Farmers Bulletin 41: Fowls: Care and Feeding

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Farmers Bulletin 41: Fowls: Care and Feeding was a USDA Farmers' Bulletin published in 1896.[1] It was written by G.C. Watson, B. Agr, M.S. Although it refers vaguely to "fowls," the entire bulletin is devoted to chickens.

Table of Contents

The table of contents includes the following:

  • Introduction: p. 3
  • Selection of site for buildings and yards: p. 3
  • Construction of houses: p. 5
  • Ventilation: p. 7
  • Perches: p. 8
  • Nests: p. 9
  • Drinking fountains: p. 10
  • Dust boxes: p. 11
  • Yards or parks: p. 11
  • Selection of breeds and breeding: p. 12
  • Feeding: p. 13
    • Green food: p. 15
    • Grit: p 16
    • Meat food: p. 16
    • Feeding small chickens: p. 17
  • Brooders: p. 18
  • Incubators: p. 19
  • Disease and lice: p. 21
  • Dressing and shipping: p. 22

The Poultry House and Run

The bulletin begins, following the introduction, by cautioning against taking too little care in selecting a site for a poultry house. "As it it is necessary to visit poultry houses several times each day in the year, convenience is of more importance than in case of almost any other farm building," it notes, adding that placing the poultry house in an inconvenient spot may not only require more time to care for the chickens but also may result in lost income from neglect of the chickens. Additionally, it should be placed some distance from other buildings, particularly those storing grain, to help keep it free of rats and mice. It should be located on a dry, porous soil, as "cleanliness and freedom from moisture must be secured" and "filth and moisture are the causes, either directly or indirectly, of the majority of poultry diseases."

In the section on Construction of Houses, the bulletin begins by noting that while, "in general,... the house should provide warm, dry, well-lighted, and well-ventilated quarters for the fowls," the specifics of construction depend on climatic conditions. The building should attempt to exclude rats and mice, which can be done by placing it "on cement walls with the foundation below the frost line." Walls can be made cheaply by "small field stone" added to the cement.

In colder climates, "a house with hollow or double walls is to be preferred on many accounts," although not technically necessary. It notes that "Hens will lay well during the winter months if the houses are warm enough... Whenever the combs and wattles are frozen, the loss in decreased egg production can not be other than serious."

The bulletin recommends building a poultry house "one story high, and not less than 10 nor more than 14 feet wide," and as long as necessary. It adds, "in most cases, a building from 30 to 60 feet long meets all requirements" and "It must be remembered that each pen in the building should have a separate yard or run, and that a pen should not be made to accommodate more than 50 fowls, or, better, 30 to 40." If one requires more space than this, the bulletin recommends building multiple buildings.

It continues with a discussion of windows, and then ventilation. Advising that ventilation is needed, as is sunshine, it warns that too many windows may allow in too much cold in the winter. A solution are sliding windows that may be shut.

The house should be furnished with perches, "not more than 2 1/2 feet from the floor," and all of the same height. This is because, while some birds may easily reach a high perch, the heavier birds may be injured in attempting to reach a high perch. It notes that movable perches are preferable and "underneath the perches should always be placed a smooth platform to catch the droppings." This is to make it easy to remove the manure, but also to ensure it is not mixed with the litter on the floor. "The droppings should be removed every day," it concludes.

It then proceeds to discuss nest boxes. These have three requirements: 1. "The box should be of such a nature that it can be readily cleaned and thoroughly disinfected" 2. "It should be placed in the dark" and 3. "there should be plenty of room on two or three sides of the nest." The latter is because hens might engage in "combat," which could accidentally break an egg. "This, perhaps, more than any other thing, leads to the vice of egg eating." However, "to the writer's knowledge, the habit of egg eating is not contracted where the nests are arranged in the dark and open on two or three sides."

While automatic "patent drinking fountains" are on the market, the bulletin notes that these are not reliable. It provides instructions to make a "simple, wholesome arrangement" out of a milk pan in such a way "to prevent the fowl from fouling the water in any manner" (such as defecating in it). "Whatever device is used, it must be easily cleaned and of free access to the fowls at all times," it concludes.

A dust box is recommended during parts of the year when the fowls do not go outside, to keep the birds free from lice. This allows them to dust bathe.

The segment Yards or Parks note that, "When fowls are kept in confinement it will be found best to provide outdoor runs or yards for them during the summer months." It recommends growing grain in the yard "to furnish part of the green food of the fowls." Then, it recommends planting a row of fruit trees in the center of the yards, particularly plums. "The droppings of the fowls will manure the trees, and the fowls as insect destroyers perform a great office in protecting plums from the curculio... The plum trees perform a valuable service in providing shade for the fowls."

Selection of Breeds and Breeding

The bulletin recommends selecting a breed that meets the farmers' intended purpose: eggs, meat, or both. Asiatic breeds are recommended for meat; Mediterranean for eggs; or Wyandottes or Plymouth Rocks for both. For breeding, it recommends hatching the eggs laid by the best layers. This should not be done in the springtime, as that is the time when even the poorest layers are laying. "While it will be almost impossible, and certainly impracticable," it notes one could keep individual records of each hen's production in order to select the best eggs for hatching. About laying, it says:

"The two things necessary to produce large quantities of eggs with the Mediterranean fowls are: (1) Proper food and care, and (2) a strong constitution, which will enable the fowls to digest and assimilate a large amount of food; in other words, fowls so strong physically that they will stand forcing for egg production. In this relation, we may look at the fowl as a machine. If that machine is so strong that it can be run at its full capacity all the time, much greater profit will be derived than if it can be run at its full capacity only a part of the time." [emphasis added]

The hens represent machines running only a part of the time because they stop laying eggs while they molt. The bulletin suggests selecting hens for breeding during the molting period: "Fowls that molt in a very short time and hardly stop laying during this period, as a rule, have strong, vigorous constitutions, and if properly fed give a large yearly record." Therefore, hens who molt quickly or continue laying as they molt are preferable to breed.

"If it is necessary to select fowls at sometime during the year other than the molting period, some indication of their egg-producing power is shown in their general conformation. In selecting a hen for egg production, her form will give some indication of value. A long, deep-bodied fowl is to be chosen rather than one with a short body, whose underline is not unlike half a circle. A strong, hearty, vigorous fowl usually has a long body, a deep chest, with a long and quite straight underline. Other things being equal, the larger bodied fowls of the egg breeds are to be preferred. It is a rule that fowls bred for egg production are larger bodied than those bred for fancy points."


This section begins:

"In feeding for egg production, a valuable lesson may be learned from nature. It will be observed that our domestic fowls that receive the least care and attention, or, in other words, whose conditions approach more nearly the natural conditions, lay most of their eggs in the springtime. It is our duty, then, as feeders, to note the conditions surrounding these fowls at that time. The weather is warm, they have an abundance of green food, more or less grain, many insects, and plenty of exercise and fresh air. Then, if we are to feed for egg production, we will endeavor to make it springtime all year round."

It continues, cautioning against feeding chickens too much corn, as it is "too fattening." Up until recently, it notes, "corn has been considered the universal poultry food of America. This, no doubt, has been largely brought about by its cheapness and wide distribution." The bulletin recommends feeding chickens food in a "nutritive ratio" of 1:4. That is, one part protein to four parts carbohydrates. It qualifies the terms protein and carbohydrates as "muscle-producing compounds" and "heat and fat-producing compounds," respectively. It recommends what over corn, and highly recommends oats, especially if the hull is removed. Buckwheat and wheat should not be fed alone because they produce a white flesh and light colored yolk.

The bulletin recommends feeding a mix of many kinds of grain, noting, "It has been found by experiment that fowls not only relish their ration more when composed of many kinds of grain, but that a somewhat larger percentage of the whole ration is digested than when it is composted of fewer ingredients." Also, it adds, "it has been clearly proven by experiment" that the feed of the hens impacts the flavor and odor of the eggs.

Soft Food: It goes on, saying: "It is conceded by the majority of poultrymen that ground of soft food should form a part of the daily ration. As the digestive organs contain the least amount of food in the morning, it is desirable to feed the soft food at this time, for the reason that it will be digested and assimilated quicker than whole grain." It recommends a mixture of equal parts by weight of ground corn, ground oats, wheat bran, and fine middlings, mixed with milk or water, "thoroughly wet without being sloppy." Linseed meal may be added, especially while hens are molting. If meat is added, it should be mixed in at the ratio of 1 pound to 25 hens. The soft food should be fed in troughs "to avoid soiling before it is consumed."

Scratch: The bulletin recommends a grain ration of whole wheat, some oats, "and perhaps a little cracked corn," scattered in the litter "which should always cover the floor of the poultry house." The litter, made of straw, chaff, buckwheat hulls, or cut cornstalks, "is necessary... to insure cleanliness." The reason for scattering the grain in the litter is to give the fowls exercise. It says:

"All breeds of fowls that are noted for egg production are active, nervous, and like to be continually at work. How to keep them busy is a problem not easily solved. Feeding the grain as described will go a long way toward providing exercise... Make them find every kernel... At no time should mature fowls be fed more than they can eat. Keep them always active, always on the lookout for another kernel of grain."

Green Food: "While perhaps not strictly necessary for their existence, some kind of green food is necessary for the greatest production of eggs," this section begins. Beets, alfalfa, clover hay, cabbages, kale, beet leaves, and sweet apples are all recommended. "The green food, in many instances, may be cut fine and fed with the soft food, but, as a rule, it is better to feed separately during the middle of the day, in such quantities that the fowls have about all they can eat at one time."

Grit: The bulletin instructs farmers to provide grit if the chickens do not have access to it in their yards or runs. Crushed oyster shells are also recommended to meet the need for grit and "furnish lime for the egg shells." The bulletin reads: "Chemical analysis and experiments... show conclusively that the ordinary grain and green food supplied to laying hens do not contain enough lime for the formation of the egg shells." Crushed oyster shells is recommended to solve the problem.

'Meat Food: "Where fowls are kept in confinement it will be necessary to supply some meat food." While finely cut fresh bone from meat markets is said to be best, the bulletin notes it may not be practical. Skim milk may be used to meet the meat requirement instead.

Hatching and Caring for Baby Chicks

Feeding Chicks: After noting that chickens do not require food for the first 12 to 36 hours after hatching, farmers are told to feed them stale bread soaked in milk, finely crumbled, after that. "One of the difficult problems for the amateur poultryman is to devise some means for feeding little chickens so that they can consume all of the food without soiling it," it says. It goes on to advise farmers of a way to achieve this. It notes that one of the greatest difficulties of raising chickens is to "carry young chickens through the first two weeks without bowel disorders." Factors that influence this include the temperature of the brooder and feeding practices. Keeping the drinking fountain clean is also important, it says.

"It has often been said that "cleanliness is next to godliness," and certain it is that cleanliness is next to success in poultry keeping. The drinking fountains must be kept clean... Nothing less than frequent scalding with steam or hot water will answer the purpose."

Brooders: Here, the bulletin refers to artificial incubation, saying: "If one resorts to artificial incubation it will be necessary to provide a brooder of some kind." It then provides instructions for keeping the brooder warm enough and keeping it clean for the baby chicks. It notes that baby chicks require exercise and a flaw with some brooders sold commercially is that they are too small, preventing the chicks from getting exercise.

Incubators: The bulletin recommends artificial incubators whole-heartedly for any farmer wishing to raise chickens only for egg production. It says:

"The modern improvement in incubators has made the rearing of fowls solely for egg production quite out of the question unless machines are used. No experienced poultryman at the present time will undertake to rear fowls in large numbers for the production of eggs and depend on the hens that lay the eggs for incubation. The Mediterranean fowls can not be depended upon for natural incubation. Artificial incubation must be resorted to if these fowls are to be reared in considerable numbers."

It goes on to say that "there are many kinds of excellent incubators on the market," but it is impossible to recommend one product over another, and what works for one person may not work for another. It provides guidelines in choosing a good incubator: "They should be well made out of well-seasoned lumber," they should be easy to use, and they should have a mechanism for turning the eggs. Artificial incubators, according to the bulletin, are capable of hatching over 80 percent of the eggs placed in them.

Disease and Lice

Lice: To keep the poultry house free from lice, the bulletin recommends "a liberal use of kerosene emulsion" and whitewashing. "If, however, body lice are found," it cautions, "they may be successfully treated by dusting insect powder under the feathers in the evening and allowing the fowls to remain undisturbed on the perches after the treatment."

Gapes: A second problem the bulletin warns of are gapes: "Gapes in chickens frequently destroy large numbers, and are caused by trematode worms in the windpipe." For this, it recommends, "A feather moistened with turpentine or kerosene oil and inserted into the windpipe and turned until the worms are removed," "removing the worms with a fine wire or horsehair, doubled so as to form a loup,... inserted into the windpipe and turned until the worms are detached and then withdrawn, bringing the worms with it," or causing "the chickens to breathe air in a confined space into which fine, slaked lime is occasionally dusted." However, it notes, prevention is best. This is done by keeping the pen and yards clean and dry and "the chickens kept in as thrifty condition as possible by supplying proper food and exercise."

Chicken cholera: An "exceedingly fatal contagious disease." It notes that it is caused by germs "taken into the system only by the mouth," which is the reason why the watering troughs and feeding places must be kept clean.

Roup: "One of the most dreaded of diseases," which is "sometimes spoken of as the winter disease." It notes that some believe reducing the amount of corn fed to chickens and increasing their amount of meat will help ward off this disease.

Dressing and Shipping

The bulletin begins by identifying the market as "commission houses in large cities." It states:

"It is of prime importance that the poultry products be placed on the market in a condition that will make them appear as inviting as possible. Proper feeding for two to three weeks before the fowls are slaughtered will improve their color materially. In most of the American markets fat fowls with a yellow skin bring the highest price. This condition may be secured most cheaply by feeding a grain ration composed largely of corn for two or three weeks before the fowls are slaughtered."
"The commission men and shippers, who study in detail dressing and packing, state that uniformly fine quality will soon acquire a reputation among buyers. The shipper should always be careful to have the product look as neat as possible. In some of the large cities ordinances prohibit the sale of dressed poultry with food in their crops. In a few instances the sale of live poultry in coops which contain food is also prohibited. In all cases it is best to withhold food from twelve to twenty-four hours before killing, but the fowls should have plenty of water during this time, that they may be able to digest and assimilate food already consumed."

After providing instructions for killing and shipping slaughtered chickens, turkeys, and geese, it offers advice for shipping live poultry.

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  1. USDA Farmers' Bulletins, University of North Texas Digital Library.

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