Building a Brooder for Baby Chicks

If you are going to bring home (or hatch) baby chicks for your backyard flock, you will need to plan ahead. One of the most important things you’ll need to do is build a brooder for your baby chicks.

What is a Chicken Brooder Box?

Brooder Lamp

A brooder box is a heated enclosure exclusively for raising baby chicks (or ducklings, etc). It literally does the job of a mother hen – it keeps the baby chicks warm and safe from predators, including the rest of the flock.

Your brooder can be considered as a “mini coop”. You can purchase a brooder box pre-built or make your own.

Chicks require 0.1 square meters (1 square foot) of space each within a brooder box. While they can initially be in a smaller area, they need this room to grow. If they are crammed too closely together, as they grow and develop, they are likely to bicker.

Brooders need to be at least 30cm tall so that, by 6 weeks of age, the growing chicks can’t fly out.

The box should not be too big, as chicks may wander too far from the heat source.  

What you can use for a Brooder

It does not need to be fancy or expensive! You could use a large plastic tub, build, or purchase a portable wooden brooder box, with a screen top.

A big cardboard box will suffice for a small number of chicks; more will quickly outgrow that space. You could tape a second box to the first and create a large opening between them as your chicks grow. Make sure that the heat lamp cannot touch or ignite the box or bedding.

Chicks will attempt to fly as they grow – you need to provide a cover that keeps them in but provides plenty of airflow.

What you will Require to Set up a Chicken Brooder

Your Brooder Needs:

  • Heat lamp
  • Bedding – pine shavings are ideal
  • Food and water sources
  • Screen enclosure on top (to keep kids, pets, and predators out)
  • Ideally, a screen on at least one wall to enable fresh airflow
chick bedding

Bedding needs to be spread on the floor of the brooder, approximately 2.5cm thick. Don’t use newspaper for bedding. Also avoid cedar shavings, as these can release oils which are not good for the chicks. Pine shavings are soft, fluffy, and affordable.

The heat lamp needs to be placed at one end or corner of the brooder. This allows the chickens to have a space away from the heat lamp if they get too hot. Make sure that it can’t heat the bedding too much or cause a fire hazard.

Keep plenty of starter feed and fresh water in the brooder – ensure the feed does not get wet.

Where to Set up your Brooder Box

The brooder box needs to be dry and draft-free, safe from predators. The garage, laundry, or even living room are ideal places to set up. It could also be placed in your coop if it is large enough.

How can you Tell if the Temperature is too Cold or too Hot in the Brooder?

You need to know your chicks’ exact age when you bring them home.

Measure the temperature constantly at the bottom of the brooder – keep a thermometer there.

  • Chicks need to be kept warm at 35C for their first week after hatching.
  • Thereafter, reduce the temperature in the brooder by 2.8C per week.

If you hold your hand directly under the heat lamp, it should be warm and pleasant, not hot.

Monitor the behavior of your chicks. If they huddle together under the heat lamp, the temperature in the brooder box is too cool. If they huddle together away from the heat lamp, it is too warm. Adjust accordingly.

How Long do you Keep Chickens in a Brooder?

Chicks need to remain in the brooder until they are six weeks of age. From this time, their feathers should have developed and filled out enough for them to handle cooler temperatures and move to the regular chicken coop.

Baby Chickens

Regardless, chicks need to get some fresh air and sunlight during the day from four weeks of age. Let them outside, closely supervised, for short periods if you are able – but always return them to the brooder when you need to leave them or in the late afternoon.

If the chicks are escaping their brooder on their own, it might be time for them to join the grownups.

Weather conditions will also determine the transition to the coop – it’s easier in summer than winter. Introduce them gradually to the flock through a movable pen so they can meet but not fight or be bullied.

How often should a Chicken Brooder be Cleaned?

The brooder box needs to be kept clean and dry to prevent mold growth and minimize any potential for disease among the chicks. Your sense of smell should let you know when it needs to be cleaned – when the chicks are newly hatched, clean it every couple of days. Clean daily as the chicks grow.

Should a Heat Lamp be left on all night?

As long as there is room for the chicks to move away from the heat lamp to self-regulate their temperature, the light should be left on at night – especially in winter. If you keep your brooder in your house, and the house is warm due to spring or summer conditions, you may potentially turn it off (or down) overnight once your chicks have feathered.

Do Red Heat Lamps Keep Chickens Awake?

A red heat lamp will not keep your chickens awake. In older hens, a heat lamp in the coop during winter can help to stimulate egg production.

Having backyard chickens for the first time is a fun learning curve and your chicks are just the first step. Enjoy!