Using foster mother hens to raise chicks on a diversified sustainable farm

Final Report for FNE08-645

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2008: $5,986.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Drew F. Piaschyk
Lamb's Quarters Organic Farm
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Project Information

Final Report

Note to readers, attached is the complete final report for FNE08-645

Keeping “broody” hens to be used as foster mothers for raising purchased chicks is a more cost effective and sustainably sound practice than setting up and maintaining a brooder area. A control group of chicks was raised in a brooder area. Experimental groups of chicks were grafted to foster mother hens and raised in fenced-in garden areas. The experimental groups grew to the same size as the control group over the same period of time. The experimental groups consumed significantly less feed than the control group. Foster mother hens enhance farm income by reducing out-of-pocket costs. This is true delegation of responsibility to the lowest level of competence.


Farm profile and Participants

We are a diverse farm and have been sustainably raising crops and livestock since 1980. Our farm operates under “The Farmer’s Pledge” through NOFA-NY. At present we own 94 acres that consists of 2 acres for annual vegetable/cut flower crops, 4 acres for field crops, 20 acres of pasture, 5 acres of rotational paddocks, 5 acres for apples, plums, cherries and blueberry production, 1 acre perennials/nursery and the balance is woodland and scrub. We have one heated greenhouse for propagation and 1 high tunnel for season extension. We raise chickens, geese, guinea fowl, honeybees, Icelandic sheep and goats. We sell through our retail store, farmer’s market, CSAs, and restaurants. At present I work the farm full time and Sandy helps me when she can. Sandy is a retired Licensed Speech Language Pathologist. I hold a Bachelor of Science Degree from Utica College of Syracuse University with a major in Biology. Before returning to the farm full time I was a Corporate Industrial Engineering Manager and New Project Cost Estimator for a privately held consumer goods manufacturer for 10 years.


The role of the technical advisors of the project has been primarily to vet the proposal, final report, articles and to assist in setting up outreach opportunities.

Janet Pfromm, Agriculture Educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Chenango County
99 N. Broad St. Norwich, NY 13815
607-334-5841 x12
fax: 607-336-6961

Karma Glos, Author and Owner, Kingbird Farm, 9398 West Creek Road, Berkshire, NY 13736

The foster hens:
Gardenia – The star of the show. She’s a pit-bull with a beak when it comes to protecting her babies.
Freeda & Fava – First time mothers. They did a good job.

Project Objectives:

Grafting chicks to foster mother hens with experimental groups versus a control group would demonstrate the following:

a. Reduction of direct labor utilized for daily maintenance tasks resulting in an improved productivity in other value added activities of the farm.

b. Net Production cost savings from reduced chick losses due to disease and predation, less bedding requirements, electrical and bulb replacement costs for brooder lamps.

c. A decrease in exposure of farm personnel to poultry borne disease vectors because the bedding and/or manure removal tasks would be minimized or eliminated.

d. Dispersement of a concentrated agricultural activity and subsequent pollution potential by minimizing and/or eliminating the use of the brooder house.

e. Net farm income enhancement from more and heavier live birds brought to market at less cost.


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  • Janet Pfromm


Materials and methods:

A 4 foot by 4 foot brooder area was set up within a section of a chicken coop for the Control Group (Group 1). This brooder area adjoins a ramp that leads to a fenced in 300 sq ft yard enclosed by 6 ft high poultry netting on the sides and covered on the top with bird netting. A mixture of fescue, clover, alfalfa, oats, and field peas had been seeded in this yard prior to the arrival of the chicks. A secondary shelter on a ground cloth covered the feeding area in Group 1’s exercise yard. This area is an understory in a copse of Black Locusts and can be considered to be dappled shade.

Two fenced in garden areas were selected to be habitats for the four experimental groups of chicks with their foster hens. The first is a 10,000 sq ft garden enclosed with 6 ft woven and welded metal wire fence that includes a 700 sq ft compost area and a 2000 sq ft fallow section seeded with clover and field peas. The soil in this garden is a moderately well drained clay-loam. Individual crop rows are raised beds 18 inch wide on 7 ft centers constructed with compost. The crops grown in this garden for 2008 were dry beans, beets, lettuce, Cole crops and amaranth. No perennial crops other than cover crops are grown in this garden. Overhead irrigation of crops was provided. Experimental groups 2 & 3 were designated to be placed in this garden.

The second is a 15,000 sq ft garden enclosed with a 6.5 ft high polypropylene mesh fence that includes 3000 sq ft of buckwheat, millet, clover cover crops, 1000 sq ft fallow area and 300 sq ft finished compost pile. There are three discrete soil characteristics in this garden: 1) a 5000 sq ft section of moderately well drained compost rich soil; 2) a 5000 sq ft section of moderately well drained mineral soil; 3) a 5000 sq ft section of poorly drained compost rich soil (Including a 500 sq ft wet area that only becomes dry after severe drought conditions). In 2008 annual crops grown in this garden were fall planted garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, winter and summer squash, basil, sorrel, parsley, field greens and lettuce. Perennial crops grown in this garden are asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, horseradish, comfrey, phlox, Echinacea, shallots, liatris and dahlias. Overhead and drip irrigation of crops was provided. Experimental groups 4 & 5 were designated to be placed in this garden.

Medium sized pet caddies were used to transport the groups to the gardens and for night-time nesting. In each garden a separate 12 foot diameter temporary paddock enclosed with an 18 inch high ½ inch mesh hardware cloth was constructed for each group. A polypropylene woven weed barrier ground cloth was placed in the center of each of the temporary paddocks. Atop the center of each ground cloth three curved interlocking plastic area walls were secured to the ground along one edge of the area as hinged, removable shelters for the pet caddy and feeding area. This additional structure over the pet caddy provided a weather protected foyer for the chicks and feed. The sheltered foyer facilitated collection of unconsumed feed.

Fifty male Cornish X Rocks were purchased from a hatchery. Upon arrival all chicks were placed under heat lamps. Each chick had its beak dipped in warm water with a mixture of a small amount of vinegar and molasses to help alleviate adverse shipping effects. Hay was placed in the bottom of each of 5 medium sized pet caddies. Ten chicks were selected at random and designated as the control group. The control group (designated Group 1) was placed in a brooder provided with a heat lamp, pet caddy, food and water separate from other poultry. After dark, 4 broody hens were selected and leg banded before being placed in the pet caddies. A broody hen was placed in each of 4 pet caddies along with a few of her clutch of eggs. Her remaining eggs were distributed amongst other broody hens. The hens were allowed at least an hour to acclimatize to the pet caddy. Four other experimental groups of ten chicks each (designated Groups 2, 3, 4 and 5) were also selected at random. All chicks in each group were weighed, tagged with a different colored leg band on either its right or left leg, and its weight recorded. Each experimental group of ten chicks was placed one at a time with a broody hen in the pet caddy and observed to see if the hen accepted the chicks. The pet caddy was then numbered and the leg band number of the corresponding broody hen was recorded. If the initial grafting of the chicks to the foster mother hen was deemed successful, the pet caddy was moved outside into the garden to the center of the designated temporary paddock, under the curved shelter, for the night in their fenced-in paddocks (as described below) and provided with food and water. The next morning the pet caddies were opened and the experimental groups were inspected to see if the hens had truly accepted the chicks. Three groups were successfully grafted, one was not. Unsuccessful attempts were made to graft a replacement hen to this group.

The ration for all groups included certified organic starter mash (switching to certified organic grow mash after 1 week.) hereinafter called “feed”. Whole millet, certified organic hulled sunflower seeds, and certified organic whole corn (hereinafter called “seed”) were also provided to all groups. The mash was fed in standard plastic mash trays attached to a piece of 1inch x 6 ft lumber as a base to prevent tipping over. The anti-scatter covers of these trays were later modified to accommodate the size of the chicks. At the end of each day excess feed was removed from each group’s area, weighed, recorded and then returned to the area the next morning throughout the period of the experiment. Seed was fed in an anti-tip dog dish. Amounts of seed were replenished when the supply of each appeared to be exhausted and the amount replenished was recorded daily throughout the experiment. Seed was always available to all groups. Kelp meal, diatomaceous earth and grit were provided to all groups free choice and the amounts replenished as needed. Standard Volumetric containers were used. Volumetric to weight averages were determined for each of these containers. Water with the addition of 1 teaspoon of organic apple cider vinegar was provided to all groups. Water was changed at least daily.

For each of the experimental groups the 12 ft diameter temporary paddock was left in place for one week until it was determined by observation that all chicks responded appropriately to the mother hen’s call to “come to me.” The temporary paddock fences were then removed allowing free access to the entire garden area with the following exceptions. Newly seeded and transplanted rows were covered with AG19 floating row covers to prevent destruction of the new plants and seedbeds, and contamination of the crops.

The control group was gradually introduced to their outdoor yard in their pet caddy after 1 week (leaving them in their brooder room on cold, wet days until they acclimatized and were fully feathered). The control group was moved to the brooder room each evening during this experiment. The heat lamp in the brooder room was on each night until the control group chicks had fully feathered.

Observational notes were taken daily for all groups and recorded.

At 30 days a random sample of birds from each group were selected, weighed and the weights recorded to determine appropriate processing dates.

At 62 days a group of birds of the heaviest appearance were selected for processing. An equal number of birds were selected from each group. A numbered leg band was attached to each of these birds. Each bird’s live weight was recorded. The leg band remained on the bird during processing, and was removed just before process weight was recorded. Process weight recorded did not include the neck, heart, liver, giblets, feet, offal or feathers. At 68 days another group was selected for processing. Procedure was the same as for the prior group. At 75 days the remaining birds were processed. Procedure was the same as before.

Data were subjected to analysis of variance (ANOVA) using a distribution table containing F values for a significance level of 5%. Data that failed the Null hypothesis: All weights are similar, were then subjected to Least Significant Difference test with a significance level at P=0.05.1

Research results and discussion:
Results and Conditions

Efforts to graft Group 2 chicks to a foster hen were unsuccessful. The hen either pecked at them aggressively or ignored them. We have observed that hens with a brood will normally maternally peck the chicks on top of the head and vocalize in order to coax them to get underneath her. This pecking behavior is quite different from pecking behavior displayed against “strange” chicks. We removed the hen. Two other broody hens were tried but also unsuccessful. The behavior of the first hen may have traumatized the chicks enough so they would not respond appropriately to maternal pecking. All Group 2 chicks were evenly distributed to the other groups and the balance to hens in the general population.

The reason that the first hen of Group 2 rejected the chicks is unknown and had not been experienced on this farm before. It is possible that a hen needs to be on her clutch of eggs for a specific length of time before she is actually ready to adopt chicks. This would be a good subject for further study...

Table 1 –Summary of Feed/Seed Consumed (lbs)

Group # Feed Mash Whole Corn Millet Sunflower Seeds Total Feed/Seed Mash Wastage*
1 93.0 28.0 21.1 31.6 173.7 8.7
3 40.5 32.2 22.4 26.5 121.6 2.06
4 50.3 36.5 30.6 31.7 149.1 1.91
5 37.3 27.9 32.5 36.0 133.7 2.24
*Included in Total

The Control Group 1’s greater consumption of Feed Mash, Total Feed/Seed and Mash Wastage was statistically significant (Table 1.) Consumption of whole corn, millet, and sunflower seeds was not statistically different among groups.

Table 2 – Weights and Feed Efficiency
Group # Total Live Weight at Processing (lbs)
% Dressed Weight to Live Weight Live Weight Feed Efficiency Dressed Weight Feed Efficiency
1 55.3 67.7 3.1 4.6
3 50.2 68.0 2.4 3.6
4 53.9 72.2 2.8 2.8
5 55.6 69.0 2.4 3.5

Total live weight at processing was statistically similar among groups. (Table 2)

The improved feed efficiency of Groups 3, 4 and 5 strongly suggests that the chick’s diet was significantly supplemented by successful foraging for insects, grubs, slugs, worms and tender weed greens particularly dandelion and chickweed directed by the foster hen. Although Group 1 chicks were observed to chase bugs, the activity was rather haphazard. The foster hens for Groups 3, 4 and 5 were observed leading their chicks out of their pet caddy night time shelters before sunrise on foraging expeditions. When Sandy came in the morning to replenish the feed and seed, the foster hen would guide the chicks back to the feeding area. The hen and the chicks would stick around the feeding area for a little while but would then sally forth in search of tastier menu choices. The hen would scratch around on the ground with the chicks in attendance. The hen would find a grub, pick it up with her beak, and put it down repeatedly all the while vocalizing a soft cluck-cluck until one of the chicks got the message and ate the bug. Within two weeks of their arrival when I had to turn soil, weed, or plant in one of the gardens a hen and chicks would invariably follow me around scratching the turned soil and pecking through the weed clumps that I had pulled. Three chicks from Groups 4 & 5 even approached me as soon as I walked into the garden and faithfully followed me around the garden during my activities. Many of the chicks developed individual food preferences. I observed two chicks that chose to graze on chickweed and dandelions. At least one chick in the Group 4&5 garden area was observed at multiple times seeking out and eating slugs. No chicks in the Group 3 area were ever observed eating slugs. The asparagus beds became heavily infested with Japanese beetles this year. I would pick the beetles in the cool of the morning and toss them on the ground where a growing entourage of chicks would devour them. I never had to pick Japanese beetles from the fronds below a height of three feet. I observed some chicks predating Japanese beetles on the lower part of the asparagus fronds.

On this farm we have resident American Kestrels, Goshawks and Screech Owls. As noted earlier, bird netting covered Control Group 1’s yard. I observed a Goshawk sitting in a tree near Control Group 1’s yard. I was attracted to the situation by the cacophonous noise of the Guinea Fowl and most of the Regular chicken flock in full alarm. At the time, the chicks in the Control Group appeared relatively unconcerned about the Goshawk’s proximity. I have observed the opposite reaction by the chicks in the Group 4 & 5 garden. After some weeks of growth it was normal to see the chicks scattered throughout the garden area. On one such day as I was weeding the asparagus bed I heard one of the foster hens give an alarm call. As I looked up I saw no sign of any of the chicks, even the groupies that normally followed me had disappeared. It took me awhile to identify the threat; a Red Tailed Hawk was circling about a half-mile away. After the hawk had departed I heard this hen give soft clucking sounds after which the chicks began to reappear from their hiding places.

The data collection/feeding regimen took significantly longer than originally estimated.


The main differences between the Control Group1 area and the fenced-in garden areas for Experimental Groups 3, 4 and 5 were discussed in Section 5. Other generalized conditions were:
a. Droughty April and early May (4 acre-inch moisture deficit). This deficit was mostly made up by gravity fed drip irrigation from a renovated spring.
b. A severe hail storm in early June devastated our apple crop and forced a replant of primary cash crops.
c. Wet late May through early June
d. Colorado Potato Beetle free (5th consecutive year)
e. Expected moderate to heavy thrip infestation of potatoes did not occur.
f. Predator pressure was normal from hawks, foxes and raccoons.
g. Japanese beetle infestation was heavier than normal.
h. Decreased cultivations in July due to family emergencies.

Research conclusions:


Table 3 – Feed/Seed Cost per LB of Dressed Weight
Group # As Fed with Organic Hulled Sunflower Seeds Same ration but with Organic Whole Soybeans Same ration but with Organic Soybean Meal Same ration using Standard Feed Components
1 $2.58 $1.93 $2.08 $1.16
3 $2.19 $1.42 $1.55 $.85
4 $2.32 $1.51 $1.65 $.90
5 $2.33 $1.40 $1.57 $.84

Table 3 displays the 2008 comparative feed costs per pound of dressed weight. The feed/seed cost for the chicks grafted onto foster hens was cheaper than for the control group. Other feed-stocks are listed as alternatives to the as-fed ration. The disproportionately high as-fed feed/seed cost per pound of dressed weight was most likely attributable to some unavoidable delays in processing. Most, if not all, birds should have been processed between 8 and 9 weeks of age. Birds carried past their major growth phases begin to deposit more fat and less muscle.2 Excessive amounts of fat were noted on almost all birds during processing. In a production situation when using foster hens the mash feed could have been eliminated by the 3rd week. The high protein sunflower seeds/soybean component could have been drastically reduced by the 6-7th week because by this time most birds in the experimental groups were accomplished foragers.

By the 6-7th week the foster hens in all three experimental groups had begun to establish new nests and were laying eggs. One particular hen (the one I would consider to be the best foster hen) not only avoided the chicks but aggressively deterred them from any close contact.

Table 4 – Associated Costs/Contributions
Daily Additional Direct Labor Daily Feed (Organic) Daily Power Usage per 150W lamp. Daily Egg Contribution Extra Cost Daily Totals
Without Foster Hen $1.79 0 $.42 0 $2.21

With Foster Hen $0 $.14 -$.04 $.10

Table 4 illustrates some of the cost savings associated with using a foster hen. Most of the daily chores for all groups were the same with one exception. The control group birds never learned how to walk up the ramp into their brooder area of the chicken coop. They had to be wrangled every day and individually placed near the top of the ramp. Even this did not assure that they would willingly walk into the brooder area. Leaving the chicks outside was not an option. The bird netting while adequate in deterring flying predators posed no obstacle to raccoons. This amounted to an average 15 minutes per day. The $1.79 cited above is based on minimum wage of $7.15/hr.3 No attempt was made to incorporate any out-of-pocket fringes that an employer would pay. These can be an extra 15 – 35% of labor cost. Some might take exception to this cost but regardless some person will have to do some amount of wrangling to accomplish what the foster hen does for “chicken feed.” From day 1 of the experiment the foster hens were always in their pet caddies in the evening with all of the chicks. The pet caddy doors were always left open. No wrangling was required.

The cost of operating brooder lamps would be unnecessary by using foster hens. This would also avoid an inherent risk of fire.

The cost of carrying a foster hen over the winter to the next production season would be cost effective even if she had no egg production. The cost of feed in Table 4 presumes a 3 lb chicken consuming .3 lbs of balanced feed each day. A foster hen could practically raise 2 cycles of either broilers or layer hens each year under the conditions cited above. It might be feasible to raise 3 cycles given that the foster hen stays grafted to the chicks for 6-7 weeks. For this discussion I will use 10 chicks per hen, 2 production cycles and 0% egg laying potential. The hen’s annual indemnity (taking into account no egg production) would be about $51.10. Subtract from this the cost of 1 brooder light bulb and the power cost for 6 weeks ($24.64). The hen’s annual indemnity would be at $26.46. Let’s use 50% of the daily labor cost $.895 (10 minutes) per day for 14 weeks ($87.71.) Now, that foster hen contributed $61.25 in cost avoidance to the farm operation for services rendered. Not included in this number would be the cost of litter, nor the labor to spread it, keep it fresh or dispose of it. Do the math. The hen’s egg production becomes serendipity.

(1) Statistical Analysis of Simple Agricultural Experiments, T.N. Motis, ECHO Technical Note, 2003
(2) Poultry: Is Feed Efficiency Still a Useful Measure of Broiler Performance?, S. Leeson, , 2000
(3) New York State Department of Labor

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Outreach efforts were not initiated as planned. The outreach will be confined primarily to submitting articles for publication in Cooperative Extension Bulletins on the results of this study. Also this article will be made available to various websites that target sustainable growers such as ATTRA,, NESARE (of course as the project report), and Presentations at workshops will depend on the availability of funding to defer travel expenses at some of the following venues: NOFA-NY Winter Conference, NOFA Summer Conference, Cooperative Extension Workshops, PASA Winter Conference.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Assessment and Adoption

I was very excited about how this study turned out, especially the part about it being cheaper.

This method of raising chicks disperses a potentially concentrated farm activity. One aspect in the original objectives but not discussed was reduced exposure of farm labor to poultry borne disease vectors. I speculate that it would have that result. One other probable outcome is that it would improve overall biosecurity of a poultry operation by dispersing the individual broods over a fairly broad area. An outbreak of an introduced disease would by nature of the setup be relatively isolated.

A next step would be to duplicate this study in a larger operation 200-1000 birds. .

Another step would be to determine when is the best time to remove a hen from her clutch of eggs to ensure the highest degree of successful grafting to a new group of chicks.

This method could be easily adapted to a pastured poultry operation.


Our 2009 farm plan includes grafting purchased chicks onto foster hens. This method is an ideal way to bring new varieties of chickens into our operation with minimal cost increase. In addition to Cornish X Rocks (for our usual meat customers) we will be adding male and female Delawares (for customers desiring heritage breeds) and increasing the number of Barred Rocks in the flock. The same principles apply for raising layer hens as for broilers. We would revise the model slightly by providing a seasoned rooster (one who has demonstrated good parental behaviors) per every four foster hen/chick groups. This would provide added security for the group as well as a role model for the male Delaware chicks that would be carried over the winter. In the history of our flock we have had several roosters that have either successfully defended their hens and chicks against predator attack or sacrificed themselves in their defense.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.