Setting up a brooder is easy and helps get your new chicks started off on the right foot.
A good brooder provides your chicks a safe, clean home with plenty of airflow, warmth, food and water. You can purchase new brooder elements, or you can use items around your house to build a happy home for your new chicks.
A plastic storage bin, a wooden box or a fish tank are good candidates for your chicks’ new home. Enclosure walls should be at least 12 inches tall — the higher, the better — to keep the chicks inside. Be sure to clean and disinfect your brooder and all its components before you add your chickens.
If you have a dog or cat, or if other potential predators might come near, fit the top of the brooder with a firmly anchored covering such as a wire screen like hardware cloth. This is a good idea even if you don't have a hungry predator around, as chicks can be capable fliers. You'll also want to partially cover your brooder with fabric, cardboard or newspapers to keep out drafts. Part of the top of your enclosure should be open (or screen-covered) for the heat lamp to shine through.
Your baby chicks will be happiest with 1 square foot of floor space per chick. You can get by with less at first, but you'll have to upgrade the space as the chicks grow — .5 square feet per chick up to 3 weeks; .75 square feet per chick up to 5 weeks; and 1 square foot per chick up to 8 weeks. Past 8 weeks you'll want to give them 1.5 to 2 square feet per bird, increasing as necessary as they grow and for larger breeds.
Next, line your brooder with litter. For very young chicks, start with paper towels or burlap so they have the traction they need to avoid slipping. After a week, you can switch to shredded newspaper, chopped straw, or, ideally, wood shavings (never use cedar or other aromatic wood shavings; stick with pine). Two inches of litter material should give the chicks solid footing. Never brood chicks on unshredded newspaper, wood floors or other slippery surfaces, or they may develop permanent leg damage. Chicks will soil the litter often by pooping and spilling water; always replace the litter when necessary to keep the brooder clean and dry.
All chicks love to roost, especially older ones. Mounting thin wooden dowels or well-cleaned branches, .5 inches in diameter, inside the cage will make the chicks happier. Mount roosting aids 4 or 5 inches off the ground and away from the food and water dishes.