The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Off-grid ducklings


My two female ducks (no specific breed, barnyard duck . . . may have some runner) started setting; the second time this season. This past spring every single egg they set on was infertile. When they became broody again, I researched the Muscovy drake/’normal’ duck breed cross a bit more. I learned that in natural breeding settings, these only have a 20-30% fertility rate. No wonder the spring eggs were all infertile! I ordered a dozen ducklings from a hatchery, for delivery the week the broody ducks would be hatching, if any of their eggs were fertile. I had grand plans of foster ducklings and happy foster mother ducks.

Duckling watererThe ducklings hatched August 31st and arrived at the local post office September 2nd. No foster duck success. What to do with all of this cuteness? I sort of forgot that I am off-grid!

Looking around, I have a greenhouse (although the sides are rolled up for summer), an old very small charcoal kettle grill, two bags of lump charcoal (leftover from making a charcoal walled evaporative coolbox which I use to keep food cooler on the hottest summer days), and a top of tank propane heater (normally used in the winter in my covered, but by no means enclosed propane camp shower.) I have 600Ah of battery capacity and 790W solar. I use about 60Ah/day for my normal living (~10% of my battery power.) I have the idea for charcoal heat from travel in Africa, where I’ve seen small-scale poultry producers use charcoal heaters for brooding. The ones they use last about 8 hours before needing refilling, per conversations with the producers.

Duck brooder

I set the ducklings up in a pen directly on a bed in the greenhouse. I placed small bits of plywood and cardboard all around the pen to limit drafts. Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks mentions that in mild weather, a low insulated area can be used by the ducklings to keep warm utilizing their own body heat. I used remnants of 2x4’s for sides, against a cardboard draft guard as the back, and open on the front. It is only 3 2x4’s high, so about 5 inches high. I cut 4 pieces of cardboard to layer on top, as insulation. It is dark and I’ve had to herd the ducklings in a few times, so they can get used to it. Ducklings on top of haybox brooderThey actually haven’t really used it at all. That is meant to be a place to get warm during the day, when the sun goes behind the clouds. They have enjoyed climbing on top of it though. So far the ducklings haven’t shown any real signs of being chilly during the main part of the day between the draft guards and the protection and extra warmth of the greenhouse.

My principal heat has been the charcoal kettle grill and charcoal starter. I set up four bricks (flat – 2 bricks high.) They have a brick’s worth of space between the two stacks. This is the base. I set the small kettle grill on top of that (my little grill is very old and doesn’t have legs – the grill body goes directly on the bricks) and then start a full charcoal starter set inside. When I dumped the lit charcoal into the kettle, as if I were going to barbeque, it did heat the entire base Charcoal brooderwell, but the charcoal also burned out relatively quickly. If I leave the charcoal in the charcoal starter, and set the lid of the kettle grill perched on top, it will last ~3 hours and puts out a lot of heat. I start it about 6pm and then refresh the charcoal at 9pm, 12pm, 3am, and 6am. It takes not quite one 8.8lb bag of charcoal for that period.

I’ve borrowed a standard heatlamp from my neighbors. I use that for my shoulder periods. It warms up immediately and I have it hanging ready to plug in. It uses about 30amps/hour, or about 5% of my battery bank/hour. That is A LOT of power. My solar system can’t handle that all the time, but for a couple of hours a day it is a good backup – when the charcoal finishes in the morning, if the sun isn’t fully up, or if the greenhouse gets shaded, while I’m starting up some charcoal.

I haven’t yet used my top of tank propane heater (my plan C). I’m mostly concerned about risk of fire. If I had been planning ahead and ready to brood ducklings (instead of coming up with solutions on the fly), I would likely want to try a small propane hog farrower such as Gasolec makes. For now, I’m very happy with the heat the charcoal is giving, and the fact the ducks appear to be sufficiently warm during the day without extra heat due to the greenhouse.

Ducklings dining

The ducklings go under the kettle grill and between the bricks when charcoal is burning in the charcoal starter, set within the grill. It is very easy to light and heats up fairly quickly. I am sleeping within the greenhouse (the weather is quite beautiful and I want to be near, in case the ducklings need me while I’m working out the kinks). I set my alarm for about 3 hours. At times, there are still a few coals, and I only need to add more charcoal. Often the charcoal is out though. The ducklings are still doing well though and there is significant heat built up in the bricks the grill is setting on to tide them over until I get more charcoal going. I would like to get to up the 8 hours that my off-grid compatriots in Africa get. I’m going to try to rig a longer charcoal starter type of tool from 6” stove pipe.

I was worried that the ducklings might burn themselves on the charcoal kettle grill. They are walking underneath it and cuddling next to it (but it is just above them.) They could easily reach it, if they were interested. No one has singed themselves yet! I will likely need to raise it up another two bricks, as they grow.

I would love to hear other experiences with off-grid, non-traditional brooding. I didn’t really plan on brooding these babies, but my master foster mother plan was a complete fail. Now that I’m figuring it out, I might do it on purpose with meat birds in the spring. (My ducklings are Cayuga, the little black ones, and Buff; all from Metzer Hatchery.)

Charity Hanif homesteads in the paradise of the Oregon Coast, between international economic development visits to Africa.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I have successfully used hot water in containers to keep young chicks warm. The larger the container the better, and if the water is very hot I wrap the containers in a towel. They will snuggle right up to the warmers. Five gallon pails, gallon jugs, 1/2 gallon or quart canning jars, just about anything that holds water and they can't fall into or that can be capped. A trash can full of hot water will stay warm a looooong time.
Comment by Anonymous Tue Sep 8 22:53:19 2015
The idea of large tubs of water is interesting. I'm wondering how much energy it would take to heat the water. I did change to a 5 gallon metal bucket from the junkyard. top cut off, a few holes around the bottom (but not underneath) and a slightly raised grate to improve air flow made from a brick and some doubled over chicken wire. That is lasting a good 8+ hours and is more than enough during these mild night temperatures (down to low 50's.)
Comment by Charity Thu Sep 10 15:35:14 2015

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