Broody Chicken Breeds: A Frequently Under-Valued Asset
How many eggs can a broody hen sit on?
A broody hen or two is a wonderful resource that can be used to increase one’s flock. Many times, poultry keepers undervalue this heredity-linked trait in broody chicken breeds. Perhaps it is time to reassess this attribute and appreciate it for the many benefits it can provide.
A setting, brooding hen does exactly what an electric incubator will do. The broody hen hatches the chicks for you. No need to set eggs in a tray, no need to make sure they are getting turned, no need to worry about fluctuating temperatures or power outages. With all of our technology and modern inventions, it is sometimes easy to forget that this was nature’s first design for bringing baby chicks into the world. After those eggs are hatched, Mama Hen will keep those babies warm. No need for heat lamps or worrying about power outages in the middle of the night. For anyone wanting to homestead or live off-grid, a few broody hens are indispensable.
Two main drawbacks to using broody hens for incubation are that they decide when to start setting on the eggs, not you. You cannot decide the exact date for those chicks to arrive like you would if you set the eggs in an incubator or ordered the chicks from a hatchery. Also, if you want fifty baby chicks, and only one or two hens are broody and setting, it is very unlikely that they will be able to cover and incubate that many eggs.
How many eggs can a broody hen set on?
A full size, standard-breed hen, such as a Cochin, Brahma, or Rhode Island Red can generally accommodate 10 to 12 large or extra-large eggs successfully. The best broody hens will set on as many eggs as you allow to be in the nest, but most full-size hens can realistically cover and incubate only about a dozen at a time. Bantam hens, such as Cochin Bantams, Brahma Bantams, and the Japanese Fantails can successfully handle about six, or maybe up to eight eggs at a time. A hen will often lay twenty or more eggs in a clutch before starting to set, but many times half of those eggs are not able to be adequately covered by her body and do not hatch. If a setting hen is in the coop with other hens, the eggs destined for hatching need to be clearly marked and easy to identify. Other hens will lay their eggs in the nest with her, and she will gladly accept them. If this is the case, eggs should be checked, and excess ones gathered at least twice per day.
What are the best broody chicken breeds?
If you do a web search for the best broody chicken breeds, all sorts of breeds will pop up. Cochins, Brahmas, Rhode Island Reds, various Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and even Australorps are often listed. However, you may be disappointed if you purchase some pullets or hens, thinking that they will surely go broody for you.
All of these breeds were once known for their good mothering abilities. However, over the years, many of these breeds were honed for egg production, oftentimes through government-sponsored “Poultry Improvement Plans.” From the 1920s thru the 1950s, the inordinate emphasis was put on increasing egg production. During this time, farmers kept many of the standard breeds mentioned above. Trap-nesting programs and intense record-keeping, on a per-hen basis, were urged by the cooperative extension services. Since setting hens stop laying eggs during the incubation period, many were culled out and destroyed. Cochins were one of the few breeds, listed here, that were rarely kept for commercial egg production, so their natural mothering abilities were not culled out and destroyed.
Because Bantam breeds were mainly kept for purely personal enjoyment, they escaped the modern-era “improvements” placed on many full-sized breeds. Consequently, many still keep their mothering instincts today. Bantams are known to be wonderful setters and mothers.
Here are some broody or potentially-broody chicken breeds: Among the full-sized fowl, Cochins are one of the most dependable. Many owners report that Cubalayas are very dependable, as well as Langshan and full-size Brahma hens. Breeds once known for their mothering abilities include Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, Australorps, White Rocks, Barred Rocks, and Wyandottes. Unfortunately, due to the poultry “improvement” plans of yesteryear, many strains within these breeds can no longer be counted on as brooders and setters.
Probably the two most dependable Bantam broody chicken breeds known are Silkies and Cochin Bantams. If you are going to purchase some Bantam pullets or hens to use as a natural incubator and brooder system, you cannot go wrong with pullets or hens from these breeds. They are inveterate setters and mothers. They can be used for other chicken eggs, duck eggs, pheasants, guinea fowl, and turkeys (not recommended for turkeys, however, due to potential transmission of histomoniasis, or blackhead disease to the young poults).
What if I don’t want a broody hen? How do I break-up a broody hen?
There may be times when a broody hen is not in your best interest. Broodiness is infectious. Once one hen starts setting in earnest, it is highly likely that another hen will also start. And then another. Before long, there goes your egg production, most likely for several weeks. How do you break a broody hen?
First, you may not be able to. If a hen has gone truly broody, there may be nothing you can do except bide your time and let nature take its course. Bantam breeds can be notoriously hard to break (this is one aspect that can make bantams so valuable as setters and mothers). The best thing you might be able to do is to separate the hen from the rest of the flock until the mothering urge is over … sometimes a full six weeks. The urge to set on eggs is controlled by deeply embedded hormones and biochemical levels in the cells of the brain and the rest of the body.
If you do have a broody hen that you want to try to break, these methods may work. They are worth a try:
- Separate her from the flock. If her brooding hormones are not at extremely high levels, a change of area may be enough of a disruption to break her broody cycle.
- If the simple change of area does not work, some people say that placing her in a wire-bottom cage, with food and water for a few days, in a well-lit area works. However, some hens, especially Bantams, may continue to set, no matter what. They will simply continue their broodiness and setting on the wire floor. Nonetheless, this technique does work in many cases and is well worth trying.
- Some people say that simply removing a broody hen from the nest several times each day or locking her in the chicken yard away from the regular nesting areas during the day works well. If you are dealing with a hen that has gone into the full setting mode, however, removing her from the nest, even multiple times, may not be effective. Hens in a full-setting mode, especially Bantams, will often just return to the nest, regardless of how many times they are removed.
- There are also a few other theories out there that I have found to be dubious at best. One of the first methods I ever heard about as a teenager was to dunk the setting hens in cold water. Are you familiar with the saying, “Mad as a wet hen?” I am. I also learned early on where that saying came from. I did not find it to be the least bit effective. I still swear that my little Sebright hens decided to set longer and harder just to get even with me!
Broody hens are wonderful assets and resources that are seriously undervalued by many poultry keepers today. Next time one of your hens decides to set, pat yourself on the back. She is a chicken with extra value. You have done well in acquiring her!
Originally published in the October/November 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.