Like all animals, chickens require clean drinking water. While this seems easy enough—fill up a container, place it in the coop, provide them with 24-hour access—you need to consider environmental factors and the best mode of delivery. Is a galvanized waterer the best, or will a heavy-duty plastic one work fine? And then there are additives, like vitamins and supplements, that can stain or rust the waterer. So before you set out to pursue backyard chicken farming, learn the water requirements for both laying hens and meat birds. Then, brush up on some tips and make sure to buy equipment that suits your needs.
How Much Water Does a Flock Need?
Chickens need constant access to fresh, clean water and feed. On average, a full-grown laying hen will drink a pint of water daily. But this varies widely, due to the size of the hen, the season, and the outdoor temperature (some layers can drink a quart a day in hot weather). Meat birds require even more water than laying hens, as their breeds have a quick metabolism that helps them grow big fast. Never limit a bird's access to water or restrict it in any way. If chickens have inconsistent access to clean water, they won't lay as well, eat as much, grow as fast, or look as healthy.
Keep the Water Clean and Palatable
Nobody likes to drink dirty water, including chickens. Water that contains pine shavings, dirt or poop may cause chickens to stop drinking. Chicken also prefer cool water, making it necessary to re-up their waterer more in the summer months than in the wintertime. Sometimes, you may run into a protest issue when you add a supplement, like vinegar or a vitamin powder, to their water. While apple cider vinegar helps keep your flock's digestion tiptop and vitamins help to maintain egg production, add only a small amount at first and then spy on your flock to make sure everyone is drinking at regular intervals. You may also notice algae, or even rust buildup, on your waterer. To avoid water contamination, clean your vessel monthly with a brush, hot water, and dish soap. A diluted bleach solution, with a good rinse, will keep bacteria at bay.
There are several different vessels and automatic systems used to deliver water to chickens. The favorite (and the most Martha Stewart-eske) is a galvanized double-walled poultry drinker. This steel waterer has a trough around the bottom with a shallow lip that the chickens drink from. The vacuum pressure allows just enough water to constantly fill the lip, preventing waste and minimizing evaporation. This type of waterer works best when elevated off the ground on a stand or hung from the rafters of the coop, cutting down on the amount of poop and shavings in the water. A galvanized waterer is not the best choice, however, if you plan to supplement with vinegar. The vinegar will react with the galvanized metal, causing it to rust.
Similar to a traditional galvanized waterer, a round plastic waterer works equally as well (though some prefer metal for aesthetics). Plastic waterers also work on a vacuum system, allowing for just-right water levels, and can be easily filled by unscrewing the cap. Plastic waterers work well for those who like to add supplements to their chickens' water. Vinegar will not react with plastic and, for the most part, vitamins won't stain it. Additionally, plastic is less sensitive to temperature variations and keeps cool water cooler in hot temperatures and provides better insulation in the cold.
You can even fashion your own chicken waterer with of a 5-gallon bucket placed on top of a shallow plastic dish. For this variation, drill small holes in the side of the bucket at a level lower than the top of the lip on the plate. Place the bucket on the plate and then fill it with water. Then, place the lid on the bucket. This DIY version works by vacuum pressure, just like the galvanized and plastic waterers, yet it costs a fraction of the price to make.
You can also attach special nipples to the bottom of a hanging five-gallon bucket for a clean, gravity-fed system. The upside to this variation is the constant supply of clean, fresh water. However, you'll have to train your birds to use the nipples and you'll need to inspect them regularly and clean them for clogs, especially if you have mineral-rich well water.
Preventing a Winter Freeze
If you live in a region that experiences below-freezing temperatures in the winter, there are a few options to consider. First, and if you have the time, you can refresh your hens' water twice a day by filing their waterers with warm water and allowing all the birds to drink until they're full or until the water freezes again. Or, you can hang a red heat lamp (which also keeps your flock warm on winter nights) directly over a metal galvanized vessel. The heat conducts onto the metal, allowing the waterer to maintain a consistent temperature. Lastly, you can purchase a metal or plastic waterer with a heated base that plugs into an extension cord. But despite best efforts, extremely cold nights will still freeze chicken water. When this happens, just grab your plant's watering can, fill it with scalding water, and pour it over the chicken waterer to thaw out the ice.