The Challenge of Raising Chickens on an Off-Grid Acreage 1

New Members of the Family

New Members of the Family

You live off-grid, on solar and wind power – and your husband decides he wants to raise chickens.  They’ll give us eggs, he says, and weed our big garden for us.

Sounds great – but wait.  Could this be a problem?  When you live off-grid you have to produce all the energy that you need.  The brooder light for the young chicks uses as much energy as 3-4 fridges.  Once they are grown, how would we keep them warm over the winter?  Would they keep the garden free of weeds, or just eat everything in sight?

I asked all these questions – obviously I really wasn’t sure about this whole idea!  But – life is more fun if you try crazy things, so I guess we are going to find out what it’s like to raise chickens in an off-grid house.

On April 21, we picked up a dozen 4 day old leghorn chicks from the local hatchery.  The first challenge was to keep the young hatchlings warm.  They have to be kept at 31 degrees Celsius for the first week.  We set them up in small improvised coop in our family room and kept them warm with a 175 Watt brooder light – the smallest we could find.  Luckily we had lots of wind and sun that week to keep the brooder light going. Otherwise it would have been “fire up the backup generator” time.

Fortunately, you don’t have to keep this up for very long.  After the first week you can drop the temperature by a couple of degrees (we shut the light off part of the time) and the same for the next week.  Then you are down to room temperature.

Who needs pups when you can have chicks?

Who needs pups when you can have chicks?

Our dog was fascinated by the chicks!  We couldn’t keep her away – she just wanted to sit there and watch them move around the coop, peeping softly.  She tried to reach in and touch them with her paw or stick her long nose in there so she could sniff and nuzzle them.  We were worried about it at first – after all, dogs do eat chickens – but she just became a canine “mother hen”.

As the chicks grew they starting hopping and flying out of the coop and getting into everything!  We put a clear acrylite cover on the coop but when you opened it up to feed them they just came pouring out of there and you were chasing chickens for the next 20 minutes.

Ready to fly the coop

Ready to fly the coop

Obviously, they were ready for the bigger coop we were preparing for them in our garden, but the weather wasn’t ready for them. It was still early May on the Saskatchewan prairies with overnight frosts and cool days.  They would just have to wait.

Finally it warmed up enough that we could take them down to their coop in the garden.  Our garden is all fenced in with 8′ high wildlife fence to keep out the deer. Since the chickens were supposed to help weed the garden, we figured this worked out well and that we had a good secure place to house them.

Or so we thought . . .

Our mobile chicken coop in the garden

Our mobile chicken coop in the garden

A few days after moving them there we noticed that we only had 11 chickens left.  We checked the perimeter of the fence but couldn’t find anyplace where they could get out or something could get in, except possibly a cat.  We put some more chicken wire along the bottom of the wildlife fencing and hoped this would do the job.

The next day we still had eleven chickens but the following day we were down to ten.  Perplexed, we went back up to the house to take care of some other chores and try to figure out some solution to this strange problem.  After a couple of hours my husband went down to the garden to check on the chickens and was horrified to find one live chicken, one seriously injured bird, two dead ones buried in the garden and the rest – gone!

Cats don’t bury their food, but we had dogs that came onto our acreage from various neighbors and we could hear coyotes howling at night.  One of them must have jumped our five foot high gate.  We locked our one traumatized chicken into the coop for the night, shutting down every opening so nothing could get in.  The next day we added another three feet to the top of the gate.  That solved the problem.

Our dog and our chicken became buddies

Our dog and our chicken became buddies

The one remaining chicken, which we named “Lucky’, roamed around the garden and we let our own dog in to play with her.  The two became best buddies.

With the problem solved we turned our attention to the gardening and simply let the chicken and the dog run around in the garden with us.  We had hoped the chicken would eat the weeds and help keep them under control, but it was just too many weeds for one lonely chicken!

Friends

Friends

She was due to start laying eggs on Aug. 21.  She didn’t quite make the deadline (maybe had something to do with the trauma in her youth!)  but laid her first egg only a few days later.  She skipped a day but then started laying an egg a day.  We were delighted – they were orange and very flavorful.

I went to visit my daughter in Ottawa and packed some of Lucky’s eggs into my suitcase for her.  But while I was in Ottawa, Lucky figured out how to get out of the garden and start exploring.  My husband found her the first day, after coming home from a day’s work, and put her back in the garden.  He figured she must have flown to the top of the coop and from there over the fence.  He tried to more the coop but it was impossible to do alone and I was still in Ottawa.  The next day she was out of the garden again but this time all he found of Lucky was some scattered feathers.  Her luck had run out.

Our geese await next summer's chicks

Our geese await next summer’s chicks

We’re going to try again next spring.  In the meantime, we went to visit some friends and the next thing we know they are sending two geese home with us.  They are big, aggressive birds – “they’ll protect your chickens from the dogs and coyotes for you next year” we were told.  So now our frozen garden houses two geese, just waiting for the next batch of chicks to arrive and protect.

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