How to brood chicks in a basic tote brooder

How to Brood Chicks on the Homestead- 4 things to consider

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A broody chicken hen
One way to brood chicks on the homestead…

How to Brood Chicks on the Homestead

In this post, I’ll be taking a deep dive into how to brood chicks.

Whether you’ll be hatching your own chicks, or buying the little guys as day-old chicks, you need to have a brooder space set up. It is the key to keeping your chicks alive and thriving.

A brooder is simply a space that will maintain an appropriate temperature for the chicks. It needs to have good flooring, be secure, not drafty, and have adequate space for all the chicks, as well as their feeders and waterers.

The process of brooding chicks is actually pretty simple. We simply need to meet their needs and wait for them to grow. As long as we take care of them and make sure their needs are met, they’ll take care of growing and be ready to move outside in a few weeks.

Bantam pullet chicken how to brood chicks
One of our game bantam pullets

How to Brood Chicks- Brooder Design.

There are a few components to consider with brooder design. We need a way to keep the space warm, we need feed & water, we need some sort of bedding or flooring, and we need a way to contain it all.

When brooding small batches of chicks, or when I’m first moving the chicks from the incubator to the brooder, I have a basic tote brooder. When brooding older chicks, larger batches of chicks, or ducks, I use a homemade wooden brooder box. Both use a basic heat lamp to keep the chicks warm.

Before I get any further, I need to be very blunt: I will NEVER brood in cardboard boxes and neither should you. Ever.

I know that people online say you can, I know the crazy chicken lady down the street does, but it is a bad idea. Cardboard is just paper. It will degrade if it gets wet, and it WILL get wet with pooping chicks and leaking waterers. That means all the liquefied chicken poo is just sitting in a puddle on your floor or counter. The cardboard box is also a huge fire hazard.

I’ve heard all of the arguments for them, “you don’t have to clean them,” “just throw them away,” “they’re cheaper,” “I can’t afford anything else.” I have never seen healthy, happy chicks come out of a cardboard box brooder. I’ve never seen clean coops or healthy birds when someone uses cardboard box brooders. Correlation, I know. But start your chicks off right, and they’ll repay you with healthier, longer, more productive lives.

Back to talking about how to brood chicks.

Keeping the Brooder Warm

Maybe this is a sign of me being stuck in my ways, but I find a basic heat lamp hard to beat. They’re easy to find, pretty cheap, and 9 times out of 10 if something is wrong with it I can fix it myself. As long as you attach the lamp to something very securely, you won’t have any issues with it falling/breaking/shorting. Our heat lamp is hung by a length of cord looped through an eye hook in the ceiling. By shortening and lengthening the cord, we can adjust how high the lamp is hung, and ultimately the temperature of the brooder.

The brooding rule of thumb is that your day-old chicks need to start with a 95*F brooder (measured at chick height), and you decrease the temperature 5*F a week. So 90*F at 1 week, 85*F at 2 weeks, 80*F at 3 weeks, etc. This is just a guideline of course, and you should A) not bend over backwards trying to be exact, and B) base things off of your specific chicks and situation. They’ll tell you what temperature they need if you pay attention.

If all of your chicks are piled up under the heat lamp, they’re probably too cold. If they’re piled against the walls trying to get away from the lamp, it’s too hot. If they’re milling around; some eating, some sleeping, the temperature is probably just right.

The types of chickens you raise can also have some affect on what temperature your brooder needs to be. Our bantams are, without exception, more fragile. They need warmer temps for longer. But our Cornish cross broilers will start to pile up against the walls and try to get away from the lamp by 2 weeks old. Ducklings are similar.

I know that some people are leery about using heat lamps- especially when you hear the horror stories of coop and barn fires. There are alternative heaters for brooders, including the sweeter heater (visit their website here) I’ve never used one personally, but I’ve heard good things about them. A hover plate, like this, is a similar concept- you can order them from Premier 1 and most hatcheries.

How to brood chicks in a basic tote brooder
This basic tote brooder has a 1qt feeder and 1 gallon waterer. I moved the chicks into our bigger brooder after taking this picture.
Feeding & Watering the Chicks

I’ve used the same, basic chick waterer and feeder founts for years. We start out almost every batch of chicks with the basic plastic 1 qt waterer base, and then upgrade to 1 gallon waterers after about a week. It depends on what you’re brooding, and how many of them you’re brooding of course. Make sure that there is enough space at the trough that all of the chicks can drink simultaneously. And make sure that there is enough capacity that they don’t run out of water. This will cause them a lot of stress, and then they’ll tend to get soaked in their eagerness to drink once they have water again. It’s a big mess. Better to have more water capacity or a few extra waterers than to let them run dry.

Our chick feeders are a pretty similar design to the waterers. We start our birds with the basic 1 qt feeder base. Depending on how many birds we’re brooding at once, we may upgrade to a 3lb feeder before they leave the brooder, but usually they just have a pair of the qt feeders until moving outside. There are all sorts of feeders out there, but I prefer these because they keep the chicks from pooping on most of the feed & have a pretty good capacity.

As far as “what” to feed your chicks, you have a lot of options. First, know that as quick-growing little babies, they need a ration with plenty of protein. If these chicks were living in the wild, they would have hatched simultaneously with all of the bugs- a very protein-rich source of food. That’s what we’re trying to mimic with a chick starter ration. The other considerations are a little more subjective. Do you want organic? Non-GMO? No soy? No corn? Medicated? Un-medicated? (The medicated chick starter has a coccidistat mixed into the feed) Whatever you decide to feed, give the chicks unlimited access to it while they’re in the brooder.

This is the basic waterer base we use, and this is the feeder base. You can use the 1 quart plastic jugs they sell, or a 1qt mason jar. I’ve been able to find plenty of waterers and feeders for free on Craigslist or Facebook marketplace too.


Bedding/Flooring in the Brooder

When I’m first brooding day old chicks, I start them out in a brooder tote with a thick layer of wood shavings. Wood shavings are warm, absorbent, and provide enough traction for the young chicks to walk around easily. I would not recommend using a wire-bottomed cage for brand new chicks; unless you’re going to temporarily layer some wood shavings on top of the wire. After our chicks are a week or so old (usually once the brooder box needs to be cleaned for the first time) I’ll upgrade them to our bigger, wooden brooder with a hardware cloth floor. Inside of that brooder I make sure to provide pieces of plywood, straw, and lengths of 2×4 so they can get off the wire and practice perching.

I’ve found wood shavings to be the best bedding option in a brooder. Straw doesn’t tend to be as absorbent. Wood pellets are too big for young chicks to navigate easily. Shredded paper becomes clumpy and messy quickly. Newspaper is slick and degrades too fast to be of much use. The hardware cloth-bottomed brooder is the best way to keep their pen clean, but again, I don’t like to move chicks onto that kind of flooring until they’re a little bigger.

Whatever you’re using for bedding, you need to be sure to keep the brooder clean. A filthy brooder is a one-way ticket to illness. A little extra care to keep the chicks healthy now will pay dividends in the future. (An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure after all) If the bedding looks damp, smells, or is covered in droppings- you’ve probably waited too long. Clean out the brooder before it reaches this stage. Adding a little bedding everyday and following the deep-litter method can also work wonderfully in brooders, but you need to plan ahead when designing your brooder if this is the method you’ll use.


Finally, the key of how to brood chicks: the brooder.

With our feeders, waterers, heat source, and bedding decided- we need a way to contain it all. That’s what the brooder box is for.

As I’ve mentioned before, our smaller/starter brooder is a plastic storage tote. (One of those gigantic clear ones) A tote is actually a pretty good brooder if you’re only raising a few time. It’s waterproof, keeps out drafts, is pretty easy to store, comes in different sizes, and isn’t expensive.

I’ve already explained my disdain for cardboard boxes, so I’ll also mention why I think an all-wire cage is a bad idea. (At least for young chicks) Drafts and a lack of warmth are the main problems I have with an all-wire cage. Other issues include the flooring- not good for small feet- and the increased feed waste, when it inevitably falls through the floor. All-wire cages can work for rabbits, pullets, and quail (though I’m not a fan then either…) but they really aren’t the best for young chicks.

Our larger brooders are BIG plywood boxes; framed with 2 x 3 lumber & floored with hardware cloth. They’re big enough to brood dozens of chicks at a time. Big enough for poults, ducklings, and goslings too. I’ll post some in-depth plans for our brooders in the future, but they aren’t complicated. If you’re looking for something bigger than a tote, without building a whole brooder building (how nice would that be?)- these plywood boxes are a good fit.

How to Brood Chicks: Moving Day

With your brooder set up, feeder filled, waterer filled, and heat lamp hung with care: it’s time to add the chicks.

Whether you’re starting with freshly-hatched day-old chicks, or new fluffs from the post office- the introduction of chick to brooder is the same.

Start by taking each chick, one by one, and gently dipping its beak into the waterer. You just want to get the very tip of the beak submerged, not all the way up to their nostrils. This will usually cause the chick to open its beak slightly, and then swallow a sip of water. Now that the chick has had a sip, gently set it down either below the heat lamps warmth, or next to the waterer. Repeat with the rest of the chicks.

After all of the chicks have been set in the brooder, leave them be to settle in. Come back and check on them after half an hour or so.

They should be spread evenly throughout the brooder. Some drinking, some eating, some under the lamp, etc. If they are bunched up in one spot this can indicate that something isn’t quite right. Are they too cool? Too hot? Scared? Adjust the lamp, feeders, etc as needed. And continue to check on them regularly these first few days.

How Long to Brood Chicks?

It depends. Of course.

The biggest factor that will determine how long your chicks need to stay in the brooder is the time of year and the weather outside.

If we start chicks in January or February, we have to plan on them not moving outside full-time until mid-April. At the earliest. Moving them outdoors by May is a safer bet. That means our chicks will be brooding (or at least living indoors) for 10-14 weeks. They’re pretty close to fully grown at that point, so we need to be sure we’ll have the space and feed to accommodate them.

On the other hand, when we start broiler chicks in a brooder in June, we can have them transitioned into tractors 24/7 by the time they’re 2 weeks old. (The weather then is pretty consistent; hot during the day and only slightly cooler at night)

I’d say that, on average, we brood our egg-layer chicks for about 4 weeks. We want them to be fully feathered before moving outdoors full-time, and we need the weather to be pretty consistent.

Long before they’re outside overnight, we will usually let our chicks outside in tractors or temporary pens during the heat of day. Much like hardening off greenhouse seedlings, this works to make the transition outdoors a little easier on the chicks.


With spring right around the corner, it’s nearly time to set up our brooder boxes. I hope this post has given you some ideas and inspiration on how to brood chicks on your homestead. Much like hatching chicks, or keeping chickens in general, brooding can come with a bit of a learning curve. Stick with it, and pay attention to the chicks. They’ll make it very clear when something isn’t quite right, or when everything’s just fine.

Thanks for reading, and happy homesteading!



PS For more information on where to find chicks this spring, you can check out my post all about it. For more information on hatching, as well as links to the incubators I use, check out this post. Wondering how brooding fits in to the rest of the backyard chicken chores? Find my month by month chicken care breakdown here.

To keep up with our day to day happenings, follow me on Instagram- @emigrantfarms.

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