Water is often called the forgotten nutrient: continuous access to clean water is a vital part of chickens’ health and egg production.

It is best to use a commercial style drinker as these keep the water cleaner than an open vessel, not only from faecal contamination of the hens, but from wild bird contamination. Drinkers kept inside the hen hut discourage wild bird access.

Drinkers can be of varying sizes and made of plastic (cheaper but not very long-lasting) or galvanised metal (more expensive but last for many years). The larger sizes of drinker can be very heavy when full and difficult to keep ice-free. In severe weather, a simple plastic washing-up bowl with slightly sloping sides will allow ice to be tipped out and may need to be refreshed several times a day. Remember to empty the drinker overnight, but it will need to be refilled at first light in order to prevent dehydration. Hens dehydrate rather rapidly: if they are deprived of water for 18 hours they will not only get sick, but egg production will reduce or stop, since an egg is around 75% water! One hen can drink as much as a medium-sized dog in warm weather: drinkers must thus be checked at least daily.

There are many designs of drinker, but the main principle is the vacuum. Plastic drinkers are often designed so that the upside-down top is filled with clean water and the base is then slotted onto it; the whole drinker then inverted (the vacuum prevents the water from pouring out) with a trough rim for the hens to drink from. This is best either hung up (most have handles) or raised above the litter (about the height of the smallest bird’s back) to avoid litter getting in the trough, causing disease and preventing the water flowing in to the trough. Galvanised drinkers work slightly differently in that the base is filled with clean water and the top pushed over it and slotted on, the water trickling out of a small hole to keep the trough area filled, but the same principle applies in keeping it above the litter – you know how much scratching goes on inside a hen hut. The picture of a plastic drinker shows that the top of it is shaped to discourage perching (and defecating in the water); the base is red to attract the hens to it (generally more useful in chick drinkers as adults have the wit to find water when they are thirsty even if it is a dirty puddle); other drinker bases are green.

Another design is the Quill drinker, a triangular, flat-sided dark green plastic unit with nipple drinkers along the base. This reduces contamination and biofilm dramatically. Biofilm is the jelly-like substance created by algae growth and where bacteria thrive. Algae grow where there is light and moisture, more so in warmer weather. This is easily seen in a white plastic drinker but less easy to see on a galvanised one. The picture of a bucket drinker shows it is not enough to just tip out and refill a drinker; at least once a week it must be scrubbed clean to remove the biofilm. Safe disinfectants include Virkon and F10; if phenolic disinfectants are used, the drinker must be very well rinsed before re-filling as these are toxic to hens.

If providing cider vinegar in the water, remember to use plastic to avoid zinc toxicity from galvanised drinkers. Use cider vinegar at a dose of 10ml:500ml, one week a month – this helps prevent pathogens being a problem in the drinker and the gut of the hens.

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