Farmer Automates

Winter 1998-1999

Johan van Achterberg, a farmer in Easton, Connecticut, worried every time he and his wife went out in the evening. Would an animal get into the hen house and decimate his layers before he got home? Even when he stayed home, he would find himself waking up in the small hours and saying, “Barbara, did you lock up the chickens tonight? I don’t remember doing it.” Then he would sigh, throw on some clothes, and trudge out through the cold night air to the chicken house just to make sure.

Van Achterberg sells his eggs at a premium because his chickens are free ranging, but with raccoons, foxes, coyotes, dogs and other nighttime predators in his neighborhood, locking them up every night is essential. As a farmer, who has to be a mechanic and inventor as well, van Achterberg developed a remote, photo-controlled door closure that automatically shuts the chicken house door 45 minutes after sunset. (The number of minutes is determined by a timer.) At the same time, a light goes on to encourage the hens to eat more so that they lay better during the shorter hours of winter. With an optional timer the light can be turned off at a preset time to be determined by the farmer, such as 10 p.m. At sunrise the photo control signals the door to open. This invention is working so well that he has started to produce and sell these easily installed units. He believes that they would also be attractive to homesteaders with small flocks who would like to be able to go away for the weekend without having to hire someone to open and shut the poultry house each day. Regular house current is needed for this operation.

How It Works

The door mechanism is based on an up and down “guillotine” slide system. The slide (for chickens) is about 12″ wide by 16″ high and moves down on its own natural gravity. At sunset the photo cell (sensor) (#1 in photo) gets powered up. The light and time delay relay (#2 in photo) get activated. After a set time (set by the owner) the time delay (#3 in photo) will activate a motor (#4 in photo). The arm (#5 in photo) that is attached to the motor will rotate to a downward position, and the door that is connected to this arm will slide down into the closed position. The arm will stop in this lower position. A light may be kept on all night or turned off as soon as the door closes. At sunrise the photo cell will detect daylight and activate the motor. The arm will travel upward and with that movement raise the sliding door into an open position. As this activity takes place the light will shut off.


The unit is self contained except for a remote sensor that needs to be placed outside so that it will detect daylight. This sensor should NOT be facing direct sunlight. It operates on 120 volt with a standard cord and plug and is protected by a 5-amp fuse. On top of the box is a duplex outlet. One outlet has power that is timed, from the photo cell activation, until the arm travels to the down position, and the other outlet has power until the arm returns to the upper position. The box mounts on the wall on the inside directly above the sliding door. A 1/2-inch hole is drilled through the wall so that the shaft will protrude through the wall and the arm can be fastened to this shaft. A 1-inch hole is drilled for the photo cell and its power cable. The time delay relay works from 1 second to 300 minutes. The recommended time delay is about 45 minutes to 1 hour. The dimensions of the box are 8.5″ wide, 10.5″ high, 4.5″ deep. The wall thickness needs to be given so that the correct shaft length can be mounted on the unit.

What’s Next?

To further automate his poultry enterprise, van Achterberg is working on a waterer consisting of a pan, cover, float, valve and legs that can be installed on an ordinary 5-gallon pail that will stand in the pan and maintain a constant water level. “With this setup you do not have to lift a large lid and break the vacuum in order to fill the pail,” says van Achterberg. “There is no vacuum to break, and you just have to remove the lid and add water.” The pan can be placed on a heater so that the water will not freeze in the winter.

For more information, contact Johan van Achterberg, 359 Silver Hill Road, Easton, CT 06612-1134; email: [email protected]; Tel. 203-261-2156; or see his web site:

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