Labor-free chicken rearing takes planning and preparation, but when done well it pays great dividends. I have much more time for gardening and other household projects.
There are three primary tasks that chicken farmers spend the most time on: feeding, watering, and cleaning. If you can make those tasks automatic, your labor time is virtually eliminated.
I started by designing an automatic chicken feeder. There are many commercial feeders on the market, but they can be costly, take up a lot of space, and require regular filling. I designed my chicken feeder to be part of the coop, taking up very little space. My chicken coop is built with the studs 24 inches on center; the gap between studs is perfect for a feeder.
I began with a simple wooden tray to fill the space at the bottom of the feeder. This tray extends beyond the studs by two inches and holds the chicken feed. Simple 1 x 4 pine is glued and nailed to make a sturdy box. I mounted the box between the studs at 12 inches above floor level; this a good height for a full-grown chicken.
|A simple wooden tray|
To reduce labor even more, I cut a horizontal hole in the wall of the coop so I can fill the feeder from outside the coop; I don't have to go inside to feed the chickens. A 1 x 4 board on hinges acts as the door and bent sheet metal fills the gaps so I can pour the bag of chicken feed without it spilling everywhere.
|Feeder door in coop wall|
To finish the feeder I covered the entire gap inside the coop with a sheet of plexiglass. I happened to have a sheet the correct size, but this is the most expensive piece for building the automatic chicken feeder if you have to buy it.
|The finished chicken feeder|
The automatic chicken feeder holds an entire 40-pound bag of chicken feed. Depending on how many chickens you have, this can give you many weeks between fillings. Fill it once and let the chickens eat when they're ready. Sure, they spill some of the feed when they eat, but they'll peck most of it up later. This type of feeder has an advantage over others because you can easily see when it needs refilling.
|Easy to see feed level|
For an automatic water system I purchased chicken nipples to install in PVC tubing. There are two basic styles of chicken nipples. For one you drill a hole in the PVC pipe and screw in the nipples. My research found many customers not entirely satisfied with this type because of the potential for leaks. I went with the second type of chicken nipple which is a saddle type.
There are many companies selling both types of nipples in ranch stores and on the internet. For just a few dollars you can buy a bag of either type of chicken nipple and set up your automatic waterer.
For the saddle-type chicken nipple waterer, you drill a hole and snap the nipple in place. It's important that the hole in the PVC is perfectly cut. I found in my first effort that I chipped one edge of the hole by drilling too quickly and the chip caused a small water drip when the nipple was in place. When drilled and placed correctly there is no leaking.
|Chicken nipples on PVC pipe|
The PVC pipe with the chicken nipples is attached to a bucket. I used a four-gallon, food-grade, plastic bucket that I got for free at the supermarket. The bakery department gets their frosting in these buckets and they'll gladly give away the empties.
|PVC pipe and bucket|
I cut a hole in the coop wall big enough for the PVC pipe, with nipples on, and inserted the automatic waterer. The bucket is outside the coop so I can fill it without having to go inside the coop.
|Little space needed for water|
I also build an automatic chicken waterer for the run so my chickens have water when they're outside too. Two buckets, each with four gallons of water, lasts my chickens for weeks. I add ice on hot days and freshen the water every two weeks, but they could go much longer if necessary.
To make cleaning the coop easier I practice the "deep litter" method of managing the coop litter. The concept is to use pine shavings, or a similar organic material, as litter to help keep the chicken manure off the coop floor. As the manure builds, you add more litter. The chickens walk and scratch and mix the manure with the litter. This method only requires cleaning the coop once or twice a year.
I use pine shavings as my primary litter, but to help cut costs I also use coffee chaff. Coffee chaff is the leftover organic waste from roasting coffee. Many coffee roasters will gladly give you a bag of chaff. I find that the light chaff helps keep the litter dry by absorbing much of the manure moisture and helps it clump so it doesn’t stick to the floor.
|Coffee chaff litter|
Over time the litter and manure begin decomposing. When you're ready to clean the coop, after six months or so, you remove all of it and add it to the compost pile. The litter and manure, partially decomposed, will become compost in very little time.
I also made an automatic feeder for oyster shells. Oyster shells add calcium to the chicken diet and are good for layers. I used a 2-inch PVC pipe and cut a 1-inch cutout on one end. Then I attached a 4-inch PVC cap to that end with wood screws, after pre-drilling holes.
The cutout allows the oyster shells to spill out the bottom of the pipe, but they won't overflow the cap that is about 2-inches tall. A pipe 30 inches long will hold a 5-pound bag of oyster shells. That provides calcium for many weeks until filling again.
|Oyster shell feeder|
A couple holes drilled in the side of the pipe allow for mounting the feeder in the coop. First drill a hole bigger than the screw head, then drill a smaller hole the size of the screw shaft. This allows for the feeder to be slipped over a screw in the side of the coop and then fit snugly when the PVC slips over the screw.
I have the automatic chicken feeder, the automatic chicken waterer, and the automatic chicken oyster shell dispenser lined up on one wall of the coop. It's one-stop shopping for the chickens.
All were designed for mature chickens so I had to add steps while the chickens were young so they could reach everything. The little chickens figured it all out very quickly.
|Drinking and eating on steps|
With the automatic feed and water systems and deep litter method, the chickens basically take care of themselves. For someone with little time but a desire to raise chickens, any or all of these can make raising chickens virtually maintenance-free.
I mentioned the chickens take about 15 minutes of my time per month. That's about three minutes for adding water to both buckets and two minutes for adding feed, though it really takes less than that. I spend about five minutes adding pine shavings or coffee chaff and swapping out clean newspaper under the roost. That leaves five minutes that I bank for coop cleaning later. At the six-month point I have 30 minutes accumulated for removing the litter and manure.
This amount of time is based on just a few chickens in a small coop and attached run. For larger flocks and bigger coops it will take more effort, but these automatic chicken methods should reduce labor when compared to traditional feeding, watering, and cleaning methods.