Hen Hatching vs. Incubation

Randy Stevens

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2012, 17(3):3

Amongst many poultry breeders, there is an ongoing debate on which is better when it comes to hatching chicks, incubating them, or letting hens hatch their own chicks. I'm going to discuss the pros and cons of both methods, based on personal experience over many years doing both and seeing the results first hand

First, let's talk about incubation. I'm not going to go into details of how to incubate in this article, but let's assume when you incubate, you have a quality incubator, and brooder set up to incubate properly. The main reason people incubate are to either get large numbers of chicks on the ground, or to breed fowl that won't brood their own eggs. There is no doubt that you can get mass quantities of bitties on the ground through incubation, but there are drawbacks to doing it this way. Now I'm not saying it isn't a valid method, but the chicks take a lot of extra care to get them to the point they can survive well on their own. After chicks are hatched, they are first moved to a brooder. When chicks are in a brooder, several problems can easily develop. First and foremost is the sheer quantity in the brooder. Even if your brooder is large enough to accommodate your chicks, the large number of chicks will like to bunch up together, called piling. They can do this even when all the conditions are correct, and when it does, many of the chicks will die from suffocation. The next problem you run into is the chicks are only able to eat what you provide for them, which doesn't allow them to get many beneficial nutrients that they will get when raised outside. Once the chicks get to the age where you can move them outside, and even in the best chick pens, they get their first experience with dealing with temperature changes, exposure to bacteria and disease, and moisture. This can be difficult for chicks that have been raised in brooders, and piling can occur again, plus it's not uncommon for them to get cocci as well. Once the chicks acclimate to the outdoor conditions, they have to learn how to forage, roost, and avoid predators and the like. With no hen to teach them, it takes much longer to learn these things. Once you get through all these hurdles, you can end up with large quantities of fowl on the ground, and done properly, incubation is a great way to increase your flock, but you just have to be aware of the things I listed previously to improve your chances of successfully raising chicks to adults.

Next, we are going to talk about hen hatching, which is preferable if possible in my opinion. Many breeds of fowl will set, and hatch their own eggs. There are some breeds that brooding has been bred out of them, but you can easily acquire some good broody hens to hatch your eggs for you, if you don't want to incubate. One of the more popular breeds for this is Silkies, and it's hard to beat American Games, or Asil fowl for hatching and raising chicks as well. The only disadvantage to hatching with hens alone, is it's hard to get large quantities on the ground, unless you have enough good hens to hatch for you. There are many advantages to hen hatching though, which in my opinion is worth the effort of doing it this way. First, typically the hatch percentage rate is higher, and more consistent than incubation. Once the hen hatches, she will start passing on the proper antibodies to help chicks combat exposure to the environment through contact with her skin. A good hen will also cull out any weak, or deformed chicks. When chicks are first hatched, they cannot regulate their body temperature yet, which is why you use a brooder when incubating, so as the chicks start to explore, and their body temp starts to drop, they will come back to the hen to warm back up. This allows them to start adjusting to many temperatures from almost day one by doing this, which allows them to survive better in the changing weather conditions. The hen will begin to show the chicks how to eat, forage, dust, roost, plus every thing else they need to know as they grow first hand, instead of them having to figure out everything on their own. The hen can also keep the chicks in line as they begin to set their pecking order, especially when you are dealing with game fowl, which can fight to the death even as chicks, if left to their own. Once the chicks mature, they will gradually spend more time away from their mother, and eventually be totally self sufficient, strong healthy fowl.

In conclusion, you have to decide what your goals are, and adjust your methods to achieve them. Whether it's incubation, or hatching with hens, both methods will work fine, but from my experience, it's well worth the time to hatch with hens if you can, as you will end up with stronger, healthier fowl in the end virtually every time. Good luck!

Visit Randy Stevens online at:



back to Poultry Page

All text ©2012 FeatherSite unless otherwise credited; for graphics see note.

Direct questions and comments to Barry at FeatherSite -- questions and comments