Frank Hyman humorously shows us how to make two different types of DIY poultry feeders that are inexpensive and efficient.
I enjoy having chickens as long as I don’t feel like I’m working for them. I especially like chickens when I can go on vacation for two weeks without worrying about them. But there are concerns about whether they have enough food when we’re on vacation. We worry about the food staying dry, supplying enough food for the entirety of our trip, and being able to top it off when we get back.
Let me share with you two ways to remove all worries while you’re on vacation. Or even if you’re not away, you aren’t on chicken cafeteria duty every time you turn around.
Gravity Feeders as Food Drawers
How Much Do They Really Eat?
Laying hens need to eat about 1/4 pound of feed every day, or almost 2 pounds per week. Of course, this varies with their age, activity level, number of eggs they’re laying, amount of free-ranging, and seasonal temperatures. The colder it is, the more they eat to keep their body temperature up. As they get older, they lay fewer eggs and, as a result, need fewer calories. So the amount of feed will vary, even from year to year. But a 1/4 pound per day, per bird is a good annual average for figuring out how much feed is needed to supply your birds.
We have six hens on our urban, backyard, permaculture plantation: two Buff Orpingtons, an Easter Egger, a Dominique, a Marans, and a Golden-Laced Wyandotte. Three are just passing the prime of their egg-laying lives and the other three are just starting to lay. So in a day, all six might eat 1.5 pounds of feed. For a two-week vacation that adds up to about 21 pounds. A common gravity feeder holds half of a 50-pound bag of feed, which will cover your trip with a little left over for insurance. If you have more chickens or will be away longer, then you’ll need to set up additional feeders.
Our Gravity Feeder
We use a vintage galvanized gravity feeder we bought for $5 at a junk-tique shop. It’s big enough to hold 25 pounds of feed. I keep the remainder of the bag in a small, watertight and vermin-proof galvanized garbage can next to the coop.
Gravity feeders are basically a metal tube mounted over a metal saucer. As the chickens eat the feed from the saucer, gravity pulls more feed from the tube. So the saucer refills automatically until the tube is empty. Who needs robots when you’ve got gravity?
Gravity Feeder Challenges
The three challenges with gravity feeders are: 1) the hazard of rain ruining the feed, 2) the hens’ tendency to get on top of the feeder and poop on their feed, and 3) the hens’ tendency to scratch debris into the saucer, blocking their access to the feed.
Weather and Poop
We like having a run that’s open to the weather. That way, bugs and worms will survive in the moist soil and be a food source for the hens. Plus, when mixed with the wood chips we add once or twice a year, the chicken poop breaks down more quickly than it would in a covered run.
Since our run is open, a feeder would get wet if it was in the pen. We keep the food dry and poop-free by positioning our 18-inch high gravity feeder under the coop in the space I call the moat. Raising the floor of the coop 2 to 3 feet off the ground makes it more difficult for vermin to gnaw their way into the coop. It also creates shelter from the weather for the hens and the feeder. And without enough headroom to roost on the feeder, the hens can’t poop in it either.
They Do Like to Scratch
To prevent the chickens from scratching debris into their feeder, it’s smart to raise the saucer up until its chest high on the birds. We do that by placing a couple scrap pieces of 4×4 lumber underneath the feeder.
But that setup could leave you with a fourth problem. Once the feeder’s empty, how do you retrieve, refill, and return it to its spot under the coop without crawling on your knees, straining your back, or banging your head on the coop?
Designing the Drawer
As I puzzled out this design issue, I felt like I needed something similar to a kitchen drawer. I wanted to pull the feeder out from under the coop and then slide it back into place without bending over. In my garage, I found a short-handled grain scoop I had bought at a yard sale for a couple of bucks. I had never used the grain scoop, so I spent a lot of time feeling like I’d wasted my $2. But now it looked like just the “food drawer” that I needed. Probably any shovel would work well enough.
I parked the gravity feeder on the blade of the grain scoop. To keep them functioning as one unit I drilled a hole through the blade of the scoop and the bottom of the feeder. That way I could secure them together with a small nut and bolt.
With my drawer secured, I filled the metal tube and slid the blade onto the tops of the 4×4’s as if they were a set of railroad tracks running under the coop. When the food drawer is in place, only the end of the handle protrudes from under the coop. When the saucer looks low I pull the food drawer out and refill it. After filling it, I slide it back in. No knee scrambling, back straining, or head-banging required. And the hens’ food will stay dry, poop-free, and accessible for weeks, giving us a worry-free vacation.
Fat Feeders from Nursery Pots
My friend Katie is a first-grade teacher with a tiny backyard farm. She had been feeding her two-dozen chickens with only three small gravity feeders that needed topping off every couple days. When I showed up with a stack of black nursery pots rolling around in the back of my pickup, she said, “I need one of those,” and grabbed the biggest one. She sized it up right away as a ready-made gravity feeder with its drainage holes on the bottom of each side. She quickly put one in the run. Katie then handily dumped the first of several 25-pound bags of pellets in the pot and realized it would hold enough feed for her flock for up to two weeks. That’s a big time saver for a single woman trying to expand her backyard homestead.
Advantages of the Fat Feeder
These nursery pots have a lot of advantages for chicken keepers who want to use them as gravity feeders. First, they’re free. Just ask your local landscaper or nursery for a few. Or scoop them up when you see a landscape crew doing a planting job. They’ll be happy for you to take them off their hands.
Second, they’re durable. Most plastic objects left in the sun will break down into pieces that blow away and get into everything. But nursery pots have UV inhibitors that keep them from breaking down. They can stand being out in full sun for many years.
Third, they’re ready-made to continuously spill out chicken feed from day one. They have several drainage holes along the bottom edge.
Fourth, they come in all sizes. Some are much bigger than any gravity feeder on the market. And there are also small ones that could serve as gravity feeders for chicks in their brooder. They come in a range of sizes that can match your project needs: 1-gallon, 3-gallon, 5-gallon, 10-gallon, and 15-gallon are some of the most common sizes. Any of them could substitute for the vintage metal gravity feeder I used with a grain scoop as a food drawer above.
Fifth, they’re easy to handle. The bigger pots have handles on two or four sides, making them easy to move even when filled.
Sixth, they don’t uglify the garden. They’re black, making them less eye-catching. Aesthetics may not be your most important consideration, but a good rule when conditions allow is that any object in the garden that isn’t gorgeous should be a dark color. Colors are dark because they reflect less light, so your eye isn’t drawn to them. Your eye is more naturally drawn to the brighter, more attractive elements in your yard: plants, garden accents and of course, chickens.
Katie had positioned the pot on her feeding station in the run: a pallet set on bricks, where the small feeders had been parked. The bricks kept the pallet from rotting on the ground. And by raising the feeders up, the chickens couldn’t scratch debris into them. Scrap pieces of metal roofing overhead kept the rain off the feeders and pallet.
Being handy, Katie immediately went to work customizing her new gravity feeder. She thought the drainage holes needed to be bigger to allow more pellets to flow. So she took a knife and quickly widened each hole to about twice its size. The plastic is sturdy, but easily yields to most knives, and even to pruners. Next, she cut down an old baby pool to function as a saucer to hold the pellets.
And then she went to place an order for more feed.
Frank Hyman has a BS in horticulture and is the author of Hentopia: Create Hassle-Free Habitat for Happy Chickens; 21 Innovative Projects.