Water is involved in every aspect of poultry metabolism. It plays important roles in regulating body temperature, digesting food, and eliminating body wastes. At normal temperatures, poultry consume at least twice as much water as feed. When heat stress occurs, water consumption will double or quadruple.”
The Essential Nutrient
Water is often taken for granted, and yet it is probably the most essential nutrient. Water is by far the single constituent of the body, and, in general, represents about 70% of total body weight. Access to water is very important, and a lack of water for several hours will probably cause a decline in egg production. Hens are more sensitive to a lack of water than a lack of feed.”
“Water in the crop softens the feed so that digestion can occur. Without the water, dry feed forms clumps in the crop that can press on the bird’s carotid artery, decreasing blood flow to the brain. This can cause paralysis and possible death. Poultry anatomy complicates matters. A split in the upper hard palate of the beak allows air into the nasal passages and prevents the chicken from forming a vacuum in its mouth. Hens, therefore, rely on gravity to draw water into the crop.”
Amount of Water Needed
“Water and food consumption rates are interdependent, so reduced water intake can also lead to reduced food intake. There are other factors that affect water intake, with temperature being the most obvious one. For example, chickens drink between 30-50% more water when the environmental temperature is above 32oC compared with when it is 21oC. Water intake is also affected by the type of drinkers used. The rule of thumb for water intake is that water intake is usually 1.5 to 2 times feed intake.”
Poultry nipple waterers are without a doubt the best way to ensure the consistent delivery of clean water to chickens. Dr. Mike Petrik, aka: Mike, The Chicken Vet, a practicing chicken veterinarian in Canada, shared his thoughts with me about poultry nipple drinkers:
“NOBODY who is raising chickens professionally has used cups, bell drinkers or troughs in the past 25 years….nipples have been used successfully on literally billions of chickens. The professional farmers across North America have made nipple drinkers the standard for all chickens and many turkeys (who are a little “slow” when it comes to finding water…even if it’s right in front of them).
In fact, as a vet, I recommend that everyone raising hens change from open water sources to nipple drinkers….the hens get plenty of water, and the disease reduction is so striking that there is no doubt which is better.”
This photo illustrates how easy it is for my scissor-beaked hen to drink from a poultry nipple drinker. She no longer needs to bend down, attempt to scoop up water into her severely twisted beak from an open container and hope that some of it drips back into her throat. The water flows effortlessly into her mouth.
A research paper published in the scientific journal “Animal Welfare” in 2008* compared broiler chickens’ preferences in different water sources, and had this to say: “These results further support the hypothesis that chickens find nipple drinkers an acceptable means of drinking, provided they are at a height that the birds find comfortable and convenient. When nipple drinkers are presented at the same height as a bowl of water, then nipple drinkers are either preferred or there is no significant preference. The importance of comfort and ease of drinking is emphasized by the finding that when both the bowl and nipples are raised and the birds have to stretch to drink from either one, stretching to peck at nipple drinker is preferred to stretching to drink at a highly unusual angle from a bowl.”
Another study on the biomechanics of drinking in laying hens from the Journal Zoomorphology in 1992** shows clearly that hens develop different body movements to drink from different sources of water, such as drinking droplets (such as found on a nipple drinker), or by immersing the beak and scooping water (as would happen in open drinkers). They found that developing these behaviors was not difficult or unnatural for birds, since they regularly will drink water that is suspended on leaves or blades of grass.
Basically, as long as you do not let your hens run out of water and make sure they are aware of the water source both nipple drinkers and open waterers provide plenty of water availability. You need to have about 3″ of open waterer space per hen as a minimum and 1 nipple per 9 hens, again as a minimum.
The advantage of a nipple system is that it is quite resistant to bacterial growth, unlike the septic soup that most open waterers quickly become. I cannot recommend strongly enough that backyard chicken keepers consider using a nipple watering system for their hens, if it is practical to do so.
Make sure your hens get used to drinking out of nipples before you remove the open waterers, but once they are accustomed to drinking from nipples, they will be at far less risk of disease. Think of it this way….in third world countries, the most significant health improvements are gained when a village is able to drink water from a contained system such as a well, rather than from an open system such as a river or pond….your hens will respond similarly.”
Dr. Mike Petrik, DVM, MSc
The Chicken Vet
Q: I have large fowl & bantam breeds, will both be able to access the water?
A: Birds of different heights can all use nipple drinkers. Just position some bricks or a block of wood under a couple of the drippers to allow the smaller birds to reach them easily.
Q: Will the nipples freeze up?
A: Some nipple drinkers are thermostatically controlled and side-saddle style nipples do not freeze.
There are ways to winterize vertical nipple drinkers, one of which I outline below. Use common sense in installing your unit and don’t place it where it will be buried in snow drifts or constantly subjected to high, freezing winds.
Q: How many chickens per nipple?
A: A maximum of 3 or 4 birds per nipple is recommended. They tend not to drink all at the same time, so there’s definitely some wiggle room in the estimate.
POULTRY NIPPLE WATERER TRAINING
Because chickens are prey animals, they are distrustful of change; consequently, some chickens may require training to use a new poultry nipple drinker system. While some flocks are reluctant to use poultry nipple drinkers, others take to them immediately. Patience and consistency are key.
While training, it is imperative that the chickens not have access to any other water source! It can be helpful to confine free-range chickens to the run during training so they cannot actively avoid being trained. Introducing a nipple drinker should only be done in temperate weather in case there is a learning curve involved. Do not initiate training during freezing temperatures, nor hot weather when chickens rely on water to maintain their body temperatures.
Some find it helpful to attach a rubber band in a slip knot formation around one nipple on the end of the unit to allow a stream of dripping water to draw the chickens’ attention to it. Very quickly they learn that cool water is dispensed from the nipples and the rubber band can be removed.
Once a new drinker is in place, tap on the stainless steel pin with your finger to allow water to drip out until a flock member comes over to investigate. They will. Curiosity will lead to inspection of the water source. Sometimes this is all the training necessary! Often, once one bird figures out the system, they train the others. Another helpful tip for less adventurous birds is to pick them up tap their beaks to the stainless steel pin. Once a droplet of water hits their beak, they then know water comes from the pin.
Again, keep all other water sources in accessible during training!
Regardless of the drinking system used, chickens will always opt to drink from a hose, trough, or the nastiest mud puddle available. This does NOT mean they are dying of thirst! It is simply a chicken truism. Don’t worry about it. Chickens are healthier when their drinking water and drinking vessel are clean all day, every day; using poultry nipple drinkers are the best, most efficient way to ensure consistently clean water to a flock of backyard chickens.
Welfare implications of nipple drinkers for broiler chickens, E Houldcroft, C Smith, R Mrowicki, L Headland, S Grieveson, TA Jones and MS Dawkins* Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK, © 2008 Universities Federation for Animal Welfare The Old School, Brewhouse Hill, Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire AL4 8AN, UK Animal Welfare 2008, 17: 1-10 ISSN 0962-7286
Flexibility of the drinking mechanism in adult chickens (Gallus gallus) (Aves), J. Heidwaller, J.A. van loon, and G.A., Zweers Animal Morphology, Zoological Laboratory, University of Leiden, Kaiserstraat 63, NL-2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands, Zoomorphology (1992) 111-: 141-159