The natural progression of homestead animal stewardship usually goes like this: laying hens (females only), then after you build some confidence with chickens, a rooster is added to the mix, then chicks follow shortly. Because poultry is so much fun, ducks and turkeys come next, then meat chickens. Then goats. Goats are the gateway quadruped species. After you’ve got a goat, jersey cows, sheep, and pigs often follow in short order.
Josh and I took a shortcut in this long-established chain of homestead species management and jumped straight from chickens to pigs, with no roosters, ducks, or goats in between. It’s worked out for us, but there are some gaps in our animal knowledge.
Just 3 weeks ago, a new creature joined the homestead. His name is Milton.
We’ve been raising chickens for at least 7 years, and Milton is our first rooster. There are a lot of reasons not to keep a rooster in a flock of chickens:
- They’re loud, and your neighbors might hate you.
- Roosters can be aggressive.
- Hens will lay eggs reliably without a rooster.
But if you’ve got the space, there are good reasons to keep a rooster as well:
- They’re fiercely protective of their flock. If you have predators like possums, raccoons, or raptors, the rooster will do everything he can fight off the foe. Facebook chicken groups are full of stories of roos dying to save their hens. Pretty heroic.
- If they’re not right next to your house, the sound of a rooster crowing in the distance is a wonderful part of the farm soundscape.
- They fertilize eggs and propagate your chicken population.
We recently warmed to the idea of adding a rooster to our flock in light of the following developments: Our hens have suffered some losses from natural causes over the past two years, and the oldest 3-year olds are slowing down egg production. We’ve also seen an increase in predators in our pasture, where the chickens live with the minor protection of an electrified poultry net. And finally, we have a broody hen who is determined to stay broody.
Normal chicken behavior is to lay an egg a day, or every other day, in a communal nest. The chicken may take a few minutes to accomplish this task, or an hour if she wants to chill for a bit, but after laying the egg, she gets off the nest and goes back to her business of scratching and looking for bugs. A broody chicken, however, will stay on the nest and not leave. Other chickens will try to get into the nest to lay eggs, and end up laying eggs next to her and on top of her, and she’ll steal them and sit on them, intending to hatch them. If there isn’t a rooster, then those eggs aren’t fertilized and they’re never going to hatch. A broody hen is very dedicated to her task and will eat very little while sitting on a nest; the owner of a broody hen must “break the broody,” which resets her hormone cycle and she resumes being a normal chicken within 2-3 days. If you don’t break the broody (perhaps the topic for another post), a broody chicken left alone will brood for months trying to hatch those eggs, and can actually starve to death.
Our broody hen was determined to be broody. We put her in the “broody buster” for a few days, she returned to normal, then two weeks later she was back on the nest. Given all the factors with our current laying flock, we decided the best course of action was to get a roo and let that chicken hatch some eggs.
That’s when Milton joined us. Funny thing: if you put an ad on your local facebook chicken group that you’re looking for a rooster, you’ll be inundated with people desperate to get rid of theirs. Weird.
Milton’s first week with his new flock was a little rough; they were thoroughly unimpressed by him. He was a little awkward about initial introductions, and the hens ignored him with determination.
Eventually the ladies accepted him, and he’s been doing his job as a rooster, both by mounting the hens–regularly, but not brutally–and by protecting them from perceived predators–mostly me. He’s already attacked me once.
Now Miss Broody Hen is sitting on a clutch of thirteen fertilized eggs, and if everything goes well, we’ll have chicks in 3 weeks. Except…we don’t really know what to do next. She’s sitting in an elevated communal nest with the other hens bustling around her. This creates several problems:
- She leaves the nest occasionally to eat, and sometimes goes back to the wrong nest, accidentally abandoning the eggs she’s been sitting on for a week in favor of those newly laid that day. This effectively kills the eggs she was sitting on, and we have to start over.
- If she manages to successfully hatch chicks, they will jump out of the nest while she’s still sitting and waiting for the rest to hatch. They’ll be unable to get back into the nest.
- Newborn chicks are vulnerable, and they’re likely to be attacked and killed by the other chickens.
After consulting with my homestead mentor, we decided that the best course of action was to separate Miss Broody and her clutch of eggs from the main flock and give them a separate brooder space. Fortunately we live on a farm with lots of odd outbuildings that can be quickly repurposed for various animal needs; if we lived in town, it would be challenging to erect a second chicken coop for a broody hen.
Moving a broody chicken is a tricky business. There’s a significant risk that she’ll be upset about the relocation and abandon the nest. To reduce her stress, it’s best to move her at night. Chickens don’t see well in the dark, so if you move them to a new location at night, they usually wake up in the morning without really noticing the change in scenery.
So, last night around 10 after everyone had gone to roost, we pulled Miss Broody out of the communal coop and removed her warm eggs from her nest. We moved her into another building onto a hastily constructed new nest, with her eggs underneath. But she was having none of it. She squawked and tried to run away.
It was crucial that she accept this new nest and sit on her eggs, and that meant we had to prevent her from jumping off. So, we stapled a piece of cardboard over the entrance, effectively locking her inside on top of the eggs overnight.
When I checked on her this morning, I removed the cardboard and she was thoroughly settled on her eggs. Success!
We could have bought 10 replacement chicks this spring for a whopping total of $20. Instead, we got a rooster, assembled a new brooder, and kidnapped a hen and her eggs in the middle of the night and secreted her off to an undisclosed location, where she’ll wait out her confinement and raise her chicks separately.
The cost to effort ratio of homesteading doesn’t always make sense, but the joy to cost ratio usually comes out on the side of joy.