Kick the Heat Lamp:
Better, Safer, and Healthier Options to Heat Your Brooder!
When setting up a brooder, one of the biggest essentials for the chicks is a heat source. Young chicks are unable to maintain their body temperature and so must be kept warm in some way. When shopping for heating options, the one product that is consistently sold everywhere for chicks is the metal clamp lamp with 250 watt heat bulb. They’re sold in feed stores, stocked near chick bins, even pushed in hatchery catalogs! But heat lamps containing 250 watt bulbs are one of the worst and most dangerous heating options available for chicks.
Believe it or not, those large 250 watt heat bulbs have no benefits to chicks beyond providing them heat and, in fact, cause many more problems than other options! 250 watt bulbs are much too hot for the typical small batch of chicks bought by backyard chickeners, sometimes causing health issues in the brooder from overheating, such as ‘pasty bottom’. They put off so much heat that even raising them a few inches weekly as is usually instructed often doesn’t lower the heat in the brooder sufficiently to wean chicks off of it. Metal clamp lamps are rickety and commonly fall apart or fall off of what they’re hanging from, making them a huge fire hazard and a danger to the chicks. Often, especially when combined with 250 watt heat bulbs, these metal lamps are so hot that they are dangerous to touch, making it risky to have children or other pets around the brooder, risky for the chicks once they’re old enough that they could fly up and hit the lamp, and painful for you if you accidentally brush by them too close while tending to your chicks! And, with the 24 hours of light that heat lamps provide, chicks sometimes need to be trained to go to roost at the appropriate time once they are a bit older and weaned off of the heat itself because they have not had a normal day/night cycle.
Dangerous, painful, and a hassle. Who needs any of that?
Indeed, on top of these anecdotal dangers and hassles to using heat lamps, many peer-reviewed studies have been published discussing further dangers of raising chicks under 24 hours of light. These studies will be cited throughout the next paragraph, and the sources for those citations listed at the end of this article under 'References'.
One study found that chicks reared under 24 hours of light were significantly more likely to have eye deformities, including flattened corneas and larger eyes (measured by mass), than chicks raised under 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness (McCluskey and Arscott 1967). This study used equivalent equipment as is used today, including 250 watt infrared heat bulbs of both red and colorless glass, as well as 60 watt incandescent bulbs (McCluskey and Arscott 1967). Eye deformities occurred at significantly higher levels in all treatments with 24 hours of light as compared to those with 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness, but were found to be the most significant with the red bulbs (McCluskey and Arscott 1967). Another study found that chicks raised in brooders with 150 watt red heat lamps were significantly more likely to exhibit annoying behavioral issues such as feather picking, cannibalism, and aggression as compared to chicks raised in a brooder whose heat source did not emit light and instead provided chicks a dark place to sleep (Jensen et al. 2006). The authors concluded that having a dark sleeping area where chicks could rest unimpeded by active, awake broodmates was a big help in avoiding the development of these behaviors (Jensen et al. 2006). In fact, chicks raised in these dark brooders were less likely to develop these behaviors not only in the brooder, but also as late in life as the onset of egg laying (Jensen et al. 2006). The intensity of that 24 hours of light was said by Kjaer and Vestergaard (1999) to play a role in the development of these behaviors as well; pullets raised in a higher light intensity of 30 lux were found to exhibit more feather picking than birds raised in the lower intensity of 3 lux. It should be noted that these light levels are both much lower than 250 watt heat lamps of either colorless or red glass (measuring over 600 lux for red glass bulbs and over 6000 lux for colorless glass bulbs, as reported by McCluskey and Arscott 1967). Several studies have also found that 24 hours of light can even delay maturity and reduce future production of eggs in pullets (McCluskey and Arscott 1967; Callenbach et al. 1944; Wilson et al. 1956).
No articles could be found that came to a positive conclusion about the use of heat lamps or 24 hours of light in the brooder, though it is my goal to continue searching where I am able. However, without any positives to be found so far for the use of heat lamps, even in the scientific community, it's easy to conclude that their widespread use is likely only due to their availability, and yes, cheapness, a factor that is perhaps not something that should be counted as a benefit considering the quality and safety of the product that goes along with that cheapness. Other heating options may not be as inexpensive or readily available as a clamp lamp and 250 watt bulb, but their benefits much outweigh the extra time it may take to obtain them. In this article, I will discuss some of the many brooder heater options and why they are better than the old clamp lamp by a long stretch. I will start with the most ancient of brooder heaters, used as long as people have had chickens—the broody hen.
If you are looking for the easiest route to take for brooding chicks, you needn’t look any further than your own chicken coop! Broody hens are usually glad to adopt day-old chicks if given the opportunity, and they will do all the hard work in raising the chicks, training them to go to a coop, and keeping them warm in any weather, during any season. They also won’t set fire to a brooder or get so hot that they overheat their chicks! However, for those just starting out with their first chicks, broody hens may not be readily available. And those of us who have had chickens for years know that the fickle broody can be hard to convince to brood when it’s convenient, instead usually choosing to do so when least convenient!
A broody hen will take care of everything from heating, feeding, and putting the chicks to bed, all the way to helping them integrate into the flock!
There are some risks involved in using a broody hen as well. First is the temperament of the hen. Some hens want to brood and hatch eggs, but don’t want to raise chicks, or they may simply reject the chicks given to them for one reason or another. It's a good idea to have a back-up brooder ready just in case this happens. Another risk is the temperament of the rest of the flock and whether they will attack the new chicks or not, though the broody hen will protect them as best she can. It may be safer to block off an area of the coop for the hen to raise her chicks so that the flock can still see them, but not get to them. Some people don’t have coops large enough to do so, however, and so coop space may be a constraint when deciding to use this brooding option.
Another thing to consider is that some report broody raised chicks as being less friendly than ones raised by hand in a brooder. Most broody hens will allow you to handle the chicks regularly, especially if they are friendly toward you otherwise, and this can help with friendliness of the chicks in the long run. If friendliness of your chicks is a concern, however, it may be worthwhile to look at other options for raising them.
If their mama hen will allow it, handling her chicks often may make them just as friendly as brooder-raised chicks.
Ceramic Heat Emitter Bulb
Ceramic heat emitter bulbs are just what they sound like; a bulb that is ceramic and emits heat. They are primarily used for reptiles, but can and do function just as well for chick brooders. They give one major advantage over the regular red 250 watt bulb: they do not provide light to your chicks, just heat, and so chicks are used to day and night from the start. However, they may still get hot enough to be a fire hazard if they fall into the brooder bedding. All in all, ceramic heat bulbs still make for a better option than the basic 250 watt bulbs, though there are other brooder heaters that are even better!
A Better Heat Lamp?
Ceramic heat emitter bulbs might be best when coupled with a better heat lamp than the ones found in the feed store. There are much safer and sturdier heat lamps that can be found online, such as the one that Premier 1 offers on their website. These would even be a better and safer choice to use with a regular heat lamp bulb than a metal clamp lamp—but even the supplier recommends a bulb smaller than 250 watts in them! Though they are safer than feed store clamp lamps, the drawback (unless using a ceramic bulb in them), is that your chicks still have 24 hours of light on them rather than a natural day / night cycle.
Heat plates are pretty much what they sound like; a flat, rectangular, plate-like device that heats up for chicks. They are usually on legs or can be hung to allow the chicks to hide underneath them for warmth, but some lay on the ground for chicks to sleep on top of, and still others may be wall mounted. For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing the kind that chicks hide underneath, as this is the more common and recommended kind of heat plate.
Chicks raised with a heat plate ONLY have heat while underneath the plate. This mimics what they would have with a broody hen, encouraging them to feather faster and allowing them to wean off of heat much sooner, just like broody raised chicks.
Heat plates are very popular with the people who use them because they are easy to use and they simulate having a broody hen to warm the chicks, allowing chicks to be brooded in a way that is more natural for them. Not only are the chicks immediately used to the day/night cycle, but because heat plates only heat underneath them, chicks using them often feather in much faster and wean off of heat much, much faster—chicks that I have raised indoors with heat plates sometimes quit using them as early as 2 weeks of age, even though I continue to provide it to them for much longer than that!
These chicks, at just 16 days old in a 70 degree F house, are clearly not using their heat plate overnight anymore. So much for 95 degrees minus 5 degrees a week, huh?
One disadvantage to heat plates is that many of them cannot be used for chicks kept in an area where the temperatures may drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that chicks must be brooded inside or in a heated outbuilding any time of the year that it may be colder than that at any point in the day or overnight. If considering a heat plate for an outdoor brooder, it is wise to investigate the temperatures it will be effective at before settling on which to buy! Another disadvantage is that they often aren’t big enough for large broods of chicks. Even those labeled for use with 20 chicks usually are only large enough for about half of that number for the length of time that the chicks will use it. But for those that only raise 5-10 chicks at a time, those heat plates are plenty large enough. A third potential disadvantage to heat plates is the upfront cost. Heat plates are much more expensive than clamp lamps and heat bulbs. However, that upfront cost is made up for in electricity use, as within a few weeks of using it, most heat plates will have paid for themselves in electricity savings versus a 250 watt heat bulb.
One last thing that might be thought of as a disadvantage for heat plates—chicks have wings, and they poop where they perch! Yuck!
Homemade Brooder Heaters
Homemade brooder heaters typically have all of the advantages of heat plates at a lower cost, saving the upfront cost of plates as well as avoiding many of the dangers of clamp lamps. Most brooder heaters are made of heating pads, such as this one and this one. These brooder heaters use the same idea as a heat plate; they provide heat and the natural feeling of huddling under mama hen when cold, while allowing chicks to come and go and wean off of their heat source much faster. The biggest advantage to homemade brooder heaters versus heat plates is that they can often be used outside even in cold temperatures, so chicks can be brooded in their coop from day one no matter the season! (NOTE: Only heating pads that DO NOT have an automatic shutoff should be used for brooder heaters, especially when used outside! Heating pads must be producing heat at all times for the chicks to warm up whenever needed!)
The only disadvantage to be found with homemade brooder heaters is the time and effort used to get all of the parts and assemble them, something that is likely negligible when considering all of the advantages they can have. Even if you aren’t very handy, making a homemade brooder heater can be as easy as bending a small piece of fence and wrapping a towel around a heating pad over it—not much time and not much effort imparted!
The Wool Hen is a fascinating type of homemade brooder 'heater' that uses no electricity whatsoever to keep your chicks warm, instead using their own body heat to keep them warm! The Wool Hen is basically a thickly insulated box stuffed with hanging strips of wool, fleece, or other highly insulating fabrics inside of it, which are warmed by the chick's own body heat and hold that heat around the chick as long as it is within the structure. As far as where it can be used, there are reports of using it outside in cooler temperatures, but no confirmation of the very coldest temps that chicks can handle when brooded with only a wool hen. I would strongly suggest reading up on Wool Hens and perhaps asking questions of those who have used them before deciding to use one in an outside brooder during colder temperatures. For starters, check out these two threads: one two
There are other options for heating a brooder, of course, but these are the most common and most highly recommended out there by chicken people who have experience with them. Clearly, when compared to these options, heat lamps and 250 watt bulbs fall flat! Their propensity to cause brooder fires, overheat chicks, and burn anything that comes into contact with them makes them an unnecessary danger, and a risky choice even if only used for one brood of chicks. Many of the heating options given in this article are much more natural, allowing chicks to grow and thrive as intended by nature, and all are much, MUCH safer! On top of that, many save on the electricity bill in the long run! What’s not to love about that?
Helpful and Informative Links
Homemade Brooders – Lots of brooder ideas for containing your chicks!
Yes, You Can Brood Chicks Outdoors
About Broody Hens
Guides about broody hens: One, Two
Old Fashioned Broody Hen Thread – Be warned, it’s a long one!
About Other Brooder Heaters
Homemade Brooder Heaters: Mama Heating Pad, Homemade Heat Plate
Heat Plate Reviews and Comparisons
And don’t be afraid to seek out help at the Raising Baby Chicks forum if you’re unsure about anything to do with raising chicks!
Callenbach, E.W., Nicholas, J.E., Murphy, R.R., 1944. Influence of light on age at sexual maturity and
ovulation rates in pullets. Pennsylvania State College, School of Agriculture, Agricultural
Experiment Station. Candland, D.S., 1969.
Jensen, A.B., Palme, R., Forkman, B., 2006. Effect of brooders on feather pecking and cannibalism in
domestic fowl (Gallus gallus domesticus). Applied Animal Behaviour Science,
Kjaer, J.B., Vestergaard, K.S., 1999. Development of feather pecking in relation to light intensity.
Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 62, 243-254.
McCluskey, W.H., Arscott, G.H., 1967. The influence of infrared and incandescent light upon chicks.
Poultry Science, 46(2), 528-529.
Wilson, W.O., Woodard, A.E., Abplanalp, H., 1956. The effect and after-effect of varied exposure to light
on chicken development. Biological Bulletin, 111(3), 415-422.