How to set up a brooder for baby chicks

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Until they are fully feathered, baby chicks require special care. A quality brooder can meet the additional needs of your hatchlings, optimize their growth and ensure good health.

Setting up your brooder

There’s a lot to consider when setting up a brooder for your baby chicks, but it’s worth the effort. Creating a nurturing environment is the difference between a productive flock and birds that never reach their full potential.

  • Container and location. A few common choices for brooding containers are cardboard, wood and plastic. A cardboard box is the simplest container choice but can be difficult to keep clean and dry. Wooden brooders are more durable but difficult to disinfect after the chicks move outside. Plastic brooding boxes are the easiest to keep clean, but not ideal for air circulation. If you are able to provide supplemental heat in a location free of drafts, building an enclosure in an outbuilding is your best option. No matter where you choose to locate your brooder, it must be able to maintain a temperature of 90 F for the first week.
  • Brooder guards. If you’re able to construct an enclosure for your baby chicks, you’ll need a brooder guard to keep them from wandering away from the heat source in the center. You can build yours using cardboard, tar paper or wire. Make it about one foot high and about 18 feet and 10 inches long to form a large circle. These measurements will give you about 3 feet between the brooder and edge of the guard.
  • Bedding. Once you’ve chosen a container or built an enclosure, you need to cover the floor of your pen with litter. Use a dry, clean material with good absorption qualities. Wood shavings are most commonly used. However, you need to make sure to select course shavings. Sawdust and fine shavings can lead to litter picking by chicks, which can cause gizzard impaction and lead to death. Chopped wheat straw is another commonly used bedding. It’s preferred to other varieties of straws such as rye, oat or barely because they contain oil that reduces their ability to absorb moisture. Other materials to choose from are sugar cane and peanut shells. No matter which material you chose, you should spread it over the bottom of your brooder so that it is at least 4 inches thick. Bedding should be changed at least weekly, but possibly daily depending on the number of chicks you have. The frequency of cleaning will also increase as your chicks grow.
  • Feeders. When constructing your feeders the most important thing to consider is ease of access. You want to ensure that there is adequate space for each of your chicks to get to the feeder(s) and that the location you’ve selected is comfortable (not too hot or too cold for the chick). For the first four weeks, you will need to reserve a space measuring 1 inch across and 2 to 3 inches deep per bird at the feeder. From four to eight weeks, your chicks will require a space measuring 2 inches across and 4 inches deep per bird. After eight weeks, they will need a space measuring four inches across and 5 to 6 inches deep per bird.
  • Waterers. Water is an invaluable part of a chick’s nutrition. It’s important to make sure water is available for your hatchlings at all times. A 1-quart waterer can serve up to 25 chicks for the first two weeks, but a gallon-sized waterer will be required after that. Placing marbles in the drinking area will attract your chicks to it, prevent them from wading in it and reduce their odds of drowning.
  • Heat sources. Temperature is one of the most important elements that can affect chick health. Your brooder must be able to maintain a temperature of 90 F through the first week. For every week after, the temperature should be dropped by 5 F until 70 F is reached. Make sure to preheat your brooding area to 90 F a couple days before putting hatchlings in it. There are many ways you can heat your brooder. Some commonly used heat sources for small flocks are electric brooder lamps and liquid propane gas or natural gas brooder stoves.
  • Lighting. Light intensity should be no less than 20 lux — roughly the amount given off by a street lamp — for the first three days of life. After that just make sure there is enough light for food and water intake, as well as, normal activity. Too much light can cause aggressive behaviors like feather picking or cannibalism.

Cleaning your brooder

You want to make sure you clean your brooder box or area between each set of chicks you raise in it. The process is simple.

1. Wash. Use warm, soapy water to wash out your broader box/area and allow it to dry thoroughly.

2. Sanitize. Using 1 teaspoon of bleach to every gallon of water, mix a sanitizer to soak your brooder in for 10 minutes. Then rinse and dry.

3. Repeat. Follow steps one and two to clean and disinfect feeders, waterers and any other equipment you used in your brooder.

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