How to Raise (Brood) Baby Chicks

The first 24 hours of your chicks' lives are critically important. Here's how to care for them.

How to brood chicks

Chickens are a great addition to your backyard, whether you live in the country, in the suburbs or even in town - as long as they're legal, of course.

So be sure to check the laws where you live as well as any Homeowners Association rules before bringing chicks home!

Whether you want to raise a few laying hens or a dozen or more meat birds, chicks need warmth, food and water, and protection from predators (including pets).

It's best to have your brooder set up before your chicks arrive, but I'm a master at pulling it all together at the last minute (because I've definitely fallen for that feed store impulse buy). Caring for young chicks isn't that hard, but it's important to get it right.

Those babies are depending on you for their very lives, literally. The first 24 hours that you have your chicks are absolutely critical... and the next six weeks are just as important.

In this post we'll cover:

  • making a brooder
  • bedding
  • feed and water
  • a heat source
  • the special needs of very young chicks
  • introducing your chicks to the brooder
  • keeping your chicks safe
  • when to move your chicks out of the brooder

This post contains affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure here.

How to set up a quick and inexpensive chick brooder

Chicks need a warm and draft-free environment for their first weeks of life. There are several ways to provide such a home for them.

I use a Rubbermaid storage bin, also called a tote, in the largest size I can find. A large, empty (of course) aquarium works for just a couple of chicks at first, though they'll need more room as they grow. A cardboard box isn't a good choice though, the bottom will get wet and soggy.

An extra, empty water trough works really well, and a kids' swimming pool is another option.

Little chicks can't hop out of a bin at this young age, but it won't take long before they can! You'll need a top of some kind, something that allows plenty of fresh air to flow through. You'll also want to keep out cats, dogs and older chickens, so depending on where you locate your brooder, make sure the top is as secure as you'll need.

My usual set-up uses a piece of wire mesh from an old rabbit cage on top. Hardware cloth would work just fine if you don't have an old rabbit cage lying around. If you happen to have a window screen that's not currently being used on a window, that will work too.

That wire panel I use sure isn't flat anymore and looks pretty sad in this photo. I've replaced it since then - but it did its job in spite of its looks.

Your chicks need a warm, dry, draft-free place to live. Here's how to put together the perfect home.

Bedding, food and water

On the bottom of the brooder add an inch or more of pine shavings from the feed store or the pet department. Don't use cedar shavings, they can irritate the chicks' respiratory systems.

How to raise baby chicks.

Your chicks will also need food and water, of course. Chick feeders and waterers are available at your feed store, farm store,, and Amazon.

The tops and bottoms are usually sold separately. Instead of the white plastic water reservoir shown here you can use a quart size Mason jar, but I've found that this will make it top heavy and more likely to turn over, so I stick with the plastic jar. Plastic mayonnaise jars work too, as long as the threads match the feeder or waterer part.

The feeder and waterers are also available in metal as well as plastic. Honestly, they both have their drawbacks. The plastic breaks pretty easily, so you need to be careful when cleaning them - but the metal pieces eventually corrode and need to be replaced. Either one will probably last long enough for one batch of chicks.

Just accept that you'll have to replace them at some point, no matter which kind you choose.

I set the waterer on a large, flat plastic lid to help keep shavings out of the waterer. Wet shavings can get gross fast.

What do chicks eat? Most people feed commercial chick starter, which has tiny-sized crumbles for those little beaks.

Chick starter, which can be fed to laying birds or meat birds, is usually 20-24% protein. Meat bird feed, which is supposed to be fed from start to finish, is usually 22% protein.  "Flock raiser" feed - designed for ducklings, goslings, guinea keets, etc. - is 18-20% protein.

Chick starter feed is usually medicated to fight against coccidiosis. Since ducks, geese and other birds should not be fed medicated feed, be sure to choose an "all flock" or "flock raiser" feed for them. If you have a mixed flock of babies that includes chicks, the chicks can also eat the non-medicated feed.

When in doubt, ask your feed store for their suggestions.

How to introduce your chicks to their new brooder.

Tiny chicks need special treatment

Day-old chicks have special needs. For the first day or two cover the top of the pine shavings in the brooder with paper toweling. This helps the chicks get traction. Be sure to remove it after that time to prevent leg problems.

Keep them warm

Newly-hatched chicks need a temperature of 95°F for the first week of their lives. Keeping them warm will keep them alive. In other words, if you don't keep them warm enough, they will die.

Harsh words, I know, but it's true.

Here's the thing: if those babies were being raised by their mama hen, they'd be snuggled up underneath her wings, kept warm by her body heat and feathers. Instead, you're raising them, so you need to provide the warmth they need.

You'll need to keep them warm with a heat lamp or a light bulb. Please take all precautions to keep your chicks safe, a hot bulb that falls on shavings can and will start a fire. I know a few people who have set their brooders on fire. Don't be one of those people.

Use a heat lamp shield that will help keep the bulb from touching anything, and hang the heat lamp by at least two methods. Use the clamp it comes with, but also tie it or chain it to a support above the brooder so it won't fall.

I prefer to start my chicks in the late spring or early summer when Oklahoma is already HOT. By that time the temperature in my unheated, uncooled mudroom is - yes, really - 95°F. This means I don't need to use heat lamps at all; I just spread a towel over the top of the brooder at night to help hold in the day's heat, leaving the end of the brooder uncovered for ventilation.

Remember that piece of hardware cloth I put over the bin? It keeps the towel from falling on top of the chicks.

Introducing chicks to the brooder

The first 24 hours with your chicks are critical, I just can't say that often enough. Take the time to introduce them properly to their food and water.

Whether you want to raise a few laying hens or a dozen (or more) meat chickens, chicks have special needs. Learn about them here

Move the chicks into the brooder one at a time, taking each one out of the box you brought them home in and dipping its beak into the water before you let it loose in the brooder.

Once they've had that first drink they'll be able to find the water again when they need more. By introducing each chick to the waterer as you set it down, you'll be sure that each one has had that important first drink.

Reduce the heat gradually

After the first week or two, lower the brooder temperature by about 5°F each week until it is about the same as the temperature of their prospective home (the chicken coop). You can accomplish this by hanging the heat lamp a bit higher over the brooder.

Whether you want to raise a few laying hens or a dozen (or more) meat chickens, chicks have special needs. Learn what they need in this post.

Keep your chicks safe

Place your brooder in a safe place where pets can't bother the chicks, drafts don't blow across the brooder, and out of direct sunlight.

The brooder bedding will get wet and icky rather quickly, especially as the chicks get older. Change the bedding often so the chicks will have a dry environment and can breathe clean, fresh air. Dampness is your chicks' enemy; wetness will chill your babies, and dampness will cause respiratory issues too.

When to move chicks out of the brooder

Cute as they are, I move my chicks out to a small pen inside the chicken coop as soon as I can. You'll notice that chicks produce a thick layer of "dust" on top of everything near the brooder. If you are keeping the brooder in your home, you'll be dusting constantly.

And the brooder is stinky, no matter how often you clean it, especially as the chicks get older and larger.

So as soon as my chicks are about six weeks old, depending on the weather, I move them to a protected spot inside the chicken coop, where they are safe from predators and from the older birds who will kill chicks if they can. I can't tell you how many teenage chicks I lost before I figured that out.

By the time they're six weeks old I'm definitely ready to move them out of my house - and I bet you will be too.

If your coop isn't quite ready for your babies yet or if it's still too cold outside, move them to a larger-than-the-brooder pen in the garage where they will still be safe and protected from wind, rain and predators until they're ready to go in the chicken coop.

What does your chicken coop need when you move your teenagers to their new home? Find out here: Chicken Coop Necessities -- and you'll find all of my articles on raising chicks and chickens as well as my chicken FAQs here.

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The images below are affiliate links. You can read my full disclosure here. 

Whether you want to raise a few laying hens or a dozen (or more) meat chickens, chicks have special needs. Here's what you need to know to raise healthy, happy chickens.

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