A baby chick runs to the safety and warmth of its mother’s wings. Here it feels secure and loved. The mother hen’s body heat warms the little chick and when it is ready the chick will dart out into the world to find food and water. When choosing a heat source for your brooder you will want something that can be as close as possible to a natural mother hen.
Chicks need supplemental heat. Their little bodies will not keep themselves warm enough until they fully feather out. Feathering out means that they completely lose their baby down and develop true feathers. This can happen at different ages depending on your breed of chicken. The larger the breed, the sooner they will no longer need a supplemental heat source. Most breeds need it for about six weeks depending on the outside weather. Brooding in the winter is different than brooding in the summer. The temperature around your brooder will make a difference in how long you keep your chicks under the heat.
Chicks also need steady heat both day and night. You will need a heat source that is dependable and allows for a typical sleep cycle. A steady white light on them 24/7 is not normal or natural. A red infrared bulb is better for their sleeping patterns and is supposed to cut down on any pecking activity among the chicks.
The basic heat formula that most people use for baby chicks begins at 100 degrees Fahrenheit for newborns. This is what the temperature of the incubator was. You then subtract 5 degrees for each week of age after that. A one week old would be 95 degrees, a two week old would be 90 degrees and so on. I find that formula way too warm and could lead to your little chicks pasting up on their fluffy behinds. In the world of the mother hen, the little ones would be exposed to cooler temps much sooner and I think that less heat is better than too much heat when it comes to brooders. You need to make sure that the chicks are able to escape any temperature that is too warm.
The most common way to brood chicks indoors is with a heat lamp fixture and a 250 watt heat lamp bulb. It is the cheapest way to go and many people use it especially if they don’t brood chicks very often. The pros for going this route is that you can purchase them at most places that sell chicken supplies. You can hang them at any distance from the brooder. However, many things can go wrong. The biggest issue is that they can fall into the brooder and start a fire. They must be hung very securely. Do not rely on just the clamp. Use zip ties and chain to secure it. We always use a double system so if one cord fails the other cord will prevent it from falling. I will put a flat screen on top of my brooder as an additional measure to keep the heat lamp from falling into the brooder. Make sure that your heat lamp fixture has a porcelain socket, not a plastic one that can melt. The bulbs will have to be replaced. I have found that they also lose strength as they get older and do not put out as much heat. Always have extra bulbs available in case your bulb burns out. If they bulb burns out at night your chicks will become cold and begin to pile up on each other for warmth. This will cause the ones on the bottom to suffocate. Always start each season with a new bulb. I have found a 250 watt heat lamp bulb too warm for small brooders. You can get infrared bulbs at lower wattage. Always dust your bulbs and hoods as dust buildup can cause a fire as well. Reptile ceramic heat emitters can also be used as a safer alternative to heat lamp bulbs.
There are also heat lamp holders from Premier that are vented at the top to operate cooler. If dust builds up at the top, it will not start a fire. It also has a heavy duty cord.
Radiant heat is another brooder heat choice. Radiant heat passes through air without warming the air. There are several products that rely on radiant heat. Brinsea’s Ecoglow , Titan’s Electric Mama Hen and Premier’s Mama Hen . all use less electricity than a heat lamp bulb and mimic a mother hen. They are for small batches of chicks but the Ecoglow 50 can warm up to 50 chicks. The advantages of these are that there is no fire hazard , it uses less electricity (14 watts vs 250 watts) and there is no disruptive light. It is more like a natural mother hen by creating a little cave to hide under. You can adjust the height of them as the chicks grow. You do not have to hang it up as it stands on legs. You will have adventurous chicks jumping up on top of it and creating messes but it is easy to clean up. These types of radiant heat brooder heat sources work best if the air around it is above 50 degrees. They are not effective in outdoor use if it is less than 50 degrees. These products are not as warm as a heat lamp can be and will not heat the air around it. I think that these are nice if you plan on doing a batch of chicks every year. It may be expensive at first but it will pay for itself in lower electric costs. There is nothing to replace on it so you do not need to worry about bulbs burning out.
A Sweeter Heater uses radiant heat as well. Instead of being a free standing unit, it is hung from above or as a side panel as in the cozy products panel. Sweeter Heaters come in different sizes and are the best heaters for people who brood chicks frequently. Hang it above on chains so that they are just above the chick’s height. Raise it higher as the chicks grow taller. Since it swings on chains, the chicks will be reluctant to roost on top of it. Radiant heat has one temperature and no light to keep chicks up at night. The unit is completely sealed so there is no fire danger.
I am in the process of changing out all of my indoor heat lamps and replacing them with Sweeter Heaters. I have used heat lamps with brooders for ten years, but I have always had that nagging feeling that I should replace them. I brood chicks all year long so it was best to switch to the Sweeter Heater method. It will be cheaper in the long run on the electric bill and I will have the peace of mind that no bulb will burn out and leave all of my chicks in the cold.
Chicks will let you know if they are too warm or too cold by their behavior. Cold chicks huddle up and cry (cheep). Too warm of chicks stretch out to the corners of the brooder to get away from the heat source. Chicks that are just right will wander around all over the brooder doing typical chick things like eating and drinking.
If you are still undecided on what kind of chick brooder to get, check out “The Perfect Chick Brooder“.