Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, January 5, 2004
News From the Farm
Wow, January already! It's been a busy fall and early winter, which clearly did not do well for my goal of publishing at least twice a month. I managed to miss November and December entirely. Well, let's see if I can't do better from now on.
This is the quiet time of year on the farm, or it's supposed to be. After several years of mild winters where snow never lasted as long as 24 hours, we've had snow on the ground for six days straight. The hens don't like snow, though they get used to it over time, and the snow makes it hard for us to set out feed in the usual way. As you'll recall, we raise free-range chickens in small henhouses eight feet square, set in colonies of 3-5 houses scattered across our pasture. It's a drag (literally) to get feed out to them in the snow. We use a toboggan and take out two sacks at a time. Usually we load twenty sacks into the back of our SUV.
(I don't care what anybody says. SUV's are wonderful. I also like old, full-sized pickup trucks with enormous V-8 engines, so you can drive home with a ton of feed in the back without spending half the trip bumping along the shoulder to let people pass you.)
At least the temperatures have remained mostly above freezing, so water hasn't been too much of a problem.
To add insult to injury, our power was out for four days. Since we'd gone years without heavy snowfall, all the branches and trees that couldn't tolerate the snow loads fell at the same time. Norton Creek Road had power lines downed along three different stretches in two miles. At least two of our neighbors fired up their chain saws and four-wheel-drive tractors with front-end loaders and cleared the road of trees and excess snow. The power wires were across the road at a couple of points, too, and after verifying that the wires had really snapped and hadn't just fallen, they moved those, too. (Remember, kids, if you turn yourself into a charcoal briquette trying the same thing, you won't get any sympathy from anyone!)
Winter Care of Hens
The first thing to recognize about hens is that they can tolerate quite cold temperatures if they're dry and out of the wind. Unless you're looking at below-zero (Farenheit) temperatures, the cold is not a problem in itself. Most winter woes are due to inadequate water intake, inadequate feed intake, wetness, and poor management.
The temptation is to button up the chicken house really tight to exclude drafts and to retain the hens' body heat. But chickens give off a lot of moisture along with their body heat, both in their respiration and in their droppings. Also, if your roof isn't insulated, restricting the ventilation just means that moisture condenses on the ceiling and drips onto the hens. Restricted ventilation also leads to high ammonia levels, which will turn into respiratory problems and even blindness. If you can smell ammonia when you enter the henhouse, the ammonia level is too high.
People often ask me if I use heat lamps on my hens. No, I don't. Heat lamps are for little chicks. The place for heat is on your pipes. The water needs to keep flowing. Also, ice-cold water isn't palatable to chickens, so heaters that take the chill off are a good thing.
There are a lot of different kinds of heaters out there, from ordinary pipe "heater tape" to heated waterer stands or bucket heater that you drop into a bucket-style waterer. They should be thermostatically controlled, and the ones with exposed metal (like bucket heaters) need to be grounded. These units come with a three-prong grounded plug, so all you need is wiring that has an intact ground circuit. This is actually sort of rare in farm wiring, since ground connections can corrode quickly under farm conditions. Buy a plug-in wiring tester (they cost about $8) and check.
You can also use overhead heat lamps to keep waterers and pipes flowing, though it's wasteful of electricity. Make sure the hens can't knock the lamp down! Use a brooder light with a guard over the front, and make sure the fixture is tied to something. Cheap hardware-store clamp lights are no good at all. Buy a real brooder light fixture at the feed store.
If you manage to give your hens enough water -- always a problem in the winter -- food is your next problem. Schlepping feed across ice, snow, or mud is difficult, and sometimes feed will not flow properly in tube feeders or range feeders because it gets damp or frozen. Hens won't lay propery unless they have an easy time eating and drinking as much as they want. Make things difficult for them, and production will plummet, and they will also be less happy, of course.
The lowest-tech method of watering is to use a brook. This works until it freezes over -- never, on our farm. The second-lowest-tech method is to use galvanized buckets. 12-quart buckets are a little too big. 8-quart and 10-quart are better. Ideally, you'll have two sets, because the water will freeze in the buckets. Take out water in one set of buckets and bring the frozen buckets back into the house to thaw. Use warm water and the buckets will freeze more slowly.
If you end up doing this as a regular thing, you can insulate the buckets in various ways. (My favorite insulation is aluminized bubble wrap, which you ought to be able to get at the hardware store. It's rotproof, waterproof, can be cut with scissors and attached with tape. Also, chickens don't peck it to pieces the way they do styrofoam.)
Another good gimmick is to make a round wooden float for the bucket with three or four one-inch holes bored through it. Make sure it's small enough in diameter to sink all the way to the bottom of the bucket. This provides some insulation and also prevents the chickens from splashing water all over themselves. In cold weather, they'll get their combs and wattles wet when drinking from open waterers, and this will freeze and give them frostbite. (I haven't tried this gimmick myself.)
Winter puts high metabolic demands on chickens, who have to burn calories to keep warm. This is not a season in which the chickens are likely to put on weight!
The traditional winter feeding method involves a heavy feeding of scratch grain in the late afternoon, so the chickens can go to their roosts with a full crop of grain, which they will digest throughout the night. Traditionally, the grain is fed as whole wheat, whole oat, or cracked corn scattered in straw litter on the floor. The hens will scratch around for the grain, which will give them exercise, keep them busy, and fluff up the litter. If the litter gets compacted, more straw is added. A light feeding of grain in the morning was also traditional.
I try to keep whole grain (usually whole corn) in half my range feeders, with a high-protein poultry pellet in the other half. To interest the chickens in scratch feed, I use whole oats or whole wheat. Chickens like a variety in grain, and are eager to get their daily feed. Since I use a free-range method that involves having the chickens outdoors as much as possible, I feed scratch feed outdoors in the grass (or, this week, in the snow).
Whole grains make a good foul-weather feed, since it's not much affected by rain or snow! Even if it sprouts, it's still good food for the chickens. It's high in energy, which is what the chickens need if they're cold or wet.
If you want your hens to go outside in the snow, covering the snow with a thin layer of straw will give them a lot of encouragement.
First Sign of Spring!
For me, the first sign of approaching spring is the arrival of hatchery catalogs. I've already received my first, the single-sheet catalog from Phinney Hatchery in Walla Walla, Washington. I expect to get buried in hatchery catalogs over the next three or four weeks.
I'm going to start my brooding season in February this year, so the catalogs are arriving none too early.
January To-Do List
Cribbed from Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
Success With Baby Chicks
It's almost brooding time, and my book, Success With Baby Chicks, is focused entirely on getting your chicks safely through the brooding period. It's not just material for beginners, but has lots of techniques that hardly anybody knows about anymore.
If you're like me, you'll get fired up with new enthusiasm for the coming year as the hatchery catalogs arrive in the mail. It's a good idea to tap the enthusiasm while you can, and study up on techniques before spring hits and you're too busy with chores.
You can get the from me, from Amazon.com, from your favorite bookstore -- you name it. And buy a copy for a chicken-loving friend! Just follow this link.
If you like this newsletter, please send copies to all your friends!
Copyright 2004 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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