Hatching chicks - incubator vs mama hen

by Liz Beavis

Over the years I've hatched hundreds of chicks using an electric incubator, but I never used a clucky hen to hatch chicks. I had thought about doing it because I don't like relying on an electric incubator, but I just wasn't sure where to start.

Then one afternoon late last year I spotted a chicken (or rather Max the kelpie dog spotted a chicken) in the long grass with seven little baby chicks that she had hatched. This escaped mama hen had sat on her eggs for the past 3 weeks and when they hatched, she brought them all back over to the chicken area and was trying to get back in.

Side note: Our hens live in chicken tractors

(In case you didn't know, we keep our chickens in chicken tractors. We currently have about 20 hens and one rooster in two chicken tractors. We use feather net electric fencing so that the chickens can free range outside of their chicken tractors in a limited area during the day. Unfortunately, there always seems to be one or two hens that fly over or sneak under the netting and I have to let them back in each afternoon. This mama hen was one who had got out.)  

Back to the story....

There was a storm brewing in the distance, so I had to quickly lock up the dogs and grab the closest container I could find (which was a bucket) and scoop up mama hen and her seven chicks, while she tried desperately to protect them. Luckily we still had a chicken brooder box setup from when we had hatched chicks previously. (You can read about our brooder box set up here)

I kept the mama hen and her chicks in the brooder box for a few days because I knew that wet weather was forecast. It was great because I didn't have to set up the heat lamp, which is always the tricky part! Mama hen did all the hard work for me.

When when the weather improved, I put them all out into a small chicken tractor on the grass. From that day Mama hen did all the work to raise her chicks and I didn't have to do anything. This was a big difference compared to when I have hatched chicks in an incubator.

Now that the chicks are nearly fully grown, I moved the whole family from the small chicken tractor to a larger chicken tractor. They are nearly big enough to lay eggs themselves, so soon I'll release them into the main flock and we just have to decide what to do with the baby rooster who has started crowing quite vigorously!

Using a mama hen was so much easier!

When I hatch chicks using an incubator, they are completely dependant on me to keep them warm, to give them food and water. (You can read more about how I incubate chicken eggs here). With mama hen doing all that work, I didn't have to do anything. I to have to say I prefer using a mama hen to hatch chicks - she taught they chicks how to find food and water and kept them warm at night.

Another advantage was that 6 out of the 7 chicks are hens, and only one rooster hatched. I don't know if that's common when a mama hen hatches the eggs, but it's definitely an attractive ratio.

How to encourage a clucky hen

The next thing I need to do as figure out how I can encourage a clucky hen to hatch her eggs, because I don't know if I'll have another escaped hen who volunteers and sit on eggs. This time I was just lucky that it all worked out like that, but next spring I'd like to set up a clucky hen with plenty of fertilised eggs and help her to hatch them. (Usually we put a lot of effort into discouraging clucky hens!).

At this stage I'm not totally sure what I'll do, but I'd like to move a clucky hen with about 10 eggs into the small chicken tractor, so that they are safe as soon as they hatch. I'm hoping that a determined clucky hen will keep sitting on her eggs and not be disturbed by being moved. From there it should be easy again!

Pros and cons of using a mama hen vs an incubator

Now that I have tried hatching chicks both with the electronic incubator and with a mama hen, the pros and cons are very strongly in favour of the mama hen.

When we use the electric incubator I do get more chicks hatched, because we were usually fill it up (we have a 48 egg incubator) - it works better if it's full because it maintains temperature better. We will often hatch around 25-30 chicks, and I usually don't want 30 baby chicks at once - that's a lot of work!

It's actually nice just to have just the six new hens to add to the flock. That's a good number each year, so I'm very happy with what mama hen has done here.

And as I've said a few times now, the mama hen has been a lot less work for me because she's taking care of the chicks, keeping them warm, fed and watered. I only kept them in the brooder box for a few days because it was raining, so I only had to clean out the brooder box once, instead of every few days for weeks.

It was great to get the chicks out into the chicken tractor when they were very young, as they were eating grass and bugs. Mama hen was was with them, so they got used to the chicken tractor right away. What often happens when we put the chicks out in the chicken tractor on the first night, they're so used to living in the brooder box they are scared of all the open space and they don't know where to sleep. On several occasions, I have had to climb in there and make sure they are under the heat lamp! 

At this stage, I really can't see any reason not to use a mama hen, as we usually have several competing for nesting box space each spring. Next spring when I start to see clucky hens, I will be putting them to work!

The incubator is a good backup option if we don't have any clucky hens, or if for some reason we really want to hatch large numbers of chicks at one time.  

Otherwise it's in line with permaculture principles - if you can let nature do the work for you, why I do it yourself? I'm really pleased that we found this mama hen and I got to experience this, because definitely what I'll do again.

Have you used a mama hen to hatch chicks? Any tips?

If you want to know more about our chicken tractors, you can check out my eBook about chicken tractors using the link below. Find more posts about chickens here.


1 comment

  • Rowena

    Hello Liz,
    I have only had limited success with using mama hen as an incubator, but it worked and it was really easy for me, quite hands off. Now, I have the same hens clucky again, so I located some fertilised eggs (well, I’m not entirely sure they are yet) but I’m wondering how soon do you think you should place fertilised eggs under your clucky hens? It would have been at least a week before I managed to grab some (hopefully) fertilised eggs off a friend of mine.. what do you think?

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

eBook - Make Your Own Natural Soap
from $12.00
eBook - Our Experience with House Cows
from $12.00
eBook - A Beginner's Guide to Backyard Chickens and Chicken Tractors
from $12.00
eBook - Advanced Natural Soapmaking Techniques
from $12.00
eBook - Grow Your Own Vegetables
from $12.00