Free Range Poultry Production
Types of Free Range Feeding Devices
There are really only three kinds of feeders used in Free Range Poultry Production:
- No feeder (feeding on the ground).
- Troughs and other kinds of shallow pans.
- Hopper-type feeders with a feed reserve that empties into a
pan. Examples are tube feeders and range feeders.
There are also automatic feeders that use an electric motor to run an augur or chain to move feed around, but I don’t think these are practical for outdoor use.
The simple trough feeder used in Free Range Poultry is poorly understood by modern farmers. Hopper-type feeders are so common that people have forgotten what trough feeders are about.
The advantage of using a trough in Free Range Poultry is that, when it comes right down to it, it’s just a pan that you pour feed into. Nothing could be simpler.
You can put just about any kind of feed into a trough, including liquids. A trough is the universal feeder. Because of this, it should be easy to clean!
Troughs need to hold enough feed to get the chickens from one feeding to another without running empty (or just barely running empty). Most troughs on the market are too shallow and too narrow for this. I can’t imagine what the manufacturers are thinking. I have some
ancient hen troughs that are eight feet long, ten inches wide, and six inches deep. That’s a great size when feeding full-sized birds.
As mentioned before, the top of the trough should be even with the chickens’ backs. If the height isn’t adjustable, you end up having to keep several sets of troughs for birds of different ages. To some extent you need to do this anyway, because a pan deep enough
to prevent feed waste with larger birds is too deep for chicks.
Traditionally, chicken troughs have some kind of guard, reel, or wire across the top to keep the chickens from perching on the troughs or dust-bathing in them. These aren’t strictly necessary, but they help. They tend to make filling the trough a nuisance, though.
Troughs are often built with an inward-facing lip at the top to help keep the chickens from flipping feed out, and may have a grille, like the one shown earlier on the Brower trough waterer, which both reduces wastage and helps prevent feed loss.
Types of Trough
This range feeder from 90 years ago uses slats to keep the chickens from dust-bathing inside. The use of a plank roof instead of something more weatherproof tells you that this farm was in California.
Commercial troughs are generally made out of galvanized steel or plastic. As I have already mentioned, I don’t know of any commercial troughs that are big enough for full-sized chickens.
The best materials for home-made troughs are wood or large-diameter PVC pipe.
Wooden troughs used for Free Range Poultry are easy to make but are heavy. My experience is that non-galvanized nails don’t have enough holding power. In fact, if I were to build any more wooden troughs, I’d use screws instead.
A traditional range feeder from the 1930s. The roof lifts off for refilling. Internal partitions allow different kinds of feed to be used. Note that rats will take up residence under
the wire platform unless the feeder is moved between fillings. There are any number of wooden trough designs, some quite strange. Most don’t have any kind of rain shield, which is fine if the trough is used for supplemental feeding, but is a problem if you want to
use it to keep feed in front of the chickens all the time.
My favorite rain shield for a wooden trough is single sheet of corrugated roofing, laid flat. The water will drip off whichever end is lowest, and the sheet is wide enough to give some shelter to the chickens. The roof should have some means of attaching it securely to the trough, which should be heavy enough to keep everything from blowing away in strong winds.
Troughs made from PVC pipe are the coming thing. I haven’t built any myself, and I haven’t figured out all the mechanical issues. The basic concept for a trough that you’re going to hang from chains at either end is:
- Take a length of large-diameter PVC pipe (most people use 4-inch pipe, which may be too small) and glue caps to both ends.
- Remove about one-third of the diameter of the pipe, starting a little way past the cap.
- Add eye bolts to hang the trough from.
- Attach chains (or ropes, or baling twine) to the eye bolts and hang the trough.
My only real concern about this design for Free Range Poultry is that a long trough might sag in the middle.
Maybe you get extra credit if you don’t simply glue caps on the end, but glue on threaded adapters and have screw-on end caps. That way, you can unscrew the ends and hose out the trough more easily.
One final note: it used to be fairly common for poultry houses to have feed troughs attached on the outside of the houses, even though the chickens were inside. A length of two inch by four-inch welded wire allowed the chickens to reach the troughs from inside
the houses. The advantage of this system for Free Range Poultry is that the farmer can fill the trough without going inside the house. This is worth considering if you’re tired of removing and replacing the feeders in your pasture pens with each daily move. It’s the same concept as nest boxes that are accessible from the outside, but applied to feeders.
A tarp-covered cattle panel provides shade for two ancient galvanized range feeders on my farm. Note the waterproof lid and rain shield. Modern versions are generally made of plastic, but look pretty much the same.
Hoppers are just a feed bin that empties into a trough or pan. Tube feeders are like that; so are range feeders.
The point of hoppers is that you don’t have to fill them as often as troughs. They might hold feed for a day or for a month. Arguably, the sweet spot is when they hold at least a week’s worth of feed, so you can fill the feeders on Saturday and have only light chores
the rest of the week.
Managing feed hoppers is practically the same as troughs. The differences are:
- Feed flows differently depending on its particle size and weight. A tube feeder that does great with feed pellets might leave most of the feed on the ground if filled with light oats. Most hoppers have some way of adjusting the opening between the reservoir and the pan. Getting this right can be a nuisance. Lightweight feeds need a much narrower opening than heavier ones.
- There’s more feed in a hopper. This means that any kind of accident is more expensive.
- The feed is around longer. An amount of rain and condensation that wouldn’t matter in a trough that’s emptied twice a day might lead to a serious mold problem with a hopper that holds a week’s feed.
- The hopper is heavier. If suspended from a chicken house, it can strain the structure or your back.
In Pastured Poultry Profits, Joel Salatin reports poor results with tube feeders in Free Range Poultry, because the feed gets wet and refuses to flow. I live in an area with over 60 inches of rainfall, mostly in the winter, and I have this problem only when there’s a problem with the lid or rain shield on a range feeder. So it’s not black and white; the devil is in the details, as usual.
It may be easier to get good results with a range feeder sitting out in the weather than with a tube feeder in a pasture pen. It can get pretty damp in a pasture pen, and the lack of lids and rain shields on tube feeders can be a real liability.
These days, you basically have your choice of tube feeders and range feeders, both of which have a round feed pan on the bottom and a cylindrical feed reservoir on top. The difference between the two is that a range feeder sits on the ground and has a lid and rain shield to keep the weather out, while a tube feeder is suspended from above and lacks the weather protection.
In the old days there were many different rectangular hoppers, all of which looked more or less like hog feeders or creep feeders.
My local feed stores have two kinds of tube feeders; smaller ones for chicks and larger ones for older birds. The smaller ones hold ten to fifteen pounds of feed, while the larger ones hold roughly thirty pounds of feed. So it takes two of the larger feeders to hold a fifty-pound sack of feed.
The issues with pan height are the same as with troughs. Height is easy to adjust with hanging tube feeders. Range feeders are generally non adjustable. Mine are Big Dutchman turkey feeders that are probably fifty years old. They work fine with hens and older pullets. In fact, smaller pullets do okay, too, since they climb right into the feed pan to eat.
Pan fullness issues are also the same as with troughs. As already described, most of the larger hoppers have some kind of adjustment (though tube feeders for chicks may not).
I don’t know if anyone still makes steel range feeders. What I see in the catalogs are plastic range feeders from Kuhl, which I’ve heard good things about but haven’t used myself. I’m very pleased with the durability of my antique steel range feeders. I can back my pickup too far and whack them with my tailgate, and they don’t care. The plastic ones probably require more TLC.
The ideal size for a large range feeder for Free Range Poultry is one where you can stand on the tailgate of a pickup and tip feed sacks into the feeder. If you have to hoist the sacks so you can pour them into the feeder, it’s too tall. Also, you want the range feeder to be short enough
that you don’t have to climb inside to remove caked feed from the bottom.
On a big farm, you’d want to invest in a feed wagon with (for example) a power take off-driven feed augur. Then you could use bulk rather than bagged feed. I knew a farmer who did this. He used an elderly grain wagon, which was a trailer used originally as a way of shuttling grain between a combine and the granary. It held a ton or two of
feed. The PTO-driven augur would send the feed up a tube that looked like a length of stovepipe and was mounted so it could be positioned where you wanted it.
He would hitch the grain wagon to his tractor, back it under his free-standing outdoor grain bin, fill it, and then tow it to each range feeder in turn, positioning the feed tube over the top of the feeder and engaging the PTO to start the flow of feed into the range feeder. He got all of this equipment (grain bin, grain wagon, and range feeders) at a nominal price because it was considered obsolete or too small for modern farming. His outdoor feed bin was filled directly from the feed mill’s bulk feed truck, which had its own feed-augur rig.