A brooder should be set up long before your chicks get to the stage of needing one.
Plan to have it ready several days before they arrive, whether that's by incubator or mail.
Set it up, make sure everything is in place and works, allow the heat source to warm it for several hours.
In this article, we'll look at making a DIY brooder box: what it should look like, what it should contain and how it should be modified as chicks grow.
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 storage box 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.
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, then move them into my utility room until they're ready to go outside with my main flock.
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 spare bathroom did when I once used it (never again!).
I've used various things over the years and come to these conclusions :
I have an article specifically testing different types of bedding in a brooder - read it here.
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.
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.
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 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.
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. This article explains about the amount of heat chicks need during their first few weeks of life, until their feathers take over - and how to know whether your chicks are warm enough.
We need to provide what a mother hen would: a warm place under which they 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 "stage 2" brooder. What changes is simply the need for a larger container as the chicks grow.
I have used two: the large container you saw in my bathroom (below), and a dog pen.
Of the two, I highly recommend the puppy pen.
Here are some features to look for:
This is the type of pen I use.
It's big enough to add perches, both at ground level and slotted into the bars, and feeders and waterers can be hung from the top 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, use old bed sheet with elasticated sides.
Apart from that, there are few drawbacks to using a puppy pen. This is my preferred option for my 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.
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 article below for more information.