Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, October 2, 2005
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Deals are Still Disgustingly Good eBay
I'm still auctioning books every week on eBay. It's hard to get good prices for them this time of year,
I'm an optimist and keep doing it anyway. So check it out, you'll probably get a good deal:
The Last Grown-Ups
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought home to me the degree to which farmers are treated
differently from other people.
You see it every day. Farming is dangerous, but you don't need a license. Everyone assumes that
you can make your own decisions. I can go down to the feed store
and buy hypodermic needles and an eight-ounce bottle of pennicillin anytime. At the pharmacy, I'd be
considered to be a mere
citizen and likely to hurt myself, so I'd need a note from a grown-up (in the form of a doctor's
A few years ago, when the Tillamook River flooded any number of dairy farms, the news was mostly
about the risk to livestock, not to farmers. Afterwards, no one warned the farmers to stay away because
they might come into contact with feces or agricultural chemicals!
The assumption was, "They're farmers. They can cope." No matter what the devastation, the reporters
were confident that the farmers would roll up their sleeves and rebuild.
The concern was all over the dairy cattle who
were cut off from rescue by the floodwaters.
Of course, no sane person would assume differently with New Orleans. The mouth of the Mississippi River
is one of the most important commercial locations in the world, with the entire produce of the American
Midwest needing to be taken off barges and put on ships. Having a city at the mouth of the Mississipp is
not optional! And there are plenty of determined people
in New Orleans; farmers have no monopoly on toughness. Far from it! Yet with Katrina,
the news always seemed to assume that the people in New Orleans were
helpless and stupid, and needed to be kept from their own homes until everything was made nice and safe by
the grown-ups from the government.
(No doubt a lot of this was fake; just bad reporting by city-slicker
journalists and knee-jerk answers of "We're a lot more comfortable if we drag things out forever"
from government officials who were not, in fact, in charge.)
I was surprised (but pleased) that the mayor of New Orleans reopened the city.
He, at least, recognized that there's a difference between an
and a prisoner, and that the citizens would mutiny and reopen the city on their if he didn't get a move on.
It's not that New Orleans is necessarily safe right now, it's just that grown-ups are allowed to
take risks if they want to, and it's nobody's business but theirs. A lot of people seem to have
You get a lot less of this nonsense on the farm, but since our legislators are mostly city slickers,
it's creeping up on us. It's been a long time since you could buy dynamite through the mail from Sears!
News From the Farm
Electric Lights for Hens
The fall rains have started, and they are very welcome. Now that I'm not afraid of setting grass fires
with my endless stretches of outdoor extension cords, it's time to reconstruct the hen lighting system.
I need to replace some of the fixtures. I found some very inexpensive plastic light sockets with
attached cords. These particular sockets were very nice; they don't corrode in the henhouses, which
is unusual. But the cords didn't hold up at all.
I've found that the best cords for indoor use (even in chicken houses) are ordinary two-wire extension cords
with the socket end cut off. Outdoors, I use outdoor-rated extension cords. I use the expensive
orange three-way outlets because they're the only kind that hold up. Wherever a cord plugs into
another cord or a three-way outlet, I tape the joint with electrical tape to keep it clean. This
seems to make a big difference; taped joints don't seem to corrode.
Mobile Slaughter Services
Our butcher, "The Farmer's Helper," arrived Saturday morning with the mobile butcher truck. Our
pigs are now carcasses and will soon be pork chops, ham, and bacon.
On-farm slaughtering means that the livestock are moved from this world to the next without a
scary interlude of being herded into trucks or trailers and hauled to unfamiliar places. They say
that the fear and stress of shipping is not only hard on the animals, it makes their meat taste worse.
I don't know about that. I do know that our livestock moves from this world to the next without much
distress, through the skill of the butcher. They clearly have no idea what's going on.
Nature makes it easier on the farmers than it might be otherwise. Livestock tends to to be well past the
cute stage and into the nuisance stage when butchering time comes around. These pigs, though friendly,
had no respect for electric fence at all, and were impossible to confine. They got everywhere. The goats
didn't like them, and when the pigs moved into the barn, the goats moved out, and they're still
sleeping in chicken houses half the time. Something always happens to make me happy to see the
The hens are laying at least twice as well as last year, mostly due to halfway decent production
planning (by which I mean that we started 300 pullet chicks last October).
In theory, the pace of life on the farm should be slowing down, but we're going to get more pullet
chicks soon, and we'll still have sheep, broilers, and turkeys well into November, so we've got a couple
more months until things quiet down.
I've been thinking about the concept of sweet spots recently. In the old days, most farm flocks had about
fifty hens -- that was the sweet spot for a farm where hens were a sideline. You could count on your
old hens hatching their own eggs to keep such a flock going. You'd market all the cockerels when
they became a nuisance, and cull your old hens in the fall, since you didn't want to feed them
through the winter. Fifty hens could forage for most of their protein (pasture plants, insects, and worms),
and you would feed them only corn and scraps.
With more than fifty hens, you needed to buy chicks or use incubators. You had to feed real chicken feed.
Your labor and costs went way up, though it often paid off handsomely.
On some farms, the sweet spot was only five or six hens -- the amount that could feed themselves and
raise a brood of chicks even though you didn't feed them anything at all. They' forage off the grain
that the cows and horses spilled, and stuff like that, and you wouldn't invest a dime in them. Such
flocks weren't very productive, but it was 100% profit.
Labor in Egg Production, and Its Effect on Prices
The rule of thumb in the Thirties and Forties was that a full-time egg farm had 1,500 hens, and it took
2 to 2.5 hours of labor per hen per year to run the farm. (3,000 to 3,750 hours of labor total). This
number is probably still pretty close if you're using old-timey methods.
Let's run some numbers. Suppose that a good hen lays 20 dozen eggs a year and you want to make
$15 an hour on your labor. The profits on your egg sales have to pay your wages in addition to all
your expenses. How much per dozen does your labor work out to?
(20 dozen/year)/(2.5 hours/year) = 8 dozen eggs per hour of labor.
($15/hour)/(8 dozen/hour) = $1.88 per dozen.
So, in this example, you'd need to add $1.88 per dozen to the price of your eggs to cover your
My rule of thumb is that my eggs are costing me $1.50 per dozen to produce right now (including feed,
of housing, the cost of the egg carton, the cost of raising replacement pullets -- everything but labor), so to make
$15/hour, my eggs need to sell for $1.50 + $1.88 = $3.38 per dozen.
As it happens, my eggs really are selling for that much.
How can other small operators afford to sell eggs for $1.50 a dozen? They can't! That's why you
never see the person with $1.50 eggs increasing the flock to 1,000 hens.
You might be able to produce eggs more cheaply than I can. My technique of raising hens on
grass range, with all the feeders and waterers outdoors, exposes the hens to a lot of weather,
and isn't a recipe for high production. High quality, yes; high production, no.
Factory farming eliminates most of the labor from egg production. Rex Farms, a local farm that
closed in the early Nineties when Mr. Rex died, had 30,000 caged layers and was run by a husband-and-wife
team plus a couple of employees in the egg-packing room. At the time, it took 30,000 hens to keep a family
farm afloat, when all you were getting was commodity egg prices.
Nowadays, the biggest egg producer in Oregon, Willamette Egg,
has 125,000 caged layers per laying house, and each house is attended by a single employee.
Big egg producers not only have very low labor costs, but they get commodity pricing on feed. It's
cheaper to buy in carload lots, and they do. So you can't compete with commodity producers on price, only
on quality. Fortunately, that isn't hard.
October To-Do List
Inspired by a similar list in Jull's
Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
- House pullets (if raised on range).
- Repair doors, windows, cracks.
- Do not overcrowd!
- Replace litter.
Make final culling of molters (next month, molting will be normal)
- Cull any poor pullets.
- Remove damp or dirty litter.
- Use lights on layers.