Have you ever wondered how to raise chicks without electricity? Wooly hen to the rescue! A wooly what?? A wooly hen.

I forget what exactly prompted the question, but one day early last spring, Hub and I got a wild hair to look up how to raise chicks without electricity.  People have been raising chickens long before there was electricity…how did they do it?  I asked the internet and surprise! – there wasn’t much out there. However, the little I did find turned out to be everything we needed.

Chicks warming in the wooly hen on Rosewyn Farm
Oops! I forgot to set the tray and shavings underneath the wooly hen.

TLDR
• Non-electric insulation for brooding chicks
• Eliminate the danger of heat lamps
• Save money on feed and electricity
• Support better health
Overview

A wooly hen is an insulator comprised of a housing, “feathers”, and doors; chicks gather inside amongst the wool feathers and maintain their body heat. It’s fast, easy, and cheap to make, it cuts the cord of electricity dependence, and conveys a world of benefits that have been robbed from generations of chickens that have been raised under heat lamps.  

Best of all, the wooly hen has been a boon to our farm.  We raised 16 of our 17 hatches last year in the wooly hen.  In the brooder, these chicks were robust and active and now a year later, they’re still healthy and vigorous, ranging on pasture all day.

The pullets began laying in December and January of this year, and we’ve been at full production for a about month now. [Side note: I just realized that even the pullets from our October hatch started laying at least in February — wow.]  A few days ago, two guinea eggs showed up in the nesting box as well, which is early for our area (the guineas were raised with the wooly hen as well).

It’s April 1st as I write, and we had a chilly overnight low below freezing, but the chicks sailed through toasty warm. They were happy and active when we fed and watered this morning — no losses after the cold night.

Wooly Hen Features: Benefits, Advantages

Hen-like: mimics hen, fosters instinct to tuck under
Simple: less to break, more reliable
Easy: average skill, nearly anyone can do
Quick: saves time, do other things
Basic: most items on hand, save money
Thrifty: save money, do more with less
Wool: great insulator, birds warm and dry
Non-electric: no cost to use, save money
No heat lamp: no eye damage, healthy vision…natural circadian rhythm, better health…no 24/7 eating, lower feed bill…faster feathering, foster hardiness

Easy, Inexpensive, Effective 

It’s very easy to make a wooly hen, though the wool was a bit challenging to find.  Old blankets are great, but we didn’t have any, so we’ve been ordering Ektos wool blankets online. The twin size is very inexpensive, especially for a wool blanket, and one blanket made several wooly hens and saved us at least that much in electricity costs raising just one batch of chicks.

Materials
Cardboard or plastic storage box
Wool strips
Scissors
Hot knife or drill for plastic
Tray for underneath the box if chicks are not on a solid surface

My favorite housing is a wax-covered fruit box, like what we get from the peach truck.  We just made sure to match the size of our box to the size of our hatch and to allow for growing room.  I don’t have a formula on how much growing room to allow, I just based it on our previous experience. We also made larger wooly hens as the chicks grew.  We learned by trial and error and will no doubt learn more as we continue using the wooly hen.

Note: cardboard is easy to replace between hatches while plastic storage boxes can be sterilized in between. Having two sets of feathers is something we’re going to try so we have one set for the wooly hen, and the other for washing (hot soapy water, rinse, air dry, sunshine).

Chicks warming in the wooly hen on Rosewyn Farm
Not a waxed box, but still awesome.

I removed the top flaps if the box had them, and then used scissors to poke holes in the bottom of the box.  For 40 newborn chicks and the fruit box, I punched a 6 x 10 row grid of holes.  Next, I cut out doors in opposite sides of the box, so that the chicks have more than one exit and entry. For plastic housing, I used a hot knife; it’s very stinky and slow. Hub used a drill, which was faster and not stinky, but the plastic can crack when you’re drilling if you go too fast or catch the wrong angle.

For the feathers, I measured the height of the box and cut wool strips that were twice that long and about 1.5″ wide, cutting one strip for every pair of holes. You want to make sure that there are enough feathers to insulate them well, but not so many that they can’t walk through the box.

When the box and feathers were ready, I threaded the strips into the holes.  I did this by rolling the end of the strip kind of like the ends of shoelaces and then threaded each rolled tip into the hole.  I did this for both ends, making sure that the strips hung evenly.

Once all of the feathers are threaded, I made sure that the strips weren’t too long.  I usually have to trim the ends, and I like to have them hanging about 1/4” to 1/2” off the floor.

Once the wooly hen was done, my next step is training.  Chicks don’t really need to learn how to use it, but for my own peace of mind, I like to make sure that we’re all on the same page before setting them into the brooder.  I covered the bottom of the bathtub with a towel, and then set the food, water, and wooly hen inside. 

Next, I added the chicks, setting each one inside the wooly hen through the little doorway and into the feathers.  Once everyone is in the tub, I make sure that the overhead light is off. It’s amazing to see infant birds cooping themselves into the wooly hen, and they are pin quiet all night long.  In the morning, they rise with the sun and live their baby life. They spent two nights in the tub before moving to the brooder.

Bathtub training with the wooly hen on Rosewyn Farm

Starting our second season now with the wooly hen, and we don’t miss for a minute all of the problems with heat lamps[1], especially the fire risk. It’s eliminated our electricity bill for brooding (in our area, that amounts to $40 a month per brooder, which is two heat lamps; there were times we had three brooders going with six lamps total).

Because it supports their natural circadian rhythm, it’s lowered our feed bill because, just like chicks under a hen, they don’t eat at night. It eliminates the chance of heat-lamp induced eye disease. It takes advantage of their instinct to tuck under the hen, and teaches them to coop.

It’s said to promote faster feathering; we had good feathering genetics before, but we were able to consistently move birds to the coop between five and six weeks of age. And we saw pullets hit their Point of Lay in December, January, and February, with full production by early March. We’re incredibly happy with all of the incredible benefits that the wooly hen has brought to our farm.

Dislcaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. Neither Rosewyn Farm nor any of our individual family members are liable for anything that goes wrong from anyone’s use of a wooly hen. We’re not suggesting that using a wooly hen is right for any or all individuals, flocks, farms, situations, and/or climates. Each individual takes full responsibility for their own husbandry choices, including using a wooly hen, and must decide for themselves if this is something that will work for their birds.

[1] https://www.backyardchickens.com/articles/kick-the-heat-lamp-better-safer-and-healthier-options-to-heat-your-brooder.72482/

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