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Do chickens need heat in winter? Only the babies, and only for a short time. But how long do chicks need a heat lamp?
A holiday tradition is, thankfully, declining. Few pet stores sell baby chicks at Easter, and farm stores are reluctant. If you try to buy them, responsible employees will advise how to raise baby chicks and may deter sales if you aren’t ready for the commitment. Many die within days.
Comfortable human homes are 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit too cold for baby chickens. The ideal temperature for chicks, seven days old or younger, is 95 degrees F. Week two is 90, week three is 85. Each week declines by five degrees until chicks are ready to live outside.
Why can mother hens bring babies outside, even in freezing weather?
Because they don’t have feathers to self-regulate temperature, newly hatched chicks depend on mothers to keep them warm. A hen’s internal temperature ranges 105-107 degrees F. Darting beneath wings when they’re cold, and coming out to eat and drink, babies thrive on the mother-to-chick relationship. It may look like babies are constantly outside, but they take short trips then hurry back to warm up.
Brooder chicks must have chicken heating lamps or other appropriate heat sources, and humans must closely monitor them with thermometers and good judgment.
How do I keep chicks warm without a mother hen?
When planning hatchings or chick purchases, plan the brooder as well. Avoid waiting until babies arrive. It’s best to have a full setup, which includes food, water, grit, bedding, and a heat source when you bring chicks home. That way, you can place them immediately in a comfortable environment and help them recover from travel shock. Each moment a baby chick is too cold is another moment its health declines.
Heat lamps can be purchased from feed or pet stores. Most experts recommend red bulbs because they’re not as bright as clear ones, allowing chicks to have a natural day/night cycle. Red bulbs also discourage chicks from picking at each other. Reptile bulbs aren’t hot enough; 250w varieties are most recommended. Always use a lamp setup made specifically for heat bulbs, as heat and wattage can damage desk or painter’s lamps. Secure the lamp well; if it falls into a brooder, results are tragic. And keep bulbs at least two feet from combustible materials.
What if I just brought chicks home, perhaps rescued them, and don’t have the right setup?
The more chicks you have, the more time you can spend getting ready. Hatcheries often have order minimums so the babies can keep each other warm during shipment. If you only have one or two chicks, keep them in an area near 95 degrees while you find a heat lamp. And don’t waste time. Get an appropriate heat source before the day ends.
How long do chicks need a heat lamp?
Keeping chicks during summer months can be easier than winter because your house may be hotter. If home temperatures range around 75 degrees, you won’t need a heat lamp past week four. But in barns or garages, which may run 60 degrees, chicks need supplementary heat until they are fully feathered at six weeks of age. Consult the chicken heat table below when determining if your chicks still need a lamp.
How do I know if chicks are warm enough?
Install a thermometer within the brooder to monitor temperature. But determining whether chicks are warm enough (or too warm) isn’t difficult. If they huddle together, directly in the heat lamp’s beam, lower the lamp closer to the brooder. If they move away from the beam to sleep, raise it up. And if you see chicks panting, that means they’re overheated and need cooler temperatures quickly.
A well-set-up brooder will have warmer and cooler areas, where chicks sleep in the beam but water may sit at edges where it won’t evaporate so fast. New heat lamp alternatives address hot spots and safety issues. Chick brooder heating plates hover over a small area, where chicks can retreat to keep warm, but their radiant heat is less of a fire hazard than bulbs. Heated pads lie beneath bedding, providing warmth from below. If you choose these, be sure they are rated for baby chicks. And read reviews! Cheaper “knockoff” brands can be dangerous, shorting out or creating hot spots. Do not use seed starting mats, or heating pads intended for humans. And always monitor temperatures, no matter what you use.
Can I hold the babies or take them outside?
Though mother hens let hatchlings roam freely, their warm, feathery bodies are waiting close by. A balmy 70-degree F spring day can quickly chill a brooder baby. Keep this in mind when you remove chicks from brooders to hold them. Checking for pasting up only pulls them from safety for a few seconds to a minute. Watching TV with a new baby endangers its health. Wait until little ones are older before you remove them from brooders for more than a few minutes. Four-week-old chicks handle temperature fluctuations much better than four-day-old babies.
Chicken Heat Table
Originally published in the April/May 2017 issue of Backyard Poultry. Subscribe for more great stories like this!