Haskins Family Farm

  (Middletown, Virginia)
Growing for the community, growing for the future!

Winter watering of chickens

Every winter, any egg producer in a cold climate must deal with frozen waterers if they over winter their egg layer flock like we do. Each year, I try to improve on my cold weather watering methods to make my life easier and things healthier for the birds.

Last winter, I discovered the Farm Innovators heated poultry fount HPF-100. While this works OK (it only uses 100W of power which is quite low) this device does have a number of significant drawbacks:

  • having to flip the fount over to fill is a pain, especially in cold weather when you need to use it
  • you can get shocked if you don't raise it above the (wet) litter (any ideas regarding how I found that out?)
  • the design is a pain in that the unit must be very close to level, otherwise it will rapidly drain

During the summer season that just flew by, I was very interested in automating my brooder watering system and tried a number of systems that didn't work for me (GQF cup waterers, automated round drinker) until I discovered nipple waterers. So I purchased qty/50 nipple waterers and attempted to build my own pipe based nipple watering system. However, I couldn't get the nipple seals to not leak on the PVC pipe, so I abandoned the idea and purchased the Farmtek pre-manufactured nipple watering systems but ran out of time to install them before the end of the summer season.

Back when I was researching nipple waterers, I discovered folks who put the nipple waterers in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket for their layers. While I don't like that idea for the brooder during non-cold weather operations, I thought it might work well in my chicken coops with a 5-gallon bucket de-icer during the winter.

So during the first bout of cold weather this winter, my dear wife built two (one for each coop) 5-gallon nipple waterer units out of buckets and the leftover nipple waterers with a lid and a 5-gal bucket de-icer in it. To my surprise, they don't freeze! But they have one little problem: our layers have not been trained to use the nipple waterers and refuse to use them. to date. It seems the layers must be brought up on nipple waterers from chicks in order to use them when they are older. I do plan to give them some time to figure them out by leaving the 5-gal nipple waterers in place. Perhaps the birds will eventually figure out how to use them on their own as adults, and not have to learn as chicks.

The benefits of the 5-gallon bucket nipple waterer with a de-icer are as follows:

  • no need to get oneself wet filling waterers
  • easy to fill -- just bring the hose into the coop and fill the waterers
  • no leveling problems
  • no risk of shock
  • larger capacity (5-gallon buckets vs 3-gallon HPF 100)

The obvious negative is the additional 150W of power, and the higher price ($40 for the bucket de-icer plus nipple waterers, vs $35 for the HPF-100) but in my opinion, that is a small price to pay. We'll train our next batch of layer pullets to use the nipple waterers when we brood them from day old chicks, so hopefully, next winter we'll be in better shape watering wise with our laying flock.

Here is an ATTRA article about chicken waterers written by Robert Plamondon. It is an excellent overview of the available chicken waterers, at the time of the writing (2006).


Winter poultry production

At the Leesburg Winter Farmers Market today, I had a lady complain that every time she came to the winter market, we were out of chicken. I explained to her that we have limited production space for winter meat chickens. Visualize two sides of a corn crib where the corn used to be stored -- enough space for about 100 chickens/month, from age day 1 until day 70 when they are butchered. It's hard for folks to understand how hard winter production is, when you are doing it on a small scale and on a limited budget.

Chickens need to have supplemental heat during the winter. Otherwise, they "pile on" each other and suffocate. Or, their waterers freeze.

The growers for the Big Boys (Tyson, Purdue, etc.) all have large heated buildings with good insulation and large propane bills, designed expressly for chicken production year round. I have a corn crib built in 1909 which is meant to dry corn, not raise chickens in! I have made due. This year, I started putting up OSB (oriented strand board, or cheap plywood) on the sides so the wind doesn't blow right through, which helped tremendously with keeping the birds alive during the windiest and coldest times. Also, I started using my brooding device (a 4 foot by 4 foot wood box/cover with 4 250 watt heating lamps) as a heat source for the chickens, even after the brooding stage (after about 4 weeks old). Not very efficient energy wise, but it's cheap to build and it works for the scale I am working at.

 What we're planning on doing, when we get big enough, is to build a building that will act as a brooder during the summer months and then as a winter production facility for chicken! But the capital required to build such a building is not available, yet.

So in the meantime, I'll continue explaining to folks why I can't keep up with demand during the colder months. If only I had $25,000....


Being away from the farm, and coming back

It is a bit scary to have to travel away from the farm, and leave it in the hands of someone else, even if that someone else is your spouse. But as it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

 Several weeks prior to finding out that I had to travel this past week, we made an appointment to take a pig to the processor. Normally, loading pigs for their "appointment" is an "all hands on deck" family affair, requiring everyone's help to get the pig from the pasture onto the trailer and over to the processor. With me being away for this difficult work evolution, I offered to take the "hit" with the processor and reschedule (processors don't like to have their appointments changed). Mary (my spouse) said, no that she would try.

 Well, here in Virginia we have had a lot of rain this spring, something we sorely need but which makes loading pigs in a pasture somewhat difficult as you might imagine. After getting the truck stuck in the pasture (I have no idea where) she did manage to get the pig to the processor, with time to spare! Not two months ago, I had to take two days of vacation off to get one pig loaded! Thank goodness this one cooperated....

I was pleasently surprised to not find any other "disasters" waiting for me when I got back. And they only lost one or two chicks of a 125 bird order that arrived this week while I was away, to boot!


Brooding chicks and poults

So we ordered 20 poults (baby turkeys) that arrived this week. Well, actually, we did get 20 turkeys but 13 were dead when we picked them up at the post office. We got a call from the USPS expediter at 11pm (!!) Wednesday night from the local sorting center who said "I've got some turkeys here and I don't they all made it". (That was an understatement.)

Turkeys are one of the hardest birds to brood. Their immune system develops much slower than chickens. A chicken's immune system is fully in place at 4 weeks; a turkey takes twice that amount of time. As one of the apprentices for Polyface says, "Turkeys live to find new ways to die." There is a lot of truth to that statement!

Last season, with our 35 heritage breed turkeys, we lost 10 in the first three days, had the hatchery ship us 10 replacements, and ended up with 27 live birds to butcher at Thanksgiving. (Almost every hatchery has a policy that they will refund or replace any birds that die within 48-72 hours of arrival at the farm.) Several (but not all) of the final 8 that died were later in the season due to my errors ie, too many birds in too small of space.

Both chicks and poults are very susceptible to chilling, and wind exascerbates this problem. Unfortunately, all of our buildings are very drafty and we must use extra heat lamps in our brooders during winter brooding to compensate for this. In fact, we have the latest batch of poults in our basement in order to ensure we don't lose any!

We lost 1/3 of our last couple of batches of chicks before we figured out the effect that wind has on brooding birds. It has been an expensive learning experience, brooding birds on a relative large scale in the winter here in Virginia!!


What is a Farm Stand?

Ever have one of those "aha" moments? I had one recently when I thought hard about what is a "farm stand"? Is it something physical or something "virtual"? I struggled with for some time after Mary suggested we finally get a farm stand going. I wanted to get it started quickly, and we just don't have the cycles right now to do all the stuff required for a "traditional" stand (display case, physical area).

 What I realized was that a farm stand can be as simple as committing to being available at a routine/recurring time and place for customers to purchase products. (Obviously, you gotta have the products too.) It's really that simple. Of course, you can get much more elaborate than that, with a dedicated building, glass front cases, cash register, bathrooms, etc. but fundamentally it's just a committment to have products available to the customers at a specified time/time interval.

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