Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How to Read a Chicken

As always with ongoing experience, new hypotheses emerge. Lately I'd come to think that the egg problem was nutritional in nature. The problem, I thought, either had to do with the size of the grind itself - the most significant evidence for which is the fact that industrial operations do it, and because it costs more to do so, you gotta figure there's a reason for it - or that the hens were not getting enough of their vitamin premix and calcium. Since the transition to organic grains, these supplements were offered free choice only, or not mixed in with their regular rations. The Fertrell's Poultry Nutri-balancer premix is formulated for 60 pounds per ton, and it was obvious that they weren't ingesting it at that rate.

Also with the transition to organic, we switched over to the organic formulation of the Fertrell's itself, which is identical to its non-organic counterpart expect in containing a synthetic version of the amino acid Methionine. This amino is crucial for laying hens in particular, and is only found naturally in animal proteins, e.g., insects, frogs, rodents, worms, etc., that the birds consume on pasture. (Remember: chickens are not vegetarians.) Currently there is a USDA exemption for Methionine in organic production simply because there is no available alternative on the market.

So yesterday I spoke with the poultry nutrition guru at Fertrell's, Jeff Maddox, and after describing the situation he identified the following two potential problems. The first concerned the temperature at which the soybeans are roasted. For cattle and other ruminants, soybeans are typically roasted at 270 degrees for 20 minutes. For poultry and pigs, however, the temperature must be higher for longer, ideally at 300 degrees for at least 25 minutes. The second potential issue was indeed a Methionine deficiency, which he diagnosed through the hens occasionally eating small, fluffy feathers that have fallen to the ground. (Again, think about lacking adequate animal proteins, of which feathers are nothing but.) Jeff recommended switching back to the original Fertrell's formula.
Also yesterday I went up to get this month's feed from Windy Acres. Mr. Farris takes his beans J&M Farms in Guthrie, KY, which is an organic dairy that has the only known independent roaster in the region. And, indeed, after speaking with the folks at J&M this morning, they're roasting the soybeans between 245 and 260 degrees. So either we're going to raise the temperature adequately, or roast the beans and keep them warm for a longer period of time. Temperature recommendations are 270 degrees for 25 minutes, 260 degrees for 35 minutes, or 250 degrees for 45 minutes. As for the Methionine, I've ordered the original Fertrell's formula, and it should be in within the week. (Incidentally, we also get the Fertrell's and the other minerals we use on the farm from the folks at J&M Farm.) Alternatively, Jeff said, the Methionine requirement can be met with 25 to 40 pounds of fish meal per ton, but this is not allowed in organic production.

In addition to these changes, I'm moving the hens through the pasture fairly quickly to get them in place for the winter. Once bivouacked I plan on introducing some lights to extend the appearance of day light and so induce them to lay. Animal Welfare Approved standards allow such artificial light, not to exceed 16 hours total per day. I have until now resisted this option as a husband, instead wanting to allow the hens an "all natural" laying cycle with the seasons. But people want to eat farm-fresh eggs year round, and its seems like many farmers do this just to pay the feed bills on heritage breed hens. Otherwise, I'm told, you're just keeping pet chickens. I'm interested to hear your thoughts.


  1. I see nothing wrong with extending the day cycle through the winter. Extending it past 16 hours does seem lengthy to me, but keeping them up as long as they are in the summer sounds as close as is reasonable to a natural process while still covering the cost of feed.

  2. "The Agrarian South, therefore, whose culture was impoverished but not destroyed by the war and its aftermath, should dread industrialism like a pizen snake. For the South long since finished its pioneering. It can only do violence to its provincial life when it allows itself to be forced into the aggressive state of mind of an earlier period. To such an end does bookkeeping lead. It is the numbering of a farm's resources-- its stacks of fodder, bushels of corn, bales of cotton, its stock and implements, and the hundreds of things which make up its economy. And as the only reason to number them is to turn them into cash...the agrarian South is bound to go when the first page is turned and the first mark crosses the ledger.
    "The first thing he does is to trade his mules for a tractor. He has to add a cash payment to boot, but that seems reasonable. He forgets, however, that a piece of machinery, like his mules, must wear out and be replaced; but the tractor cannot reproduce itself. He mus lay aside a large sum of money against the day of replacement, whereas formerly he had only to send his brood mare to some jack for service

    "The next thing it does, it throws his boys out of a job, with the possible exception of one who will remain and run it. This begins the home-breaking. Time is money now, not property, and the boys can't hang about the place draining it of its substance, even if they are willing to. They mus go out somewhere and get a job....

    "He next buys a truck. The gals wanted a car, but he was obdurate on that point, so he lost them. They went to town to visit kin, then gradually drifted there to marry or get a job. The time comes when the old woman succumbs to high-pressure sales talk and forces him to buy a car on the installment plan. By that time he is so far gone that one thing more seems no greater matter.

    "He then has three vehicles which must be fed from the oil companies, several notes at the bank bearing interest, and payments, as regular as clock strokes, to be made on the car.

    "He finds his payment for gasoline, motor oil, and power for his tractor is tremendously higher than the few cents coal oil used to cost him....In fact, he no longer uses coal oil for lighting. He has installed a Delcoplant. Besides giving illumination it pumps his water, turns the churn, washes the clothes, heats the iron to press them, and cooks the victuals. If his daughters had not already moved away, he would have ahd to send them, for Delco has taken their place in the rural economy. The farmer's wife now becomes a drudge. As the mainstay of the structure she was content to bear the greatest burden, but now she grows restive. She has changed from a creator in a fixed culture to an assistant to machines. Her condition is miserable because her burdens are almost as great without the compensation of the highest place in the old scheme. Her services cannot be recompensed with gold, and gold has become the only currency.

  3. ...
    "He has concentrated on the money crop....This sinks him deeper into the money economy. He must buy highly productive, and also highly priced, seed, and artificial fertilizers....But the outlay of money is not ended. There are fertilizer-distributors, cultivators, and improved ploughs of all kinds, with a value arbitrarily inflated by the tariff. He is now as completely on the money basis as a farmer can ever get, and each day he buys more and more from the town and makes less and less on the farm.
    "When he bought the various machines which roll where the mules stood and shivered the flies from their backs, he was told that he might regulate, or get ahead of, nature. He finds to his sorrow that he is still unable to control the elements. When it fails o rain and his fields are burning, he has no God to pray to to make it rain. Science can put the crops in, but it can't bring them out of the ground.
    "The pests and insects are still with him. He may partially control them by poison: the army worm-- possible; the boll weevil-- evade by putting in early; flea-- impossible! Neither can he control the tariff, nor a complete crop failure, nor a drop in prices. Since he cannot control these variables, his crop is not predictable; therefore his income is uncertain. But debt, the price of machinery, repairs, merchandise are all certain and must be met, if not by his crops, then by his land.

    "It is true that labor-evicting machines will give a greater crop yield, but a greater yield does not necessarily mean a greater profit. It means over-production and its twin, price deflation.
    "Industrialism is multiplication. Agrarianism is addition and subtraction. The one by attempting to reach infinity must become self-destructive; the other by fixing arbitrarily its limits upon nature will stand. An agrarian stepping across his limits will be lost...."

    Andrew Nelson Lytle, "The Hind Tit," 234-42, I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition" (Harper & Brothers 1930) (1962).

  4. I should correct myself, now that I have more information: the fish meal is, in fact, available in organic formulation. Its 60% crude protein, and over $150 per $50 lbs. But I'm going to do some accounting in the next few days to see if it's worth incorporating into the feed rations once I begin to feed the pigs from Windy Acres grain.