Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, June 7, 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.
The Dollar Hen
Do you like back-to-the-land books, especially the kind with a practical twist rather than a romantic one? Milo M. Hasting's classic book, The Dollar Hen, is a fascinating period piece from 1909, with many lessons that hold true today. I based many of the practices in my free-range egg farming on the advice in this book
Of course, when you're dealing with a 95-year-old book, most of the techniques aren't things you can cut out and paste down. Still, it was written in the days when successful egg production really relied on free range -- it wasn't a marketing come-on in any way. And it was before modern drugs were invented, and flock health was all about prevention. So, while many of the techniques need to be modified (for example, you would never use iron pipe for watering systems these days, you'd use poly tubing), fundamentals never change.
Hastings had several major points to make. One was that manure should never be wasted, but should always be used to grow crops -- but at the same time, a farmer's labor is a limited resource, and he shouldn't waste it in carting manure around. His solution (like mine) is to have the hens out on pasture, and use portable, floorless chicken houses that get moved once in a while. That way, all the manure stays on the fields, and you don't have to shovel it. Contrast this to the modern fad for composting the manure from confinement-reared poultry! First you have to shovel the manure out of the henhouse and into a compost heap, and later you have to shovel it into a spreader to put it back onto the fields. Old-time range techniques eliminate the middleman.
The longest chapter in the book is on incubation. Hastings went on to invent the modern forced-draft incubator, but at the time he wrote The Dollar Hen, everyone used still-air incubators of the kind a lot of us use (though of course his weren't made out of styrofoam!). He's very good at describing the difficulties in incubation, especially humidity control. We have the advantage of being able to buy accurate hygrometers, which didn't exist in his day, but this instrumentation doesn't help much if you don't have a thorough understanding of the process of incubation. Best tip: keep the incubator in a place with near-constant humidity, not just near-constant temperature. A basement with its windows closed is usually the best you can do -- especially an unheated basement, since heating systems keep the temperature constant but allow the humidity to vary all over the place.
If you like books that are old-timey, practical, spend a lot of time on fundamentals, and occasionally drip with sarcasm, this is the book for you. I brought it back into print because I enjoyed it so much, lightly copy-editing it beause the language has changed a little, but it's more than 99% pure Hastings.
News From the Farm
June is Busting Out All Over
The grass is still winning, though the tractor and I are starting to catch up. We had the perfect May for grass growth. It almost makes me wish I had a hay baler. But not much. The chicken manure is helping to build up the soil, but we haven't made so much progress that it's time to take nutrients out and sell them as hay.
The longer days mean that we aren't using lights on the hens, of course, but the longer grass means that I'm having the devil of a time retrieving my extension cords! The turf has grown right over them.
Roost Mite Season
It's now roost-mite season. These are little parasites that are almost impossible to see unless you've got new glasses, that live in cracks and crevices and sneak out to attack the chickens. They show up first in nest boxes where broody hens are sleeping, but they appear wherever hens sleep as the weather gets warmer.
Roost mites can happen to anyone. They're spread by wild birds. The mites are mostly killed off during harsh winters, but their population explodes as soon as the weather is favorable. This is not a problem that happens to other people; it'll happen to you eventually.
How do you know if your hens have mites? Because they're so small, I generally don't see them at first, but I notice them when I get a crawly feeling up my arms after collecting eggs, or when I start collecting eggs with pinhead-sized blood spots on them, caused when an egg crushes a mite that's gorged with chicken blood.
As far as I know, mites aren't dangerous to humans, but it's very disgusting to have them crawling all over you. They are definitely dangerous to hens. Some of my hens died during my first outbreak, because I didn't know what was going on at first, and then tried some politically correct nostrums that didn't work at all.
There are several ways of getting rid of them that work, and some that don't. The ones that don't work are cedar shavings, diatomaceous earth, and ignoring them. These don't work at all. Don't waste your time. I know, I know -- diatomaceous earth is the panacea of the month. But I tried it, and things just got worse.
Here are some things that work: painting roosts with oil will smother the mites. If the oil is a non-drying, non-evaporating oil, it will continue to work for a long time. The traditional mix is used motor oil thinned with kerosene, because it's cheap. It works, but it's disgusting stuff. I tried linseed oil thinned with kerosene, and it was much better, and the houses smelled nice for months. Mineral oil doesn't smell and isn't toxic, so it would probably be a good choice, but I haven't tried it.
Insecticides work. 5% Malathion dust -- the kind sold in feed stores for use on livestock -- works really well on nest boxes. Pyrethrins are the organic equivalent. Both are short-lived, which I think is a good thing. I don't want to use any poisons that hang around forever. Both have been used for over 50 years and are well-understood. Follow the directions. For roosts, it's more convenient to use diluted liquid Malathion and a sprayer if you don't use oil.
Lime-sulfur spray works, is cheap, and not only non-toxic, but is a valuable soil amendment! It stinks to high heaven, though.
High temperatures will also kill mites and their eggs. If you happen to have a hot-water pressure sprayer, this might be just the ticket.
Whitewash with bury the mites and fill in the cracks and crevices where they live. I don't know how well ordinary whitewash works. The old-timers tended to spike it with all sorts of things, most of them now known to be carcinogenic. Not recommended.
If you let your hens sleep anywhere they want to, you can quickly end up in Roost Mite Hell. If the mites are allowed to breed unchecked, they'll be everywhere. When we had some hens roosting in our barn, the whole barn was infested with mites, and we couldn't even walk through the barn without having them crawling all over us. The same thing happened when a few hens were sleeping in our garage (which doesn't have doors, so it's hard to keep the hens out). Once we adopted the policy of selling hens who insisted on sleeping in the wrong places, our lives became a lot more livable.
June To-Do List
Inspired by a similar list in Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
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