Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Off-Grid Chicks

One of the challenges of living off-grid is caring for animals without the convenience of modern electricity.  Stock tank heaters are a thing of the past, making winter a constant battle against frozen stock tanks.  Although it may sound easy enough to keep the ice chopped with an ax, it is actually a form of farm ballet, an exercise in perfect control.  You must chop with enough force to effectively break the ice, while controlling your exerted energy so as not to render the stock tank incompatible for use due to massive ax-inflicted trauma.

Although spring is welcome after a long winter (no more frozen stock tanks!) it brings with it it's own set of animal burdens.  One of the challenges we have had to overcome is adequately nurturing baby chicks without the use of a heat lamp.  Chicks have to be kept warm and in the past we simply plugged a heat lamp in, hung it in the brooder and walked away.  Easy!  Now, life is not that simple.  Our solar/generator system will run most things effectively, however, it cannot support anything that that involves resistive heating - meaning no heat lamps!

The last time we got chickies, we waited until late spring/early summer, when the temperatures were warm enough that we didn't need a heat lamp.  The problem with that method of chick rearing is that it generally takes nearly a full year before the chickens begin to lay eggs.  They spend their summer maturing and by the time they reach the age for egg production, the days get shorter and they just don't get into the habit of laying eggs.  That means that you have to suffer through an entire year of spending money on chicken feed with little or nothing to show for it!

We have had abundant eggs for a number of years, but our hens were getting up in years and their egg production had dropped significantly.  We went through the winter with no hens cackling in our henhouse, but knew we had to restock before summer arrived - we want fresh eggs!  And so, we visited our local feed store, picked out a variety of good layers and brought fluffy little chicks home.

A few of the chicks were really tiny.  By the time we got home, three of them were nearly dead.  Actually, when we were unloading them, I honestly thought they were dead.  Maid Elizabeth picked one up, looked at it and determined that it was only "mostly dead".  A few warm breaths as it lay cupped in Elizabeth's hand brought a flitting to the poor little chickies eyelid.  The other two were also "mostly dead" but not completely gone, so Maid Elizabeth grabbed a cookie sheet, lined with it an old wash cloth and laid the limp chick bodies on the towel.  They didn't move a smidge.  She slid the cookie sheet into the oven of the wood cookstove and closed the door.  The stove was just bubbling along with a slow fire, so it wasn't super hot - just right for incubating baby chicks.  Within an hour the chicks started moving around and by an hour and half we had to remove them from the oven - they were up walking around.

"Mostly Dead" chickies, warming in the wood cookstove oven

Rejuvenated chicks getting a little extra attention
After reviving the "mostly dead" chicks, we turned our attention to creating a chickie habitat behind our wood cookstove.  We brought in a wooden box that was small, but not tiny.  We laid newspaper on the bottom of the box (easy to clean) and added a layer of pine chips.  We grabbed our trusty Dietz lantern, filled with Kerosene, lit it and placed it in the corner of the box.  We turned it down pretty low, but not low enough for the flame to extinguish.    We did put up a small piece of cardboard to keep the chicks away from the lantern, however, we have come to find out that the chicks like it right next to the lantern and they hop back out when they get too hot.  We added food and water and a heavy towel that we placed over about 2/3 of the top.  We didn't want the towel to lay over the top of the lantern and we wanted the chicks to have adequate ventilation.  For the cooler nights, when the wood cookstove is stoked, we add a hot water bottle for the chicks to cuddle on.  That, along with the kerosene lantern keeps the chicks cozy and content.

Our make-shift brooder box has worked incredibly well.  The chicks are happy and warm and growing nicely.  We fill the lantern every evening and it easily burns for 24 hours with no problems.  We keep the brooder box behind the wood cookstove so that we don't need to burn the kerosene lantern particularly high.  Our lantern if far enough away from the stove not to be a problem and there is no (uncovered) open flame as we are using a Dietz.

Being off-grid is an exercise in ingenuity.  You have to be creative, finding new (old) ways of doing things.  We are happy to have a whole flock of off-grid chicks.  Now is the time to think of creative ways to go about the business of life.  Don't wait until you have no choice - choose to think outside the box today.

This is just another day in the life of "Little Shouse on the Prairie"!


  1. When we lived off the grid in the CA mtns., I put a gallon milk jug of hot water in with the chicks and covered their box with a blanket. They huddled up and the water stayed warm enough all night. Never lost any and they grew up to be very cold hardy.

  2. Hello, I am enjoying your blog. A very interesting read.

    For chick or other chilled animals I have also heated a brick in the wood stove oven, and wrapped it in a towel. It might be a little safer than the lantern when the chicks start getting full of themselves and trying to fly around the box. You will need to change the brick for a warm one every few hours. Seems like they last about 6 or 8 hours before they cool down if I remember right. I honestly never thought about the lantern, but that is a good one as well.

  3. We have a few chicks under a 100 watt bulb right now. I had never thought about how to start chicks with no electricity but it is a very good thing you have taught us!

  4. We have used the kerosene lantern very successfully with chicks. When they were little, I made an aluminum foil "hat" with a wire fram that slipped over the lantern and kept the heat mostly under the hat. By the time the chicks were big enough to knock over the lantern, we moved them to an open wire cage where the lantern could be wired to the top to keep them from dumping it over. It's great that they only need brooding for about 4 -5 weeks. Of course I prefer to let the hens do it whenever possible and keep a group of game hens for just that purpose!

  5. An uncle of mine had a kerosene powered incubator/warmer-it heated copper tubes of water that were circulated by convection. The thing was made in 1916, and had been in pretty much continuous use since that that time(this was back in the mid 1980s)-their house had two 15 amp circuits (one claimed by the fridge), and they didn't have much amperage to spare.
    I wonder if one of those Peltier junction cooler/warmer gizmos would work(sold under the name of Koolatron)? Smaller models use about 5 amps at 12 volts(the one I saw was called Film Fridge, designed to keep film cool in pre-digital days, but it had a warming mode as well). The only moving part is a small computer type fan. In warming mode, they get up to around 95 or so.

  6. I never thought about this before. Thank you for your ingenuity.

  7. Thanks for the suggestions - we'll put them to use this spring with our first foray into chicks with no electricity!

  8. Very neat ideas! I like the kerosene lamp idea a lot... But I'd say the 'off grid' chick rearing was missing a very vital part.... where did the chicks come from? That wasn't off grid. Like another person posted hinting at a kerosene incubator... unless you have a way to incubate those little ones (and feed them without buying feed) off grid, they aren't really 'Off Grid Chicks". Almost there though. :\

  9. Very clever! Perhaps you should consider raising broody varieties who would do all that work for you.

  10. Thinking back to keeping stock tanks ice free (or nearly so). There is an article by Jackie Clay (don't have the direct link) about the wood powered stock tank heaters that her husband made for their tanks. I believe the instructions are in her online blog at backwoodshome.com