Whether you bought chicks at the feed store or from a hatchery, or hatched your own eggs in an incubator, you’re going to need somewhere to keep the little chicks until they are big enough to venture outside alone.
Young birds, which are not yet feathered – those under around 6-8 weeks, depending on the breed – will need to be housed in a secure, warm area, with access to food and water 24/7. What you use for a brooder is up to you and your circumstances. Many people have custom built wooden brooders, made with 2x3s and hardware cloth; personally, I do not like to use wood, because I like to super-disinfect every so often, and thus I prefer plastic.
Others use Rubbermaid tubs, an excellent option if you don’t have cats. It’s hard to put a secure lid on a Rubbermaid tub, though I have seen some great ones constructed from the actual lid of the tub and hardware cloth, though these make me nervous when used in conjunction with a heat lamp. Too much potential for melting!
You could, of course, spring for one of the amazing GQF brooders. You’ll sometimes find them second hand on Craigslist, but you’ll have to be quick. They go fast. They’re all-singing, all-dancing, top of the line brooders – and they’re priced accordingly.
My personal favorite is to use an old rabbit or guinea-pig cage, such as you see in the pictures. They’re often at thrift store, Goodwill, on Craigslist, at yard sales; the bottom line is, you can pick them up cheap. They’re plastic, so they can be scrubbed and disinfected, which should be done after every batch of chicks. They also have nice secure wire tops, which make it harder (I hesitate to say impossible) for marauding barn cats to gain entry. Lastly, should the wire top come into contact with the heat lamp, there’s little to no chance of fire. In an environment where there is hay and bedding, this is of paramount importance.
Every year, there are horror stores of people losing their entire barns, sometimes their houses and most if not all of their livestock too, in fires. Nine times out of ten, they were started by heat lamps that were not properly secured. There’s no such thing as being over-cautious with a heat lamp.
- Start with your freshly washed and cleaned brooder, whatever it is you choose to use. A great way to disinfect is to leave it in the full sun to dry – the sun is the world’s most natural bleach.
- Fill it with sand; I use play sand from Lowe’s, and I buy a bunch of it when it’s on sale. I like sand because it is naturally draining, it clumps if one area gets overly wet (such as if they dump their water over), and it doesn’t create the vast clouds of dust on everything that shavings do. Sand can also be very simply cleaned with the aid of a kitty litter scoop every couple days.
- Take your freshly washed brooder, and set it up above the level of the sand on a block or an upturned dish. Don’t set it too high, or the smaller chicks won’t be able to reach. Again, I like to use ceramic dishes for this purpose because they are easily cleaned. If I can’t find one, I use a brick or something, because wood is too porous. Setting it up like this prevents bedding and poop being kicked into the water as the chickens scratch around, and also limit the chance of drowning.
- Put your dish of food at the other end of the brooder. The chicks will stand in the dish and scratch about, and this stops them kicking their food into the water. You could also use one of those long red plastic chick feeders, which prevents them from standing in the food, but I find these frustrating and too hard to clean.
- Set up your heat lamp above the food, at the opposite end to the water. If you put it over the water, it will heat it and cause algae to grow. Be sure to double secure your heat lamp, so it cannot fall.
- The temperature should be around 90F for the first week for chicks, and fall 5F a week until they are roughly at room temperature. When they can go outside really depends on the time of the year.
- Finally, add your chicks!
We hope you found this tutorial on setting up a chicken brooder helpful!