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What is a brooder box for chicks? How do you set one up? Why is one necessary? What do baby chicks really need to be happy and healthy?
If you are new to raising baby chicks or considering chicks for the first time, you probably have all kinds of questions racing through your mind.
This article will cover the necessary basic needs of setting up a brooder box for chicks. There are a lot of products on the market you buy, but what do you truly need?
Setting Up Chick Brooder
Use these simple tips to set up your first brooder box, including the best chick starter feeds, heat source, bedding, and more.
What Is A Brooder Box?
Simply put, a brooder box for chicks is a heated enclosure that keeps baby chicks warm and protected until they are old enough to go into the coop. It can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it.
The bottom line is that chicks must stay warm, be on safe bedding, and have constant access to food and water.
It’s crucial that you have a chick brooder ready and set up before the chicks arrive. Use this step-by-step guide to setting up a brooder box before your little critters arrive.
Where To Set Up A Brooder
This will depend on how many babies you have. If only a few, like 6, 8, or 10, the best place to keep a brooder box is in a quiet indoor space. A place that is safe from predators, even cats, such as a closed garage or a spare room in the house.
The room doesn’t need to be overly warm or extremely hot as long as there are no drafts. In addition, the temperatures inside it do not need to fluctuate, nor does it need to be in direct sunlight.
Keep in mind as well that chicks are messy. They scratch and throw shavings around, which stirs up a lot of dust. So, it’s a good idea to pick a location for the brooder where you can easily clean as needed.
Years ago, we kept our first batch of 9 in the canning room right off our living room. It worked well for being able to watch over them, but afterward, it was a lot of cleaning to get rid of all the dust.
What Size Should A Brooder Box Be?
The size of a brooder box does matter when setting one up. But, of course, size depends on the number of chicks you plan to raise.
The smaller it is, the quicker they will outgrow it. Unfortunately, this means a new one will have to be constructed quickly.
A chick brooder should be large enough to allow them space to move around while also giving space to keep warm without crowding and possibly causing death.
Of course, your decisions should also include room for food and water. The general spacing guidelines are as follows:
- ½ foot – up to 2 weeks
- 1 foot – up to 2-4 weeks
- 1½ feet – up to 8 weeks
So, in other words, a brooder box to hold six chicks would need to be 9 square feet. (1.5 sq feet x 6 chicks = 9 square feet).
This could hold them comfortably until they are 6-8 weeks old. NOTE: It’s better to have a brooder too large rather than too small.
A brooder box 12 inches high will keep them safe for about three weeks, but then as the chicks grow, you will need to increase the side walls to 24 inches or more. This is to keep them from jumping or flying out.
Overcrowding can lead to aggressive behavior like feather pecking and bullying. Another sign that a brooder may be too small is that the bedding becomes dirty quickly.
Chicks, as they grow, enjoy jumping around playfully and learning how their wings work. So it’s not uncommon for them to hop or jump out when the brooder is not deep enough.
Another option is to add a lid to the top.
We built a wooden frame out of 1x2s that was one inch larger around than the plastic tote we used and then stapled chicken wire to the wood frame.
Doing so made removing it easy for feeding and cleaning, and I didn’t hinder the chick’s ability to play or airflow.
It’s important to keep all this in mind when deciding what to use for setting up a brooder and where you plan to keep it before the chicks arrive.
This article, Raising Baby Chicks for Beginners, shows you how we set ours up for the first two weeks when we first began raising baby chicks.
What To Use As A Brooder Box
You will also need to decide the best brooder setup for you. There are no rules that say you have to build one. You can purchase brooder boxes from a farm store or order online.
The best chick brooder is the one that works best for you. If you’re frugal and like to save money, it’s easy to make your own.
Keep in mind that chicks grow fast. So whatever you use, you’ll need to work on a solution to move them when the time comes.
My first brooder was a plastic tote that lasted about three weeks. Below are five easy DIY chick brooder ideas you can make at home:
5 DIY Chick Brooder Ideas You Can Make
A cardboard box is convenient to use since you can easily find them. However, one of the drawbacks of using cardboard as a brooder box is it easily gets wet and softens.
If you use a cardboard box, you’ll need to put a tarp or piece of plastic under it to catch spills while the chicks grow.
The advantage of a cardboard box is that it is disposable and can be recycled or used as a weed blocker in the garden when done with it.
Plastic Rubbermaid Tote
A plastic tote is another easy DIY idea for making a brooder for chicks and also makes for a quick setup. You can purchase totes in many sizes, and a tote is easy to clean when the time comes.
Plastic totes can protect chicks from small predators like cats and kids in a protected area like a locked garage or a room inside the house.
They are not sturdy enough to protect chicks outside or in an area such as the barn. They will also quickly outgrow a tote, but it’s a great starting place.
Galvanized Trough or Stock Tank
If you have an old unused tank that no longer holds water at home, turn it into a brooder box for your hatchlings. To use this as a brooder, sprinkle shavings on the bottom, add the heat lamps, food, and water, and you are good to go.
Dog Crate or Kennel
If you have an available plastic dog crate or carrier, this could make for a quick DIY brooder for your new hatch.
However, a plastic dog carrier with only one opening, the door, can be challenging to secure a heat lamp.
So instead of a heat lamp, I recommend using a heating plate like this Brinsea Eco-glow. It’s small enough to fit nicely inside a dog crate.
Or a metal collapsible dog kennel would work too. You can easily attach a heat lamp to it. But you’ll need to wrap the sides with cardboard a few inches high to keep chicks from escaping, getting injured, and stopping drafts.
A puppy playpen, like the ESK Collection Exercise Pen Kennel from Amazon, makes for a great and easy for making a chick brooder! It’s already draft-proofed and can keep your new chicks safely confined inside.
The bottom can be removed to let chicks out on the grass while keeping them safe inside, and the mesh top allows them to get lots of sunshine while playing on the grass.
BONUS: It collapses for easy storage when not in use and can be hosed off for quick cleaning.
The only drawback is you cannot use a heat lamp in one, but a chick plate heater would work great!
Since chicks stay in a brooder for only 6-weeks, you don’t have to spend a lot on a brooder box. So look around and be creative! You might have some ideas or see other items you can use as a brooder.
I hope you can use my ideas to make a safe and friendly brooder for your new hatch!
Additional Needs Inside The Brooder
For a brooder setup to be complete, you need a few other things that will contribute to the maturing of healthy baby chicks.
Bedding in the brooder is critical. Chicks will spend much time in it, so absorbing odors and moisture are important. Pine shavings work best once chicks learn what their food is.
For the first seven days, use newspapers or thick paper towels spread on the bottom with weaved shelf liner laid on top of the paper.
The paper will absorb moisture while the shelf liner helps prevent chicks from slipping and causing spraddle leg. Please do not use the newspaper by itself; it’s too slippery.
NOTE: Do not use cedar shavings, either. Cedar is toxic to chicks if eaten, and the aroma of cedar causes respiratory issues for them as well. This includes adult chickens too.
Baby chicks must be kept warm, or they will die. Since they have no mama hen, the responsibility falls on you. There are two ways of keeping them warm enough while they are small.
I mentioned the Brinsea Eco-glow 20 earlier. The height is adjustable for growing chicks, and the heat is consistent. The best thing about a heat plate is the heat is constant.
So chicks can move in and out from under it when cold or too warm. Chick plates are much safer, so they are a good investment, especially if you intend to raise baby chicks yearly.
Lamps are a little more work and not as safe, but they will provide the heat your baby chicks need. When using heat lamps, it’s important to take caution since they can be a fire hazard.
You can adjust temperatures by raising and lowering the lamp closer to and from the chicks. For example, if the brooder temperature is too cold, you’d move the lamp closer. If too hot, move the light farther away.
You will also need to adjust the heat lamp as the chicks grow older and need less heat. Use the chart in this post to know exactly how warm you need to keep baby chicks as they grow.
Note: Avoid using white incandescent bulbs. The bright light causes pecking and increased stress on chicks. Instead, a red bulb is the best light for baby chicks.
Chicks cannot manage their body temperature and must be kept warm until they are fully feathered. An easy-to-read thermometer, I use this one, or a digital thermometer gives you a quick visual to ensure proper temperatures are kept consistent.
One way to know if chicks are too hot is if they will hold out their wings and may be breathing through their mouth. If they are too cold, they will continuously be huddling close together.
Baby chicks are tiny and need a small feeder like this one they can easily reach when eating but also so that it does not take up a lot of space in the brooder.
Make sure the position of the feeder prevents them from scattering the food as much as possible. It’s a good idea to place it on top of a wood block or secure it with a string above the bedding.
The waterer should have a small lip to help with keeping the water clean and prevent chicks from getting in it and drowning. You should plan to change the water daily or more often to avoid contamination.
Chicks will poop and scratch shavings in the food bowl and waterer, so it’s important to keep both clean, so your birds stay healthy.
Chick Starter Feed
Of course, chicks need good feed to grow and stay healthy. So they should have a chick starter feed, offered free choice, meaning it is ALWAYS available anytime they want to eat.
We use the Purina Organic Chick Starter/Grower. It’s non-medicated, and I have had great luck with it. Chicks have specific nutritional needs, so you need to ensure they get whole grain, so all their nutritional needs are met.
Medicated vs. Non-Medicated Chick Starter Feed
You can buy chick starter feed (crumbles) with or without medication to prevent coccidiosis.
The medicated feed contains an Amprolium drug, a preventative to help chicks fight off the protozoan parasite until their immune system can mature. WARNING: If you don’t hatch your own with a broody hen, and order from a hatchery or feed store, you’ll need to ensure they have NOT been treated. Double treatment can lead to death.
We don’t use medicated feeds. Instead, we take a holistic approach, and I make and add homemade apple cider vinegar to their water twice a week. Or you can purchase an unpasteurized apple cider in the health food area of your market.
Below is the amount to use for regular treatment every two weeks.
- Quart Jar – ½ teaspoon
- Gallon Waterer – 1 tablespoon
- 3-Gallon Waterer – 3 tablespoons
How To Set Up a Brooder Step by Step
Once the brooder box location is ready, use this quick run-down for placing things inside it before your chicks arrive.
Step 1: Bedding
This will be your chicks’ temporary home for their first six weeks.
Week One: Use the newspaper and woven shelf liner as a bottom.
Week Two: Remove the newspaper and shelf liner. Add a layer of pine shavings 2-4 inches deep. Deep enough so they can scratch and dust bath without touching the bottom.
When you clean your chick brooder, add the shavings to your compost. Doing so will add organic matter to the garden.
Step 2: Waterer & Feeder
These should be placed where they can be accessed from all sides. I’d recommend elevating them on a small wood block to raise them above the shavings to help keep them clean. Also, space them as far apart as possible.
Fill the feeder with a chick starter. Chicks will remain on the starter/grower until they are 16 weeks old.
Step 3: Secure Heat
If you are using a heat lamp, it will need to be secured well to prevent a fire hazard. Or using the Eco-glow 20 is a safer alternative. Place heat on the opposite side of the brooder, away from food and water.
Make sure to keep the brooder box dry, clean, and neat. Every day, restock the feeders and waterer. As the chicks mature, have a plan for covering the brooder to keep predators out and to prevent the chicks from flying out.
That’s it. You are ready to bring chicks into your life; they have all they need to be happy and healthy. Setting up a brooder for chicks is easy. They need the basics of food, water, and heat.
Remember, they grow really quickly and will be in the brooder for only 4-6 weeks, depending on the size brooder.
They will need to be kept safe and warm until they are fully feathered and ready to go out to the pasture.
More Homesteading Posts You’ll Be Interested In:
- Raising Baby Chicks Beginners Guide
- When Can Chicks Go Outside to the Coop? Best Guide for Beginners
- 13 Best Backyard Chicken Breeds for Beginners and Why
- 28 Realistic Ways to Make Money Homesteading
- How to Plan and Set Goals For Homesteading
- Best Books About Homesteading for Modern Homesteaders
- How to Create an Emergency Stockpile
- How to Switch Chicks to Layer Feed When Old Enough
- Brooder box
- Heat Source
- Choose a safe location for setting up your brooder box for chicks.
- Decide on the size it should be. Remember, chicks grow quickly!
- Decide what to make your brooder out of. Some good choices are a cardboard box, galvanized tub, Rubbermaid tote, dog crate, or puppy playpen.
- Use a newspaper and weaved shelf liner on the bottom for the first seven days. After that, change out to pine shavings.
- Place feeder and waterer as far apart as possible.
- Set up a heat source on the opposite end of food and water.
- Have free choice chick starter on hand all the time.
It's important to have a brooder set up and ready BEFORE you bring chicks home. They have no mama hen, and the responsibility falls on you.
Remember, they will be in the brooder for the first six weeks of life.
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Dianne Hadorn is the owner of Hidden Springs Homestead nestled in the hills of East Tennessee. She is a Master Gardener and enjoys helping others learn how to grow and preserve their own food and sharing tips for living a more self-sufficient lifestyle.