A brooder is a space to raise baby chicks. A place that supplies warmth and protection.
When baby chicks hatch in an incubator (or when you first purchase them), they need additional heat in order to stay warm. That’s because their bodies are small and because they have only downy feathers.
Over the next 4-6 weeks you will need to keep them in a brooder as they begin to grow put on adult-type feathers. By 4-6 weeks of age, they will become much better able to keep themselves warm and much more robust.
(Of course, if they are hatched under a broody hen, the mother hen will keep them warm herself, assuming that she is a good mother.)
There are various different types of brooders.
The brooder pictured
The brooder that I use is a 4-foot x 4-foot square box with a plywood bottom and mesh lid (shown above). The 11-12 inch high sides help to protect the chicks against cold drafts. The mesh lid keeps out predators (even the family cat, if you have one). It is very simple and inexpensive to make.
You can use storage bins or a variety of other things as brooders, but a plywood box is what I’ve used for many years. It’s sturdy, stores well, and I get many years of use from it.
I use it on my front porch, where it will be out of the rain. If you build a free-standing brooder, then you will need to incorporate a roof. But the simplest way to brood chicks is to use a brooder as a smaller container inside an existing structure, such as a porch, barn or shed.
A brooder this size works well to start about 25-30 chicks. Conveniently, this is about how many I hatch at a time in a tabletop incubator.
Ideally, the brooder would be round to reduce the problem of chicks bunching up in the corners, but I’ve found that if I put at most 25-30 chicks in it, bunching up isn’t a problem. It’s more likely to happen with larger groups of chicks.
There’s room in the brooder for a tray feeder, waterers, and a brooder panel.
Supplying heat to keep the chicks warm
The brooder panel is what supplies warmth. I use one that I purchased from Premier1, a company that sells fencing and poultry supplies plus supplies for other types of livestock. (Premier1 refers to them as “heat plates.”) I much prefer heat plates (brooder panels) over heat lamps because they are far safer. They also work very well.
Heat lamps are a potential fire hazard that I want to avoid. Brooder heat panels only consume about 60 watts. They get warm to the touch, but not hot. It’s still good to be careful, but they’re much safer than heat lamps which can ignite bedding, wood or other nearby flammable surfaces.
Once your chicks are about 4-6 weeks old (8-10 weeks or more if you’re still experiencing cold weather) you can move them to an outdoor coop.
When to hatch
I prefer to hatch chicks in warm weather (we’re located in Texas, so that means April, May or June) so that they are easy to keep warm. When hatching during warm weather, 4-6 weeks in the brooder is usually adequate. But as always, adjust things based on your conditions.
Are the chicks warm enough?
Incidentally, one of the best ways to tell if the chicks are too warm or too cold is by their behavior. If they’re too cold, they’ll tend to bunch together. If they’re too warm, they’ll spread out considerably. You want there to be a happy balance.
Adjusting the brooder heat panel
With the brooder panel, that’s fairly easy. Just adjust it so that it’s tall enough that they can get under it easily but be able to rub their backs on the underside of the panel to get heat. I like to make one end slightly higher than the other end so that chicks can all find a spot that works for them, regardless of whether they’re slightly taller or shorter than average.
You’ll need to adjust the brooder panel’s height periodically as they grow. Eventually, they’ll reach the point where they no longer go under it at all, and that’s the time to remove it.