In our modern world, only a tiny percentage of baby chicks are lucky enough to have a caring mother. For nearly all of the 6,000 or so years that chickens have been domesticated the only way chicks came into the world was under a broody mother hen. Broodys patiently incubate eggs for three weeks then switch to mother mode as soon as the babies almost miraculously emerge. Moms keeps them warm, show them how to find food and water, and protect them from danger.
That changed with the invention of artificial incubation and brooding. The ancient Egyptians may have figured incubation out, but it took until George Ertel invented and patented chicken incubators and brooders in 1892 that the big change happened. Today nearly all baby chicks hatch in incubators, and this technology made possible the modern chicken industry.
It’s an exciting day when a box of baby chicks comes home from the post office or farm store. Hatcheries ship their chicks quickly and the peeping babies are only a couple of days old. They lack a mom, so people must provide all their needs. Being a surrogate chick mother is one of the pleasures of owning a small flock. It’s not hard but takes some knowledge and equipment.
Techniques for brooding a batch of chicks are printed in the first part of the Hoover’s Hatchery catalog, and nearly every book on chicken care gives tips on how to successfully brood peeping babies. Few tell how to make and use an inexpensive brooder.
There are basically two ways to acquire a brooder. Buy a commercial one or make your own. Commercial brooders are convenient and safe but are moderately expensive. It is money well spent for someone who plans to brood many batches of chicks. Often that’s a person raising broilers one batch after another.
Most families keep a tiny flock of layers and often order replacement chicks every other year. They don’t need a commercial brooder for such occasional use. Inexpensive temporary homemade brooders work perfectly
Simple Brooder Needs
A comfortable brooder keeps chicks toasty warm until their feathers grow. Equipment needed is a brooder box, feeder, waterer, heat source, and thin layer of wood shavings.
Most families usually brood anywhere from a half dozen to 25 chicks. Often simple around-the-house items make functional brooder boxes. A few examples include:
A big cardboard box: This is the all-time favorite brooder. Big cardboard boxes can be scrounged from grocery and appliance stores. A box about three or four feet square or equivalent is big enough for ten to 20 chicks. Duct or packing tape applied to joints makes the box sturdier and eliminates drafts that might enter through cracks. Cardboard boxes have right angle corners where chicks can bunch up and suffocate each other. It helps to cut pieces of cardboard and create rounded corners, secured with duct tape. A flat piece of cardboard makes a perfect roof to retain warmth.
A plastic bin: Plastic bins come in all sizes and can be easily made into a functional brooder. Plastic tends to be slippery underfoot so be sure to add enough wood shavings on the floor to give chicks traction. Plastic bins clean easily and can be used for other purposes after brooding ends.
An old camping cooler: Large plastic camping coolers also makes a functional brooder. They are sturdy, well insulated, and easy to clean.
A packing crate: Many companies purchase items that arrive in wooden boxes. Often these are discarded in a pile of pallets outside the buildings. Usually companies are happy to have people take old boxes and pallets if politely asked. Large wooden boxes make outstanding brooders. They are sturdy and retain warmth. Or a functional wooden brooder box can be easily made using several pieces of plywood and 2×2 lumber.
All brooder boxes should have a moveable lid, or roof, to help retain heat. A piece of plywood, cardboard, or bin or cooler lid works well. The lid should never completely cover the brooder as chicks need fresh oxygen. Adjusting the lid to cover more or less of the brooder box is a way of adjusting the heat that reaches the chicks.
No matter what type of box is used for brooding be fire aware. Cardboard easily catches fire. So do wood shavings. Plastic melts when heated. Keep heat sources away from direct contact with anything that could melt or burn.
Almost all homemade brooders use electric lights for heat. The safest and most effective light fixtures are either suspended from the ceiling or clamped on the side of the brooder box. These keep hot light bulbs away from anything flammable. Modern LED and Compact Fluorescent light bulbs produce little heat and don’t work for warming a brooder. Use old fashioned incandescent bulbs. Heat lamps work well but regular incandescents also give off plenty of warmth. To reduce the odds of a bulb burning out use new rough service or long-lasting bulbs. The proper wattage depends on how well insulated the brooder box is, its size, and the outside air temperature. To be doubly certain that a burned-out light bulb doesn’t chill chicks use two light fixtures in the brooder. It may take some experimenting with different wattage bulbs to get the right temperature on the brooder floor. It should be about 95 degrees for very young chicks.
FEEDERS AND WATERERS
Stores that sell baby chicks almost always also sell simple plastic waterers and feeders. They only cost a few dollars and are a wise purchase. A one-gallon plastic fount type waterer keeps the water clean, doesn’t allow chicks to climb in and drown, and holds enough to keep a small batch of chicks hydrated for several days. A pulp type egg carton works well as a temporary feeder, but inexpensive plastic feeders are more durable, last longer, and are worth the small cost.
ADJUSTING THE HEAT AS CHICKS GROW
According to Hoover’s Hatchery an ideal brooder temperature is 105 degrees for the first hour after chicks are added. Then drop the temperature to 95 degrees and keep it there about a week. Then drop it five degrees a week. By the time the brooder is at 70 degrees the chicks will be partially feathered and, hopefully, the weather is warm enough that they no longer need artificial heat.
It’s easy to tell if chicks are comfortable. If the brooder’s too hot chicks will all be as far away from the heat lamps as they can. If too cool they’ll be huddled right under the lamp. If it’s just right they’ll be milling all around the brooder. To adjust the heat open or close the brooder’s lid to either retain more heat or let it cool down. Or switch to higher or lower wattage bulbs or adjust the height of the lamp higher or lower.
LOCATING THE BROODER
Many people set their brooder up in the basement. That makes it easy to check the chicks frequently but usually after a week or two they are noisy enough that some member of the family will strongly encourage moving the chicks outside the home. Garages work well, but the easiest location is to locate the brooder in the coop. By the time the chicks are old enough to not need brooding they simply can be turned loose in their permanent quarters.
THE BIGGEST BROODING TIP
The best way to make brooding easy is to carefully time the chick’s arrival based on seasonal temperatures. While February may be the ideal month to start the babies in the deep south, Minnesotans having chicks arrive then face a long need for artificial heat. As a general rule order chick to arrive a month to six weeks before the historical last frost date in a given area. That way the world is warming up as brooding chicks are growing their first feathers. About when overnight frosts are done for the season the chicks will be just fine without any external heat.