Geared For Success: Equipment To Save Time And Money
Picking the right equipment for a successful small poultry operation
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Time and money are finite resources. We have day jobs, families, and some of us are trying to profit with poultry. It’s a tall order, but with suitable upfront investments, you can save a ton of those two precious commodities down the line.
Buy It Right
The cheapest option is seldom the best, but sometimes we need to find a financial middle-ground. I’ll be identifying what to avoid, the best compromise, and the go-for-broke options.
Screw base and double-wall water dispensers are ubiquitous amongst backyard flocks, but they’re not a great way to water birds, nor a good investment. Plastic screw base waterers seldom last over a year and the same for steel double-wall dispensers. I had some long-lived metal dispensers back in the day, but they don’t make them like that anymore.
These gravity trough waterers are time-intensive to manage, and the open design means you’re feeding your birds dirty water within the first five minutes of placing them down. Litter management becomes a pain because they leak, spill and tip over. There’s no redeeming factor to these waterers for a production flock, and they don’t present a value.
Water nipples are not new news. These gravity water valves dispense water to birds when they peck the valve, leaving the reservoir protected from contamination. The poultry industry has been using them for years, and thankfully they’re catching on in the backyard flock community. Commercial manufacturers suggest one valve per 10 to 12 layer or meat-type chickens.
If you haven’t seen a nipple valve bucket yet, a quick YouTube search will cure your curiosity. The DIY nipple bucket system is hands-down the best value to the poultry keeper up to 500 birds. If you have over 500 birds, you’re barking up the wrong tree. The cost of these waterers is directly related to your decisions when building them. You can buy cheap buckets from home improvement stores, expensive food-grade buckets, or get them free from your local deli. Don’t cheap out on the valves; buy the best you can find. The nipple bucket gives you the absolute best value, clean water, minimal dripping, and longevity. You’ll invest a little time building them, but you’ll make that up in reduced time managing them.
If I were to run a flock of 500 birds or more, I’d be using a commercial grade, low-pressure conduit nipple system. These systems are an investment but worth every penny for a serious flock. You need water service to the barn, and you need electricity to run the anti-roost shock wire; otherwise, you’ll have roosting birds flood your coop. An in-line dosing pump to chlorinate your water is also an essential maintenance consideration on these systems. You can build your own or buy pre-built systems from places like FarmTek.
The feeders at your local store are sub-par. Galvanized steel feeders won’t survive proper disinfection without rusting. Thin plastic feeders are bound to crack sooner than later. You won’t get the mileage you expected out of them in a production flock in either case. Speaking of wasted money, forget chick feeders. Just place a regular feeder on the ground and mound your litter up to the lip for day-olds.
I have no relation to Kuhl Corp, and they’re not interested in marketing to the small producer, but I’m a fan of their products. Kuhl builds feeders out of thick, durable plastics meant to withstand harsh disinfectants and put up with the abuse of a commercial operation. They’re the last feeder you’ll ever need to buy. Additionally, they have built-in features that stop your birds from tossing your expensive grain all over the ground, which alone should recoup your added expense of these feeders.
I suggest these feeders to anyone with a coop that will fit them and flocks of any size. I recommend the 35-pound feeders unless you have free-ranging birds, then I’d point you to the 300-pound range feeders. You can buy direct from Kuhl or find their products on FarmTek.com and other online retailers. The upfront cash layout maybe twice as much, but it’s money well spent.
Nesting boxes are required if you’re running a layer operation, but of all the places you might cheap out, this is the best place. Birds need a quiet, secluded, and preferably dark spot to safely lay eggs. How you achieve that doesn’t matter to them. You’ll need one nest hole per every six hens.
If you’re handy, a plywood nest box is a great idea. I suggest fine-finish plywood over coarse construction or chipboard to minimize cracks for poultry mites to hide in. Seal your surfaces with durable paint or a hard finish of your choice to block bugs and make them last. Give them a 12” cube to lay in, and be sure to add a lip to keep shavings in. Look at pictures of commercial nest boxes for design ideas. Also, I’ve seen creative people use 5-gallon buckets and other containers to build nest boxes. If it saves a buck and the birds use them, I’m all in.
Most feed stores sell nest boxes these days. For small flocks, I like the plastic single-box nests. I use them in my coop because they’re easy to mount. The plastic also makes them easy to clean and impervious to bugs. I don’t advise the open-top wooden style; hens aren’t a fan of those.
Steel commercial layer boxes are of great value to the serious egg flock. The standard design features flip-up roosts and removable nest bottoms, but you can find roll-out nests that roll the egg to the outside of the nest, so you don’t have to get pecked by defensive hens. You can find standard nests for sale in the used market; I buy mine on Craigslist. You’ll need to disinfect them and probably do some repairs, but you might get them for cheap. Don’t be surprised if the nest bottoms are junk or missing; be prepared to buy new ones or fabricate them yourself. Avoid using wood for nest bottoms; they’ll rot the boxes out in a hurry.
There is no excuse for not using light controls in your coop. Layers are sensitive to light duration, and if you forget to turn them on or off, you can cause serious problems. It’s OK to buy a cheap timer, but you need one!
The standard wall plug timer is not the best choice for a chicken coop, but if you have one kicking around the house, it’ll do. If you’re buying a new one, spend a few extra bucks and buy an outdoor timer with a shielded control. These timers are sold for outdoor holiday lights, and I’ve seen them year-round at home improvement stores, usually for $15 or less. I suggest only running LED bulbs on these. Never use these timers on a heat lamp, they’re not designed for a load like that, and you can burn your coop down. And don’t forget that you need to reset them after a power outage.
If you’re building a coop and want to invest in a quality timer, look at hard-wired units. You can buy washdown-grade enclosed timers, which are pricey, but a worthy investment. These can cost over $100, but it’s the last timer you’ll ever buy.
If you have WiFi reception in your barn, smart plugs are an option. Smart plugs are a great way to set a schedule for your lights. They’re not super expensive; you can buy a four-pack for around $25 bucks, and most of them are app-agnostic, so you can use any app you want. If you’re going to control a 250-watt heat lamp with one, you need a 15 amp rated plug or higher to avoid a fire hazard. Only plug one heat lamp in per each 15 amp smart plug. You can expect to spend about $25 on each 15 amp smart plug.
For LED lightbulbs, any fixture will do. For your 250-watt heat lamps, you must use 250-watt rated sockets. These sockets are usually porcelain, and if you’re buying the clamp-style lights, they’re typically labeled as “brooder lamps.” Don’t put a 250-watt bulb in a fixture not meant to handle them; it’s the most common cause of barn fires.
There’s no good reason to skip out on nipple buckets; they present the best value, and yes, you can add a heater to them. I urge you to buy quality commercial-grade 35-lb feeders because they do matter over the long term. Feel free to get creative with nest boxes. If you have more time than money, build your own or look for used ones in need of fixing. Don’t burn your coop down; use proper fixtures for heat bulbs. You need a timer for your lights, so grab a cheap outdoor one to avoid accidental changes or damage from the elements.
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy.