So just what is a brooder and what is it for?
A brooder is a self-contained area that provides a warm and safe environment for chicks. The extra warmth is supplied by a heat lamp or electric hen like the one keeping these chicks warm below. A more up-to-date option is the electric panel, which consists of a heated plate on legs. The chicks go under this for warmth, as they would with a hen, some even have a shroud around the edges to mimic the hens feathers.
These Light Sussex chicks pop from under a brooder for food and water.
So how do you set up a brooder?
Chicks hatched artificially in an incubator have no Mother Hen to keep them warm. Without care and warmth they won’t survive, so you need to have a brooder ready before they start to hatch. They will learn in a matter of minutes where they feel comfortable and if you use lamps as a heat source you will see a ring of chicks under the light where the temperature is just right.
Like the chicks in this video below they should be dry and fluffy before you remove them from the incubator and move them to the brooder. Chicks need to be dry and mobile before you remove them from the incubator and put them in the brooder.
You tube video of chicks in incubatorthat are ready to be moved to the brooder. they are active and dry.
If you’ve ordered some day-old chicks or are going to fetch very young stock, they will need a brooder waiting for them and it needs to have been running properly for a day or so to make sure everything is working properly.
Even if you use a broody hen for hatching, it’s a good idea to be aware of what is required for artificial brooding in case of emergencies.
Making a brooder
You can buy a brooder, but it is just as easy to make one using whatever is readily available.
For a few chicks being raised indoors, a good-sized cardboard box is often the easiest option, with the advantages of being both free and disposable. One drawback is that cardboard easily becomes soggy, especially when brooding waterfowl. Damp conditions are dangerous for young birds and can lead to illness like aspergillosis or brooder pneumonia amongst other conditions. It’s important to keep the brooder clean and change bedding frequently.
Cardboard box image with chicks sleeping under a lamp.
A large cardboard box or a ring of corrugated card that is normally used for packing parcels is ideal as a brooder for small numbers of chicks and can be changed quickly and regularly. Chicks vary in size, according to their parents – small chickens produce tiny chicks compared to some of the heavier breeds, and quail chicks are miniscule! If the brooder looks too large at first, it can be partitioned with cardboard. This can later be removed to allow the chicks more space as they grow.
Other ideas are a plastic storage box, a child’s sandpit or paddling pool, a deep wooden drawer or crate – a friend I have uses a plastic indoor rabbit cage and a large dog crate but they only raise a few at a time. This works well, being easy to clean and with the added security of the wire cage, but would need some extra draught protection in most environments. Chicks don’t like draughts so the brooder must protect them from sudden changes of temperature, whilst allowing plenty of ventilation.
Make sure your intended brooder is roomy enough or can be made bigger as they grow. Another option is to split them into 2 boxes as they grow. While all the chicks should be able to congregate under the warmth of the heat lamp, there must also be an unheated part of the brooder where they can eat, drink and exercise and get away from the heat if they need to. The feathering may be retarded if they are kept in too warm conditions for to long.
Bear in mind too that wobbly little chicks grow surprisingly quickly into lively, energetic young birds, and will need space to move around freely as they develop. They also grow their wing feathers first and are capable of some surprisingly high escape attempts. Overcrowding leads to disease and stress-related problems. All young birds are very vulnerable, and the brooder should be covered with wire-mesh to keep out inquisitive pets and prevent escapes. Some chicks try out their little wings after only a few days, and it’s amazing how high they can jump!
I use a half size wardrobe laid on it's back as a longer term brooder. you can see some keets in it a bit further down the page. Pretty much anything will work fine if it's clean and dry and set up properly.
Feed and bedding
Chick crumbs are a complete food, although it’s a good idea to supply some chick-sized grit too. I give mine access to greens from a very young age. Crumb can vary in quality and buying the cheapest can be poor economy and the cheap ones tend to be very dusty with nutritional deficiencies and the chicks may find them difficult to eat.
You can buy chick crumb here and there is more advice on feeding chicks in an emergency. These chicks have decided their food bowl is the best place for a snooze
Dust-extracted shavings make good bedding, although if the shavings are small then there is the danger of small chicks eating them until they work out where to find their feed. For a small hatch, a thick layer of paper towels can be used in the critical first few days, and this has the advantage of being very easy to keep clean.
Newspaper may seem a practical solution, but it is too slippery at first and can lead to chicks with splayed legs. However, newspaper can be useful for lining the bottom of the brooder, as long as it’s covered with plenty of bedding.
I have switched to sharp builders sand for raising my chicks on. It’s like a mixture of sand and small gravel and the chicks seem to ignore it (food wise) for the most part and if they do eat it, it just has the same effect as grit in the diet. It also holds the warmth better and seems to be easier for the chicks to scratch around in or have a dust bath in.
Once chicks are a couple of week’s old, you can change to whatever bedding you use for the adults.
Preparing the brooder – Make sure you get everything ready in good time so that you can check it will all work properly and get it up and running for at least 12 hours to balance the temperatures and get a warm spot. If you use light bulbs to brood make sure you use 2 and have a spare.
If the brooder has previously been used, it should be thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and allowed to air and in an ideal world, this would be done straight after the previous batch of chicks had moved out.
Cover the floor of the brooder with a good layer of your choice of bedding. If your brooder is a cardboard box, lining the bottom with an extra piece of cardboard or some newspaper will help absorb excess moisture.
Set up the heat lamp or electric hen. A thermometer can be used to check the temperature is high enough in the warmest part of the brooder, although the chicks will soon tell you whether they are comfortable or not. Cold chicks huddle together cheeping loudly, while too much heat causes them to move as far away from the lamp as possible. If they lay there panting, they are definitely too warm, and overheating can cause fatalities just as easily and quickly as cold or draughts. Keep an eye on heat levels if the outside temperature is particularly high, remembering that things will cool down considerably at night.
Make sure the feeder and drinker waterer are cleaned and ready. Stock up with chicks crumb, high protein feed especially for chicks and wait for the eggs to hatch!
If you are hatching in larger numbers than can be accommodated in a contained brooder, a brooding enclosure will be required. You can buy plastic brooding panels, an adjustable brooding ring, make the pen out of pieces of cardboard taped together, or use a roll of corrugated card. Make sure the sides are high enough to keep the chicks from escaping once they start to grow and make sure they are stable as a pile of chicks can easily push through.
Video of chicks new into brooder.
When brooding on this scale, a circular pen is required to prevent chicks from huddling in corners and suffocating each other. They should be in a fairly restricted area while they are little to keep them close to the heat and food, but as they start to grow and become more active their space should be increased accordingly.
As they grow they will become more inquisitive and start to peck at any spots on the card and could puncture it.
Where to put the brooder
For a small hatch a quiet indoors room will probably be the best bet. Ideally this should be somewhere the temperature is fairly constant, without lots of comings and goings to cause fluctuations.
This is one of my brooders with some newly hatched chicks. I always keep them in a small brooder on my office desk before transferring them to a larger one around day 5. I can keep tabs on them and spot any problems immidiately.
As long as it isn’t draughty the room doesn’t need to be especially warm, and shouldn’t be too hot – be careful about using a conservatory in summer. Chicks need light in order to develop properly and natural is better than artificial in the long run. They should also have some hours of darkness at night or if you are brooding under lights a cotton mop head makes an excellent fake hen to hide under.
The brooder could also be placed in a suitable outbuilding as long as there is power for the heat-lamp and lighting or a good source of natural light. This could even be a garage or the coop where the young birds will eventually live. As well as being free from draughts, the building must be completely rat-proof. Rats will be attracted by the smell and will kill the chicks if they gain access. As rats are very good at getting into places they are not required, cover wooden floors with wire-mesh or a double layer of fine mesh.
Drinkers and feeders
Buy a made for purpose narrow-lipped chick drinker to prevent chicks soiling their water, getting wet or drowning – all of which can happen with an open container and place the feeder and drinker outside the heated area. A small feeder, ideally with a partitioned trough, keeps the chicks out of their food and stops them from scratching it into the bedding.
Narrow drinkers and covered feeders are a must for long term brooding.
Standing the waterer / drinker and feeder on tiles, or suspending them just above floor level, helps keep water and food separate from the bedding. Don’t make them too high though, as stretching can cause the chicks developmental problems.
Electric panel heaters
Apart from offering the closest alternative to natural brooding, there are several other advantages to this type of heater:
The unit doesn’t get anywhere near as hot as a bulb, making it much safer and less likely to start a fire.
The heater stands on its own legs and doesn’t require hanging which can be more convenient, especially when brooding chicks indoors.
If brooding different sized chicks, the unit can be adjusted so that one end is lower than the other or the bedding underneath can be sloped.
The chicks have the added security of a hiding place where they can rest.
In a small brooder a lamp can provide too wide an area of heat, but a panel heater only warms the space underneath it.
There are some considerations to bear in mind though, everything has its drawbacks or foibles:
Panel heaters are more expensive to buy than heat lamps and the panel height can be rather fiddly to adjust and generally involves nuts and bolts.
Although panel heaters come in different sizes, a second one may be required if hatching operations expand more than anticipated.
The panel provides less heat than a bulb, so may be less suitable for very tiny chicks in a particularly cold environment. It is also a single point of failure.
In some models there is no power indicator light and they aren’t always clear to see.
The chicks can’t be easily checked when they are under the panel and in my experience it can make them flighty and easily scared.
Unless positioned carefully, a rectangular panel heater in a box brooder can create narrow spaces where chicks may become trapped.
Chicks love perching on the heater so can be a springboard to escape and the droppings bake on and can be difficult to remove.
The heat should be reduced week by week as the chicks grow larger and start to develop feathers, either raising the lamp or jacking up the heating pad.
You will need a brooder whatever type of poultry you raise. below is some of my guinea fowl keets in my brooding box.
Traditional heat lamps
The heat lamp must be fixed really securely above the brooder as it would be disastrous for it to fall on to the chicks. It should be hung from a chain and secured properly attached to a ceiling hook – although I noticed a great idea for suspending it from a wheeled clothing rail. A traditional heat lamp consists of a powerful bulb with a metal shade, suspended from a chain. Heat is increased by lowering the lamp and decreased by raising it.
Heat lamp bulbs get extremely hot and can pose a fire hazard, so make sure it is well away from cardboard and bedding. There should also be a wire guard around the bulb to protect the chicks (and the handler!).
Although chicks need light, if a white bulb is used for heat they have no period of darkness in which to rest and this can lead to pecking problems caused by stress. Infra-red bulbs are better, while ceramic bulbs emit no light at all but remember there will be no obvious indication if the bulb stops working. It always pays to have two sources of heat plugged into 2 separate sockets.
Whatever you choose, always keep a spare bulb handy.
Infra-red or Ceramic bulb?
An infra-red heat lamp emits more infra-red radiation than a standard bulb they can be red light or ceramic heating elements. They can last about 30 weeks but turning them on and off will reduce their life.
A knock can cause them to shatter as can water splashed on them so they are not recommended for ducklings. Red light is proven to reduce feather pecking amongst chicks but this is less common when small numbers of chicks are raised.
You can buy infra-red heat lamps here
A ceramic heat lamp is made of porcelain and doesn’t give off any light. They are more expensive but can last for about 5 years.
Ceramic heat lamps don’t give off as much heat as infra-red lamps so you will need to adjust the height of your lamp but they do allow you to provide darkness at night by using a separate light on a timer or by using natural daylight.
Some typical heat lamps for chicks suspended securely on a chain.
As the heat lamp is the most expensive part of the brooder, it’s worth taking some time to consider which type will suit you best. Read some online reviews to see what other people have experienced with theirs.
You can buy ceramic heat lamps or infra-red lights.
A Brinsea Ecoglow is one of the more popular, and expensive, electric hens but running costs are considerably cheaper than with a traditional heat lamp.
The complete brooding kit.