by Meredith Chilson
Q: From Keith: “I am temporarily keeping chicks in the house until they get old enough to go outside. What should the temp be under the heat lamp?” And, from Sarah: “Is the heat lamp left on constantly? Can it be turned off for the night? This is for the first few weeks.”
A: Keith and Sarah: Congratulations on your new babies! I’m feeling some baby chick envy right now, because my hens haven’t yet shown any interest this year in becoming mothers, and I can’t really justify bringing home a few of those adorable little fluffs that are peeping in the Feed and Tractor Supply stores. There’s something about the sound (and OK, the smell, too) of little chicks that is just “good for your soul,” isn’t there? I like to keep a stool or a chair right by the pen so I can watch them. And Keith, lucky you to have those little ones right in the house, so you don’t even have to put on your shoes!
When I’m getting ready for chicks, I go to the hardware store and ask for cardboard boxes (the kind that large appliances come in). I take the boxes apart, so that I have long panels; they are usually about 24 inches high. Then, I lace the strips together with heavy twine (put the ties on the outside, so inquisitive chicks don’t pick at them), and make a circle. You can buy “draft guards,” but this has always worked for me. The important things to consider when you are preparing for chicks are draft protection and heat. This cardboard circle works well: It can be expanded as the chicks grow, it’s tall enough to keep them in, but low enough to step over to change water and bedding. There are no corners, either, so chicks won’t wander off or “pile up” and smother. When the chicks are too big for the pen, it’s disposable, too. I usually take it apart and use the cardboard strips under compost in the garden.
Your questions, however, were about the heat source. I use a heat lamp with a red bulb and a wire protective covering. The red bulb seems to keep the light muted, and it’s said to help keep the chicks from picking at each other. As I keep baby chicks in my attached, unheated garage, I need a constant source of heat. For some reason, baby chick season seems to coincide with the last cold spells of the season, too. I suspend the heat lamp from a beam in the garage, and then I start adjusting. I move the cardboard draft guard to be sure that the heat lamp is directly over the center. I raise and lower the lamp, because this is how I adjust the heat. Not terribly scientific, I know! You could also suspend a thermometer so that it hangs a couple of inches off the floor (at chick level!), but I always rely on what Jay Rossier in "Living With Chickens" calls “visual observation.”
For the first day I use just newspapers on the floor of the pen, but after 24 hours or so, I add wood shavings. Add shavings too soon and the birds think they are dinner; add them too late and leg problems can result from slipping and sliding on the papers. Now add a water container; I use a quart jar with a screw-on watering lid. This is the right size for little chicks, and can be set up on a block as the chicks grow. I also use a floor feeder — long and rectangular with chick-size feeder holes. Finally, add chicks and watch.
If you start with the heat lamp about 18 inches off the floor, you will be able to tell within half an hour if the lamp needs to be raised, lowered, or is just right. If the chicks huddle right under the lamp or are LOUD, lower the lamp a bit. If the chicks scatter to the edges of the guard, and avoid the center — raise the lamp a bit. Eventually, you will notice that they are peeping happily, some drinking, some checking out the feeder, others spreading out within the entire area to sleep.
According to "Living with Chickens" (my all-time favorite go-to reference book for raising chickens), chicks should have “a range of temperatures available, between 75 and 95 degrees at first, so that they can choose a temperature comfortable to them." If they are spread out, you will know you have the temperature right. Some will want to sleep where it’s warmer, others will want to check out the surroundings and each other! I can tell, too, if the temperature is right by listening to the chicks. If they sound loud and unhappy, they are probably cold. If they are peeping happily, they are usually just right.
You should check your chicks fairly often during the first few days. I like to check in during the night, too. Usually, they are sleeping in a circle under the heat lamp — tails in and heads out, just like they would be under a hen.
Leave on your heat lamp day and night, making sure that there’s nothing nearby that will catch on it and cause a fire. Be sure it’s anchored well “from above,” too. You don’t want it to fall into the pen.