Robert Plamondon's Poultry & Rural Living Newsletter, October 7, 2008
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Fall is Here
The fall rains have started. Here in Western Oregon, it's bone-dry all summer but rains all winter, with daytime highs almost always above freezing.
The climate is favorable for free-range chickens since the grass stays green all winter, and it rarely snows.
My most crucial preparations are to stake down the portable henhouses so they don't blow like tumbleweeds in winter storms. Moving them to a nice
patch of turf will delay the onset of mud (at which time I will move them again). I only move the henhouses a few times a year. A long stay
in one place kills off the grass around and under the houses, but it grows back after I move the houses and spread the manure left behind over the
nearby grass with
my tractor's rear scraper blade.
The big trick with portable housing is not to move the houses too far. Thirty feet is about right. Otherwise the hens will sleep where the
house used to be, instead of inside the house! They'll follow it short distances, though.
I've given up on using lights on the hens during the fall and winter. The technology is sound, but I think I'm a special case. Winter production
is low if the hens have a high metabolic load from keeping warm, which happens when they roost in trees or spend a lot of time outdoors in the winter.
Since all my feeders are outdoors, I fall into the second category.
Clean eggs are also a challenge once free-range hens start getting their feet wet outside. Lots of straw on the floor of the nesting areas helps
wipe their feet before they go into the nest boxes.
Saving Money on Chicken Feed
It's hard to find quality feed ingredients that are cheaper than corn and soybeans, since if the price of these dominant commodities goes up,
so does everything else, since everyone starts looking for substitutes. But there are tried-and-true methods of getting your feed costs down
Find a Cheap Source of Grain. If you buy your feed at the feed store, everything has a retail markup built in, including sacks of grain. If
you buy grain from a grain wholesaler, you pay only the wholesale markup, plus the price of putting it into bags (unless you buy it in bulk).
For example, if I buy corn from the local feed mill (CHS in Harrisburg, OR), it will cost me $9.69 per 50-pound sack. If I buy it from Venell Feed,
it's $6.00 per sack. The difference is that the CHS price includes the retail markup and the Venell price doesn't, because CHS is dependent on
feed-store sales, while Venell isn't -- they sell directly to the consumer. So I can save $3.69 per sack (38%) by buying from Venell.
If you look around, you'll find such vendors in your area, too. Not all of them sell by the sack, though -- some of them sell in bulk only.
The second half of this trick is to buy a high-protein, low energy chicken feed from the feed mill at retail, and grain from your low-cost
grain provider. Chickens have an energy appetite and a protein appetite, and they will mix and match appropriately if you make the choices
straightforward enough. It's important that the expensive feed be a lower-energy feed than the grain, though, or they won't eat much grain. (This
isn't a problem with most feeds, since everyone bulks up their chicken feed with wheat-milling byproducts and other low-energy stuff, but until
recently I was using a custom-milled pellet that didn't have any fillers, and the chickens liked it too much!)
The traditional "mash and grain" method used a 20% layer ration in one feeder and corn or wheat in another one. The hens should eat the two feeds
in approximately equal quantities. You can also use an ordinary 16% layer feed, and they'll eat about twice as much layer feed as grain. One would
think that this would reduce the hens' protein intake and the intake of other nutrients and reduce production, but it never seems to, even with
high-producing modern hybrids (poultry researchers test this periodically). The trick seems to be that a high-producing hen will eat mostly
the layer ration, but a lower-producing hen doesn't need the high-octane feed and prefers to eat more grain. In other words, the chickens
adjust their intake to match their current metabolic needs.
Also, in cold weather the chickens' need for energy goes up but their other requirements remain the same, so grain on the side makes
A sack of 20% layer pellets from CHS costs me $11.50, so if the flock eats these plus corn from Venell in a 50/50 ratio, that works out
about $8.75 per fifty-pound sack on average. If I feed 16% layer pellets with grain in a 67/33 ratio, it works out to an average of $9.41 per sack.
If I fed 16% layer pellets alone (which is what most people do), I pay $11.12 per sack.
So the savings are 21% with the high-protein pellets and 15% with the low-protein pellets. Production should be the same under any of these
I prefer feeding whole grains to
cracked, but chickens have to be about 6 weeks old before they can handle whole corn, so get it cracked for the little ones. Oats and barley
are okay for older chickens, but the young ones don't like it.
With broilers, use whatever feed you were using before, but supplement with cracked corn.
Use Cheap Local Feedstuffs. It often happens that limited quantities of quality feedstuffs can be had for cheap, because they are hard to
market. The tricky part is quality feedstuffs, stuff you'd be glad you fed to your chickens. Some possibilities are retail products past their
sell-by date, such as bread and milk, bug-infested grain (chickens love that), and so on. It's often hard to find a supply that's large enough
and reliable enough to be worth your time and mileage, but they do exist, and there's nothing like free feed to keep your costs down!
Different feed sources have wildly varying nutritional values, some of which are more obvious than others. Whey is mostly milk sugar, which chickens can't
digest well. Garbage is surprisingly low in calories and is better fed to pigs than chickens. Wet feeds can be difficult to deal with in freezing
weather because chickens don't like frozen foods. And so on.
The best source of guidance for weird feed ingredients is the 1954 book,
Feeding Poultry by G. F. Heuser, which I reprinted because there's no other book like it. It has all sorts of weird feeds listed (have you
ever considered feeding starfish meal to your hens? No? Well, if you ever do, there's an entry for it on page 171). The book can be heavy going
in places, but it talks about all the different grades of feedstuffs, their nutritional profiles, and has a lengthy appendix at the back with
lots of nutritionally sound feed recipes using ingredients that are (usually) cheap in different parts of the country. It also has a whole chapter
on green feed, vegetables, and pasture for poultry.
If you're too cheap to buy
Feeding Poultry, I'll tell you the secret to using oddball feeds: Always provide regular chicken feed in one feeder, and try your bargain-bin
feeds in another one. If there's something wrong with the new feed, or it's just not palatable, the chickens will eat little or none of it and
keep eating their usual feed. If the new feed is wonderful, you can count on them eating plenty of it. Domryimrd they'll eat something like
mad for a week or so and then taper off, so don't worry if they seem to have given up on regular chicken feed entirely. The binge won't last.
With hens, always feed oystershell on the side in a separate feeder. Hens have a powerful calcium appetite, and if they have to eat layer pellets
just for the calcium, they will. Sorta defeats the purpose.
Back to the Land
What with the stock market taking a tumble and all that, a lot of people are thinking good and hard about heading back to the land. I'm
a fourth-generation back-to-the-lander myself (I'll tell you the story some day), and I've read a great deal of back-to-the-land literature in addition
to living the dream (both as a child, when my parents fled Los Angeles to build a campground in the redwoods, and more recently when Karen and I moved
back to rural Oregon after putting in our years in Silicon Valley).
Anyway, I've decided to reprint my favorite back-to-the-land books, and I'm starting out with two good ones:
Ten Acres Enough
by Edmund Morris, and
Gold in the Grass
by Margaret Leatherbarrow.
Ten Acres Enough
is a nineteenth-century back-to-the-land book that I like to compare with Walden, because, while Thoreau may have gained some enlightenment from his
rural experience, he only stuck for two years, didn't make any money on his bean crop, and was back working at his daddy's pencil factory before he knew
it. Which is pretty much the Sixties experience in a nutshell. Edmund Morris, on the other hand, went to the country and stayed, perhaps because he
did make money on his crops. The story of how he did it is interesting.
Admittedly, the book is only slightly more modern than Walden, so I'm not claiming that it's a practical how-to book, but a lot of people
have found it inspirational over the years, including me. I took the liberty of copy-editing Ten Acres Enough from stem to stern to make it more readable to
a modern audience.
Gold in the Grass is from 1954, and is the story of a young couple who
buy a farm in Canada just after WWII and discover that nothing will grow on it -- it's been played out. With very little money, they almost
founder before they apply soil reclamation and sustainable agriculture techniques to get it turned around. I've always enjoyed this book, and
I'm sure you will, too.
Click the links above for a more complete description and links that let you buy it from me or Amazon.
October To-Do List
Inspired by a similar list in Jull's Successful
Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
Traditionally, October was a month where pullets were just about to lay, and were moved off the pasture where they had been raised and
into winter quarters, which were henhouses much closer to the farmhouse and more convenient for winter access. At the same time, many
of the old hens were still around, creating the temptation to overcrowd the henhouses. The usual technique was to cull all the early-molting
hens but to keep the rest for another year. About half of the old hens would be sent to market this way.
With modern hybrid layers, the flocks are much more uniform, and most of the flock will molt at once. Only a few percent will molt
early. So the idea that you can sort the flock into winners and losers doesn't work as well as it used to (which is a good thing).
It only takes a few months of warm weather to make you blind to the needs of approaching winter, so this month's checklist is
particularly useful. But you have to follow it!
- House pullets (if raised on range).
- Do not overcrowd!
- Repair doors, windows, cracks, roofs, watering systems, lighting systems.
- Freeze-proof your watering system.
- Replace litter. (If using the deep-litter method, replace enough of it that the house won't be filled to the rafters by spring.)
- Make final culling of molters (next month, pretty much the whole flock will molt)
- Cull any poor pullets. ("One strike and you're out" is the rule unless your birds are pets.)
- Remove damp or dirty litter on an ongoing basis.
- Use lights on layers. (14 hours of light a day between September 1 and April 1, bright enough to read a newspaper at floor level, is traditional.
Incandescent bulbs are much more trouble-free than compact fluorescents, and you shouldn't even think about using "indoor-only" compact fluorescents in a
- Get equipment under cover. Don't forget the lawn mower.
- Stake down range houses so they won't blow away.
- Summer houses such as tarp-covered hoophouses should have their tarps removed so they won't collapse under snow loads.
- Flag pasture obstacles and equipment with something tall if there's a chance that you won't mow in the spring until the grass is as high as an elephant's eye.
You won't remember if you put it off.
Bleach bottles stuck on the tops of T-posts are traditional.