If you have been preparing for the arrival of some fluffy baby chicks, you'll need a brooder. A brooder is a place that will keep the chicks contained, warm, and dry. Typically, it involves some kind of walls, a bottom surface that can be covered with shavings, a heat lamp, and possibly a top to keep them from flying out. It also needs to house their food and water.
But wait—you don't have to buy a brooder out of a hatchery catalog (but of course, that's an option), or run to the lumber yard and pull out the hammer and nails. You can use supplies you may have around the house or that are easy to find. Follow these simple steps for building a brooder from scratch, and you will have happy chicks in no time.
Since there isn't any blueprint or regulations you must follow, you can easily improvise when it comes to supplies for your brooder. First, you need to consider the size of the brooder—you will need about two square feet per chick—before settling on a vessel. Good options are a kiddie pool, feeding trough, plastic storage tub, cardboard box, wooden box, and fish tank.
If you can find a container that is about 12 inches deep, you won't have to worry about putting a lid on it as the chicks won't be able to fly out. If the brooder is shallower than that, or if you have curious dogs or kids, consider using a top on it so they can't escape. The chicks need ventilation, so it should be breathable. Hardware cloth or screen material works well (like an old screen door).
You'll need a brooder lamp to keep the chicks at the right temperature. Purchase a 250-watt infrared heat lamp, preferably a red bulb instead of a white. You can find these at feed and hardware stores. You'll also need to purchase a reflector and a clamp for mounting the bulb. Don't go DIY here—you're just asking for a fire hazard. Make sure you get the wire guard that goes underneath the bulb, too—when hanging this over shavings, the guard makes sure that if the lamp falls, it's less likely to start a fire.
The height of the lamp is what will determine the temperature at the level of the chicks. You'll need to experiment to find out what height works best and it's a very good idea to figure this out before the chicks arrive. Having a way to easily adjust the height of the lamp is also handy (a piece of chain and an S hook work well) because each week you will reduce the temperature by five degrees Fahrenheit.
To check that temperature, you'll need a thermometer of some kind. One with a wire and sensor works well so you can read the temperature easily from the edge of the brooder while the sensor sits right under the lamp. The chicks will peck at the wire, but shouldn't do any damage, and you can tuck the wire under some of the shavings.
Many people like to use pine shavings in their brooder—never use cedar shavings as they are toxic to poultry. Also never use newspaper as the chicks can develop spraddle legs from the slipperiness of the paper.
One to two inches of bedding in the bottom of the brooder is sufficient for comfy and happy chicks. You should change it when it gets overwhelmed with droppings or begins to smell.
Feeders and Waterers
There are some supplies that you can put together yourself and some that you are better off buying. You can create a waterer out of a mason jar and a pie tin—this will work well at the beginning but as the chicks grow you will need to replace with something larger. A feeder, however, should be purchased, as they are designed for the tiny birds and prohibit the chics from pooping in their food.