Having an area properly prepared for your new chicks or ducklings is important in making sure they grow up healthy and safe. For some, it is easiest to use an old dog crate or a plastic tote and outfit it for the occasion, but if you are going to be getting new poultry regularly or annually, it is often best to build a brooder specifically for raising your young birds.
I still use a brooder box which my father built when we brought home a dozen chick’s on Mothers Day almost 20 years ago. A good brooder box should last you, and it should be transferable to different types of fowl.
When considering the size of your box, think of how many chicks you usually get. Most baby birds need little space at first — in fact, a smaller area will be easier to keep warm for them. While adult chickens require about 4 square feet per bird (how much space chickens need to roam), new chicks will only use a few square inches. As they grow and become more active, they’ll start to use more space.
A brooder is generally intended for the first few weeks of your chick’s lives, after which they can move out into a grow-out pen, and then in with your adult chickens. A 3-foot-by-2-foot space is appropriate for up to about 20 new chicks, and could also raise a half dozen ducklings or three to five goslings.
Airflow is important for young birds as it helps to keep dust down, but you don’t want your brooder too open or you’ll have problems maintaining temperature and keeping it safe from predators. A large box that can have an area blocked off when your chicks are very small, and then opened up for more space as they grow, is ideal.
In addition to the floor space for your chicks, you should also consider how tall you want your walls. Ideal brooders are have sides around two feet high. Some birds will grow tall fast (such as geese), others won’t get over two feet even as adults. It is good to have higher sides, though, so you can set up practice roosts inside your brooder.
Be sure to clean your brooder regularly to avoid diseases, and when possible bring in herbs and branches from outside into the brooder, to keep your baby birds amused and teach them how to forage in the way they will as adults.
We built our brooder from 2-inch by 12-inch boards with bracing pieces in the corners. For the top, we used chicken wire stretched between a frame of 2 inches by 4 inches so that we could easily see in, the box would get healthy airflow. Heat lamps can be placed directly on the chicken wire which put them at an ideal height for keeping the box warm.
Inside the box, we put two small braces half way up the wall that we can stretch small sticks across for practice roosting. Removable roosts are ideal, because taking them out is helpful for cleaning. With a waterer and feeder inside appropriate to the types of poultry you are raising, this should provide an ideal environment for caring for your birds.
Once your chicks are about 6 weeks old, they will require more space, and you can move them into a grow-out box or into your chicken coop with careful integration. For their first few weeks, a box as described above with shavings or straw for comfy bedding should be ideal. Be sure to put a thermometer in a corner of your brooder, so you can make sure it is the best temperature for the age of your chicks.
If you are only getting a few birds, block off an area of the box while they are still very small. If you are raising a large number of chicks, the same principles can apply to a bigger box, or even to an area of your barn dedicated to brooding.
Raising chicks and other birds is a lot of fun, and having a brooder box ready to go every year takes some of the stress out of preparing for them. Soon you’ll be enjoying fresh eggs from your new friends!
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is rebuilding a 200 year old homestead in rural Maine, using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Hostile Valley Living's site, Facebook page, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.
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