Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, June 7, 2005
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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, so 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
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.
The original edition is almost impossible to find, but you can always buy
The Dollar Hen from me,
or wherever fine books are sold (but you'll probably have to special-order it).
Get My Books Cheaper On eBay
I'm auctioning books on eBay every week, and people are
getting really good deals. Check it out:
News From the Farm
Egg Pricing For Dummies
Our egg production is at record levels, which has caused us to lower our prices for the
first time in a long time. Not only are our eggs selling for (gasp!) a mere $3.25 per dozen,
but we've had a series of super-specials, such as "buy a broiler, get a dozen eggs free."
It took us a while to figure it out, but the right way to set egg prices is by supply and
demand. By this I mean that, if our refrigerators are full, it's time to lower prices. If
they are empty, it's time to raise prices.
We used to think that life was more complicated than this, but it isn't.
Getting the pricing wrong causes trouble. If our prices are too high, our eggs reach the
sell-by date unsold, and we use them for pig feed. If our prices are too low, we are
making our farm less profitable than it ought to be. Also, too-low prices mean that
the retail stores that carry
our eggs run out, and then our shelf space becomes empty.
Retailers can't stand the sight of empty shelves. If we can't fill up our shelf space,
they'll give it to someone who can.
It's also discouraging when we sell out of eggs at the Farmers' Market at 10 AM, and have
to tell the next fifty customers that we don't have anything for them.
Anyway, supply-and-demand pricing is the way to go. The cure for running out of eggs is
to jack up the prices. The cure for having too many is to lower the prices.
Some people think that there is a "right" price that isn't related to supply and
demand. We used to think this, too, but we were wrong.
There will always be people who think my eggs are too expensive, and
there will always be those who'd be willing to pay more. You can't please everybody. The
closest you can come is to find a price that gets all your eggs sold but doesn't leave
much money on the table. Selling them at auction would accomplish this, but this is
inconvenient. The next best thing is to try to find a price that gives about the
same result you'd get at an acution. An auction basically serves to find
the highest price at which everything still gets sold.
While I'm on the subject, I should mention that customers love sales, so whenever we
have more of one grade of eggs than is good for us, we knock a quarter off
at the Farmers' Market. While people
will pay premium prices for a premium product, they still respond very strongly to the
idea of saving a quarter. Go figure.
The flip side of this is that, whenever factory-farm eggs go on sale for 89 cents a dozen, our
we sell fewer eggs. No one thinks factory-farm eggs are as good as ours, but 89 cents a dozen
is enough to tempt even the people who claim that they only eat our eggs!
(But don't tell them that we know. It's our little secret.)
Anyway, we set our egg prices by a very simple-minded use of supply and demand, and it
has worked very well for us.
I Have an Article in Mother Earth News!
Now that I've admitted that my prices are fallen, let me tell you that I have
an article in the latest (June/July) Mother Earth News entitled
"Sell Free-Range Eggs for $4 a Dozen!"
(That price was correct when I wrote it a few months ago). The issue is very
chicken-centric; check it out!
More Web Site Updates
I've gone whole hog and started a
section on my Web page. It has four articles so far:
- Tractor Tips,
telling some of my adventures with a 1957 Ford 640 tractor.
- Chicken Lore,
a link to my poultry pages.
- Audiobooks Make Chore Time More Interesting,
which tells how I use chore and driving time to listen to books, and how to do this
without going broke.
- Why You Need a TiVo.
In case you don't know, a TiVo uses a hard disk to automatically record the shows you like, even if you have no idea
what channel they will be on, or when.
Much to my surprise, I discovered that a TiVo was just the thing for someone who doesn't
watch much TV! It records the shows I like, whether I remember to think about them or
not, and they're waiting for me when I feel like watching TV.
Also, TiVo is especially good for people out in the sticks, because the
DirecTiVo service (which combines satellite TV and TiVo) is a very well-integrated product.
June To-Do List
Inspired by a similar list in Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
- Market or butcher surplus cockerels.
- Cull early molting hens.
- Replace litter.
- Provide shade on range.
- Provide additional ventilation.
- Gather eggs more frequently in warm weather.
- Cull weak or unthrifty individuals.