Norton Creek Poultry and Chicken Lore
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Success With
Baby Chicks

Robert Plamondon
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Ruth Stout
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Leslie E. Card
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Genetics of the Fowl
F. B. Hutt
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Feeding Poultry
G.F. Heuser
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Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, August 19, 2007

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News From the Farm

Cure for Crows?

Several people wrote in with suggestions for dealing with my crow problem. As you'll recall, the crows have been stealing eggs from the nests, dropping them on the road, and eating the contents. Shoals of shells along the road are embarrassing!

Do crows avoid places where dead crows can be seen? I received a couple of variations of the advice that crows freak out if they see dead crows, so displaying dead crows will drive them off. I tried two different methods, including the "hang 'em from a string and let them swing in the wind" trick. Didn't work.

Don't crows hate cayenne pepper? Another suggestion was the old "fill an egg with cayenne pepper" trick. I didn't try this -- people also believe it works with chickens, too, but it doesn't. Birds don't think cayenne pepper is "hot" at all. (People have tried controlling rodents by mixing chicken feed with enough cayenne pepper to make it inedible to mammals, without affecting birds at all.)

How about scarecrows? I also built a scarecrow with an old pair of overalls, flannel shirt, and straw hat I had lying around. The thing startled me a couple of times but had no effect on the crows.

Maybe tricks like dead crows or scarecrows work if the crows have a lot of equally good places to go. For example, if everyone in the neighborhood had just planted their cornfields, and only one field had scarecrows, the crows might leave that one with the scarecrows alone -- Plenty more where that came from. But I'm the only one around running a 24-hour egg buffet, so they keep coming back.

How about shooting them? What worked was shooting them. After shooting two crows on my main pasture, they've kept away. The back pasture has fewer crows but is still something of a problem, since it's much harder for me to sneak up on them over there.

Boring solutions work; colorful ones don't. This is my usual experience. People love colorful solutions because they make a great story, and they'll repeat the story to other people even if they're pretty sure it doesn't work. Simple, direct, unaesthetic solutions have nothing going for them except that they work. They don't get repeated so much because they're not very interesting to a general audience.

Apparently, a passing score is 50%: if it sounds good, lots of people repeat it whether they try it or not, and the method (true or not) will be remembered. If it works but doesn't sound good, some people will still know about it, but not so many -- "the people who are in the know, know." Or, to put it another way, superstitions are part of our cultural heritage, while methods that actually work are known only by specialists. Which, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with the world.

Predators are smart and observant. I rarely hear people mention this, but predators are smarter and more observant than people give them credit for. Now that I've killed two crows, at least a hundred are avoiding my farm. I've seen the same effect with four-footed predators: when the farmers and the federal trapper are on their toes about livestock-eaters, the predators not only get the message, they pass it on to their young, and a balance is struck. Practically all the predators are eating wildlife rather than livestock, and this means that both predators and livestock get to have a normal lifespan. But if you don't kill any predators, their caution fades. After a couple of generations, the mothers stop teaching farm-avoidance to their young, and then the clueless young predators kill a lot of livestock before inevitably being killed themselves. Which is a bad deal all around. To misquote the song, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be livestock eaters!"

Summer Book Doldrums

The last time I auctioned off a book, it sold for less than three bucks. Summer's a terrible time to sell poultry books. But I'm a slow learner sometimes, and I'm auctioning off a copy of "Success With Baby Chicks."

Keeping it Cool

It's funny how often you can come up with a new application for facts that have been generally known for ages. One of the problems we have at the farmers' market is to keep our products cool. With fresh broilers, the use of coolers with large amounts of ice is the right answer -- nothing can beat ice for this, and we're glad we bought an ice machine, even though it seems like we have to spend $500 in repairs every two or three years.

Eggs are more difficult. Putting them in coolers is a good start, and they keep pretty cold all day long if the cooler is full and you keep the lid closed, but they don't stay cold during the market when the cooler is half-empty and the lid is going up and down. If we use "blue ice" or a container full of ice, water condenses on the outside and tends to make the cartons wet. Wet cartons are bad for the eggs and bad for business.

With frozen broilers, it's even tougher. Brolers start to thaw at around 26 F, so ice doesn't really help. Dry ice works great and isn't terribly expensive, but our source of dry ice is a one-hour round-trip from our farm. Inconvenient.

A couple of months ago, a bit of Freshman Chemistry came back to me. A saturated salt solution melts at 0 F. This used to be the coldest temperature that could be produced in the laboratory, which is why the Farenheit scale puts zero at this point. With less salt, you get a temperature that's intermediate between 0 and 32 degrees. (By the way, my experience with saturated salt solutions is that it stays pretty slushy even at -5 or -10 F, so don't worry if this happens to you.)

I tried mixing a random amount of salt in some convenient containers (20 oz. soda bottles and two-quart plastic pitchers) and the results were gratifying. When water condensed on the outside of these containers, it didn't drip, it froze into a thick layer of frost. I can put one of these containers on top of an egg carton and it won't become damp at all.

With frozen broilers, the results are also good. I'll end the market with my salt-water ice mostly melted, but the broilers are as hard as a rock.

The inspector from the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture Food-Safety Inspection Service was impressed!

Using Salt-Water Ice In Your Cooler

To make a saturated salt solution, use one cup of salt per quart and add water to make one quart (or liter). This will not freeze unless your freezer is at 0 F or below, which a lot of freezers aren't. If you only use half as much salt, the freezing point should be around 15 F, which will be plenty for refrigerated stuff.

Soda bottles make good salt-water ice container. When filling them, squeeze the sides a little so they aren't really full, to ensure that expansion won't split them. A 20 oz. soda bottle of salt-water ice is okay for a tiny cooler, like you'd put a six-pack of soda cans into. A two-liter bottle is better for larger coolers.

Sterlite makes a nice oblong 2-qt. pitcher that is the same width as an egg carton, and is about three cartons high. So once I've sold three dozen eggs, I can put ice in the cooler.

Salt-water ice works fine for everything I use coolers for -- the eggs and broilers we sell, the market produce we buy, picnics, and so on. It's less wet and messy than regular ice and works infinitely better than "Blue Ice," which claims to be colder than ice, but isn't. Condensation drips off Blue Ice rather than freezing, so who are they trying to kid? A few minutes spent making some salt-water ice bottles will come in handy and cost next to nothing.

Armchair General Disease: Is There A Cure?

I've noticed that everyone knows how to farm except farmers. If you ask a farmer about the right way to farm, he'll pause and tell you what he's doing this year -- and how it's not working out the way he expected. Then he'll tell you what he did last year, and how that was no picnic either. And, if you haven't run away yet, he'll let you know what he's thinking about doing next year. He lives in a world with plenty of options, but no certainties.

Non-farmers, on the other hand, know all about farming. To them, farming is a world with plenty of certainties and no options. There are no options because there's a one-size-fits-all solution for everything. They read about it in a magazine. They can't understand how real farmers can be so stupid. If you don't farm, farming is the simplest thing in the world.

For a long time I held the following theory about armchair experts: "They're morons." This seemed to fit the facts well enough. Later, though, I changed my mind. Whle the armchair experts had ignorant, idiotic opinions in areas where I'm expert, I noticed that they're often competent enough in their own areas of expertise. Maybe they're a bunch of idiot savants? Naw -- that won't wash either. Then I realized the chilling truth: every single one of us is like that. We're all morons when we move outside our own fields.

The trick, I've decided, is to try to avoid opening my yap except where I have some kind of personal knowledge. )Not that I'm good at following through on this or anything, but the principle is sound.)

For example, I have never saved the world. Because I've never done it, I'm not an expert. My opinions are probably ignorant and unworkable, and I shouldn't foist them on people without some kind of prominent disclaimer.

Similarly, most other people have never saved the world, either. So when someone else describes a foolproof plan to save the world, I figure he's a moron, just like everyone else (unless he's already saved the world two or three times and established a track record). The visionary plans of such non-experts probably contain nuggets of wisdom as well as foolishness, but I can't tell which are which, and neither can he.

Surprisingly, I've found this concept to be liberating. I used to assume that smart people who yammered about pie-in-the-sky stuff had to be con men, because smart people couldn't possibly be so stupid. Now I realize that no one is stupider than a smart person who's wandered outside of his area of expertise. They are more to be pitied than blamed.

It also explains why politics and the media are such freak shows. Politicians and reporters spend their time repeating other people's conclusions, rather than sticking to areas where they have hands-on experience. This means that they don't really undertand what's going on. Eveything they say is at least a little bit dumbed-down and inaccurate. And politicians and reporters repeat each other's stuff endlessly, losing a little bit of truth each time, until it's as dumbed-down and inaccurate as it's possible to be. For both professions, a good story is more useful than truth anway.

While I find politicians and reporters easy to ignore, it's harder with dumbed-down, inaccurate views of rural issues, since this impinges on my own field. What could be more fantasy-based than someone who learns for a country lifestyle he has never experienced?

Rural issues are powerful. There's something fundamental about rural life. Prehistoric cave paintings don't depict village life or consumer goods: they depict animals and the hunt. I would not be surprised if a love of the hunter/gatherer lifestyle were built-in somehow. In any event, city people yearn for the country, even when they don't know anything about it. Sometimes this yearning takes odd forms.

Save The Redwoods!

I had a vivid set of experiences along these lines when I was growing up. When I was a kid, my parents had a lovely campground in the redwoods north of Crescent City, California. This was on the northern extreme of the Redwood Country, which extends down the coast about four hundred miles, going well south of San Francisco. The highway goes right through many miles of enormous redwoods. I'm fond of redwoods, but even I could get pretty tired of looking at them after four hundred miles.

Nevertheless, we'd occasionally get campers from Southern California who would arrive at our campground, park in the shade of our redwood trees, and ask in some anxiety if they were "too late." You see, they'd heard that the redwoods were endangered, and that the last one might have been cut down already!

It's hard to come up with a simple explanation for this pheomenon. The redwoods had never been in any danger. The Save the Redwoods League had been steadily buying up and protecting the best stands of old-growth redwoods since 1908, and had quite a portfolio of lovely, untouched sites, including long stretches along the highway where they were impossible to miss. If you felt that more acreage should be preserved, you could give them money and they'd use it to buy more stands of old-growth redwood as they came on the market. Yet it was fashionable in the early Seventies to be wracked with anxiety for the "last of the old growth" and even the survival of redwoods as a species. Loggers and logging companies were vilified, and in particular the practice of clear-cutting was held out as an act of ecological vandalism -- something that the forests couldn't possibly survive.

When we moved to the Crescent City area, our campground was near two large tracts of timberland that had been clear-cut within the last year. My brothers and I liked to play in one of them, which had a certain churned, lunar-landcape appearance and a lot of small pollywog ponds. The other, larger property wasn't used by us, but it was clearly visible form the highway and was the ugliest swath of devastation you'd ever seen in your life.

By the time we went away to college, a decade later, both properties had changed completely, having become thriving redwood forests entirely through natural regrowth -- neither property had been replanted. Redwood forests re-establish themselves with incredible speed. New trees sprout from the root systems of cut trees and even from downed branches. Redwoods put out prolific amounts of seed. They grow very fast, with new trees sprouted from root systems growing up to six feet the first year. In a few years, the pollywog ponds were gone from our old playground. There were even trees growing out of the logging roads. First we couldn't take an ATV there, then we couldn't get through on bikes, and finally it was difficult to use the old roads even as footpaths.

The larger property had also changed from wasteland into a vigorous young redwood forest. When they built the Pelican Bay State Prison in the middle of this forest, the trees around the fringe, now quite tall, completely hid the enormous installation from view.

That's what clear-cutting does to redwood forests -- almost overnight, they turn back into a redwood forest. Even all the boo-hooing about erosion didn't seem to have much basis in fact. The stand we used for a playground was bordered by the creek that passed through our own property, and it wasn't any siltier and didn't have any fewer fish right after the clear-cut than it was when the forest had grown up. I know this for certain, because I played in that creek all the time. There are some things where kids are a lot more observant than adults, and that's one of them.

Not that there isn't erosion in redwood country. There's tons. The piles of driftwood on the beaches must be seen to be believed. Most of it comes from timber that topples into the rivers during heavy winter rains. It's a very wet part of the world. The rivers in flood are amazing, carrying huge volumes of mature timber out to sea, and sometimes piling up in dangerous logjams against bridges. But this lumber doesn't consist of struggling little saplings; it's largely mature trees from hillsides that slid into the river in spite of being fully forested. This should be enough to clue in a thoughtful person that what we're looking at is not the result of logging, but is a natural process.

So I have concluded that "saving the redwoods" in the Seventies was a fantasy-based activity, not a reality-based one. The problem wasn't real, so neither were the solutions. The movement wasted the time and efforts of its adherents and threatened the livelihood of its victims -- anyone associated with the forest-products industry. This seems awfully irresponsible. I'm all for having a rich fantasy life, but you're supposed to limit it to people who want to play, not inflict it on innocent bystanders.

It's True of Poultrykeeping, Too

So I've come to the conclusion that much of what people believe is fantasy-based, except for topics they are intimately familiar with, from direct personal experience. What you have not done with your own hands, you do not truly know.

I certainly found this to be true of poultrykeeping. I've found much of the material written by non-farmers to be harmful. It's loaded with Pollyanna-ish assumptions that everything that the mainstream industry does is wrong, and that anything the mainsteam industry doesn't do is right, and will work like a charm. In my experience, this is wildly inaccurate. Because I had read a lot of contemporary material before I moved back to the country, I had a lot of unlearning to do. It was a slow, painful process.

For example, I read in several places that there was something wrong with commercial White Leghorns and other modern hybrids, and that a "real" farm would use heritage breeds. I tried it, and all the heritage breeds were crummy layers, and many of them had nasty temperaments as well. On the other hand, commercial hybrid layers took to low-density free range like ducks to water. While some of these hybrids were just as nasty as the nastiest heritage breeds, others were just as tame and docile as the best heritage breeds. So the whole issue was pure superstition. (Not that you shouldn't raise heritage breeds if you want to -- I always have a few -- but choose a breed with a reputation for being fun to have around, and don't expect to make any money.)

Speaking of ducks to water, my experience with ducks was that their eggs were always covered with wet poop and the ducks themselves refused to come inside on moonlit nights, preferring to stay out and be eaten by raccoons. This wasn't the happily-ever-after outcome I had been promised!

The same kind of wishful thinking could be found in the Great Emu Boom of the early Nineties, which had already turned into the Great Emu Bust by the time we moved to the country. The Emu boom had no basis in reality. It grew until there weren't any suckers left who were willing to pay astronomical prices for so-called "breeding stock" (that is, any emu with a pulse). The crash was pretty nasty -- you couldn't give emus away, and it even depressed the prices for non-emu-specific poultry equipment. We bought some nearly new GQF Sportsman incubators for ten cents on the dollar, for example.

So I've seen a lot of fads, superstitions, and wishful thinking in the alternative poultry field. Many people have lost their life's savings by believing this stuff, whether in a flashy way, such as pouring all their retirement savings into an emu farm in 1993, or more quietly, by moving to the country and trying to make a living according to the methods advocated by the non-farmers who promote alternative lifestyles.

On the other hand, I found books by hands-on professional farmers such as Joel Salatin to be very helpful -- though only when they're talking about their own farms. Works by poultry scientists (all of whom seem to have managed many flocks of poultry), are great, too. In fact, anything that consists of people writing about their actual experience is good, provided that they've kept at it for at least three or four years. Stuff by people who are just starting out can be inspirational, but their farms often fail after a few years. They'll take you with them if you're not careful.

I have also found that books written 50-100 years ago by farmers and poultry scientists are especially useful. The books are old, but they were written when small farms and free range were the norm, so a lot of it can be cut out and pasted down without modification. The newer stuff is either aimed at factory farms, which makes the techniques hard to use as presented, or is written by enthusiasts, which makes it unreliable.

I also place more trust in experts who have become wealthy in their area of expertise than in people who have gone broke. The millionaire up the road, Hal Schudel, reinvented the Oregon Christmas Tree industry by introducing a more attractive tree (the Noble Fir) and by using all kinds of innovative, low-environmental-impact techniques, such as hauling out the trees by helicopter, eliminating the need for roads. His story was compelling in itself, but the fact that it made him wealthy adds a lot of extra credibility. Similarly, T. J. Starker had a good idea when he started buying up cut-over timberland for almost nothing and replanting it. Sounds good on paper, but the fact that his descendents are rolling in dough, that his timberland (which borders my farm on two sides) is very well maintained, and that Starker Forests is sincere about his good-neighbor policy mean a lot more to me than theory. Everyone has a theory.

I figure that techniques that have made at least one person a millionaire can probably make me a thousandaire -- but techniques that haven't made anyone rich will make me poor.

"Show me the money" isn't romantic, but it's a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Of course, profit and loss sum up the viability of an operation as a whole, but the nuts and bolts of any activity will include many individual techniques that can just as easily be developed by a hobbyist as a commercial operator. The nice thing about nuts and bolts techniques is that they don't cost much, so you can afford to give them a try without betting the farm. And you probably should try different things until you find something that works well for you. For example, I tried a lot of different brooding setups before I settled on the forgotten insulated heat-lamp brooder I describe in Success With Baby Chicks.

Finding Experts

If you buy into my observations, it means that many people who are normally considered experts are just enthusiastic amateurs. What they say may have some good stuff in it, but it's probably not worth the bother of sifting it for nuggest of wisdom. I never pay attention to the news anymore. (I'll bet that, if you ignore the news for a month, upon your return you'll find it unbearably ignorant and childish.)

Ignoring fake experts has freed me to look for true experts. They're all around us! Everyone's an expert in the things they pay close attention to. The Internet has made it particularly easy to find out what the hands-on experts think about anything. Google and wikipedia are a good start.

For local products and services, it's hard to beat reputation. When you want to know which custom butcher to use or which VW repair shop to trust (in my area, that's "The Farmer's Helper" and "Independent Bug Werks," respectively), just ask for recommenations from people you respect. You only have to ask a few people, and the same names will start coming up over and over. Give those people your business. Works like a charm.

Saving the World

But what about saving the world? The folks who were busily saving the redwoods in the Seventies got a wonderful glow from their activities. They felt they were caring and wise and heroic. Of course, they were really just armchair generals who were doing harm rather than good, but wouldn't it be nice to do some actual good? Even if reality doesn't provide as good a high?

My wife Karen is a card-carrying hero. After a logger was badly injured in the woods and Karen (along with the other Emergency Medical Technicians on the Blodgett Volunteer Fire Department and several other emergency organizations) helped out with the difficult extrication. Getting injured loggers out of the deep woods is difficult, and in this case the Coast Guard helicopter that tried to lower a stretcher was defeated by the tall trees, and the logger had to be carried some distance by hand and pickup truck and ambulance before he could be put on a second helicopter. The logger was very badly injured and it took the combined efforts of five different agencies to get him out. In the end, he walked out of the hospital under his own power.

Of course, what made this effort noteworthy is mostly that it was fancy enough to be worth writing up for a citation. Karen's other work with the department is mostly unsung: chimney fires, car crashes, heart attacks, and plenty of false alarms. But she never has to wonder whether or not she's being conned by some charlatan's nutty save-the-world vision. She can see the effect that road flares have on alerting drivers to an accident on the road ahead, or of standing at the end of a dirt road to wave in an ambulance whose driver doesn't know our Blodgett back roads.

If you can save the world by thinking locally and acting locally, then there are any number of ways to save the world. Most of them aren't particularly romantic, but they're real, and that's what counts. Also, after a while you can tell whether your contribution is helping or not. If not, you can try something else. Plenty to choose from.

August To-Do List

Inspired by a similar list in Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.

  • Seek better paying egg markets (egg prices rise at this time of year).
  • House early pullets (move them into permanent quarters before they start layign).
  • Replace litter.
  • Cull molters.
  • Isolate any sick chickens.
  • Provide additional ventilation.
  • Gather eggs more frequently in warm weather.
  • Cull weak or unthrifty individuals.

If you like this newsletter, please send copies to all your friends!

Copyright 2007 by Robert Plamondon. Permission is granted for copying if the material from here to the end of the message is left unaltered.

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