Robert Plamondon's Poultry Newsletter, September 12, 2003
News From the Farm
Here Comes the Rain Again
My prayers were answered and we've had some rain. I celebrated by turning on the electric lights in my far-flung henhouses on my pasture. More about this below.
This Little Piggie
We just got eight weaner pigs, which will be ready for slaughter in December. One important use of pigs on our farm is to give us something to do with all the cracked and dirty eggs we collect. Pigs do very well on a diet that is amply fortified with hard-boiled eggs!
Artificial Lighting for Hens
Let me start by scoffing at the people who think that artificial lights are bad for hens. The fact is that lights are nowhere near so effective as people think they are. On modern poultry farms, you get about 15% more eggs per year if you use lights to give hens a constant day length year-round. Under old-fashioned farm conditions, which is what my hens see, the annual egg output is not affected much by artificial lights.
Then why use them? Because the hen's inclination is to lay eggs every day during the spring, and to take a long vacation in the fall and winter. This is wildly at odds with the purchasing patterns of my customers! Artificial lights will, if everything else is kept in proper trim, cause about the same number of eggs to be produced, but much more evenly through the year.
The downside of electric lights is that they demand better all-around management. Hens who are not laying very well don't have very high metabolic requirements, and if you let their feeders run empty once in a while or allow their water to freeze all day, the consequences don't show up in the egg yield. The hens aren't exerting themselves, and minor setbacks don't faze them.
But hens who are in full lay are easily tripped up by minor feed and water shortages. With lights, if you let the weather keep you indoors when you should be tending the flock, production will suddenly plummet. What happens is that the light stimulates the hens to lay, even if they don't have the nutritional resources to do so. They'll lay eggs for a while anyway, using up body reserves, and when these are gone, their egg-laying machinery shuts down entirely, and won't open shop again for a number of weeks. The hens won't become ill or particularly, as far as I can tell, but you can wave goodbye to the eggs you'd have had if you'd kept on top of things.
Thus, lights are for the serious egg producer (including serious breeders).
Oddly enough, light stimulation has nothing to do with the eyes. A certain amount of light filter's through the hen's feathers, skin, and skull, and stimulates the brain directly. Even blind chickens respond to light!
As you might expect, the red wavelengths penetrate better than the other colors, meaning that, for once, incandescent bulbs are nearly as good as compact fluorescents.
The amount of light required is quite small, and is in fact less than the amount necessary for the hens to be able to see well enough to get around. This fact is convenient, since if the lights are bright enough to let the hens move around, eat, drink, and find the perches, it's bright enough to stimulate laying. No light meter is necessary. It's also said that if you can read a newspaper, it's bright enough in the henhouse.
Having enough light for the hens to be active is useful! Especially in northern latitudes. Around Christmas, nighttime lasts about 15 1/2 hours at my farm. My chickens would prefer the time between dinner and breakfast to be shorter than this. Thus, if you have feed and water in your henhouses (which is usual), the lights should illuminate the feeders, the waterers, and the perches.
Laying is stimulated to some extent with any day length over ten hours, but 13-14 hours seem most effective for small farm flocks, and 16 hours is the consensus number for larger commercial operations (though they can get much fancier than a mere constant day length). In any case, once the lights are turned on, the day should not be allowed to get any shorter, or the hens are likely to go into a molt. Messing up for a day or two won't hurt, but that's about the limit.
Bulbs and Reflectors
But enough theory. The traditional advice for lighting is to use a clean 40-watt incandescent bulb with a good reflector for every 200 square feet of henhouse. If the bulb is dirty or you don't have a reflector, go up one size (60 watts). If the bulb is dirty and you don't have a reflector, go up two grades (100 watts -- but use two 60-watt bulbs instead).
If your hen house is smaller than 200 square feet, reduce the wattage proportionally. A 100 square foot house would only require 20 watts, so use a 25 watt bulb.
I have found that bulbs smaller than 40 watts are often bizarrely expensive, though some stores have them at reasonable prices. Long-life bulbs are dimmer and redder than ordinary ones, but should be just as good, since it's the red that does all the work.
I never have found a source of appropriate reflectors. Hen houses need a relatively flat reflector. So I simply don't use one.
Mount the lamp high enough that you don't bang your head on it, and so the hens rarely bonk into the fixture when flying around. The two ways to protect the lamp from breakage are to use a fixture with a guard and mount it securely, so it can be whacked without breaking, or to simply suspend a bare bulb from a rafter, so it will just swing when whacked.
Compact fluorescents are delicate and must be placed inside some kind of guard. You need to use unvented compact fluorescents, which I have never seen in local stores, and have to order by mail. FarmTek is a good source. On the whole I recommend incandescents bulbs. They are a rugged ninteenth-centurey technology that is well-suited to the hostile conditions inside a henhouse.
Since the hens are likely to molt if you forget to turn the lights on for several days in a row, you should use a timer. This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the electro-mechanical timer, and hen lights were one of the first uses it was put to. So we should follow the lead of the techno-pioneers during Teddy Roosevent's administration, and do likewise.
The simple plug-in timers are fine, though you can't adjust them very precisely. Wired-in timers are better, though not tons better.
Another convenience is the dusk-to-dawn light-sensing switch. You use this as follows:
First, you plug the timer into an outlet. Then, you wire the dusk-to-dawn switch into the output of the timer. Don't install them in reverse order, or the timer will only work when it's dark! Obviously, the light sensor in the dusk-to-dawn switch needs to be outdoors, where it can sense whether it's day or night.
Set the timer so to turn on at a convenient time, such as 6 AM, and off again about 14 hours later -- 8 PM. The timer will obediently turn on and off at the right times. Without the dusk-to-dawn switch, the lights will stay on all day, which wastes electricity. The dusk-to-dawn switch turns the lights off during the day and on when it gets dark. If ther's a power outage, you have to set the timer to the correct time again. Otherwise you don't have to touch the setup until spring. Lights are generally turned off around April 1.
There are alternatives to this method. Some people use lights only in the evening. They have to adjust the turn-off time about once a week to keep the day length at fourteen hours. Some people use lights just in the morning. I tried evening-only lights for several years, but got tired of adjusting the timers, and went to morning-and-evening lights.
I use portable pasture houses, which means that I have to use extension cords rather than permanent wiring. Permanent wiring is better. Basic wiring is not very hard, and there are a zillion books in the library telling you how to do it. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that poultry houses are a damp, corrosive environment that is hard on metal conduit and metal electrical boxes. They corrode very quickly. Plastic is used wherever possible in modern poultry housing. For similar reasons, brass-shell lamp sockets (which use cardboard insulators) should not be used. Plastic and porcelain sockets are fine.
When in doubt, have an electrician do the work.
If you must use extension cords, make sure they're oversized for the amount of current you're going to use. I have used cheap outdoor-rated extension cords with good results. If two extension cords have to be connected outdoors, I tie them together first and then use electrical tape that starts on one cord, completely covers both plug and socket, and ends on the other cord. This doesn't necessarily keep the connection dry, but it keeps it clean, which is the main thing.
If you need to use three-way taps, use the good ones -- the heavy-duty orange plastic ones that have solid brass contacts, not brass-plated steel. Tape those, too.
Another annoyance of poultry houses is that outlets and lamp sockets get filled with dust, roost mites, and other fauna. Taping any outlet that's not in use will help, as will filling any unused lamp socket with a burned-out or slightly unscrewed bulb.
Extension Cord Safety
If your houses are permanently sited, properly installed permanent wiring will be superior in every way. For portable housing, you're pretty much stuck with extension cords. (If you go with solar/battery powered lights, that's different, but I'm focusing on AC-powered lights today.)
Miscellaneous Lighting Topics
The hens will start laying an hour or two after the lights come on, and if your nest boxes are not in the main henhouse, as mine aren't, this can cause a problem.
Some people say that, if the lights turn off suddenly, instead of dimming down, the hens may be caught on the floor instead of the perches. I have always found this to be more of a theoretical than a real problem. My hens all seem to be on the perches by the time the lights go out.
Lights have always paid for themselves, even for producers selling eggs at commodity prices. People like me, who sell eggs at premium prices, really can't afford to do without lights. Without lights, I have a desperate shortage of eggs during the fall and winter, and such a glut in the spring that I have to drop my prices dramatically, and am still in danger of having some go unsold.
My September 11 Story
Two years ago, when I recovered from the first shock of the September 11 attacks, I thought about the shutdown of the U.S. airline system and asked, "What's going to happen to all the baby chicks ready to be shipped out by air?"
With the commercial jets grounded, shipments of baby chicks were going to sit around with nowhere to go, and the chicks would die.
While chicks going long distances are shipped by airmail, chicks going only a few hundred miles are shipped by surface mail. I always do some brooding in the fall, and at the time I had an empty brooder house.
I occasionally do business with Phinney Hatchery in Walla Walla, Washington, and their chicks arrive by surface mail. So I called them up and offered to take 100 stranded pullets, if they had any. They said they certainly did!
It's not much of a contribution compared to some, but it saved 100 chicks, and that's something.
If the airline system is ever grounded again (which God forbid), and you're within surface-mail distance of a local hatchery, you might keep this in mind.
Genetics of the Fowl
Today's book plug is for F. B. Hutt's Genetics of the Fowl, which had been out of print for about fifty years until I reissued it this year. Professor Hutt was a ground-breaking geneticist, who did some of the original work in breeding for disease resistance, published the first chromosome map for chickens, and was involved in all sorts of pioneering work.
Genetics of the Fowl discusses the genetic component of every aspect of chicken development and productivity. Because Hutt was involved in this kind of research from the very beginning, it often reads like a detective story, full of clues, red herrings, and clever ways of separating one from the other. These are scattered through every part of the book, because the book is far from being a mere gene map, but also discusses what things are suspected but not known for sure, and which area represent virgin territory.
There is also a long chapter called Breeding in Practice, which gives many examples of different kinds of successful breeding program, which kind to use for what application, and which kind of results can be expected. He resolves many of the seemingly contradictory results that breeders get. When I bought my copy of the original edition of this book, I found this chapter to be worth the price by itself. About it, Hutt says, in the Preface, "The last chapter of this book is written primarily for the good, practical poultry breeder. In that part of it dealing with the progeny test, the author has reviewed some of the principles and practices found helpful in hit own experience." (At the time, Hutt's method of progeny testing was considered outlandish by some, but it eventually became the norm.)
Hutt does not assume that you are a poultry scientist. In the Preface he says, "No attempt is made in this book to teach simple principles of genetics, and hence the familiar diagrams of segregating single combs and barred feathers are omitted... Nevertheless, sufficient explanation has been given so that the poultryman or hatcheryman who has not been exposed to a full course in genetics need not feel lost in any chapter of the book."
Hutt is one of those researchers who, like Darwin, had experience with and respect for both show breeders and breeders of farm stock. This is not universally true of geneticists, many of whom are pure academics. Hutt pokes gentle fun at these at various points of the book.
The book is not up-to-date, as it was published in 1949, but you'd be amazed at how well it holds up. Most specific questions about genetics can be answered in a moment (the index is quite good). But, more than the facts in the book, it's the wisdom and examples that make it valuable. It's also quite an interesting read, at least in those chapters that cover issues of interest to you.
Before I brought Genetics of the Fowl back into print, it was almost impossible to find. It his highly valued by breeders and they never sell their copies. I had read the copy in the Oregon State University library and resolved to get a copy of my own. Online booksellers offered it for sale from time to time, but every time I tried to buy a copy, someone had snapped it up before me. I felt very lucky when I acquired one in excellent condition for $100, somewhat below the going rate. I would have paid more.
I sacrificed that copy to bring the book back into print under my Norton Creek Press label. I sent it to my printers, who sliced off the spine, scanned in the pages, and made an edition that's a reproduction of the original.
The list price is $44.95, and you can order it at that price from online booksellers or through special orders through your local bookstore. If you buy it directly from me, you'll get a 10% discount ($39.95). As far as I know, no one else offers it with any kind of discount. Overseas readers can get it from me, via Global Priority Mail (airmail). The various Amazon stores (amazon.co.uk, etc.) also offer it.
The closest competing genetics book costs $90, and the most up-to-date work, Crawford's Poultry Genetics, costs $300 and is out of print.
So buy a copy today! If you hate it, send it back and I'll refund your money, no questions asked. We aims to please.
If you like this newsletter, please send copies to all your friends!
Copyright 2003 by Robert Plamondon. Permission is granted for copying if the material from here to the end of the message is left unaltered.
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