Poppy George’s Farm Advice: Farm Animal Care and Raising Poultry

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Baby turkeys, called poults, must be taught how to eat in their first days of life so that they don't starve to death.

“Poppy George” Plitt graduated from college with a degree in agriculture in 1932. During the years that followed he made a good many friends and a name for himself (as a gentleman, inventor and executive) in the field of bird and animal husbandry and care. At various points in his career, Plitt served as Director of Nutritional Research and Field Services for two of the East’s larger grain mills. He is also the originator of Pride of the Valley Wild Bird Food and Kleen Kitty cat litter. Plitt now raises and trains standard bred horses and keeps a wide variety of other birds and animals on a New York farm.

“Poppy George” is now sharing his experience by giving the MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers down-to-earth advice on the care and feeding of homestead livestock. 

Question: I’m planning to buy 100 baby chicks again this spring. Last year, even though I had an electric brooder stove I lost quite a few of my flock when they smothered in the corners of their 10-by-12 foot coop. Is it possible to prevent this from happening again?

Answer: Yes, it definitely is possible to keep baby chicks from “piling up” and smothering in corners. Simply do away with these trouble spots in your coop! Start by cutting a band of corrugated cardboard (from used supermarket or grocery cartons) about 18 to 24 inches high. Form it into a ring, stand it on edge, overlap the ends and join them on top with plain or clip-type clothes pins. At first, place the circle about 18 inches all the way around from the edge of your brooder stove (whether it’s electric, coal, oil or a homemade unit). Then, each week, make the ring larger as your biddies grow. The youngsters, when their wings develop, will fly up and perch on the fence. At that point simply roll up the cardboard and put it away to be used for the next brood. Just to be sure your flock is safe, however, get some 1/2 inch or 3/4 inch square mesh wire hardware cloth (onion or citrus mesh sacks will also work if securely fastened) and use it to round out the inside corners of your brooder coop so that if the young birds do “pile up”, those on the bottom of the heap can still get air and survive. If you have electricity in the chicks’ quarters, by the way, it’s a good idea for many reasons to keep a 5 or 10-watt red bulb burning at night. The weaker birds can use that time to get water and food without competition from the bosses of the flock.

I have a half dozen white Peking ducks and I’m quite certain that five are females because I’ve gathered that many eggs a day on several occasions. The sixth bird, I believe, is a male, but how can I be sure? Also, can duck eggs be hatched under hens, and how long does it take?

To tell the sex of a duck, look at its top tail point. The mature male (drake) has a completely curled feather in this spot, whereas females don’t have this adornment. You can successfully hatch duck eggs under setting hens, either regular size or bantams. Just don’t put more than six under a full-sized bird or about three under a banty hen. Also, sprinkle the eggs lightly with lukewarm water at the end of each week to make the shells easier for the ducklings to break through when they emerge. Most duck eggs usually take 28 days to hatch. The Muscovy variety requires two or three days longer.

I have a nice cow with big horns which are ornamental but a bit dangerous at times. Is it possible for her to bear a hornless calf?

Definitely yes, if you have her bred-either by artificial insemination or naturally-to an Aberdeen Angus or Polled Hereford bull. The chances are 99 out of 100 that the calf will never develop horns.

How many roosters do I need to fertilize the eggs of my 40 laying hens?

You didn’t state what breed of chickens you have. If they’re a Mediterranean variety (White Leghorn, Ancona, etc.), one active rooster will adequately take care of up to 25 hens. With American breeds like New Hampshire Reds, Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks, figure one male to a flock of 15 or 18. A word of caution, however: If you now have only one rooster, DON’T decide on the basis of my answer to add another to your flock. The old male will fight the newcomer and probably one will get killed or badly cut up. Unless you’re prepared to spend a good deal of time refereeing the battle or to make chicken soup of the victim,my suggestion would be to put half your hens in a separate confined area and introduce the new rooster to just this group.

Can I make a steer out of my bull calf without the expense of a veterinarian, and can I do likewise with my baby billy goats? I want to raise these animals for meat.

Yes, this is a simple procedure and can be done without an incision to remove the testicles. Simply purchase an elastrator, which is roughly speaking a set of four pronged pliers over which you can place a special elastic band that costs only a few pennies. Expand the device and slip the open rubber ring over the animal’s scrotum (the sack that contains the two testicles). Release tension on the band and remove the pliers. That’s it, nature takes over from there. Just be sure both testicles are below the rubber when the animal is standing on its feet.

I want to raise a few baby turkeys. I’ve been told, though, that poults don’t know how to eat when they’re a day or two old and may starve to death. Any suggestions?

If you start 10 or more turkey poults, put one or two baby chicks in with them for a week or so. The chickens will pick at the starting feed, and the poults will take the crumbs from their beaks. Gradually, the young turkeys will follow the example before them and learn to eat from the feeders unassisted. At that time remove the chicks. If you have no baby chickens available, put some colored marbles in the turkeys’ feed trough. The poults will pick at the bright objects, and their beaks will slip off into the feed thereby accomplishing your aim.