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PHOTO: Frank Hyman
Aren’t vending machines great? You pop in some change, poke a button and a well-balanced, healthy snack (well, a snack of some kind!) drops out.
So why can’t chicken feeders work like vending machines? It seems like when they’re hungry, hens should be able to poke a button and have well-balanced, healthy snacks drop out. And because you’re the vendor of this chicken vending machine, you can make sure that the snacks are, in fact, calibrated to deliver nutritious pellets of chicken feed.
And what if this well-stocked vending machine also:
- Worked better than a conventional gravity-fed feeder
- Was easy to keep clean of chicken poop
- Kept the food safe from rain
- And kept the chicken feed out of reach of the critters that don’t want to pay their rent with eggs
For a few years, I had been using a gravity-fed chicken feeder: A tube holds the feed and sits over a saucer, which dispenses it. The style is a common one. Sometimes they are made of plastic or, like mine, galvanized metal. I had purchased it at a junk-tique shop for a few dollars. It holds 25 pounds of feed and resides under the coop where it stays dry and is easy to clean. Plus, the chickens can’t roost (and poop) on it.
However, gangs of sparrows did raid the feeder’s open saucer now and then. Despite their big appetites, they’re small enough to fit through the 2-by-4-inch openings in the fencing. Thank goodness mourning doves can’t get in or I’d be buying bags of feed twice a day!
So far, we haven’t had signs of rodents, but I was sure some would show up for the grainy buffet eventually. Coming up with a new and improved vermin-proof feeder that functioned like a chicken vending machine was on my to-do list.
Options to Consider
Some people choose to keep sparrows and rodents away from their feeders by enclosing the entire pen in hardware cloth. That’s a valid option if you have the time and money.
Hardware cloth is not a cloth really but a heavy-gauge type of wire fencing with 1⁄2-by-1⁄2-inch openings. But it is much heavier, more unwieldy and costlier than the 14-gauge fence wire commonly used for enclosing hen pens.
For example, a 3-by-50-foot roll of hardware cloth costs three times as much as the same size roll of 14-gauge wire fencing. So I looked for other options.
There are also some boxy, vermin-proof feeders made of either metal or cedar available online. This style is also a valid choice. The chickens step on a treadle that opens the lid on the feeder, which allows them to eat. When the chickens aren’t eating, the feeder closes up, blocking any birds or rodents. However, they can be expensive and were out of my budget.
There are construction plans available for these self-locking feeders, but the angled cuts and the lever arms would be time-consuming to build. And if enough debris gets under the treadle to block it, the feeder won’t open and the chickens learn about fasting. So I ruled out that option, too.
I was very glad to find this YouTube video from Gr8scott 1985 (which has been viewed about half a million times).
Of course I’ve customized my chicken vending machine a bit for my Hentopia coop, but I have to give credit for the concept.
Gather everything before starting this project. Here’s what you’ll need:
- One or more 5-gallon bucket (or larger plastic container if you have numerous chickens)
- Two galvanized eyebolts (4-by-1⁄4 inch).
- Two champagne corks
- Something from which to suspend the bucket so the corks are about head-high to a chicken: either a 4-inch galvanized hook like you’d use to suspend a porch swing or a folding bucket holder
- Bit that allows you to predrill holes for the hook or bucket holder
- Power drill
- A 3⁄16-inch drill bit for the corks and a 3⁄4-inch spade bit for the eyebolt holes
- Pliers to hold the corks while you drill them if you’re not comfortable holding them with your hand
The short version: a 5-gallon bucket with a tight-fitting lid to keep out the weather and critters hangs from a post at a height that allows the hens to peck at an eye-bolt hanging down from the bottom of the bucket.
As the eyebolt moves, like a toggle switch, small amounts of feed spill out of a hole—a chicken vending machine! Hens eat the feed, leaving little or nothing for freeloading vermin.
The longer version: Buy two 4-inch long galvanized eyebolts with 1⁄4-inch diameter threads.
Drill two holes in the bottom of the bucket that the eyebolts’ shafts will hang down through. Put each hole roughly under the spot where the bucket handle attaches. The reasoning will be clear later.
The outside diameter of the eye of these eyebolts is about an inch. So I used a 3⁄4-inch spade bit to drill the holes—small enough that the eyebolt won’t fall through the hole but wide enough that pellets will slip past the eyebolt when it moves. Drop the eyebolt shafts through the holes.
Next, take a drill bit that matches the diameter of the shaft (not the threads) of the eyebolt. I used a 3⁄16-inch bit. Drill into the bottom of a champagne cork a little over half the distance from one end to the other. If you like, you can hold the cork with pliers. Regular wine corks will work, but I used champagne corks because they have a more celebratory look. And they last longer, because they’re bigger.
With one hand in the bucket holding the eye of the eyebolt and the other hand outside the bucket, screw the cork onto the shaft of the eyebolt. The hole in the cork makes room for the shaft to enter without splitting it. But the threads will bite into the cork so it stays attached without using glue or duct tape or other things that could wear out.
With the eyebolts and corks in place and hanging from the bottom of the bucket, chose a spot from which to hang the bucket from a post of the pen or wall of the coop. You want the corks to hang at the height of the chickens’ heads. Mark the spot for the hook.
As with the champagne corks, use a drill bit that matches the diameter of the shaft, so there is room for it to enter the wood yet the threads can bite into the wood. Screw the hook into place.
Finally, fill the bucket with feed, and put the watertight lid on. Only pinch it closed at a couple spots to make it easier to open. Hang the bucket from the hook. Make sure the corks are hanging down, and tap them to so that food drops out of the bucket.
Now you see that the position of the holes matters. If there’s a hole at the back of the bucket, much of the feed will bounce outside of the fencing. Here’s your chance to learn from my mistake.
Teaching Your Chickens a New Skill
Remove other sources of food so you can focus the birds’ attention on their new chicken vending machine.
Some will get it right away from watching you. Or you may need to grab one or more of them and tap their beaks against the cork until you see them get the idea. Then, depending on how smart your chickens are, the slower ones will either learn how to trigger the new vending machine in a few minutes.
Or, if they’re like ours, it could take a couple days.
Some hen-keepers have had luck using a red laser light to get the hens to peck, but ours weren’t interested. When they got hungry enough, tapping on the corks started making sense to the slowest of them.
Now, they seem to enjoy their new vending machine. And the gangs of sparrows have disappeared, too.
If you’re using containers larger than a 5-gallon bucket for your chicken vending machine—such as a tote, garbage can, pickle barrel, etc.—you’ll want to hold them up off the ground with cinder blocks, bricks or pressure-treated wood. Leave a space for the chickens to access the champagne corks.
For 5-gallon-bucket vending machines, Farmtek sells a metal hoop called a “collapsible bucket holder” that is strong enough to support a 5-gallon bucket full of feed or water. Use a power drill and appropriate bits to screw it into an outside wall of the chicken coop inside the run.
You could also attach it to a post in the run, but first you’ll need to secure a 2-by-4 that’s about 12 inches long to the post. Attach the bucket holder to that.
For less money, I use a 4-inch galvanized hook. Screw the hook in at an angle into a post or an outside wall of your henhouse so the chicken vending machine is hanging inside the run.
Sidebar: Durable Doings
The 5-gallon buckets used for making feeders and waterers are pretty tough, and they’ll last a long time if mounted on a stand or suspended from a bucket holder.
I like using the blue buckets from Lowe’s because the darker color doesn’t show dirt like a white bucket. But the plastic is a bit thinner and can tear where the handle meets the bucket.
If you want to save some money by suspending your buckets by the handle on a hook as we do, you’ll want to add a couple of washers to each bucket to strengthen them. Here’s how.
The points where the ends of the metal handle meet the plastic sides of the bucket can tear over time. You can reinforce these two points by turning the bucket upside down and inserting a 1⁄2-inch washer over each hooked end of the handle on a Lowe’s bucket (other styles of buckets may need a different sized washer). Just follow these five steps.
- After you’ve added the watering nipples or the eyebolts for the feeder, turn the empty bucket upside down
- Slip a 1⁄2-inch washer over the end of the handle on each side. You’ll need to move the handle a bit to do this.
- With both washers in place, let the handle hang straight down.
- While holding the handle in place, slowly turn the bucket and handle right-side up so the washers don’t fall out.
- Hang the bucket handle on the hook.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Chickens magazine.