Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, December, 2012
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News From the Farm
Karen's pastured pigs went to piggie heaven at the beginning of the month. (In case you were wondering, piggie heaven bears a remarkable resemblance to a chest freezer!) The timing was good, because our heavy winter rains started as soon as they were gone. If we tried to keep pastured pigs through an Oregon winter, they'd need swim fins and snorkels.
Our Thanksgiving turkeys had no such troubles. They're a lot lighter than pigs and do well on soft ground. To them, the rain wasn't even a nuisance, since it resulted in a heavier growth of fresh green grass. Turkeys don't live on grass alone, any more than chickens do, but they like it, and while it's low in calories, it's high in vitamins and seems to play a crucial role in that pasture-fed flavor and nutrition.
The first Pacific storm of the season rolled in just as Karen started butchering turkeys, and the power was out most of the day. This slowed Karen down only somewhat, since we have a generator for just such an emergency. I was inconvenienced more than she was, since my day job, telecommuting to Citrix Systems' Branch Repeater group, involves a rack full of network equipment that requires a lot of baby-sitting when the power is bouncing up and down!
My first line of defense against power outages is the APC SmartUPS uninterruptible power supply, which coexists well with generators (which the cheaper ones do not). I buy the 1000-watt models for their big batteries. They'll keep your gear going for hours if you only load them down with 100-200 watts. I usually buy refurbished units. Make sure you get ones with new batteries, and buy them from someone reputable. (Some of the batteries out there are hardly batteries at all, so you can get "bargains" that aren't worth the price of shipping.)
Of course, when you're doing the rural lifestyle thing, a power outage is more of a nuisance than a disaster. It's not just that it's a lot more convenient for us to use generators than people on the seventeenth floor of an apartment building, it's that our whole infrastructure is geared to disruptive conditions: four-wheel drive vehicles, our own water wells, freezers full of food, wood stoves backed up by at least a year's supply of cordwood, and so on. And since rural areas are on the production side rather than the consumption side, as far as the necessities of life are concerned, being cut off from the outside would be more a matter of, "What do we do with all these eggs and chickens?" than "What will we eat?"
Our Thanksgiving turkeys were a big success, almost putting us in the position of not having turkey for ourselves! The last farmer's market of the year is always on the day before Thanksgiving, so our customers got their freshest-turkey-anywhere just in time for the big day.
Jenks Hatchery, in nearby Tangent, offered broad-breasted turkey poults in August and September this year, and for the first time we raised modern hybrid turkeys along with our heritage breeds. The broad-breasted hybrid turkeys were as big at 12 weeks as the heritage breeds were at 24 weeks! Sadly, we didn't have one of each type left over for ourselves, so we haven't been able to do a side-by-side taste test. Reports from customers are favorable for both types.
A turkey that grows twice as fast takes a lot less labor to raise, and if we did only fast-growing turkeys, a couple of our portable houses would become available for broilers during the mid-season, which would be useful. Also, the longer a turkey flock is on the pasture, the more chances they have to escape and wander off into the woods, or to be attacked by predators. So we're considering switching.
We're not immune to the call of heritage breed poultry, but discovered that, on the whole, the millions of American farmers who switched from heritage breeds to modern hybrids over the past 60 years were right to do so. Most people don't realize that a heritage-breed chicken looks exactly like a rubber chicken -- comically skinny compared to modern meat birds. Most customers prefer a much meatier chicken! Heritage turkeys are better, but their slow growth drains a lot of the profit from the operation.
Winter Chicken Care
Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud
Oregon winters are all about rain, so mud is our big enemy. Chickens that spend a lot of time outdoors will quickly denude the areas around their houses, since they scratch at the ground with their claws in addition to pecking at interesting morsels. In wet weather, these areas soon become muddy.
One solution is to move their houses periodically, but wet ground is fragile and the chickens can wreck it pretty quickly. Also, they like the new grass that springs up in their old stomping grounds, so unless you exclude them from it, they'll prevent the grass from growing back.
Using a mulch on the ground can work, but it takes a lot. A light covering of straw or old hay will get churned into the mud almost instantly, rendering it ineffective. A really thick layer works much better, but has a tendency to rot out the walls of the chicken houses where they come into contact with it. No doubt this can be worked around with appropriate building materials.
One thing that can help is to create some kind of porch around the doors of the chicken houses. That's where the traffic is highest. Wooden pallets work well for this. Rats will instantly take up residence under any wooden pallets, so you'll need to set up chicken-proof bait stations. The commercial bait stations work well for this.
There's an old method I haven't yet tried, which is to create a porch with a wooden frame covered with welded-wire mesh or perhaps heavy-duty chicken wire. The chickens can peck at the grass growing underneath, but can't scratch the plants to pieces. The only downside I see is that, if you leave the porches in place too long, the grass will intertwine with them and make them really hard to move.
Keeping the chickens indoors when things are to sopping wet outside is also an option. Sine we don't have doors on our chicken houses, and we put all the feeders and waterers outdoors, it's not as practical for us as it is for others.
Ventilation for Grown Chickens
Baby chicks are vulnerable to low temperatures and wind chill, so we all work hard to keep them warm and to prevent drafts. But grown chickens, like most birds, have an insulating coat of feathers that makes them indifferent to low temperatures, so long as they can stay dry and out of the wind. This is a far cry from what they were like as baby chicks, and it's easy for us to get our wires crossed about this.
In Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, which I have reprinted, Dr. Woods talks about how one of his flocks of chickens decided to spend the New England winter roosting in a grove of pine trees rather than the house he'd provided them. They were extremely healthy all winter, more so than his other chickens, though they didn't lay much. Sleeping a pine tree in a New England winter doesn't get you completely dry or keep you completely out of the wind, but if you're a chicken, you're snug and dry enough.
So if the chickens sleeping in the pine woods were healthier than the ones in chicken houses, doesn't that mean that there's something wrong with the chicken houses? And if so, what?
The short answer is "Yes -- not enough ventilation." With too little ventilation, chicken houses carry a strong ammonia smell, and all birds, from miners' canaries to chickens, are easily harmed by bad air quality. The rule of thumb became, "If you can smell ammonia, your chickens are being hurt by bad air quality."
In the early days of the "fresh air poultry house" movement, farmers went so far as to knock out the entire south wall of their chicken houses and covering them only with chicken wire. This worked better than most people expected, but let in too much weather for most people's tastes. Later, in California, farmers used chicken houses with no walls at all, just a roof. This worked very well as far north as Oregon's Willamette Valley, where caged layers in a house with no walls, and no way to get out of the wind, were healthier across windy winter temperatures down to 18 F than a control group in conventional chicken houses! They were cold but dry, and the totally open house had completely fresh air.
In the commercial poultry world, highly ventilated houses have been the dominant type for generations, but the temptation to keep the houses under-ventilated in the hope of keeping them warm is very strong. An old poultry saying runs, "The best chicks come out of the sorriest houses," because dilapidated chicken coops let in a lot more air than ones that are snug. If anything, the problem is even worse today than it was 75 years ago, because back then small flocks were the norm, so poultry scientists spent a lot of time studying and sharing techniques for small-flock success. But agricultural science always focuses on commodity farms, rather than specialty farms, and they've lost touch with small flocks.
This in turn means that thoughful poultry books of yesteryear are more relevant to the needs of folks with small flocks than today's factory-farm-oriented books. That's why it's good to read these older books, it's why I found these books more useful than the others, and it's why I reprinted them so you'll get the same benefits I did! When you buy your copy of Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, you may not find yourself knocking out the entire south wall of your chicken coop, but I'd be surprised if you don't find yourself making a few changes that work very well for you and your chickens. Is this in spite of first being published in 1924, or because of it? Both!
Heat for Grown Chickens
I'm skeptical about the use of heat for grown chickens. The belief has always been that you get "hothouse chickens" that don't acclimate well to winter temperatures, which can be disastrous if the heating system fails. The old rule of thumb is that, if the chickens have a draft-free place to sleep, they'll be okay down to -20 F. It's true that their rate of lay falls whenever they experience daytime highs below freezing, but they remain healthy and active at much lower temperatures.
The main use of heat for grown chickens is to keep their water from freezing, since thirst is harder on them than cold under most circumstances. Giving them hot water in galvanized buckets works okay if you like hauling water around in buckets, which I don't, especially over icy ground! An electric birdbath heater will keep pan waterers or buckets from freezing without using much electricity. If you don't use portable chicken coops, burying or insulating the pipes and using weatherproof heater cable where necessary can save you a lot of labor and keep the water flowing 24/7.
Chicken coops should have insulated ceilings, massive airflow, or both to prevent excessive condensation from making the houses wet inside. Wall insulation isn't a bad idea in colder climates. I go the "massive airflow" route myself, and rarely have any condensation in the houses unless there's snow on the roof, which only happens a few days a year in my climate.
Christmas is Coming
I know I said this last time, but that was early, and this is just in time!
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!
Norton Creek Press Best-Seller List
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.
December weather tends to go from bad to worse, with freezing and power outages to keep things interesting. (See one of my blog posts about winter experiences with free-range birds in open housing.) 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? Wait, wasn't winter supposed to be the slow season?
Not to mention that the hatchery catalogs will start arriving right after Christmas, with special low prices on early chicks. By January, 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.
Adventures in Social Media
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This newsletter is sent out occasionally by Robert Plamondon to anyone who asks for it. Robert runs Norton Creek Press.
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