Alternatives to Heat Lamps for Chickens
If you're raising baby chicks, you're aware of some of the major requirements for their care: a clean and comfy place to live, quality chick feed, and fresh water. But you need one more important thing—warmth!
Why Chicks Need Help Staying Warm
Birds are warm-blooded, which means they can maintain a consistent body temperature (through metabolism), even if the ambient air temperature is chilly. Their feathers create insulating areas of warm air to retain body heat. (You do the same thing every time you put on a jacket.)
Young chicks are at a big disadvantage. They have difficulty maintaining correct body temperature,1 and they lack feathers for retaining heat. In a natural setting, chicks will continue to use their mother's body heat for protection as they did before they hatched. In a situation where you have a batch of chicks—without the mama—you must mimic her warmth artificially.
Replacing Mother Hen
A heat lamp (often a 250W reddish bulb with a reflector) can be mounted above the brooder. Heat lamps have been used successfully by chicken farmers for many years. Heat lamps are not without their disadvantages, and perhaps you'd like to explore alternatives to heat lamps for chickens. Some options include:
- Hot water bottles. If you don't mind the thought of getting up in the night to tend your chicks,2 hot water bottles can be used as a safe heat source.3 You will need to insulate the bottles with a towel or other similar item so the chicks can't directly access the water bottle. (It might be too hot to touch.) Hot water bottles can also be useful if you're homesteading in an off-grid situation, or if you experience a temporary power outage while you have baby chicks on hand. Remember, the chicks will need a relatively high ambient temperature (around 95° F for the first week4), so this plan might not work inside an otherwise unheated building.
- Brooders. One excellent heat alternative is a radiant heat source, like the Thermo-Poultry Brooder. There are several advantages to a product like this. For one, the brooder helps the chicks manage their temperature regulation by using the brooder's warmth as needed. The brooder also provides chicks with adequate heat while not reaching the very high surface temperatures common with heat lamps. Plus, they use considerably less energy than a 250W heat lamp, so they cost less to run—yay! This type of brooder is also quite safe.
- Heated pads. After the chicks are a month old, they can try out an electrically heated chick pad. This pad can be attached to the wall to help warm the brooder ambiently.
- Keep a crowd. It's easier for a larger group of chicks to retain body heat than a smaller group. Consider starting with more chicks so they can cluster together and take turns being on the inside of the group. Hey, it works for penguins!
- Nice thick beds. Your brooding area should stay warmer if the bedding you're using is nice and soft and deep5 (but not too deep).
- Start older. While raising chicks without a hen is common and relatively easy to do, you could always take a more natural approach and start with older hens or pullets for your flock, rather than just a box of chicks. This way, you can let a mother hen raise the chicks her way.
There is another time when you might want to add a heat source to your coop—to keep all of your hens and roosters comfortable during the winter. If you live in an area that experiences cold temperatures for a few months, you can take additional steps to keep your birds comfortable. This could include safe electric heating products for your flock, like heated perches, heated pads, and heated waterers.
Keeping your chicks warm without a heat lamp is easy, and you have several options to fit your needs. Your chicks will be happy and comfortable with any of these choices.
1. Agriculture: Province of Manitoba. “Brooding Temperatures for Small Poultry Flocks," https://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/livestock/production/poultry/brooding-temperatures-for-small-poultry-flocks.html
2. Amaranta Farm. “Cold Brooding Chicks," 7 April 2012, https://amarantafarm.com/cold-brooding-chicks/
3. Ewing, Heike. Beauty of Birds. “Ways of keeping eggs and/or chicks alive without electricity," https://www.beautyofbirds.com/SavingEggsAndChicksDuringElectricOutage.htm
4. University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. “Brooding and Caring for Chicks," 14 December 2017, https://extension.unh.edu/resource/brooding-and-caring-chicks
5. The Hip Chick. “How To Raise Chickens Without A Heat Lamp," https://thehipchick.com/raise-chickens-without-a-heat-lamp/