The Dangers of Heat Lamps
Every winter, chicken owners trying to do their best end up losing their coop and flock to a heat lamp fire. These devastating stories serve as a warning against heat lamps, yet people still use them. Some chicken owners will tell you that chickens never need a heat lamp while others swear by them. Is there a definite answer to the oft-asked question of whether or not chickens need heat in the winter? Well, there is no one answer because every situation is different. However, perhaps this article can help you decide if and how to heat your own chicken coop.
Why Heat Lamps are Dangerous
It seems that heat lamps are the first choice of many livestock owners who need additional heat. This is probably because they often have the lowest upfront cost (although not necessarily the lowest extended cost with electricity) and are offered in most feed stores. They have been commonplace for years, so many livestock and chicken owners accept that they are the answer even while knowing the danger. These heat lamps get very hot; hot enough to burn your skin if you brush up against them. It is no wonder that when combined with the dryness of straw or shavings and animal dander, a stray piece of straw or feather could easily combust. The design of these lamps is often not easy to secure in a stable way without being dangerously close to materials that could combust. There are simply too many ways in which these heat lamps can fail, whether it be a drop of water causing the bulb to explode, a screw coming loose and sending hot parts crashing to the floor, or even as simple as extension cords overheating and causing fires.
Another Argument Against Heat Lamps
According to some studies, chickens can have permanent eye damage when exposed to continuous light such as having a heat lamp on all night. This also applies to brooding chicks and the use of heat lamps with them. Continuous light is also believed to trigger aggression leading to more bullying and feather pecking. Although some suggest red heat lamp bulbs in order to lessen the effect on day/night rhythms, eye problems were actually found to be worse with the red lights.
Do Chickens Need Heat?
There is a huge argument amongst chicken owners on whether or not chickens need supplemental heat during winter. One side states that chickens are descended from jungle birds and are therefore not built for cold temperatures. The other side states that farmers went without electricity and heat in their coops for hundreds if not thousands of years, so of course the chickens don’t need heat. Neither side is 100% correct.
Yes, chickens were originally domesticated from birds that lived in the jungle areas of southeast Asia. However, that process began at least 2,000 years ago (some historians speculate up to 10,000 years ago) and chickens have been selectively bred for various purposes since then. That is a very long time to selectively breed for certain qualities including a much higher tolerance for cold than the chicken’s early ancestors. That being said, there are certainly some breeds of chicken that have been developed for colder climates and are much better suited to a winter with below-freezing temperatures. Breeds such as Silkies, Egyptian Fayoumi, and varieties such as Frizzles are not well-suited to cold weather. Due to their feather structure or even body type, they cannot insulate well enough. There are many cold-weather chicken breeds that thrive in winter and even keep laying eggs. They typically are larger-bodied with dense feather coverage and were developed in places with harsher winters. With proper coop design, they should be fine with most winter temperatures.
If these hardy breeds are not your style, then you will need to consider adding supplemental heat to your coop that is safe. Be aware that any electricity will add risks of your chickens pecking or even mice eating through a wire. This can also result in a coop fire. Make sure that any wires are well away from your chickens and out of the way of other gnawing critters. Radiant heat plates are quite safe and can be hung above the roosting area or set to the side. These may have a high upfront cost, but they are much better on electricity usage than a heat lamp. An oil-filled radiator is one more option as long as it has a shut-off feature in case of being tipped over. Ceramic bulbs can also give heat without extra light, but they may still be a fire hazard. Chickens do not need as much heat as humans because they wear their down coats all the time. Just a few degrees difference can help your less-hardy chickens during the winter months.
If you live in a particularly cold climate (I’m talking –20 degrees F or colder) you may consider a little heat on the colder nights even if you have hardy breeds. Be aware of your chickens. Check on them frequently to see how they are faring during winter. If they are huddled together even during the day, they may need help. However, if you have a properly-sized coop for the size of your flock, you may be surprised at the temperature difference that the birds simply being in there will bring. Other factors can help such as insulation. An easy insulation is hay or straw bales stacked against the outside of the coop, but do watch for pests that these may attract. Other little aids include feeding some scratch grains in the evening so that the digestion process can help warm your chickens through the night.
For the most part, your chickens can manage cold temperatures on their own. I cannot say exactly what temperature is too cold because that will vary for breed of chicken, age of chicken, humidity in your area, and many other factors. The most important factor is how your chickens are reacting to the cold. However, they are probably not feeling the cold as much as you think.
McCluskey, W., & Arscott, G. H. (1967). The influence of incandescent and infrared light upon chicks. Poultry Science, 46(2), 528-529.
Kinneaer, A., Lauber, J. K., & Boyd, T. A. S. (1974). Genesis of light-induced avian glaucoma. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, 13(11), 872-875.
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, 99(3), 287-300.
REBECCA SANDERSON grew up in a very small town in Idaho with a backyard full of chickens, goats, sometimes sheep and ducks, and other random animals in addition to the cats and dogs. She is now married with two little girls and loves the homesteading life! Her husband is very supportive (tolerant) of her continued experiments in making many items from scratch and he even helps sometimes.
Originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.