Raising chicks on your farm, homestead, or in your backyard is so much fun. So don’t overthink building your own outdoor chicken brooder!
Here’s the inspiration and basics you need to get going today!
What is a Chicken Brooder?
When a hen gets broody, that means her motherly instincts kick in and she sits on her eggs to hatch them. Once hatched she gathers her brood of baby chicks close to care for them and makes sure they have the warmth, food, water, safety, cleanliness, and security they need to survive and thrive those first several weeks of life.
So, in making your own outdoor chicken brooder and caring for chicks yourself, you have big shoes to fill! Mama hen does it best and a brooder is simply recreating the environment she would offer to her chicks and taking on her roles.
How We Built Our Chicken Brooder Out Of a Crate
We are all about reusing and buying second hand on our homestead. In 2021 we were building everything from scratch and needing to do so on a shoestring budget.
When we ordered 60 baby chicks that would come in a months’ time and we had no brooder or even a coop built for them, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
I did some research and decided that finding some sort of used box or crate would be the most economical route to go. After searching for a couple weeks and needing to pull the trigger on something, the crate of all crates came up for $20 on Facebook marketplace and I went for it!
With a little creativity and imagination, I knew this could be the perfect starting point for an outdoor chicken brooder. I scrounged up the scrap wood we had, bought hardware cloth, got my brad nailer/stapler lubed up, and went to work.
I built wood frames that make up the sides and top covers with 1”x3” trim wood and then I stapled the hardware cloth (my preference over chicken wire) to those frames. Since we had a batch of both laying chicks and meat chicks coming at the same time, I even had enough space in the crate to build an upper deck so we could raise them separately.
It is a truly one-of-a-kind outdoor chicken brooder!
If you’re thinking, “that’s great, but how in the world do you expect me to replicate that?” I don’t! So, here’s some other easy and low-cost outdoor chicken brooder ideas.
Inexpensive Outdoor Chicken Brooder Ideas
Find a Used Crate
Punch in “crate” or “shipping crate” into Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace and you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. Sometimes people are even wanting to unload them for free! Some are rectangular and some square. Most will just sit on the ground with an open top or removeable cover. You don’t want something too big that you can’t easily reach down into for tending to your chickies.
You’ll just need to build a frame with ventilation for the top. A simple wood frame with hardware cloth for a top cover works well. You might also be able to take the top cover that came with the crate and remove sections or modify it to have openings that you can staple hardware cloth to.
Galvanized Water Trough
This is another common brooder option. They are solid and generally just the right size for you to reach into and tend to your chicks. If you keep an eye out, they also come up used on Craiglist or Marketplace for affordable prices. Similar to the crate, you’ll just need to build a basic frame cover to sit on top of it.
Plastic Storage Bin
Just like the water trough, a plastic storage bin can also work well for housing your baby chicks. Again, you’ll want a frame on top that offers plenty of ventilation. And you’ll want something that is sizeable enough so the chicks are not too cramped and a heat lamp is not too concentrated in one small space.
If you have a yard cart lying around, you can also use that as a chick brooder. They have solid bottoms and four sides, so all you’ll need is to build a cover (or multiple cover sections) to fit over the top. Just find a way to prop up the cart so it’s level and secure.
Build Your Own
If you have scrap lumber or plywood lying around, you can put together a very basic structure similar to a crate that will work just fine as a brooder. I’ve seen people build them into a section of a barn stall. Use the space and materials you have at your disposal. It doesn’t need to be the Taj Mahal of outdoor chicken brooders – just functional!
Buy Something Prefabricated
Whether new or used, there are plenty of small prefabricated chicken coops or rabbit hutches out there that can also double as a brooder. You may pay significantly more for something prefabricated than the rest of the options mentioned. BUT, they can look very nice and be quick and easy to put together.
My concern with many prefabricated coops is that the bottom is generally open leaving your babies as a potential target for a predator to dig under and get in. This next section will cover what to look out for in any brooder design.
Main concerns with an outdoor chicken brooder
Any time you have animals outside, you need to be thinking about predators. The chicken brooder is no different. Baby chicks have no way to defend themselves or escape should a predator get into the brooder.
You need to think of all six sides: top, bottom, and the four sides. In an ideal situation, all six sides are completely sealed.
So, if you use something like a crate or water trough with a cover on top, make sure that cover is weighted or secured down so nothing can pry it open. This can be as simple as adding some bricks on top or some sort of strap to secure it.
A prefabricated coop/brooder with an open bottom has its own set of concerns since something can dig under. When we had a prefabricated backyard chicken coop, I actually dug under and placed hardware cloth underneath the coop, along with a brick border, and then covered it back up with soil. Anything digging under had no chance! If your coop is mobile, however, then you’ll need to consider the potential risks to your chicks.
Beyond predators, you’ll need a few other necessary components in your brooder.
Main Components of a Brooder
Depending on how many chicks you have, you’ll need one or more heat lamps in the brooder to keep them warm. You will want to make sure you have a good system for raising or lowering the heat lamp to offer the chicks either more or less heat based on their behavior and age. Also, secure those lamps good so they don’t come crashing down on any chicks!
The purpose of bedding is to absorb moisture in the brooder and keep things dry. Water spills and poop build up moisture. When that moisture lingers, bacteria builds up and chicks are especially susceptible to illness there first couple weeks of life.
The most standard bedding materials are pine shavings or straw. We have used pine shavings in the past and are using straw this year because that’s what we had on hand. Both work well to absorb moisture and can be easily composted afterward.
A course construction grade sand is something I’ve also heard that can be used. I have doubts about how well this absorbs and you also wouldn’t want to add it to your compost pile afterward.
Your chicks need constant access to water. They will be thirsty! Especially right after the trip from the hatchery to your home. We have one like this is our brooder.
We like to add two things to their water; apple cider vinegar and salt. The apple cider vinegar is fermented and helps their gut health and digestion. Both the apple cider vinegar and the salt act as an electrolyte that young chicks will also appreciate.
A basic chicken feeder will work for your baby chicks. You’ll want to find a good chick starter feed to get them going on which normally is a bit finer texture and offers a higher protein content. Chick starter feed often comes in a medicated version. If you are wanting to raise your chicks more naturally, be sure to find something non-medicated.
We use an organic, non-medicated starter feed and as long as you keep up with cleaning the brooder, manage temps, and give them what they need, you’ll have happy healthy chicks 😊
The Beauty of the Outdoor Chicken Brooder
The one time we raised baby chicks indoors in a box in our living was a fun family experience. But, they kick up a lot of dust in the house and cleaning the brooder indoors without making a mess is no easy task.
Our kids have still been just as engaged with checking on and caring for the baby chicks in the outdoor chicken brooder. Plus, the chicks themselves seem to adapt better to their eventual outdoor coop.
If you have an existing flock, keeping the outdoor chicken brooder in close proximity to the flock can also really help the process of introducing new chickens to the flock go much more smoothly.
So don’t overthink your brooder! The main thing is making sure you play the role of mama hen and keep your chicks warm, safe, and happy with food and water. Find a used crate, pick up some hardware cloth, use whatever scrap wood you have lying around, and build yourself a chicken brooder that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg!
We’d love to hear about your outdoor chicken brooder setup! Or what you’re considering in building one for the first time! Drop a comment below and we can all learn from each other’s creativity and unique scenarios.
And are you thinking of raising meat chickens on a small scale? Check out our post on our experience raising both Cornish Cross and Freedom Ranger meat chickens for our homestead. There’s a clear winner in our book!
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