A brooder is a secured space with a heat source to raise baby birds until they have enough feathers to live outside. That’s 2-8 weeks, depending on who you talk to. Brooders can be made out of everything from wood and cardboard to laundry baskets and dog crates.
We used a storage bin, $5 of food and water trays with narrow-mouthed quart jars, and a 12×12″ brooder heating plate. Here’s how it looked when we brought our first chicks home.
We added chips when they were used to the lay of the brooder. This layout worked perfectly for the first week.
But chicks grow fast, and so do the issues that come with trying to keep chicken birds in a box, like flying out, wasted feed, and dirty water.
In a week, we gained enough chicken context to amend our brooder’s shortcomings with a cover…
…and chicken-nipple waterer.
Brooder 2.0 makes having chicks in the house nicer for everyone. Their water is clean all the time and less feed is wasted. We worry less about crowding issues thanks to the freed-up space, because elbow room is a commodity. The picture on the right is from 3 weeks after the picture on the left.
Read on for tips, instructions, pictures, and reviews, and if you’re looking for brooder ideas, be sure to check out the epic brooder thread on BackyardChickens.com.
A Note about Week 1
If you experiment with feeders and waterers, remember new chicks may be too small to make a water nipple work or find a feeder that isn’t on the ground.
Our first setup was just right for brand-new chicks. Food and water were low to the ground and could be moved close to their heat source the first day. When we brood another round of chicks, we’ll definitely use trays for the first week.
And a Note about Heating Plates
In our limited experience, the heating plate has been a miraculous replacement for a scary heat lamp. If you’re interested, people with more experience post about these all over BackyardChickens.com, and you can read about our heater decision in this post.
Do size up from what vendors say you need. This 12 x 12″ is supposed to accommodate up to 20 chicks. It might have on day one, but by 2 weeks, there’s no way it would fit more than a dozen bigger chicks like Brahmas. At 3 weeks, it barely fit 7.
They weren’t using it as much by 3 weeks but still all wanted to bundle underneath at times. Heat’s critical; you have to make sure they can access it without getting squashed.
After week 1, I did replace the heating plate’s pyramid cover (which keeps them from pooping all over the top of the heater) with a disposable cardboard template (which they poop all over) so they could roost on top.
The cover is useful, especially when they’re tiny and can’t get down from the top without faceplanting, which seems like an injured chick waiting to happen. When they’re bigger, the top of the heater is good real estate in the brooder as well as a nice, warm platform to roost on. They like being off the ground.
Speaking of being off the ground, on to our first solution:
Issue 1: Flying out
Goal: Keep birds in box
Solution: Converted storage-bin lid
Brooders have to be covered to keep predators out and chicks in, since chicks learn to fly before they’re ready to move outside. The predator threat in our house was low, and a cover makes it less convenient to check on chicks, so we procrastinated making a cover.
Not for long. They sprouted wing feathers in a week. At a week and a half, Rooster Cogburn proudly summited the food jar. We built the cover that night.
The storage bin came with a lid, but chicks need light and air, so you can’t just slap the lid on the bin. You can, however, convert it to a chick-safe brooder cover.
With a grinder, Chris removed the interior panels of the storage bin lid, leaving a strip in the middle for stability.
He cut a piece of hardware cloth (wire mesh) to fit, and we drilled holes around the rim of the cover to zip tie it into place, with the pointy parts of the ties on the top/outside of the bin.
- Storage bin cover
- 1/2″ hardware cloth – $12 for the roll
- Grinder to cut the cover and hardware cloth
- Zip ties to cinch the hardware cloth to the cover
- Drill with 1/4″ bit for zip-tie holes
Out of pocket = $12. Boom.
Issue 2: Food waste
Goal: Less food on the floor, less maintenance, space savings
Solution: PVC feeders
Successful? Sort of
We started with the standard $3.99 plastic chick feeder with a narrow-mouthed quart jar. They quickly picked up the habit of scratching feed out of the feeder. I mean, quickly.
Watch this video to see baby Cogburn, the light-colored chick, kick his tiny leg on day 1. That’s him learning to scratch the same hour he learned to eat.
As their technique improved, they started to waste more feed than you’d think possible, spreading as much of 1/3 of it on the ground and taking dust baths in it. Kudos to them for noticing how dusty chicken feed is.
We found a concept for waste-reducing PVC feeders online. Chris made a bonny pair of these in under an hour.
Instructions are below, but our review is mixed, so I’ll start there: food is supposed to fall effortlessly from the pipe to the the open area, but for some reason, our feed doesn’t fall without help. We may have used elbows with too lazy an angle (we have 40s but some say you need 45s). The chicks don’t seem to be able to coax it out, either. They might be able to as adult chickens.
The interim solution is to push feed down the pipe with a yard stick every other hour, so I’m not sure we met the goal of lowering maintenance. I also have to reach in to cover the opening as feed is poured in so feed dust doesn’t billow out. Chicken lungs are delicate, and excess dust can cause real problems. They know this. The first time the pipes were refilled and dust flew out of the feeder opening, they freaked out.
On the positive side:
- Removing the jar from the old feeder stand opened up a lot of room, so we met the goal to save space.
- They aren’t scratching as much feed out and frequently eat all the feed in the open area, even the tiny pieces (the “fines”) I was previously dumping out when cleaning, so we are reducing waste.
- The old feeder base is an excellent anchor for the lid of grit that was constantly being lost in the chips. It’s become another perch.
- 1, 5′ length of 2″ PVC – $6.50
- 2 x 2″ elbows – $4
- 4 x 2″ caps – $8
- PVC cutter (for over 2″ PVC)
- Zip ties
- Drill with bit large enough to thread large zip-ties through the bin
- 2 1/4″ hole saw for your drill
Out of pocket: $18.50
To make these, Chris cut about 8″ off the 5′ PVC pipe with the PVC cutter. He cut that section in half, for 2, 4″ sections, which he actually later shortened to 2-3″ to try to make the food fall better. These are the “short pieces.”
He cut the remaining, long length of PVC in half, into “long pieces.”
With a grinder, he cut 90° wedges in the short pieces and 2 of the caps.
He put an elbow on 1 end of each long piece, fitting a short piece into the other side of the elbow.
The short piece extends the horizontal part of each feeder so it fits through the bin. The notched cap then locks it into the brooder.
Hole placement in the brooder is permanent, so I positioned them carefully, with the help of the chicks: I reached into the bin with a notched cap, and the chicks ran up. These feeders are supposed to sit chest-high, so I matched the feeder opening to their chest, then went a little higher because they were growing fast, and you can always raise the brooder floor with a piece of wood for shorter chicks.
The next time the brooder had to be cleaned, I drilled holes in the bin with the 2 1/4″ hole saw, fed the short pieces through, attached the notched caps, and cinched the feeders in with zip ties.
I carefully vacuumed errant plastic shavings to keep them away from curious beaks, then poured feed down the pipes, capping the tops to keep critters out.
They tried the feeders right away, rooster first, as always. The next day, I pulled the quart jar off the old feeder and wedged in the jar lid of grit. Their space was immediately more open, and we’re wasting much less grit, too.
In the end, space-savings alone were worth it for us to try these. Hopefully we’ll find a tweak that makes them function better.
Issue 3: Dirty water
Goals: Clean water, less maintenance, space savings, no leaks
Solution: Nipple waterer
In the hierarchy of chicken needs, clean water is at the top, next to dry bedding. The standard 99¢ watering tray with a narrow-mouthed quart jar is a great way to make sure tiny chicks find water.
When they’re no longer tiny, they kick pine chips, poop, and food into the tray constantly. You have to dump it out every hour. Not only that: as they grow, the tray gets in their way, and they’re heavy enough to tip it and soak the bedding.
There had to be a better way. An array of innovative posts on Pinterest suggested we could achieve all our waterer goals with PVC and “chicken nipples.”
We brought screenshots to the hardware store and, after a long time in the plumbing section, left with PVC fittings, polyethylene tubing, teflon tape, etc. Then we headed to the farm co-op for a packet of chicken nipples (and to see what chicks they have in their brooders. Just for fun. But I do NEED ALL THE CHICKENS).
I bored the nipples into a 1/2″ PVC pipe that was supposed to be gravity-fed by a 5-gallon bucket via 1/4″ tubing (that tubing is thin enough to fit through a square of the chicken coop’s hardware cloth when we move the waterer outside).
In case you didn’t catch all that, here’s a drawing:
This experiment failed. The 1/2″ PVC pipe didn’t have enough flat space for the nipples to seal. When tested, it leaked continuously. No amount of teflon tape made me confident it wouldn’t turn the brooder floor into a swamp.
Chris noted there wasn’t a clear way for air bubbles to escape, either. We may revisit this concept, but I suddenly had a less complicated idea for the brooder.
The nipples in the first experiment hang vertically, but there’s a horizontal type, too. I ordered a pack online and got to work on a side-nipple-cereal-container waterer.
The rooster silhouette in this graphic is supposed to be a chick, by the way.Eureka! This was so easy. The container is flat to the wall, tethered with string pulled tightly so chick legs don’t get tangled, since chicks get into stuff. You can see one in the background inspecting the strings.
The brick raises the waterer to the recommended chest height while absorbing drips from chicken lips/ leaks from chicken beaks before they dampen the bedding.
This upgrade is amazing. I went from dumping gross water 7 or 8 times a day to never. Their water is sparkling clean, and they love pecking this thing.
- 32-cup rectangular cereal dispenser – $4
- RentACoop waterer nipples – $10.75; this project used 4, but I bought extra for future waterers (we receive no benefit from clicks to that link)
- 11/32″ drill bit – $5; You heard me! Weird size.
- Recommended to help keep the plastic from cracking when you drill: painters tape, 1/8″ drill bit to start the hole, and a wooden block to drill into
- Silicone caulk to fill minor flaws when you do crack the plastic
- String to connect waterer to the brooder wall since it’s too wide for most zip ties, and you may want to remove the container to clean
- 1 Brick
Out of pocket = $19.75
Basically, you drill holes in the side of the cereal container for each drinking station and screw the nipples in.
The trickiest part was making sure the plastic didn’t crack during drilling. I taped off and started each hole with a 1/8″ drill bit before moving to the 11/32″, placing a block of wood into the container to drill into. The one hole I didn’t use the block of wood with cracked slightly. I filled the crack with silicone, threaded the nipple in, and let it dry for 24 hours before filling with water.
They say to install the nipples 1.5″ from the bottom, but I staggered the heights a tiny bit to accommodate different-sized chicks. Probably not necessary or recommended. I chose the RentACoop brand because they come with a handy drill attachment to tighten the nipples in, and reviews say they don’t leak (which has been true so far). Our experience with the RentACoop heating plate has been wonderful, too.
If your container closes really well, you may want to drill a small hole or 2 in the top so air pressure doesn’t build up and stop the nipples from working.
Read our post about week 3 of raising chicks to see how they – and I – reacted to the new waterer.
If you have small chicks, make sure they’re strong enough to use the nipples! I left the water tray for a day in case even our 3-week-old, big-breed chicks had trouble. The nipples seem to loosen up after 48 hours of use.
Think like a chick. With any waterer you install, be sure there’s absolutely no way your chicks can fall into open water and chill or even drown. Watch out for string or other features or gaps where chicks could get caught.
Brooder 2.0 reduces waste and keeps us from worrying that the chicks will be without water. For $50 in materials – many of which can be used for other projects, and we’ll re-use the brooder, too – these updates made life easier and gave the chicks more space in the brooder until they’re ready to live plein air.
Meet our first chicks, the Brahmas and the Langshans, through our daily chick journal.