Friday, January 25, 2013

Incubator vs. Broody Hen

by Heather Nicholson of Scratch Cradle

Will you be setting eggs this spring under a broody hen or in your incubator?  Both natural and artificial incubation will get the job done, but one may be a better fit for your flock.  Here is a point-by-point comparison of these two methods.


You can schedule artificial incubation but timing natural incubation is hit or miss.  If you are ordering hatching eggs from a breeder, you need to set them within a few days of their arrival.  Unless you have a very broody flock, there is no guarantee that you will have a hen ready to brood on a specific date.  There is no way to make a hen go broody although some believe that allowing eggs to accumulate in the nesting box may encourage broodiness. 

If you are hatching from your home flock, you can easily accommodate your broody hen’s own schedule.  Collect hatching eggs daily and record their date.  As you collect newer eggs, move older eggs to your eating egg supply.  This way, you will have fresh hatching eggs at the ready should your hen decide to brood.


Both natural and artificial incubation have their pitfalls.  Hens sometimes quit brooding, but this is less likely to occur with an experienced or proven broody.  Brooding hens may defecate upon and contaminate their eggs  or step on their hatched young.  However, successful broodies generally have hatching rates which exceed those obtained by at-home artificial incubation, given healthy, well-formed, fertile eggs.

Artificial incubation is subject to power outages, accidental unplugging, user error, and well-meaning relatives.  As much as artificial incubation seeks to imitate nature, it is challenging if not impossible to precisely replicate the frequent turning, temperature and humidity regulation, and vocal encouragement provided by a broody hen.  

Brood Size

Hens can incubate as many eggs as they can cover which will never be so many as most common incubators.  If you need to hatch out a large number of chicks at the same time, perhaps as part of a breeding program where you wish to compare all of the offspring to one another at a particular age, then only an incubator will do.  However, if you have a small flock and only want to add a handful more pullets to come into lay in the fall, then a broody’s clutch is the perfect size.
If you are small-scale and flexible, then the broody hen is the perfect choice for you.  It will reduce your work load considerably and provide you with a reasonable number of healthy chicks with well-instructed foraging and bathing behaviors.  If you are larger-scale and working on a large project or within a strict time-frame, then an incubator is an excellent choice and you can begin building trust as you rear the chicks yourself.

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