Saturday, October 29, 2011

Grafting Chicks*

*Putting chicks under a hen that is not their natural mother.

O.K. So this post will not be full of fabulous photos because virtually all of it takes place in the dark.

If I owned an infrared camera it would be really fun to take pictures of the process but instead you will need to imagine what I am telling you to do and then ask me questions if I didn't get the point across properly.

There have been several people searching our Reluctant Homesteaders blog and many people asking on other blogs about how to take chicks from somewhere else and put them under another hen. The point being you want the hen to "mother" the chicks, so you won't have to. So I thought I would do a little "how-to" on it.

There are lots of reasons why you would "graft chicks." Perhaps you have a hen who is not a good mother, or you bought some new pullet chicks to revive your egg laying flock, or like us you want to raise meaty chicks without all the hassle and health problems of caged Cornish Cross.

Grafting chicks is pretty straight forward and I have been doing this trick since I was a little kid and my dad before me. It's not very hard and it can save you a lot of hassle and money if you let a hen do the work of raising the chicks. Just think, no more stinky boxes of noisy chicks!
The chicken with 32 legs. She has both forward and reverse gears.
This is my process:

I have very good luck with getting hens to take chicks by waiting until the hens have been sitting for at least a week. It helps if you have a breed that is good at brooding. You can tell if you have a good brood hen if, by throwing her off the nest, you cannot convince her to stay off a nest for more than a few minutes.

I order chicks when I have hens getting broody (or buy them at the feed store if the season is right) The chicks can be up to 5 days old (even a couple days older if the hen is a proven mother, except for Cornish Cross which get HUGE in 5 days).

Heck you can even let your kids, or you, hug and squeeze them for a day, then put them under a hen when you are tired of them. I have put as many as 16 chicks under one hen if she is a proven mom, but I would stop at 10 for the first time if you are not sure.

You need to time the arrival of your chicks properly. It takes 21 days to hatch eggs. As soon as you know your hen is broody, order your chicks to arrive within that window.

While I am awaiting the arrival of my chicks at the post office (I LOVE picking chicks up at the post office- how fun and weird.) about a week in to her broodyness, I pull the eggs out from under the hen at night and replace them with a couple of golf balls.

DO NOT LEAVE EGGS UNDER HER WHEN YOU PUT THE CHICKS UNDER. THE EGGS WILL HATCH MUCH TOO LATE AND SHE WILL LOSE CHICKS. Sometimes you hit it just right, but most of the time it will just cause problems. She will either stay on the nest trying to hatch the eggs and the chicks starve or she will leave the nest with the grafted chicks just as the eggs were about to hatch and leave the freshly hatched chick shivering in the empty nest.

Whether I get the chicks in the mail or at the store, I keep them warm under a light for the first day. I feed them and water them well so they’re fat and sassy.

That night I sneak them under the hen around midnight, after it’s been dark for a while, and take the golf balls out or any old eggs. Keep flashlight use to a minimum. The darker the better. Put chicks, a couple at a time, up under her, palm down so the chicks will not get pecked. Wear long sleeves and be prepared to get pecked yourself. Then just let her take charge.

 If the chicks are older than 3 days (most will be) you can put food and water nearby so the chicks can come out and refresh themselves. Make absolutely sure that the outside entrance to the nest box is easily accessed by a tiny chick. Put stones or build a dirt ramp, just make sure they can get back into the box if they fall or hop out. Or else you will be heartbroken one morning when you find chicks cold and near death, huddled against the door they couldn't get back into. 

The hen may want to stay on the nest for a day or two, let her. You need to let her take her time with the chicks, don't force it. In the next couple days she will decide it's time to get out and about and all will be well.

I have not had a hen reject chicks yet if I do these things. If the hen is not proven to be a good mom it can be a little dicey if you don’t let her sit for at least 2 weeks before you put the chicks under her. That's long enough to make sure she feels grateful when she wakes up the next morning and her “eggs have hatched”. The hen can also be sitting up to 30 days (on golf balls) even though eggs hatch around 21 days, she can't count and will generally keep sitting for much longer, waiting for her golf balls to hatch. This comes in handy if you were slow to order your chicks!

Don’t bother trying to time grafted chicks with a batch of eggs hatching under the same hen. The timing rarely matches and it just ends badly most of the time. The saddest scenario is that the hen will feel all those new chicks under her and take them out into the world while her own eggs are just minutes from hatching. The chicks in the eggs will grow cold and die. That makes me tear up just thinking about it.

I have 4 hens right now with varying ages of chicks. 2 hatched their own and 2 have grafted chicks. They all free range in the same general area and I have had absolutely no problems with fighting or stealing. They have a large area to run in though. The hens avoid each other when the chicks are small and let them mingle as they get older. They are all doting mothers, regardless of their chick's origins.

I have used this method since I was a small child, so I have many success stories. I even once put ducklings under a hen. She loved them as her own but was extremely upset when her "chicks" did not just drink from the pan of water she took them to, but also jumped in and swam around! The hen was incredibly perplexed and kept running around the pan clucking and clucking for them to get out. They ignored her for a few minutes of fun splashing and then dutifully jumped out to follow her away from that dangerous pan of water. Later the hen got used to the swimming. She would just look the other way and pretend it wasn't happening, like a true mother.

I have just started using this method with Meaty chicks though. In the past I had been led to believe that Cornish Cross would not be physically capable of free ranging with a hen, but I found that that is not true. They are very good foragers when raised by a hen, but I do not give free choice food either, which slightly slows their fast growth and so avoids many of their health problems.
I timed this most recent batch of meaty chicks in such a way that they could eat all the dang grasshoppers we have at the end of summer. That’s good free protein!


  1. Oh I like this post. Thank you for the info!

  2. I've never had success grafting chicks, although I don't think I let the hen sit for so long before putting the chicks under her. Will try again next spring though as it is soooo much easier to have the hen take care of them. Nice to know that the Cornish also do well. Our Cornish are ready to go in the freezer next week, but maybe if I get a broody hen going this spring, we'll try the Cornish out on her.

  3. Nice to know. I will have to try this next time we get chicks.

  4. I had not heard of grafting chicks! Very interesting.

  5. Going to be trying this in a few days with a new hen with 2 older chicks and another with 7 new chicks. How was your luck with these combinations? New... Older chicks... Several chicks...

    Both ladies are still very broody and doting. :) THANKS!


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