Baby Chickens; The Brooder Box or Brooding Area

This week we’ll be addressing the brooder box or brooding area.

Newly hatched chicks need an external source of heat because they are unable to maintain their own body temperature. This occurs naturally when a hen hatches her clutch; the chicks snuggle up with mother hen and stay warm.

When you are hatching chicks in an incubator, or receiving mail-order chicks, you have to provide an area in which they will spend the first few weeks of life. This area is often referred to as a “brooder box” but can take many different forms other than that of a conventional box. We’ll address options for the “box” a little later.

The whole point of a brooder box is to provide a secure area where you can maintain the chick’s body temperature with an additional source of heat. This engineered area must be clean, dry, free from drafts, and safe from predators. It must provide the chicks with sources of food and water. Finally, it must keep the chicks from wandering too far from heat and nourishment.

The final form of your brooder depends largely on personal circumstances; the area you brood should maintain a temperature of at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

The chicks will need an additional source of heat (see next week for options) but the base temperature needs to stay relatively warm. As you become more comfortable with brooding chicks, you’ll be more able to make adjustments to compensate for cooler base temperatures. When you are starting, it’s best to have ideal conditions for the greatest success.

If you have an out-building suitable and the temperature stays warm enough within that structure (either naturally or with the use of a heat source) you’ll likely want to house your brooder box inside that structure.

If you do use an existing out-building, it must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized 2 weeks prior to the arrival of the chicks. Newly hatched chicks are very susceptible to disease. Once everything has been sanitized and rinsed well, let it air out. Contact with bleach or strong cleaning agents remaining on a surface, or fumes in the air, can burn a chicks eyes and feet.

An alternative would be to construct a cheap building for this purpose.

It does need to be tightly constructed to keep predators out and chicks in. When the chicks are older but before you move them to the main coop, they can be released to roam in this transition building. If temperatures are cool outside, build this structure so that it can be insulated to retain heat.

If the weather is just too cold or you do not have a suitable building outside, you may have to brood your chicks in the house. Many people have to brood inside and it can be done but presents a few problems; the smell can be terrible. As always, it’s important to keep the area very clean. But even with thorough cleaning of liter two or three times a day, you’ll have to deal with “chick dust”.

Chick dust is created by small traces of bird protein that exit the bowels.

The feces dry to a powder that spread all around the environment in which the chicks are housed. This is very difficult to keep clean and disagreeable to breath. It can cause health problems for those suffering from respiratory weakness. If you have any respiratory problems, do not brood chicks inside and always wear a dust mask when working with or around your chicks. In fact, a dust mask is not a bad idea for everyone to use while working with chicks.

Once you have determined where you will set up your brooder box, you can then start working on the box itself.

As usual, there are brooder boxes available for purchase if you are so inclined. Some have removable droppings drawers in the bottom to make cleaning easy.

Some will actually control every aspect of the environment with just a touch of a button. However, it’s not difficult to create your own brooder box. Again, the environment needs to be secure, clean, cleanable, dry and free from drafts. It also needs to be expandable because you will need to enlarge the area as the chicks grow.

If using a secure out building, my preference for a brooder box is actually not a box at all but a ring of sorts.

By cutting cardboard boxes into strips at least 18 inches high and stapling or taping them together, you can easily create a circle to serve as your fencing or draft guard. The advantages of the circular design are that it is easily expandable and does not provide corners where the chicks could crowd together as smothering then becomes a concern. The structure needs to be sturdy enough that it can’t tip over. If you are brooding 100 chicks, build the ring so that the walls are 6-8 feet in diameter.

Of course, a plain box will work as well.

The key here is to make sure the space isn’t too large to start with and can be expandable as the chicks grow. If the space is too large to begin with, the chicks will move too far away from the source of heat. If it is too small, as they grow they will start pecking at each other. If you use a box, an option to make it expandable would be to cut off one side of the box and tape or staple another box to it as space is needed.

You can build a box out of wood making it larger than is necessary to begin. Start by partitioning the box into a small area and expand as needed. You can get very creative and it’s easy to get carried away, just remember to provide the basics.

Next week we’ll address your heat source and then move onto liter, food and water.