So you've got chicks. You've either hatched them yourself or bought them in. They're tiny, vulnerable and they're making a lot of noise.
A brooder is the answer to that question.
Actually, a brooder needs to be set up long before your littlies get to the stage of needing one - it should be well set up, warmed and all ready before they actually need it. It's something you should be thinking about several days before they arrive, whether that will be by incubator or by post.
If this is your first time with chicks you'll be surprised at how quickly they grow. In terms of somewhere for them to live, you have two choices :
Personally, I use a small one to begin with (I call this 'Stage 1') and move to a large one later ('Stage 2'). That's the model I'll be discussing in this article.
My 'Stage 1' brooder, complete with non-slip surface, heat source, food and water bottle.
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 for the first week, and move them into a spare bathroom until they're ready to go outside with my main flock.
You need to bear in mind that chicks will start to explore their surroundings very quickly if they're allowed to. Either your container needs to have a top, or you have to accept that your room will end up looking like my bathroom did.
I've used various things over the years and come to these conclusions :
Whatever else you decide to use as your starter bedding please, 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 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 a white paper enables even the tiniest babies to discover food. The sight and in particular the noise of sprinkling a little 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.
This is an interesting one. 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).
The drawbacks are all to do with the mess it can make. It will get kicked it all over the place which isn't a problem if you're using a tote box but will be if you're using something like a dog crate. You'll also find that, if you're using food and water trays at ground level they will end up covered in the shavings.
I normally put a couple of inches of shavings in the brooder initially, still keeping the non-slip matting on the bottom. Every day I stir it up and add a little more, in the same way as I use the deep-litter method for my big girls' chicken house.
It will need cleaning out completely every week or so, depending on how many chicks you have in the box.
Some of my chicks investigating their new brooder bedding of pine shavings.
Sand is another potential bedding. 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 but 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 heat lamp it will also heat the sand, and the 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? Well, 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.
So far we have dealt with keeping your 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.
Next, we need to deal with one of the most critical issues in the brooder - warmth.
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