Raising chicks - The best chick brooder box

Chick brooder boxes - What is the best choice? 

Once your chicks have hatched and completely dried off, they can be moved from the incubator into a chick brooder box.

What is a chick brooder?

A chick brooder is a special pen just for chicks. Chicks need a special pen because they have special requirements, like heat and shelter from draughts. If chicks are raised in an unsuitable brooder, it can lead to all sorts of issues from spraddle leg to illnesses such as coccidiosis and respiratory infections.

What can I use as a chick brooder box?

All sorts of containers can be used as a brooder box. It all depends on how many chicks you have, where you are keeping them, the heat source you are using and whether you want to reuse your brooder.

While you can use almost anything, here are some common brooder boxes for chicks:

  • Cardboard boxes - These simple brooders can be upsized and replaced for free! But they can be dangerous when used with a heat lamp!
  • Plastic crates - Easy to clean and available in many sizes, plastic crates are a durable brooder option.
  • Storage containers - Why not upcycle a storage container, especially one that is missing the lid? These brooders are easy to clean and reusable.
  • Small pens - Pens are often too draughty for small chicks, even when kept indoors. But they are a good option for larger chicks, for example when they are 3 or 4 weeks old.
  • Playpens - Soft-sided mesh playpens are a good option for chicks kept indoors but they can be difficult to clean unless they are machine washable. The can also be too draughty for small chicks and dangerous when used with a heat lamp.
  • Sheds or sections of a shed - A cosy, draught-free shed can be a good chick brooder if it is sectioned to an appropriate size and kept warm.
  • Fish tanks - Fish tanks are another reusable brooder that is suitable for a heat lamp.

Commercially-made brooders are also available, but for backyard breeders a DIY option is usually more practical and affordable. If you are raising large numbers of chicks regularly, a commercial brooder may be a worthwhile investment.

What size should a brooder be?

Ideally, brooders should be cosier to begin with and become bigger as the chicks get larger. New chicks each need about 15 cms of space each and by the time the chicks are 4 weeks old, they should have double or triple that amount of room.

Regardless of the size of the brooder, chicks should always have room to move away from the heat source if they become too hot. It is also important to avoid crowding.

For new chicks, a large brooder may be scary or prevent them from finding food and water. If the chicks wander away from the heat source, they may not be able to find their way back, especially at night, and large brooders are harder to heat effectively. If chicks become chilled, they can easily fall ill or die.

When chicks are older and more confident, a larger brooder is beneficial. Exploring provides amusement. When chicks have plenty of space, it can help prevent feather pecking, bullying and other problems. 

What do brooders need?

Whatever you choose, there are a few things that brooders need to keep you chicks happy, healthy and safe. 

A solid, non-slip floor

Because chicks are so small, even something like cardboard, newspaper, wood or plastic is too slippery for their tiny feet to grip. A slippery floor can cause spraddle leg, a deformity that is common in chicks. Although spraddle leg is usually treatable, it is best to start out on the right foot with a non-slip brooder floor.

New chicks haven't yet learned to identify food. They can get sick if they eat their bedding, so a plain floor surface is important for the first few days. Suitable brooder floors for new chicks include: 

  • Paper towel
  • Old towels 
  • Carpet
  • Astroturf
  • Shelf liner

Once the chicks have learned to tell the difference between bedding and food, the brooder floor can be changed to:

  • Wood shavings
  • Shredded paper
  • Chopped straw
  • Sand
  • Hemp bedding

All flooring should be cut to size as chicks can easily become tangled and suffocate in folded materials such as towels and pillow cases. Soiled flooring should be cleaned or disposed of to prevent illness. Wire floors are not recommended as they can damage delicate feet.

Protection from draughts

Chicks are very sensitive to draughts and become sick easily if they aren’t protected, even when the weather is warm. Solid-sided brooders are preferable for this reason and brooders are best placed indoors. Even when kept inside, brooders with mesh or wire sides can be too breezy for young chicks. If outdoors, brooders need to be wind-proof and rain-proof with solid sides. 

Good ventilation

Just like draughts can cause illness, so can poor ventilation. Brooders need good ventilation to prevent humidity from forming and to allow any ammonia created by droppings to dissipate. Keeping the brooder clean can also help prevent ammonia from causing respiratory problems.

High sides

Open brooders are great when caring for chicks, but chicks will quickly learn to jump out if they can. A roof or lid, even if it is just a towel or piece of cardboard, can be really useful. It keeps the chicks in and can also help conserve heat, particularly at night. Be careful of overheating though!

A heat source

The traditional rule is to keep chicks at 32-35oC for the first week and decrease the temperature by 2-3oC each week after that. However, we all know that chicks raised by a mother hen are not kept at exact temperatures. They will begin to explore the yard outside of their mother's feathers after a few days, even in cooler areas. This tells us that as long as chicks are protected from draughts and have a reliable heat source when they want it, it is not necessary to keep them at exactly 32-35oC all the time.

There are many different heat sources available for brooders:

  • Hot water bottles can be used but temperatures fluctuate a lot and they must be regularly refilled, even at night. 
  • Heating pads are another option for brooders, but they can pose a fire hazard and they often operate at temperatures that are too high for chicks. 
  • Heat lamps, or normal lights at a pinch, are the most traditional brooder heaters. Although they are warm, heat lamps can cause overheating more easily than hot water bottles or chick plates. They also known for causing fires, making them a dangerous choice if you are not always at home. Some chicken keepers also dislike heat lamps because the chicks don't learn to sleep at night.
  • Chick plates are a modern brooder heat source designed for the backyard chicken keeper. They provide radiant heat and are built so the chicks can huddle underneath them, just like they would with a mother hen. The main benefit of chick plates when compared with other options is their safety - they are not a fire hazard, unlike heat lamps, and they are less likely to cause overheating as the radiant heat is easy to avoid unlike heaters which warm the air in the brooder.

Regardless of the heat source chosen, chicks should always be able to move away from it if they become too warm.

Keeping brooders clean

Brooders should always be kept clean. 

Dirty conditions, in particular contaminated feed and water, can cause illnesses including coccidiosis, which is often fatal for chicks. Bedding should be replaced regularly as wet or dirty bedding can produce ammonia and promote respiratory illnesses.

If you are using a brooder for multiple batches of chicks, it should always be cleaned thoroughly and then sanitised in order to prevent the spread of disease.

How long should chicks stay in a brooder?

Although it varies, chicks should stay in a brooder for around 6 weeks or until they develop adult feathers. Once the chicks are 3 or 4 weeks old, they can be allowed to leave the brooder during warm weather. Putting a playpen on the grass on a warm day can be a great way to let chicks explore and sun themselves. Some chicken keepers move their chicks from a brooder to a small pen or coop after 5 or 6 weeks, providing a small heat source at night and allowing the chicks to roam during the day.

Do you have more questions about raising chicks? You may like these other blog articles:

Happy hatching!

Rachael at Dine a Chook Australia