How to Set Up a Chicken Brooder for Mail-Order Hatchery Chicks

Congratulations! You’ve placed an order for hatchery chicks, and you can’t wait until your box of peeping fluffballs arrive at the post office.

Shipping Day-Old Hatchlings

day old chick with blue background

It’s hard not to worry when you are waiting for your new chicks to arrive. But don’t fret, the hatcheries take great care to ensure your chicks arrive in good condition.

Newly-hatched chicks can go without food or water for about 72 hours, enough time for expedited mail order delivery. During this time, the yolks baby chicks absorb into their bodies before they emerge from their shells continue to nourish them, and they stay warm thanks to the company of their carton mates during shipping.

This explains why hatcheries require a minimum quantity for shipping day-old chicks and ducklings, and why they don’t ship out poultry until early spring when there’s less chance that weather conditions will delay delivery. Your hatchery will likely alert you when they’ve shipped your order so you can be ready to pick up your hatchlings from your local post office as soon as they call to announce their arrival. 

newly hatched baby chicks

Long before their delivery date, you’ll want to make sure you’re equipped to care for your baby chicks. Here’s how to set up and maintain your brooding equipment from arrival to their graduation to the outside coop.

Choose a Location For Your Chicken Brooder

First, you’ll need to decide where to set up your brooder. You’ll need an electrical source and a sheltered area protected by the elements. Ideal housing for your brooder may include your enclosed garage, barn, shop or walk-in empty chicken coop. 

Tip: Insulated, draft-free rooms or buildings help maintain consistent brooder temperatures, reducing the risk of overheated or chilled chicks. 

Be sure the area is safe from rodents and larger predators, as well as from unsupervised children. 

Select a Brooder Enclosure

The best enclosures for brooding hatchlings on a backyard or homestead scale, hands-down, are round or oval galvanized steel water troughs. Here’s why: 

  • No corners in which chicks can “pile up” and suffocate 
  • Steep, smooth walls keep rodents out and chicks in
  • Drain plugs allow for easier cleaning in between batches
  • Non-porous galvanized metal is easier to disinfect
  • Portable, durable, relatively lightweight, and multi-purpose, offsetting investment costs

For most chicken breeds, allow for at least a half square foot floor space per bird the first four weeks and a full square foot from age one-month-old until the time the birds have most of their adult feathers and are ready to move to their permanent coop. 

Taller-sided galvanized water troughs accommodate taller, older chicks and birds that are starting to flutter up to perches, but you’ll still want to fashion a simple screened top made from wire mesh stapled to a lightweight wooden frame to contain more adventurous birds. 

Heat Lamp Placement – Keeping Your Chicks Warm

baby chicks huddling in the corner to get warm

Set up your brooder where you can suspend a heat lamp or two over the top. You should be able to raise and lower the lamp according to ambient temperatures and the birds’ comfort levels. As a guideline, if the chicks are clustered in a tight bunch at the center of the lit area, you need to lower the lamp; if they’re as far away from the illuminated bedding, it’s far too hot. Happy chicks will rest in a loose circle at the edge of the ring of light. 

Your brooder should be large enough to offer different temperature zones, and enough “sweet spot” warming for all of your chicks. 

Again, it’s important that the building or room in which you’ve set up your brooder doesn’t experience drastic shifts in ambient temperature, which will affect your heat lamp’s ability to create the right zones. 

For more temperature-specific recommendations, check out the below chart.

AgeBrooder Temperature
0 to 1 week93°-95° F (33.9°-35°C)
1 to 2 weeks88°-90°F (31.1°-32.2°C)
2 to 3 weeks83°-85°F (28.3°-29.4°C)
3 to 4 weeks78°-80° F (25.6′ -26.7°C)
4 to 5 weeks75°F (23.9°C)
5 to 6 weeks70°F (21.1°C)
6 weeks and olderComfort Zone
50°-70°F (10 -29.4°C)
Data provided by the University of Colorado Extension Office.

Bedding/Substrate Types

You’ll need an absorbent substrate to soak up droppings, help retain and regulate ambient temperatures, and reduce odors. It also helps your birds keep their footing. Slick, bare surfaces cause foot sores (bumblefoot) as well as splayed legs.

Replace damp and heavily soiled areas of bedding each day, and be careful to clean up any areas where waterers have soaked the substrate. 

two baby chicks near waterer with shavings as bedding

Pine shavings are absorbent and inexpensive. Try to find a source of pine shavings packaged for animal bedding to ensure they haven’t been treated with harmful chemicals. In between replacement, use a gardening fork to stir shavings to help dry them out and increase its insulating abilities. 

Pelleted paper pulp is a great substrate for growing chicks, with the added bonus of reduced dust. Better yet, they don’t tend to get tracked into feeders and waterers as easily, and they’re less messy than shavings. These are often dark grey in color and help absorb and distribute heat in your brooder. Used pulp paper products compost easily. 

Chemical-free wood pellets are another popular alternative to pine shavings, but as they break down they become dusty and muddy. 

Chick Waterers and Feeders

baby chick eating at a feeder

Chick-size waterers and feeders are better suited to young birds than adult-sized equipment, and if they lose their water seal, don’t cause catastrophic flooding. The warm, wet conditions ideal for brooding are also ideal for bacterial growth, so be sure to clean waterers and feeders daily. 

Speaking of feeders, growing poultry have age-specific dietary needs. Be sure to have the right food for the right growth stage available before you need it. 

Acclimating Pullets to Outdoor Housing

brood of chickens outside

As your chicks mature and their pinfeathers give way to adult plumage (6-8 weeks), you can move them into their permanent chicken coop. Provide a heat lamp for them there so they can seek warmth as needed, especially if temperatures drop below 50°F. 

It’s so gratifying to raise your own chickens, especially when they surprise you with their very first egg. Brooding your own birds is fun, entertaining and educational, and a great way to learn about each individual chicken’s own personality. 

Before you know it, you’ll be ready for the next challenge: Incubating and hatching.

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