Norton Creek Poultry and Chicken Lore
Books from Robert Plamondon's Publishing Company, Norton Creek Press.

Success With
Baby Chicks

Robert Plamondon
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Gardening Without Work
Ruth Stout
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Poultry Production
Leslie E. Card
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Genetics of the Fowl
F. B. Hutt
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Feeding Poultry
G.F. Heuser
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Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, September 5, 2003

News From the Farm

How Dry I Am

Things are awfully dry around here. The West Coast always has a summer drought, often with little or no rain between the Fourth of July and mid-September, and it's dry, dry, dry. The fire danger is high, the pastures are brown, the air is a little smoky, and the water flow in the creeks is as low as I have ever seen it. But there are showers in the forecast for early next week.

If things work along their usual lines, we will have gradually increasing amounts of rain until early November, when the skies will open up and we will see steady rain until late March. We get 60-90 inches of rain a year, most of it in the winter. But right now things are bone-dry.

The chickens don't mind, but the forage quality is down. The yolks of our free-range eggs are no longer a deep orange, but are more of a dark yellow. We need rain!

Rescue Hens

I got a call from the poultry folks at Oregon State University the other day. They had a bunch of White Leghorn pullets who were just about ready to lay, and they didn't need them any more. I agreed to take all of them. I moved one of my pasture houses to be a short distance from the rest, and Karen and I tossed our poultry shipping crates into the back of the pickup and headed off to the University. We ended up with 67 fine young pullets, who are settling in nicely.

The roosters were purchased by a lady who was going to butcher them for her large extended family, as she doesn't feel that American supermarket chicken is suitable for her traditional Asian recipes. She used tie wraps to tie the feet of the roosters and placed them into the back of her small pickup truck, which did not have a canopy or any other kind of covering. I expected all the roosters to fly out before she'd gone a hundred yards, but she'd gone half a mile before she was out of sight, and all the roosters were in the truck. Amazing.

It's important to keep in mind that, when you buy chickens, you buy all their diseases as a free extra, and these will be spread around the rest of your flock. It's different with day-old chicks, since few diseases are passed from the mother to the embryo inside the egg. A hatchery that uses proper sanitary techniques can pretty much guarantee 100% disease-free chicks.

With older birds, there's no such guarantee. I'll buy from OSU because they run a tight ship. I must have bought at least a thousand adult birds from them over the years, and they've all been very healthy. But when I go to the poultry auction at Woodburn, many of the birds for sale by small-scale poultrykeepers are in a sad way. I'll sell birds there, but I won't buy them.

This is why people report such widely different results when dealing with "rescue hens" -- chickens that have been kept in laying cages and are to be discarded by the producer. Generally, the smaller producers sell the hens to Asian customers who prefer (or at least tolerate) doing their own butchering, and prefer older chickens for traditional recipes. The going rate is probably still between $1 and $2 per bird. Larger producers need to move so many hens that it's impossible for them to find buyers, and the chickens go to the renderers, who pay almost nothing.

My experience with caged layers has been very encouraging. They are very stiff and clumsy when they come out of the cages, but they're moving around and acting like any other chickens after they've been out for a few days. They usually go into an immediate molt, since the producer is almost always getting rid of them at the end of a laying cycle, when they are due for a molt anyway. Chickens molt in response to stress, and being moved to a new environment is more than enough.

I have taken hens that have been through one laying season and hens that have been through two. Both recovered quite successfully.

The chickens I just received are point-of-lay pullets, who haven't yet produced any eggs. Such young birds are unlikely to molt. They also haven't spent any time in cages, so they won't have as much adjusting to do.

Other people have reported very poor results with caged layers, even ones that have only been through a single laying season and are thus relatively young. Maybe some of these birds were not healthy to begin with.

I have some pointers in case you are ever tempted by rescue hens:

  • Think twice about it if you have chickens already. You don't want to introduce any health problems into your flock. It's safer to accept chickens from universities and hatchery breeding flocks than from other sources.
  • Rescue hens are easily bullied by your existing chickens. A neighbor's Aruacana flock was so aggressive towards his rescue Leghorns that the Leghorns hid in out-of-the-way places in the pen and starved to death. Keep your old flock and your new one separated, at least at first.
  • Caged layers are stiff for a few days, and they should be put in an environment where their clumsiness won't hurt them. I once had a hen drown in a bucket, for instance. They will eventually hop up to high roosts and nest boxes as if they'd been doing it all their lives, but for the moment, keep them at floor level and make sure everything's within easy reach.
  • Expect that they'll lose a lot of feathers and that their egg production will drop to zero in a few days. They're molting. This is normal.
  • Give them more feeders and waterers than you would for normal birds, since you don't want them to have to travel very far to reach them.
  • Try not to introduce changes very quickly. Be patient as they learn the ropes. For example, it's not unusual for hens in my open-front pasture pens to refuse to go outside for several days. This is a nuisance, since all my normal feeding and watering is done outdoors, not in the pen, but it takes the hens several days to get their bearings.

I used to rely on rescue hens for my egg operation, back before I got really serious about learning how to raise baby chicks successfully. Rescue hens provided an easy alternative to brooding chicks. But after I figured out how to get consistent results when raising chicks, the rescue hens became more of a liability. Hens that have already been laying for a year or two don't lay as well as pullets, and the availability was unreliable. These days I'm mostly taking the occasional lot of point-of-lay pullets, not old hens.

(The techniques I used to improve my brooding results are all spelled out in my book, Success With Baby Chicks.)


Speaking of chicks, I have 150 Gold Sex-Links in my brooder house right now, coming along nicely. They're three weeks old. Yesterday I turned off the heat lamps in the insulated brooder box, but kept the brooder box in place. In another week or two I'll move them out to pasture. The weather is reasonably mild and the chicks will be well-feathered by then.

These chicks will be in full lay in February and will continue to lay through next fall, when they may go through a partial molt.


Earlier in the season, one of the other farmers' market vendors made me green with envy by appearing with a concession trailer as his new booth. Tow it into place, open the windows, and you're open for business. Here in Corvallis, our Farmer's Markets open in mid-April and close in late November, and the extra shelter is definitely an added attraction.

Karen and I kept our eyes peeled for a trailer of our own, and we found one at the OSU Surplus Property Department. This is an 8x12' concession trailer. We got it for almost nothing, but it's more of a kit than a ready-to-use trailer. It seems to have been build on campus out of odds and ends, and at the very least we need to put a proper frame and suspension underneath. But then we'll be marketing in style!

One interesting possibility is that we might be able to put a refrigeration unit in it, and thus not to deal with so much ice. (And when I say "refrigeration unit," I mean "cheap air conditioner with a replacement thermostat that goes to 35F, inside an insulated box.") But, in addition to protection from the elements, the main reason I wanted the trailer was that, after a long day running a Farmer's Market booth, I'm ready for a nap! But there's no room in a car that's completely filled with farmer's market stuff. A trailer, on the other hand, can easily have a bunk in it. Happiness is not having to drive when you're tired.

Success With Baby Chicks

I've been getting quite a bit of praise for my book, Success With Baby Chicks, including some fine testimonials from folks who have seen major reductions in brooder-house mortality. So, if I do say so myself, you ought to buy a copy. And, since your friends will borrow it and not return it, buy one for your friends, too!

You can buy autographed copies of the book from me, and non-autographed copies from online bookstores such as or You can also order it from any bookstore.

Today's Chicken Joke

"Colonel Sanders? He kicked the bucket years ago."

September To-Do List

(Borrowed heavily from Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943)

September is a month of preparation for cold weather and the time to get pullets hatched in the early spring into laying quarters. It's also harvest season; a good time to butcher broilers, though one can argue that October is even better, as the yellowjackets probably aren't as much of a nuisance.

  • Repair roofing. Man, ain't that the truth! I have quite a bit of winterizing to do before the rains arrive in earnest.
  • House pullets. And make sure they have nest boxes before they start laying, or they'll get into the habit of laying on the floor!
  • Do not overcrowd. With last year's hens still on the premises and this year's pullets getting ready to lay, this time of year traditionally has a tremendous housing shortage. If you chickens have an outdoor lifestyle, you can get away with a lot of things in the summer and early fall that will fail miserably when bad weather forces all the chickens indoors. So watch that crowding.
  • Begin artificial lights. My hen lights use enormous lengths of extension cord criss-crossing my fields. During high times of fire danger, I don't like the idea of electricity on the dry grass of my fields, so I won't turn on the lights until the rains start. I'll give a full writeup of hen lights later this month. Hopefully it will have rained by then, so I will have recent experience to refresh my memory about the details.
  • Cull any poor pullets. This used to be a worse problem than it is today, but sometimes you have skinny, stunted, or crippled pullets. Unless they are beloved pets, it's best to kill these before you have too much money invested in them, since they are extremely unlikely to be productive.

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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