by Meredith Chilson
Photos by author
The original title of this post was “Do-It-Yourself: Grit/Shell Feeder”. After an afternoon struggling with the carpentry aspect of the feeder, I realized it wasn’t going to be done by MYself. For my handyman husband, however, this was an easy project. We recycle and save all sorts of things, so if you are lucky enough to have a pile of materials ready to reuse, this is an inexpensive project, too.
But first: why are grit and shells important to have available in a chicken coop?
To answer this, it’s necessary to know a bit about a chicken’s digestive system. Chickens do not have teeth, so food that a chicken ingests goes first to the crop, the soft pouch near the windpipe, where it is softened a bit before heading further down the alimentary canal to the chicken’s gizzard. Here in the gizzard, a muscular pouch just above the intestines, food is ground up. Soft foods, and quite often commercial feeds qualify, will pass through the gizzard without needing to be ground, but whole or cracked grains need grinding. Freely ranging chickens will pick up small pebbles or even sand to aid their digestion, but chickens kept in confinement will need to have this grit offered to them. My hens have a large yard to run around in, and they are often out in the summerhouse, so I know they can find small stones to add to their diet, but I like to offer them grit from a feeder, too. In the winter, we often have sub-zero temperatures and lots of snow. There are days when the coop door stays closed, and an inside grit feeder is especially important. I may never need to refill the grit feeder in the summer months, but in the winter it empties within a few weeks. Chickens instinctively know to add grit to their diet.
|grit/shell feeder from “repurposed” materials|
Grit is available at your local feed store. I introduce my baby chicks to grit within a few days of hatching. “Chick Grit” is tiny—sand can be used, too—and for the first few weeks, I sprinkle it right in with their starter mash. Larger pebbles of grit for larger hens can also be added to feeders, but I like to have a separate “self-serve” container. Chickens have no trouble finding this separate feeder, since they are such curious birds.
Laying hens need calcium. Eggshells are made from calcium, which should come from the hen’s diet. Right next to the bags of Poultry Grit at your local feed store, you will find bags of Oyster Shell. The self-serve feeder that I use has two sections: one for grit and one for oyster shell. The calcium supplement can be mixed in with commercial feed, too, but since I am feeding young pullets—not yet laying—I prefer to have it available separately.
There are other ways of offering calcium to hens, of course. Cleaned, crushed eggshells can be left out for chickens. I have never done this, partly because I don’t have an abundance of extra eggshells and partly because I worry that, unless the eggshells are ground beyond recognition, chickens may be encouraged to eat their own eggs. For a special treat in the winter, I warm whole milk and mix it in a bowl of feed and oatmeal. Leftover yogurt is another high-calcium (and protein) treat for your chickens. When I was a little girl living on a farm, I remember my mother taking a bucket of soured milk out to her hens—they nearly tripped over each other jostling for position at the dish. Unless you have a ready source of extra milk or plenty of cleaned, broken eggshells, it’s easiest to have the purchased oyster shell available for your layers.
|New feeder in coop|
You can leave out small dishes of grit and oyster shell, but I’ve found they often are stepped on and spilled, or they are quickly filled and covered with litter or become dirty in other ways. Metal dispensers are available, too. I’ve just always used a homemade dispenser. It hangs on the coop wall with the bottom about 6 to 8 inches off the floor. It’s high enough for the biggest Buff Orpington hen to easily scoop up whatever amount she needs, and low enough for our smallest Silkie to use, too.
We renovated our coop a bit when we merged the two flocks. I noticed that our old grit and oyster shell dispenser needed a facelift, too: the wooden bottom had shifted so grit and shells were sifting out onto the floor and the hinged lid had come entirely off.
I took the feeder down to try to clean and repair it, and then realized it needed more than a facelift. I sorted around our pile of Items that Can Be Reused (not JUNK!!), and found some things I knew I could use to build a better feeder: an old white board, some items leftover from various house renovation projects, and miscellaneous parts from a small forced air furnace.
My ideas and my carpentry skills do not match up, so after spending some frustrating hours, I turned the whole project over to my husband, and headed into the house for the camera. When I returned the project was done—so I have no photos of the project in process. I hated to ask him to take it all apart again, so I’ll describe the sections and show the completed feeder.
First, we used the 12” x 16” piece of leftover whiteboard for the back of the feeder. Some leftover pine door casing was sawed at an angle for the sides: wider at top than at bottom. A center divider was also made from the pine.
The bottom tray is made from salvaged aluminum trim stock.
This was attached to the back and bent around to the front at a 45-degree angle, so contents will flow toward the front of the feeder, rather than collect in the corners. All parts were attached with zip screws left over from forced air furnace ductwork.
The lid was hinged with heavy rubber tape.
I attached the new feeder to the wall of the coop, filled it up and within seconds the nosy old hens were poking their beaks in the feeder sections.
I really like the aluminum tray on this new feeder. Other feeders have had a separate piece of wood for the bottom and front of the tray. Oyster shell can become almost powder-like after many hens have been taking from the dispenser. The pulverized shell always seemed to sift through the crack, no matter how small, between the parts of the tray.
If you have decent carpentry skills, this truly could be an easy do-it-yourself project. Any sort of untreated wood could be used for the main sections: plywood, paneling, etc. I liked what we used because it was sturdy and yet light. When I was digging through our pile of materials, I noticed parts of an old kitchen cabinet, and thought that might work well also. One time we actually used real hinges to hold the top lid in place—but we’ve also used cloth tape (stapled) and part of an inner tube.
What sort of additions to your coop do you make from recycled, repurposed materials?