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Owning chickens isn’t as easy as one might think.

When my husband told me he wanted to get chickens after we moved to our 38-acre home in Central New York two years ago, I imagined collecting fresh eggs and enjoying the occasional roast chicken. What I didn’t anticipate was the impact it would have on our day-to-day lives, and in particular on our ability to just pick up and leave the homestead.

One day, when we were scratching our heads over how we could possibly take a family vacation together on a weekend when all our “chicken sitter” friends were busy, I figured there had to be a way the birds could take care of themselves for at least a weekend. After some success and failure, we devised a system that works well for our larger-than-average backyard flock. We focused on the basics: food, water, egg collection, and an automated door. A few months into it, we’re pleased with the results. Here’s how we did it.

Chicken Food

Our 150 birds eat a lot. The two, round 3-gallon aluminum feeders we first used needed daily filling. We give our birds a locally sourced mash, which tended to jam in the common round feeders and required a good shake a few times a day to really get everything to the bottom. We also tried a long, narrow trough that holds more feed and doesn’t need to be shaken, but that proved to be very wasteful. In their zeal, the birds often knocked the trough over, even when we weighed it down with bricks.

We decided to do as many other backyard chicken owners have done and build a pipe feeder for our girls. Instead of using PVC pipe, as most designs call for, we chose to go the cheaper route and purchased 8-inch galvanized ducting. It’s much less expensive than large-diameter PVC.

With a wye connector, a 2-foot section of pipe, and two capes, we have a stand-alone feeder that holds a full 50-pound bag of feed. The birds do spill some of the mash when eating, but it’s not nearly as bad as the round feeder or tray.

Geese Enclosure

For our nine ducks and geese, who have their own enclosure and feeding system down by our pond, we’ve been having excellent results with YescomUSA’s self-opening aluminum feed tank with the capacity to hold 5 kilograms. Requiring over a pound of pressure on the mount to open it, it has proven ideal in keeping out the small vermin that were stealing our waterfowls’ food. While it was an amusing challenge teaching our birds how to stand on it just so to get the lid open, now that they’ve gotten the hang of it, keeping their food safe and dry has never been easier.

Water

Up until the automated redo of our coop, we had been making due with a mishmash of three or five-gallon plastic and metal waterers with a drinking ring around the bottom. While this design may work well for smaller operations, we find the rings (as with anything the chickens get their beaks on!) get very dirty, very quickly. The exposed water also evaporates throughout the day, and on hot days, we have to refill the containers upwards of thrice daily.

After some research, we couldn’t figure out a viable solution for our girls other than to set up large buckets with individual drinking cups that release water only when a chicken activates it. Considering our high number of birds, we had to go big. These 5-gallon bucket waterers are cheap to build, so we can set up four or five buckets in the yard—that’s 20 to 25 gallons of water on-hand—and leave the birds for a couple days.

Making bucket waterers with cups or nipples is simple: drill four or five holes into five-gallon buckets and plug them with chicken watering cups. Make sure the drill bit is slightly smaller than the neck of the watering cup or nipple. Next, heat the hole in the bucket with a torch or heat gun and quickly force the cup or nipple through the heated hole. This creates a waterproof seal. While it took a couple of weeks of training, the chickens finally got the knack, and we couldn’t be happier. Make sure you don’t switch all the waterers at the same time, as it takes them a while to learn. Some won’t, we have read, but we haven’t had that problem.

Door

One of the most onerous tasks of the trade is letting grumpy chickens out in the morning, and closing sleepy birds in at night. While we haven’t had any issues with predators just yet, we know that raccoons, bears, coyotes, and bobcats cruise around our property. Even on the nights we are home, we wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing the coop door is wide open and our girls are vulnerable.

To guard our flock, we decided to go high tech with the Coop Tender Internet Enabled Automatic Chicken Coop Door. The Coop Tender is an automated door opener wired with an optional Wi-Fi module that controls the coop door from our phones. It runs on AC wall power, or with a battery and solar panel. We have power to our coop, so can’t vouch for battery power, but otherwise it works very well. We programmed the doors to open at dawn (which is a little earlier than we like to be up) and close at dusk, and the ease it has brought us is priceless. Gone are the days when we have to tug on boots and windbreaker to go “let the birds out” in the early morning rain, or “close them up” in an evening

snowstorm. Instead, we can rest assured that the birds are safe and secure every day. We are able to peek out of the windows in our home and see the coop door glowing with status LED lights that show whether the door is open or shut. There’s even a temperature control module that drives a “freeze protect technology” to keep doors shut on days it’s too cold outside the coop—a necessity in our Central New York home.

Coop Tender Install

Ultimately, the installation of an automated coop door was a must, and something we only wish we’d done sooner. All we had to do was cut a hole in our existing coop door and make room for the Coop Tender. Our Wi-Fi picked up the connection, and soon we were able to program and detect the status of our door and monitor the safety of our girls. The controller on the door is easy to set up, and doesn’t require a smartphone or Wi-Fi, but they sure do make it handy.

 Egg Collection

We gather upwards of two-dozen eggs per day from our chicken operation. As the young birds grow, they will soon produce 60-dozen a week. When we first got our girls, my husband brought home a weathered, but still solid, old-fashioned nesting box he’d gotten from a friend. It’s a fine box, to be sure, but each day, I must reach under miffed hens to draw their eggs. That’s all well and good when collecting a handful of eggs a day, but they must be tended daily. If we’re away most of the day and only collect once at night, the eggs are usually pretty dirty and require a heavy cleaning. All this in mind, we’re now moving to a roll-back system, so the eggs clear the hen and drop into a collection area right after she lays.

Best Nest Box

For starters, we ordered two boxes from Best Nest Box. Their reversible roll-out boxes have the capacity to collect eggs either at front or at the back of the nest boxes. They’re galvanized, can handle our Northeastern weather, and are easy to set up. They’re community boxes—no dividers—and our hens migrated to using them after about a month. The boxes are also lined with polyethylene resins that are bacteria-resistant, and which don’t need to be constantly cleaned, unlike the hay-filled nest boxes we used until recently.

The reservoirs of the Best Nest Boxes hold multiple eggs safely away from the hens that laid them. They stay clean until we are ready to collect them. Weather permitting, we’ve let them stay in the collection area for as much as two days. They’re a great way to keep our eggs clean and whole while we’re away for a weekend. We’re now in the process of converting our traditional wall-hanging nest box to roll back style, with plans to mount that and the Best Nest Boxes on an exterior wall, so the eggs can be collected without us having to enter the coop.

It took a little trial and error to get our chicken enterprise running smoothly an autonomously for a few days. The work we put in was well worth it, however. When we tested our system out one weekend and found that we could leave our beloved girls alone for 48 hours plus, we were glad we made the effort to up our ante and automate our operation.

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