How to Pick the Best Chicken Feeders and Waterers
The Best Chicken Feeders and Waterers Make Raising a Flock Easier
Feeding backyard chickens should hypothetically be a simple thing to do. You know what can chickens eat, but when the chicken feeders and waterers we buy fail to live up to expectations, it complicates things. There are many different styles of chicken feeders and waterers available today; some perform well, some fail quickly, and more still just don’t deliver the value we think they will. Over the years, I’ve used all sorts of off-the-shelf, commercial-grade and even some home brew systems, all with mixed results. Hopefully, my years of expensive trial and error can help you pick the right chicken feeders and waterers for your flock.
Plastics Make It Possible
I’ve noticed a trend in the poultry equipment retail market; it lags the commercial sector by about 10 years. I remember a time when all you could find on the local feed store shelves was metal equipment, with exception to those terrible little screw base water founts. The commercial poultry sector had long since scrapped their metal feeder and water equipment in favor of non-porous, non-rusting, chemical-resistant plastics, but the retail world of poultry supplies took awhile to catch up.
Plastics have become the new standard for poultry equipment, both in the commercial sector and retail stores, but for different reasons. Professional farmers adopted plastic and stainless steel devices because of their non-porous characteristics, which deny bacteria and viruses a place to hide and entrench themselves. In addition, with the advent of modern disinfectants, the new acidic cleaning agents proved to be far too corrosive for old galvanized sheet metal. Plastic offers a cost-effective material that resists caustic solutions, can be as durable as their sheet metal predecessors, and offers a better longevity since they never rust.
The retail poultry sector finally changed over to plastic construction simply because it’s cheap. It’s far cheaper to produce thousands of injection-molded feeders and much cheaper to ship plastic feeders that weigh a fraction of the old sheet steel designs. Cheaper products offer better profit margins, and cheap prices make consumers buy more, one way or another. The problems we as consumers see more often now is that these cheap fixtures are not as durable because, well, they’re cheap in every sense of the word. From a hygiene point of view, they’re still better than our old rusty feeders, but most plastics used in retail products are of a lesser quality and thickness compared to commercial equipment.
Retail locations will sell you anything you want, for the most part. Even if your local shop still sells steel feeders for backyard chickens, I don’t suggest them. Retail galvanized steel is not the same as the old commercial grade galvanized steel, and these feeders will rust sooner rather than later. Rusty feeders are impossible to clean, look terrible and make you look like a bad poultry keeper, so don’t bother buying steel.
This goes double for today’s metal double wall water founts. Back in the day, they were your only option for a heated chicken waterer, but now they offer heated plastic water founts. I always suggest buying plastic now, since the new galvanized double wall founts rust quickly and break at the welds, causing a vacuum leak and consequently a big water leak. Nipple drinker systems are far superior to water founts of any design, so if you haven’t done so already, consider building a nipple bucket to make your life easier.
Products You Don’t Need
At the risk of sounding like a ranting snob, I’d like to air my biggest gripe with the retail poultry world. You don’t need half the stuff they’re trying to sell you for your backyard chickens! Chick growing equipment is the biggest offender in my eyes. Most first-time chicken buyers will purchase chicks at a retail location that wants to sell you a whole bunch of chick-specific equipment. Your $12 chick purchase quickly becomes $50 or $60 bucks before you can bat an eye. You need a special chick feeder, a special chick water fount, that handy little thermometer meant especially for raising chicks and oh, don’t forget our super-duper plastic draft guard thing, you definitely need that! Right, I have a bridge to sell you too.
What makes this feel like such a scam is this; you’ll be back in eight weeks to buy the full size chicken feeders and waterers your backyard chickens actually need, since your chickens now empty that little chick water fount in under two minutes, if they can drink from it at all. All that equipment you bought is now useless to you, and I hope they didn’t already eat you out of house and home, since you’ll be in need of more expendable cash to buy the equipment you really need.
Not all retailers are crooks, instead it’s my experience that they simply don’t know any better. These products are on the shelf, they make sense to them, and everyone else is buying it, so that’s what they need to sell you, right? Not really.
Adapting Full-Size Equipment For Chicks
If you’re brooding birds in a small box, the upright chicken feeders and waterers do make your life easier. But when you’re brooding on the barn floor, your birds can use adult equipment just as easily as chick specific equipment, with some adaptations. Full-size feeders are just as effective at delivering feed to chicks as they are for mature birds, but chicks are vertically challenged, so be sure to place full-size feeders at ground level and ramp up your bedding to meet the lip of the feeder. If you’re still using water founts; stop! I highly recommend building nipple drinkers (it’s cheap, easy, safer and far healthier). If you’re stuck with a water fount for now, filling the trough with marbles will stop chicks from drowning. The quail bases for those small quart water founts are great for preventing chicks from drowning, but marbles in the trough can work just as well.
Speaking of troughs, those old-school metal or plastic trough feeders with the flip top are another one of those things you think you need, but all they do is serve dirty feed to your backyard chickens. Today’s tube and trough gravity feeders are far superior to the old style chick trough design. I have an old trough feeder hiding in my tool shed somewhere, and when I see it next, I’ll be sure to toss it.
Commercial vs. Retail
Today’s retail-grade plastic chicken feeders and waterers can be serviceable, as long as they are not abused. You will notice that the plastic is thin and it won’t like the sun all that much, but the price is likely right and they’re readily available. Big name brands in the retail world are Miller Manufacturing (AKA: Little Giant) and Harris Farms. When deciding what to feed chickens with, some people may figure these will suffice, but there are better quality feeders available.
Commercial feeders are built to withstand the abuse you can expect to see on a working farm, which can be rough sometimes. Good commercial plastic feeders feature thick, well-designed plastic parts as well as metal reinforcements when needed. Unlike many inexpensive retail feeders, modern commercial feeders usually include spill shields or grates (either as a separate part or integrated into the pan), which helps to stop your birds from pulling feed out of the feeder without eating it. Especially if your feeders are not set at the correct height, or you have different height birds in your flock, a spill shield or grate will help keep the feed in the pan and off the floor of your coop where it will go to waste. When looking for top-shelf commercial equipment, look for names like Kuhl, Brower and Big Dutchman.
Specialty Feeders for Backyard Chickens
My favorite feeder by far is my Kuhl 250 lb. range feeder because it has made feeding my backyard chickens so much easier. Range feeders are built to live outdoors and come in many sizes, rated by the pounds of feed it can hold. If I wanted to fill my feeder, I could put five 50lb bags of feed in the hopper, but I don’t usually need that much. Since it sits outside, it does have special design features, such as a rain fly that keeps the feed dry and clean for my birds. This feeder sits outside of my coop, which helps keep raccoons and other predators out of my barn. The local wildlife prefers to gorge themselves at the buffet of layer feed I have in my range feeder rather than work at breaking into my coop, which means my chickens are less of a target than when I used to feed inside the coop. I have some seriously fat raccoons and opossums these days, but now I also have chickens that are more likely to die of old age than being taken by a predator.
Home Brew Equipment
For those of us who are handy, there are so many ideas and how-to’s out there on the Internet that I couldn’t possibly cover them all here. One word of caution, or perhaps one major design consideration you should take into account is; how are you going to clean this thing? Designs that don’t disassemble for cleaning, or include porous materials like wood, are a real challenge to clean properly. Plan on using plastics, PVC tubes, stainless steel, or at least well painted or sealed wood to deny bacteria or other disease-causing organisms a place to hide and thrive.
I’m quite partial to my commercial equipment for chicken feeders and waterers, which might make me look snobbish, but I’ve thrown so much broken equipment away over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the quality they offer.
Do you have a favorite chicken feeder and waterer for your backyard chickens? Let me know in the comments below!