A few months ago we decided to expand our wanna-be-farmer status and get chickens. We bought a modest coop, attended a talk by Lisa Steel at Fresh Eggs Daily, got inspired, and waited. Originally I wanted hens, but those are hard to come by. Then I thought about pullets, but ultimately—heeding Lisa's advice, decided on chicks. We are pretty hardcore penny-pinchers around here. However, I do have really high standards for anything I set out to do, particularly related to creature comforts. I was hesitant to go the DIY route with a brooder, but with a bit of reading and craftiness, it was actually very simple and effective. The main thing to understand is the chick's primary needs: warmth, food and water, solid footing, and room to find their own comfort.
You need a lot more space than you think you might. Buying a huge feed trough to use as a brooder wasn't an option for us. While I really liked the idea of making it into a beautiful planter after the chicks move to the coop, it just wasn't in our budget. So instead, $20 bought us a 50 gallon plastic storage tote. I got the biggest I could find, making sure these little guys have room to grow over the next several weeks and stretch their legs while they do so. The lid was included, which we could have altered with hardware cloth to fit our box perfectly. However, an abandoned window screen worked just fine for this purpose and was something we had on hand.
It is best to keep your brooder indoors in a controlled environment. A basement or garage may be too cold or damp. A spare room, air-conditioned porch, or attached garage are all good options. Keep the needs of your chicks in mind and use your best judgement. Kitchens and bathrooms are not recommended, simply from a health safety standpoint. Chicks are adorable, but they are still birds. Always wash your hands after handling your birds, and avoiding mouth to feather contact (sorry, I don't do bird kisses—Salmonella is no joke).
We went to a local agriculture expo back in the fall and spoke with a rep at Sun Coast Pine Shavings. That guy was the best most un-salesman-like salesman I've ever encountered. He wasn't pushy, but instead was kind, knowledgeable, gave us all the facts, and within ten minutes we were all about these shavings. Shortly after buying these for our soon-to-be chickens, my neighbor's horse farm adopted the same option for the horse stalls. Brooder, or coop, these shavings are safe, earth-friendly, easily compostable, and wallet-friendly.
The main thing to keep in mind when preparing footing for your chicks is the fragility of their growing legs. Slick surfaces can lead to injury, splayed legs, and discomfort. These guys are growing rapidly and with that growth comes awkwardness of movement. A solid ground is the best way to support this growth. I started with a base of newspaper. I know exactly what kind of ink the printer uses and because it's non-toxic, felt safe in making it the base. I would encourage you to research that independently because not every newspaper prints with the same ink. Newspaper is still a slick surface, so on top of that is about 3" of pine shavings. There are a ton of theories on best practices for a solid brooder footing, just find what suits your situation best. The objective is to create a safe and solid environment for your chicks. Always go with pine shavings. Cedar is toxic to chicks, sand is unstable and dangerous, and dirt could harbor bacteria and parasites. Give your chicks the best start and get the shavings. Check daily for droppings and moisture. Remove soiled bedding and add fresh. A clean environment is imperative to your chicks' health.
Keeping chicks warm is a lot easier than you might think. A heat lamp, usually sold during Chick Days, near the chicks, is a beautiful invention. You can adjust the heat by raising or lowering the bulb. Adding a thermometer to your brooder is a must. While the general behavior of the chicks is pretty indicative of their needs, being able to measure the temperature more accurately gives peace of mind to you, and consistency to the environment. The general rule of thumb for temperature settings based on age is
- Hatch to 1 week: 95°
- 1 to 2 weeks: 90°
- 2 to 3 weeks: 85°
- 3 to 4 weeks: 80°
- 4 to 5 weeks: 75°
- After 5 weeks: 70°
You might not need a lamp 24 hours a day. Depending on your geographic location and season, the room may get warm enough independent of the light. However, use your best judgement (and a thermometer) and find what works best for you.
Food and Water
Always supply fresh water to your chicks using a proper watering container. Depending on the age of your chicks, you may need to prevent them from getting into or (heaven forbid) drowning in the dish. Glass stones, added to the drinking base, work very well for this purpose. That is really only a need if you have very very young chicks. At 3 weeks of age, my chicks are far too large to go for a swim. Chicks dig and kick up bedding as if it's their favorite past time. Moving the food and water containers away from one another and adding a small platform to the waterer can help reduce the amount of shavings that end up in the water. Make sure the platform is solid and that is doesn't prohibit their access to the water. I used a very small, thin, wooden board (6" x 4.5" and about 1/4" depth).
Chicks need a starter crumble. I'm a huge fan of Blue Seal grains. For both horses, and now chickens. It is a complete and balanced feed, with the right amount of protein and omegas to provide your chicks with exactly what they need as they grow. You'll keep your chicks on the starter feed until they're 8 weeks old.
Crafting a DIY Chick Brooder is simple, inexpensive, and really quite fun. Happy chick raising!
Simple DIY Chick Brooder
- 50 Gallon Plastic Tote
- Mesh top (use a window screen or add hardward cloth to the plastic lid that comes with the tote)
- Heat lamp designed for brooders (it's a good idea to keep a spare bulb on hand as well)
- Pine shavings
- Chicken waterer and feeder
- Starter Crumble
This is pretty straight-forward, but for a quick recap
- Place newspaper on the bottom of your container.
- Add 3-4" of pine shavings for thick and safe footing
- Attach a thermometer to the container. Our container is clear, so we installed the thermometer inside, but facing out, so we can easily check the temperature. This can be installed very simply by using a strip of packaging tape. Install close to ground level so you get an accurate reading of the chick's environment.
- Provide fresh water and feed via proper chicken feeding containers; Check, clean, and refill bottles daily.
- Use a mesh or wire lid to keep the chicks safely inside, but also providing proper ventilation.
- Hang the heat lamp above the brooder, preferably to one side that the chicks can easily go to or get away from if they become too warm. Hang in such away that you can easily adjust the height of the lamp which will allow you to control the temperature of the brooder. (closer is warmer, further away is colder).
- Check your brooder several times a day, keeping the environment clean and comfortable for your chicks. Remove soiled bedding and manage brooder temperature as necessary for your location, season, and environment.