Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, April 4, 2004As always, if you're tired of this newsletter, please scroll down to the bottom of the message for easy instructions to make your subscription go away.
Success With Baby Chicks
If you've been holding off on buying a copy of my book, Success With Baby Chicks, keep in mind that our good spring brooding weather won't last forever! The book is jam-packed with all sorts of chick-brooding tips and techniques, culled from the hundred-plus poultry books I've read over the years and tested on my own farm. Many people have written to tell me that the techniques in my book have cut their chick mortality, cut their electric bills, and made poultrykeeping more fun. At only $12.55 for an autographed copy (if you buy it from me via the link above), how can you lose? If you hate it, send it back and I'll refund your money.
Buy the book. It's worth it. I get $12.55 of value out of it whenever I read it, and I wrote it! But I need reminding, just like everyone else.
News From the Farm
We got a call in February the poultry manager at Oregon State University, who wondered if we wanted a group of about sixty New Hampshire Reds of both sexes, about eight weeks old. We decided to take them. These New Hampshires are pretty good layers -- not great, but okay -- and Karen figured she could butcher the cockerels at about twelve weeks and sell them at the Indoor Farmer's Market that runs from January through March.
This worked pretty well. Karen tossed the broiler crates into the back of the truck and collected and paid for the birds, and brought them home. We put them in an empty henhouse, which we surrounded with a roll of electric poultry netting. We did this because they were on the same pasture as our hens, and we didn't want the older birds hassling the younger ones.
One little-known secret is that chickens generally won't fly over a barrier they can see through, and if you don't crowd them in too tightly or let them go hungry, you can often confine them with a very low electric fence. This fence was only 20" high, but it did the job. Once a few chickens go out when they ran out of feed, but they came back when the feeders were filled.
We hooked up a new waterer to a length of garden hose that we ran back to the main pasture system, which is just a zillion feet of cheap garden hose with Y-connectors here and there. We used a Little Giant Agri-Pet waterer, which is really a terrible chicken water because they'll stand on the edge an poop in the water, but it's freeze-proof and goat-proof and hooks up to a standard garden hose.
A couple of chickens looked droopy after we'd had them a few days, and we switched to medicated feed temporarily. Chickens on grassy range rarely get coccidiosis, but sometimes when you move them to a new environment, they huddle in the house and don't get out much, which concentrates the parasites. And of course the stress of moving makes them vulnerable. One chicken died. The rest recovered almost instantly.
Things went fine until they were 12 weeks old. Karen let them go hungry on the last day, so they'd have empty crops at butchering time. She got started too late the next morning, though. When she went outside with a flashlight to grab the sleeping cockerels off the perches, the chickens were already up and about. Fortunately, they were hungry, so she put a little feed in the feeders, and they were all so eager to get their share that she snatched all the cockerels out of the scrum without the other chickens taking much notice. And none of them got much more than a beakful of feed, so they butchered out very cleanly.
But here's the thing about old-timey chickens: they're tiny. They grow very slowly, and when you pluck them, they look exactly like rubber chickens! Our birds, who lived a good, healthy free-range life and had plenty of feed, averaged a mere 1.75 pounds apiece at twelve weeks. That's about half the size of an average supermarket broiler, and the supermarket broilers are being slaughtered at six weeks these days.
So when you consider butchering dual-purpose cockerels for meat, keep in mind that you're not going to get much meat. The rule of thumb is to butcher them at twelve weeks, no matter how tiny they are, because they grow very slowly after that, and they also start fighting with each other around then, and make life difficult for you, the hens, and each other.
We also have 300 modern broilers now. There are 200 up on our broiler hill at the back of our property, in cattle-panel hoophouses of Karen's own design. They're using one of my inventions as well, the reflective hover, which helps keep them warm without brooder heat.
These floorless broiler houses are dragged by hand (with the broilers inside) to a new patch of grass every day. Their design makes this less work, perhaps, than it sounds. This daily move leaves the manure behind and gives the broilers fresh grassy forage to eat. It also keeps a roof over their heads at all times, which is important because broilers are so young that they're too dumb to come in out of the rain.
This method of raising pastured broilers was pioneered by Joel Salatin in his must-have book, Pastured Poultry Profits. When you raise chickens this way (or using any method that exposes them to plenty of grassy green forage), they taste a lot better than supermarket chickens. Methods that involve floorless pens also have the nice advantage that they leave the manure on the pasture, so you don't have to shovel it. The part of our property we've used for broilers is much greener than the adjacent land.
Almost Farmers' Market Time
The true farmers' market season will start in Corvallis on April 17. We're almost ready. This year, we'll be experimenting with computerized bookkeeping at the market itself. Our pen-and-paper system has been letting us down, and it's simpler just to bring a computer with QuickBooks on it and enter everything at the Market than to try to transcribe stuff afterwards.
We bought a couple of elderly Panasonic Toughbooks, which don't mind if they get rained on, or even dropped! We'll let you know how this works out. (We're also hoping for wireless connectivity so we will have our beloved Internet during any slow stretches...)
Remember my rodent problem? It's gone! The bait hasn't been touched in weeks. Boy, am I glad I started this before my chicks arrived!
April and May Are the Big Chick Months
In most of the country, April and May are the best months for brooding chicks. So get to it! Time's a-wasting! Hot weather isn't particularly good chick-brooding weather, and it complicates the shipping of mail-order chicks. Things won't be this good again until fall.
In the old days, 90% of chicks were hatched in April and May. These days, though, all the feed stores in my area have chicks in March, and when the really good brooding weather hits, the chicks have vanished. Strange, isn't it? Well, I use mail-order anyway.
April To-Do List
Cribbed from Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
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