It was our first summer living off the grid, and of course, we had to get chickens. Our established flock of ducks moved with us from our previous home, but we were starting fresh with baby chicks. We did what we’d always done…bought spring chicks and set them up in a Rubbermaid tote with a heat lamp. A heat lamp pulls a lot of electricity, and it only took a few hours for that heat lamp to completely drain our batteries.
Clearly raising chickens off the grid is a bit more complicated than a standard operation. It was time to re-learn how to raise chickens without electricity like our ancestors had for most of history.
Brooding Chicks without Electricity
Once you have an established flock, the mother hens can do the brooding. Choose a breed known for being good mothers. Heritage dual purpose breeds are an ideal choice since dual purpose chicken breeds tend to have large bodies that will do better in cold winters without a heat lamp. Historically, all chick you’d better believe that any chicken raised was going to be dual purpose. Once a chicken was done producing eggs, it still had one more gift to give.
But you have to start somewhere. Buying pullets, or chicks raised out for you, is one option. I’m not fond of this option, because I’ve found that chickens are creatures of habit. They learn one master and one coop. They can learn new routines, but they’ll never be as friendly or as manageable as chicks you raised yourself.
Our local agricultural supply shop takes chick orders, and the first delivery comes in February. Those will have to have a heat lamp. Their last delivery comes in early June, right about the time we’re getting our last frost. We’ve successfully raised seasonal meat chickens in our garage in a Rubbermaid tote without a heat lamp for the past 5 years and never lost a chick.
Be sure to give them plenty of dry shavings, and order enough chicks that they can huddle together at night. Each year we’ve ordered a minimum of 30 chicks. After 2-3 weeks, the little guys move out to a chicken tractor or start free ranging.
Overwintering Chickens without Heat
The trick to keeping chickens healthy in winter is to avoid moisture and drafts. Chickens can withstand surprisingly low temperatures, provided they’re kept in a dry, draft-free coop. In the summer, chickens need good ventilation, but in the winter they need to be sealed in tight. Look for gaps between boards, and make sure there are no leaks in the roof. Any leaking water can be the end of them all.
In our first chicken coop at our old home, we built double walls and added insulation. Once we moved, there was already an old garden shed in the perfect spot, so we repurposed it as a coop.
Using deep bedding, the chickens are insulated from the cold ground even if there’s no insulation in the walls. The deep bedding method just keeps adding more shavings on top of the old, until the whole coop is cleaned out in the spring.
So long as the roof doesn’t leak and the walls are solid with no drafts, chickens can overwinter just fine, even in very cold areas. We’re a cold zone 4, and often temps don’t come above 0 for a week at a time mid-winter.
How to Keep Chicken Water from Freezing Without Electricity
The honest answer? You don’t.
At least, not in our cold climate. When it’s truly below 0 for a week at a time, the water is going to freeze. Chickens aren’t very active in this weather, and they mostly just hunker in their coop. In the coldest weather, we provide them with a rubber feeder full of fresh fluffy snow all day. They can peck at that as they please, and then we bring them fresh liquid water every morning when we collect the eggs.
In weather that’s just a bit below freezing, a saltwater bottle inside a water dish works wonders. Take a soda bottle and fill it with salt water. Float that in the chicken water dish and the salt will keep the water bottle from freezing. It’ll break up the ice on the top of the chicken water as it bobs around, and as they peck at it for entertainment. This only goes so far, and in truly cold weather the bottle will just freeze right into the waterer.
In cold weather, switch to a water bowl. While a self-feeding chicken water jug is handy all summer, it’ll just break as it freezes in the winter.
Electricity is a fairly new invention in the grand scheme of things, but chickens have been domesticated for thousands of years. Resilient breeds lived without brooders, incubators and insulated coops just fine, and the people tending them staked their life on their livestock’s survival.
You can bet those chickens weren’t getting fancy chicken feed formulations, and they likely weren’t being fed grain at all. With the work that goes into growing and harvesting grain, do you think chickens got fresh grain rather than table scraps? That’s a topic for another article though….
Let me know your thoughts. Have you raised chickens without electricity?