By Herman Joseph
The broody hen chosen for natural incubation should be large (to cover and thus keep more eggs warm), healthy and preferably vaccinated, with a good brooding and mothering record.
How to know if your hen is broody
Signs of broodiness are that the hen stops laying, remains sitting on her eggs, ruffles her feathers, spreads her wings and makes a distinctive clucking sound. Brooding may be induced with dummy eggs or even stones.
Eggs usually become fertile about four days after the rooster has been introduced to the hens. A maximum of 14 to 16 eggs may be brooded in one nest, but hatch ability often declines with more than ten eggs, depending on the size of the hen.
You should provide feed and water in close proximity to the hen, this will keep her in a better condition and reduce embryo damage due to the cooling of the eggs if she has to leave the nest to scavenge for food.
The hen keeps the eggs at the correct humidity by splashing water on them from her beak. This is a further reason for providing her with easy access to water.
In very dry regions, slightly damp soil can be placed under the nesting material to assist the hen in maintaining the correct humidity (between 60 and 80 percent). Fertile eggs from other birds are best added under the brooding hen between one and four days after the start of brooding.
In Bangladesh, it has been reported that local broody hens will even sit on and hatch a second clutch of eggs, often losing considerable weight in the process (especially if insufficient attention is paid to the provision of food and water).
The incubation period for chicken eggs is 20 to 21 days, and increases up to 30 days for other poultry. After sitting for some days, a broody hen can be given some newly hatched chicks and, if they are accepted, the original eggs can be removed and replaced with more chicks. Thus hens with a better record of mothering can be better utilized for their abilities
Eggs initially need a very controlled heat input to maintain the optimum temperature of 38 °C, because the embryo is microscopic in size.
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As the embryo grows in size (especially after 18 days), it produces more heat than it requires and may even need cooling. Moisture levels of 60 to 80 percent Relative Humidity (increasing during the incubation period) are important to stop excess moisture loss from the egg contents through the porous egg shell and membranes.
Factors to consider for successful natural incubation include the following:
x Feed and water should be close to the hen.
x The broody hen should be examined to ensure that she has no external parasites.
x Any eggs stored for incubation should be kept at a temperature between 12 and 14 C, at a high humidity of between 75 to 85 percent, and stored for no longer than seven days.
x Extra fertile eggs introduced under the hen from elsewhere should be introduced at dusk.
x The eggs should be tested for fertility after one week by holding them up to a bright light (a candling box works best. If there is a dark shape inside the egg (the developing embryo), then it is fertile. A completely clear (translucent) egg is infertile.
A hatch ability of 80 percent (of eggs set) from natural incubation is normal, but a range of 75 to 80 percent is considered satisfactory. Setting of hatchings is best timed so that the chicks to be hatched are two months of age at the onset of major weather changes, such as either the rainy (or dry) season or winter/summer.
A plentiful natural food supply over the growing period of the chicks will ensure a better chance for their survival. Successful poultry species instinctively lay and incubate their eggs at a time of the year when newly hatched chicks will have a better supply of high protein and energy food provided by the environment. For example, guinea fowl will only lay eggs in the rainy season. However, seasonal changes in weather patterns are also times of greater disease risk.
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