-side nesting box to an old dog crate. Basically it should be a spot where you can confine your broody hen, safe from predators, with enough room for the chicks once they hatch. At a minimum, figure 24X36 inches, and I think 36X36 is better. A big dog crate is really ideal, and very easy to clean.
I usually give a hen that shows signs of broodiness about a week to prove herself. If she’ll put up with me gathering eggs twice a day and still stay on the nest, she’s ready to move to private quarters. While I’m waiting for confirmation of broodiness, I start collecting setting eggs. Choose “normal” eggs — medium to slightly large, well-shaped (no excessively pointy ends, as they are often thinner and more prone to break), slightly heavy in the hand and good thick shells. Try to get clean eggs, but even if they’re a little soiled, don’t wash them. Put them pointed end down in an egg carton and leave them at room temperature. Turn the egg carton over twice a day. You can hold them for about a week, but a shorter time is better.
Ready the broody box with a good cleaning. Bed it with a fairly fine material that the chicks will be able to walk on (I like fine wood shavings or sawdust). Put in a food dish and water container. Now, go out after dark once the chickens have settled down for the night and bring your broody hen to the box. Many people give her some plastic eggs, smooth rocks or golf balls to sit on for a few days, but I don’t bother; she’s already established her broodiness, and she’ll sit even on an empty nest. After another day or so, when she’s made her nest in the broody box, go out after dark and give her the eggs to set on. A small hen can handle about eight eggs, while a big hen like a Delaware or Australorp can cover 10 to 12. Don’t give her too many eggs, or some will wind up getting chilled and die.
Now you wait. Make sure she has food and water, clean out the broody box as necessary (some people limit their broody hens to scratch feed so their droppings will be firm and easier to clean). Eggs in an incubator tend to go about 21 days before hatching, but a hen usually hatches in 20 days. Once the hen gets off the nest, discard the remaining eggs. I usually leave mama and babies separate from the flock until the chicks are at least a week old. If your broody box is in the coop with the older hens, you can usually just open the door and let them mingle; mama will protect them. Otherwise, move the broody box/dog crate into the coop for a week or so to get everybody familiarized with each other. Or, if you want, you can leave them together until the chicks are fully feathered, then put the babies in their own pen (especially if you’re raising them for meat) and put mama back in with the flock.