Robert Plamondon's Poultry & Rural Living Newsletter, December 2, 2008
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News From the Farm
End of the Market Season
The farmer's market season is finally over. Here in the Corvallis area, it starts in mid-April and ends the day before Thanksgiving. We had a mild
November, as Novembers go, but by the time Thanksgiving arrived, we were thankful that we didn't have to do this anymore.
We had pastured broilers right up to the end, and of course pastured turkeys for Thanksgiving. Now the meat birds are all gone, and we're down to layers -- hens
and pullets of various ages. So things are relatively quiet -- we aren't attending two farmers' markets every week, we aren't butchering broilers twice a week
for the markets, and the volume of chores is down.
I finally repaired the door on one of my nesting houses to prevent hens from sleeping in the nest boxes. I use a very old-fashioned system of free-range egg farming,
with separate houses for roosting and nesting (I have a presentation about this technique.)
This works better if the roosting houses all have roosts way up high, and the nesting houses have nests way
down low, because chickens like to roost on the highest thing going. I call this "chicken geometry," and I did a
blog posting on it recently.
I goofed up and put the upper tier of nests pretty high up on the wall of the nesting
house, so the hens wanted to sleep there. Now I have to throw the chickens out at night, close the door, and open it in the morning, at least for a while,
until the hens get into the habit of sleeping somewhere else. If I'd put the
roosts up high and the nests down low, none of this would be necessary.
A lot of my chicken houses use OSB (chipboard) for siding, which was not the smartest thing I ever did. Yes, OSB uses exterior-grade glue, but it doesn't
last as well as exterior plywood. It sort of melts away anywhere it comes into contact with chicken manure, which means the lower edges of a lot of panels
have vanished. I need to replace a lot of wall panels. My new experiment is going to be corrugated sheet metal as siding,
which should last a lot longer and ought to be fairly easy to install. I'll start working on that this month, along with some high roosts to make the
hens happy to stay where they belong.
Last time I talked about open-front housing. This time I'm going to talk about the deep-litter method, which is a lot different from what most people think
it is. The deep-litter method was invented by accident during World War II. Everyone had gone off to war, meaning that there was
no one to shovel out the chicken house. Lots of farmers who had dutifully replaced all the litter in their chicken houses every week for years suddenly
didn't have time. Instead, they added new litter on top of the old, and hoped for the best.
Much to their surprise, it worked better than the old method. The deeper and older the litter got, the healthier the chickens were. And it also became
clear that adding new litter all the time wasn't very important, either.
Deep litter worked for several reasons:
- Having a deep bed of litter -- at least six inches, and maybe a couple of feet -- meant that the litter could absorb an enormous amount of water without a problem.
If you poured a five-gallon bucket of water into a pen with only an inch or two of litter, you'd have a big mess. If you did it in a pen with a foot of litter,
it would vanish.
- Deep litter is thick enough to achieve a slow composting action. Manure breaks down in deep litter. The composting creates enough heat to dispose of excess water.
Compost is not the point of deep litter (healthy chickens and getting the job done without excess labor are the point), but the composting action has some benefits.
- Deep litter generates valuable nutrients. The bacteria in deep litter create vitamin B12 as a side effect of bacterial fermentation, and this benefits chickens
that scratch around in the litter. B12 is one of the "difficult"
nutrients, typically found only in meat products, which are expensive and were in short supply during wartime.
- Deep litter has anti-disease properties. Over time, deep litter develops a complex ecosystem of microbes, some of which eat pathogens.
Rates of coccidiosis are lower on deep litter than ordinary litter.
- Deep litter is easy to take care of, and minimizes the amount of time you spend with a shovel in your hands. That's worth quite a lot.
I have an article on deep litter reprinted on my Web site.
It was written by Kennard and Chamberlin of the Ohio Experiment Station, who did the original research work and popularized deep litter.
This should have enough info to get you started. Give it a whirl!
Deep litter and open-front housing go well together. The one downside of deep litter is that it can put off quite a bit of ammonia as a side effect
of the composting, and ammonia is bad for the chickens. You need plenty of ventilation to make this work. Dr. Woods doesn't discuss this in
Fresh-Air Poultry Houses because deep litter wasn't discovered until
after his book was written, but I'm sure he would have approved. He complains about excessive fussiness in litter management.
Christmas is Coming
Those of you who have been following my antics for a while may not realize it, but I'm a well-kept secret. The odds of a poultry-minded friend of yours
having heard of me are slim. The odds that they have one of my books on the shelf are slimmer. So you can hardly go wrong if you send books
to friends who have been especially good this year. Amazon can gift-wrap them for you. Links to my titles are at the bottom of the page.
For people who haven't been quite as good as that, there's always this newsletter. Forward a copy to them, or just a link to
December weather tends to go from bad to worse, with freezing and power outages to keep things interesting. On the other hand, most people
don't have any baby chicks in the brooder house in December, and adult chickens are relatively tough, so December is something of a low-stakes gamble.
Later in the winter, though, people start brooding their early chicks, so the stakes get higher. If you want to have pullets laying well by the
start of a traditional Farmer's Market season (Memorial Day), you need chicks in January. If you hatch your own eggs, that means hatching eggs in
December. Slow season? What slow season?
Not to mention that the hatchery catalogs will start arriving right after Christmas, with special low prices on early chicks. By January 5,
you'll be on fire to start the new season!
December To-Do List
Inspired by a similar list in Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
- Do final winterizing before things get really nasty. Stake down portable houses.
- Ensure plenty of liquid water for your chickens in cold weather. Warm water is better than cold if you can manage it easily.
- Give your chickens as much feed as they want. Winter is no time to save money on feed. Keeping warm requires lots of calories.
- Use artificial lights to maintain the rate of lay and to give the chickens enough light to eat by on those short, dark winter days.
- Remove wet or caked litter. If you use the deep litter system, toss it into a corner, where it will heat enough to dry out and decake itself in a few days.
- Clean out brooder houses and make ready for early chicks.
- Put out rat bait in empty houses (use bait stations and bait blocks: they're less messy and more foolproof than other methods). Nobody likes using poison, but
having rats invade the brooder house is worse. (Been there, done that.)
- Get your brooders and incubators ready for the coming season. Lay in spare parts (heat lamps for brooders, thermostats for incubators, etc.)
- If you have a breeding flock, figure out your matings now.
- Sit in front of the fire and read poultry books.
If you like this newsletter, please send copies to all your
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