Basic Lessons from Chicks: Tips for Designing a Custom Chicken Brooder

Well, that sounds elegant, doesn’t it?  A custom chicken brooder.  Makes me picture a picturesque corner of the barn, decked out with little chicken arm chairs and bookshelves. It doesn’t bring to mind the ramshackle dog crate combined with cardboard and twine that currently resides in our living room, but hey! I’m trying to learn how to be scrappy.

chicken brooder

Anyway, after being a chicken keeper for all of three weeks, I am shocked by how much I’ve learned about how to keep chicks, and the people raising them, happy campers. 

1) Give them much, much more space than you think they need. When we got them, they were teeny-tiny (and stinking adorable) and six little chicks very easily fit in our rubbermaid bin. 

rubbermaid brooderchicks in brooder

However, after two incredibly short weeks, they went from stinking adorable to just plain stinkers (thankfully not in terms of odor, as we added pine shavings for deep litter bedding as soon as they figured out how to feed themselves – more on that in a moment.) They were incredibly loud, pokey at each other (not violent, but not particularly lovey-dovey either) and constantly climbing all over each other.  They also continuously made their water filthy, and we had to refill their bedding almost every day because it became so soiled.  So, we decided it was time to move them to more palatial circumstance, and the change has been incredible. If I could go back in time, I’d have started them in the dog crate and not bothered with the smaller space. 

2) Keep their food and water separate from their play area. Funny story: we bought 20 lbs of Scratch and Peck organic, non-GMO, soy and corn free feed for our little flock.  Within 16 days, over 3/4 of it was gone.  At first, I was so impressed that they were eating so much, but also a little overwhelmed – they were easily going through two quarts a day.  Being super pregnant and a bit brain dead, I also didn’t notice how quickly their rubbermaid brooder was filling up. It was only after about a week that I noticed that their six inches of bedding wasn’t just pine chips, but was in fact almost entirely food that they threw out of their feeder. I was more than a little annoyed, to say the least.  So, first we raised their feeder and water onto a small box (the kind used for boxed soup) which helped a bit, but what really made a difference was a) changing the type of feeder and b) raising both the food and water onto a big box so they have to fly up six inches to eat. 

brooder

Now, I only have to change their water once a day (instead of 5-6 times) and their food every 2-3 days (instead of twice a day.)  I also recommend a box with a shiny finish, as it’s very easy to wipe clean with a damp cloth.   You could also, of course, use wood, but I needed a quick fix. 

3) Use deep litter. Trust me on this – deep litter makes a word of difference when it comes to chickens.  It not only pretty much eliminates odor, (it has a rustic, pine-y smell which I find totally pleasant) but the chicks LOVE it.  They scratch in it, play in it, jump on it, sleep in it, you name it.  Also, if you compost and/or have access to a compost heap, the pine shavings combined with the nitrogen rich droppings are a fabulous addition to your heap, so there’s little to no waste.  I don’t plan on emptying out the shavings until they are in their coop – instead, I’ll just add about an inch at a time of shavings whenever it looks low or dirty.  Again, now that they’re in a larger brooder than they need (for now, at least) this is probably an every 3-4 day job.

deep litter in the brooder

4) If at all possible, splurge on a heater, versus a lamp. This is really up to you and your budget. I am a firm believer that the expense of a chick should mostly come from their food, as whether you raise them for eggs or meat, you will also be consuming that food. I’ve seen incredibly fancy brooders with chicks that seem equally content to our brooders, which were $10 and free, respectively. That being said, I absolutely adore our Brinsea Ecoglow brooder heater (<— affiliate link!) and wouldn’t use anything else, even though it is literally 8 times the price of a standard lamp.  However, with standard lamps comes a significant fire risk, as well as a good amount of risk of either over or under-heating the chicks.  Six of our seven original chicks have thrived under this heater (one died, but it seemed just a failure to thrive after two days of being home) and have had no pasty butt or other common chick issues.  Considering we’re out and about so much, not having to worry about the lamp falling and catching on fire is absolutely worth the cost, plus the fact that the chicks seem to use it like a mother hen – going under for comfort, and coming out for food and play, makes it seem worth it.

5) Use what you have whenever possible. Just like the honey badger (I know, such a vintage reference) chicks don’t really give a shit.  As long as they have warmth, food, water, and some companionship from other chicks, they don’t need much at all to be happy and healthy.  We used Chewy’s old dog crate (we apparently thought she’d grow up to be a Great Dane?) with twine and cardboard, but could just as easily have used a refrigerator box or an old cabinet turned on its side if that is what was around. Chicks poo on everything, so having a cardboard liner for whatever you use definitely makes cleanup easier.  

Hopefully, these tips will help you design a brooder that is right for you and your flock!  

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