Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, October 14, 2003
News From the Farm
We had a great Indian summer, with the occasional bout of rain to keep the ground from being too parched. The boys are back in school, which is presumably why I got a cold that is the main reason why this newsletter is late. But I'm better now.
The shorter days make a tremendous difference in my routine. I used to do outdoor chores until 8 or 9 PM, but now it's fully dark at around 7 PM, so I'm trying to do more office work in the evenings and outdoor work during daylight.
The increasing rain is leading directly to dirtier eggs on the farm. Muddy eggs are one of the downsides of old-fashioned free-range egg farming. If the hens are wet and have muddy feet when they enter the nest box, it's hard to get clean eggs. Dirty nest-box litter doesn't dry out as quickly as it does in the summer, either.
The fix is to change nest box litter frequently and have litter on the floor near the nest boxes, too. This helps clean the hens' feet as they approach the nest boxes. Outside my nesting houses (I have separate houses just to hold nest boxes, and others just to hold roosts) I often put wooden pallets on the ground to maintain a mud-free zone near the entrance. Since hens mill around entrances, these always become denuded of grass and then muddy.
Egg production is holding up very well. I ordered far more pullets than usual this year, and started most of them in the spring, which is the traditional method. The idea is that pullets who begin laying in September or October will keep going all winter, while earlier pullets and old hens will molt in the fall and may not start laying again until spring.
There's a tremendous shortage of local eggs in the health-food stores. Out of about five producers, only two consistently have eggs on the shelves. We are one. This year, for the first time, our production is increasing in the fall. In addition to the part about starting enough spring pullets, it helps that I chose a high-producing commercial breed, Brown Sex-Links from Privett Hatchery in Portales, NM.
Supply and Demand
I used to set my egg pricing so it was the same year-round. When I did this, there would be no eggs on the shelves six months out of the year, things would be okay for about four months, and for two months we'd have so many eggs we didn't know what to do with them.
About a year ago I finally listened to my customers, who were constantly complaining that they couldn't find my eggs. I decided to switch to supply and demand pricing. This is simplicity itself: If the store shelves are empty most of the time when we deliver eggs, demand is higher than supply, and we raise prices. If the stores are crammed full of our eggs and our own refrigerators are still full, demand is lower than supply, and we lower prices.
This strategy is purely reactive, and it works like a charm. When we follow it, there are always eggs on the shelves at the stores, but they are always sold well before the pull-by date. While the prices may be higher than before during the fall and winter, at least the customers have the option of buying our eggs. Before, many customers would go for long stretches without ever seeing our eggs on the shelves, they sold out so quickly at the lower prices.
I recommend this strategy. It has made our lives a lot easier, and has made pricing very easy. Plucking a price out of the air and sticking to it through thick and thin, which is what we used to do, seems sort of dopey now.
Oddly, many customers do not like the idea of supply and demand, and any discussion of pricing makes them uneasy. They don't mind it when the prices fluctuate, they just don't like hearing about it. There's something taboo about price-setting. So use supply and demand pricing, but don't talk about it to your customers. That's my advice.
If you live in a mild climate, or even a not-so-mild climate, it's not too late for fall brooding. Chicks hatched in early November will be well-feathered by the time the weather gets really nasty in December. You may have to keep them on heat longer than usual, but fall brooding puts you in the position where the weather gets colder as the chicks need less and less heat, which is an improvement over brooding in the late winter or early spring, where the weather is at its coldest when the chicks need the most heat, and becomes warmer as the chicks become resistant to cold.
Many hatcheries offer their commercial breeds year-round.
Fall brooding is just like early spring brooding, really. You need to go to extra lengths to exclude drafts from the brooder area, provide extra heat, and protect any automatic waterers from freezing. I've found that the biggest trick is to notice all the changes I made in the late spring and summer for warm-weather brooding. They look normal to me now, but they all have to be reversed. Mostly this involves buttoning the brooder house back up and getting back into the habit of using a draft guard for the first few days, but it also pays for me to take a look at the brooder and make sure it has full-wattage bulbs in it, and not the smaller ones that I use during the latter stages of brooding in warm weather. In warm weather, I've been known to brood 150 chicks with an insulated brooder using a pair of 75-watt floodlight bulbs, but in winter I sometimes use a 250-watt heat lamp plus a 150-watt floodlight for the first few days. That's almost three times the heat.
I've brooded day-old chicks without any trouble when the outdoor temperatures were in the Twenties. And my brooder houses are crude and drafty. You ought to be able to do even better.
Don't forget that fall crop and garden wastes are greatly relished by your chickens. They love apples, the wormier, the better. Pumpkins and other squashes are also good, though you have to split them so the chickens can get at the insides. Our 60-year-old apple trees are failing, but we get a couple of truckloads of cull apples delivered from a nearby orchard every year. The pigs, goats, and chickens love them.
Try not to worry too much about cold weather. I've heard from folks in Florida who start putting heat lamps in their henhouses if the outside temperatures are low enough to allow people to go around fully clothed. Realistically, your hens will be fine down to, say, 15 F if your henhouse has a roof and one wall, and they're good down to -20 F or so if your henhouse has a roof and four walls. Or so I'm told -- I've never seen temperatures below about 10 F here. My henhouses have, if you're feeling generous, a roof and three walls, but all feeding and watering is done outside, so they were out in the wind. They were perfectly healthy after this brush with winter, though egg production plummeted for a while.
There was a fad in Oregon during the mid-Fifties for henhouses that were open on 3-4 sides, and only chicken wire on the other sides. These actually worked quite well. It's typical for chicken houses to be closed up too tightly, and the dampness, ammonia, pathogens, etc. are harder on the chickens than the cold would have been. Experiments about 15 miles from my farm indicated that a roof and one wall worked about as well as an ordinary chicken house. During a cold snap, the hens in the normal chicken house suffered more from the cold than the ones in a house with only one wall. Go figure.
October To-Do List
Cribbed from Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
Success With Baby Chicks
Just a short book plug this time. My book, Success With Baby Chicks, is full of useful stuff for getting your chicks through the brooding period. It's not just material for beginners, but has lots of techniques that hardly anybody knows about anymore.
I realize that it's not the brooding season for most of you, but it's a good time of year to catch up on your reading, before the Christmas rush robs you of your leisure time.
The hatcheries all send their catalogs out in the first weeks of January, and before you know it you'll have all sorts of baby chicks coming in, and then you'll wish you'd used those pleasant days of late fall to sit by a cozy fire and catch up on your reading, so you could plan your season properly.
You know I'm right.
So do yourself a favor and buy the book now. You can get it from me, from Amazon.com, from your favorite bookstore -- you name it. Just follow the link.
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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