30 plus years of raising chickens on my own and repeatedly I am reminded of just how inexperienced I am as I try and do more myself. For instance we lost three chicks the third week in June while I learned about proper coops for raising chicks in. We have never had a hen who was seriously interest. Oh we have had sit on for a week and loose interest. Smash part of the eggs and smathering yolk and poo all over the others while attempting to set. But never a really broody hen. I chalk that up to the choice of hatcheries we have used since most breed broodiness out of their flocks. Also the breeds I have bought are not particularly broody anyway.
This year though we have had four hens set. Three hens setting at the same time. Hence the steep learning curve. Previously this spring, calm, sweet Honey-Butter did just fine in the small white coop raising her brood. Five hatched and four made it to the turn them out to free-range stage. We later lost one adolescent hen, the only hen, to a kit fox because she refused to go into the large coop at night but that was no fault of the 'hatch your own project'.
I thought the little white coop was going to work out great, then came Up Tight Mamma, another Easter Egger hen. When the chicks arrived she turned into a Tasmanian Devil of beating wings, pecking beak, and gouging spurs every time I opened the door to fill the waterer and feed dishes. She just annoyed me as she sent food and water flying but her chicks stressed out. They screamed and scattered in all directions flipping out Up Tight Momma even worse. It was a disaster.
Chicks began to go missing. We were perplexed. Then during one of her tirades we discovered that the chicks could sneak under a spot in the white coop and scoot out into barn cat territory. Yum, yum for them. Fixed that and another chick went missing. We found out that the entire run only kept Up Tight Momma in because the chicks could pop in and out the chicken wire unimpaired. After the third chick was missing I tried to move the whole crew to a rabbit cage in the chicken coop. The wire mesh in the cage was much smaller but Up Tight Mamma just would not settle down creating continual havoc.
Directly above this cage was another hen who had hatched out her babies the day I put Up Tight Momma below her so I gave the traumatized chicks to the Australorp hen. She excepted them as her own but Up Tight Mamma was having none of that. She continued to scream for her babies. They of course tried to get back to her. One found a unsecure spot in the old wire cage and fell down four feet to Up Tight Mamma. I fixed the hole and put the chick back. Then I gave some eggs to Up Tight Mamma to quiet her and hopefully get her to set all over again. I figured I could always raise her babies on my own. Up Tight Momma sat quiet on the eggs for part of a day and then decided she had been there done that and wasn't ready to do it again so soon. It was okay because this gave her chicks time to settle in with their new family. I felt no loss of the use of 6 eggs as they had done their job.
We will soon move the Australorp hen and the six chicks to the metal coop. The four chicks in that coop are quite feathered out and will go into the larger white coop. They won't slip out by the same methods as the babies as they are too large. But first we have some baby proofing to do on the metal coop. When I saw a baby chick pop through the chicken wire, I took one of them over to the metal coop and checked out the channel iron. Sure enough it could slip through it too. No problem for the Austrolorp hen that had set and hatched in the coop previously because she was calm and kept her little ones close by. I now know not every hen will be like her and Honey-Butter.
Yes, we have lost some chicks this year. One or two will not hatch properly and die. Normally I save these chicks when I incubate as I've become good at helping them hatch without helping too much. The hatching process builds needed muscle strength but the point is to allow hens to do the process on their own. One or two eggs will be infertile I've learned. One will develop part way and for reasons unknown to me stop developing. This brings the eight eggs I put under the hen down to five or six chicks that grow alongside momma. One might get trampled or some other disaster happen to them but I still feel the costs of letting the hens do the work is far less.
The incubator requires electricity. The chicks hatched require heat lamps. When hatched by the hens I don't need any additional heat in the summer, only in early spring for short periods of time to insure it is warm enough for the chicks to come out from under their mommas to eat and drink. I did this with the first momma hen in early spring putting the heat lamp on at night. I am not feeding 25 chicks and so the feed costs are lower. The momma hen teaches the chicks to forage in the run and so they quickly learn to scrounge up part of their own food. Yes, I can't just order hens from a hatchery. that gives me roosters that need to go into the stew pot but that isn't a bad thing.
My hope is to get enough desirable hens each year to replace a few older hens thus keeping the flock with a mixture of ages. Of the first four only one was a hen and the fox ate her. The next batch of four I am not sure of. The last two batches combined to make six are still pretty tiny. I hope to have four hen chicks to put back into the flock each year if not six. This would keep my flock at a steady two years old. Hopefully some of the eggs that hatch will be hens from the mommas that are setters. That would perpetuate the broody genetics. Yearling hens lay more eggs than two year olds but the two year olds lay larger eggs. The older hens have more of a tendency to set also.
I like the idea of hatching our own chicks because if I do not, I have to order 25 chicks as is the requirement of the hatcheries. Then the costs goes wa....y up. I have fallen in love with the Easter Eggers and they don't carry those in any of our local stores so there is no way to pick up just a few chicks. I also like the Austrolorps but the hatchery the stores buy from breeds out the broody trait. So you can see it is do it myself or do without the quality I desire.
The one hen that hatched out in the rabbit cages did quite well so I will try that again. It is plenty warm in the coop at night so I don't need additional heat and the cage wire is a much smaller pattern than the chicken wire. Besides the cages are empty this time of year as the rabbits are all outside. Double duty for the same equipment is not a bad idea. I do have to do a simple modification of putting cardboard on the bottom of the cages and place some pine shavings inside but that is no problem as cardboard is easy to come by.
Yes, I will definitely do this again and keep my broody hens. I have bought leg bands to mark the chickens but won't need them yet as I plan in time on reducing my flock to just Austrolorps and Easter-Eggers anyway. The two breeds will end up cross-breeding but that could be a good thing as there are traits from both that really appeal to me. Since this year I don't think I will get enough hens for replacements a few Rhode Island Reds might make the cut. I've grown rather fond of Henny Penney who visits me while I milk and she has a red companion that frequently visits also. She drinks nicely with our cat Duke but her friend has a tendency to be notty. Her future is less certain.