Building the Epic Chick Brooder
It’s almost time for my baby chicks to arrive and the brooder is ready! When it comes to building a chick brooder, it’s easy to make a simple brooder. I truly intended to do just that. As the project progressed, I added more and more. The result was an epic, double-decker brooder that will keep the chicks through their isolation period. I hope this project inspires a home-built chick brooder of your own. As far as builds go, this was pretty straightforward, if a little creative in its design. Here are the steps I took and things I considered along the way to raise healthy and happy baby chickens.
Bye-Bye Tote Brooder
This is my first experience raising day-old baby chickens. When I picked up my first flock (that I lost to Marek’s), they were five weeks old, and I made their brooder out of a Rubbermaid tote. I’m so excited to do the whole process right from the beginning! I’m also nervous since there is Marek’s Disease Virus on my property and though the baby chicks will be vaccinated, I really have no idea how long they need to be in isolation before being exposed to the virus. I’ve read different requirements ranging from 3 weeks to 16 weeks.
Seeing as how the chicks will need to be in the house for a lengthy period (I think 8-12 weeks should be sufficient), this brooder needs to be set up as an indoor, fully functional coop. For my sanity, it also needs to reduce the MESS! Chicks are MESSY!
I found a large particle board cabinet for free on Craigslist and intended just to modify it slightly. Like most of my projects, the brooder sort of… evolved. I meant for it to be simple. I also originally intended to get just two new chicks. Then chicken math happened.
For those of you who aren’t aware of chicken math, it’s a strange affliction that strikes chicken keepers all over the world. Symptoms are sudden and often alarming to family & friends. It starts with the intention of adding just a few chicks to the flock, and before the poor, unsuspecting family members know it, the chicken keeper has placed an order for a slightly obscene number of chicks with very reasonable (to them) rationalizations.
My episode of chicken math started with realizing that ordering just two chicks was risky. Hear me out here. What if one of them didn’t make it in either shipping or for some other reason? Then I’d have a single baby chick which is NOT okay. Chickens NEED each other. So, by that reasoning, I ordered 3. That’s a fair number.
Then Mabel passes away. It was terrible and sad, but she ended up succumbing to Marek’s Disease, and the vet euthanized her quickly. She didn’t suffer. Well, obviously I need another Mabel! So… it’s now four chicks. If all of them make it to maturity, I’ll have a total of seven hens. That’s a lot of birds for a micro-homestead!
Assuming that they’ll all make it, I needed my brooder to have 4 square feet per bird since they’ll be in it until they’re big enough to integrate into the existing flock.
Considerations for All Brooders
When it comes to housing baby chicks, brooders all need similar basics:
Must be big enough for the chicks to grow in.
Baby chickens grow fast! Before you know it they’re gawky, awkward teen birds and if the chick brooder doesn’t have enough space for each of them, behavior problems start. Vent pecking, feather picking, and wounding of other birds are all probable reactions with too little space. Each adult bird needs a minimum of 4 square feet of space (code in San Diego is 6sf). Chicks need around 2 square feet each to grow to coop-size.
Safe, consistent heat.
Chicks can’t regulate their body temperatures until they have all their feathers at around six weeks of age. All that adorable chick fuzz makes them irresistibly cute, but also makes them incredibly vulnerable to temperature.
Plenty of ventilation with no drafts.
One of the reasons that cardboard boxes or plastic totes are such popular brooder options is that they have no gaps, but do have open tops with plenty of ventilation. A small draft can be chilling to the bone for a baby chick. Too little ventilation can quickly cause illness, usually in the form of life-threatening respiratory infections. The difference between draft and ventilation is where it hits the bird. Everything above a bird’s head is ventilation. Everything below is a draft. During the summer months, drafts are not such an issue. Here in San Diego, I have to worry more about heat than cold with my chickens.
Easily accessible food and water spots.
The first week in a baby chick’s life is all about sleeping and learning what’s edible. You as the “mama hen” teach them what’s edible and what’s not. Their food and water need to be easily reached from their heat source so that they can find it. They also need to have age-appropriate water and food containers. You can easily find chick feeders and water fonts at any feed store or online. It’s recommended to add marbles or large pebbles to the water for the first week so that the chick doesn’t drown.
Easy to clean and sanitize.
Make sure your brooder is easy for you to access for cleaning. Chicks are messy and spill a lot. Wet bedding makes for sick chicks. The easier the brooder is for you to clean regularly, the healthier and happier your chicks will be.
Building the brooder
Now that the primary considerations have been… err… considered, here’s how I modified and built the brooder.
I started with this simple particle board cabinet that I got for free on Craigslist. The first thing I did was remove the back of the cabinet and the interior shelving.
Next, I figured out I wanted the overall brooder to be 32” deep. I also determined how high I wanted the cabinet to sit up off the ground. I went a little higher than my coop and opted to put wheels on one side so it would be easy to maneuver. In the future, I can convert it into a mobile coop/ chicken tractor since it has wheels on one side.
I cut the back legs and the extension pieces and framed the addition. The chickens, always in the thick of things ready to help, contributed by taking a dust bath under the table.
I used some left-over garden stakes to make the floor on the addition. They matched the ¾” thickness of the particle board cabinet and worked perfectly! Not to be outdone by the chickens, Valentino (my dog) decided to get in on the helper roster.
After this, I considered how the chicks might use the brooder with its divisions. I envisioned one compartment as their sleeping area; the adjacent section would be their food and water spot. The added-on space would give them room to run around and observe the world outside the chick brooder.
About then, I also started imagining a lower level where they could have additional space. At 32″x48″, that would give each of the four chicks about 4sf of interior space, including the trap door.
I puttied all of the gaps and shelving adjustment holes and used my jigsaw to cut a doorway between cabinet compartments.
Then I primed the exterior (using earth friendly ZERO VOC primer) and added ½” hardware mesh as the roof in the “addition” to allow them the option of cover overhead or open space and plenty of ventilation. I also cut a trap-door opening in the floor to allow access to the lower level, which I envisioned being a large indoor dust-bath and forage area.
A Word on accessing the chicks.
One of the things I’ve read about online and in my chicken forum when it comes to brooding chicks is that when chicks are from above, they’re a lot more fearful than chicks accessed through a horizontal door.
I’ve personally experienced the terror of young chickens when the lid on a tote brooder is opened up, and my hand reaches in to pick one of them up. I wanted this brooder to have horizontal access to the chicks to help establish hands as things that bring comfort and treats.
Amara, my cat, also likes to sit on top of anything she can. When I got the first flock of five-week olds, she was glued to the chick brooder and would get up on top and freak the chicks out. I wanted to work with who my cat is and also how chickens feel most comfortable. The cover will give them someplace to hide, and the mesh part of the roof will give them ventilation, light and it’ll give my cat a place to observe them from above without them being too frightened (hopefully).
Another Word on Ventilation.
Ventilation is so important, I’m mentioning it again. When it comes to ventilation, a good rule of thumb is 1sf of ventilation per adult bird. Anything less and you’re asking for respiratory issues. The open top of the addition will satisfy ventilation requirements for five adult birds.
After the addition and the interior was primed, I considered where the doors should be, how they should open and how the chicks would view the world outside the brooder. I wanted their sleeping compartment to be dark, so if I stayed up late (in chicken terms, this is anytime after sunset) in the living room with the lights on, it wouldn’t interrupt their sleep patterns. I also wanted to incorporate a vintage sash window leftover from when I built the coop if I could. It ended up working pretty perfectly in the middle of the addition with some minor adjustments. I framed the windows in and meshed the side windows
Next, I used my 2 ½” hole-saw to cut ventilation holes in the cabinet top so that if I chose to close them into their sleeping area, they’d still have air exchange.
After this, I considered the back doors and realized I didn’t like the non-secure cabinet doors. I chose to make half of the doors acrylic window types so the chicks could see out and the sleeping area solid using leftover tongue and groove fence planks that had a nice weathered look.
I made the door and window frames using 1″x2” furring strips and pocket-hole joints.
I had leftover yellow paint from the coop and found some white Zero VOC paint at Home Depot in the “oops” paint section for $9.00! Score!
I made a make-shift frame drying station with a tension rod and some dry-cleaning hangers, and I painted everything.
While the frames were drying, I installed the linoleum floor tiles and painted the brooder.
When everything was nice and dry, I installed all the hardware and the doors/windows.
I attached the front acrylic pieces to the mesh doors using industrial strength Velcro, so I could use them to seal off drafts when necessary and let air flow through when not.
I cut a piece of plywood to fit in the sleeping area to close them in for the first week at night and retain both heat and darkness. I also installed roost holders for when they want to start roosting. The roosts will be a tight fit with not much head room. I may change the configuration, but for now, this is what it looks like:
When all that was complete, I framed the lower level and installed the plywood floor.
I built the lower level with 2×6 boards to make a sort of “raised bed” to hold dirt. I sealed the bottom with exterior decking sealant and intend to line it all with heavy gauge plastic sheeting to prevent water seeping through when I water the forage seeds that I’ll plant.
I got the call that the chicks were ready for pickup just as it was time to take the epic brooder inside and set it up. As I rolled it to the front door, I ran into a major problem. I forgot to take into consideration the size of my front door opening. The chick brooder wouldn’t fit, even when I removed my front door. Oops!
With a few modifications and about ½ a day’s worth of work, I got it to JUST fit in the doorway. The lower level had been sticking out too far, preventing the brooder from getting through the frame. When I want to move it outside, I will have to remove the front door again, and possibly all of the hardware on the chick brooder. Please accept my error as a cautionary tale: always consider where the piece is going to end up, the path to get it there and make sure it fits!
Once I made the lower level the right width, the brooder fit nicely in the living room. It also passed the mandatory feline inspection.
So there you have it! The epic brooder designed for about 2-3 months of chick growth! All in all, it took about a week, a lot of which I spent in design. I find that the longest part of any building project for me is the design. Rarely is there a cookie-cutter project that I have completely laid out before I cut the first board. Even when I start with the idea of a simple cabinet brooder, it turns into this, lol!
Stay tuned for an update on how they like their new home!
Have you gotten creative with brooder building? I’d love to hear about it! Did you find this post helpful or get any good ideas for your own projects? Please share!