Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, October, 2012
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News From the Farm
Fall started just a few days ago, with the traditional Oregon light fall rains. The fire danger went from "high" to "low" in just a couple of days and will probably stay there until July, which is a relief. The pasture is greening up, after looking a little brown for a while, which the chickens like very much!
Autumn is a good season for chickens, whose coats of somewhat water-repellent features means that they handle moderate cold and damp much better than they handle heat waves (don't we all?) ). Our egg production is very good, for fall -- we're breaking our past records. Partly this is due to having a lot of pullets in the flock, rather than old hens, because we've been raising more day-old pullets and converting more elderly hens into stewing hens.
This is just as well, since demand is also high, in spite of a lousy economy and an increased number of local producers. Free-range eggs have more demand than supply, and the more producers there are, the more people hear about it and give the eggs a try. Next year I'm predicting lowered competition due to high feed prices, because so many people with small flocks just can't nerve themselves up to charging enough to make it worth their while, and instead they cut their losses by leaving the business, which is a shame. I wouldn't be surprised if even backyarders and hobbyists were considering cutting back.
Saving Money on Chicken Feed
The U.S. farm economy revolves around the price of corn, and since the price of corn has doubled in recent years, it puts the squeeze on everyone, including poultrykeepers and even the chickens themselves, when their owners try to save money on feed in inappropriate ways. Yes, you can save money on chicken feed, but you have to do it right.
The oldest and worst method of saving money on chicken feed is to not feed your chickens, and expect them to forage for all their feed. In the old days, this was plausible, since people threw their garbage out the back door for the livestock to eat, and the horses and cows wasted a lot of feed that the chickens would clean up. There are two problems with this method. First, most of us just don't create that kind of waste anymore, especially this late in the year. Second, such sources of feed tend to be low in protein, vitamins, and minerals. You can keep a few hens going through the winter this way, but they won't lay. Raising young chickens takes a lot more green forage and yummy bugs, which in most places are in pretty short supply at this time of year!
The most reliable method is to feed your chickens the highest-protein chicken feed you can get your hands on, and backfill with the least-expensive calorie source you can find. For hens, you can find 20% layer pellets just about everywhere. These are formulated with the expectation that you'll supplement them with roughly equal amounts of grain in one form or another. You can often find locally produced grain at prices closer to commodity prices than feed-store prices, which can mean getting it at half price or even less. This will mean that fifty pounds of 20% layer pellets and fifty pounds of grain will cost considerably less than one hundred pounds of 16%-17% layer pellets.
Other grain products can be used instead of actual grain, such as stale bread and pastries, waste flour, and miscellaneous unusable stuff from bakeries and such. Chickens can also handle miscellaneous livestock feed products like C.O.B (corn, oats, and barley). Non-medicated hog feed and dog kibble isn't all that different from chicken feed, and I wouldn't hesitate to use it as a grain substitute, though I'd have to look at the nutrtional tag closely to see if I'd be willing to replace the 20% layer pellets with it (probably not).
The main things to keep in mind are:
In addition to grain products, chickens love fall treats like windfall apples, old pumpkins, and every kind of cool-season vegetable. Most of these have a very low caloric density, meaning that they still need their chicken feed, but every little bit helps.
Chickens like potatoes, but the skins are toxic, so you need to cook them at least a little to render the skins harmless. You don't have to cook them all the way through.
As you've no doubt noticed, fall is the time when most chickens shed all their feathers and grow a new set. They can look pretty bad in the meantime! This is normal and requires no special action on your part. Young chickens that hatched this year often don't go through a fall molt. Most chickens stop laying during the molt, but some start right back up again immediately. Still, it's typical for egg production to decline until around January 1 before starting back up again.
Karen raises turkeys for Thanksgiving, mostly heritage Bourbon Reds, which are old-fashioned, slow-growing turkeys hatched in April and May. This year, Jenks Hatchery offered August-hatched broad-breasted white turkeys, and we're giving those a try. These grow much faster, and may well be bigger than the others, in spite of the shorter growing season. We're curious to see how this turns out.
Christmas is Coming
If you, like me, buy books for Christmas (sometimes even for other people!), now's the time to match up the people on your gift list with books. And there's something about reading books on poultry, farming, or back to the land in front of the fire, with a warm drink by your elbow. Happily, my more popular titles are being offered at substantial discounts by online booksellers like Amazon.com.
And don't forget that baby chick season is right around the corner, and, if you're like me, you'll be getting hatchery catalogs before you take down the Christmas tree. It's good to be prepared for those early-bird specials!
These are my top-selling books from last month:
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 readers.
I started Norton Creek Press in 2003 to bring the "lost secrets of the poultry masters" into print -- techniques from the Golden Age of poultrykeeping, which ran from roughly 1900 to 1950. I've been 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 lady'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.
For many of us, March is when baby chicks arrive, so February is your last chance to get everything ready in an unhurried way. It's a good time to examine all your equipment so you can get it fixed in time, and generally get back on track for taking care of baby chicks after having nothing but grown chickens for many months. Many readers have told us that they get better results when they review my book, Success With Baby Chicks, every year before the baby chicks arrive.
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 from pasture (where they had been raised) and into winter quarters that were much closer to the farmhouse, and thus 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 only if you follow it!
Flag pasture obstacles and equipment with something tall if there's any 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.
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