Updated: Nov 3, 2020
Raising baby chicks is a joyful and rewarding experience and uniquely magical for children. Chickens are naturally sociable animals and enjoy human interaction, and as chicks, they are curious and loving. Although baby chicks don't imprint on humans (take you as their mother) as ducklings do, they are remarkably easy to bond with when they're raised by you from a young age. Spending quiet time with them and providing them with a stress-free and healthy living environment will also encourage their friendliness. Well cared for chickens will look to be with their human family often. They run to greet you when you enter the yard, or peck at the back door for your attention.
What supplies you'll need
If possible, purchase the supplies you need before you get your chickens so you have the opportunity to set up your brooder system and make sure it works properly. Your collection of supplies should look something like this:
The first thing you'll need is a chick brooder. This can be as simple as a large cardboard box, but it can also be made from items you might have hanging about: large plastic storage containers, empty fish tanks, or livestock watering troughs. It's also possible to make a simple DIY chick brooder with inexpensive 2x2 framing, plywood, and a handful of nails. It doesn't have to be elegant. It just has to keep the heat and the chicks in.
The next thing you'll need is a heat supply. The most commonly used, and cost-effective set-up is a brooder lamp with a 250-watt heat bulb. The 250-watt heat bulbs come in clear or red. Independent studies have shown that red heat bulbs are slightly less stressful and promote better growth for baby chicks than clear bulbs; though clear bulbs are successfully used by the majority of chicken keepers and are often slightly cheaper.
Alternatively, you can choose a brooder heating plate to supply heat to your baby chicks. This is a small heating plate raised up on four legs that creates a safe and warm environment underneath to simulate a mother hen. Aside from the obvious benefit of lowering chick stress by simulating a mother hen, the heating plate is also more energy-efficient, reduces the risk of fire, and offers adjustable height and heat settings. The most popular of these brooder heating plates is the Brinsea EcoGlow (paid link).
Next, consider what material you would like to provide for the chicks' bedding. If chicks are less than a few days old, you can use paper towels to make it easier for them to walk, but they must be changed daily. After the first few days, pine shavings are the best choice for bedding. The kiln-dried shavings are highly absorbent and reduce the chicks' exposure to their droppings in addition to mitigating the smell of baby chick poop! Most wood shavings will work as an alternative, except cedar which chickens are allergic to. Also be sure that the shavings are not too fine, like sawdust, as to cause respiratory distress in the chicks.
To supply their feed and water, be sure you get a small feeder and waterer specifically for baby chicks. They are generally inexpensive and specifically designed to prevent chicks from contaminating or spilling their feed/water or even drowning in their water. Offering baby chicks feed and water in tiny bowls is not safe or smart: it's a heavy risk and creates lots of waste. We use 1-quart feeders and 1-quart waterers which work perfectly. Trough feeders are also available
Most importantly, get the right type of feed for your baby chicks. To optimize their health and promote growth, use a chick starter feed that has at least 20% protein. Most feeds are offered in the form of a crumble or mash. If the feed is whole grain, like Scratch and Peck's Organic Starter Chick Feed (paid link), you'll need to also provide chick grit (paid link) so they're able to digest it.
Where to set up the brooder
Find a place inside to set up your brooder box that is insulated and remains a fairly constant temperature. You will also want to find somewhere easily accessible for you to check on them often for the first month, like a spare bedroom, office, or laundry room. Setting up the brooder in a primary bedroom is usually not a good idea because of the dust that the baby chicks and the bedding create. During warmer months, garages also serve as a great place for brooders. However, in colder climates, or during the winter, garages that are not insulated can be drafty and prove difficult to maintain the temperature in the brooder.
How to set up a brooder
Consider laying down an old sheet, tarp, newspapers, or rags under the brooder to prevent spilled feed, water, or shavings from soiling the carpets or floors. Once the brooder is in place, put approximately 1-2 inches of bedding in the bottom of the brooder box. If you're using a heat lamp, install the lamp by clipping it to the side of the brooder, or hanging it approximately 18 inches from the floor of the brooder. Be sure to secure it using a zip tie or some other reinforcement to prevent a fire hazard. Since each location for a brooder will be a different temperature, you'll want to turn on the lamp to see what temperature the brooder warms up to. An insulated room, a spot by a warm window, or a bedroom that is headed will need less heat from the brooder lamp to reach temperature and can overheat the chicks if not monitored. A brooder in a garage or a room not heated by central air may require the brooder lamp to be closer to maintain the proper amount of heat. Remember that the heat requirements of the chicks will slowly decrease each week, and the proximity of the heat lamp to the chicks will have to be lessened gradually.
Next, fill the feeders and waterers and place them in the brooder away from the heat lamp so they don't get hot. If you can, prop the feeders and waterers onto small tiles or bricks, or place magazines or newspapers underneath them. This will help prevent them from kicking their bedding up into the feed and water troughs and eliminate some of the maintenance you're required to do to keep it clean.
Testing and Managing the Brooder Temperature
Once the brooder is all set up, you'll want to turn on the heat lamp or brooder heating plate and make sure it can sustain a stable temperature through the heat of the day, and the cold at night. Baby chicks need to be kept between 95-100 degrees the first week. The best tool we've found for monitoring our brooder is the SensorPush Wireless Thermometer (paid link) which comes with a small sensing block that monitors the temperature of the brooder and sends the data to an app on your phone. The best part? You can set the app to give you notifications if the temperature gets too hot, or too cold, so if the power fails, the light bulb burns out, the temperature drops too low one night, or some other accident happens when you're sleeping or away from the brooder, you'll know without having to hear the baby chicks cry.
Alternatively, you can also order a simple AccuRite Monitor (paid link) which not only monitors the temp and humidity but also displays the high and the low for each day so you know after 24 hours if your system can hold a stable temperature.
The last safety feature is an Inkbird Digital Temperature Controller (paid link) which allows you to set a maximum temperature you want the brooder to reach before it automatically turns off the heat lamp. This protects from overheating which can easily happen in the middle of the day by a window with the sun beating in. The timer also allows you to set the brooder lamp to turn off by say 10 am when you know it's warm enough for your chicks, and turn back on by 3 pm when the heat of the day starts to wane, saving your heating bill, and keeping the chicks from overheating.
Now you're ready to purchase your little brood! Next up, read Raising Baby Chicks for Beginners, Part 2: How to buy chicks or Part 3: Caring for baby chicks.