In his book Talking Chicken, poultry expert Kelly Klober offers valuable insight into rare, heritage and heirloom breed selection, chick raising, breeding and marketing so you can start your own fully sustainable heritage chicken flock and raise eggs or meat for your family or small farm business.
From Chapter 4: The Hen House and The Poultry House
Whether you hatch your own chicks or buy them from off-farm sources, the purposes of the brooding process remain the same — to keep them safe, warm and dry. The brooder is the real starting point for their young lives.
A baby chick doesn’t have a lot of body mass and can do very little to generate anything in the way of true body heat. In the first week of life they will need a draft-free environment with an air temperature of around 95 F. That temperature can be lowered by five to ten degrees each week as surrounding air temperatures allow and until the chicks can handle warm season outdoor temperatures — when they are about five weeks of age and are in good feather.
Some of the darker feathered heritage breeds such as our Rhode Island Reds may actually be a bit slower to feather. Late and early-hatched birds will need a longer period of heat supplementation, also. You can gradually harden them off of supplemental heat by turning off the heat source during the warmer times of each day and steadily extending their time spent without added heat.
Perhaps nowhere else will you see the creativity of the small farmer better employed than in the creation and development of brooder units for baby chicks. I have seen small lot brooders made from things as simple as old aquariums or little, plastic enclosed cat litter boxes. On the other extreme, there are stackable, box brooders that will each hold up to one hundred chicks for up to two weeks. They can cost over two hundred dollars per unit and will have to be set up in rooms or buildings where the air temperature stays above 55 F.
On most farms where chicks are started in small lots and space is limited, this is reflected in brooder design and setup. Our primary starting brooder began life as a two section mating pen and nesting box for large breed pigeons. It is a two-segment box of eighteen inches by eighteen inches by forty-eight inches that I turned on end. The top was enclosed with one inch by one inch wire mesh. Each half will hold one of our weekly hatches for a few days until they are strong enough to be moved to a larger brooder/grower that is generally a freestanding unit.
The box costs very few dollars. It is trouble-free to scrape and disinfect, simple to move and easy to expose to the naturally cleansing rays of the sun. The solid bottom safely contains the chicks, will not cause spraddled legs to develop, and is draft-free. Likewise, the solid sides surround and extend well above chick level. Its heat source is a heat lamp suspended some eighteen to twenty-four inches above the chicks.
Commonly seen on many small farms now is a reworking of materials at hand to create a brooder unit adequate to house chick lots of fifty to one hundred head until they are three to five weeks of age. There is often an enclosed, heated zone at one end and a more open, meshed floor part of some sort in the other. Often seen in these recycled units is an oblong water tank that is past its prime, but will hold chicks nicely in a secure environment. These may no longer be water tight, but offer a solid bottom, draft-free sides, easy access, good capacity, and can be heated with a single suspended heat lamp. They can be capped with wire mesh or old window screens and will hold a good number of chicks in a clean environment that is easily tended.
A simple, home fashioned version of the commercial box brooder described above can be made from one of the larger plastic storage boxes with a snap-on lid. Such a box in a handy twenty-four to thirty inch deep size can be bought for a very few dollars, is easy to clean and disinfect, and will last many years with simple care. Depending on the size they can hold twenty to thirty standard bred chicks up to a couple of weeks of age, and can even be stacked into simple frames made for them. The only major modification to be made to them is to cut a large square or rectangular opening into the top and cover it with fine wire mesh. The heat lamp will shine through this mesh to the chicks below.
I have even seen a great many of these boxes set up in back bedrooms or second bathrooms with quite good results. Litter is changed daily and the birds are moved out as soon as weather allows. A friend has a frame in his sun porch that holds six of these boxes stacked side-by-side and three high. In fact, it is a fairly common joke in our area poultry circles that it is well past time to take the young birds out when they start roosting on your headboard or shower rod.
A few folks still do maintain a small brooder house or brood under a hooded unit. These must be closely monitored when in use. Chicks are held in them with round barricades made of cardboard or lightweight metal. If brooding in a small building, round off the corners with flashing or other metal to prevent the chicks from piling up and smothering in the corners. Chicks will instinctively move away from the heat source, especially if daytime temperatures begin to warm. Old hands would sometimes paint the brooder skirts black or dark red to kill the glint that might cause the young chicks some stress.
Most brooder units on smallholdings are warmed with suspended heat lamps shining down on the backs of the baby chicks. Raising or lowering the lamps or changing the wattage of the bulbs in the reflectors regulates the temperature. There should always be a minimum of eighteen to twenty-four inches above the chicks and the litter on the brooder floor.
Most everyone is familiar with the 250-watt type heat bulbs, but we have found that the 125-watt types work every bit as well in all but the most extremely cold weather and they don’t reach as deep into our pockets when in use. Some also favor the red-tinted heat bulbs, as there is strong evidence that these will reduce the incidences of feather picking and cannibalism in brooded chicks.
As the chicks grow and/or the weather becomes milder, you can even use lower wattage bulbs. In very warm weather we have even gone down to forty or even twenty-watt bulbs simply to provide the limited light needed to encourage the birds to eat and drink during the night. Do not use the soft white light bulbs as they generate relatively little warmth. We normally keep on hand an assortment of clear glass bulbs from forty to two hundred watts throughout the brooding season. Upon the recommendation of a friend we have begun experimenting with the bulbs sold for use in reptile cages with mixed results so far. They provide some heat and a light wavelength that is supposed to be comparable to sunlight.
Up next: Using Heat Lamps During Brooding Season
Want more? Buy Talking Chicken here.
About the Author of Talking Chicken
Kelly Klober was raised on a small, mixed-livestock farm in Middletown, Missouri, where he began a lifetime of experience with various livestock species – including heritage poultry. Klober has been active in poultry and livestock breed preservation for more than 35 years. He holds a State Farmer Degree from the Missouri FFA, and he has long been involved in 4-H Clubs in leadership roles. Klober has written on agriculture, especially the small farm field, for over 20 years. He and his wife continue to farm – about 20 miles east from where Klober was raised – with much love and attention to his heritage poultry flock.