Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, August 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 first generation of poultry scientists had a lot of fun, especially the guys who were young squirts when research began around 1900. These guys all seemed to live forever, and many of them were gamely publishing books after fifty years in the field.
In 1900, many "commercial" chicken flocks had fewer than 25 hens. Country stores and feed stores would buy eggs from anyone, regardless of quantity or quality, for cash money or store credit. Every farm had chickens, because farms generate most of the feed chickens need though various forms of waste: oats spilled by the horse or cow, forage, table scraps, and so on. Add some whole corn and some oystershell, and a small flock can be kept practically without cost.
But keeping more hens was difficult. They didn't do well. It turned out that a lot of the trouble was nutritional. In 1900, people had figured out a little about protein and minerals, but nobody knew anything about vitamins. Still, even when theory is deficient, you can try feeding different things and noting whether it works better or worse than other diets, and that's what the early researchers did.
Around 1925, they learned about vitamins A and D, the biggest barriers to winter nutrition for hens. The simple discovery that cod liver oil added to feed would allow hens to lay more winter eggs -- and to lay winter eggs that hatched -- was tremendously important. This was followed up by all sorts of other discoveries, to the point where, by the early Fifties, our understanding of poultry nutrition was essentially modern.
Poultry professionals will argue with me on this, but this is only because there's so little profit in the mainstream poultry industry that relatively small details become very important. For hobbyists, backyarders, and small commercial producers, a solid understanding of how things stood fifty years ago may be better than a modern one, because the needs of small producers were understood perfectly by yesterday's experts.
Which is a long-winded way of getting around to plugging one of the books I've reprinted, Feeding Poultry by G. F. Heuser. Heuser was one of those first-generation poultry scientists, one of the remarkable group at Cornell that seemed to discover almost everything worth knowing in the poultry world between 1900 and 1950.
Like many books from this period, it tries to be thorough and scientific -- the bibliography is immensely long -- while being comprehensible to the motivated layman. It has practical information as well as nutritional theory, and has a long chapter on "green feed," which includes free range, of course. There are an immense number of feed recipes at the back of the book.
The last big events in poultry nutrition were the discovery of vitamin B-12, the development of vegetarian diets that worked as well as those that did, and the "high-energy diets" that avoided the use high-fiber ingredients that had always junked up poultry diets for no particular reason. All of these developments were complete by the time the second edition of Feeding Poultry came out, and that's the edition I reprinted.
In addition to all the practical stuff, there are interesting sections on antibiotics and hormones, which disappointed me because these additives are surprisingly boring and ineffective. These sections didn't have the ghoulish interest I was expecting.
(As it turns out, the golden age of poultry hormones lasted only a few years, in the late Forties and early Fifties, before advances in other areas made them hopelessly uneconomical. When DES (the most popular hormone) was banned in 1959, hardly anyone used it anymore except for a few stubborn farmers here and there who were hormone enthusiasts.)
Anyway, if you have an interest in formulating your own feed, or just learning more about poultry nutrition, Feeding Poultry is the book for you. Besides, the best modern book on the subject, Commercial Poultry Nutrition by Leeson and Summers, is out of print!
Just click on the link. It's available directly from me (I have the lowest prices, or from your favorite on-line bookseller, or (by special order; no one keeps it on the shelf) from your favorite bookstore.
News From the Farm
I hope you aren't bored with hearing about predators. My goal with predators is to keep them at arm's length; if they don't bother me, I won't bother them. With my electric fences, I hope to keep them from acquiring a taste for chickens in the first place. But the ones that do have to go. A single coyote can cost us $1,000 in lost sales in a very short time.
The effectiveness of precautions depends partly on how hungry the predators are. Apparently, we're in the middle of a predator population explosion, and they're getting pretty hungry. Not enough wildlife to go around.
We've recently improved our fences, adding a second strand in some places where there was only one, mowing to prevent the grass from shorting out the wires, and using any convenient dead chickens to bait the fence -- wiring the carcass to the fence.
All this helped, but losses didn't stop, and we were seeing more and more predators on the farm -- coyotes, raccoons, and even a bobcat. Another ominous note is that we went from six barn cats to only one in just a few months. Coyotes eat cats whenever they can catch them. Alarming!
So we called the federal trapper. Apparently, a lot of people don't know about federal trappers. They are part of the USDA's Wildlife Services. Our local trapper came out a couple of days later. He told us about the other depredations in our area. Livestock losses have been very high recently. A neighbor who used to keep a large flock of sheep gave up because the coyotes were killing so many lambs, in spite of his use of guardian animals. Now the coyotes are killing his calves. This has never happened in our area before. When I first moved here, we had chickens for several years with no perimeter fence at all, and had no losses to coyotes. But they just keep getting bolder and bolder. Apparently this is at least partly due to the cutbacks in Wildlife Services in our area. The counties pay part of the bill, and our local government, in its wisdom, has cut the program to the bone, so our trapper just can't give the kind of protection he used to. People are going out of business because of it, not to mention all the livestock that are getting killed before their time. When the trapper arrived, he used a game call that looked a lot like a duck call to make sounds like a distressed rabbit. In just a few minutes he shot two coyotes. He walked the perimeter of our pastures and showed us areas where predators had consumed the chickens they had made off with. One was carpeted with feathers. Then he set three snares along spots that were clearly game trails used by predators but not deer. This caught a chicken-stealing bobcat the next day.
I've worked with the trapper before, and I'm impressed by several things. One is that he far prefers shooting to trapping, since it's always best to do things in person -- better control. But traps aren't so bad if you know where to put them and where not to. In my hands, a snare is random. In his, it isn't. And if the traps don't catch something in a very sort time, out they come.
The game calling is also very interesting. I'm an excellent shot but a bad hunter. I can't track and I can't think like a predator. But the game calls bring them running. For those of us who don't have years of experience with mouth-operated calls, there are game-call cassettes! Put them into a boom box and back off to a convenient place to wait on events.
I'm ordering some cassettes with appropriate livestock sounds, such as the sounds of a distressed chicken or a wailing goat kid, which are supposed to bring predators running. My theory is that there are coyotes (and other predators) that were taught as pups that livestock aren't on the menu. The local coyotes used to avoid both farmhouses and livestock. I'd like to avoid shooting any predators that are willing to live and let live, and focus entirely on the livestock killers. With the range of game-call cassettes available (such as from gamecalls.net), this isn't a problem.
You Need More Chicken Houses
The solution to many chicken-keeping problems is "have more chicken houses." For example, the answer to the question of, "How do I integrate my young pullets with my old hens?" is, "Don't! Have two chicken houses." If each group has its own house, at opposite ends of a yard, and you partition the yard for a time, you can eventually remove the partition and they'll get to know each other without the disastrous consequences of throwing a few pullets into a large group of hens.
Two houses are a working minimum, but more is better. I like houses that are widely separated physically. I don't think that a single house divided into pens works anywhere near as well.
Ready for Fall Brooding?
September and October are good brooding months in most parts of the country. Fall brooding lets you start the chicks off in warmer weather, when they need the heat, and the weather cools off as they need the heat less and less. In most parts of the country, the weather doesn't get really grim until after Dec. 1. You can start a batch of broilers as late as October 1 and butcher them right after Thanksgiving, and conditions will be perfectly fine so long as you don't do your butchering outdoors. (We've butchered in cold rain and don't like it.)
Similarly, pullets hatched by October 1 will be fully feathered by Thanksgiving and can take whatever weather the hens can. If your climate is mild, chicks hatched any time in October will be ready for cold weather.
If you typically brood only in the spring, adding fall brooding to your to-do list gets twice as much use out of your brooding equipment. If anything, the brooding period is easier to manage in the fall, because it's neither as soggy nor as cold as spring.
Don't forget to order a copy of my book, Success With Baby Chicks, if you don't have it already. It has all sorts of practical tips. Even if you know this stuff, the reminders are good. It's amazing what you can forget if you haven't brooded chicks for a few months.
In these dog days of summer, the level of ambition on the farm tends to be pretty low. But keep alert for outbreaks of mites, which can happen fast in hot weather, and be extra careful to keep water available for the birds at all times.
Some chickens are reluctant to drink warm water or to go out into the sun to drink, so outdoor waterers may not be the smartest idea during this time of year. Encouraging the birds to range when it's blazing hot may be counterproductive. Keep the water near the birds and use scratch grains early and late, perhaps.
Eggs deteriorate (or incubate) very quickly in hot weather, so get them refrigerated as soon as they're collected.
Keep in mind that Sept 1 is the traditional time to start using lights for the hens. That's just a few weeks from now!
August To-Do List
Inspired by a similar list in Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
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