Robert Plamondon's Poultry & Rural Living Newsletter, May 17, 2010
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News From the Farm
This newsletter is late – a sure sign of spring! It's hard to keep up in the busy season. I'll bet you have the same problem.
Springing Into Action
The Corvallis Farmers' Markets opened in mid-April, and the McMinnville Farmer's Market will open around Memorial Day, so things are ramping up fast. We've had a nasty, cold, wet spring. The hens don't mind, but we lost some grass-fed meat chickens during storm that ripped the cover off their house and soaked them. We've never had losses of that kind before. Normally it's summer heat that's the real danger (and we don't get a lot of that in Oregon's Coast Range.)
The amount of produce that's available at the Corvallis farmers' markets must be seen to be believed. There are several sizable organic farms that have been in business since the Seventies, and what they don't know isn't worth knowing. There's a keen rivalry and an endless search for earlier and better varieties. Even this year, in spite of the cold, there were some strawberries in April, and good ones in May (the natural strawberry season is June).
iPad 3G Report
I got my iPad 3G on April 30. I bought it to be a carry-around device for when I'm on the go, including at Farmer's Markets (though not during chore time on the farm!) My laptop is too big and heavy for this, and takes forever to boot. The iPad is ideal.
It's a spiffy device, far more than an oversized iPod Touch. It turns on instantly (unlike my Windows laptop, which takes eight minutes to boot), is rugged, has an daylight-readable screen, surprisingly good speakers, and has few openings in the case, so probably someone will introduce a weatherproof sleeve for it for outdoor use. It's likely to become a universal replacement for a clipboard for people on the go – not businessmen so much, but salesmen, delivery guys, realtors, and even doctors, who are always going from room to room but need constant access to their records.
It's clumsy for lengthy text composition, but is great for browsing and email (as long as your replies are shorter than War and Peace), is a superior e-book reader, and plays videos very well.
The 3G version uses high-speed cellular data access, with the downside that you're stuck with AT&T. The big question on everyone's mind was, “How is AT&T going to screw up this time?” I soon found out.
The original software didn't want you to let you sign up for an account if your address wasn't within an AT&T 3G service area, as if AT&T expected that iPad users never left home. They patched the signup software the next day, and you could specify a service address different from your home address. Like many others, I used “1 Infinite Loop” in Cupertino CA as my “service address” -- that's Apple headquarters – since AT&T wouldn't accept any addresses with a basis in reality.
Add to this the fact that AT&T has far less rural coverage than Verizon, and some of the shine is taken off the iPad 3G, at least for rural users. It's not really a “connect to the Internet anywhere” device the way it could be.
When we started out with grass-fed eggs, we bought into the idea that modern hybrids were no good for free-range production – old-fashioned breeds would work better under old-fashioned conditions, and hybrids were only good for confinement; they'd been ruined for anything else.
Then we got a bunch of chickens from Oregon State University. Some of them were New Hampshire Reds, from a strain that had been used primarily for egg production through the Seventies. The rest were commercial White Leghorns – modern hybrids. All were kept under the same conditions on the same pasture. Let the side-by-side testing begin!
As it turned out, the White Leghorns laid rings around the New Hampshire Reds. They laid better in the summer. They laid better in the winter. They laid better when young. They laid better when old. And their eggs tasted just as good.
Later we tried many, many other breeds, and the results were always the same: modern hybrids are better, even under seriously old-fashioned conditions like ours. Far from being tainted by the needs of commercial confinement, the modern hybrids are ideal for free-range flocks.
The same is true of meat birds, only more so. When we were getting started, there were a lot of claims that hybrid broilers were basically impossible to raise to slaughter age – they'd been ruined by the confinement guys and just keeled over and died if you looked at them funny. “Bad genetics,” they said.
After a while, we figured out that a lot of the “bad genetics” looked a lot like chilling in the brooder house, or coccidiosis, or heat prostration. (These are issues we saw ourselves; other farmers added “bad genetics that look like malnutrition” to the list). But we discovered an amazing thing – if we took steps against coccidiosis, for example, all the cases of “bad genetics that look like coccidiosis” vanished!
(The trick with chickens in general, and broilers in particular, is to do an excellent job in the brooder house. I wrote my book, Success With Baby Chicks, to make this easy for you.)
So why all the talk about bad genetics? It comes down to “blame the victim.” There's a belief that everything that's done on factory farms is wrong. If such farms use White Leghorns, then White Leghorns must be bad. One might just as easily conclude that, since factory farmers breathe oxygen, oxygen must be bad! You can see how beliefs like this will give you a self-imposed learning disability.
A practical person would find out what the conventional farmers do, and adopt their better practices and ignore the impractical ones. The snag is that alternative farming has a strong appeal to impractical people. Worse, much of what is written about it is dumbed down for an audience of consumers, and is about as useful as a guide to farming as a Little Golden Book. And it promotes a black-and-white, us-versus-them, good-versus-evil mindset, where the very concept that you could learn something from a conventional farmer is met with gasps of horror. Pretty sad, really. If you're wise, you'll learn from anybody. You can't help it!
As it turns out, White Leghorns have always been considered to be an excellent free-range chicken, as well as doing unusually well in confinement. Milo Hastings discussed this in The Dollar Hen a hundred years ago. The idea that brown-egg birds do better under farm conditions is a superstition.
Fortunately, we never believed that “tainted genes” stuff, and when we went down a politically correct rathole, we usually emerged pretty quickly. But there are plenty of people who are still struggling with these unhelpful beliefs.
Speaking of genes, it turns out that genetics are not quite so cut-and-dried as they seem, especially for humans. While on the one hand, you can claim that the differences between a human and a chicken are genetic differences, on the other hand, even identical twins, with identical genes, aren't all that identical. They become more and more different over time. If this is true of identical twins, imagine how different we can be from our parents! Not only lifestyle, but attitude has a huge effect on whether our good genes do us any good our our bad genes do us any harm, and over time, the cumulative effect is enormous. So if you've been glooming and dooming about problems that run in your family, stop right now! It's probably more under your control than you think. Most things are.
Norton Creek Press Best-Seller List
I started Norton Creek Press in 2003 to bring the "lost secrets of the poultry masters" back into print -- techniques from the Golden Age of poultrykeeping, which ran from roughly 1900 to 1950. I've recently started adding an eclectic mix of non-poultry books as well.
Here are April's top-selling books:
All of these are fine books (I only publish books I believe in). If you're like most readers of this newsletter, you want to buy Fresh-Air Poultry Houses and Success With Baby Chicks first. These cover the basics of healthy, odor-free, high-quality chicken housing and zero-mortality chick brooding, respectively, and get rave reviews from customers, who often buy extra copies for friends!
May To-Do List
In May, the amount of labor starts to fall, assuming your spring chicks are all off to a good start. The labor requirement will reach a minimum in the summer months, then pick up again as winter approaches and your pullets start to lay.
List inspired by a similar one in Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
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