Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, August 20, 2003
News From the Farm
When moving some henhouses with the tractor the other day, I was reminded why it's best to put diagonal braces at each corner of the house. Unless you only pull the house straight ahead, you pull much harder on one side than the other, and this makes the house want to twist from a rectangle into a parallelogram. Even if you never pull in any direction but straight ahead (which requires that your property be infinitely long), the effect is still worth worrying about.
Normally, I nail a 2x4 about 18 inches long across each corner, tying the two adjacent walls together. I only do this at the bottom, since the tin roofing tends to stiffen the top adequately, and, besides, the big strain comes from towing.
Anyway, back to the house-moving. I got to my oldest house -- the one with only two diagonal braces, instead of four. Instead of towing straight ahead, I pulled my tractor away at an angle, since I needed to turn the house. Rrrrrrippp! The house is still standing, but two walls have separated completely, adding a new door where a corner used to be. Time for me to mend my ways -- and the house.
I'll see if I can get a photo of it on my Web page for next time.
For portable housing, nothing is more important than diagonal bracing near the bottom corners. Without bracing, the house inevitably starts to work itself to pieces during moves. Omitting the bracing and relying on big, stiff bolts or angle brackets doesn't work. This is true not just for houses you move with a tractor, but ones that are moved by hand as well.
We had our first cold night in a long time, with the temperatures dropping to about 40 F. This is my wake-up call. Time to get serious about laying in wood for the winter, to think about closing some of the windows in the house at night, and to think about reinstalling the lights for the henhouses.
September is the traditional time to turn on the hen lights, giving the hens 13-16 hours of light per day. The big commercial operators use lights the whole time, keeping the day length constant year-round, but I use the old-timey method of using them only from September through March.
I have a good treatment of the subject by G. F. Heuser of Cornell University (who also wrote Feeding Poultry, available from me). Heuser was one of the poultry science pioneers who were involved with every aspect of poultrykeeping. I'll get his bulletin on lighting scanned in and posted to my Web site before the days get much shorter. It turns out that poultry lights have been used since at least the 1890s, though nobody knew why they worked until about fifty years later. Everyone thought the lights gave the hens more time to eat, but this isn't actually important. The day length regulates hormones that stimulate egg-laying. Days more than 10-12 hours encourage laying, while shorter days discourage it. (An interesting effect, considering that chickens are supposed to be tropical birds, from a region where the day lengths don't vary enough to have much effect on laying. Another of life's mysteries.)
Poultry lights aren't rocket science, and they seem to work pretty well. They also make it a lot easier to do chores during the winter, since it's hard to collect eggs and feed chickens in the dark.
We're now into the peak weeks of the Farmers' Markets, which means it's a really good time to sell free-range eggs and pastured broilers. The egg situation at this time of year is always tricky, since the old hens only want to produce in the spring, and some of them actually molt in the summer. Usually this means that eggs are in very short supply during all the busy weeks of harvest season.
Fall-brooded pullets go through a partial molt at the same time as the old hens, so their production isn't reliable at this time of year, either. It's all up to the spring-hatched pullets.
This year I finally brooded enough spring pullets to fill the gap. I brood pullets 150 at a time, and the April group is just starting to lay. What a relief! And next month, the May pullets will start to fill in for the Big Molt, when virtually all of my old hens stop laying.
I've been claiming for years that I'd have enough eggs in the late summer and fall, but this year it might really be true! The problem has always revolved around competition for brooder space in the spring (with broilers and turkeys needing to be brooded, too), which encouraged me to do most of my brooding in the fall and late winter. Fall brooding is good, but spring brooding is essential.
The Dollar Hen
When I respond to questions in online mailing lists and newsgroups, I'm continually reminded that many of today's topics were covered surprisingly well in The Dollar Hen by Milo M. Hastings, which was originally published in 1909, and has been republished by me (under my Norton Creek Press nom de press).
The longest chapter in the book is on incubation, and all the woes of incubator design and practice are covered. Perhaps these issues are no longer important to the big commercial hatcheries, but they are powerful enough to reach out and bite us when we use smaller equipment. If you ever hatch chicks, there's a lot of good information and food for thought here.
Hastings was a very interesting person. He started out as the first poultry scientist at the Kansas Experiment Station. As they gave him no budget for on-site experiments, he instead did a survey of how the poultry industry of his day actually worked: what breeds were used and what practices were followed by successful farmers; how eggs were sold, shipped, and marketed (and who got fancy prices and who didn't); which incubation practices worked and which didn't; how market poultry were fattened, butchered, shipped, and sold. Though almost 100 years old, this book is packed with thought-provoking concepts and examples, many of which can be cut out and pasted down the today's reader.
His grandson told me that he actually invented the modern forced-air incubator sometime after writing The Dollar Hen. He was the food editor of Physical Culture magazine, and was at the forefront of modern nutritional advice, encouraging the health and fitness bunch to eat their veggies and pay attention to vitamins. It sounds obvious now, but it was new and exciting then.
Hastings also wrote an early science fiction classic, City of Endless Night, which was published in 1919. It's still quite readable, unlike most science fiction of the era. And he wrote a broadway musical, The Class of '29 under the WPA in the Thirties.
I especially like Hastings' practical, no-nonsense approach to his topics. Poultry literature has always been filled with evangelists who want to fill your head with expensive ideas: expensive breeding stock, fancy housing, special feeds -- whatever will either line their pockets or assist them in boosting the social standing of their hobbies. Hastings focuses on simple, practical methods that will make money for the farmer. I find this refreshing. And since we can all use more simplicity in our lives, the book is worth reading whether you are raising chickens as a hobby or farming for profit.
The age of the book is an asset in many ways. In 1909, confinement rearing of chickens didn't work very well, so the use of range is discussed in some detail, based on practical, proven methods of the day. The drugs of the day were completely ineffective, so the methods in the book avoid the need for medications through use of health-promoting management (basically low stocking densities, outdoor lifestyle, and plenty of green feed -- advice humans would benefit from taking, as well).
Hastings is also entertaining. Instead of sweeping ugly truths and industry dishonesty under the rug, which is what industry boosters usually do, he uses them as entertaining bad examples. For example, in Chapter 12, "How Eggs are Marketed," he writes:
The little game of existence is chiefly one of aping our betters and strutting before the lesser members of the flock. The large cities are full of people in search of some way to display their superior wealth, taste, and exclusiveness. If an ingenious dealer takes a dozen eggs from common candled stock, places them in a blue-lined box, and labels them "Exquisite Ovarian Deposital," he can sell quite a few of them at a long price -- but the game has its limits. Now, let this man secure a a truly high-grade article from reliable producers, teach his customers the points that actually distinguish his eggs from common stock, and he can get not only the sucker trade above referred to, but a more satisfactory and permanent trade from that class of people who are willing to pay for genuine superiority, but whose ears have not quite grown through their hats.
If you like this newsletter, please send copies to all your friends!
Copyright 2003 by Robert Plamondon. Permission is granted for copying if the material from here to the end of the message is left unaltered.
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