Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, November, 2013
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News From the Farm
Busy, busy, busy! Let's see if I can get these newsletters out on time from now on...
We've had the kind of wind and rain that marks the start of winter, such as it is. Only a couple of days of frost so far, but we'll want to get the snow tires on the cars within the next couple of weeks, before the highway turns into a Slip 'N Slide.
Instead of the usual gradual decline in egg production, it turned off as if someone threw a switch. It's been years since we've seen anything like it. Before, it was caused by running out of feed for a long time or by having the hens terrorized by predators, dogs, or possibly children. We didn't run out of feed and there's no sign of predator activity (no feature-lined game trails or anything like that), so it's all a bit of a mystery. Production is creeping back up again, now that whatever happened is fading into the past.
Our pigs went to piggie heaven in October, and were reincarnated as ham, bacon, and pork chops, much to the delight of our customers. I keep hoping that they'll invent a pig that's roughly the shape of a dachshund, and about fifteen feet long, because that's what it'll take to keep us from running out of bacon first.
Raising pigs on pasture is a bit tricky unless you have 100% impenetrable fences, since they're not only smart, but the boss pigs can convince their minions to do the hardest work, like knocking down the electric fence. Our fence was about 95% impenetrable.
You may not believe it, but it's still farmer's market season here, rain and all. We have two outdor farmer's markets a week, with the last one on the day before Thanksgiving, when we'll be selling our pasture-raised turkey. Then we'll be able to go indoors and warm up!
In the Corvallis Area? Buy Thanksgiving and Chirstmas Turkeys!
Our customers have been enjoying our pasture-raised turkeys for the past ten years or so. As you'd expect, grass-fed turkey tastes better than store-bought!
We have quite a few more pasture-fed turkeys than usual this year, thanks to Oregon State University, which did an organic feeding experiment with a flock of turkeys and then sold the turkeys to us when they were done. So our usual flock of old-timey Bourbon Red turkeys has been supplemented by a group of well-kept broad-breasted turkeys. They're all doing splendidly out on the back forty.
Karen will be butchering many of these during Thanksgiving Week, and the rest for Christmas. You can pick up Thanksgiving turkeys on the day before Thanksgiving at the Wednesday farmer's market in Corvallis.
Preparing for Winter
One of the more eye-opening books I've read is Fresh-Air Poultry Houses by Prince T. Woods, M.D. Dr. Woods described how one of his healthiest chicken flocks spent the New England winter, not in a henhouse, but in the branches of a nearby grove of pine trees. The exposure to the weather kept them from laying much, but they were astonishingly healthy and active!
This was around 90 years ago, when a lot of people were knocking out the south walls of their chicken houses to allow more light and ventilation, winter and summer alike. It worked then, and it works now. It's an amazing thing to witness -- so counter-intuitive! But it works.
So my advice is not to fret over cold or drafts for your grown chickens -- that's for day-old chicks -- resisting the temptation to remove the last vestige of airflow and light from your chicken houses. Instead, do what you can to keep the water and feed flowing in freezing weather, and generally provide an environment where the chickens can stay active. Ventilation, daylight, some kind of freeze-proofing in the waterers, and the ability for the hens to stay busy are the keys.
Because our hens are in little houses scattered over acres of pasture, snow makes it wearisome for us to carry feed and water to them. We use big range feeders that minimize the frequency with which we have to fill them. Because over 90% of winter days here have highs above freezing, our water is (usually) flowing through our humble network of garden hose. This means that, on most days, even if there's snow on the ground, the heaviest things we have to lug around are baskets of eggs. If it's colder and the hoses stay frozen, we have to carry water, too. I object to carrying water in buckets. Not carrying water in buckets is what technology is all about. But we only have to do it a few days per year, which isn't enough to be worth installing freeze-proof underground pipes.
Chickens are startled by the first snowfall if it's heavy enough to completely cover the ground, so if you put all in outdoor range feeders like I do, their reluctance to go outside will cause them to miss some meals, and this in turn will cause a slump in egg production. If we scatter a little straw on top of the snow, making a path between the houses and the feeders, the chickens will venture out willingly. They quickly get used to snow after they've seen it once or twice.
How to keep waterers from freezing depends on the waterer. If you use Little Giant Pet Waterers as I do (just pans with a float valve), a 40-watt birdbath heater is the bee's knees, at least in my climate. This will also work on buckets, if you like buckets.
Worst case, make sure you have several galvanized buckets. Bring a bucket of hot water out to the chickens, and take the previous bucket inside to thaw. Once it's partly thawed, dump out the ice and water and rinse. I like metal buckets because they don't split when they freeze the way plastic buckets do.
In the old days, farmers liked to use straw litter in the chicken house and scatter some grain in it every day. The chickens would spend hours hunting for the last morsel, and scratching around in the litter would fluff it up and keep it from caking. Something for the hens do to indoors during bad weather.
The rule of thumb is that the rate of lay falls whenever the chickens are exposed to daytime highs (indoors) below freezing, and start to suffer around twenty degrees below zero. They do a lot worse if they can't stay dry.
Frostbitten combs are more a sign of excessive dampness than excessive cold. Some chckens can't seem to drink from a bucket or pan without getting their combs wet, so using waterers that don't present that much surface area may be a good idea.
The folk wisdom used to be that heating a chicken house never paid for itself and didn't let the chickens get used to the cold, so any interruption in the heat was bad news. In well-ventilated houses, even insulation was considered a bit extravagant, even in cold parts of the U.S. and Canada. Insulation pays in big chicken houses, but the chicken houses were pretty small in the old days, rarely bigger than 400 square feet.
Most of all, don't let chickens run out of feed or water in cold weather. They can stand a lot of cold if they have plenty of food energy, and to eat, they must also drink.
Christmas is Coming!
With the holidays coming, it's time to stock up on those poultry and rural living books that will fill someone on your list with delight -- such as you, for instance!
I especially recommend Success With Baby Chicks, since the hatchery catalogs start arriving right after Christmas, along with the early-bird baby chick specials, so it's the best time to curl up with a good book in front of the fire and start thinking about the season to come.
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.
November To-Do List
November is usually a fine month for grown chickens, and can even be a good month to start baby chicks if you're set up for it. We tend to avoid receiving baby chicks in December and January, due to the increased chance of long power outages here, but we brood the rest of the year. November is a good month to prepare for winter, and it's not too early to prepare for baby chicks, either!
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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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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