We have been very busy here at Bauernhof Kitsteiner (our new farm and homestead), but I wanted to take a few moments to share one of the many projects we have been working on during the last few weeks.
This is our new chicken brooder. I call it “moderately large” because size is always relative. We had some small brooders, and we are using them as nursing/hospital brooders. We will also be using our old brooders for small runs of poultry. But since we have decided, with strong encouragement from our intern Dan, to start raising broilers, we determined that a larger brooder was in order. Industrial brooders are massive, stackable, and extremely unnatural. We wanted to go with something that would be appropriate for our size, healthy for the birds, manageable by us, and within our budget to build. This is the result. It has a footprint of 8 feet x 10 feet (2.4 meters x 3 meters), and could house up to 300 chicks for their first few weeks. We are in the early experimentation stages of raising pastured chickens at our farm. It is a bit late in the season to be doing this, but we wanted to get a few batches under our belt to see if this is something we can expand upon next Spring. It is too early to give results, but we are doing well so far.
This brooder is strongly influenced by Joel Salatin’s original chicken brooder. He now uses a model similar to this as a hospital pen. Our design has taller walls and is a bit sturdier.
The taller walls (30 inches/76 cm) are to accommodate a deep litter bed. Our goal is to get to 18 inches (45 cm) of litter. We are currently using dried grass hay from our own yard (who says lawns have no place in Permaculture!). Ideally, a litter that is a bit more absorbent would be used, but this is what we have for now. It’s local and basically free. The deep litter has been shown time and again to be a healthier option for young chicks. The deep litter bed is composting, so there is a gentle warmth produced from the ground. The litter is alive with all sorts of macroscopic and microscopic life. The chicks peck away at this and gain numerous extra nutrients and probiotics. It also allows them to peck and scratch. As simple as this is, this natural behavior is often deprived of a young chick in the industrial chicken-raising systems. I firmly believe that when an animal is allowed to express its natural behaviors, it is a happier and healthier animal.
Next, we built this brooder from a mix of new and old material. Joel Salatin frequently recommends pressure-treated wood in his building projects. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t use any chemically treated wood products, but that is not where we live quite yet. In the future, I would love to use our local Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) or Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), both of which are naturally very rot resistant, but as I said, we are not quite there yet. Instead, we only used PT wood for the base. This is the wood that will be in contact with the ground, and very prone to rotting. The rest of the structure was built with old pine boards we removed from a renovation project on the farm.
We also found a 5-gallon bucket of old, exterior grade paint left behind by the prior owners of our farm. We slapped that on to give an even longer life to this structure. We also decided to move the brooder at this point. It was getter pretty heavy by now, and we still had quite a bit of wood left to add. This brooder is, technically, portable, but it is not something we will be moving often.
Another variation to our brooder was the door system. Joel Salatin has his brooder doors hinged at the top. The door is lifted up and propped open while a person reaches inside. We changed this for a few reasons. First, our walls are significantly higher than Joel’s. We need to climb into the brooder for chick maintenance, and since the walls are higher, the door would be need to be held up significantly higher as well. Dan (our intern), my wife, and myself are not short people (we are all 6’3″ (190.5 cm) or taller), but the door would have to be propped quite high and have a very tall stick to prop it open. Plus, I really dislike things hitting me in the head, and a wooden door that slips off its support does not sound like fun. Again, since our walls are so high, the roof is also higher, so it is easier to walk around inside the brooder, even for us tall folk. We only needed a smaller access door to get in, so a lighter, side-hinged door seemed to be a better, safer option. I fashioned a simple handle with two holes drilled into the door, a rope, and a couple of knots.
Next, we brought a weather-proof electrical cord to the brooder and attached it to the ceiling along the ridge beam. We hung three heat lamps to the ridge beam with some paracord. The lamps do not have light bulbs, but instead have ceramic heat emitters. These screw right in to a light bulb socket, but only produce heat. I don’t like lights on for 24 hours a day; it’s just not natural. Note that the ceramic heat emitters need a ceramic socket, not a plastic socket as the plastic may melt. The paracord, or any string or light rope, is adjustable and can be raised as the chicks grow taller. This set up is perfect for most of the “normal” times we will be raising chicks, but we are getting started with our “test batches” of chicks in late August/early September when the nightly temperatures have been dropping to the 50’60’s F (10-15 C). These small heat lamps were not quite strong enough, so we placed a cinder block in the middle of the brooder put a space heater on it. This has provided all the heat we need for now. As the chicks get older, they can handle colder temperatures, but day old chicks need a steady 90 F (32 C) temperature.
You may also note the boards propped in the corners. This is to help prevent the birds from bunching in the corners and suffocating their brooder mates. We placed one board in each corner, and have not had an issue with corner suffocation.
With the nighttime temperatures dropping, we also decided to staple a plastic screen over the chicken-wire walls. During the day, these are just rolled up and over the roof. At night, this prevents the warm air from escaping. We also added a corner piece of aluminum siding to the exterior ridge. This ensures no water will drip in and leak onto our electrical cords.
The brooder in action!
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- All photos in this article are mine. Please ask if you would like to use them.