By Dalia Monterroso, The President of Chickenlandia
How did chicken farmers raise baby chicks before electricity?
I often sit and ponder about how things were done long ago. When I say “long ago”, I’m talking about before Amazon Prime, before iPhones, and even *shutters* before Netflix. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m so old I remember when kids’ television shows (think: Loony Toons) only aired on weekdays from 3 to 4 pm and Saturday mornings. We had to watch commercials and even remote controls were futuristic! Alas, sometimes the world I grew up in seems like a dream that never really happened. I wonder how my great-grandmother would feel about the world we live in today. And I wonder…how the heck did she brood baby chicks without an electric heat source?
Cold-Brooding Baby Chicks
When burning questions concerning chickens keep me up at night, I feel have no choice but to go down the chicken rabbit hole so you don’t have to. I must say, though, there really isn’t a ton of information online about brooding chicks without electricity. I found a few blog posts and videos about raising chicks off-grid, but most of what I could find was about heat lamp alternatives that still required power. Even my collection of mid-1900s chicken books mostly focused on wacky contraptions that, to be honest, seem pretty dangerous through my modern lens. But through it all, I did manage to piece together some nifty ways in which baby chicks can survive without heat. The practice is called “cold-brooding,” and if nothing else, understanding how it works could be extremely helpful in the event of a power outage.
More is Better
Chicken keepers like to joke about a phenomenon called “chicken math,” which is the tendency to get more and more chickens despite ominous looks from our spouses. If you decide to cold-brood baby chicks it’s important to know that more is actually better in this case. Under natural circumstances, baby chicks rely on their mother’s fluffy body to keep them warm. The younger chicks are, the more in danger they are of getting chilled. If there is no mother hen or artificial heat source available, baby chicks will naturally turn to each other for warmth and comfort. This is why it is best to have no less than a dozen chicks if you plan to cold-brood. You want them to be able to huddle together so that they can generate enough heat to keep from getting chilled.
Your New Housemates
You may or may not know this already, but baby chicks generate a ton of dust, especially if they are being kept on shavings. Because of this fact, I often suggest keeping your brooder in an area other than inside your house, such as a garage or shed. This is not the best option for cold-brooding, however, because the ambient temperature needs to be at least above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If possible, it’s safest for your chicks to keep your brooder near your family’s heat source, such as a wood-burning stove or fireplace. Keeping them near your heat will be a much-needed layer of protection against becoming too cold.
Keep Them Cozy
I normally say that as long as there are no drafts or other dangers present, the more space you can give baby chicks the better. This is not the case if you are cold-brooding. Having your chicks in a smaller space (not over-crowded, but cozy) makes it easier for their environment to retain heat. In fact, some cold-brooding set-ups consist of two “rooms” for chicks, one small, very insulated compartment for chicks to go into, huddle, and warm up together, and another compartment with feed, water, and some space to stretch their legs. If you have your chicks inside where the ambient temperature is above 70 degrees, one area should work just fine. Many of you likely have a plastic bin that might be too small if you were using artificial heat but is perfect for cold-brooding. Having a smaller brooder will also make it easier for you to insulate their space by placing thick blankets over and around it. Of course, always make sure there is adequate ventilation and clean their brooder often to ward off any ammonia build-up.
Give them something to snuggle with
Baby chicks can generate heat by snuggling under or near something cozy such as a feather or wool duster, a wool blanket, or even a stuffed animal. Make sure anything you offer them is free of chemicals such as fabric softeners or artificial fragrances, as well as loose strings that they can get caught up in. You also don’t want to use a blanket so heavy that a chick could get stuck beneath it. Above all, use common sense.
If you are the diligent sort, you can wrap a hot water bottle in a towel and offer it to them to warm up near. If you decide to do this, just be sure you are checking it often and make certain it stays warm even overnight. Once your baby chicks get used to a heat source, you want to keep it on offer until they can be slowly weaned from it as they grow into their adolescent feathers.
‘Tis it Really the Season?
If you are considering raising chicks without heat, it’s best to plan that baby-raising according to the seasons. There is an important reason that mother hens normally go broody in the spring: it’s so her babies will hatch during an ideal climate when she doesn’t have to worry about them getting accidentally chilled. Even when you’re brooding chicks indoors, keeping the ambient temperature above 70 degrees can be more difficult and definitely more expensive in the cold of winter. This is why it’s better to hold off acquiring your baby chicks until later in the year after things warm up. In the Southern USA, there are times when the temperatures are so high in the summer that chicks don’t need additional heat even if you wanted to offer it! So, make things easier on yourself and your chickens. Remember: cold-brooding works best during the late spring and summer months.
Baby chicks that survive cold-brooding often grow up to be very hardy and healthy adult chickens. As with most things, though, there are risks to raising chicks this old-fashioned way. It is an unfortunate possibility that you may lose a chick or chicks because they became chilled or otherwise stressed. For this reason, my soft heart will always recommend using a mother hen or artificial heat source. However, I must acknowledge that not every person has access to heat lamps or heat plates, so I wanted to be sure this information was out there in an organized way. If you choose to cold-brood your baby chicks, I’d love to hear about it! Let me know about your experience in the comments.
This article is featured in my online course Chickenlandia’s Backyard Chickens 101 – A Chicken Course for Everyone! Find out more about this easy and interactive course by clicking here.