We just brought home our final batch of meat bird chicks for the year. Now we have more than 100 little peeping, fluffy chicks under a heat plate in our basement.
I don’t like having chicks this late in the year (August), but with meat birds, it doesn’t matter quite as much. They are mature in just eight weeks, so we don’t have to worry about them not putting on feathers in time for the cooler fall weather.
Even though these chicks will only be in the brooder for a short time, it’s important to take some time to set up the space appropriately.
There’s not much that you need to do, but there is a lot that you need to consider! Here are some tips on how to set up a brooder for five, ten, twenty – or even 100! – baby chicks.
Consider the Container
You can make a brooder box out of just about anything. I’ve heard of people using cardboard boxes, but these would be hard to keep dry and clean.
You may find yourself having to replace the box frequently, especially if you need to keep chicks in the brooder for any extended period of time.
We use a wooden brooder box, fashioned out of scrap pieces that we had laying around. The beauty of a wooden box is that you can design and build it to custom dimensions, making it suitable for people who need to raise large amounts of chicks.
The challenge with a wooden box is that it will rot and break down over time. Chicks produce a lot of moisture, which can hasten the rate at which your brooder box is rendered unusable.
We have had ours for about five years, and it’s just starting to break down. Since it was made out of scrap wood – and put together in a matter of minutes – it’s not a big deal. Time to build a new one!
However, it’s something to consider, especially when you figure that wooden boxes can be tough to disinfect.
Some people use plastic brooder boxes. These are much easier to disinfect, but don’t offer great air circulation. You can buy a premade brooder or you can fashion one out of a plastic tub, like a plastic rubbermaid tote, or something similar.
Other container options include:
- Galvanized metal tubs
- Old aquariums
- Packing crates
- Kiddie pools
The best option, in my opinion, is to make a separate brooder barn. This would be an outbuilding that is fully enclosed and free of drafts.
This, of course, wouldn’t be an option for everyone, especially folks who are raising chicks in the city. But if you do have the luxury of space and can afford it in your budget to build an enclosure, it will last you the longest, and be the safest bet for your chicks.
Again, your brooding space needs to be fully enclosed, and have the ability to stay at 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius), at least for the first week of your chicks’ lives.
As your chicks get older, you may need to add a cover. This isn’t essential for tall brooders, but more shallow containers often require covers to prevent your chickens from jumping out as they learn to fly. A cover can also help keep predators (including the family dog or cat!) out of the brooder.
You Might Need a Brooder Guard
We have raised chicks both with and without brooder guards. We stopped using them when we stopped using heat lamps – something I’ll address momentarily.
However, if you’re using a heat lamp, it’s a good idea to use a brooder guard. This will prevent your chickens from wandering too far from the heat source in the center.
Sometimes, especially with very young chicks, they will wander away from the heat and get themselves stuck in corners. Often, they can’t figure out how to get back to the heat and can die.
A brooder guard will prevent your chicks from wandering too far, and will keep them in the center of the brooder. You can make one using cardboard, wire, tar paper, or a bit of flashing.
It should be about a foot (30 cm) high, and several feet long (about 1 meter) to form a large circle. Make sure it has no corners – it’s the corners that are problematic for your young chicks.
Don’t Forget the Heat
Temperature is probably the single most important factor when it comes to chick health.
Most people use heat lamps to keep the brooder at a temperature of 90 degrees F (32 C) during the first week of your chicks’ lives.
After the first week, you’ll drop about five degrees F until the birds are at a temperature of 70 degrees F (21 Celsius) – this will get them ready for outdoor living.
Heat lamps are a cheap, economical way to heat your brooder – but personally, I’m not a fan. Even if you purchase a heat lamp with a guard, there is the potential for a chick to fly up and knock the lamp down onto the bedding. Dry bedding plus a hot heat lamp equals the serious danger of a fire.
A few years ago, we purchased a chick heating plate to warm our brooder instead. I will never recommend anything else! These plates are designed to sit on four legs inside your brooder, instead of hanging above it. Your chicks can run beneath the plate for cover.
Using a heat plate has eliminated our need to use a brooder guard, since the chicks run beneath the plate, and can’t get stuck in hex corners of the brooder. You can raise the height of the brooder plate each week as the chicks get taller.
The plates are expensive – most are more than $100 – but they last a lot longer than heat lamps, and you don’t have to worry about bulbs burning out. There is no fire hazard, as all the heating elements are sealed. Touch one, and you’ll find that it’s cool to the touch on top.
Heat plates mimic the warmth that chicks would get if they were hanging out with Mama Hen, so they are a more natural way to heat your brooder.
This is purely anecdotal, but we have found that our chicks feather out faster when using a heat plate, too, as compared to a heat lamp. We also do not have chicks that suffer from pasty butt (when poop accumulates to the rear features) anymore.
No matter what kind of heat source you use, be sure to preheat the brooder for a few days before you put young chicks inside. You don’t want to put them in an ice-cold brooder that hasn’t warmed up yet, as this can chill them and shock their systems.
To figure out whether your chicks are warm enough or cool enough, watch their behavior. If they all are clustered on the inside of the brooder, piling on top of each other, that’s a good sign that they are cold.
If they are hanging out on the perimeter of the brooder and are panting, they are too hot. If they hang to one corner of the brooder, there might be a draft.
Even distribution is key! If your chicks are evenly distributed around the brooder, the temperature is just right.
Use a high-quality thermometer to measure the brooder’s temperature (you can also use a heat gun). Temperature control is essential!
Good Bedding is Essential
The key to raising baby chicks in a brooder with as little “stink” as possible is to invest in good, high-quality bedding – and to change it frequently!
We use the deep litter method of bedding, both for our adult chickens and for our baby chicks. We add fresh bedding every single day to the brooder, which is essential, in my opinion, if you are raising chicks inside your house. That smell can really permeate!
You have several options when it comes to bedding your chicks. You can use wood shavings, which are the most common option as they are dry, clean, and have good absorption qualities.
You will want to use coarse shavings, though, as sawdust and fine shavings are too small for your baby chicks. These can cause respiratory problems, and tend to be eaten by your chicks, too.
Our chicks will occasionally peck at the larger shavings, too, but normally leave them alone. They get too confused when it comes to fine shavings, as they aren’t sure what’s food and what’s bedding. This can lead to gizzard impaction and can kill your birds.
Other options for bedding include chopped wheat straw, sugar cane, and peanut shells. Chopped wheat straw is superior to other kinds of straw like oat, barley, and rye, as they have oils that make it hard for them to suck in moisture.
You can also use clean sand, burlap, or shredded newspaper.
A few notes of caution when it comes to bedding your chicks. First, avoid using cedar chips, or any other kind of wood that contains highly aromatic oils. Breathing in these oils can be toxic to them.
You should also avoid using whole sheets of newspaper. The sheets are too glossy, meaning they aren’t absorbent enough and can even lead to foot and leg deformities in your young chicks.
That said, we put down a layer of paper towels for the first week or so that our chicks are in the brooder.
The paper towels are a safer bet for our birds than the wood shavings – we wait for the chicks to get a bit larger so they can learn the difference between shavings and food before introducing that type of bedding.
Paper towels don’t lead to the same foot and leg issues as newspapers do because they have a more textured surface.
Food and Water
Don’t forget the food and water! These are also important factors to consider when you are setting up your brooder. Make sure there is plenty of room for each chick to access food and water – that might mean using multiple feeders and waterers if you have a lot of chicks.
Make sure both are positioned in a section of the brooder that isn’t too hot or too cold, which can reduce the likelihood that your chicks eat and drink enough.
Make sure you reserve a space of one inch across and two inches deep per bird at the feeder. If you have your chicks in the brooder longer than four weeks, you will need to increase this to two inches across and four inches deep.
For very young chicks, you can use something as simple as a clean egg carton filled with feed. As your chicks get older, you can use trough feeders or other low-lying designs to feed your birds. Ideally, you should choose a design that will be hard for your chicks to poop in!
You’ll be using a chick starter with at least 18% protein during the first few weeks of your chicks’ lives.
At first, it can be hard to convince them to eat – you can place a bit of food on a paper plate to encourage them to eat when they’re first getting started. You’ll adjust the feed later on, moving to an egg layer or complete feed by 18 weeks old.
Next, the water. For every 25 chicks, you will want to provide at least two quarts of water per day. These should be split up into multiple waterers so the birds don’t have to fight to drink. Try to use room temperature water to avoid shocking your chicks.
Also, when you first get your chicks home, you need to dip their beaks in the water. This teaches them where to go for water. To prevent your chicks from drowning, put a few marbles or large stones in the drinking area – this will prevent them from wading inside.
For the first few weeks of your chicks’ lives, provide up to 22 hours of light per day (a minimum of 18 hours). You can then reduce it to 16 hours.
Use a red bulb, which will prevent them from pecking each other. Usually, you’ll need about one 40 watt bulb for every 100 square feet of floor space.
Location, Location, Location
The location of your brooder box matters, too. You can put them anywhere in your home, but I prefer to keep mine in a place that receives low traffic – the basement. The only thing you have to be careful about when keeping your chicks in the basement is the heat issue.
Basements tend to be a bit colder than other areas of the house, so make sure you are keeping track of the temperature (and potential drafts).
You could also keep your brooder in a covered porch, a garage, a separate building, or a closet. Just make sure it’s somewhere in which your chicks won’t be disturbed, and will stay nice and warm. Air circulation is important, too.
Have Everything Ready to Go Ahead of Time
One of the best tips I’ve heard when you are setting up your brooder is to make sure everything is set up and ready to go before you bring your chicks home.
You don’t want to be scrambling to set things up as soon as you get the call that they have arrived at the post office!
Set things up a few days ahead of time – especially the heat source. This way, your brooder will be nice and warm as soon as your chicks arrive.
Cleaning Your Brooder
I recommend cleaning your brooder on a weekly basis – at a bare minimum. If you’re short on time, you can clean less often, but make sure you are in the habit of adding clean bedding on a regular basis.
It’s not just the “stink factor” that you need to be concerned about. A dirty brooder can lead to all kinds of health problems for your chicks, too.
The more chicks you have, the more often your brooder needs to be cleaned. You’ll find that, as your chicks grow older and larger, the brooder gets dirty quicker, too.
Once our chicks are about three weeks old, we are usually adding bedding (at a minimum) once a day – but sometimes twice a day.
After you’ve moved your chicks out of the brooder, you’ll need to clean the box, even if you plan on reintroducing another set of chicks shortly after.
We introduce a new batch of chicks about once every six weeks during the summer, when we raise our meat birds. Even so, we clean the brooder out between uses to prevent health problems (and the smell!).
To do this, you will want to use warm, soapy water to wash the box. Give It time to thoroughly dry out.
Then, sanitize it. Use a teaspoon of bleach or vinegar (I prefer vinegar, since it’s less caustic) for every gallon of water. Soak the brooder in sanitizing solution, then rinse it and make sure it dries.
You will also need to disinfect your waterers, feeders, and other equipment. I use a damp rag to wipe down my heat plate, as this can get covered with chicken poop quite quickly!
There are several factors that influence when your chicks are ready to be moved out of the border. Ultimately, it comes down to breed and climate.
Some chicks, like our current batch of Cornish Crosses, are feathered and ready to go outside at three or four weeks of age. They can be moved as soon as the weather is warm enough (since we are currently raising them in the summer, they can go out almost immediately).
However, if you’re still dealing with chilly springtime weather, you may want to wait until conditions have improved. Even if your chicks are fully feathered, they may still have a hard time acclimating to cold, rainy conditions.
Use your best judgment. As a general rule of thumb, chicks can be moved when outdoor temperatures remain above 65 degrees F (18 C), but make sure the weather is dry when you move them.
The chicks should be around six weeks old, although you can move fast-maturing broilers sooner if the weather conditions are favorable.
When you move your chicks, spend a few days watching them. Watch to their behavior. You’ll know they are too cold outside if they pile on top of each other or begin to suffer from health problems.
If you can, make the transition slowly. Be sure that your run and coop are fully enclosed to prevent issues with predators, and consider locking them in the coop for a few days to a week so that they can get used to their new home (otherwise, you may find that your chickens sleep wherever they want).
Ultimately, setting up a brooder is not a challenge! As long as you follow these simple tips for bringing your baby chicks home, you will be able to create an environment for them that is comfortable, healthy, and easy to care for. Good luck!
Rebekah is a full-time homesteader. On her 22 acres, she raises chickens, sheep and bees, not to mention she grows a wide variety of veggies. She has a huge greenhouse and does lots of DIY projects with her husband in her ever-growing homesteading endeavor.