When I first brought chicks home to my limited-electricity off grid homestead, I looked all over the Internet for advice, and found it pretty thin. There are people doing ingenious things that I don’t really understand. There are people who found it manageable but didn’t give guidelines to repeat what they did.
We made it up as we went along, and made some mistakes along the way. Now that we’ve done it three times I’m going to be very specific about our techniques, in case it will be helpful to someone else.
10 Tips For Raising Chicks Without a Brooder Lamp
1. Consider raising chicks during the summer instead of the spring. Our July chicks are much easier than our April chicks. Our local hatchery puts their whole stock on sale a week after their last hatch (in late June), which is perfect for us for all the reasons.
2. Consider raising hardy breeds. We’ve done fine with the standards, but a lesser-known strain bred for meat was a risk we shouldn’t have taken. Hardy breeds include Wyandotte, Orpington, Australorp, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, Banty and others.
3. Find or construct a sturdy cardboard box with a tight-fitting ventilated lid. We have three of them. Our largest is a furniture box, and our smallest is not much bigger than my laptop. We cut out thin rectangular ventilation holes in the lid, about one every six inches in each direction. You want to make sure the size of the box is appropriate to the quantity/age of the chicks, but keep to the small end of what is recommended. The smaller the air space, the more control you have over temperature.
4. It’s not a bad idea to insulate the cardboard box further. You’re depending on a temperature difference between inside the box and outside the box. Putting the box inside another box, wrapping it in a blanket (that doesn’t block the ventilation holes), or adding double bubble may be appropriate.
5. Choose a warm, draft free location for the box. We put ours near our wood stove, and for the first week well off the floor. If it has to be on the floor, get down there and feel to make sure there isn’t a draft hitting it.
6. Get your non-electric heat source going on. We use hot water bottles sheathed in old socks. How hot and how many and how often depends on a million other things (see timeline below.) We heat the water with propane, but a kettle kept on the wood stove would be pretty slick. The chicks will provide some warmth just with body heat, but not enough.
7. Keep a thermometer in the box. Especially for the first 7 days after the hatch you need to be very attentive. The optimum temperature changes as the chicks get bigger. (see timeline below)
8. Use your ears. If the chicks are uncomfortably cold you’ll hear it. They’ll cheep at you to let you know. It sounds like, “Where’s mama?” However, the caveat there is that they make some noise like that for other reasons, too. Just like our kids, they tend to have an agitated hour in the evening, at which point you can just close their box lid and leave them alone.
9. Watch for pasting up. Pasting up is when the vent is blocked with dried poop. It tends to happen to a chick that has had a chill. If you catch it on the day that it happens, just wash the chicks’ butt gently with warm water and it will be fine. If you don’t catch it for a couple of days, you’ll lose that chick. After 7-10 days you don’t have to worry about this anymore.
10. Guard (as much as you can) against spraddle leg. If you see a chick faltering you can separate it out, wrap it and make sure it is the right temperature, but this is touch and go. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do.
Timeline for off grid chicks
Week One (hatch to 7 days) — optimum 90 degrees, danger zone below 80.
The first week is the hardest time. Very early on the chicks are very sleepy, but from day four on they are moving around a lot, potentially slipping or stepping on each other and still needing to be quite warm. I keep the box lid closed all the time, pack them in pretty tight and change the water in their hot water bottles every four hours.
Week Two (7-14 days) — optimum 80-85 degrees, danger zone is below 70
Once the chicks are a week old, you’re past the spraddle leg danger. But you still need to check a few more times for pasting up. As they get bigger I open the box lid for part or most of the day and do hot water bottles only at bedtime and in the early morning.
Week Three – 14-21 days — room temperature (yay!), still no drafts or chilly nights
With no real need to keep a temperature difference anymore, you can move chicks to as big a box you want, keep the box lid open all day (unless they’re flying out), and take out the hot water bottles all together. But don’t take them outside yet, or leave them in a draft. And if it gets below 55-60 degrees in your home at night, you might want to keep doing hot water bottles at bedtime.
Week Four 21-28 days – room temperature
Here you’re coping more with the ammonia smell than any other worries, probably counting the days until you can take them out of doors! I take my chicks out to the tractor in the afternoons for a few days before finally moving them out of the house altogether at just over 4 weeks. When they are 8-9 weeks old you can put them in with other adult chickens.
General chick stuff (bedding, etc…)
Food and water. I feed nonmedicated locally sourced feed, in crumble form if I can get it. And I change drinking water frequently. I keep their drinking water up on a block, at least until they can tip it over (at which point they really need to be going outside anyway).
Bedding: Many people recommend wood shavings, and I use them sometimes (pictured above), but they are constantly getting into the chicks’ drinking water. Just for the first week I like to line the bottom of the box with a towel, (only for that purpose and washed by itself), which keeps their little feet from slipping and helps protect against spraddle leg. After that I like to use straw and sawdust. You can’t do all sawdust because it makes them sneeze, but you really need that concentrated carbon to neutralize the ammonia smell. I put on fresh sawdust and then fresh straw alternating, every day, and clean it all out into my compost once a week.
Roosting: We have a roosting stick in our biggest cardboard box. It’s just a nice straight stick, slipped through holes cut in the side of the box. They start having an impulse to roost at 3-4 weeks. Then the box lid really needs to be closed at dusk or they’ll be getting up onto the bookshelves!
Handling. I let my kids handle chicks 7 days old or older, especially the ones for the laying flock. It helps them grow into gentle, human-friendly hens. We try to be clear at the start which ones are sticking around and which ones will be dinner, but our kids are young enough to take it all in stride.
Happy chickens, happy life!