by L.R. Miller & F.J. Keilholz, separated by 73 years
A great many small farms across North America keep ten to thirty laying hens for home family supply. Some of those folks might be surprised to discover that with a modest investment they could turn, or grow, that ‘sideline’ into additional farm income – but you need to know that it will take planning, an increase in daily chores, and attention to detail. And of course, to further assure success, it would help if you naturally enjoyed poultry.
SFJ archives include volumes of fascinating information on poultry raising from the 19th and 20th century. Our decades of reviewing this information has shown us that, since the 1950s there has been a long standing prejudice by many mainstream agricultural experts against small flock poultry rearing.
Before the end of WWII, successful meat and egg farm flocks of 100 to 300 were commonplace. After WWII, specialization and industrialization pushed commercial poultry enterprises to either layers or broilers with confinement housing and operational scales of from 1,000 to 100,000 birds. In that atmosphere of rapid growth, lots of qualifiers pushed the discussion against laying and broiler flocks of 500 or less.
Back in the early seventies, I maintained a dozen hens at home while – as one of my paying jobs – I also managed a 3 house “NuLaid” broiler operation in Dexter, Oregon, where every eight to nine weeks 22,500 birds, from each house, were raised from day old to butcher weight. (My other job was as night watchman in a plywood mill.)
At the Nulaid farm, many adjustable-height electric brooders hung from the ceiling for the first two weeks. Under each were placed thousands of day old chicks. Once the birds were old enough, the brooders were removed and the birds commingled throughout the dirt-floor house (bedded with wood shavings). Like a very long model train track, a feed trough with conveyor chain made a loop, under the feed hopper and all the way round on the floor of each house. Automatic waterers hung from the ceiling.
My primary chore, twice a day, after perusing for mechanical problems, breakdowns, or predator break-ins, was to fill my wheelbarrow with the dead birds I found. Then I ran the conveyor until it was full, 500 feet of it, with a synthetic, growth-enhancing, additive-coated, pelleted feed ration. Depending on how many birds I found dead, I was to add certain vitamins and antibiotics to the storage-tank that fed the waterers. By the end of the growth cycle, 8 to 9 weeks, I would be removing a full pickup load of dead birds each day to take to the dump. Most died of heart attacks. The owners and bosses of the vast NuLaid operations (they had many hundreds of such operations scattered across the country) never saw the chickens or their living conditions. They saw the numbers on the balance sheets. The dust, suffocating ammonia, and confinement conditions of the birds forced me to quit after two cycles. I couldn’t take it. It was hard to eat a commercial chicken after that.
But I still love chickens, all poultry in fact. And we have a small family flock today.
Recently I discovered an article in a 1947 issue of Country Gentleman, entitled You Can Make Money with 100 Hens, in which Mr. F.J. Keilholz talks about a successful small flock poultry operation in Indiana. Here’s that article edited and annotated:
There’s hardly anything that can be done with a larger flock that Mrs. Dora and her husband haven’t done with their little one, properly handled. As compared with other small-flock owners, she gets more eggs per hen, more money per dozen eggs, more profits per bird, more returns per hour and more cash for the farm. She has averaged 211 eggs per bird for the year, whereas the Indiana average for flocks of 78 birds is 187.
There are only two ordinary laying houses on the 176 acres – one a 9×27 foot house… and another, 15×30 feet, …. One of these houses is simply a two-room section from an old house. The Doras themselves put a concrete floor in their main laying house, a shed-roof type. They also ratproofed it around the top edge of the foundation to stop losses from these pests. The brooder house on the farm is a 9×12 foot unit… in addition to the buildings…, two 5-foot feed hoppers and one 3-foot one, a 5-gallon and a 3-gallon waterer, all for the laying flock, and one glass waterer, a 5-gallon galvanized waterer and wire on the windows for the young flock. One advantage of the two laying houses in the Dora setup is that one of them is “overflow” space in which they keep some of their best old hens after the pullets are ready to be housed.
Whatever else the Doras lack in advantages on their tenant farm, they try to make up in “chicken sense,” sound management, good breeding and better-than-average marketing. Mrs. Dora found out for herself, for example, that putting pullets and old hens together didn’t work.
“You’ve just got to be on your toes and watch,” she explained. Little things like broody pullets don’t escape her. One fall she never had a single one. The next fall she had four before the season was hardly well started. Now any pullet that goes broody gets leg-banded and if caught the second time, is sold out of the flock.
Regularity in management and keeping the hens quiet and tame is a “don’t-break” rule with Mrs. Dora. “I never aim to hurry in the chicken house,” she said.
They buy straight-run chicks from the farm-bureau cooperative hatchery in Indianapolis, although one year they did buy a few sexed cockerels with the idea of raising them to sell as breeders to neighboring flock owners. Last year they bought 271 chicks for their own laying flock and dressed-chicken trade, and lost only 30 out of the lot, including those taken by foxes. Chicks that come from pullorum-tested flocks, apparently free from paralysis, and that are raised in clean houses on clean ground help them keep down disease losses. Their records show 34 pullets raised for each 100 chicks started, the remainder being accounted for by broiler sales, culls and mortality losses.
The Doras like to get their chicks around the 15th of March and make it a rule to brood them for about two weeks before they are allowed on the ground. Just before the chicks arrive, the brooder house, equipped with an electric brooder, is scrubbed with lye water and moved out to a clean, fenced-off spot in a 36-acre tract where the chicks will have bluegrass for range. At the start the Doras make it a rule to provide 34 to 36 inches of feed-trough space for each 50 chicks. This is increased to at least 4 feet per 50 birds at six weeks of age and to at least 6 feet when the birds are on range. After the young chickens go out on range, their feed is mash and oats in the morning and corn at night.
This year the Doras changed their usual practice by getting some chicks in January instead of waiting until the middle of March. They then planned to get a second batch of chicks later in the season to raise for broilers. That way they hope to get more use out of their equipment. Also, the January chicks will give them a chance to hit the high egg markets with the pullets.
As a rule the Doras have been housing their pullets for flock replacements around August or when they begin to lay. They use a deep straw litter on top of the concrete floor in their shed-roof laying house. This covering is changed twice a year and has never given them any trouble from dampness. One hundred pounds of lime is sprinkled in with each batch of litter. There is no wire covering over the droppings under the roosting racks and the racks are cleaned only once a month. For the time being, they’re trying to make the best of the housing they have, although they would like to have an insulated and ventilated poultry house with better roosting racks and a range shelter.
Lights, turned on by an automatic timer, are on in the laying house from about 4 a.m. to 7 a.m., giving the hens a 12- to 13-hour day. However, that is no hard-and-fast rule. The Doras watch conditions, and on dark days may leave the lights on until noon.
Half the feed for the laying flock and 44% of that for the young flock is home-grown. For mash feed, fed free-choice, the Doras grind their own grain and add a commercial supplement to it to make a 20% protein mash. The mixture is made up of 210 pounds of corn, 50 pounds of wheat, 40 pounds of soybean meal and 100 pounds of the commercial protein supplement.
Last year for the first time, they started feeding oats to the laying flock and got such good results that it is being continued. It is fed free-choice at the rate of about nine pounds a day to 65 birds. After starting the oats, the Doras soon found that when they cut down on the amount, they also cut down on the number of eggs laid.
In addition to the mash and the oats, the Doras also feed shelled corn as a scratch grain in the evening at the rate of about four pounds for each 65 hens. A barrel for the mash supply is kept in the laying house, but the corn and oats are carried from a nearby building.
For range, the flock has bluegrass. To supplement this, the Doras tie a bundle of alfalfa by a cord from the ceiling of the laying house and find that “it helps keep the hens looking better.”
Baby chicks and young growing stock get the same supplement used for the laying flock, 100 pounds of the supplement being mixed with 300 pounds of corn. Mash is kept before them all the time, with a feeding of ground corn in the evening. After the broilers are sold off, Mrs. Dora’s system for feeding the pullets through the growing period is enough mash to last about an hour, ground corn to last 15 or 20 minutes each morning and whole grain oats as scratch feed in the evening.
In checking up to see that the hens are paying for the feed they eat, Mrs. Dora doesn’t handle every bird regularly, but she does watch for shriveled combs, yellow beaks and other signs of non-layers. Her 1948 records show that she culled out 24% of the 90 females that were housed in the fall, and in addition, there was a mortality rate of 17%. Some of this was caused by rats, against which the Doras have done some rat-proofing. She had an average of 75 females for the year from which she got a total of 1373 dozen eggs, or an average of about 211 per hen. Mrs. Dora has gathered as many as 52 eggs a day from a flock of 65 pullets and during the winter of 1947-48 she got a lay of 70 to 75 percent.
note: Direct sale of eggs from free range layers can bring in upwards to $5 dozen (and I predict that will go up very soon). At these numbers 75 hens might result in an annual income of $6500 from eggs alone (understanding that additional income is possible from the sale of laying hens, broilers, and even chicks.) Bump that up: Maintaining a nucleus layer flock of 300 hens, with a constant replacement supply of pullets being raised and 50 to 100 broilers for home use, you will find that the chickens might add handsomely to a general farm’s self sufficiency and income stream. Eggs alone would be worth $26,000+, the sale of young layer hens – as pullets start to lay and replace them – could add another $1,000+. Of course, as with any business enterprise, keeping costs in check and aggressively designing and maintaining marketing practices will make all the difference in profit margins. But do not forget that an operation of this scale is also a fertilizer plant of the first caliber. The litter from the chicken houses, mixed as recommended with lime, will save a great deal of money for your farming AND increase organic productivity dramatically. Money from Chickens! LRM
The one big thing that keeps most small flocks less profitable than the Doras’ is the fact that the owners are not interested in marketing eggs and, therefore, are not likely to work for quality and for improved marketing programs. Yet most rules for reasonable egg quality on the farm are simple. They can be easily followed.
Even without such simple aids as a cooling rack or a sandbox, the Doras manage to maintain enough quality to get a premium market for at least some of their eggs. Mrs. Dora gathers them twice a day and markets at least once a week. While the eggs are being held on the farm, she stores them on a closed-in back porch in winter and cool weather and in a cool cellar in hot weather.
One customer who gets three to five dozen a week likes the Dora eggs so well she pays a premium of five to seven cents a dozen. The Doras sell a lot of their other eggs right at the farm to steady customers who know the quality. The rest, during the off-season for hatcheries, are taken into a local store. Mrs. Dora hasn’t developed a regular retail route, because about the time she gets it built up, the hatchery wants her eggs. The season for this runs from February to May.
In addition to her egg sales, Mrs. Dora has dressed and sold as many as 22 chickens a week. These are retailed at the farm or sold through a small route.
Finally, the Doras, like other efficient poultry raisers – large or small – have found that a good set of records is one of their best tools. Mrs. Dora started her record-keeping training as a 4-H club member, and she’s kept at it ever since. In fact, this is about the only part of the poultry business that she does all by herself, without any help from Mr. Dora. By contrast, few farmers, especially small flock owners, keep records in enough detail to know whether or not their poultry is profitable. Maybe right here’s the secret of small-flock success as demonstrated by the Doras. “I enjoy keeping records,” she said. “Some people don’t, but I do.”
Chicks during the age of shelter in place.
Industrial agriculture has a long running preference for certain breeds when it comes to layers and meat production. Small farm production, and yes that includes flocks of upwards to five hundred birds, will be best served leaning towards heritage breeds especially if the sale of layers to home flocks is a target. Whether it be with poultry or any commercial livestock enterprise, the hybrid varieties developed for mass production will always require ‘parent stock,’ a storehouse of genetics which can only reasonably and naturally be maintained if enough farmers and backyard fanciers are raising so called ‘heritage’ breeds. There is the altruistic motive of contributing to the protection of these breeds, also, in today’s dangerously evolving world, we will find that environmental situations will actually favor the traits of certain rare chicken breeds.
But up front, and nearer your wallet, with pandemic concerns, hatcheries report an unprecedented demand for chicks from suburban and non-farm rural folk who are looking for ways to get even just a toehold on self-sufficiency. The small farm who aggressively sells to these families, both day old chicks as well as pullets and hens for the 5 to 10 bird holding, will add income and a growing market circle for their farm goods. Ornamental feathers, fertile hatching eggs, day old chicks, broilers, pullets, layer hens, eating eggs, and poultry litter for fertilizer: these all represent income potential.
Back in the early seventies, on my rented farm in Dexter, we had a big garden, milk goats, and of course chickens. Every Sunday, Mr. Dubeau would drive up from Eugene in his shiny black Lincoln Continental with his wife and grand-daughters. They were there for two dozen eggs. He would come to the porch to visit for a bit, pay for the eggs, and breathe easy. The wife and girls would walk out behind the house to look at the chickens. The flock consisted of 25 Dominiques, Buff Partridge, and Speckled Hamburgs. After they had made a few weekly visits it became custom for the girls to gather a few feathers to take home with them. When the garden produce matured they would also purchase a couple of small bags of vegetables. I remember they were ecstatic to find we had Jerusalem Artichokes and speckled beans. I was in my early twenties and pretty sure I knew everything. I was determined to have a farm of my own one day. Frequently, family, friends, and even strangers would deride me for my goals, saying that a small farm was a lame losing target. Not Mr. Dubeau. Sitting on my porch, cradling his two dozen eggs, he said, “I’ve made a fortune in business, my wife and I have pretty much all we ever wanted. Only man I know who I’d say was wealthier than me is you young man.” He patted the egg cartons, “and here’s the secret. Since we found you and your place it’s made a difference for us. We look forward to each Sunday afternoon. Always keep those lovely birds and raise these eggs and everything else, big and small, will follow.” I said, “I know what it’s like to raise thousands of chickens commercially and I’m not interested. But thanks.” “No, no.” He said, “Just keep your small flock where people like me can see them. Folks will come to you for all you have to offer.”
He was right. It’s the small things, like poultry, that give self sufficiency its beauty, promise and place. LRM