Recently, people’s attitudes and ideas have changed about how we could be living our lives. Activities that might have seemed crazy just a few months before the economy tanked – like raising chickens in the backyard – suddenly seem like perfectly logical choices. It’s one topic that has, for a number of reasons, become a hot item. Anytime there’s renewed interest in something like raising chickens, an inevitable barrage of products arrive, tempting us to spend our money.
Humans and domestic fowl have a shared history that goes back nearly to the dawn of time and spans every continent on Earth. Raising chickens is not a new phenomenon, nor does it need to be difficult. The needs of chickens are relatively few: food, water, shelter and the ability to get up off the ground to roost.
Young chicks, on the other hand, have a slightly different set of requirements. In addition to food and water, they need to have an adequate heat source and to be protected from drafts. Here’s the catch. Baby chicks grow really fast, so you have to make sure your housing solution is large enough to handle them comfortably for the first few weeks. I’m going to show you one way to meet all those needs with a lightweight, low-cost alternative to commercially available rearing systems. It even gives you easy access to the birds and won’t leave you with a bulky brooder to store until your next batch of day-old chicks arrives. I’m talking about building a chicken brooder from cardboard boxes.
Recycling at its best
To build your cardboard box chicken brooder, you’ll first need to get some cardboard boxes. Ideally, you should start this project with at least two boxes of the same size. Three is even better. These can be just about any kind of cardboard box; the only really important part is that the boxes should be as near to 24 inches square as possible and 15 to 18 inches deep.
Check with a local furniture store, liquor store or supermarket for boxes, or even buy them from a self-storage place, if push comes to shove. Boxes sized 24-by-18-by-18 inches are a standard moving size, will work just fine for six to eight birds and shouldn’t set you back more than $10 or $12. For the purposes of this article, this is the size of box used. I was lucky enough to obtain my boxes for free – I found them in a dumpster.
You should build your brooder sometime before the chicks come home with you; they don’t do well for long in the small shipping boxes in which they arrive.
To make this explanation as clear as possible, I’ll refer to the short sides of the box as 18s and the long sides as 24s.
To get started you’ll want to first fold up the bottom flaps of the box. With the box upside down, fold the two 24-inch flaps first and tape them in place with some strong packaging tape. This way, when you turn the box over and check the inside, you will see the 24s have come together to make a single seam. This will also be taped as a seal and will keep the bedding that will be added later from getting trapped inside the folds of the box.
Next, fold the 18-inch flap that touches the box’s factory seam over those 24s you just taped and tape that down as well. This will assure that you have a stronger brooder later on. The other flap can remain loose for now. Repeat this process for one more box until you have two folded boxes that are open at the top, with one flap hanging loose and a single seam on the inside bottom.
Building with boxes
The next part requires close attention. You will need to cut down the side of each box at one corner that meets the loose 18-inch flap. It doesn’t matter which corner you cut, as long as you cut the same corner on both boxes. I find the easiest thing to do is lay the boxes next to each other with the long sides touching and the loose 18-inch flaps hanging out on the same side. This removes any confusion and helps me be sure that I cut down the same corner, either right or left, on both boxes.
After making the cuts, turn the two 18-inch sides of the boxes that can now be opened like barn doors so that they face each other. With the loose 18-inch flaps folded under and the sides opened out, you should be able to line the boxes up together so they fit like two puzzle pieces. Slide the boxes together so the two 18-inch flaps overlap the 24-inch flaps that were taped together on the inside on the first step. At this point, go ahead and thoroughly tape down all the flaps and seams on the inside of the box, making sure not to leave any loose clumps of tape. The chicks will find these, pick at and eat them, I promise.
At this point, you now have the basics of your cardboard box chick brooder. When the brooder is finished, you will have a heat lamp at one end and the food and water at the other.
On the food end, cut off all the top flaps. They will only get in the way of accessing the food and water and, after all, we want the children to be able to reach in and easily get to their chicks, right? On the other side, where the heat lamp will be, trim off all but the two 24-inch flaps; these will hold your heat lamp.
To make a bracket from the leftover flaps to hold the lamp, take one of the 18-inch flaps that has been cut off and mark it in thirds lengthwise. Fold the piece like you would a letter until it’s an 18-inch-long, approximately 3-inch-wide strip; completely tape it along the seam. To hold it on the box, make two angled cuts into the folded (non-seam) side. Make the cuts nearly halfway through the width of the piece with the angles facing in. After making the cuts, slide the two remaining 24-inch flaps into them, and the bracket will sit steadily on top of the brooder. You can now hang your heat lamp from this on one end of the brooder and still have easy access to the food and water on the other. The chicks will lie under the light while they sleep or rest and venture over to the food as needed. You can slide the food and water closer to the light early on and then separate them more as the chicks grow.
Growing space for growing chicks
If you decide to start your flock early in the year and you’re in a cold winter climate like mine, you may have them indoors for long enough that they will outgrow the maximum height of the heat lamp. There’s an easy fix to this – one I call the chicken condo. This is where the third box comes into play.
Remove the two 18-inch flaps from the top of the box, and one from the bottom. Slide this third box on top of the end of the brooder where the heat lamp was so that it looks like a big “L.” To hold the third box in place when you put it on top, tuck the 18-inch flap inside and the two 24-inchers on the outside. Cut off or tape down the 24-inch flaps from the original brooder (the third box will not require fasteners). The bracket to hold the light can now sit atop the third box, providing plenty of head room below to the growing birds. You can even put a couple of holes on the outsides of the box and slide a dowel through to give them a low roosting bar. You’d be surprised how early they figure out how to roost.
After your chicks have feathered out and are ready to go outdoors to their new coop, you’ll now have to figure out what to do with your brooder. It’s not something that you’ll want to keep; in fact, that’s half the beauty of it, you don’t have to. Since it’s cardboard, you can either compost it or, better yet, rip it into lengths and lay it under a new garden bed. It will help keep weeds down, break down into the soil on its own and all that chicken manure that’s been in it will help a future garden grow.
GRIT Blogger Paul Gardener maintains a large garden and his feathered friends on a quarter-acre lot in suburban Utah.