It’s All About the Heat!
Learn the Best Temperatures for Chicks and When to Get Them Outdoors
Can you list the five things you need to raise healthy chicks in a brooder? Food, water, bedding, grit, heat. The first four are simple but the fifth gets complicated. Mimicking the warm protection of a mother hen means keeping babies at an optimal temperature, which changes week by week until they are ready to stay outside for good. And adding supplementary heat is not optional. From hatching day to that first night spent in the coop, monitoring and providing the right temperatures for chicks makes the transition smooth and keeps babies healthy.
Do chickens need heat in winter? Only the babies, and only for a short time. But how long do chicks need a heat lamp?
Comfortable human homes are 20 to 30 degrees too cold for chicks. The ideal temperature for chicks, seven days old or younger, is 95 degrees Fahrenheit. 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 to 107 degrees. 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 Enough 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. 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.
If you just brought chicks home, perhaps rescued them, 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 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 “knock-off” 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.
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 when determining if your chicks still need a lamp.
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 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
|0-7 Days||95F||Now is not the time to let babies
stay outside the brooder more than
a couple minutes.
|Week 2||90F||Babies start flying very early! Be sure the
heat lamp is secure and can’t be reached.
|Week 3||85F||Chicks can make short trips outside,
if the weather is nice and warm.
|Week 4||80F||Let chicks enjoy more time outside, but
keep a close eye on them.
|Week 5||75F||Is your house 75F? Turn off the heat lamp.|
|Week 6||70F||Start acclimating the chickens, letting them
spend all day outside unless weather is
cold and rainy.
|After 6 Weeks||Ready for Outside!||Fully feathered chicks can endure 30F and
lower. Acclimate them before putting outside
for good. Be sure coops are draft-free.
Hens will let offspring spend longer moments outside, as babies age. Wings develop and tufts form on tails. Then chests fill in. Eventually, babies have enough coverage that they no longer hide beneath wings to keep warm.
When Can Chicks go Outside for Short Trips?
Though they’re not old enough to live outside, chicks living in brooders can enjoy short “field trips” starting around weeks three and four. Caring for baby chicks is more fun as you take them onto the lawn to peck at grass and chase bugs. But stay wary of weather, outside temperatures, and the chicks’ ages.
These field trips allow chicks to exercise and expand their diets. Exposure to the elements, at appropriate temperatures, “toughens” and acclimates them so the first night out isn’t such a shock. And it allows you to bond with brooding chicks as they grow, which creates a gentler and more human-friendly hen or rooster.
When can Chicks go Outside Permanently?
Chicken growth charts can be difficult to find, but an Internet search shows how little fluffballs with nubby wings grow into pullets and cockerels. “Fully feathered” is the point where all fluff has been replaced by true plumage. Chickens self-regulate temperatures by fluffing their feathers and creating air layers. If even the neck still has fluff, brooder babies aren’t ready to sleep outside.
Until then, use the rule that newly hatched chicks need ambient temperatures of 95 degrees; each week after, reduce that by five degrees. They can spend all day outside if temperatures stay within the right range for their ages. But remember that even if it’s warm enough, wind and water will chill a chick. The more chicks are in the flock, the more they can huddle for warmth and you don’t have to rush them inside as fast.
Outside “playpens” should be fully enclosed, with all openings too small for chicks to squeeze through. Always cover the enclosure’s top, because birds this small are at risk of cats and other predators. Even blue jays can enter topless enclosures and terrorize chicks. Smaller wild birds may bring diseases.
Keep food and clean water available, as well as shade and somewhere the chicks can seek shelter. Shade/shelter can simply be a box lying on its side.
Bring chicks inside if it rains, or if you see them huddling together instead of exploring their surroundings. Also, if their daytime “playpen” is unsecured against predators, bring them inside anytime you cannot supervise.
Try carrying them one by one, out to the playpen and back in, instead of hauling a pet carrier full of babies. This gets them used to being handled and makes them more trusting. It lets them know that being grabbed by their human owners isn’t something to fear.
As babies near that six-week mark, turn the heat lamp off. Let them experience days and nights within your house or garage. The brooder won’t expose them to weather extremes, but eliminating a heat lamp during the last week or two lets them acclimate. Remember, adding heat to outside coops is dangerous! Transitioning gradually from a heated environment, to unheated but comfortable, to outside and sheltered is easier than going straight out at week six to brave the elements.
This six-week timeline has exceptions. Research how to care for baby chicks and illnesses they may face. Coccidiosis is more common when baby chicks spend time outside because protozoa can be spread by wild birds. But coccidiosis is easy to treat with medicated chick feed and probiotics. If you see pink, meaty-looking, or bloody stools, stop “field trips” for a few days and treat the babies. Respiratory issues are also carried by wild birds, and some are highly contagious. Though infectious bronchitis is a virus, and cannot be eliminated with antibiotics, keeping babies sheltered and warm during illness reduces stress and risk of secondary infections. When can chicks go outside if they’ve been sick? After they no longer show symptoms, especially if you have other chickens they may infect.
Whether chicks are outside or in, always ensure they have clean bedding, food, and water, to reduce stress and risk of infection. Watch how they act: Do they huddle to keep warm, are they lethargic, or do they happily flap around and peck the ground? That happy flapping and pecking are your best signs that babies are healthy and warm enough.
Once chicks are fully feathered, they are ready to stay outside. But introducing new chickens directly into an established flock can be rough.
How to Successfully Introduce New Chickens to Established Flocks
First, make sure newbies are old enough to be outside and big enough to fend off bullies.
Many first-time chicken owners don’t know that hens which aren’t broody will kill baby chicks unless the chicks have a protective mother. Six weeks is the minimum age for introducing new chickens from a brooder.
By now, brooder chicks should be acclimated to outside temperatures. Don’t expect them to cuddle with established hens; they may cuddle with brood-mates but will be ostracized and pushed into cold corners by older chickens. Be sure coops are insulated and protected. If a cold snap rolls in, it’s okay to wait until the weather improves before introducing new chickens.
Be Sure Everyone is Healthy Before Introducing New Chickens
Introducing new chickens stresses the birds, which can make them more susceptible to diseases which may have otherwise remained latent. Watch for abnormal symptoms such as wheezing, runny noses, crusty eyes, bloody stools, or lethargy. Do not introduce chickens that show signs of illness.
This rule applies, whether introducing chicks or older birds. Poultry shows can be vicious vectors of disease; your new prize hen could have caught mycoplasma from another hen at the show, but you won’t know it until symptoms present. And by then, she may have infected your existing flock. All new birds should be quarantined at least two weeks, preferably four to eight, living in separate coops and runs before joining the flock. Make sure quarantine areas are at least 12 yards from any other chickens to avoid diseases which can carry on the wind.
Sick chickens may need heat lamps again if it’s cold and wet outside. Bring them into a barn or garage, where you can monitor supplementary heat to ensure safety. Healthy chickens do not need heat if they have dry, draft-free coops.
Your Run, My Run
Try introducing new chickens, gradually, by letting them get acquainted through fencing before they’re thrown into the same pen. Place smaller, temporary chick pens inside/beside chicken runs so older birds can meet youngsters without endangering them. Allow birds to interact through the wire at least a week before mixing the flock. There will still be a little hazing, but it won’t be as bad.
Stay mindful of optimal temperatures. Four-week-old chicks may enjoy a day in this mini-run beside big sisters if the weather holds at 75 degrees or warmer. Bring them back into brooders if it gets cold.
Note: This is not an acceptable method if either group is sick during the quarantine period. Quarantined birds must be at least 12 yards away.
Pullets, Party of Five?
One hen against 10 is brutal; four against 10 means all the attention isn’t focused on a single bird. If you’re raising a couple chicks, at the same time you’re quarantining a new purchase from a poultry show, try introducing new chickens at the same time once quarantine is over. Chicks raised in the same brooder should be introduced as a group, so they can band together against the big girls.
Hide and Seek
Though fully feathered, new pullets are miniature versions of their big sisters. Free-range chickens may have enough space to run from bullies while those in enclosed runs don’t. When introducing new chickens, build shelters that older hens are too large to enter. Tunnels cut into boxes, or sturdy boards secured lean-to style against fences, give youngsters places to hide and take breaks. Placing food inside also lets them eat undisturbed. By the time pullets are too large for the shelters, they will have integrated into the flock.
A Little Help from My Hens
If a broody hen raised your chicks, don’t separate mother from babies until the flock is integrated. Introducing new chickens, while the mother-to-baby bond is still intact, allows hens to do the tough work for you. She shows her babies around and shows the other hens who’s boss, before retiring from motherhood. Then she quietly slips back to her old social circle. The bond is usually still intact when babies are six weeks old, which is also when they can live outside without additional heat if she decides to stop being a mom right when she rejoins her old friends.
Lights Out, Chickens In
If you throw a pullet into an established coop, the new girl is running for her life, with the world against her! But if you add her at night, when the others aren’t active, you can fool a few of them. It’s like the concept of setting baby chicks under a broody hen during the night. She wakes up and believes she hatched them. Existing hens may wake to see new pullets on chicken roosting bars and leave them alone. Though this trick doesn’t work for every hen, it lessens a lot of the hazing that a single pullet may endure.
After learning how long chicks need a heat lamp and when they can go outside, it’s easy to see how so many new chicken owners make mistakes. Don’t worry. Purchase the right equipment, use it safely, monitor temperatures, and pay attention to how chicks respond. And enjoy the journey! Soon, those babies will be flapping around in the main coop.