Why do we need another chicken blog or forum?

Many chicken forums are moderated to sell commercial feed, chemicals and ideology.
I prefer to find my own balance between nature, welfare and cost in raising happy chickens.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

home made chook feed

Just thought I'd share the home made chicken feed recipe... It would work incredibly well with uncontaminated (non mouldy) grains. The beauty of making your own chook feed, if you have fresh or well stored ingredients, is that the chooks prefer it, there's no cheap filler (like milo, those little red seeds birds hate; or biscuit and processed waste as in pellets), and you can vary the quantities to suit protein needs of different age birds.

70% of the ration is soaked or sprouted wheat. Just soak a quarter bucket of wheat (and corn in the amount below) in a full water bucket for 24 hours, then drain and leave hanging in a bag until used (within 4 days so the sprouts aren't too long).
10% of the ration is lucerne chaff soaked in molasses water.
10% is corn (soaked and sprouted), except in summer when it's reduced in favour of wheat (because corn can overheat the birds).
5% is a mix of lupins and sunflower.
5% is a mix of meat meal and soya bean meal.

On top of the above, shell grit and greens are supplied ad lib; both shell grit and greens are high in calcium for layers. Some grit is also mixed through the feed if the chooks seem to need a bit more calcium for eggshells.

I also add a dessertspoonful (per 10 birds) of mixed yeast, seaweed meal and livamol, if I feel like it... Though you have to be careful with seaweed meal, and never do it ad lib, as it can be way too high in iodine. The yeast is good for B vitamins.

Lastly I give the birds a handful of bandsaw dust (from a butcher) every couple of days as a source of animal protein. But it can be a bit high in phosphorus, which over time (if overfed) will produce soft shelled eggs by upsetting the calcium-phosphorus ratio, so this needs to be limited.

It all sounds very fiddly and scientific, but when it all boils down to it, I keep 3 separate mixed bins (one with the wheat/corn, one with lupins/lucerne/sunflower, and 1 with protein meals) and add a pinch of the other stuff as I go. Mixing the feed takes a few minutes; getting the grains soaked is about the same amount of time once per 4 days. Keeping rats off the soaked grain has been a problem because they learned to climb down the hanging wire from the rafters, but I put a stop to that using a sort of metal guard around the wire (which they couldn't grip or get past), or I simply tucked the sprouts into bed at night in a spare bin.

Birds can be reared on this diet by varying the protein using Pearson's square (google that). But roughly consider that lupins are around 20-22% protein, while wheat can be 10-16% depending on where grown and what type. Even without Pearson's square you can simply average the feeds by twos (say 19%) and then dilute that to achieve the layer and breeder ideal of around 17%.

Oops... Again it sounds a bit fiddly. But once you have the estimates in your head, and work on the recipe as a rough guide, you really can't go wrong unless the wheat happens to be spoiled... Which is another story.

Friday, September 24, 2010


It's a bit like admitting to having nits or worse... But yes, I have rats!

Every night I tramp around the yard collecting chook food to store away from the critters, but there are so many hiding places and other food sources that I don't have a chance at limiting numbers. At sunset I see them clambering through the lantana in the neighbour's block to hop over the fence and visit ours. The old fibro shed roof is a rat haven.

After attempts at trapping grew less and less successful, I very reluctantly began trying baits. My first casualty was a poor little antichinus. What an awful find! With so many possums, antichinus and other wildlife, I'm reluctant to do it again.

Sigh! Back to trying new ways of trapping the things... Meanwhile they must be getting a bit hungry, because this morning before first light they even stole the fake eggs I keep in nestboxes to show hens where to lay.

Addendum: last night, using the brooder itself as a trap, I caught 20 rats. The sight of them all floundering around the cage was unnerving, to say the least.

Erm... make that 22!

Captain Black the Mean...

Check out the sheen on that araucana cross cockerel!

What a pity the small amount of Light Sussex in him has shown up in terms of temperament. Seven out of ten Light Sussex roosters are man-fighters.

Captain Black was doing so well as a backyard boy until he started flying at his keeper. Sometimes you can limit aggression by acting as boss rooster and not letting the cockerel eat or tread hens in your presence. Unfortunately Captain Black is from a line of Light Sussex that never responded to this treatment.

You can't be too sentimental around chickens... But still, what a shame!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chicks pecking at droppings... Improving B2 in diet.

I've been googling around a bit after my current chicks began eating droppings on a regular basis. I haven't seen this before; then again, these birds are a different breed to my usual strain.

A shortage of riboflavin (vitamin B2) seems to be the most likely reason. Riboflavin is produced in the bird's gut, where it gets passed out in the droppings. When there's a dietary shortfall, chickens can sometimes resort to eating their faeces.

As it happens, B2 is a fairly unstable vitamin in the presence of light. Perhaps my current batch of chick starter was exposed to light while in storage or transport; or it may be that the parent hens who produced these chicks had a deficiency themselves. Layer diets aren't formulated to necessarily produce healthy chicks.

Luckily I have a couple of options for fortifying the chicks' feed. To start with I've started mixing some brewer's yeast with their usual ration (brewer's yeast is very high in B vitamins). Secondly I've begun adding small amounts of dried skim milk. Milk isn't recommended for birds, as they have no capacity to absorb lactose, but in this case I think the benefits outweigh any drawbacks. If I see evidence of diarrhoea I'll take it out.

Another useful tonic for chicks is a bit of yoghurt with grated carrot or apple mixed through their chick starter as a mash. This suggestion comes from chook forums, and it seems to work for me. The yoghurt not only helps with B2 but also provides probiotics. And you'll rarely see chicks turn their noses up at such a mash.

My chicks have just gorged themselves and are lying about happily now. Hopefully that will be the last of the serious poop eating!

After the goshawk attack...

There's a lot to be said for bird netting.
In this case I had to roof the entire breeder pen, after a goshawk destroyed my pile leghorn hens.
The goshawk was a bit too young to eat the hens, so he was just learning the ropes. Still, it was a shock.
But after netting the roof, while it was difficult because of the irregular shape and various internal plants, the goshawks haven't been back.
It's a pity I can't free range, but unfortunately we have so many tall trees that the hawks only have to sit still in the high branches for a while, before they can take their pick of the chooks. Even the big Malay cockerel was terrified and spent days quailing in the pen. I figure it's just not worth the stress to my birds.
It's not only goshawks, either: the other day I saw two white breasted sea eagles doing the fly-by. I'm not sure they'd go for a chicken, but they're certainly big enough!
If only I'd had my camera in hand...

Friday, September 17, 2010

A useful tractor...

Take a couple of tarps, a roll of used wire mesh and 40 metres of leaky PVC bore pump pipe...
At intersections, drill the pipes with holes just wide enough to thread strong wire through, then twist the wire firmly to create a strong joint.
A few cross braces (from bottom corner to middle top) keep the thing straight.
Add chooks, a moveable roost, water and feeder and hey presto...

The hardest thing to get right when building tractors is the balance between sturdiness, floor area and heaviness. Too light, and the unit is flimsy to predators. Too heavy and it's a drag to move. Too small, and it's either got to be moved daily, or the birds feel overcrowded and unhappy.

The above unit is strong enough to be safe from foxes (see the point below about a mesh skirt) and yet light enough for me to move weekly (which given the large size — 3.6 x 2.7 — gives up to 10 birds a good amount of green forage). The high shade trees in the tractored area are a necessity as chooks can easily die in tractors in full summer sun; but I've also put shade cloth underneath the tarp, and when it's too hot I simply go outside with some loppers and cut tree branches to lay over the top. It works, and performs well as a 'grower' pen for birds as young as 6 weeks.

An important note about fox proofing: after the above photos were taken, I added a moveable skirt (separate from the tractor) of 30cm wide welded mesh strips, laid flat on the ground around the perimeter of the tractor. Both the perimeter mesh strips and the tractor itself are firmly tent-pegged to the ground. This tends to make the unit quite safe from anything that wants to dig to get in.

Incidentally, we did have one enormous blow that began to lift the tarped end of the tractor off its moorings... But that was an extremely unusual weather event that also brought down some big trees in my block and next door. The chooks were so used to the tractor they simply stayed put and waited for the rear end to come back to ground. I've since found slightly longer tent pegs and don't expect the unit to lift again.

Perfect dog to have around chooks... the (Australian) German Coolie!

Like many working dogs in Australia, German coolies (or koolies) are dingo-like in temperament and behaviour. Unusually, koolies can also be trained to be perfect chook guardians.

Lucy comes from a stud breeding 'soft' dogs to work sheep without frightening them. Apart from her basic instincts for softness she's also been bred for intelligence.

This dog taught herself to 'stay' when I suddenly shouted at her when she got between me and some sheep. She dropped to the ground and was still crouched there ten minutes later. Ever since then she's understood 'stay'.

For her to learn to respect chickens (and chicks) took one very short lesson when she was 4 months of age. She heard the word 'no' and instantly understood that the chooks were family. This was because she had already put her complete faith in me as boss. This is the kind of dog you need around chickens: soft natured and dedicated to pleasing her owner.

It probably also helps that she's incredibly maternal. I'm not sure if the males of the breed would be quite so reliable around chickens or kids, but Lucy is strongly protective of young animals.

There are a few other breeds with some of these traits (such as miniature fox terriers, if you buy the right strain) but few combine fox deterrence, guarding the home from strangers, and rat disposal with such reliability around vulnerable members of the family.

I know I would have lost chooks to foxes without my koolie. Thank you Lucy!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

coccidiosis control without antibiotics

I've never lost a chick to coccidiosis. However I did once buy some point of lay pullets that had never been on the ground before (they were raised on wire), and within a week of coming here during rainy weather, all 4 birds became sick. The trouble with coccidiosis is it can do such damage to the intestinal lining that birds are rarely 100% again. That's what happened to my 4 pullets, which took 4 months to get well, and then failed to lay properly for six months after that.

The most common approach to coccidiosis control is using medicated feed. But it's not ideal in many ways, not least being resistance (where the parasite breeds to become less susceptible to the drug). Secondly, I know from any time I've started building a compost pile rich in chick starter that it fungates like crazy. I suspect that piles of spilt chick starter can really upset the balance of microorganisms in the compost, and probably in soil (which may partly explain why, when I threw a batch of spilt chick starter on the base of a choko vine by way of fertilizer, the plant died).

It's encouraging to see big farms in some areas of the globe experimenting with coccdiosis 'vaccination'. Unlike many vaccines (some of which spread disease*), the coccidiosis version is simply a spray-on dose of live coccidiosis oocysts. This limited exposure gradually encourages immunity, while the more easily controllable cocci bug in the vaccine ensures that if drugs do become necessary, the parasites won't be resistant.

But in reality this is what happens in nature when the mother hen mouths food for her chickens, and when they eat a little of her droppings to ingest her gut flora. Mother hens are pretty good (especially when given free range) at moving chicks to new ground and limiting their exposure.

Given that I can't currently use broody hens to raise my chicks, I'm keen on trying a home version of the vaccination idea. The general plan would be to expose chicks to parental droppings within the first few hours after hatch (as well as a little dose of probiotics, whether yakult or yoghurt or kefir in the water). Unfortunately I won't be able to gauge the 'dose' of coccidiosis oocysts, so this is all pretty ad hoc.

Anyway, these are just ideas at this stage... I've given probiotics and a little parental droppings to my current chicks, but haven't been game to remove the medicated starter.

When you've seen how quickly birds can become deathly ill without intervention, it's hard to just drop something that works... But the ideal would be home-raised chicks without antibiotics — it doesn't seem a tall ask, does it?

Stay tuned...

* See the DPI Qld website relating to tick fever vaccination for cattle. The site explains that vaccinating cattle for tick fever will likely introduce the disease to local ticks, which can then spread it to unvaccinated cattle. Nice way of ensuring addiction to vaccination!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A sad story, or why wheat isn't always good for chooks...

You can see the bluish comb on my poor Malay boy. He had a bit of a cough he couldn't get rid of.

I had started out with the best of intentions: to make my own feed using as much info as I could research.
I looked up every vitamin a chook needs, and came up with a recipe including the right amounts of wheat, corn, lupins, lucerne, flax, sunflower, soy, seaweed meal and meat meal, with shell grit for the layers and dolomite for other minerals. I really did some maths... And then for months I fed my growers and adult birds a diet based on the above.

But things started to go awry. A few birds caught a respiratory disease that should have passed in a couple of weeks at most. But none of them got over it at all. In fact, over a period of 4 months, all my birds gradually grew worse and worse! My growers stopped growing. All had a gurgly rattle. The vet told me they had chronic respiratory disease caused by a germ (mycoplasma gallisepticum) combined with a 'chronic stress factor'.

So I began hunting for this 'chronic stress factor'. All the sheds and tractors were clean, and all the water containers kept scrubbed. Food, as far as I knew, was fresh (all my grains were fed as living sprouts). There were rats visiting, but not in huge numbers, and I never let feed get mouldy or lie around.

Then one day I went to shift the wheat to a new bin, and found a huge bolus of caked mould in the base of the feed bin. None of the wheat above the mound seemed in any way affected, and it all sprouted readily. But there it was: mould toxins.
I googled 'aflatoxin' and other toxins all day, and what I saw made me feel positively sick. All those months, I'd been feeding my birds a substance that was lowering their immunity! Not only that, but I post mortemed a few birds and found evidence of liver enlargement and organ pallor, other signs of long term ingesting of toxins.

It was a shame to stop feeding the sprout diet, but I've since had no similar problems in any of my birds, and unfortunately given storage issues I'm afraid I have to stick with commercial feed for the time being. But since pellets disgust me (and the birds), this is currently one of the grain layer mixes (with pellets included). So far, so good.
It's a lesson in the way the best of intentions (such as 'give them a natural diet') can go awry!

Australorp x leghorns

Ah, nice birds! I'm enjoying them a lot.
They were bred from what appear to be a pile coloured leghorn put with a straight utility australorp.
(Don't confuse 'australorp' with the beetle-sheeny fluffy round-bummed things that win at shows; those birds don't fit the 'utility' bill.)
I've got them in a tractor, and they're not flighty, they're maturing incredibly well (super fast, already developing combs at 13 weeks, should be laying by 19 or 20), and they're just plain wonderful in every way. (NB: The snapshot above was taken at 5 weeks of age. Look how well feathered they were!)
I'm enjoying having them around. They come to the door when I arrive, and take feed from my hand. Lovely creatures!
But of course, like all my birds, you'll probably see them and think: 'Ugh.. That's so drab.'
And they are, drab as pumpkins. Drab as moths.
Fantastic utility drabsters! Besides, they have the loveliest temperaments. You should have seen them mothering some smaller black crossbreds in the brooder, when the leghorn crosses were no more than a week old themselves.
I think they're the perfect backyard bird.

Noooo! A silly mistake: I just accidentally sold my favourite one of these crosses. It can be hard to stick to what's advertised for sale when visitors want something different. At least the birds went to a fabulous home.

Crossbreeding with commercial chickens.

A few quick points.
There's a strong trend on purebreeder-oriented chook forums to dismiss anything tainted with commercial bloodlines.
Unfortunately in the case of layers this can be an over-reaction against the 'Frankenchicken' style of breeding common to meat birds.

Meat hybrids (those white monsters) get to 6 weeks of age and start to collapse under their own weight. Having raised them myself, I can say that's no exaggeration. Of course a percentage will reach sexual maturity and be able to breed, but in general they're not a good breeding prospect, and the girls are very prone to prolapse, egg yolk peritonitis, and other health issues. They're guaranteed to make the owner feel terrible for having put them in the backyard.

So anti-commercialism in relation to meat birds isn't snobbery.

But commercial layers have never been quite so badly formed. This is partly because they have to survive an entire year of laying (rather than 6 weeks of putting on meat) and partly because laying itself is generally a good test of health. What's the first thing to go down when a hen is poorly? Laying ability. It stands to reason that, with the exception of vaccination (another issue I'll discuss later), these birds are quite likely to be fairly rugged.

For these reasons, despite a reputation ISA browns have for early reproductive failure, I think it's okay to attempt to crossbreed using them as a starter. They may be aggressive with other birds (they have a tendency to pick at one another), but crossing them to a more placid breed tends to reduce that to insignificant levels. Certainly outcrossing to a bird with good reproductive health (even if lower egg numbers) should help dilute any of those genetic predispositions.

So why be a snob if you can't find purebreds that lay well enough to make a backyard utility flock?

For that matter, you could probably breed out the health problems of the meat birds... But to do that, you have to get over the 'ugh' factor... Not an easy thing to do when the very sight of the poor things makes you feel fowl!

Useful dual purpose birds...

The Holy Grail!
Yes: a chicken that lays a sufficient number of eggs for the hens to be economically viable to keep, but that also keeps a household supplied with meat in the form of spare cockerels.

There are unfortunately very few seriously utility bred purebreds around in Australia. So I've been trying to make my own.
The recipe is fairly simple: take a batch of straight leghorn hens (utility preferred, but most show bred leghorns still have a reasonable egg laying ability) or other high-level laying types. Then stick them with a Malay game rooster, the gentle giant of the chook world.

Unlike an Indian game (the meat bird of choice for home breeding), Malay games don't have much trouble treading the hens, and so fertility is generally not an issue. Unfortunately it can be a big gamble with Indian games (cornish).
Now, having made these grand claims, I have to be honest and admit that my chicks are only 3 weeks old, so the experiment is far from over. I'll let you know how they're shaping up at 6 weeks of age.

Cold brooding chicks...

With power growing more and more expensive (and punishing on the planet), I've been working at reducing the light bill when rearing chicks.

Unfortunately I haven't had broody hens for ages, as I've been keeping layers (which don't sit). A shortage of space also made it hard for me to set up a different run to house sitters like silkies or bantams.

So my solution was to use a lower wattage infra red globe (40 W), and to only use it during the day while chicks are up to a week of age, then gradually reduce the use.

Yes, I did say 'during the day'. At night, I let the chicks manufacture and keep their own body heat.

The secret is a cold brooder: a cosy but ventilated chick 'igloo' that keeps them toasty warm as long as chick numbers are sufficiently high — around 15 chicks are required to create enough heat.

For the first 2 days, the chicks are reared in a tub with a 60 W lamp. Then they are put into the cold brooder and gradually weaned off light/heat altogether, over the following 2-3 weeks.

By 2 weeks of age my chicks get a couple of hours' heat per day. By 3 weeks, they come and go from the 'igloo' when need be, and they need no extra heat at all.

I'll show how to make a cold brooder in detail with another post, but for now, in the picture to the right at the top, here is the full unit. The lamp sitting at the back is not switched on. The rear of the brooder below the lamp is the 'igloo' part, and is basically a wooden frame stuffed with hay, with a wire 'igloo' inside in which the chicks huddle. The front section nearest the camera is the run, where feed and water sit.

Big, beautiful and useless..

Two examples of birds bred for looks.

Both these point of lay pullets were lovely to have around. But they ate a huge amount without coming into lay in time to be useful birds. Given my economic circumstances, and Cranky Husband, I just couldn't afford to keep them.

Unfortunately, many non-utility chickens are pets, and keeping them healthy can be expensive, especially when birds like the heavy Plymouth rock (at the rear) gorge themselves and develop weight-related laying problems.

Other chicken keepers will love them for looks alone, so good luck! There's no 'right' or 'wrong'; there's only what you want!

For me, it's chooks that can supply a few human necessities while for the most part leading happy lives.

Why do we need another chicken blog or forum?

So many sites on the net already spell out how to look after chickens.

But many are moderated with a bias toward giant agricultural and chemical companies.
Do you know who's funding your favourite chicken forum? Even if the moderators seem nice, can you be sure they're not steering you in a direction that suits their industrial backers?

My interest in chickens comes from both childhood and from ten years of serious chicken breeding for utility, i.e. home use.
I've got a lot of time for those who breed to standard, but it's not my style.

What I'm interested in is breeding useful backyard birds that survive well without overmedication and without constant chemical inputs.

I'm also interested in making home rations, but I'll be frank about any pitfalls I encounter (such as the likelihood in a drought stricken country like Australia that the wheat will contain dangerous mould toxins, due to weakened seed coats). Sometimes you just have to go for what works, and I'm not against commercial rations or commercial wormers if they become necessary.

So stay tuned for a blog that's going to follow my own experiences, hopefully give a few laughs, provide a few links to what may be useful internet resources for those who want to work with as little reliance on commercial agricultural companies as possible, and just basically gab on about chooks!