BIO-BATORS: Letting Nature Do The Work
Shortly after we received our first batch of fuzzy butts, I knew that we would need a regular flow of fuzzy butts to satisfy this addiction. In my mind there is nothing more educational and entertaining than watching a clutch of eggs hatch and grow into mature egg machines.
Our goal here is to maintain a flock of dual purpose chickens capable of producing enough eggs for our family use with an excess supply that can be sold to cover feed costs. Since the egg laying prowess of most good layers in the dual purpose arena have a life span of two to three years we understood that we would either have to buy more chicks or propagate our own flock. Although buying new chicks is always an option, I like being self sufficient and was interested in hatching some of our own eggs. We looked into home incubators and the first obstacle was the cost of these tools. After all I can buy a LOT of chicks for the price of even a low end incubator. The second obstacle was the high maintenance and not so great hatch rate that was being reported by chicken wranglers with around the same experience level as ours. It seemed to me that there was a lot of time and effort spent with less than optimal results. I kept looking.
Since Rhode Island Reds are the mainstay of our flock, and that they are not known for their broodiness, we didn't hold out a lot of hope for having a broody hen. We were very interested in being able to lay, brood and hatch our own stock. As fortune would have it, shortly after our fluff balls arrived we were given the opportunity to increase our flock with a half dozen or so pullets who had just reached egg laying maturity. They were a mixed lot. Four Buff Orpingtons, three Rhode Island Reds and a Barred Plymouth Rock. Another stroke of luck was that one of the Buffs was currently sitting on a clutch of eggs. We did not disturb her (mostly because we didn't see her when we collected the chickens) and left her on the nest We collected her after she hatched her eggs. She hatched seven of 10 eggs. Four of the seven survived. Gilda proved to be a very attentive mother hen and our hopes were very high that she would be our Bio-Bator.
Now to the meat of this story. I am recording my experiences; successes and failures, good ideas and bad, in the hope that some other Backyard Chicken Wrangler can use my experience. Or at a minimum that someone will get a chuckle out of some of the silly ideas that we tried.
When we brought Gilda and her new clutch home, we were unsure of how old the chicks were. Some of them were not in very good shape. There was some pasty butt and lethargy in some of the babies. I was away to Texas when Gilda and crew came home, so my wonderful wife and chicken wrangling partner dealt with the issue. She separated Gilda from the chicks and put the babies in the brooder that we used for the original chicks. She cleaned up their pasty butt and gave them some water with a dose of molasses to try to boost their energy level. Unfortunately three of them did not make it. The four remaining quickly became vigorous and healthy. We kept them in the brooder until they were around eight weeks old. We really did not have any experience in integrating the new chicks into the flock. They were very active and cautiously curious, but they did not want to have much to do with the older chickens. There were three pullets and one cockerel in the clutch. We got them in August so the weather was warm. We had them in a separate building, which was NOT a coop, We did not force them into the flock but they did free range in the same area with the main flock. They stuck together with each other. The cockerel, Butch, was very good at controlling and protecting them even at an early age. He developed much faster than my original cockerel, Steve. I was not interested in maintaining two flocks during the winter so before the weather turned sub freezing, I did integrate them into the main flock. It was an interesting event, but not traumatic. Butch and Steve were both young roosters and managed to work things out between them without much fanfare.
In retrospect I would not have separated mother from babies. Especially with sickly chicks. We feel that mom would have dealt better with the nurturing of the sickest of the clutch than we could. We have also learned that the mother hen does a much better job of introducing her babies to the flock, when the time is right, than we do.
We had picked up a few bantams of mixed linage from a bird sale. We had two hens and three roos. Both hens decided to go broody at the same time and they were sharing a nest. It Was rather comical. Since it was during a particularly harsh winter, I wondered how the eggs would do. I left the hens to care for the eggs until New Years Day when one of the eggs hatched into one of those cute little fuzzy butts. Since the Banty Coop is not heated and routinely stays below freezing, I chose one of the hens and moved her, the fluff ball and the remaining eggs into a brooder box in the house. It was NOT a good idea. The hen did not like being alone in a strange place. Although she did continue to set on the eggs, she was very sporadic. Since I had not planned on hatching any of the Banty eggs, I really had not thought this through. The reason we were pursuing this hatch was as a learning experience for my big birds and in the hopes of getting a mid winter fix of fluff balls. I had not collected the eggs as they were being laid and unfortunately there were eggs in the clutch at different stages of development. We decided to allow Daisy to continue to set on her clutch in hope that more eggs would hatch. On day five I found the baby dead under the hen. It had apparently gotten between the hen and one of the eggs. I guess all of us were under experienced. The next day, Daisy got off the clutch and dropped one of those post hatch gut bombs. The most awful smelling poop to ever come out of a chicken. She showed no more interest in the eggs and was ready to rejoin her flock.
That was the last clutch we raised for 2009 but we were hopeful in that we had a Bio-Bator to help us propagate our flock without the added expense of an incubator.
Early spring 2010, Bio-Bator Gilda gets the urge to set on another clutch. We really were not thinking far enough ahead of Gilda. We did not have a separate brooding area to raise new chicks. We did have a barrel in the feed room that was full of straw. We had a door malfunction during a wind storm so the girls could get in there. Several of the girls chose this soft, quite spot to deposit their eggs. Gilda decided this was the best place available for her broody nest. All of that would have been wonderful except for the issue that some of the other hens did not get the memo establishing the barrel as closed for deposits. We decided early on that we would need to move Gilda's clutch to a more private area. We had a dog kennel/cage that we were not using. I cut some cardboard to fit along the perimeter of the bottom of the kennel to keep the litter in and eventually to keep the chicks in. We put a food bowl and a water fountain in and then oh so carefully moved the eggs and Gilda into the new brooder box. We put the brooder box in the separate building where the other hens could not get to her. She did not protest much and settled right down on the eggs. We were still facing the problem that some of the eggs were of different development. We decided that we would play it by ear. If an acceptable number of eggs hatched at one time, we would then dispense of the remaining eggs. As luck would have it, one egg hatched on May 8th, one hatched on may 10th and one hatched on May 15th. After the hatch on the 15th, Gilda dropped the post hatch gut bomb and was uninterested in the eggs any longer. We took that as our cue to remove the eggs. There had been 13 eggs in the clutch. I opened several of the remaining eggs and they all had fully or nearly fully developed chicks in them.
We kept Gilda and her three fuzzy butts together in the brooder box, in the separate building. She was amazing in how attentive she was with her babies. She was very protective and protested profusely when we wanted to inspect them for pasty butt. It was as if to tell us that she was perfectly capable of taking care of her babies and did not need or want our help...just keep the food and water flowing. I had noticed that one of the fuzzy butts appeared to have pasty butt and was about to clean her up when Gilda proceeded to pick the paste off the fuzzy butt's back side. Much better and faster than I could have done it by the way.
We kept mother and babies in the brooder box in the building for the first week. Then we would move the brooder box outside daily and open the door to allow Gilda and crew to get in a little free range time. She did a great job of keeping her babies together, teaching them what to eat and how to find it. She also brought them back to the brooder box in the evening in time to be closed up and moved back into the building.
Occasionally one of the other ladies would come over to investigate the fuzzy butts. Gilda would have none of that. Normally a very go along to get along kinda girl, she would fluff her feathers to their maximum fluff and charge the intruding hen. If that alone did not scare off the intruding hen, she would not hesitate to grab them by the head feathers and “shake it all about.” Now if Steve or Butch came over to check on the babies, Gilda didn't even give them a second glance. Also not once did either of the roosters ever make any kind of harmful move toward them. Although they were interested.
This routine carried on for about six weeks until Gilda started taking the now fully feathered chicks into the main chicken run and finally into the big coop. This was the introduction to the big flock. Gilda finally stopped returning the babies to the brooder box and they were all sleeping in the coop. The babies did stick together even after moving into the big coop. The first born was a cockerel and he would lead his siblings to protected areas (usually the Hydrangea bushes) where there were not many other big girls and a source of protection. They would still go to the coop to roost at night.
A month or so later, I noticed Gilda depositing eggs in her old brooder box. We figured that this would be a good opportunity for a controlled hatch. We started collecting these eggs and keeping them separate. When we had enough eggs for a clutch I put them into the brooder box nest with plans to lock Gilda in there. I first wanted to see if she would set on the eggs on her own once she saw the full nest. I went to check on the brooder box and found that one of Gilda's pullets from her first hatch was settled in on the eggs. We decided to give this Bio-Bator a try. Although we did lock her in the brooder, she never made an attempt to escape. She hatched four of the 10 eggs. All of those eggs hatched on day 21. She then got off the eggs, made the ceremonial post hatch poop and started tending to the fluff balls.
By this time I had set up our Banty Coop as a Brooder Coop. I moved the hen with babies to the Brooder Coop and they settled in well. The Brooder coop has it's own run. I left the hen and babies secured in the Brooder Coop for a week. I then opened the chicken door so they could come and go as they pleased. The Brooder Coop is about three feet off the ground with a ramp. This was difficult for some of the young partially feathered fluff balls to climb. I would ensure that all the babies were in the nest before closing the door for the night. I only found an unattended chick outside the nest once. After the second week, I opened the gate to the Brooder Coop run so the hen could show her babies the rest of the free range area. She was another very good mother and kept the other hens at a respectable distance. The roosters never seemed to be a threat though. This mother introduced the babies to the flock between the fourth and fifth week. This was a little earlier than the chicks cared for. Mother hen was sleeping in the big coop, but the babies went back to the Brooder Coop for a couple more weeks. I didn't want them to establish a sub flock with this coop as THEIR home so I started locking them in the big coop at night. It only took a couple nights for them to get the hint.
One of our Banty hens, Daisy, had found a place in the garage under the radial arm saw, a very nice pile of sawdust. She had deposited eggs there unnoticed by us. We had noticed that she had been scarce for a while but we chalked it up to being scared after we lost her sister to a dog attack. Our neighbor also has chickens and we had seen her coming from that area some evenings. Didn't really think much about it. Well I was in the garage one day with my mini Dachshund who started barking as though she found something dangerous. I look down and saw Daisy charging Harley, which was highly uncharacteristic of her. Upon closer inspection, I saw that Harley had a fuzzy butt in her mouth. Daisy had set on and hatched 13 of 13 eggs. Two of which were Large Fowl eggs. Unfortunately, the chick that Harley had was dead. I collected up the hen and babies and moved them to the Brooder Coop. I followed the same guidelines as before and everything went pretty well. We did lose one of the babies . We are unsure of what happened to it as there was no trace left. We suspect that it got out, under the fence and was unable to get back in. It's peeping could have attracted a predator or a dog. The Bantys progressed at about the same rate as the large fowl chicks. Daisy had them moved into the big coop by the eighth week.
In September we noticed Gilda depositing more eggs into her brooder box. We were going to be out of town for two weeks and I didn't want her to start setting on eggs while we were gone, so we removed the eggs as she laid them and shut the door before we left. Unfortunately, that was not enough for Gilda. When we returned from our trip, she was setting on seven eggs. We had no idea at what point she started setting but we did the math and determined a not later than day for the hatch. Nothing is ever easy! She went past the 21st day and on to the 26th day. I was about to toss the eggs and put her back in the coop. I went out to check her on the 26th morning and there was a little fuzzy butt peeping at me. By the next morning all seven eggs hatched. Welcome to the flock, the seven dwarfs. We moved the new family to the Brooder Coop and all was going according to plans.
This clutch worked out a bit different as we had to relocate the flock off premises for a month in November. The chicks were not old enough to be moved in with the big girls yet so they were kept with Gilda in a separate pen. We did loose three of the chicks to undetermined causes. (we were not in possession of them during this month.) This kept them together for a much longer time than usual. When we returned the flock to our place, Gilda and babies were moved in with the big girls. The one big difference is that normally Gilda abandons and ignores the kids shortly after they move into the big coop. This time she has continued to mother them. I will be interested to see how long she continues to do this.
Gilda remained attentive to her clutch for the rest of December. When we returned the flock to our coop, Gilda tried to get her babies to roost with her on the big girl roost. The babies jumped right up next to her, but the older girls were not having any of this. Gilda tried to discourage the other ladies from pecking them, but it was more than she could handle. She moved them to one of the nest boxes.
In January, I had to separate Daisy from the flock due to scaly mites. She does not due well at all by herself so I moved mLarry with her. While they were separated I decided, much against my dear wife's better judgment, to collect Daisey's eggs and to let her set on them. After treatment of the scaly mites I returned mLarry to the flock and gave Daisey her eggs. Daisey was upset at the loss of her partner for a few days. I was beginning to wonder if she would become broody. She did start to show some interest in the eggs and would set on them sporadically throughout the day but would return to the roost at night. I thought about removing the roost but before I did, Daisey went full out broody and pancaked onto the eggs. Daisy was setting on 14 of her eggs. After two days I slipped another egg from a rescue Japanese banty in hopes it too would hatch.
Hatch day was 7 February. As I was getting ready to watch the Super Bowl(6 February), I noticed peeping coming from the brooder box. upon closer inspection I noticed an egg that was completely pipped with a Packers fan trying to get out before the game! Two fuzzy butts joined me for the game that day with lots of peeping coming from the remaining 13. On day 21, I checked on the progress and found a third fuzzy butt out and dry with four more eggs unzipped and peeping. By the end of the day there were 10 fuzzy butts out and dry. On day 22 one more egg unzipped but the chick was not doing well. It took a very long time for it to get out of the egg. Day 23, Daisey was getting less interested in the remaining eggs but would still set on them. Fuzzy Butt number 11 was doing better but was still weak. There was no movement from the remaining four eggs and Daisey had moved two of them out of the nest. I took that as a cue. I removed them and opened them. One had stopped developing around mid way, the other was fully developed but obviously dead. Day 24, I found #11 dead in the nest and Daisey was getting frustrated with the two remaining eggs. She seemed to be trying to bury them in the nest. I removed them and opened them. Neither were fertile.
This is the only planned hatch for the year. We are expanding our flock but after much consideration we have decided to buy some different breeds to enhance our flock. Our plan is to get some Iowa Blue chickens to try to support this rare heritage breed. We are also interested in Jersey Giants. We plan to integrate these birds as meat birds. The dear wife wants Welsummers for the chocolate brown eggs. I have reminded her that they are NOT really chocolate eggs. ;-) We also decided to get a few more Rhode Island Reds for genetic diversity reasons. This will not stop the Bio-Ba Bator process though. Our hope is to have broody hens prior to chick arrival and do a bait and switch and hope for the broody to adopt the chicks.
The adoption plan did not work as planned. We did get a Bio-Bator warmed up for their arrival. Gilda was setting on 10 eggs, but she had only been full on broody for about a week when I got the call from Sand Hill informing us that our chicks were on the way. We picked up the chicks from the post office in the morning and this is were the plan fell apart. I was confident that Gilda was such an eager parent, that she wouldn't mind foregoing the labors of brooding in exchange for some fresh, peeping babies. The plan was to exchange the eggs for babies after dark while Gilda and the babies would be less active. I couldn't wait. I should have though. As soon as Gilda felt those babies moving under her she attacked them as intruders in her nest. After that, I could trust her enough to leave her alone with them. That was all of our Bio-Bator adventures for 2011.
We did get a shipment of chicks from Sand Hill Preservation Center in late summer last year, but due to a predator problem we lost most of those chicks. We are left with one Iowa Blue cockerel, one Welsummer cockerel, two Black Jersey Giant cockerels and four Jersey Giant pullets, two black and two blue. We also lost our RIR breeding Roster to an injury. I hope this will not set us back to much on our Bio-Bator adventures this year.
I currently (mid Feb) have a trio of Iowa Blues in the breeding pen. They are young pullets with a young cockerel and I am getting two eggs every other day. I also have ordered 20 more hatching eggs that should be ready around the end of Feb. Hopefully my Iowa Blues will be true to their nature and take up brooding quickly.
27 Feb, I started warming up one of my Bio-Bators today. She is a RIR/BO cross. Her mother is my original and most reliable Bio-Bator. I had noticed, with the unseasonably warm weather we have been having, that some of my girls had been displaying broody tendencies. I put her in one of the brooder cages and she imediately started making a nest. I placed eight egg into the box with her and left her to her designs. I came back after dinner and a movie with the DW to find a fully pancaked momma hen in full on distant stare trance. Now if she can just keep it up. There are seven Iowa Blue eggs in the collection box, A dozen more to be picked up on Saturday along with a dozen Welsummer eggs. I hope to get the two Iowa Blue pullets to sit on a clutch of eggs each and have at least two Bio-Bators warmed up to step in in the event the young Blues aren't up to the tasks.
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