brooding chicks

It’s that time of the year again. Spring, you ask? No, it’s chick season, of course! We had two orders come in this year and have a brooder full of happy peepers. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe, these will likely be the last chicks we order for a long, long time. Now, here’s my expert advice on brooding chicks.

Beginner’s Guide to Brooding Chicks

What is brooding?

Newly hatched chicks are unable to regulate their body temperatures and need supplemental heat to keep them alive. In nature this heat is provided by a broody hen who will sit or crouch over the chicks to warm them. The chicks need additional heat until fully-feathered at about 6-8 weeks of age.

Depending on the weather, your chicks may be able to start going outside for short periods in an enclosed area during the day.

What supplies should you have to brood chicks?

The very basics you will need to brood chicks are something to keep the chicks in, a heat source (I use a heat plate brooder), dishes for food and water, and bedding.

Boxes, plastic totes, dog crates, bathtubs, and livestock water troughs are all frequently used to keep the chicks in. We like water troughs because we can use them in the pastures or pens later on. If the containers you choose are small you will need to either move the chicks to a larger brooder or separate them into multiple brooders. Also, a lid or covering is necessary for when the chicks get a little older and learn how to jump.

Heat sources are typically an infrared heat lamp or a specialty product like the Brinsea EcoGlow Brooder. Be sure to use a red bulb when using heat lamps as the white bulbs are too stimulating (hey look, it’s daytime ALL the time!).

Feed can be give in specialty feeders or small dishes or containers from your home. Water can be given from a specialty waterer (which is pretty much the same as the feeder) or with a small dish with rocks or marbles placed in it to keep the chicks from drowning. We use old plastic lids from storage bowls for feeders and a specialty waterer.

Pine shavings are an excellent bedding for the brooder. For the first few days keep the shavings covered with paper towels to reduce the risk of the chicks accidentally ingesting the shavings.

Other things that are handy to have on hand:

Apple Cider Vinegar with Mother. Add 2 tablespoons per 1 gallon water to help keep the water clean and to boost the gut health of your birds.

Thermometer. It’s not really necessary to have a thermometer because the chicks will tell you if it’s too cold or hot based on their behavior and location in the brooder. It gives peace of mind to new chicken owners though.

Rags and warm water. Chicks, especially those stressed by shipping, are prone to pasty butt. It’s a condition where feces stick in the downy feathers near the vent and build up. Left untreated the chick will die because it cannot defecate. Check all chicks everyday to make sure they do not have a pasty butt. Clean up any that do by moistening the stuck-on feces and slowly loosening them. Once loosened you should be able to carefully remove the buildup.

What should the temperature be for brooding chicks?

Typically the temperature should be about 95F for new chicks with a 5F decrease each week. However, if you don’t have a thermometer (or just don’t use one like me) than you can easily tell whether they’re too hot or cold.

Too hot: Chicks stay far from the heat lamp and may be panting. Remedy by moving the heat lamp up a few inches.
Too cold: Chick huddle under the heat lamp chirping loudly. Remedy by moving the heat lamp down a few inches.
Just right: Chicks move throughout the brooder and fall asleep contentedly all over the place.

When can chicks leave the brooder?

I highly recommend moving all baby poultry out of the brooder and into either their growout pen or adult housing at 3 weeks as long as you can still provide a heat source. They will benefit greatly from the larger space and fresh air.

If you can’t provide a heat source, you will need to keep them in the brooder until they are fully feathered – typically around 6 weeks.