Story and photos by Liz Fulghum
Prepare for new spring chicks with this easy DIY brooder.
This last year has been a strange time for so many people. But as this 2021 spring arrives, we can look forward to new opportunities and projects. Hopefully this last year has let lots of us connect more to our yards, homes, land, the food we grow and eat … and projects.
In the perfect storm of extended time at home, a sudden shortage of necessities, and the start of spring, people planted fruits and vegetables to eat, started beautiful gardens to enjoy, and raised chickens and other animals to help produce food for their families.
If you’ve decided to start your own flock of chickens, spring is the perfect time to do it. The weather is mild and you have the time to raise them inside and acclimate them to their permanent home in their coop, all before the heat of summer hits. Plus, you’ll likely have eggs by fall or next spring at the latest. You can buy chicks online or locally, but whatever you choose, the first thing you’ll need for them is a brooder setup.
So What is a Brooder?
There’s mountain of information online about what a brooder is (or isn’t), along with advice on what it should be made out of, where you should keep it, all the accessories you should or could buy, and all the things you need to do to care for your chicks while they’re living there. It can be more than a little overwhelming if you’re new to chickens, so let’s keep it simple.
A brooder is simply a home for your chicks to grow up in that mimics the sort of environment they might have if they’re being raised by an actual chicken: safe, warm, with access to food and water. Chicks live in a brooder until they’re teenagers — aka pullets (female) or cockerels (male) — have grown in their juvenile feathers, and can handle normal outdoor environs. This happens at around 6 to 8 weeks.
Since it’s temporary and you may only use it one time, your brooder doesn’t need to be fancy or expensive (even a cardboard box could work just fine in a pinch), and you don’t have to spend tons of money on special brooder lamps or crazy accessories. You may even have the parts laying around your house to make most of it.
The four most important components of a brooder are pretty simple:
- The container. Your chicks need to be in a contained space that’s small enough that they can stay safe and warm, but large enough that they can explore and do chicken things.
- A heat lamp. This is the most important element, because chicks must have supplemental heat until they feather out. Getting chilled can kill a chick.
- Food. You want to make sure you’re purchasing food designed especially for chicks, which will help them grow strong and healthy.
- Water. Chicks have a secret pastime of knocking over water and fouling it up with food and everything else. Be prepared to change it often.
An Easy Brooder Setup
Here’s an easy DIY brooder you can make in under an hour. Don’t have the exact materials? Chances are, something else you have lying around will work just as well. Be creative!
Supply list for the brooder box
- Rectangular storage bin at least 18 inches wide, 3 feet long and 12.5 inches tall (or taller). If you have more than 3 to 4 chicks, you’ll want something even larger. Why rectangular? This allows you to create cool and warm regions that the chicks can move between. You also want it tall enough that the chicks can’t jump out, especially as they get older. It also doesn’t matter if your storage bin is clear or solid; you’ll be able to easily check on the chicks either way with the screened top.
- 2×2 wood cut into 4 pieces, sized slightly longer than each side of your storage bin.
- Hardware mesh or chicken wire
- Zip ties
- Bungee cord
Tool list for the brooder box
- Saw (If you get your 2×2 pieces pre-cut, you don’t need this.)
- Wire snips
- Sand paper
Supply list for the brooder box accessories
- Heat Lamp and bulb
- Chicken feeder base and quart Mason jar
- Chicken waterer base and quart Mason jar
- Paper towels, pine shavings, or other bedding material
Assembling Your Brooder
The most involved part of putting this brooder together is assembling the top, but it’s still a quick project. Designed to keep chicks in and other curious pets out while still providing ventilation, the top is simply four 2×2 pieces of wood nailed together picture-frame-style with some wire mesh on top.
Measure the outside of your storage bin to determine what lengths of 2x2s to cut. They should be long enough that, when assembled, the whole thing will sit snuggly over the lip of the bin. Get the wood pieces precut at a hardware store, or saw them yourself. Sand the edges smooth and then hammer together.
Next, cut a piece of hardware wire to the same dimensions as your frame. To attach it, use zip ties every couple of inches and trim off the ends as you go. Once complete, it should set nicely on top of your storage bin.
Getting Your Brooder Ready for Chicks
Now with the hard part out of the way, you’re ready to get things set up for your new chicks.
First, find a good place to put your brooder. Choose someplace that’s quiet, out of the way, and not too cold. If you have pets that might be overly interested in the chicks, make sure you put the brooder somewhere they can’t access: up high or in a closed-off room. A garage or basement is ideal; a spare bathroom is also good. Remember that as your chicks get larger, the smell from their waste will start to be potent, even if you’re changing bedding frequently, so you want them separate from your primary living space.
You’ll need to be able to hang your heat lamp above the brooder, so make sure you have an outlet available and a way to suspend the lamp. You could suspend it off a ladder, some chairs, or a rack if you’re keeping your brooder on a utility shelf. To start, hang the lamp so it sits close to the top of the brooder and off to one side. This keeps it warm under the lamp, but also allows the chicks to move to the other side of the brooder when they get too warm. Over time, as you notice the chicks moving away from the heat more often, you’ll slowly raise the heat lamp up. Eventually, they’ll get their adult feathers and be completely acclimated to ambient temperatures.
Next, add your bedding material and your waterer and feeder. When chicks first arrive, paper towels make ideal bedding. It’s easy to change, allows you to observe their droppings for any health issues, and is easier for them to walk over with their tiny feet. As they grow up, you’ll want to graduate to something that’s more absorbent, such as pine shavings or straw.
Finally, prepare to install your chicks in their new home! Dip each of their beaks in the water immediately to teach them where it is and watch them settle in and explore. Use the bungee cord to strap down the top for some extra security against chicken escapees, and pets if you have them.
If you haven’t had a chance to build out a coop and run for your chickens yet, this is your time. You have about 6 to 8 weeks to get everything set up before your chicks will get too big for your brooder and need to transition out to their permanent home. Your coop setup doesn’t need to be complex either, but it does need to be properly sized for the number of chickens you are keeping and have a few essentials.
Check on your chicks multiple times a day. When you do, make sure their water remains clean, they still have food, and they look comfortable and healthy. A serious condition with a non-serious name is “pasty butt“, which can cause issues and even death in young chicks. Frequent inspections of your chicks help you catch issues like these quickly and resolve them before they become life-threatening.
As the chicks grow and you graduate to wood chips or another bedding material, scatter treats around to help them learn how to scratch. You can also start slowly moving the heat lamp up by a few inches each week. Offer your chicks treats from your hands, and pick them up often if you want them to be friendly and less skittish around you as they get older. It’s harder to get adult chickens used to being handled by humans if you skip this early step. You want chickens that are comfortable with people, because it makes them easier to scoop up to address any health issues that may arise.
When they start showing a coat of real feathers, you can also let them out in a small pen outside for a couple of hours a day to forage in the grass and enjoy some sunshine.
By this time, they’ll almost be ready to transition to their coop and run and start their best lives as grown-up chickens!
Liz Fulghum is an entrepreneur and technologist who also has a passion for low-maintenance, productive gardening. Her urban backyard homestead is an oasis from busy days and home to raised vegetable beds, fruit trees and shrubs, bees, and a small flock of chickens. You can follow her on Instagram @LizFulghum.