Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, July 15, 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.
Genetics of the Fowl
What can I say about F. B. Hutt's Genetics of the Fowl? It's a great classic; a book that has always been much sought-after by poultry fanciers and practical chicken breeders. First published in the late Forties, it's not an up-to-the-minute breeding guide, but it has so much down-to-earth, practical, easy-to-understand information that you really need a copy of it anyway if you're interested in chicken breeding.
I love this book, even though I don't actually do any chicken breeding! It gave me a great respect for the masters of the craft, and I love all the anecdotes and nuggets of wisdom in the book.
F.B. Hutt was one of the first generation of poultry scientists, and like many of them, he spent a lot of his career on small farms and working with show-bird breeders, giving him a breadth of experience that's hard to obtain these days. He was also an excellent scientist who did ground-breaking work in breeding for disease resistance and other areas.
Most of the book is devoted to describing the action of various genes (such as the one that determines whether a chicken will have solid-colored or barred (striped) feathers). But these are shot through with interesting stories about how these characteristics were discovered. The final chapter, quite lengthy, is "Breeding in Practice," which is a treasure trove of practical breeding advice.
This book has been out of print for decades. I had to wait for a long time before I had the opportunity of buying a nice used copy for $100. I've brought it back into print for less (it lists for $44.95). You can get buy it online from me or others (like amazon.com) -- just click here. You should also be able to order it from your favorite bookstore.
News From the Farm
We're in the summer drought. Though the grass is still green, it's no longer growing very quickly, so months of being unable to catch up with the mowing are pretty much over until next year. It's been hot, but not too hot (it rarely gets as high as 85 F here in Oregon's Coast Range).
Our egg production is way down. We've had the usual problems with the seasons -- mites and predators. And April and May are the traditional peak months, so July production is typically down. Sadly, this is the peak of the Farmers' Market season, and so there's a terrible mismatch.
Our pastured broiler production is going well. We have a restaurant customer now (Sybaris in Albany, Oregon -- a true gourmet restaurant!), plus all our loyal Farmers' Market customers. There aren't enough broilers to go around, even though we raised our prices! Life is good.
In general, we're getting by but aren't on top of things the way we'd like. This is largely due to my technical writing work, which pays most of the bills but pulls me away from the farm work quite a bit.
This may be the right time to throw out an unsolicited testimonial for the DR Trimmer, a powerful string trimmer on wheels that doesn't break your back. A very pleasant machine to use! How would we have dealt with the grass and blackberries without it?
One of the worst downsides about free-range chickens is that predators can get at outdoor chickens. Our first line of defense is an electric fence consisting of two strands of aluminum fence wire, one 5 in. off the ground and one 10 in. off the ground. This is the classic means of keeping raccoons out of your garden, and it keeps them out of your chicken area, too. Mostly. Such fences can be stepped over and, if your vehicle has a high ground clearance, driven over. I don't even turn the fence off before driving over it. Step-in fenceposts are the best; lightweight steel T-posts are okay for the corners.
Unfortunately, raccoons aren't very afraid of electric fences. If there's a high spot or a low spot, they may find it. Then Mr. Shotgun has to be called in.
I discovered to my surprise that coyotes are even more dissuaded by these fences than raccoons. While they could easily jump the fences, they apparently investigate them first with their noses, and then never come back. (I'm told that in some areas, the coyotes are smarter than this.)
I've recently lost some chickens to -- I think -- a coyote, but seem to have dissuaded him by improving the fence and using another old-time trick. This is baiting the fence -- in this case, attaching a dead chicken to the electric fence with a length of wire, so the predators who come looking for a free meal get zapped. I hope that this not only convinces them that to Fear The Fence, but that all chickens taste terrible! After all, this is how coyotes learn to avoid skunks, porcupines, and toads.
Like coyotes, dogs are terrified of electric fences. The problem is that they are less cautious than coyotes and will run right through an electric fence to get at the chickens, sometimes passing through so quickly that they don't get zapped. Dogs that aren't quite so enthusiastic get zapped and avoid the fence thereafter.
One predator I can't do anything about is hawks. Birds of prey are protected by law, and I'd hesitate to shoot them anyway. But I only lose a few chickens to them per year.
One interesting characteristic of this kind of electric fence is that it doesn't provide much of a physical barrier; the chickens can go right through it. This means that if a coyote or dog manages to get inside, the chickens will flee outside.
With a chicken-wire fence, the chickens can't leave their yard, but they'll try, and get stuck with their heads poked through the mesh of the wire. They're easily picked off by predators that way.
Many predators have no instinct that says, "That's enough killing." They keep killing until they run out of targets. In nature, the targets skedaddle, so the predators get only one or two slow-moving creatures. In a henhouse or a tightly fenced yard, they might keep killing until every chicken is dead. These two-wire fences don't have this problem. The chickens go right through them and vanish into the distance.
Also, the escaped chickens will go back through the fence of their own accord to get home at night; you don't have to round them up or drop the fence.
The fences aren't perfect. Like raccoons, chickens aren't very afraid of these fences. The fences work best if you don't pen in the chickens very tightly. I'm not sure what to recommend, exactly, but when we put 150 pullets inside a fence 100 feet on a side, they were always getting out. If I fence in several acres and keep the chicken houses away from the fences, they don't bother.
An alternative is electric poultry netting, which typically comes in rolls 160' long. That only makes a square 40' on a side -- tiny by my standards. Electric poultry netting is good when you actually move the fence quite frequently. The grass will grow through the ground-level strand if you keep it in one place too long, making it difficult to move.
If you have a conventional chicken-wire fence, you can prevent raccoons and such from digging under it or climbing over it by adding a single strand of electric fence wire, on insulators, a few inches off the ground. For a permanent installation, I would recommend heavy galvanized electric fence wire and locking pin insulators. This will be very sturdy and allow you to keep the area free of grass and weeds with a string trimmer. Lighter wire might break and wrap around the head of the string trimmer. I hate it when that happens.
For electric fences, you need a fence energizer. I think all the ones on the market these days use similar technology, so you're paying for power and convenience features. My wife Karen swears by Premier; I use Parmak. When in doubt, buy something with a meter on it so you can see if the amount of zap has fallen from its usual level. If so, you need to walk the fenceline and see what's amiss. Without a built-in meter on the energizer, you won't get this warning.
In traditional chicken farming, July-September have less labor than any other months. "Sumertime, when the living is easy." However, hot weather is hard on the chickens, and they should never, ever be allowed to run out of water during a summer's day. Egg quality deteriorates rapidly in the heat, too. While you can get away with leaving egg baskets out in the spring, in the summertime all eggs should be refrigerated immediately.
July and August are generally considered to be terrible months for brooding baby chicks, because they are far more vulnerable to excessive heat than excessive cold. However, this depends on your climate. It's not a problem here. September is an exellent brooding month in almost every climate.
July To-Do List
Inspired by a similar list in Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
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