In a time in which many people are extremely interested in finding alternative options to mass-produced food, home chicken coops are springing up across the country. However, not everyone has the facilities – or the desire – to raise their new chicks without a heat lamp.
How do you raise chicks without a heat lamp? Chickens have been reproducing for centuries without heat lamps, so the best thing to do is to copy nature as closely as possible, providing warmth to the eggs and chicks in other ways before you develop a brood of mother hens suited exactly to this purpose.
Raising Chicks Without a Heat Lamp
Raising chicks from eggs will be addressed in a moment, but many people prefer ordering chicks. Baby chicks are adorable, and this way you have no worries about turning eggs, candling, etc. When just starting out raising baby chicks, the amount of information you’ll find on raising them with a heat lamp can make the concept of doing without one feel impossible.
Baby chicks, when put in a tight container like a tote you might use for household supplies and storage, can survive winter just fine. Of course, there are some requirements other than a storage tote.
Dry shavings – and a LOT of them – are needed to allow your chicks a comfortable bed and something to burrow into.
These shavings should be pine because cedar can be toxic to chickens, and the flakes large. Something fine that will crumble to dust will invite moisture, which is not going to keep your chicks cozy in the cold.
Just like pets, chicks like to snuggle together in the cold. Order enough chicks that they can huddle together to keep each other warm (think of the penguins on the nature shows).
How much is “enough”? Order a minimum of 25 to be on the safe side. Regardless of temperature, this is a good number of chicks to start off with to grow into your mother hen brood.
Additionally, should you happen to lose a couple of chicks, their absence will not matter as much to the rest in terms of warmth.
#3: Use An Alternate Heat Source
Many people that want to avoid the use of a heat lamp are worried about fire danger. Traditional heat lamps absolutely can be a fire hazard. There are a couple of alternative heat source options you can use:
- Feather Duster – Something as simple as a feather duster can help insulate a chick to keep them warm. Keep in mind that this is not a replacement for a warm surrounding environment.
- EcoGlow Brooder – These are a great option that does not involve using a heat lamp. They are inexpensive and available on Amazon.com.
- Reptile Lamp – Ceramic reptile heat bulbs can still pose a fire hazard in some cases but they are typically smaller and safer as they are designed to be used on reptile enclosures in houses.
#4: Get cozy with the chicks
Do you like being outside when it’s freezing cold with nothing but a light jacket? Neither do chicks.
Remember that a smaller body equals less ability to regulate body temperature. Chicks should live indoors for at least 2-3 weeks until they are big enough to better regulate their body temperatures. Then, they’ll need a very good outdoor shelter in which to stay warm and grow properly.
In general, chickens can survive hardier temperatures than you might think. What they can’t handle in low temperatures, just like humans, is a lot of moisture and/or wind.
Read on to find out how to raise chicks from eggs, and your options depending on your purpose for having chickens in the first place.
Hatching Your Chicks Without a Heat Lamp
If you are looking to have the full mother hen experience and raise your chicks from eggs, you can still manage without a heat lamp.
If you are raising your chickens for the dinner table, then obviously, you will need a higher turnover rate for your eggs.
In order to care for your eggs before you have a brood of hens willing to sit on eggs to incubate them naturally, you need something to serve as an incubator such as a Styrofoam cooler bedded with newspaper.
Typically, it’s not recommended that you try to incubate an egg that was laid more than seven days ago, so ask questions if you are buying the hatching eggs.
Regardless of what type of incubator you use, you need to be able to maintain a consistent temperature and humidity, which means keeping a lid on the container. The humidity inside should range from 40-50% until day 18 when you can kick it up to 50-60%.
While the eggs are nice and toasty in the incubator, make sure that you turn them a minimum of 3 times a day from days 1 to 18, but NO turning on days 18 to 21.
Not turning the eggs – or opening the incubator really at all – in the last few days also helps to increase the humidity.
The chicks in the eggs need no interference after day 18 because they need to be able to figure out where the air bubble is in the shell to be able to break it and hatch.
Once the chicks have hatched, you can move them to the brooder, which would be your tote or something like it. Now you can enjoy your new chicks for a couple of weeks until it’s time to move them to the coop!
Now let’s talk about your purpose for raising chickens and what kind of egg production that requires.
Eggs vs. Meat: Your Purpose for Raising Chickens
Depending on whether you want to raise chickens for the dinner table or just to have omelets for breakfast – or both – your need for hatching eggs will be different.
If you are raising your chickens for meat, then you will need a much higher production in chickens. You will probably need to incubate and hatch eggs a few times a year, or maybe more if you’re making a business out of it.
If you’re raising your chickens for the eggs, you need to manage your hens.
Most hens’ major productivity in egg-laying lasts for five to seven years, after which they will continue laying but at a slower rate. You will also likely lose some chickens to illness, predators, even to the other chickens.
Usually, incubating at least a few eggs every other year or so – or more if you want a bigger brood – is a good idea to keep your eggs coming in at a good rate.
Of course, incubating eggs and hatching chicks doesn’t mean as much without knowing how to get the adult chickens through the winter. Read on to learn the best methods.
Making It Through The Winter Without Chicken Deaths
Basically, there are three main factors when raising chickens without a heat lamp to maintain a comfortable and healthy environment for your eggs and your chickens.
Eggs need to be in a 99-102 degree Fahrenheit environment, which means a lot of insulation.
Baby chicks need to be in an environment of around 90 degrees Fahrenheit to be comfortable, at least for the first 2-3 weeks.
Adult chickens prefer to be in an environment that ranges from 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Though they can withstand much colder, even down to freezing temperatures, with shelter from the rain and prevailing winds.
Keeping these temperatures consistent is important to raising – and maintaining – a healthy brood year-round. In winter, a deep bed of pine shavings is necessary for your chickens to burrow into and keep warm.
Proper ventilation in a coop, regardless of the time of year, is vital to chicken health and longevity.
Chickens produce a lot of moisture through respiration and their waste, so ventilating the coop correctly will help maintain a healthy environment for your chickens.
Next, we will talk about how to ventilate your coop correctly, how to control humidity, etc.
#3: Access to Liquid Water
This may seem silly to mention but it is meant to serve as a reminder that your chickens need liquid water at all times to drink.
During winters that are very cold, a heated water source may be necessary to ensure your chickens are able to stay hydrated.
If temperatures get down to freezing in your area, you will want to check your chicken waterers several times a day to ensure they have not frozen over.
What Is the Best Way to House My Chickens?
During different seasons of the year, chickens need different types of coops. This can vary based on climate, so it’s important to know what works best for your area in the different seasons.
During the warmer months, chickens need a lot of ventilation so that they don’t get overheated. The best way to do this in warm regions that don’t have much wind is to have an electric fan.
For people that are trying to raise chickens without using electricity, you can use a solar battery to power your fan. An electric fan will pull much less from a solar-powered battery if it’s only used during times of dead air. Otherwise, you can look for other alternatives like hand-crank batteries to run your fan.
In mild areas where there is a regular natural breeze, cutting holes or leaving spaces between the slats in the coop will usually be enough to control the humidity generated by the chickens.
On average, most experts say that 1 square foot of ventilation per 10 square feet of coop space is enough. However, you may need more if you have an especially humid climate.
Depending on where you reside, even these seasons can be warm enough that you need to prolong your summer strategy. However, most regions need to make adjustments to their summer coop for colder temperatures.
While chickens will still put out a lot of humidity (and ammonia) in the winter, it’s vital to be able to close off your ventilation for days and nights with freezing or below-freezing temperatures.
Unless you plan on having a separate summer and winter coop for your chickens all of the holes that you cut for the summer should have flaps or something similar. Then, you can close them when it is too cold for the chickens.
These flaps should be draft-proof to keep out cold wind and wet weather. Some ideas to draft-proof your chicken coop for the winter:
- Be sure the flaps fit snugly, so no air gets in
- Tightly cover a few vents for winter with panels
- Hang hardware cloth over draftier areas and tightly fasten it around the outside of the coop, possibly a few layers of it.
Hardware cloth isn’t enough for very cold winters. For milder regions, it is perfectly fine to have chicken wire across one side of the coop and cover it with hardware cloth in the cooler months.
Do My Chickens Really Need So Much Ventilation?
The short answer is ABSOLUTELY YES.
Chickens produce an enormous amount of moisture and therefore humidity. Since they can’t sweat, their extra fluid is secreted through their excrement.
This means that through their poop as well as their breathing, chickens produce far more humidity than you might think. Humidity isn’t the only issue, though.
Your Chicken’s Dirty Little Secret
Lest you think the humidity from poop is bad enough, the ammonia fumes produced by the chickens, particularly by a lot of them in a confined space during the winter, is very unhealthy.
The long and short of this is that a small amount of ammonia fumes is okay, in the same way that a small amount of bleach fumes won’t harm you when you’re cleaning your bathroom.
However, when a lot of these fumes are produced, they can cause irritation and burning in the eyes, throat, and lungs of your chickens. Uncontrolled exposure to ammonia can eventually cause respiratory disease, blindness, and even death.
When raising your chickens, especially if you have larger flocks to keep them warm without a heat lamp, understanding these potential negative effects is vital to protecting them and ensuring their continued health.
Therefore, the humidity AND the ammonia fumes both need a way to get out, which is why the ventilation comes in handy.
During the winter in particular, making sure that the water vapor inside the coop can get out while not letting any drafts come in can be difficult.
Read on to learn the best ways to maintain perfect or near-perfect humidity in your coop year-round.
Daily Coop Clean
Your chicken coop should never be left for long without a good cleaning, but it’s especially needed in the wintertime when there isn’t as much air moving through the coop.
Take a kitty litter scoop and clean up the droppings every day to reduce humidity and keep the air in your coop fresh.
Weatherproof Your Coop
If your coop is leaking, then the higher humidity inside due to the chickens roosting is going to make it even harder for the air to dry out.
The best way to make sure your coop is weatherproof is to test it yourself before putting your first brood of chickens in there. Pour some water over the roof, and then go inside to see if anything is dripping or if the walls are wet.
Best methods for fixing leaks:
- Painter’s tarps spread over the coop to provide protection
- Plastic sheeting cut to fit around windows in the coop both inside and out.
- Tent or other types of plastic tarp stretched over the coop to help with rain run-off
Weatherproof Your Chicken Run
The chicken coop is obviously your first priority, but don’t forget your chicken run too.
If precipitation like rain, snow, or sleet, can get into in the chicken run, then it can create a muddy mess. This means your chickens will be tracking in unnecessary moisture, increasing the humidity levels inside the coop.
Cover your chicken run to prevent this. Many prefer a simple tarp over the chicken run, but you can get design even fancier solutions if precipitation is a major concern for your region. Here’s how:
- Layout your chicken run and know how wide you want the run to be.
- Dig two small trenches on either side. Ideally, these would slope toward a bigger drainage ditch, pond, etc.
- Hang a line, which can be as simple and cheap as paracord, along the length of the chicken run.
- Hang the tarp over the line so that it overhangs the chicken run. The tarp should be fastened so that any run-off will go into the small trenches you dug.
One caveat though – a tarp does not hold up much in terms of heavy snow, so be sure to scrape off the snow as needed. It will also be weighed down by ice, so spreading a salt mixture before a freeze will help prevent it from breaking and tearing.
Paint Your Coop Inside and Out
To further cut down on moisture, you can paint the inside and outside walls to prevent wet wood and mold. This also makes the coop easier to clean, because you can wipe off moisture, mold, etc. if you choose a gloss paint.
These strategies can all help reduce humidity in your coop and increase your chickens’ health without a heat lamp or even using any electricity at all. However, when it comes down to cutting down on humidity, what’s the difference between ventilation and drafts? Let’s take a look.
What’s the Difference Between Drafts and Ventilation?
With all the talk so far about air circulation, ventilation, drafts, and humidity, you may be wondering what the differences are. If drafts and vents are the same, then why are we talking about drafts as bad and ventilation as good, particularly in the winter?
The answer is that drafts and ventilation are different, and that’s important for the health of your chickens.
A draft is generally thought of as an unintentional ingress of air.
When air comes inside via a crack, hole, crevice, termite damage, etc., it is considered a draft.
The reason they are considered so very bad for chickens is that these drafts tend to be lower down toward the ground, introducing cold and sometimes wet air to the chicken coop, increasing the chance for sick chickens.
Ventilation, on the other hand, refers to intentional openings above the chickens’ heads that circulate air both in and out of the coop, pulling the humidity generated by the chickens outside.
These openings can have screens over top or just be simple holes; they can have flaps made out of hardware cloth or even solid wood doors to snap shut on bitterly cold days and nights.
The key here is placing your ventilation so that it really circulates the air but will not negatively affect your chickens in terms of temperature.
When figuring out what the best methods are to manage your chickens’ environment, considering the region in which you live and your specific climate, is a great step.
What Region Am I In For My Chickens?
As mentioned above, the climate in which you live is a huge factor in figuring out how best to raise your chickens.
While you may not live in the United States, you should still be able to get a general idea from the table below based on the descriptions:
|Region||Description||Summer Advice||Winter Advice|
|Northeast||Bitterly cold in winter, humid in summer due to the moisture blowing in from the Atlantic||Have fantastic ventilation; an entire wall that is just a screen may be a good idea here||If you did have screens for the summer, have solid wood doors to shut in below-freezing temperatures. Still, make sure to have ventilation opening above the chicken’s heads to decrease ammonia and humidity. A deep layer of wood shavings is recommended here for the chickens to bed down in.|
|Northwest||Rainy a lot of the time, with wet winters; however, the temperature range is not as extreme, with mild summers and winters.||Ventilation is still needed, but not as much of a concern; be sure that the precipitation doesn’t have a way in, and check regularly for leaks.||Solid wood doors are likely not needed here, but panels or hardware cloth at the very least is a good idea; depending on where specifically you are in the Northwest, this could change.|
|Midwest||Very humid summers with colder winters than you might expect, particularly in states like Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota||Ample ventilation is necessary here due to the high humidity rates; refer to the above tips for decreasing humidity, such as fans, painting the coop to decrease wet wood, etc.||Particularly in the more northern Midwestern states, solid wood doors are a good idea here, as well as potentially elevating your coop off the ground to prevent moisture from seeping in from underneath.|
|Southeast||Humid to the point of sub-tropical with temperatures in the summer over 100 degrees; winters are milder, but still humid and wet.||Similar to the Midwest, a lot of ventilation is needed here, especially if you’re in a swampy area. Consider elevating the coop to increase airflow around the structure as a whole.||You will likely not need solid wood doors to cover screens unless in high elevations. Ventilate as always, make sure to have a deep layer of shavings, and clean up the chicken poop daily.|
|Southwest||The climate here is a lot drier than the Southeast; this means that nights can be especially chilly, even during the summer. Winters are a lot milder, and overall the climate is the most consistent year-round.||The case here may be to allow more humidity in, which does NOT mean letting the poop sit there. The chickens still need fresh air, but settling the coop on the ground may be a good option here to help soak up any moisture the ground can offer.||Screens and hardware cloths are likely enough here, although flaps for the chilliest nights are not a bad idea. Prepare for precipitation, especially since the Southwest is known to have furious storms that are quick and brutal, which could cause your coop to spring several leaks at once if you haven’t been paying attention.|
Obviously, there is still variation within these regions. The mountains of North Carolina will be different than the coast, just as upstate New York is different from Washington, D.C.
Use the table above as a template, not something to be applied to every single brood and coop situation.
All in all, the verdict on what’s needed to raise chickens without a heat lamp is pretty simple.
Chickens Need Consistency
Like most creatures – including humans – chickens like consistency on all counts: temperature, housing, humidity, food, water, etc.
While working without a heat lamp is admirable, it does make the job of raising your chickens a little more difficult.
The best way to maintain the constant temperature and humidity for your chickens for your specific climate–not just your region but your backyard–is for you to do some of your own trial and error.
This guide is by no means all-encompassing, and you will likely need to make tweaks along the way to best fit your climate and your chickens.
Above all, maintain the consistency!