Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, March, 2011
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News From the Farm
I'm late with the newsletter again, but Michaela, a college student, will be helping out, and I expect our execution to become brisker.
Baby Chick Surprise
What would you do if your hatchery accidentally shipped you 150 more baby chicks than you ordered? That just happened to us! Fortunately, we have two brooder houses, so we put them both into service and the chicks are doing marvelously. It's hard to overstate the value of having a chicken house in reserve!
Build a Comfy Brooder
Have you tried the insulated electric-lamp brooder for yourself? You should! compared with overhead heat lamps, the insulated brooder keeps your chicks safer and warmer, while using less than half the electricity. All this for a brooder you can put together in a couple of hours for around $20. This brooder design was developed in the Forties and was beloved by generations of farmers, but it was forgotten as the number of small farms declined. This brooder can be built either large or small, to suit your needs. I get fan mail about it all the time. Here is one testimonial:
Since I got your book Success With Baby Chicks my mortality rate in brooding has improved dramatically. We are raising 100 broiler chicks for the first time in the brooder box you outlined in your book and I am just amazed at its simplicity and effectiveness. I have been using the box now for 1 week, and I have lost only 1 chick. I also am currently brooding them with only a 175 watt infrared bulb (it has been warm out here). They seem to be very content and are already looking tasty. Thanks for your help. The book is an excellent resource.
You can read about this in my book, Success With Baby Chicks.
Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud
This is the time of year when the earthworms decide to stand up and be counted, and their appearance in the sodden pasture puts the chickens into a frenzy of scratching and pecking, so now there's a lot more mud than I like on my beautiful green pasture. It's not deep, but it's slick, so I have to be careful not to make any pratfalls. Slapstick and eggs just don't go together! This will resolve itself in a couple of weeks, but at the moment the pasture looks as bad as it ever does. So of course this is the time of year that the Poultry Science class from Oregon State University makes a field trip to my farm to see my old-fashioned methods. I hope I'm not scaring them off...
The local crows think I'm running an all-you-can-eat buffet. Hundreds and hundreds of crows -- they outnumber my chicken flock. They eat a lot of very expensive feed and hassle my chickens. For some reason it's much worse than usual this year. I prefer the "live and let live" approach, but not to the extent of going out of business or letting my flock be harmed.
Crow control is made difficult by the fact that crows are birds, so many things that will scare them away will also scare the life out of my chickens! No bobbing, inflatable owls with scary eyes are going in my pasture! Feeders that open only when a chicken steps on a bar, which are good for keeping rats and mice out of the feed, are operated just as easily by crows, so that doesn't work, either. I tried scarecrows once, and the crows just laughed at them. So I resorted to shooting them. Not my first choice.
I'm not as experienced with shotguns as I am with rifles and pistols, and I'm using steel shot for the first time. I've never used steel shot before (I don't mind steel shot, and I'd just as soon not junk up my farm with lead, it's just new to me). In the beginning, I didn't have an appropriate shotgun for the task, but when I went to buy one I discovered that Bi-Mart had a nice, simple, 12-gauge pump-action shotgun by Harrington & Richardson. I've always admired their products for their rugged simplicity. I took out two crows with my first two shots, but the remaining crows are a little wiser now, so I'm lucky to get one crow with every three shots. But they're starting to make themselves scarce, which is the entire point, after all.
For some reason I'd assumed that a 12-gauge shotgun had a real kick to it, and was unwieldy, and neither belief turned out to be true, even with heavy loads. (Your mileage may vary.) And then there's the almost loony increase in shot size with steel shot. Since steel is so much lighter than lead, the shot has to be much larger to carry the same distance. But BB shot for waterfowl loads? It still looks awfully big to me.
I'm hoping that the crows will tell their friends and they'll all stay away for a long time. They're resourceful and don't really need my chicken feed, anyway.
My experience with predators and pests is that they come and go, and behave differently from year to year. One year was The Year Of The Bobcat, and they were everywhere. Then they vanished. A few years ago we had crows eating eggs but ignoring the chicken feed. Their habits change over time, sometimes for no obvious reason. "If you farm long enough, everything will happen at least once." Not everyone recognizes this, and believe instead that if you do everything in the politically correct way, nothing bad will happen to you. Such people are known as "ex-farmers." (Sadly, this often consumes their savings as well as their dreams.) Life is full of surprises, especially outdoors, where Mother Nature has the deciding vote.
It's essential to keep predator's at arm's length, using devices like electric fences, leaving the predators to go about their business while you go about yours. When they insist on muscling in anyway, killing a few will cause the word to spread, and the rest will avoid your farm. For many species, I think this effect lasts for at least a couple of generations, because parents teach their offspring that your farm is bad news. I'd like to see some research on "animal social media," on how to get the word out with the least possible harm to wildlife (and maybe with no harm at all, if we're clever enough). That would be cool.
It's March, and every hen with a pulse is laying now. The old hens will peak in April or May and then taper off again. The older a hen is, the briefer her laying season, which means that "old hens" and "happy year-round egg customers" don't align very well.
The springtime production peak, by the way, is why Easter is celebrated with eggs. Eggs are the first farm product to become abundant in the spring (along with spring lamb, which is a rarer, more expensive early-season commodity). Egg production shifts into high gear even before plowing season begins, so it happens long before any plant-based food crops are ready. In the old days, people were getting pretty vitamin- and protein-starved by the time spring came along. Eggs, with their complete nutrition, packed a nutritional wallop right when you needed it!
We have a batch of California Whites that are just coming into lay, and we've got a gratifyingly large number of smaller white eggs -- and the first eggs a hen lays are the best eggs she ever lays -- for sale at the Corvallis Indoor Market. Hard to believe that we were woefully short on eggs just a few weeks ago!
Our farm is 40 miles inland from the Oregon Coast, so the tsunami from the earthquake in Japan had no chance of touching us directly -- unless we went down to the coast and rubbernecked, which plenty of people did! I grew up in Crescent City, California, and I was saddened but not surprised to learn that some people in that area got caught by the surge, in a sad replay of the 1964 tidal wave (they weren't called "tsunamis" then). That community has a tradition of doing their storm-watching waaaaaay to close. Let's all be careful out there!
Verizon's New iPhone
I've been lusting for an iPhone for years, but iPhone was available only from AT&T, and their coverage in my area is inadequate. So I've had to wait for a iPhone carrier with a usable signal. Since 2007. Which is a long time for me! I pre-ordered my iPhone from Verizon the instant it was possible to do so, and I have not been disappointed! My favorite feature is an app called Zenbe Lists, which lets the whole family use the same shopping list, which updates automatically on everyone's devices, Now, when I find myself in the store, the list is up to date even if Karen added an item moments before. This is a great alternative to the traditional call asking, "Hey, do you need me to pick up anything while I'm in town?" How did farmers ever live without cell phones, anyway?
The iPhone's email capabilities are also excellent, and its calendar is adequate. I use the browser all the time, too, and it feeds my audiobook habit. Very nice. And it's an excellent cell phone, with better sound quality than any of my previous phones. For years I carried three devices on me (MP3 player, cell phone, PDA), and then two (cell phone, iPod Touch), and now it's just the iPhone.
Because even Verizon's signal is so-so inside my house, I also have a Verizon Network Extender, which I described in an article in the New York Times back in November. I'm still very happy with it (though the new version has 3G and mine doesn't. Sigh.)
Another think I like about the iPhone is that I can read eBooks, including books in Amazon's Kindle format. It's too small to be my favorite reading platform, but the thing about a cell phone is that it's always there, and that counts for a lot. (I need to start releasing more of my books in electronic format -- this will be more convenient and less expensive for my customers.)
Did you know that, in any list of best-sellers, the top-ranking item is selling at least twice as well as the second-best seller? This is true of everything, not just books. Last month, my best-selling title, Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, sold 70% more copies as the #2 Success With Baby Chicks, and almost 17 times as many copies as the #5 Ten Acres Enough. Weird, huh?
This is called "Zipf's Law," named after mathematician George Zipf, who discovered that the most common word in English ("the") is twice as common as the #2 word ("of") and three times as common as the #3 word. etc. While the ratios aren't always as nifty as that, the principle holds true about any ranked list, regardless of what's being ranked, from the populations of cities in the U.S. to sales figures of Norton Creek Press. Thought you might want to know!
An odd consequence of this is that, as you go towards the bottom of a best-seller list, the numbers taper off but never, ever fall to zero. The titles simply become more specialized. Old-fashioned poultry books, for instance, have a limited, though passionate following! (This phenomenon is the subject of the fascinating book, The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson, and is the basis of all niche marketing.)
These are my top-selling books from February, showing the percentage of sales for each title:
All of these are fine books (I 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!
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. These include everything from my science fiction novel, One Survivor, to the true story of a Victorian gentlewoman's trip up the Nile in the 1870s, A Thousand Miles up the Nile. See my complete list of titles at the bottom of this newsletter.
March is baby chick month, the big start of the poultry season for most of us. The hens start laying up a storm, baby chicks arrive in the mail, and we awaken from the winter's hibernation and spring into furious activity almost without transition.
Easter is an egg festival because the surge in egg production represents the first fruits of the new season, which introduces a welcome source of fresh food at a time when planting season hasn't even started yet.
March To-Do List
List inspired by a similar one in Jull's Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
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Copyright by Robert Plamondon. Permission is granted for copying if it's attributed to me, and if it includes a link back to the original page on www.plamondon.com.
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