The smell of warm dry wood chips and the sound of calmly chirping chicks in their brooding area is one of my favorite parts of spring, but I’ll never forget the day I noticed smoke rolling into our laundry room curling from around the door to the garage and the sound of frantic chicks coming from our makeshift brooding area. I rushed in to find the heat lamp had slipped from the board it was clipped to and the impact of the fall had caused the wire guard to also slip off. The light bulb was lying in smoldering wood chips. Thankfully, I arrived in time to douse the wood chips before they burst into flames. I also managed to ventilate the area before the chicks got sick.
That incident prompted me to seriously consider how to keep my chicks warm and safe without accidentally burning down the house. And a quick Google search reveals that homes and barns destroyed by heat lamp triggered fires are all too common.
Through a bit of research on the topic I found several safer brooding options:
1. Brinsea sells a line of “Ecoglow chick brooders” which provide radiant heat which the company says are safer and more efficient than conventional heat lamps since they use a 12 volt transformer. The company sells a 20 chick brooder for $94.99 and a model for up to 50 chicks for $189.99.
2. You can build an Ohio Brooder. Though the concept was originally developed decades ago you can still get the directions published by the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station in 1942. This roomy brooder will accommodate a good-sized flock, but I would definitely recommend adding a plexiglass viewing area in the top of the brooder so you can get a peek at your chicks without putting your head on the floor.
3. Set up a brooder in an insulated shed detached from your home. This proved to be a quick and easy option when I needed an immediate solution. I simply positioned my cardboard brooder border under a rafter. Then I used sturdy string to hang my head lamps from the rafter. This allowed me to tie the light up a little higher to keep the chicks from overheating during warm weather. On cool spring days I could lower it to make the brooding area warmer.
With all of the above options it’s critical to provide a round border around the brooder area and monitor the chicks regularly. Many experienced chicken-keepers have learned the hard way that a variety of factors can cause temperature fluctuations in the brooder area. And if chicks begin to feel cool they will inevitably pile up in a corner to take advantage of the warmth of their fellow chicks’ body heat. Unfortunately those on the bottom of that heap can quickly suffocate.
Your chicks’ behavior will also tell you a lot about their comfort level. If they crowd together near the heat lamp or warmest point of another heat source it means they are a bit cold. Often a few will also be loudly chirping their displeasure with the accommodations. If they are pressing their bodies against the outer edge of the brooder area and are lying down, look a bit lethargic or are even panting they are dangerously warm and need the temperature reduced. A group of cozy happy chicks will usually be scattered throughout the brooder area with some eating and drinking, some running around chirping softly, and others content to doze off.
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