Congratulations … it’s a flock! Your chickens might be tiny—they might even all fit in the palms of your cupped hands. But they are finally an actual presence in your life versus something you’ve simply imagined.You suddenly have several little fluffs depending on you for food, water, heat … for everything they will need to survive. And leading off the list of requirements is a brooder.
A brooder is the container that will house your babies for the first two to three months of their lives.
Yes, you have undoubtedly gone to great lengths to buy or build a coop for your chickens, and they will eventually happily inhabit it. For now, however, your hatchlings are too little to live outside on their own, especially without a mother hen to safeguard their survival.
Instead, your chicks will contentedly live within the controlled environment of their brooder, monitored and cared for by you. These five guidelines will ensure your brooder is ready to receive your infant flock.
Choosing a Brooder
A brooder can be any type of container.
Plastic storage totes make excellent brooders. They are relatively inexpensive, can be transported with ease, and are a cinch to keep clean. Their tall, sturdy walls will keep your little ones securely contained, especially as they start hopping and jumping about.
By cutting an opening in the tote lid and lining it with 1/4-inch hardware mesh, you can keep adventurous little flyers in. You’ll also keep curious children and house pets out.
Cardboard boxes are a popular choice for brooders, especially since they can be composted and replaced once they become too soiled. If you choose to go with a cardboard box, make sure you choose a rugged, durable carton that can survive an accidental water spill. Be sure to have several replacement boxes broken down and on standby should you need to suddenly swap out a soggy brooder.
While a cardboard-box brooder might not be as sturdy as a plastic-tote brooder, it’s definitely easier on the wallet. Plus, you can dispose of it when done.
Brooder kits are available for purchase online from farm-supply stores, hatcheries and sites such as Amazon. These kits contain the essentials to outfit your brooder and typically include a short, fence-like enclosure within which to keep your chicks.
These are fine for the first few weeks. But as your baby birds start stretching their wings, you’ll need to replace the enclosure with something taller to keep your flock contained.
Not satisfied with the available brooder options? If you’re the handy type, consider building your own. By constructing your own brooder, you can decide the dimensions of this chick habitat and customize such details as a heat-lamp holder, vinyl flooring and even adjustable perches to help train your chicks to roost.
The drawbacks? Home-built brooders tend to be very heavy and difficult—or impossible—to transport.
The very first brooder my husband Jae built for us was an impressive 3-by-5-foot pine masterpiece he constructed in my office. It stayed in my office until Jae disassembled it four months later, once our flock had moved out to its coop.
Location is Everything
Keeping chicks inside your house may not be something you bargained for when you decided to keep a flock. The last thing you want is to stroll through a room and detect the barnyard odor emanating from your chick habitat.
Cleaning your brooder every couple of days will reduce that smell. It will also reduce the amount of dust generated by the chicks’ bedding.
To help minimize this further, consider keeping your brooder in a location that you can close off from the rest of the house. Laundry rooms, basements, mud rooms and garages offer ideal locations for your chick brooder. However, you may find yourself willing to keep up the continual maintenance just to watch your peeps’ antics from the comforts of your home office or living room.
Time for Bedding
Your chicks will spend the first week or so of their lives sleeping in assorted cute and occasionally disconcerting positions. This includes the sprawled-out chick “carpet” that will have you checking each and every one of them for signs of life.
To keep your baby birds comfortable and clean, you’ll want to cover the bottom of your brooder with approximately 2 inches of bedding. Bedding provides cushioning for sleepy peeps, plus it absorbs moisture from their droppings. Popular bedding materials include shredded paper, wood shavings, alfalfa and timothy hay, and straw.
Each of these has its benefits as well as its drawbacks.
- Shredded paper, while inexpensive and easy to find in home offices, can contain inks and other chemicals that can adversely affect a bird.
- Wood shavings, especially the cedar variety, produce dust and contain natural acids and resins that can irritate a chicken’s respiratory system.
- Timothy and alfalfa hay can be costly and often comes in hard-to-store bale.
- Straw is inexpensive but tends to mildew much more quickly.
There are alternative bedding materials available, too. Eaton Pet and Pasture, for instance, sells a naturally grown hemp animal bedding that the manufacturer claims is dust-free.
Regardless of the bedding you choose, you will need to keep it covered for the first three or so weeks or until every chick is walking—or running—without hesitation. As they learn to maintain their balance and walk, chicks require a flat, non-skid surface for their feet to grip.
Bedding does not provide this.
Some chicken keepers use shelf liner (the kind that has grips and comes in rolls). This can be lifted out, rinsed, dried and put back. Plus it provides the kind of surface chicks require for walking.
Most people use paper towels, which can be replaced daily. But do not use newspaper, as the slick surface of this and most paper products may cause the chicks’ feet to slip out from under them. This leads to a condition known as spraddle leg.
Be Our Guest
The yolk that has sustained your chicks from just prior to hatching typically processes through their digestive system by the time they are 24 to 48 hours old. This leaves your little ones hungry and thirsty.
To avoid being subject to incessant peeping, have your chick waterer and feeder prepared. Chick waterers are typically round saucers with a central Mason jar-type container that fills the attached saucer via gravity.
If you have bantam or very small standard chicks, consider adding marbles or pea gravel to the bottom of the saucer. This will raise the saucer’s water level and keep these tinier babies from drowning.
Chick feeders come in two basic styles: dish and trough, each covered by a lid with multiple access ports. For small flocks, a dish-style feeder is fine. But if you have more than a half-dozen chicks, a trough-style feeder is better. It allows for more birds to feed at the same time.
You’ll need to clean both the waterer and feeder frequently. If not, algae and scum will build up inside the waterer. Also, little chicks may perch and poop on their feeder.
Train Your Birds to Eat and Drink
Just because you’ve equipped your brooder with a feeder and waterer does not necessarily mean your peeps will understand their purpose. Chicks by nature are inquisitive creatures that may have eyed these contraptions with curiosity, then toddled off on another adventure.
If you’ve had your chicks for a couple of days and they are peeping with hunger or thirst, you will need to show them what to do. Take a pinch of chick starter and sprinkle a little trail from where the chicks typically congregate to the feeder. You may have to do this a couple of times before they catch on.
To teach them to drink, take one chick and slowly, gently dip the tip of its beak into the water. The chick will stand back, tilt its head up, and swallow.
Repeat this with the same chick one or two more times. Then select another chick and follow the same steps. Once a couple of chicks understand where and how to drink, the rest will follow suit.
Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot
Baby chicks are unable to regulate their body temperature for the first few weeks of their lives. Chicks hatched by hens spend most of their time tucked under their mother’s wings, using her body heat to keep warm. Your brooder will therefore need a safe and adjustable heat source to ensure your chicks do not succumb to hypothermia.
A stand-alone brooder heating unit, such as the kinds manufactured by Brinsea and by K&H Pet Products, fits neatly within your brooder. They provide your chicks with a heated shelf or archway where they can snuggle in toasty comfort.
These heating units are easy to clean and safe to handle when heated. But they can be a bit pricey, especially if you are raising more than a dozen chicks.
The more common alternative is the brooder lamp. It’s basically a shallow metal dish with a special heat bulb in its center.
These are effective, but they are also dangerous. Heat lamps that have fallen into brooders have caused devastating fires. To protect your chicks and your home, use a wire lamp cage over the face of the lamp to prevent the bulb from coming into contact with flammable bedding.
If possible, keep your brooder’s lid—customized with that hardware-mesh insert—on to keep the brooder lamp from falling in.
For the first week of your flock’s life, the brooder temperature should be approximately 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature will drop by 5 degrees with each week of life until you reach room temperature.
Adjust your heating element accordingly, either by programming the temperature directly or by raising the heat lamp several inches. Your chicks will let you know once you’ve reached the correct temperature.
If it’s too cold, they will all crowd together under the heat source. If it’s too hot, they’ll scatter as far from the heat source as possible. When it’s just right, they’ll carry on with their regular chick activities.
Consider getting a brooder thermometer to hang inside your chicks’ habitat (duct-taping it to the wall works), as this will help you gauge how warm it is within.
Once you reach room temperature—approximately 70 degrees—you can turn the brooder heat source off during the day. Since many households program their thermostats to lower overnight temperatures in order to conserve electricity, you may wish to turn the brooder heater on for nighttime periods until the chicks are fully feathered.
In these welcoming conditions, your tiny flock should flourish and grow. Occasionally, however, unexpected circumstances occur which affect your chicks’ ability to thrive. We’ll discuss these in the next installment.