The history of feeding chickens is a long one, but the introduction of chain and pan feeders, decades ago, led to a number of interesting developments. Chore Time, and later the Belgium company Roxell, have shown to be innovators in designing new feeder type standards.
By Wiebe van der Sluis
Chickens were once provided with feed that was spread on the ground, or given manually on a plate or in troughs. It is likely that those feeding methods were practised for centuries. However, this changed when the first steps to commercial production systems were set. In 1938, the first trough chain feeder was introduced, becoming the standard for the poultry industry. Ever since then, this mechanical feed distribution system has been used for different types of chickens. Today, chain feeders are still made and favoured by some broiler growers, many parent stock farmers, and in layer cage systems.
The new standard
Alongside the development of the chain feeder, initiatives were taken to further improve the commonly used manual filled metal round feeder. The extension with a hopper allowed farmers to fill the container with feed at the top of the feeder plate so the birds could help themselves. Over the years this type of round feeder received various alterations. Its smaller sized plastic successor is still in use by small-scale or hobby producers. Commercial producers, however, prefer labour-saving feeder systems, which initiated the addition of an overhead conveyor system to mechanically fill hopper feeders. These feed transport systems were often tubes through which an auger dragged the feed from the silo to the hopper feeders. Later, the augers were replaced by disks attached to chains or cables and a flexible centre-less auger. During the early 1950s the US poultry industry welcomed the first pan feeder. A number of these rounded pans were attached to a horizontal pipe through which feed was transported. A hole in the pipe allowed the feed to drop into the pan which was partly covered with a cone to ensure that only a small amount of feed was accessible to the birds.
The popularity of the pan feeder increased in 1969 when Chore Time in the US introduced the Model C pan feeder. This small pan featured a height-adjustable cone, which facilitated the farmer to provide a specific amount of feed to the birds. A grill attached to the pan provided sufficient space for birds to access the feed and prevented aggressive birds from blocking access of less aggressive birds, and also prevented feed spilling due to flicking. Since there were a number of feeder pans attached to one pipe a large number of birds could be fed the same amount of feed, at the same time, and of the same quality. The pan’s design, its ease of management, and the associated bird performance, meant that this pan became the first standard for pan feeders.
The features of the pan feeder were highly appreciated by broiler growers. They often suffered from large differences in weight gain between birds in one flock when using the traditional chain feeder. This lack of uniformity was caused mainly by ease of access to the feed for day-olds, and the slow speed of the chain, which meant that the most active birds picked the best feed particles from the line feeder as soon the feed became available. Consequently, the birds lower in the pick order that were further down the feeder line received lower quality feed.
The tube/pan feeders did not have that disadvantage since the transport system was enclosed and the feed was out of reach of the birds. Chickens only had access to the feed as soon it dropped into the pan, and each pan, no matter the position along the line, always got fresh feed at the same time and of a consistent quality.
During the 1980s, when the speed of the chain feeders changed and grills were attached, some of the main disadvantages disappeared and extended the economical life of the chain feeder. Nevertheless, the majority of the broiler growers preferred the pan feeder, especially because they allowed easy access for young birds and were simple to elevate before depopulation or cleanout.
Meanwhile, genetic improvements have forced growers as well as breeders to manage their bird performance through restricting the availability of feed. Pan feeders allowed controlled and fast homogeneous feed distribution without loss of feed quality, which in turn created the opportunity to provide several small portions to the birds each day.
During the early 1980s, researchers in the US discovered that sex-separate feeding improved breeder performance. Nutritional demands for females and males differed that much that it initiated the development of special feeders and feeder lines for males and hens. Males got pan feeders and hens either line (chain) or pan feeders with special grills. These grills had an opening just wide enough to allow the hens access to the feed.
Chore Time’s Model C remained the standard up until the late 1970s/early 1980s, when it received severe competition from alternatives made from plastic. In 1985, the Belgium-based company Chore Time, now known as Roxell, launched at the German Exhibition Huhn&Schwein the Minimax, which, with its v-shaped bottom, proved to better meet the requirements of the modern bird. The creators, even after they separated from its US mother company, remained active in researching the specific needs of commercial production birds. In 1988, the Bridomat, an exclusive trough feeder for broiler breeders, was launched. The centre-less auger feeder was able to distribute exact rations to the hens, and featured an adjustable cylindrical male restrictor. The system proved to be an alternative for chain feeders. This, however, was not seen as the end of the use of pan feeders in breeders.
New colours, new shape
Although several companies entered the market with new pan designs, none of them have ever been so frequently copied as the Minimax and its successors. Roxell has, without a doubt, shown the poultry industry that one pan does not fit all. In 1992 its researchers proved that the rule of making pans in the colours red and white was based on assumptions of the past. Birds were attracted to other colours as well. Thorough research and investigation in cooperation with a major design company made Roxell finally choose the combination of yellow and grey. Not only did chickens appear to appreciate these colours, but turkeys too, which led to the introduction of the Optimax plastic turkey feeder two years later. This change of colour opened the door for the competition to either continue using red and white, or to come up with other colour combinations.
The success of the new house style and product designs stimulated the appetite of Roxell’s research and marketing team. In 1997 they came up with a revolutionary pan design for rearing and sex-separate feeding, the Fimavit. This was a shallow-shaped pan, allowing day-olds easy access. The bottom of the pan featured an inner and outer ring to better control the amount of feed available for the specific age and type of bird. The double grill allowed the broiler breeder to simply adjust the grill opening (11 different positions) to the size of the birds’ heads. The oval shape created 14% more feeding space compared to round pans, and 40% more space compared to troughs.
Passion for innovation
The introduction of the oval-shaped pan feeder was a real novelty and many questioned whether it would really do what it was supposed to do. The first oval pan, the KiXoo, was developed especially for the feeding of broiler breeders and proved to optimise floor space. The system also guarantees that all animals can eat at the same time. Since then, developments continued and Roxell showed its guiding role where it comes to inventing new pan designs for specific poultry types. The last in the oval family is LaïCa, which was developed specifically for the floor feeding of commercial layers.
Today, the company has pan feeding systems for almost all types of birds, including turkeys and ducks, both round and oval in shale. The days of the Model C are long gone, but the philosophy and the advantages of pan feeders remain.
During the past 10 years developments in poultry feeding systems have been interesting and rapid. It showed that people with a passion for poultry feeding and an eye for efficiency and specific needs and characteristics of birds always find new ideas for design improvements. Those that listen carefully to producers will always find options for improvements, making developments in feeding systems always interesting.