The essential rule of thumb for raising chicks is this: provide them with a proper growing environment and they'll thrive. Mess up just one little thing -- too little water, too much feed, too little space, wrong temperature -- and you'll end up with a brooder full of ex-chicks (think Monty Python's ex-parrot). Ex-chicks make for a very poor poultry farm.
Since our end goal is laying hens, not lifeless mounds of fluff, we went to great lengths to make sure our brooder was perfect. The 100+-gallon galvanized stock tank we'd bought would provide the little fuzzies with plenty of space to roam around, at least until they reached adolescence at about 8 weeks of age. I scrubbed the tank with a carefully measured solution of Clorox and hot water until it gleamed, then lined it with a triple layer of newspaper and two inches of fresh pine shavings. We bought three quart-sized waterers to ensure the chicks wouldn't dehydrate (something that apparently occurs with frequency) and two foot-long feed trays so that the peeps could all eat together. These I washed in hot, soapy water, then packed away until we needed them in mid-March. All that remained for us to do was set up the brooder's heat lamp.
In nature, chicks keep warm thanks to the ministrations of Mama Hen, who gathers them beneath her, regulating their body temperature with her own. Since I'm just a wee bit oversized to play Mama Hen, we had to make sure our brooder was equipped with a heat lamp that would provide the babies with the right heat at each stage of their development: 95 degrees Fahrenheit their first week, decreasing five degrees each week to bottom out at 70 degrees at week 6. Too much heat? Bye, bye, birdie. Too cold? Bye, bye, birdsicle.
Now, I'm certain that somewhere -- commercial hatcheries, perhaps -- there exists a heating unit that allows you to program what temperature you want the gadget to emit, and bingo! You're all set. I'm also certain that those programmable heaters most likely run in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Being fresh out of thousands of dollars, we had to make due with a basic brooder lamp selling for about $10 at Tractor Supply. We couldn't decide whether to buy the white light bulb (to simulate sunshine) or the red one (to simulate dusk and encourage calm and rest), so we bought them both, just to be safe. We bought several back-up bulbs, just to be safer.
I had wanted to buy an adjustable heat lamp base -- the kind used for pet lizard terrariums -- at the nearest Petsmart. If the chicks huddled beneath the heat lamp, we'd lower the lamp to bring the heat source closer to the little guys. If the chicks scattered along the perimeter of the brooder, we'd raise the lamp to cool the brooder down. J, however, felt we could do just as well with a hook, chain, and dowel. We'd raise or lower the heat lamp by simply adjusting the length of the chain. I agreed, with one modification: we'd use a 2X4 instead of a dowel. My active imagination envisioned the chicks desperately chasing their heat lamp across the brooder as the dowel rolled along and then off the top of the stock tank. A 2X4 was flat and wasn't going to roll anywhere. I headed to Lowe's, where a friendly associate cut my $2 beam into 3- and 5-foot lengths.
That night, J decided to test out our heating system. I linked one end of the chain to the lamp, then wrapped the other end around the 3-foot length of wood, selecting a height that I felt would allow the lamp to provide the right amount of heat. J screwed in the white bulb, plugged the lamp in, and then we waited.
"Ummm, exactly how are we going to tell if the brooder's at the right heat?" I asked J.
Wordlessly, J left the room, returning with his office's digital thermometer. "Ooops," he said, placing the thermometer beneath the lamp. In less than a minute, the temperature read 119 degrees.
"That's not going to work," J muttered, raising the chain a link. The next reading dropped a whopping one degree, resulting in another chain adjustment. Ten minutes later, we'd raised the lamp to the level of the 2X4, and the brooder temperature was a balmy 108 degrees.
"Let's try the clip-on attachment," J suggested with growing frustration. I got out the attachment, then stood by as J switched out the chain, wood, and bungee-cord system we'd devised and clipped the lamp to the edge of the tank. Two minutes later, the thermometer read 105 degrees.
"Should we try the red bulb?" I asked.
"That's not going to do anything," J explained. "They're the same wattage. They're going to give off the same heat." He scratched his head and glared at the heat lamp. "I just don't get it. Why isn't the brooder getting any cooler? We've raised the lamp as much as we could."
"Here's a thought," I said. "It's a big metal tub, right? Maybe the metal's retaining the heat and that's why the temps are so high."
J blinked. "It's a huge roasting pan!" he exclaimed.
"Good think we're testing the heat lamp now," I noted wryly. "What are we going to do?"
What we did was drop down to a 125-watt bulb from the recommended 250 watters we'd bought. The Tractor Supply manager reassured us that our heat lamp could use a lower-watt bulb without burning out, short-circuiting, or exploding -- all bad for both chicks and humans -- but he didn't have any currently in stock. We split up, J hitting the home-improvement stores and me hitting the feed stores, both searching for that lower-wattage bulb. J finally found it at Lowe's and brought it home triumphantly, along with a standard outdoor thermometer and another digital, which he set up inside the brooder.
"115 degrees!" he yelled a few minutes later. The lamp, with its new bulb, hovered about five inches above the pine shavings and two of the three thermometers. The third, at the opposite end of the brooder, registered a slightly lower 109.
I sighed and started raising the chain.
After another hour of trial and error, we managed to get the brooder to a temperature somewhere between 95 and 99 degrees, depending on which thermometer we were reading. "I think this is the best we're going to get," J stated. "But feel the air. It just doesn't feel like 95 degrees."
"Come here," I told him from the other side of the brooder.
"The temperature's going to be the same over there," he complained.
"No, come here. I need you to hold me."
Confused, he came around to my side of the brooder. I placed his hands on my hips. "Now, hold on tight," I instructed, then went into a deep backbend to position my head and upper torso beneath the heat lamp. "No, it doesn't feel like it's 95 degrees down here," I called up from the pine shavings.
"You are so weird," J said once I was upright again.
"Yep," I agreed. "I know the thermometers say the temperature's good, but it just didn't feel hot enough. I don't want the chicks to freeze because we trusted a trio of cheap thermometers."
J, however, wasn't paying attention any more. He was hefting the two pieces of 2X4 and had a crafty look on his face. "I think I have a solution," he told me.
"Stacking the two pieces on top of each other?" I asked.
J grinned. "No. You'll see." And with that, he headed out to the garage.
"This better not take three weeks, whatever it is you're doing!" I called after him. We'd recently seen a video, Mad City Chickens, in which a clueless couple starting up their backyard flock waited until an hour before the post office delivered their chicks to buy their heat lamp. I'd made numerous disparaging comments about this couple's lack of preparedness and common sense, and I wasn't about to let us get lumped with these losers. And now our non-loser status -- and our chicks' future as laying hens versus broiler chickens -- all depended on whatever J was cooking up in his workshop.
We were in trouble.