Broody Hen versus Incubator… which is better?
It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? And if you’ve been following my blog for the last two years, you know that I love to give my broody hens eggs and take pictures of them with their babies.
But this year, we did something different. Little Dude wanted to hatch eggs for a 4-H Embryology project, so we ordered him some eggs from My Pet Chicken. (I have ordered from them before, when Abby got her Easter Eggers. I should do a blog post about both experiences sometime soon, for those who might want to check out their services. Or not.) But for this project, he had to incubate them rather than our usual method of just giving the eggs to the broody hen.
As luck would have it, however, we also had a hen go broody at the same time as we purchased the eggs. Rapunzel, a one year old Buff Orpington hen. She’s the bigger of my two Orps, and a little standoffish around me, but not mean or skittish.
It was decided that we would give Rapunzel ½ the eggs and the Incubator ½, in an attempt to see which method yielded the better hatch. And then, since supposedly, they were all hatching at the same time, we could give Rapunzel the ‘bator chicks, by sneaking them under her at night while she slept.
I’m going to tell you… it’s been a LONG twenty-two days for us.
Before I go into the details, let’s discuss the pros and cons of both hens and incubators.
Using A Hen to Hatch Your Eggs
- The hen does ALL the work for you. For real. The mother hen uses her body to control temperature and humidity, sense when it’s too hot, too cold, and plucking out feathers to regulate humidity by skin-to-shell contact. She can also tell when an egg won’t hatch, so you don’t really need to candle unless you’re curious.
- The hen then raises the chicks for you. That’s a no-brainer. Unless you get a hen who has no mothering instinct (it happens) or is violent to the chicks (it also happens), then your mother hen will raise the chick after hatches.
- Chicks raised by hens have better natural chicken instincts, integrate better with your existing flock, and tend to be smarter and healthier.
- Risk to eggs. With a hen, there is a risk of the egg getting broken, knocked out of a nest, stolen by a predator, or soiled (poop, etc) which could cause hatch problems.
- Hen abandons the nest. Just like that. She goes broody one day, you give you eggs, she sits on them a while… and then she hops off and won’t come back. It happens sometimes. You should have an incubator as a back-up plan.
- Hen could kill the chicks. This also happens sometimes. A new mother or a mean hen could kill the babies after hatching. Always have a brooder and heat lamp/heat source ready and waiting if your hen doesn’t accept her chicks.
- Predators. Self explanatory. The eggs, chicks and hen are all vulnerable to the same predators. Especially if they are together.
Using an Incubator to Hatch Your Eggs
- Freedom to hatch eggs whenever you want. No need to wait for a hen to decide to go broody. No sneaking fake eggs into the nest to trick one into it, either.
- Freedom to hatch as many eggs as you want. Or rather, however many your incubator can hold.
- Safety. Egg is safe from predators and accidents which could cause breaking.
- You can watch every step of the hatching process. Because, let’s face it, that’s the cool part. Watching them pip, and break their way out of the shell.
- You can control the environmental factors. Temperature and humidity are things that need to be maintained to have a good hatch. Even the best broody hen could be off the nest too long or some cold weather could chill the air too much… or some very hot weather heat things up too much. A lot could happen, but an incubator? You control.
- You control the environmental factors. Yes, it’s a pro and a con. Because we, as humans, can screw up. Get the temp too high or the humidity too low? Bad hatch in the making.
- $$$$$ Incubators, especially good ones, cost money. And if you don’t have an egg turner, you have to buy one yourself, which costs more – OR – turn the eggs twice a by hand. Which means opening the incubator 2x a day until Lock Down and losing much needed heat. With a hen, she does the turning by instinct.
- You need a brooder to raise the chicks in when you are done. So after you raise your 300 chicks in your 300+ egg ‘bator, you need a brooder big enough to house them for 6 weeks, unless your intention is to sell them off as day-olds.
- Unforeseeable Accidents Happen. Like your incubator malfunctioning. Or losing electricity due to a storm or equipment failure at the main power source. Anything that lowers the temps in that incubator can kill your chicks.
I tried to keep the pros and cons pretty much even here, and there may be some I missed. Feel free to leave them in the comments. I like healthy discussion.
Now, let’s talk about Little Dude’s eggs… like I said, we ordered him eggs. Ten of them, and then added two of our own to round off for twelve eggs. We gave six to Rapunzel and gave six to the incubator.
I spent three days prior to that testing the temperature of the incubator to make sure it was heating correctly and our thermometer was working accurately. THEN I realized that we needed to gauge the humidity as well, so we purchased a digital thermometer that also did humidity.
After the eggs were inside, I realized that keeping the humidity steady at the right temperature -(and different websites and different ‘experts’ say different things are to what humidity is right, btw. I, however, was aiming for 45-50% humidity. But that’s HARD to achieve when you don’t know what you’re doing, so there’s that) – was going to be the bane of my existence every day.
Meanwhile, in the coop, other hens kept trying to lay their eggs in Rapunzel’s nest. At least every other day, I found her with a couple new, non-fertile eggs.
And then, the weather went from ‘high-70’s and 80’s with sun’ to mid-50’s and 60’s with rain’ and more rain and more rain. And wind.
The incubator eggs were pretty much unaffected, but because the rain was forcing my chicken-shit chickens into the coop all day, Rapunzel actually for forced off the nest several times between Day 14 and Day 18.
On Day 17, however, disaster struck the Incubator in the form of a 6-hour long power outage. I was smart not to open the incubator during that time, but the temp went from the required 99-degrees to 72 (room temp for that night). I was on the verge and taking them out and putting them all under Rapunzel when the power came back on.
I have been biting nails ever since. Will they hatch, any of them? ‘Punzel’s cold weather woes, the nest snatchers, and then an ill-timed power outage could have killed all of them.
On Day 18, Little Dude and I candled them as per the 4-H project book’s instructions, and found 3 duds – two of Rapunzel’s and one from the ‘Bator. We removed those, and waited for Lock Down to begin.
Day 19… Rapunzel left her nest TWICE and I was worried that meant her ‘mother hen instincts’ were saying that the eggs were dead. But then she rallied and hatched three of her four eggs on Day 20 and the last one yesterday on Day 21.
The incubator wasn’t that efficient and those didn’t start pipping until late in the evening yesterday. The first one officially hatched at 3 am on Day 22. Two more, followed, and two… well, at the time of writing this post had not done anything. No pipping, no hatching. (I’ll probably wind up tossing them out tonight.)
I’ll be honest, it was neat to watch them actually hatch – and yes, I checked every hour on the hour all night last night for pips and zips and babies. BUT… I think I like my broody hens best. There is nothing like knowing those eggs are in safe, confident hands. Feathers, I mean.