In this article we'll look at how to make a simple, inexpensive brooder box which contains everything your chicks need at different stages of growth.
And best of all, you'll be able to use it year after year, no matter how often you have new chicks!
When do chicks need a brooder?
It's important to have a brooder box ready for your chicks as soon as they hatch, if you're incubating your own, or from the moment they arrive if you're buying locally or having them sent from a hatchery.
Chicks aren't able to regulate their own temperature nor find their own food and drink. So unless they're being brooded by a hen (in which case, of course, you won't need a brooder!) we need to provide that warm environment for them. And chicks chill very easily.
So, as with most things chicken-related, you need to plan in advance. Have it ready and warm before your chicks arrive.
There's more information about when it's safe to move chicks from an incubator to the brooder, here.
There are all kinds of calculations – which vary wildly – about the space growing chicks need, and obviously this changes as the chicks grow.
The general consensus is around 6 square inches per chick immediately after hatch.
A large tote box is a good size for up to six chickens for their first two or three weeks. Depending on the breed size, you may have to move to a "Stage 2" brooder after that.
But the best way of calculating size is to watch your chicks' behaviour.
If you see an increase in feather pecking (all chicks peck a little at first, as they explore their surroundings and their brothers and sisters) and bullying, and the bedding is becoming dirty very quickly, it's time to increase the space.
If this is your first time with chicks you'll be surprised how quickly they grow. Below are two of my Wyandotte chicks, one aged one day, the other one week. The week old already has the start of his wing feathers.
That's how fast they grow.
In terms of somewhere for your chicks to live, you have two choices :
Personally, if I'm hatching up to six or seven chicks, I use a storage box to begin with (I call this "Stage 1") and move to a large one, or two joined together, later ("Stage 2").
Whichever size you decide on and whatever you use, your container needs to be in a safe place. For the first few weeks your chicks are vulnerable and will need protecting from cold, draughts, disturbance and the over-enthusiasm of young children and pets.
Make sure you have a setting where :
I use a spare bedroom with the tote box for the first week, then move them into a large container or puppy pen in my utility room until they're ready to go outside with the main flock.
Bear in mind that chicks will start to explore their surroundings very quickly if they're allowed to.
Either your container should have a top, or you have to accept that your room will end up looking like my spare bathroom did when I once used it (never again!).
I've used various things over the years and come to these conclusions:
Important: Whatever else you decide to use as your starter bedding, don't use newspaper. It's much, much too slippy and your chicks won't be able to stand properly. Their tiny legs need something to grip with when they're little.
If they don't have that, there's a real danger they'll develop splayed leg. Splayed leg is usually easily dealt with, but it's far better to prevent it in the first place.
So, on the bottom of your container lay some non-slip matting. I use inexpensive shelf liner bought from a supermarket - it's much less expensive than buying from a pet store and it does exactly the same job. It's the same liner that I have in my incubator at the point of hatch.
For the first few days the best bedding to have on top of the liner is plain kitchen paper roll. I buy a large roll from a supermarket which lasts for several clutches of chicks.
Simply line the base of whatever you're using - in my case the tote box - with the paper on top of the liner.
Using white paper enables even the tiniest babies to discover food. The sight and, in particular, the noise of sprinkling a little chick feed onto the paper will encourage them to investigate.
Pecking it will inevitably tell their taste buds "this is good" and they now recognise what food is.
It's exactly what a mother hen would do in the farmyard.
The other advantage is that it's very easy to see, against this background, whether there are any chicks with problems walking. If there are, they need dealing with.
You'll discover that chicks can poop very well from a very young age, so obviously the paper will need changing at least twice a day. That last thing you want is for the paper to become wet and messy with poop - it's a sure way for your young flock to develop illnesses.
Once they're used to their food and you're sure they're all walking properly, it's time to move them on to different bedding. I usually change after three to four days, but that's a matter for you and your assessment of your own circumstances.
I have always used pine shavings, which is the bedding of choice for many people. It's easy to find, relatively inexpensive, warm for the chicks especially in the colder months of winter and early Spring, and it smells nice (as long as it's cleaned out regularly, of course).
It's also a natural solution: it composts down (slowly) when it's finished with.
Sand has a lot going for it. It absorbs moisture well, it's easy to keep free from poop (just scoop with something like a cat-litter scooper), it can be put on the compost heap, it's great for even tinies to dust-bathe in, it's a good source of grit once they being eating things other than basic starter feed, and it retains heat well.
But the retention of heat is also a potential problem. If you use a regular (rather than a radiant) heat lamp it will also heat the sand. Sand will not just retain heat, it will keep getting hotter.
Think about when you've been on a beach on a hot day. Remember how the sand can burn your feet? Now, think about how much more vulnerable your chicks' feet are.
So by all means use sand but remember - be aware of its temperature under a heat lamp.
I have a detailed article about the ideal temperature for baby chicks in the brooder. Find it here.
So far we have dealt with keeping chicks safe, making sure they avoid problems like spraddle leg by using non slip materials initially, and choosing the best bedding materials to make a comfortable home in your particular circumstances.
Time to look at one of the most critical issues in the brooder - warmth. Chicks can chill very easily, and their lovely downy coats don't keep them warm enough. Chicks need help to sustain a healthy temperature during their first few weeks of life, until their feathers take over.
We need to provide what a mother hen would: a warm place under which baby chicks can nestle.
I choose not to use a standard heat lamp because of the danger of fire. Instead, I use Brinsea's radiant heat lamps which are risk free.
Click to read my review of how they work and why they're best for chicks in the brooder.
Finally, we need to provide baby chicks with the appropriate food and drink which will carry them through the first few weeks of life.
The growing chick has nutritional needs which change as they get older. For detailed information about what that means, take a look at this article which covers what chicks eat from 0 to 8 weeks.
You'll inevitably want to spoil your chicks - who could resist those appealing little fluffies?! But not all treats are good for very young ones. So here's an article about what treats are best for them during these early days.
And to drink? It's important chicks have clean water available to them all the time. They know instinctively when to take it.
The trick is, as you'll discover if this is your first time brooding chicks, how to keep it clean.
For tips and tricks about what chicks should drink and how to stop them kicking bedding into the containers, take a look here.
The basics – bedding, heat, food and drink – remain the same in the larger, "stage 2" brooder. What changes is simply the need for a container to ensure your chicks have enough room as they grow.
I have used two: the large container you saw in my bathroom (also below), and an expandable puppy pen.
Of the two, I highly recommend the puppy pen.
Here are some features to look for:
It's big enough to add perches, both at ground level and slotted into the bars. Feeders and waterers can be easily hung from the bars to avoid poop and bedding being kicked in.
You'll find you need to add a covering on the outside, to a height of about 6", to stop bedding being kicked out onto the floor. I simply use old curtains but if you have a smaller pen, something like cardboard or an old bed sheet with elasticated sides would work.
Apart from that, there are few drawbacks to using a puppy pen. This is by far my preferred option for my large, stage 2 brooder.
As with the storage box brooder, this puppy pen brooder needs an early flooring for new chicks of non-slip material with kitchen paper on top.
Once the chicks have adapted, the bedding is changed for pine shavings or sand.
Your chicks now have everything they need to begin a happy, healthy life in your DIY chick brooder box. Congratulations!
Don't forget, though, that as they grow, their needs will grow with them. Use the links to the articles below for more information.