Getting Started With Chickens Series: How Do I Brood My Chicks?

The only thing more exciting in chicken keeping than finding your first egg is getting your first chicks. It is also the thing that people find the most intimidating. Those day old chicks are quite adorable little creatures and no one wants to be responsible for a brooding disaster. There are really only two ways to brood chicks. The old fashioned way using a broody hen or using an artificial heat source with you taking on the role of mama chicken. This blog will discuss doing it yourself because this is part of the ?Getting Started with Chickens ? series and I?m assuming you don?t have access to a broody hen yet. If you haven?t gotten a chance to read them yet, the other installments in the series are:

Part 1: ?Where Do I Get My Birds??
Part 2: ?Which Breeds are Best for Me??

Firstly, I must say that chicks are the easiest of all the poultry species to brood. They are less delicate than turkeys, smarter than guineas, and cleaner than ducks. They are still babies though and first and foremost, they must be kept warm. The easiest way to kill chicks is to let them get too cold or too hot. You will read many places that you start chicks at 95? F for the first week and then drop the temperature by 5? F for each week until the chicks no longer need any supplemental heat. I learned pretty quickly that brooding chicks is more of an art than a science. I don?t use a thermometer anymore. Observation of the chicks will tell you all you need to know about the proper temperature. If the chicks are all piled on top of each other directly under the heat source then it is too cold in the brooder and the chicks on the bottom of the pile will smother and die. If the chicks are piled into corners as far away from the heat source as possible then it is too hot in the brooder and the chicks on the bottom will smother and die (see a pattern here?). In the too cold scenario, the chicks will also be sluggish and will not feed properly. In the too hot scenario, they may also die from overheating. The temperature is perfect for the chicks when you observe them spread out throughout the brooder, actively eating and drinking with some chicks napping under the heat source from time to time. You don?t ever want to see chicks piled on top of each other anywhere in the brooder. At night, the chicks will often gather under the heat source to sleep together. This is perfectly normal as long as they are in a single layer under the heat.

You will have to decide what to use as a heat source. Your options are a light bulb in a fixture (a heat lamp), a propane heater, or a source of radiant heat. I have only used heat lamps but my friend, Mary, of Rising Phoenix Farm, uses the Sweeter Heater and raves about it. I started out using a heat lamp and have never switched to anything else. They are inexpensive and easy to move around but they are also the cause of many brooder and barn fires so use extreme care when securing them in your brooder. If you go with a heat lamp the bulb wattage will depend on how many chicks you are brooding and where. When I am brooding a small number inside the house a 100 watt bulb is often more than enough. When I am brooding a couple hundred chicks inan outside brooder then I often need two to three 250 watt bulbs in the beginning. I prefer to use red bulbs to white. The chicks are less disturbed by the red light. If they have to spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week under a bright white light they can often start bad behaviors like feather picking. I really think it makes them go a little crazy, and who wouldn?t if they were under constant bright light for days.

The next question would have to be, where to brood the little guys. I have used many different set ups and have found that there is no one best way to do it. If you have just a small number then inside your house is not difficult when they are small. They can be kept in a Rubbermaid storage bin, a cardboard box, or a cage. I usually use some old rabbit and guinea pig cages. We have also built small buildings outside to brood larger numbers in and I?ve even used moveable range shelters when the weather is warm enough. I like to get chicks on grass as early as possible. We have also used our greenhouse. This option should be used with a lot of caution. It is easy to cook chicks during the day in a greenhouse.

Here I was using an old 175 gallon water trough as a brooder.

Older chicks in a range shelter.

If you have a small number in the house, it gives you a chance to observe them more closely, they are completely protected from predators, and it is a great experience for children to interact with the chicks and watch them grow. You?ll want to plan to have someplace to go with them by the time they are a couple of weeks old. They get too rambunctious for a small space in the house and the smell can become an issue. Chicks poo a lot! Whatever you decide to use should be predator proof, draft free, dry, and large enough that the chicks have the option to get away from the heat source if they so desire. I like to put the heat lamp over one half of the brooder and have the food and water at the other end with some space in the middle for running and playing. You may need to keep the food and water closer to the heat source at first until the chicks are old enough to leave the heat completely to eat and drink. I have never had chicks need a supplemental heat source beyond 6 weeks of age and they usually stop needing heat during the day earlier than that. Again, observe their behavior and adjust the heat accordingly.

What you feed your chicks is also extremely important. Do not skimp on feed when they are babies (actually never skimp on feed for their whole lives). How they are nourished in the beginning will have a lifelong impact on their growth rate, health, and ability to lay many eggs for you or to become a delicious meat bird in a timely fashion. I recommend using a chick starter with around 20% protein. Continue with the starter until they are close to laying age (20-28 weeks depending on breed). The other option is to switch to chick grower when they are around 8-10 weeks of age if your feed supplier carries it. If you are raising laying hens, they should not be put on layer feed until they are close to laying age. There is too much calcium in the layer feed for birds that are not yet laying. The extra calcium can damage their kidneys. You will also have to choose between medicated and non medicated starter. The medication in chick starter is to prevent coccidiosis. I have never used medicated starter even when raising 200 chicks together at a time. The medicated starter is really only necessary when chicks are kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. I?m often asked what brand of feed I use. All my animals are fed Hiland Naturals non GMO feed.

Other considerations are bedding, feeding treats, and watering. For bedding, I prefer pine shavings. Don?t use newspaper. It is too slippery and can cause chicks to develop spraddle legs. Also, do not use cedar shavings. It smells wonderful to us but cedar gives off volatile aromatic compounds that cause respiratory distress in small animals. I like to start introducing grass or hay and other treats like garden scraps to the chicks when they are a week or so old. You must provide them with a source of grit when these types of foods are introduced. They need the grit to help grind the solid food in their gizzards. Commercial chick starter is preground so no grit is required. Choose a water source that isn?t too deep so that chicks do not fall in and drown. I use either the base that can be purchased at farm stores that a mason jar screws onto or the 1 gallon bell shaped waterers that are also common at farm stores. When the chicks start scratching a lot in the bedding, I put a piece of board under the waterers so that less wood shavings end up in the water.

No board equals shavings in the water. I like to use scrap pieces of plywood.

Delaware chicks being introduced to grass in the brooder. (You'll see chicken wire in this picture. We never use it any more. This was an early brooder built before we knew how determined raccoons could be.)

Hopefully, this article has addressed at least some of your questions about brooding and taken some of the fear away. Brooding chicks is quite a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Please ask any questions you may still have and also let me know other topics you would like to see addressed in future installments of the series. I will be writing one on housing for adult birds in the near future.

Recommend and Share

10 Recommendations
Sharing outside of Earthineer helps us grow!

Respond to this Article

Login or Sign up to leave a comment

Roger and Bretta Elmore (Elmores5)

March 25th, 2013 at 4:18pm

Awesome!!!...and perfectly timed for us!!!! Our first ever babies are coming on Wednesday and while we are very excited we are also scared!! We are starting with only six layers and will add more as we can. The big coop is almost ready, but I am curious as to what to use for the between time....We are keeping them in a big box inside for the first few weeks, but they will still be too small for the "big coop" so what do you suggest for the between time??? A small pen type area?? I did purchase a large wire dog kennel for them to use, just not sure of when.... thanks!!! =)

Leah LeahBees (LeahBees)

March 25th, 2013 at 11:02pm

Thank you Heather! Great details and very helpful!

Heather Redden (Nature's Harbor Farm)

March 27th, 2013 at 8:17am

Congrats on the new chicks, Elmores5! By the time the chicks are a few weeks old, they can probably handle the big coop as long as you have a way to put a heat source out with them. The entire coop doesn't need to be heated as long as they can get under the heat to warm up and sleep under it. This works since you don't have any adult birds already living in the coop. They would need an intermediate place to go if you had adults to introduce them too.

I have also used large, wire dog crates as housing for small numbers of growing chicks. Mine are the size a Labrador would fit in. A heat lamp can hang easily from the top of the cage. They are great because you can slide the bottom tray out and use them as mini chicken tractors. I move them around the front yard to give chicks access to grass. They are also great for broody mamas with babies to make sure they get access to fresh greens. I wrap the cages in 1/2 inch hardware cloth attached with zip ties so that no critters can reach inside the cage and tiny chicks can't pop through the openings. Hope that helps.

Roger and Bretta Elmore (Elmores5)

March 27th, 2013 at 9:53pm

Thanks!!!!! My ckickies came in today!!!
They are so stinkin' cute!!! I am completely taken by them!! Is it normal for them to peck at each other a bit?!?!??

V Sacha (Spun Gold Farm)

March 27th, 2013 at 11:13pm

Yup. Curious. They are oral just like all babies. I use the plastic pet porter pet carriers. I put a blanket over them at first to hold in the extra heat for a few days and gradually open it for more and more ventilation. I put a board on the bedding to keep the feed and water dishes clean up out of the litter. You can also scale down the heat by using a lower and lower watt incandescent bulb.

Steve Cole (Stickboy)

April 25th, 2013 at 8:20am

Great entries! Like Elmores5, these came at the perfect time for me; although, I had no intention of getting chickens anytime soon. I'll be posting an entry in a little bit that has some of that story in it, though. Keep the information coming! Looks like I'm going to need it...