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Backyard Chickens From "Scratch" | How to Set Up a Brooder Box and Raise Chicks

Updated on January 12, 2016
Photo by The Micro Farm Project
Photo by The Micro Farm Project | Source

Keeping Happy Hens in the City

Chickens are so easy to keep, and they provide plenty of benefits to their lucky owners, among them the following:

  • Fresh eggs
  • Meat
  • Fertilizer
  • Bug and Weed Control
  • Digging (Soil Aeration)
  • Companionship (They are GREAT Pets.)
  • Entertainment!

Think you might want to keep a brood of hens in your backyard? Welcome to a growing club of people with an interest in raising chickens, right in the middle of the city.

This article will walk you through the steps to successfully keeping chickens at home, from the preparation phase to raising healthy chicks in a brooder until they transition into the coop.

For information about keeping point-of-lay or mature laying hens visit the link below:

Keeping Chickens in the City

Chickens are great pets if you have the time, space and resources to care for them.
Chickens are great pets if you have the time, space and resources to care for them.

Chicken Keeping: Is It For Me?

Before bringing a brood of chickens home, ask yourself the following questions.

Legal concerns:

Are chickens allowed in your town and what are the rules? Call your city or Google your cities zoning laws concerning small livestock.

Do you have an HOA and does it allow chickens?

Personal concerns:

Do you have time to devote to chickens?

Can you provide a safe, healthy environment?

Will you be able to treat them when they are sick, or cull them, if necessary?

Do you have finances for startup and upkeep?

If you can answer "yes" to all of these questions, chicken keeping may be right for you.

One final concern is the opinion of your neighbors. They are effected by the smell, flies and noise, which are minimal, but still disturbing to some folks. Get and keep your neighbors on board by doing the following:

Communicate your plans and keep neighbors updated on your progress.

Offer fresh eggs.

Invite neighbor kids to interact with the chickens.

Keep the coop clean and fresh smelling.

Take measures to deter flies.

Take measures to contain a noisy rooster during early morning hours.

Keep chickens secure so that they don’t escape and scalp the neighbor’s prize roses!

Chickens that are handled when they are young can make friendly pets.
Chickens that are handled when they are young can make friendly pets.

Chicken Keeping Options

Once you have decided to get some chickens, there are several options ahead of you.

Poults, Chicks or "Point-of-Lay" Hens?

Hatch-ling chickens are called poults or pullets. Young chicks are so fluffy and cute! It can be very rewarding to watch them grow. Chickens that are handled by their owners from the time that they are young are easier to handle when they are grown, and are not as skittish as other hens. Also, if you raise your own chicks, you are not introducing grown hens to a new environment and unfamiliar flock mates, thus avoiding stress and pecking order issues. By raising your own, you can be certain that the eggs or meat are organic, if that is important to you. You can also be sure of their age.

However, if you only want laying hens and not roosters, some breeds cannot be sexed with 100% certainty when they are babies. Others can be sexed with 95% accuracy, which leaves a small chance of getting rooster when you only want hens. A few, notably sex-linked hybrid breeds, can be sexed accurately from birth.

Finally, chicks are fragile and you can expect some loss for unidentifiable reasons. You may want to purchase a few extras to cover for possible fatalities. When ordering through the mail, the hatchery may or may not replace chicks that have died. Verify their policy on this beforehand, and do not tell children how many chicks you have ordered, if you think that losing one will be traumatic for them. If you are willing to take the risk, raising babies is fun!

On the other hand, adult or "point-of-lay" hens require no brooder, nor the attention that chicks demand. You can be certain of their sex, as well. Additionally, if you want eggs right away, keep in mind that chickens do not lay until 5-7 months of age. By purchasing chickens during this 5-7 week window, you do not have to go through the trouble and expense of raising chicks, but they are still young enough to obtain all the benefits of their prime egg-laying months, which occur within their first year of life.

If you choose to start with "point-of-lay or adult hens, visit the following links for pertinent information:

Keeping Chickens in the City

Keeping Chickens Healthy and Happy

Laying Hens or Broilers (Meat Chickens?)

Do you want to keep hens primarily for eggs, or for meat, too? If you will raise broilers, will you be able to process (slaughter) the chickens yourself, or will you pay someone to process them? Who provides this service and how much does it cost in your area?

Several breeds are suitable both for laying eggs and for meat. These dual purpose hens are industrious egg layers, and when their laying decreases after about one year, they are large enough to eat. However, many owners become attached to their laying hens, and prefer to keep a separate flock of broilers that are slaughtered at about 2 months of age. It is not advisable to keep laying hens and broilers together due to feed differences, the possibility of disease transmission and disruptions to the pecking order that can reduce layer production.

Free Range, Organic, or Traditional?

Free range chickens wander freely and generally eat a combination of feed, bugs, worms and vegetation. Organic chickens eat only organic feed and organically grown plants. They are not vaccinated (for Marek's or Coccidiosis.) Traditional chickens stay in a coop with a run, and eat traditional feed and "treats." Our hens live in a coop with an attached run. They are allowed to wander "free range" in our yard and garden only when we are around to supervise so that they don't scalp my plants. Their favorite spot appears to be in the strawberry patch or in the tomatoes and peppers, which means we share a lot of the harvest with them.. We let them out in the afternoon, and they naturally wander back to the coop at dusk.

Silkies
Silkies

Choose Your Breeds

Fancy or Production Hens?

If your number one concern is to get lots of eggs, choose breeds such as Rhode Island Reds or White Leghorns. Hybrid breeds, such as red, Black, Brown Star sex links, are also known for their high egg production. These breeds can lay upwards to 300 eggs per year.

Some breeds, such as Araucauna or Americauna, lay beautiful green or blue eggs (that is why they call them Easter Eggers.) These breeds only lay about 3 eggs per week, but their unique egg colors make them very popular.

Breeds such as Cuckoo Marans, Barred Rocks, Australorp and Buff Orpingtons are generally docile and good brown egg layers. They are heavy, dual-purpose breeds.

Then there are the unusual breeds, such as Silkies (including tiny bantam Silkies,) Naked-Necks, and Polish hens. These breeds are lots of fun! They have their benefits and drawbacks, so do your research.

Visit the My Pet Chicken website for breed information reed selection tool:

Chicken Breeds

Breed Selection Tool

Need more information to help you decide if chicken keeping is for you? - Here are some good resources for additional research.

Amazon offers FREE Super Saver shipping when you purchase $25 worth of eligible items. I have found that I can often buy items cheaper than retail on Amazon, and plus get the shipping for free!

Search online for local chicken resources.
Search online for local chicken resources.

Where to Buy Chickens

Chicks are generally available in the spring from your local feed stores. Call around to find out who is selling them and what breeds they have to offer. Chicks can also be purchased from online hatcheries. Use the internet to search for hatcheries. CackleHatchery.com and McMurrayHatchery.com are two popular hatcheries.

Some feed stores that sell chicks also offer hens of various ages. One local store from which I have purchased poultry keeps track of their hens' hatch dates so that the customer knows exactly how old they are. However, most feed stores only estimate the ages of their poultry.

Search online at CraigsList.org or local small livestock enthusiast groups for other sources of chickens.

A plastic storage tub can make a healthy and comfortable brooder.
A plastic storage tub can make a healthy and comfortable brooder.

Starting from Chicks

Raising baby chicks is a blast. They are very easy, once you have the right equipment and a little bit of information.

If you purchase your chicks through the mail, you will most likely be mailed 1 day old chicks. Newly hatched poultry have a 3 day supply of yolk left in their system which provides them with nutrition and great immunity for the first 3 days of life. Most likely, the post office will call you when your chicks arrive so that you can pick them up ASAP. When you get them home, give them water right away.

Whether you will order your chicks through the mail or purchase them locally, gather your supplies and make a brooder (chick nursery) for them so that it is ready when they arrive.. A brooder can consist of any container that is large enough to hold the chicks and shelter them from drafts. Large cardboard boxes, dog kennels, or even plastic storage tubs are suitable. Additionally, you will need the items listed below.

Heat

Baby chicks do not regulate their body temperature very well. Provide a heat lamp to keep them warm. A lamp with a red bulb is recommended, as it is more soothing to the chicks then a bright, white bulb. Leave the bulb on day and night. Keep the brooder at 95 degrees the first week, 90 degrees the second, 85 degrees for the third, and so forth until the temperature reaches 70 degrees or the chicks have lost their down and are fully feathered (about 5 weeks.) Temperature is decreased by increasing the distance between the lamp and the brooder.

There is no need to put a thermometer in your brooder. Place the bulb at one end of the brooder. If chicks are too cold, they will huddle together under the lamp. If they are too warm, they will migrate away from the bulb to the cooler end of the brooder. You can raise or lower the lamp accordingly to increase or decrease the warmth that the chicks receive.

Water

Provide chicks with fresh, clean, cool water daily. Buy a watering jar or other watering device that won't allow the chicks to step into it. This will prevent chicks from getting soaked, and help to keep the water free of fecal matter. Elevate the waterer a little bit to prevent wood chips from clogging it. You may need to dip your chicks' beaks into the water once to show them where it is. Be sure that more than one chicken can drink at once to prevent a "bully" from keeping other chickens away.

Some experienced chicken owners add sugar, apple cider vinegar, antibiotics, or infant vitamins to the water. Sugar gives the new chicks a boost. Add 2-3 tsp per quart of water. Apple cider vinegar seems to help prevent "pasting up," a condition that we will discuss later. Antibiotics are given to prevent coccidiosis and other diseases to which chicks are susceptible. They are usually not necessary for small flocks that are raised in a brooder, and should not be given to chicks if you want their eggs to be considered "organic," Liquid infant vitamins (such as Poly-Visol) can give your chicks a great start. Just be certain that they do not contain iron. All of these additives are optional.

Chick Starter Food

Feed chicks starter "crumble" or "mash." Some starter feeds are medicated to prevent coccidiosis. If chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis, feed them only non-medicated feed. Chicks that are not vaccinated, or have only received only the Marek's vaccination, can have medicated feed that helps to prevent coccidiosis. Organic chicks should be fed only unmedicated, organic starter feed.

Feeder

Use a feeder that the chickens can reach, that can't be tipped, that will feed more than one chick at once and which reduces feed waste. Small trough or jar feeders work well, and can be obtained at feed stores, pet stores or online.

Read the instructions on your brand of starter feed to find out how long to feed it to your chicks. Some starters should be switched to "grower" feed at 4 weeks of age. Other brands combine their starter and grower feeds so that you can use the same feed for the first 16-20 weeks.

Small amount of vegetables & fruits are okay for dessert, but if you choose to give them anything other than feed, sprinkle some starter "grit" on top of the food (as though you were salting it with the grit.) Grit takes the place of teeth, and will help them to grind up and digest their food.

A Ventilated Cover

Protect the brooder with a ventilated cover, such as a window screen or piece of framed chicken wire. Chicks need plenty of air-flow, but they quickly begin to practice using their wings and will be able to jump and fly high enough to escape most brooders in short order. A cover can also protect chicks from household pets (and small children, who can unwittingly be their most dangerous predators!)

Bedding.

Provide a soft, absorbent surface for your chicks. Wood chips are suitable. However, do not use pine or cedar bedding as they can be toxic to chicks. I have found that chicks sometimes get confused and will eat wood chips instead of their feed, so I prefer lining the brooder with a beach towel. Towels are soft, absorbent, and can be changed easily. Do not use newspaper or paper towels. They are too slick and may cause leg problems, such as "splayed legs" in chicks. This condition will be discussed later in this article.

Additional Considerations

As chicks begin to grow, they need about 1/2 square foot of floor space per chick. If they are too crowded, they may begin to "pick" at each other, pulling at each others' feathers and perhaps even picking so much that chicks may bleed. If you notice that a chick is bleeding, remove it from the brooder and place it in isolation until it heals. Cover the wound with "Rooster Booster" or other balm that encourages healing and discourages the other chicks from continuing to pick at the injury.

Cautions

~Don't mix chicks of greater than 1 week age difference in the same brooder. (Chicks of the same age, but different breeds, are okay to mix.)

~Don't mix chicks obtained from different sources, unless you are certain that they are disease-free.

~Don't ration feed. Give them as much as they want to eat.

~Try not to get upset about losing a chick. Some are less hardy than the others.

By following these guidelines, you are on your way to providing a healthy and comfortable home for your new little chicks.

Heat Lamps

Order your brooder supplies on Amazon instead of schlepping around town to find them. Amazon offers FREE Super Saver shipping when you purchase $25 worth of eligible items. I have found that I can often buy items cheaper than retail on Amazon, and plus get the shipping for free!

GE BR40 Incandescent Recessed Floodlight Bulb, 250-Watt, Red Heat Lamp, Medium Base, 1-Pack
GE BR40 Incandescent Recessed Floodlight Bulb, 250-Watt, Red Heat Lamp, Medium Base, 1-Pack
Red lamps are more soothing to small chicks than white ones. I use one like this in my brooder.
 
Voltec 08-00032 18/2 SJTW 10-Inch Shade Brooder Lamp, 6-Foot, Aluminum & Black
Voltec 08-00032 18/2 SJTW 10-Inch Shade Brooder Lamp, 6-Foot, Aluminum & Black
A lamp kit with a clip allows you to clamp it almost anywhere and swivel the lamp in any direction.
 

Watering Supplies

Lixit Reversible Waterers and Feeders for Chickens and Wild Birds (128 Ounce (Pack of 1))
Lixit Reversible Waterers and Feeders for Chickens and Wild Birds (128 Ounce (Pack of 1))
Choose a watering device that allows more than one chick at a time to access water. It should not allow chicks to step or stand in the water, as wet chicks can quickly lose body heat and die. Chicks should only be able to dip their beaks into the lip of the water dish.
 
Miller CO 24 Galvanized Slide Top Feeder
Miller CO 24 Galvanized Slide Top Feeder
This is the type of feeder that I prefer to use. Many chicks can eat out of it at once. It is easy to refill and is not easily tipped over. When chicks are tiny, they can crawl into the feeder. By the time they are a few days old, however, they are no longer able to enter the feeder openings.
 
Photo credit: The Micro Farm Project
Photo credit: The Micro Farm Project

Chick Problems

Splayed Legs (also called Spraddle Leg or Straddle Leg)

Spraddled legs can occur when a newly hatched chick cannot get good footing in the hatcher or brooder. If treated quickly, the condition is reversible. Use a small bandage to hold the legs together, the width of the chick's hip joints, until the legs heal. Make sure that the chick has a surface sufficient to grip when it walks, such as wood chips or a beach towel, to prevent the condition.

For more information about orthopedic problems in chicks, visit the following websites:

Poultry Help

Chicken Orthopedics

Spraddle Leg in Baby Chicks

"Pasting Up" is a potentially deadly, but treatable condition.
"Pasting Up" is a potentially deadly, but treatable condition.

Pasting Up

Check chicks often for "pasting up", a condition in which their droppings cake up and block their vent opening, preventing them from passing any more droppings. This problem will be pretty obvious; the dried feces will be stuck to their outside, totally or partially covering their vent. This is a deadly condition and must be resolved immediately.

Apply a warm, wet paper towel to their rears and then use a toothpick to clear the blockage. In especially bad cases you may have to dunk the chick's rear in warm water before the blockage will loosen up enough to remove it. Your chick will complain, loudly, but don't give up because the condition can be fatal! Dry the chick off with a blow dryer and immediately return her to the brooder.

Keep checking the birds that presented with this problem. It often returns throughout the first week.

With proper supervision, it can be a wonderful experience for children to handle chicks.
With proper supervision, it can be a wonderful experience for children to handle chicks.

Children and Baby Chicks

Children love to hold little chicks. With proper supervision, this can be a wonderful experience for the child and the chick, alike. Children who bond with their chicks, and vice versa, may enjoy each others' companionship for the lifetime of the chicken. Additionally, chicks that are handled when they are young are generally more docile and not as afraid of humans when they grow up.

However, chicks are very fragile and die easily if dropped or squeezed. Teach children to wait for you to help them retrieve chicks from the brooder. Have them sit down on the floor cross-legged, and hold the chick gently with one hand across its back and one hand under its bottom. Chicks must be kept warm, so they should only be out of the brooder for short periods of time.

Allow children to care for the chicks in other ways, such as helping to feed and water them. Nurturing a pet aids children in the development of compassion, empathy and responsibility.

Fun Chicken-Related Items for Kids

These are some chicken books and movies that we have loved. Being chicken enthusiasts, "Chicken Run" is one of our favorite movies. We laugh all the way through and revel in rooting for the chickens as they plan their escape! When my children were small, they enjoyed "The Little Red Hen," which is very cute and teaches a timeless, valuable message. I hope that you will enjoy these resources as much as we have.

Our daughter shoo's the chickens out of the coop for the first time.  No chickens were harmed in the making of this photo!
Our daughter shoo's the chickens out of the coop for the first time. No chickens were harmed in the making of this photo!

Transitioning Chickens from Brooder to Coop

Once your chicks are fully feathered, after about 5 weeks, they are ready to move into a coop or hen house. Use your own judgement about when to make the move. If the weather is severe, take measures to give young chickens some protection.

We have an old playhouse that we converted into a coop. When our chicks are 5 or 6 weeks old, we move the brooder into the coop and make an opening so that they can venture out of the brooder into the larger coop space. If the weather is cold, we run a long extension cord to keep the heat lamp on and available to them at night.

It is fun to watch the chicks acclimate to their new surroundings. You will quickly be able to tell which chickens are bold and which are timid. One or two will exit the brooder and begin to inspect their new surroundings, staying close to the entry back into the brooder. At first, they will venture out only for short periods of time, preferring the safety and familiarity of their original home. After a while, the more adventurous chickens will explore further away from the brooder, and other chickens will begin to follow. We lure them out with treats and toys. Eventually, they all become accustomed to the larger coop and the brooder can be removed.

Keep your hens inside the coop for a couple of weeks so that they learn that it is home. After this adjustment period, you can begin to let them out into a secure run or to wander free range, and they will know by instinct to return to the safety of the coop at nightfall.

You may think that they will be ecstatic to exit the coop after being "cooped up" for a couple of weeks. However, chickens are often wary and apprehensive of new situations, especially if they feel vulnerable. The may cower at an airplane shadow as it flies overhead, presumably thinking it's a hawk. They often run from slight movements caused by the wind, and tend to crowd together for safety when faced with new surroundings. They will probably need encouragement to exit the coop for the first time. You may even need to gently shoo or set them outside and block their return until they acclimate, or just leave the door open and allow them to explore on their own timetable. My children carried each of our 20 chickens out of the coop and placed them on our lush, green lawn. As soon as they saw their chance to make a run for it, they raced as a herd back towards the safety of their run. This was repeated on several occasions, until they discovered the bugs and worms in the lawn, at which time they began to enjoy "free ranging."

What's Next?

Do you want to know more about caring for mature hens? Read more by following the links below:

Keeping Chickens in the City

Keeping Chickens Healthy and Happy

More Information

Here are some places we love on the web. If you have a related website that you would like us to post here, send us a message with a link. Kindly link back to us from your website, too!

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this information, and that it will be helpful to you. Please leave me your questions, comments or tips.

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