Poultry production is following the general pattern of agriculture – growing into large operations and becoming mechanized.
And the device which is making this change largely possible and profitable is the automatic or mechanical feeder, a comparatively new invention. Ever since the incubator permitted large scale hatching of chicks, the bottleneck of the poultry industry has been the feeding of flocks. When done by hand it was a costly, and time – and feed consuming process. The automatic feeder has broken that bottleneck.
The feeder is simply a machine that takes feed from a central hopper or bin out to the birds continuously all day. In place of having to fill a score of separate feeding troughs, the poultryman fills just one – the hopper – and does it just once a day. With some machines it is even possible to use a direct spout from an overhead bin and never have to fill the hopper by hand.
Every mechanical feeder consists of three basic parts. They are:
1. The hopper. This holds the supply of feed and usually also has the drive mechanism mounted on it.
2. The distributing system, which carries the feed from the hopper throughout the poultry house.
3. The driving mechanism, consisting of a motor, usually electric, a reduction gear, drive shaft and sprockets.
The distributing system consists of an endless chain driven by the motor and gears, a trough in which it travels, leg assemblies, which form joints between the lengths of trough and provide a means of raising or lowering the trough; and corner units which permit the chain to run corners.
Usually the distributing system is set up so the trough forms an oblong in which the chain travels.
After the feed is put into the hopper and the machine started, the operation is continuous.
Feed in the hopper is moved to an outlet port in the bottom of the hopper. It falls through this opening onto the slowly moving chain. The chain, which travels in the trough, carries the feed along with it out to the flock. The birds eat it from the trough.
Basically, that is the way every automatic feeder on the market today operates. But there are many differences in design. A major one is the chain. Some machines use ordinary heavy sprocket chain with bars or scrapers welded on one edge of the link. These scrape along the bottom of the trough, moving all the feed. Another makes use of a riveted chain. Another has a novel Y-shaped link. One has a chain, which was developed just for the automatic poultry feeder. It consists of a light steel link curved at one end. This patented design allows the chain to go around corners and still run flat.
A good automatic feeder today will make money for its owner under a variety of conditions. It will feed baby chicks, broilers, laying flocks, adult turkeys. Some of the feeders will handle any kind of feed and operate successfully with any of the usual litter materials. For a machine to work under all these various conditions requires a wide flexibility.
It must be possible to adjust or control the amount of feed delivered by the machine to the flock. Baby chicks naturally will consume less than laying hens. Hence it must be possible to slow down the amount of feed going from the hopper to the chain. One automatic feeder has a further control – it can slow the speed of the chain from 20 feet a minute to 6 feet. Another control is provided by time clocks which will turn the machine on and off for varying lengths of time.
A most important adjustment is that of height. Keeping the top of the trough level with the backs of the birds means that the flock will waste a minimum of feed. The better automatic feeders today have hoppers and trough supports, which permit a quick and easy adjustment for height as the birds grow.
The advantages of automatic feeding over hand feeding are many. First, of course is the saving of feed. Many users claim the machine will pay for itself within one to two years on the saving in feed alone for hens and 3 to 4 months for broilers. Pennsylvania State College made strictly controlled tests of automatic vs. hand feeding. Those fed with an automatic machine consumed .49 lbs. less feed per dozen eggs laid and .45 lbs. of feed less per lb. for broiler meat.
The saving in feed comes in two ways. The birds do not waste feed by billing it out from an automatic's trough as they do from a hand-filled trough. The movement of the chain seems to attract them, encouraging the birds to eat more and more often.
The second big saving is in labor. In place of spending hours each day filling troughs, the poultryman can dump a few bags of feed into the hopper, check the chain and feeding system – and forget the feeder for the day. He does not have to clean troughs. In place of taking in one set and putting out a larger one as the birds grow, he merely raises the trough and hopper a little higher. Unlike hand feeders little or no cleaning of the trough is necessary.
An indication of the time and labor saving is given by the experience of the Buffalo County Poultry Farm at Kearney, Nebraska. There, one man cares for 40,000 to 50,000 broilers instead of 10,000 he could when hand feeders were used.
An example of what an automatic will do for a poultryman was furnished last year by A. H. Douty of Clovis, Calif. He started two similar flocks of 10,000 broilers each in two houses. One was hand fed, the other had an automatic. The flock using the mechanical feeder netted 6 cents more per bird, or a clear extra profit of $600, which came close to paying for the machines.