Wednesday, May 8, 2013

DIY Outdoor Chicken Brooder / Broody Hen Box

 Note: This is an original design, and is still in the process of being tested.  Please read the notes at the end before committing to building this.

     I just finished building this brooder tractor for our new baby chicks.  It is 6' x 2' with an open bottom to allow them to forage.  With 12 square feet of interior space it can hold up to 24 young birds for their first 3 weeks, after which they will need larger accommodations.  It can hold a smaller number of birds for longer, but care needs to be taken as a couple of birds won't be able to huddle and maintain their heat well enough.  I also envision using it for a broody hen with a clutch.  For that I would keep it stationary and add bedding and clean as needed.  I added a small door on the front so she can take her babies out foraging.  The entire top opens as two large doors to allow easy access.  A 2x4 brace across the center works well as a place to hang the waterer.  Two handles extend from the front.  Moving the unit by the handles is made easier by the rounded corners on the back of the bottom rails.  The plywood lid has a slight pitch to shed water since it acts as a roof over the enclosed section.  An incandescent light fixture provides heat inside the enclosure.  We cover the entire thing with a tarp if it get's too cold or wet out, and put down a layer of dry wood chips if the ground gets too moist. 

Tools Needed:

Tape Measure
Saw (For  cross cutting lumber and for ripping plywood)
Drill / Driver
Tin Snips (For cutting hardware cloth)
Belt Sander, plane, or draw knife (for shaping handles)
Belt Sander, jig saw, or coping saw (for rounding back of bottom rails)
Palm sander or sanding block (recommended for removing splinters and improving appearance)

A pneumatic staple gun is a nice option for attaching the walls and screen but screws work just as well.

Shopping List:

(Use this list to purchase materials new)
Prices are given for example only and are our current local prices for these items.

Qty     Type                                                                                     Price each                           Total
(10)        2x2" x8'                                                                                  $1.42                           $14.20
(3)          2x4" x 8'                                                                                 $2.98                            $8.94
(2)          4'x8' x 3/8" plywood                                                             $14.37                          $28.74
(56)        2½" Wood Screws                                                                                    Box of 100 $5.19
(44)        1¼" Wood Screws (or staples to secure plywood)                                   Box of 100 $3.28
(75) short (1" or so) flat head screws or staples to secure screen                           Box of 100 $2.37
(3) latches                                                                                            $1.79                              $5.37
(6) small hinges with screws                                                               $1.48                              $8.88
1/4" Hardware Cloth  12' long                                                                                25' Roll     $16.49
2' piece of light chain                                                                                                                   $.99
                                                                  Total for all new materials as pictured above        $94.45


In the pic below, you can see how close I was to getting all of the pieces out of a single sheet of plywood.  Making the length of the side walls, the lid, or the width of the entire unit smaller by a couple of inches are all adjustments that would make it possible to eliminate the need for a second sheet of plywood.  Since I built mine before realizing this, and I am not terribly motivated to re-draw and re-work all the pics and lists, I am going to publish it as is.  If there is enough interest I can work up a slightly less expensive version.

The pieces are shown in grey, tan is scrap, and red is the overlap that prevents the pieces from coming out of 1 sheet. 
oops.  Now you gotta buy two whole sheets of plywood so you can cut one little piece out of one of them.  1/2 sheets are available, but they are only a couple of dollars cheaper than the whole ones.

Cut List:

(Use this list if scrounging/salvaging materials or to cut the purchased list)

Qty    Type
(2)     2x2" x 6' 6"     Bottom Rails
(5)     2x4" x 2'         Bottom Ends, Top Ends, & Top Bar
(1)     2x2  x 2'         Door frame Top
(2)     2x2  x 8'         Top Rails
(6)     2x4 x 21"       Corner Posts, Short wall stop, & Long wall Stop
(1)     2x2 x 21"       Side Cleat
(1)     2x2 x 1'          Door Jamb
(4)     2x2 x 2' 3"     Top Door Sweeps & Screen Lid Sides
(1)    2x2  x 2' 7¼"  Top Door Stop
(4)    2x2  x 2' 10½" Lid Frame
(2)    2x4  x 2' 7"     Screen Lid End

(6)  3/8" plywood pieces as shown below (click to view larger)

Short Side Wall:  2' tall, 2' across top, 2' 4½" across bottom
Front Wall:  1' 9" Tall, 2' 2½" across top with cut out 1' up and 9½" over
Back Wall: 2'3"x1'9"
Lid:  3' 1½" x 2' 10½" 
Long Side Wall:  2' tall, 3' 1½" across top, 3' 6" across bottom
Chicken Door:  11 7/8"x7 7/8"

Step 1:  Assemble the bottom frame

Round off back corners of the (2) bottom rails with a belt sander, jig saw, or coping saw to allow the unit to slide more easily when assembled.  Then assemble the bottom frame as shown below. 

Attach the Bottom Rails (2x2x6'6") to the Bottom Ends (2x4x2') The Front End is flush, the Back end is 6" in from the rounded corner. 

 Use (2) 2½" screws per connection.  Be sure to keep the screws offset toward the center on both ends, as shown below, to avoid hitting the screws that secure the corners in step 2.  Pre-drill the 2x2 to avoid splitting.

Step 2:  Attach the 4 corner posts

Attach the (4) Corner Posts (2x2x21") to the Bottom frame assembly using (1) 2½" screw per connection as shown below.  Pre-drill these connections.

Step 3:  Assemble the Top Frame

Attach the (2) Top Rails (2x2x8') to the (2) Top Ends (2x4x2') as shown below.  Use (2) 2½" screws to secure each side of the Back end flush with the rails.  The screws should be offset towards the center as in step 1.

Use (1) 2½" screws to attach each side of the Front End.  It is positioned 5' 10½" from the back end and installed sideways to hang down below the frame as shown below.

I rounded the handles with a belt sander before assembling the top frame.

Step 4:  Connect the top and bottom frames.

Use (4) 2½" screws to attach the Top Frame to the (4) Corner Posts as shown below.

Screw placement detail

Step 5:  Attach the Short Side Stop and the Side Cleat

Attach the Short Side Cleat (2x4x21")  1' 10½" from the back corner as shown below.  The Side Cleat (2x2x21") is attached the same distance on the other side.  Use (1) 2 ½" screw for each of the (4) connections.

Step 6:  Attach the Top Bar

Install the Top Bar (2x4x2') 2' 11½" from the back of the unit using (2) 2½" screws on each side as shown below.

Step 7:  Attach the Long Side Stop

Install the Long Side Stop (2x4x21") 2' 11½" from the back of the unit (flush with Top Bar) as shown below.  Use (1) 2½" screw on each end, centered to avoid hitting the Top Bar screws.

Step 8:  Assemble Door Frame

Attach the Door Jamb (2x2x1') to the Door Frame Top (2x2x2').  It is installed 8" from the side in a T shape as shown below.  Use (1) 2½" screw for this connection.

Step 9:  Install Door Frame

Install the Door Frame in the front end as shown below.  Use (1) 2½"screw for each of the (3) connections.

Step 10:  Install the first Top Door Sweep

Attach the Top Door Sweep (2x2x2'3") 1 5/8" from the Back end using (3) 2½" screws as shown below.

Step 11:  Install Top Door Stop

Attach the Top Door Stop (2x2x2' 7¼") to the Top Rail on the Short side using (3) 2½" screws as shown below.

Step 12:  Install other Top Door Sweep

Attach the other Top Door Sweep (2x2x2'3") tight against the Top Door Stop using (2) 2½" screws as shown below.  To keep it square, measure the distance of the stop (2' 7¼") on the back rail

The completed frame.



 Because I prefer not to use treated wood it is necessary to use a preservative to protect the pine from rot and make it a less hospitable home to mites.  For this project I used a homemade past created with 5 parts food grade mineral oil and 1 part beeswax.  The ingredients are gently heated using a double boiler until blended.  Monitor closely at all times under heat since both ingredients can be flammable.  The mixture is then cooled to room temp, then applied to the wood with a rag. 

I applied my mixture to the completed frame, then treated each piece of plywood before attaching.

Step 13:  Install Front Wall

 Install the Front Wall to the Short Wall Stop and the Side Cleat using (5) 1¼" screws as shown below.  When attaching plywood to framing, you do not need to pre-drill.

Step 14:  Install Long Side Wall

Attach the Long Side Wall using (10) 1¼" screws as shown below.

Step 15:  Install Short Side Wall

Attach the Short Side Wall using (10) 1¼" screws as shown below.

Step 16:  Install the Back Wall

Attach the Back Wall (1'9"x2'3"x 3/8" ply) to the inside of the back corners using (6) 1¼" screws as shown below.

Step 17:  Attach screen to the Outside of the brooder.  

Attach the ¼" Hardware Cloth to the brooder using either pan head screws or a pneumatic stapler.  Wrap the 3 open sides with a single piece of screen, cutting out for the chicken door and handles on the front side, folding it around the corners, and then cutting to length.

shown here a couple of steps ahead with screen as well as with the lid and the screen top frame attached.

Step 18:  Build the Lid Frame

Attach (2) Lid Frame pieces to the other (2) Lid Frame Pieces to form a large H as shown below.  The inner pieces are set in 3" from the ends of the other pieces.  Use (1) 2½" screw for each of the (4) connections.

Step 19:  Attach Lid Top to Lid Frame.

Connect the Lid Top (3' 1½"x2' 10½" x 3/8" ply) to the Lid Frame using (10) 1¼"screws.

Step 20:  Attach the Lid

Install the Lid to the Brooder as shown below using 2 hinges and the appropriate screws.

The hinges for the screen top (Left) are installed flat, the hinges for the wooden top (right) are installed at 90°

Step 21:  Build Screen Top

Attach (2) Screen lid Ends (2x4x2'7") to (2) Screen Lid Sides (2x2x2'3") to form a square with the 2x2s covering the ends of the 2x4s.  Use (2) 2½"screws for each of the (4) connections as shown below. 

 Cover with ¼" Hardware Cloth.

Step 22:  Install Screen Top 

Attach Screen Top using (2) hinges with appropriate screws.

Step 23:  Install Chicken Door

Attach Chicken Door using (2) small hinges with appropriate screws.

Step 24:  Install the latches and the chain.

I use eye and hook latches with a spring mechanism that prevents it from being easily opened.

The chain is installed using (2) 1¼" screws as shown below to keep the screen door from opening too far.

If needed you can install an incandescent light or other heat source inside the brooder.  Be sure to follow your local electrical codes.  A hook in the Top Bar is a great place to hang a waterer from.

     So that's pretty much it.  We used a similar type thing to brood our original flock with great success, but that was in July and August, so we will have to wait and see how they fare in the cooler, wetter Wisconsin Spring weather.  We cover the brooder with a tarp in heavy rains, but otherwise it provides all the protection the chicks need.  We move them to fresh lawn daily.  For the first couple of moves, it is a good idea to have someone watch so they don't get their toes caught.  Also, talk to your birds when you are going to move them, so they get to know what to expect.  Personally I think it is much better for the birds to be outside right away.  To expose them to the fresh air, forge opportunities, and potential pathogens as soon as possible so they can develop on the right track.

Happy flockstering, and please let me know what you think of the design.

Update 5/19/13:

Things I want to change about the design so far:

1. Adjust size so that it can be built out of 1 sheet of plywood.

2.  Put the handles on the opposite side.  All the babies run away from us when we open it up to move.  This puts them in the brooder where we can't see them and they tend to get their toes run over.  So we end up moving it by pushing the brooder wall which scares the babies out into the yard where we can see them.  Makes me wonder if the handles are necessary at all.

3.  Add a small door that babies can fit through but adult chickens can't for introducing young birds into the flock (A thought I had after reading this article on the Natural Chicken Keeping Blog.

Update 6/24/13:  

The adult birds don't show any signs of wanting to use it in any way except perching on the handles.  I think if we want a broody hen to use it, we would have to lock her in there.  I worry that it is too hot and there is not enough ventilation for that though.  Worked great as a brooder, but I am re-thinking the broody hen application.

I guess from this angle, it doesn't look too inviting.


  1. Hi Joe! I love this plan and I plan on making one soon. I just wanted to let you and your other readers know that if you split the back panel in to three pieces you can actually get everything onto one sheet of plywood.

    1. Thanks Tom,

      I'm glad you like it, and thanks for the tip on the plywood. Just be sure that the joints are tight to avoid drafts. If you have a chance, let me know how the build goes for you.

  2. Did you put your chicks in right away? Or did you wait a few weeks? If so, did you have any problems with them being outside so early, and were they able to provide enough heat for themselves? I'm building this right now, and was curious. What a great design!

    1. It depends on the time of year mainly due to temperature. We do have a light installed inside to provide heat, but I don't think it would be enough to keep up with winter or even early spring here in Wisconsin. We have put our day old chicks out into the grass as soon as we get them with good results in the two batches we have gotten so far. I believe that it is better for them to face the environment they will live in from day one so they can develop the proper immune response. It also avoids the dust and ammonia buildup common to indoor brooders that can cause respiratory damage. The design is working well, but only within a limited window of use. If you only have a few chicks, they may not be able to huddle for warmth effectively. If you have more than a dozen they will out grow the space in just a few weeks. Be sure to move them to fresh (and short) pasture (un-sprayed lawn) at least every other day. Use a rake to break up matted droppings and make them disappear faster.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. Ok blogger, where is the undo button? I just clicked and accidentally deleted Brian's comment. Sorry about that.

      To answer your question, we have been going right from the brooder into an empty hoop coop. It's on my agenda to do a post about building hoop coops one of these days. I know some people also build a larger version of the open bottom brooder, similar to a Salatin style pen.

    4. Thanks for all the info. I got my chicks today, and as of right now they're inside temporarily until I put the finishing touches on the coop. The design is great, and they'll be heading out tonight/tomorrow. Just one thing, on the cut list, you have the corner posts listed at 2', but in assembly they're 21" (which is what they're supposed to be). It's an easy fix once you realize it, especially if you do so before making all the cuts, but just wanted to let you know. Hopefully that doesn't come off as jerky, not trying to be! Thanks again for the answers, and for posting this to begin with.

    5. Not jerky at all! Thank you; if you find an error, something that is confusing, or have suggestions to improve any of my designs or instructions, I definitely want to hear about it. In this case you are correct, it is an error on my part. I changed the height during the design process, and then pulled the numbers for the cut list off an earlier drawing. I will change the cut list now. This is my favorite part about the internet, where we can collaborate like this. Congratulations on getting your chicks! They are way too much work and money for the eggs or meat, but the entertainment we get from ours makes it all worthwhile.

  3. this is the best coop ive found yet, and will be building one. Iwill be using it to hatch chicks to go out to the farm when about 12 weeks old. I intend to put in a lift out floor,possibly thin ply

  4. That red sliver on your plywood template—why couldn't that have been cut from your scrap?

    Still, that is a cool design! Basing a similar hutch from this design—thanks!