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.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2 week old chicks in tractor on grass, no medication

Just an update. The chicks have just turned 2 weeks of age and I made them a new tractor to celebrate.
This is their first move out of the miniature wire brooder, which they were outgrowing. It's also their first time on the ground, though of course they've been on a floor containing a small amount of healthy adult hen droppings.

Their diet is the same as last time I talked about these birds.

So here they are in the new tractor, complete with hose-covered wire handles for dragging. It's basically a miniature replica of my huge tractor. This one is about 600mm x 1100mm, so it isn't very big, but quite sufficient for either a hen with babies or a dozen or more chicks on their own.

The structure is basically made of Bunnings compost panels (this whole unit took a single pack, plus one offcut from last pack; I could have done without that though).

Two panels were bent to form a semicircle when clipped together with c-clips up the spine (which is the top middle of the curve). Another panel was halved and c-clipped to the curve to lengthen it and make it even bigger. To keep them in this U shape (when seen in profile) the ends were then c-clipped to cut-out sections of panel. The front opening (to the right in this picture) has a lower section that doesn't open, so chicks don't come flying out all at once when I change food and water.

Over the top of the compost panels, once they were fairly rigidly clipped together, I then added a layer of bird mesh. It's not the really good stuff (which has square holes) because the compost panels provide security against big predators and little ones find any sort of small-holed mesh a challenge. With a good dog in the backyard I tend to focus on slowing predators down rather than building Fort Knox. Even so it wouldn't be easy for a fox to get at these chicks through the wire.

The unit is also pegged to the ground in 5 places. Yes, an animal could dig underneath. But again that's something that takes time to do, and my dog is very alert. If this unit was to be used away from the house I'd perhaps think about adding a mesh skirt around the outside. At any rate the tent pegs keep it from being lifted up.

Over the unit, as you can see, there are some small tarps (folded in half and fitted around the curve) and some offcuts of shadecloth to stop currawongs herding the chicks from one side to the other and pecking their eyes.

The feeder (attached to the front of the cage so it moves with it) is a piece of drainpipe slit lengthwise. This is set in at a slight slope so water tends to drain away, though practically speaking the tractor is never really on level ground anyhow.

The chicks are really enjoying the mixture of grass, sunshine and a generous long feeder.

Now for the simplest part of all. You can see I'm using a cat carrier as the cold brooder in this setup. That's because it's summer right now and although it's an unusually cold summer (current temperature 22C, last night down to about 18C) the chicks are doing perfectly with an open fronted sleeping area. They've been trained already to go into an insulated nest at night or when cold.

The cat carrier isn't just bare, of course. The floor is 2 layers of foam insulation. The walls and ceiling are a rectangle of the same insulating foam (camp/yoga matting) cut to size then bent into a curve that hugs the structure above and on the sides. The pressure of the foam wanting to turn into a rectangle again keeps it pressed against the walls. With another piece of foam at the rear, tucked behind the curved piece, and some loose wool (from my pet sheep) stuffed into the cavity between foam and cat carrier plastic ceiling, the little space is truly cosy. Lastly I've inserted a couple of pieces of packing foam across the front, as an extra heat retainer.

These chicks know where to go because they've been largely cold brooded (after being trained to use the insulated nest area in the first place by a ceramic bulb). They're largely self sustaining now. About 6 days ago I sold 5, so these remaining 10 birds are doing all the work at staying warm.

At 2 weeks of age you can see they are remarkably well feathered. Largely this is genetic (the red hybrid and leghorn parents are both early maturing) but partly it's because they've been asked to do some of the insulating themselves.

Of course coccidiosis is always a worry, but these birds are on the kefir diet and I'm not expecting to see any setbacks. They've had the usual regime of a handful of hen soil sprinkled through the litter from day one, and being moved from the starter-brooder before 3 weeks of age. However the grass under them is damp and it's been raining off and on for a couple of weeks now, so I'll be watching them closely. This is their second day on the ground so we'll see by day 5 whether I'll need to make any changes.

But I don't think I'll see a problem. :)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

home made chick feed

These chicks are a week old and haven't eaten any commercial feed. My feeding regime is quite simple: after mixing up the adult hens' feed (sprouts, kefir, lucerne chaff, soy meal non GMO, seaweed, oyster shell, salt) I usually have a little too much. I add extra soy meal and also extra kefir, whiz it up in the food processor and that's my chick feed. The wheat sprouts are thus growing right up until the point of consumption by the chicks. Because they're sprouted the wheat kernels are soft and whiz up to a crumble very easily.

The amount of oyster shell in the base feed is only 1.5%. It's too low for the layers, but they have shell grit available in their pens all the time. Thus I'm not harming the chicks with too high calcium.

At the moment they're in the cold brooder (the one made entirely of wire). I was planning to slip these birds under a broody hen, but unfortunately due to a domestic disaster I gave away all my hens. I was going to give away all the chickens but things calmed down. Ultimately it makes no sense to pay $5 for stale supermarket 'free range' eggs if I can get better eggs in the backyard at lower cost, with just a little effort.

Having switched my children's diet to one containing more vegetables and less refined carbohydrates, I'm also happy to feed scraps to these birds. The kinds of scraps I'm talking about are vegetable/egg patties, mince patties, home grown greens and so forth. My dog is already thriving on scraps (with extra bones, meat, liver, etc) and her severe flea allergy of two years ago entirely disappeared when I took her off commercial dry food, so I know what a difference it makes to use fresh food.

The one thing I'm really learning as I make these big shifts (from industry-processed to home-processed; from fillers to fresh) is that feeding even very young chicks doesn't have to be a science. As long as the basics of both human and animal diets are richly varied, fresh and/or made into living foods with additions like probiotics (lactobacilli from kefir, for instance) there's a lot of room to vary. Of course, there are some crucial things to understand such as what range of seeds and feeds will provide the complete range of vitamins (you can't for instance just feed wheat and linseed/flax), but again there's no need to be out there with measuring cups and scales every day. Sprouted wheat, corn and peas, lucerne (alfalfa) meal or chaff, non GMO soy meal, sunflower seeds (ground for chicks, whole for adults), kefir, fresh greens: these can be used to make a whole feed at home.

The chicks are eating a ground crumble of about 60% sprouted wheat, 6% sprouted corn, 4% sprouted peas, 4% sunflower, 20% non GMO soy meal, and 6% lucerne chaff. That's the dry basis. To this I add about a cupful of kefir made from powdered skim milk, and of course a pinch of seaweed meal per 10 chicks, and a very small pinch of salt. Then of an afternoon I add finely chopped grass, chickweed, dandelion, spinach or other greens. As soon as they're out of this small brooder and on grass, I won't need to chop greens for them.

This is the same diet as the adults, except that the bigger birds' soy meal and kefir amounts are lower, and I'll usually increase the calcium by adding more shell grit to the bucket just before putting it in their feeding troughs.

When soy meal in this country goes the way of US soy (almost entirely GM) I'll of course be changing the feeds and probably going back to using meat meal. I might even find a way to buy fish meal, perhaps by forming a co-op with other home feeding chicken keepers to buy bulk amounts. Or I might do more gathering of protein around the backyard, e.g. by laying out carpets on top of grass and scraps to draw worms underneath, harvesting them of a morning.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Growing birds on home diet

The above birds are 9 and 10 weeks old. All seem to be at an appropriate size and weight for age, with the exception of the leghorn x meat hybrids, which are obviously much larger. The black mottled birds are a lot calmer than purebred anconas, and I'm happy with their overall style, vigour and health. They're currently in with two commercial feed store pullets, both of which have just started to lay. Because I joined the groups only after a couple weeks' getting to know each other through an adjoining fence -- also because all birds are fairly young, and the introduced chicks are in a larger flock than the 2 individual older birds -- there have been absolutely no incidences of aggression, or even much if any pecking-order hassles. This surprised me as one of the older pullets is an ISA brown, notorious for brutality.

Diet I'm using for these birds now consists of sprouted wheat, bran, pollard, soy meal, sprouted corn, sprouted peas, lucerne (alfalfa) chaff, sunflower seeds, skim milk kefir, seaweed meal and salt. Earlier they had ground and then cracked wheat, corn and peas, but I've slowly introduced sprouted grains instead, so I'm no longer adding much in the way of bran or pollard. Whole sprouted wheat is a far better feed than any processed wheat product. However I'll be watching their weight to make sure withdrawing bran and pollard doesn't cause a setback (which it may do if the birds' gizzards are not able to handle larger seeds, even when they've been soaked or sprouted). An ongoing project...

The big fellow standing on the stump is a couple of days shy of 10 weeks, and is massive without being overly heavy for his age. He's able to get up and down via the ladder-ramp (bottom right corner), which leads up into the night shed, and has no problem alighting from the perch. Of course he may get too heavy for that, so I'll keep a close eye on his weight and decide if and when I need to find some other night shed for him.

goshawk protection

It's not just actual attacks that harm chickens; fear and stress stop the birds eating and can open the door to other problems. Unfortunately the goshawks in this area have a penchant for harassing my birds even with the pens fully netted. Indeed yesterday the goshawk didn't fly away until I was about ten feet from it. The chickens were almost injuring themselves trying to hide.

I realised it was time to give them some extra cover. So I wheeled the ancient barrow into the pen, and also rigged up a corrugated iron-roofed shelter using some cut pine logs and 2 spare planks. The roof is screwed onto the planks, which are long-nailed into the stumps; it's not going anywhere.

While it took the birds a while to get comfortable with the new arrangement, they were soon happily perching on top of the obstacles and also checking out the under-side. If the goshawk comes back, at least the birds will have a visual barrier between themselves and the eye of doom. As for the goshawks, they'll never leave the pens completely alone. But at the moment, as long as the netting stays intact, they can't get in, and even if something tears a hole in the netting the birds have got some chance of evading the talons.

I don't know if these things would work on free range, but it seems to me a goshawk would have a lot of trouble chasing prey under a low roof. If I ever free range again, that's what I'll do.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Removal of right to grow food, coming to a country near you!

New Zealand has apparently passed a law relating to food which is of great interest to anyone growing their own (whether meat or vegetables or anything medicinal). The link below explains how the law makes it a state-granted privilege, not a right, to grow and trade (or swap) seeds and food.


Such laws will happen here in Australia too, but it's arguable that they're designed purely to enhance the interests of big multinational corporations like Monsanto. It's very hard to see how they could enhance the interests of a population subject to the laws. Indeed, if food safety really is the issue, why is the distribution of seeds subject to the new law?

There's not much point feeling sorry for New Zealanders because it's merely a matter of time before the laws are introduced here. If gun-toting police can raid an organic shop in New Zealand, rest assured, they will eventually be able to raid a chicken breeder's backyard under similar laws here.

Ever since the 1990s corporations have been among the top ten global economies. They have revolving door access to governments, and as the Kevin Rudd issue shows (deposed by mining corporation pressure through media influence) they can effect regime change. I shouldn't be surprised by the extent of corporate power over lawmaking, but I can't help feeling depressed by the speed with which our global landscape is being incorporated.

Most frighteningly, the drive for profit has no boundary, no upper-end. There's never a point where corporations say 'enough' -- just look at battery chickens. Corporations aren't happy enough with seven week broilers; they're constantly looking for ways to make the process cheaper and shorter. They're genetically modifying broilers as we speak. So rest assured, we haven't seen the last of the encroachments on our age-old human rights... After all, to a mega-corporation obsessed with profit, what's the difference between a battery hen and a human being?

Friday, November 18, 2011

update: 8 weeks, no cocci medication, all well

Last post for the day (I think...), here are the growing chicks, doing well in their pen:

Apologies for a blurry photo, but you can see the amazing difference in size between the meat hybrid x leghorns and the other crosses (which are ancona x red layer).

As you can see too, despite the cull of 13 males I still have many cockerels to choose from. There's no hurry to sort these into keepers and table birds as it will be some time before they're crowing with sufficient volume to bother anyone, and the pen is far from overcrowded (though it is a little denuded of green stuff).

For me the best thing is that none is showing signs of coccidiosis or other health setback. No medication since week 1, no special treatment after being put in the pen (beyond continued soured skim milk), I'm happy with that.

raised on home mix since week 5...

This bird is one of the feed store pullets bought at about 3 weeks of age. She was weaned off commercial starter onto my home mix by about week 5, and here she is now just short of week 17.

I'm pleased with her growth, and pleased too with the evidence of her being very close to starting to lay. Nutritional issues often show up as a failure to begin laying on time. I think this suggests that the home mix (remember, these birds don't free range) is doing what it should do.

In case this sounds like bragging, I've made many mistakes in the past, and keeping a record in the blog lets me review things as I go. But for now, all seems good.

easy peasy sprouting for chickens

Sprouting is easy!

All you need are a very large bucket (20 L for instance), a circular piece of shadecloth about 80cm in diameter, about 10 narrow cable ties, some whipper snipper cord or thin rope, and a hook for hanging.

One way to make a hangable bag is to take the circular shadecloth and insert a cable tie every so often until they go right around the circle, evenly spaced. Leave a good inch or more between where you insert the tie and the shadecloth edge. Only do up each cable tie enough to form a generous hoop. If you insert whipper snipper cord or rope through the cable ties you have an instant drawstring bag, which you can hang or close over the bucket during draining.

Another way is to simply insert whipper snipper cord through the circular shadecloth near the edges, knotting it just tight enough to allow it to open over the bucket (for up-ending). When hung from hooks the drawstring naturally pulls tight:

The process is quite simple. First the grains are soaked for 24 hours, at a ratio of a quarter-bucket of grains to three-quarters water. If you try to increase the grain-to-water ratio you may see some fermentation on a warm day (which you don't want).

Secondly after 24 hours' soaking you want to drain the grains into your shadecloth bag. You can either tip them onto the outspread shadecloth or gather the shadecloth about the bucket top and up-end the whole thing.

Gather the loops over a hook and hang this newly-formed bag. Every day in passing you should give the bag a jostle to make sure the grains are not clumping together (if they do this too much you may get pockets of souring/mould), and you should also give them a rinse by either dunking the bag in water or giving them a good spray with a hose.

You can use the soaked grain on that first day, and every day after that for about 3 or 4 days you can feed the sprouting seeds. By day 4 I find that the sprouts are getting pretty lengthy, so I mostly feed them out by day 3.

Of course, you could always keep two hanging bags at different stages of sprouting, if you want to aim for the maximum nutrition (when sprout tails are about 1cm long). But I seem to get good bird health results feeding anywhere between days 1 and 4.

This is a terrific way to ensure a constant supply of sprouting grains, and do I need to add that sprouting enhances the availability of vitamins to birds, and makes the grains more digestible?

What better way to avoid artificial vitamins in feed? Sprouting rules!

fake eggs

I'm absolutely done with plastic fake eggs! This is the fifth or sixth time I've had to replace them.

The trouble with plastic fake eggs is that bush rats try to eat them by opening the end, just as they do with real eggs. Net result: chewed up half-eggs. Even if they don't make a huge hole, they take them away from the nest, and eventually all my plastic eggs disappear.

To teach hens where to lay, some people use golf balls, but they're not much more durable than plastic eggs, and they don't fool 100% of hens when it comes to setting a broody.

At the moment I've got a broody hen I want to move to a ratproof aviary, and she's so fussy I know she won't sit on golf balls.

Ceramic eggs are ideal, but aren't that easy to find.

That's why I've made these:

They're a bit rough round the edges, but only took 10 fiddly minutes to make, and cost about 20c each (that being the amount of plaster-of-paris I used from a $4 bag).

I simply took 4 eggs and chipped a 1cm hole in the fat end with a sharp knifepoint. Then I drained out the contents after a quick swizzle with a skewer to break up the yolk. (The contents became scrambled eggs.)

After rinsing the insides out fully, I left the shells to drain in egg cups while mixing up the plaster. I made it about the consistency of custard and syringed it into each cleaned-out eggshell using a 10ml syringe (20 or 50ml would have been easier). After a few shakes to dislodge air bubbles I sat each egg hole-upward in an egg carton, topping up with a little extra plaster-of-paris as the stuff began to set (as plaster sets in a mould it tends to sink a little).

When all eggs had hardened I sanded off excess plaster and painted the eggs with some leftover house acrylic (which usefully enough was beige).

There are a few rough spots, and if I cared enough I'd give them another acrylic coat, but I think these will do. They'll behave and feel like eggs to a hen, and a few smudges will merely look like nest grime.

As plaster eggs are porous, they may need repainting to remove mould spots in future. And of course rats may still have the odd experimental nibble. But with four fifths of a bag of plaster left I can always make more.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

petit poussins: processing young chicks

I was feeling quite the failure for deciding to dispatch the majority of my ancona x cockerels at 6 weeks of age instead of waiting for them to reach maturity. One of the main reasons to do all this has always been humanitarian, and there's no doubt that killing one animal to feed a whole family is better than killing one animal each.

But there were some important management considerations such as crowding and aggression, and overcrowding is almost certainly going to lead to higher cocci oocyst numbers in the pen. As well, I was facing a time of extra difficulty getting 'farm' work done while a few other things intervened. Since I'm the only chicken fancier in the household, I had to move.

So into the freezer they went, 13 well grown but very young birds. It took me an hour to do the whole job, clean up, get back inside, have a shower and greet some guests. I won't say it was an easy hour.

I was a little surprised (and less guilty) later to come across a reference to 'petit poussins' in an old chicken keeping handbook. Apparently they were dispatched at about the 6-8 week mark and sold for eating. What they lacked in size they obviously made up for in tenderness.

While I still feel guilty processing such young birds, I'm a little glad that I'm not the only person in the world to have dispatched birds at this age for economic as well as practical reasons. And while the 'better than being minced alive at day old' or 'it's still older than a commercial meat hybrid' argument might not be much to justify a practice on, the chicks are certainly not being wasted.

It seems these petit poussins have their place, if baby birds must be removed for practical reasons. And I for one can't bring myself to dispatch at day old.

Success: no medications, no coccidiosis

These birds are now coming up to 7 weeks of age, and were moved 6 days ago from the tractor into this pen (my worst as far as coccidia goes).

This pen has had umpteen chickens in it, but these birds are the youngest I've tried on that ground. It's my dampest pen, and is the one I'm going to see coccidiosis in if I see it at all. Since putting the birds in, it has rained twice.

You can see by the red combs (in the males, at least) that there are no signs of anaemia or pallor. All are eating heartily. Day 5 after exposure to heavy amounts of coccidia is when the first signs are seen... These birds are fine. The ones that look significantly smaller are much later hatched (about a week and a half); they were broody raised until 4 weeks of age, then put in the pen alongside the tractor-brooded ones.

So the roundup: one week on medicated starter; and 6 weeks on home mix.

The mix as you can see contains a range of whole and ground grains and legumes. However these birds aren't yet eating whole sunflower, so later in the day I'll go back and pick up what's left and toss it into the adult pen. By contrast the whole corn has been soaked and is beginning to sprout, and the whole wheat grains you can see are also sprouting. The young birds seem to be eating these very readily (helped probably by the container of hard grit nearby).

As far as cocci goes, I've never overcrowded the pen, so perhaps that's kept cocci levels from really shooting sky-high. As well, before these birds were put in the pen I tipped 2 wheelbarrow loads of woody mulch and raked it around (about 3cm thick), so it's arguable that the litter has helped reduce cocci exposure. Lastly regarding the pen floor it was also recently shovelled out to about 3cm depth to put on the garden, so that would have reduced cocci soil numbers somewhat.

But I've had the same circumstances (or nearly) when birds bought-in at point of lay from elsewhere acquired coccidiosis in this pen. Clearly the slightly improved pen floor can't be the reason why these birds are doing so well.

I'm left with two things: graduated exposure starting at day one in the brooder; removal of chicks from the brooder at exactly 3 weeks of age; further graduated exposure by moving the tractor weekly; and lastly and perhaps most importantly kefir.

The above mash contains about a litre and a half of kefir (soured milk) per bucketful of the following: soy meal (non GMO), pollard, bran, ground corn, ground sunflower, ground dun peas, wheat and corn sprouts, lucerne chaff (alfalfa), seaweed meal and salt.

Later in the day they get chopped greens, or I might hang something like kale or spinach in the pen.

Including organising the kefir and sprouts and grinding each day's corn/sunflower/peas, I spend about 20 minutes of a morning on all this. It isn't much considering the benefits (getting off the synthetic chemical roundabout, ensuring healthy birds/eggs/meat). And the longer I do it the more I learn.

What can be wrong with that?

old-time chicken feed recipes

It's interesting to reread an old book now that I've been toying with making my own feeds for a few years. My favourite is Modern Poultry Husbandry by Leonard Robinson, published in 1948 in London by Crosby, Lockwood and Son.

Robinson includes many recipes for confined and ranged birds, and unlike some earlier books these recipes were actually tested during feed trials. What makes these recipes so useful now is that they were formulated after nutrition science had started to take off, but before the feed industry had perfected using cheap byproduct meals 'fixed up' with the addition of synthetic vitamins and medications.

Besides, for anyone interested in survival in the age of diminishing oil and increasing global strife (which, being Western, we're fully a part of), it's useful to learn how chickens were kept alive during the war.

I've copied out a few of the recipes below, and commented on each. I haven't tried them, but I can see where my diet basically carries the same amounts of each ingredient in terms of function in the diet (vitamin content, protein, etc). It's also heartening to read his comments about milk as an ingredient, particularly the statements, 'Where skimmed milk is readily obtainable it should be given to the chicks to drink ad lib. In that event no other protein concentrate is necessary.' (My emphasis, pages 308-309.) Modern claims that 'chickens are lactose intolerant' may only have some truth where pasteurised, homogenised milks are concerned. Even so, Robinson happily advocates using dried skim milk in many of his rations. It's debatable whether this is a good step, but I can accept that the feeding trials he was aware of probably showed good results, and I'd only add that it seems to me that souring is best (and it also negates the need to add yeast). More on that later.

The first recipe is Robinson's chick mash (page 318). He's written it all in pounds (lbs) and pints, but it should be fairly easy to turn these into percentages.

20 lb Bran
30 lb fine middlings (wheat milling byproducts: whatever's scraped up after milling)
24 lb maize (corn) meal
10 lb ground oats
6 lb skim or buttermilk (presumably dried)
5 lb meat or fish meal
5 lb yeast
half lb salt
2 lb limestone flour
1 pint cod liver oil.

Now some comments: the first being that if you make up the skim milk then sour it, you can omit (in my view) the yeast.

Secondly, as Robinson notes, if the birds have access to grass and sunlight, you can omit the cod liver oil. Most types of leafy greens will be just as useful as grass here.

You can also replace 5% of the bran with alfalfa (lucerne) meal; indeed I would do this in preference to using just bran.

I would also add some ground sunflower seed (say 4%) in replacement of some of the mix, but that's just my own preference. Robinson is quite clear that the above recipe will work.

Now his layer mash (page 320). This is one of several recipes he sets out for layers. They seem like quite simple recipes to me, and as with the chick recipe above I would sour the milk as kefir so I could delete yeast (which is very expensive), and add ground or whole sunflower seeds. Robinson makes it clear that the recipe below presumes access to fresh grass and sunlight, and ad lib shell grit.

20 lb bran
40 lb middlings
20 lb maize (corn) meal
10 lb ground oats
10 lb meat-and-bone or fish meal
half lb salt

Easy, huh? Middlings by the way are perhaps hard to find unless you live near a mill. Far better than either middlings or bran would be to freshly grind whole wheat and include it in the mix at the same percentage of both combined. Or you could do as I do, and always sprout wheat to feed to the layers (as part of the mix). That's really the best way to retain (and indeed enhance) wheat's vitamins.

If there is no access to grass, then you'll need to add leafy greens in some form, and if sunlight is hiding for half the year you'll have to add cod liver oil. But as I see it, these are fairly simple recipes.

One last recipe from the book (page 323): the war diet for chicks. It's simple as hell, though it's advised to peel potatoes first.

80 lb potatoes (cooked, obviously)
20 lb middlings
3 lb white fish meal (presumably any fish meal would do)
2 lb dried yeast
0.4 lb cod liver oil
half lb chalk.

Again, I would think you could replace the dried yeast with an equivalent amount of dried skim milk, then just before mixing you would sour the milk (for B vitamins) and use it as the only liquid in the mash.

I would also suggest adding seaweed meal to all these mixes. The high mineral content of seaweed, while in some ways unbalanced (e.g. massive amounts of iodine in some seaweeds) should help offset some of the soil mineral depletion that's gone on since these feeding trials were done. Basically this follows the philosophy that if it's not there in the soil (mineral-wise) it can't be there in the grain.

There are many other recipes in the book, and I'll be happy to include more when I get time. In the meanwhile, enjoy!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ancona temperament can be fatal!

Argh, one of those days.

When I went into the night-shed to open the hatches, disaster struck.

The ancona, which has been hand raised and is generally tame, suddenly burst into the air and tried to get past me. Unfortunately he got his head caught in the central mesh grille. To cut a long story short: he didn't survive. :(

It was a frustrating morning, and a reminder to always work slowly around flighty birds.

Side note, not for the squeamish! As usual I took the opportunity (once my own nerves had settled) to process him as I would any other cockerel. I was surprised to find him quite fleshy for such a light breed, and his internal organs were all completely shipshape. So there's one good thing, at least: my feeding program seems to be doing what it should now, with no more signs of liver abnormality (whether from lupins or artificial methionine in commercial feed).

Please excuse a photo of a processed rooster, but I just wanted to show the amount of flesh I'm talking about... Nothing like a supermarket bird, but ahead of the New Hampshires I raised a few years back. Please also forgive the rough processing; I was in a hurry because this was an unexpected death, and I'd started skinning him out of a desire to get it over with, but changed my mind and went with dry plucking.

Poor ancona, poor silly pretty thing... But waste not, want not.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Keeping chickens cool in a tractor during hot days...

It can be difficult keeping chickens alive, let alone cool, in a tractor in summer. Often the low ceiling is made of metal, and heat blasts through.

Although my tractor is extremely airy, and has tarp + shadecloth on top, it's in a sunny yard where it could be quite easy for the birds to overheat. To stop this from happening I simply gather some fresh tree/shrub offcuts and drape them over the unit, like so:

This isn't a cure-all against massive summer heat, in which case it's best to have all tractors parked in deep shade, but in general I've found this system works even on quite hot days. Best of all, it lets me use renewable material (tree offcuts) that release water vapour as they wilt, helping to double-cool the air. Much better than shadecloth!

Meat hybrid x leghorn chick

I seem to have ended up with very few of the meat hybrid x leghorns, but perhaps they're more vulnerable to incubator issues (and this time around the temperature was being a pain in the whatnot).

But I've got a really nice pullet doing well, and also a chunky great cockerel.

There are other cockerels that appear to be this same mix, but either they're favouring the leghorn side of things, or they're some strange outcome of the ancona x red layer that was in the same incubation. They're a fair bit bigger than the ancona x so I'll keep an eye on how they mature.

Meanwhile I'm pleased with their shape, growth and overall state of health. Remember these birds are completely on a home mix including kefir, and have had no coccidiostat after the first week of age. They've been on damp ground, and daytime temperatures have been mild mostly, but are currently high (over 33C).

I'm moving them once weekly, and by that time the green you can see in the photos above generally gets trimmed back to large patches of bare soil. There's no doubt that these birds are copping their fair share of whatever's in the dirt, but they haven't had a single day's setback.

They're just coming up to 6 weeks of age, so their most vulnerable time is nearly over.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A few thoughts on 'heritage' poultry, and home rations for chickens

Just thought I'd post this. I originally wrote it as a reply to someone on a poultry forum, when he raised the topic of feeding birds using 'heritage' methods and old style grains.

However after I'd written it I realised it pretty well summarises my feelings about the industrial farming system and the need for new approaches now. I'd quite like to keep it on my blog as a record of what I've tried to do and why.


"[Dear Poster about heritage feeding]...I totally agree with what you're trying to do. Unfortunately though, if you can't free range 24/7, I can't help feeling you're going to have to go the whole hog with formulating a ration. It doesn't have to include synthetic additives such as are in nutrient balancers and in commercial feed, but I would think it needs to be pretty well designed. Even limited free ranging will help cover some omissions or errors, but not all... For instance in particular during winter you may see vitamin shortages, particularly the ones like A and K that are available in leafy fresh greens, and B vitamins in general might be a little low in your ration (I'm not a nutritionist, so don't take this as gospel at all; but those are my impressions from a quick read). From my reading yeast is a good additive for B vitamins (though not B12) and sprouting wheat and other greens like kale in a greenhouse may supply winter greens.

"If I were you I'd look at some of the 1930s and 1940s poultry keeping books, because they were written after some good studies on nutrition had been accomplished but before modern synthetic vitamins and other dodgy additives had become widespread in feeds. The University of Manitoba website has a really interesting review of a popular 1945 poultry feeding manual, and if you haven't seen it before but would like to check it out (forgive me if you've already done a whole heap of reading), it's here... http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/livestock/poultry/bba01s23.html

"Just to explain where I'm coming from, I hope you don't mind if I set out a few of my thoughts on the whole heritage breed/feed thing... It's something I've thought about a fair bit, but excuse me if I'm going off on tangents or if you're way ahead of me... It's a great topic though, and highly pertinent now with the petrochemical industry starting to cough and splutter...

"It seems to me that back in heritage days (let's say 'pre-industrial' to be clearer) farms were much more varied in their livestock, cropping etc, so it's arguable that the range of vitamins available on-farm was higher. For instance some vitamins were obtained (for poultry I mean) by picking through the droppings of other animals and so forth. In a way you could say pre-industrial farms were run much more like an ecosystem, with everything in some way complementing everything else. At the same time, birds had been bred to suit this system. They weren't expected to lay massively well and if they were highly productive in one way (meat or eggs) it usually meant very low productivity in other ways, to keep an overall balance. Nobody paid any attention to 'formulating complete feeds' for poultry because there was an environmental balance based on how small-scale farms ran.

"Industrialisation and monoculture farming changed all that, and small farms became no longer viable. Productive-type birds were also bred for even greater productivity at the expense of being able to survive on forage alone, while to a large degree the keeping of dual purpose heritage breeds became a show-thing (with the exception of a few game type breeds and perhaps one or two others, depending on where you live... In Australia we lost most of our genuine utility birds). At the same time thriftiness, foraging ability and hardiness were often neglected.

"However the highly industrialised monoculture approach to things is now starting to meet the reality of diminishing oil. A more positive way of looking at the situation is to say that small integrated farms could become profitable again, if they're closer to markets, as they can beat transport costs. That's if industrial giants don't do everything they can to kill a return to small integrated farming. But most of us don't have fertile smallholdings and for most of us doing things off the grid will be a compromise at best. sad

"My compromise has been to try to learn everything I can about poultry nutrition (I'm not there yet, nowhere near), and put a lot of effort into a feed recipe based on natural ingredients (i.e. no petroleum industry derived vitamins), while also keeping heritage x commercial birds rather than straight heritage purebreds (for better feed conversion among other things). Perhaps you won't need to make any compromises at all, if you source the right birds and have the right setup for them. Great if you do!

"It's nice of you to start a conversation about these things, and I'm sure while there haven't been many responses so far it's not because it's an uninteresting topic. Some [forum members] have connections to industrial farming and are ever-ready to jump on those who want to try formulating diets themselves, but many more people will see the long term point to all this, and realise that Uncle Industry isn't necessarily going to be there for all of us in the next several decades. If they are there for us, well and good, and we can all relax; but meanwhile those of use pottering about on our own won't have done any harm, and we just might have done some social good for ourselves and others during hard times..."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Raising chicks off medicated starter

A little earlier I explained my current projects as crossing red layer hybrids to an ancona, and meat hybrids to a leghorn.

Here they are now (most of them) and as you can see, they're all quite well grown. The big heavy robust white ones are the meat hybrid x legorn. Some of the others (ancona x) are developing nice feather patterning, especially on the males.

Now for a little bit of background, especially on the feeding regimen.

With some temperature problems it wasn't a great hatch, but I ended up with 26 chicks from the first hatch and, a week later, 8 chicks which I put under a broody hen.

The 26 older chicks were given heat for a little under a week, by which time they were able to use the cold brooder (with gentle encouragement when they forgot where to go to stay warm). They were shut in at night only for the first few days after the switch to a non-heated brooder, then they could basically come and go.

They were also given medicated starter (the only version I can buy) for the first week only. This was to help them over the hump of being incubator hatched and then the change to cold brooding. Since I'm not a scientist, and haven't had my home feed tested in a lab, I start chicks on commercial feed just to make sure their first meals are completely formulated.

I also sprinkled adult hen droppings in some dirt and seeded this through the brooder litter. Apart from that there was little floor litter besides some gravel. The floor, being wood, doesn't really need litter (which is often there to insulate as well as soak up liquids).

After the first week, I switched the feed over 2 days to my home made mix. This consists of freshly ground corn, sunflower, bran and pollard (though usually I use freshly ground wheat), soy meal, lucerne chaff (alfalfa), seaweed meal, salt and kefir (soured milk). Every day they were given freshly chopped grass or other greens (e.g. dandelion). Lastly, I made sure the chicks had access to stone grit and shell grit if they needed.

The birds grew well, and then were transferred to the tractor (at 3 weeks of age). Again, I do this at that age so as not to seed the brooder with high levels of cocci. During their time in the brooder I didn't change much except remove droppings from the nest area (where they sleep in close confines, hence it needs to stay dry and fairly clean). Droppings built up on the brooder run floor and as they didn't smell of ammonia and weren't clinging to birds' feet, I left them there. It sounds terribly unhygienic, but by this stage chicks were scratching straw out of their nest area, and thus a layer of deep litter had begun to build up. Deep litter has a controlling effect against coccidia.

So as I speak, these birds have been in the tractor on the same spot as other chicks have been raised for the past week, with no signs of coccidiosis. I haven't moved them since putting them on the patch of grass as there's still plenty of green growth there. It's a large tractor for only 26 birds. I'm presuming the main reason that they haven't come down with coccidiosis is that since they're not meat hybrids, they don't put out a huge amount of droppings (meat hybrids soil the ground much more quickly, due to high volumes of food passing through). Thus the area they're on is still relatively clean.

So here we have 26 chicks just coming up to 4 weeks of age, on ground that's had several batches of chicks raised on it before, without medications for 3 weeks, and I'm seeing no coccidiosis.

I'm not saying this is a perfect system, and I still can't say if deliberate exposure from day one is the main thing, or whether it's the soured milk they've had in the diet all along (even when given commercial starter I moistened some of it with kefir), or whether it's something else going in my favour (such as local weather conditions). But I will say that it's been warm and humid and we've had rain since they've been out on grass, so I do feel that coccidiosis would have shown up by now.

Still, I'll be moving them today to new ground to keep the greens up to them. And I'll be watching them fairly closely to make sure none starts showing symptoms. But for now, it's all good. Need I add, the chicks that went under the broody shortly after hatching have remained in the same aviary since hatch, and as with the tractored chicks they're coccidiosis free too. But as they're now 3 weeks of age, I feel it's time to move them too. I'll be putting them in the tractor with the week older birds, and putting the hen (though she'll hate this) back in the hen-pen.

Clearly it's possible to raise small batches of chicks without using medicated starter, as long as some basics are observed (and I would also add that separation of several weeks between chick batches is a very good idea--we're taught that coccidia live for many many months in soil, but I suspect a good many die off in those first few weeks between hatches).

Some slow-feathering genes apparent in this bunch...

Best of all, I haven't seeded my soil with drug resistant coccidia; at least, not so far.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Logging in okay... Will keep going for now. :-)

Update on earlier post: I seem to be able to log in, so will keep on for now at this address.
Thanks for staying with me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Blog PAUSED due to account issues... Update later.

Hi there. Apologies for this inconvenience, but I'm having trouble logging in at times. Google data-mining requirements may be clashing with my choice of using a pseudonym for certain aspects of the blog.

However I don't like running a blog that might upset a few commercial interests under my real name. I'm sure most people reading this well-intentioned blog will understand why. If not, look up Monsanto and its treatment of small-time naysayers. I'm very, very smalltime, but you never know how badly folks get irritated by alternate points of view, particularly when they clash with profit goals.

For these reasons I'm looking into moving the blog to a different carrier. That will take time, and obviously it could mean that some viewers become lost. Hopefully that won't happen!

If I can still log in to this blog when I set up the new page I'll make sure to put a redirect so you can chase me up at the new address. Hopefully I can transfer all aspects of the blog including back-posts.

If I don't manage to log in to Google again, then I might ask people to do a general search for 'the natural chicken' or any post titles or keywords you might recall (like 'artificial methionine is it safe' or 'layer cockerels for the table'). You should be able to track down the new blog that way.

Apologies for these hassles. The web is becoming more and more difficult to use while retaining some measure of privacy. For those with alternate views to giant corporations it's perhaps becoming even harder... But that may just be a fancy of mine.

Best wishes to all, and thanks for reading... Fingers crossed for a smooth transition when I set up the future website.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

D-day for layer cockerels for the pot...

Well, they've started to crow, a little on the early side at 12 weeks. I have a neighbour to think about, and these birds are out in a tractor beside his house, so I think the best thing would be to dispatch them early and let the neighbours get some sleep.

It's a shame though, as I'd intended to let them grow as long as possible eating fresh grass and having a safe happy life in the tractor. They always rush at the door when I bring food, and they're friendly happy little birds without undue aggression. Alas, their early maturity goes against longevity in the crowing department.

At just past sundown I took a trolley with a cage on it up to the tractor, and began carefully and gently catching each bird and loading him in. I was so gentle (and they're so tame) that none made more than a tiny chitter of alarm. There was no chasing involved, just a gentle pickup. I know this sounds ridiculously sentimental, but it matters to me that they don't get anxious.

At the moment they're in the warm dry shed in a small cage, all sitting side by side. Dispatch time will be first thing in the morning, probably when the sun is not quite risen. They'll still be sleepy but I won't say it's going to be a good morning for them; all I can hope is that none sees what's coming, and all stay reasonably stress-less until the last. Then it will be quick -- I know that much.

Sad, isn't it? I find I can face this more easily if I allow a token survivor. Tonight I felt through the mass of warm feathery bodies until I'd found the heaviest black (I'd prefer to keep a black rather than an ISA brown, as their temperaments are better for my purposes) and took him down to the roost area housing the pullets from the same hatch. There he'll stay until I decide on next year's breeding setup, or unless I find myself at saturation point rooster-wise (which isn't hard to reach on a narrow acre where neighbouring houses are close).

Of course I have to keep in mind the ultimate goal, which is a self sustaining dual purpose flock. If the leghorn x meat hybrids prove to be healthy enough to reach breeding age without massive intervention, I guess I'll prefer to keep more of those roosters and fewer of the strictly egg laying ones. But still, it's hard to take twelve or thirteen healthy young boys not yet in their prime and process them for food. They'll be tender but less flavourful than older birds, and in any case I can't help but admire them as living creatures. I don't doubt that they think and feel and worry, even if they don't do these things to the extent (or in the way) that we do.

I'd better stop before I give home meat making a bad name... It's not that bad, and the night before processing is always a little sentimental. Hope that's forgivable!

On with the show.

Friday, October 7, 2011

between the broody hen and the cold brooder

No photos yet, but last night I tucked 8 two-day-old chicks under the malay x ISA brown, who had again gone broody. Readers might remember that she raised several ancona chicks quite a few months ago.

The hatch from my recent incubation was quite a patchy one. The earliest-set eggs were exposed to low temperature swings at a vulnerable age and I believe many were lost to this. About half of this first setting hatched, with many deaths in shell. It turned out that the little plastic mesh box I'd made to house the second setting (the later hatch) had upset the internal dynamics and stopped the thermostat working properly. Once it was removed (after the first hatch), the temperature stabilised correctly, and of the later-set eggs, all but one hatched successfully.

But back to the broody, my malay x ISA game. She wasn't the best mother in the world, because she rejected all the white chicks (leghorn x) and was only interested in raising the dark ones. However at the moment all the chicks, black (ancona x red layer) and white (leghorn x meat hybrid) are doing well under her. She's a good mother when she decides to commit, so hopefully these chicks were placed under her early enough for her not to get too choosy.

The earlier-hatched ancona x red layer and leghorn x meat hybrids are running around in a brooder at a week and a day old. They all look in good health and up till yesterday were given the 60w ceramic heater to keep warm. This heater was put above the straw-surrounded nest area; the run is of course unheated. The chicks learned where to go to stay warm almost immediately.

Now I've taken away the ceramic heater and am encouraging the chicks to use the nest area without added heat. They're slightly confused and kept trying to huddle in the lit area where daylight streams in from the north side of the carport, but I've now blocked the light from that direction. It's a mild day, in the low 20s temperature-wise, and I'm confident these week-olds are capable of keeping themselves warm with a little extra guidance as to where to go. There are about 25 or 26 chicks in here, a sufficient number of chicks to cold brood.

About once an hour over the next few days I'll check the birds and make sure they're going into the nest area when they need to cosy up. Meanwhile I'll start thinking about diet.

Up till now they've been on 100% medicated chick starter from a shop. This is still the easiest way to get little chicks eating and to ensure that they're getting a full range of nutrients at first hatch. However the medication irks me and so I'll be switching them over in the next week to a home feed made of finely ground wheat, corn and sunflower, soy meal, lucerne (alfalfa), kefir, hard grit, seaweed meal and salt.

At three weeks old I should be able to put them in the tractor, and the whole sequence starts again, this time hopefully without temperature swings or staggered hatching.

Friday, September 30, 2011

ISA brown and black layer pullets: some observations

Here are the kindergarten-hatched girls:

Two of the blacks, showing the nice shine on the feathers. When healthy, this sheen is typically a deep bottle green. I've heard that a violet or purple sheen is indicative of nutritional or health problems, though I haven't been able to verify that. However I'm quite happy with the growth and look of these birds.

These are the three ISA browns (or ISA brown types) from the mix. Funny how they stick together! They're active, able bodied birds, but are notorious for being stroppy with any newcomers and being prone to peck and feather-pick. Given a good area to scratch in and decent feed they don't seem to peck or pick at one another, and interestingly while very tame the roosters don't tend to be aggressive toward the handler (unlike many other breeds). However it's true that they give newcomers a hard time, and their tameness seems to go hand-in-hand with a tendency to be bullies. I've found, however, that when they're crossed to something flightier or in fact to anything else, the offspring lose a lot of that ISA brown territoriality.

A close-up of one of the blacks. These are typically a cross between layer australorps and rhode island reds (both commercial utility strains, not common backyard strains). They're a great forager like the ISA browns, but seem to have a slightly milder temperament. I've found them to be terrific layers and great pets.

Four of the five blacks picking at the litter. Their male counterparts are still in the tractor and are larger than the girls, as well as having a much stronger hunger drive. While the girls are quite respectful, the males keep trying to eat my fingers as I stoop in to fill the feed trough. But they're great little chaps and I might even keep a couple of the black cockerels in case I lose a rooster to a goshawk. They'll always be useful to increase egg laying ability among purebreds and backyard crossbreds, and despite opinions to the contrary, I think they have been selected for hardiness. After all, while they're vaccinated to the hilt in commercial situations, they're also kept in massive sheds where sheer numbers create disease risks via stress. And given that they're on-sold to commercial egg farms, the breeders have to be sure that the offspring will survive the laying year. This contrasts with the variety of backyard breeding situations and approaches, some of which don't consider hardiness or longevity at all, and many of which don't cull or select for egg laying. Thus while there's a common generalisation that commercial birds will lay for a year before collapsing due to layer fatigue or reproductive disorders, when crossed to a rugged kind of backyard bird, the result can be selected for the best of both worlds (egg laying ability plus hardiness).
Just some thoughts!

Monday, September 26, 2011

ceramic bulb in the tub brooder... not!

Three of the ancona x bubs are out of their shells and bouncing around in the incubator. That leaves, um, 57 or so to go... I'm not counting them before they've hatched this time around, as temperatures were a little unsteady. I'm expected quite a draggy hatch.

It was a slightly annoying day, despite the emergence of chicks. Usually I settle hatchlings in an infra-red-lit tub for 2 days before putting them into the cold brooder. This gives them a little head-start and allows me to make sure they're all eating and drinking before the challenge of learning to use an unheated 'igloo'.

However the infra red light has its drawbacks, not least being the fact that it is a light and not just a heater. Since cold brooded chicks have to learn to go inside a dark space to get warm, a heat lamp confuses the issue.

Today I went to the pet shop and paid $53 for a 60w ceramic heat bulb. Now since the infra red lamp provides sufficient heat at 40w for my small tub brooder, I felt a 60w ceramic bulb that gives out only heat (rather than heat and light) should be perfectly adequate. Wrong! The damn thing gives out barely any heat at all. That is, the bulb itself gets terribly hot, but not only does it not heat the brooder air, but it doesn't heat the brooder litter or floor or walls higher than about 25C when suspended at a safe height. This is despite having a reflective shield above the globe aiming to direct the heat down.

How disappointing! Clearly the infra red bulbs give much more heat on a per-wattage basis.

Perhaps the ceramic bulb will be useful when teaching chicks to use the cold brooder, as if I hang it over the wire mesh on top of the little igloo the chicks should feel the warmth and go inside through the doorway when chilly. This will help retrain them out of going toward the light when they're feeling cool. I wouldn't want to leave the ceramic bulb switched on for any length of time though, because a straw-stuffed 'igloo' full of chicks could easily overheat.

So not a great purchase, but perhaps not a useless one...

Friday, September 23, 2011

cocci update: layer chicks immune

Updated update:

Well, I'm going to call it on this one: these chicks are immune. They've been in the damp pen now for 7 days with no symptoms, and have been consuming only home-mixed feed for a few weeks now. If they were going to get cocci they would have.


Last night we had so much rain the roost shed was knee deep in water, as was the lower end of the pen. Poor chicks were sodden and drenched. I make them a little umbrella-roost out of a trestle table with a plank underneath, and they spent the night drying off above the waterline.

Today amazingly they're none the worse for wear, all eating to their hearts' content. Typically cecal cocci takes 5 days between challenge and symptoms, so I'll be watching them closely given the drenched pen.


Well, here they are, the pullets out of the recent chick purchase. They're now around 8-10 weeks of age and I feel fairly confident that they're cocci-immune.

Having said that, a major challenge might overwhelm them even now, so I've taken the precaution of laying wood chips down in the pen the meat hybrids were living in.

Before laying the new surface I also took out the top 5cm layer of soil from the central part of the pen where most of the droppings had accumulated. (This removed soil is now happily growing beans, tomatoes and other seedlings in a few garden beds.)

Surprisingly I've ended up with 8 pullets, so of the 20 bought, only 12 are cockerels. Given that some of the female ISA browns had almost certainly been removed, this is a pretty good average.

I'm still going to be watching them for cocci signs, especially now that rain is forecast and warm weather is already here. But they've been off medicated starter now for a couple of weeks. Thus even though this pen is my dampest and is the one I'd be most concerned about in terms of oocyst build-up, I'd be surprised to see any harm now.

The cockerels are staying in the tractor, as unless I can find homes for some of them, their destiny is the table. As usual I get a bit attached to the handsome little things, and it's worth putting in the effort in case there are any breeders around who want utility above looks. Commercial hybrid roosters can increase egg laying in a backyard crossbred flock, though it's rare that anyone wants to bring in their good points without going to a purebred first. But still, it's worth a shot. I remember when I was looking for a commercial layer cockerel and either couldn't find one at all, or couldn't find one that hadn't been exposed to respiratory disease. And these birds have the further good point (for anyone with similar core values to mine) that they've been reared on pasture with, since their fourth week of age, natural vitamins in preference to artificial ones.

Best of all, I can see from the rich green shine in the black birds' feathers and the good rate of growth in all that the diet of ground, cracked and sprouted grains with soy meal, oilseeds, minerals, grass and kefir is agreeing with them.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

incubation update: 3 days from hatch


Whatever you do, don't attempt what I've photographed below. After taking this shot and writing the post, I began to notice that the temperature in the incubator was dropping. Each time I opened the lid it dropped even more, stabilising a degree lower each time. I felt it was a dodgy thermostat but I now believe the plastic mesh box used to separate the later-hatching eggs was to blame. I think perhaps somehow its presence upset the dynamics of the incubator and played havoc with the thermostat. I can't be sure of this of course -- it may have been dust in the wafer that coincidentally became dislodged as the mesh box was removed -- but it's better to be safe than sorry.

I've got 2 lots of eggs in the incubator, staggered a week apart. I just thought I'd set out what I did and why, so anyone else looking at staggering a hatch might have some extra info to go by.

Not that I'm expert at it! However I do know that if the hatch is staggered by only a few days, there can be problems with the excess humidity of the first hatch affecting those that are just about to break into the air cell. I've usually had zero hatch in the later batch if they were only a few days older and tried to break into the air space when there was a lot of excess moisture.

The first batch in the incubator are due to hatch on Monday (in 3 days' time). However there were some temperature problems (too low) for a few days so I'd expect them to be a bit later than that; perhaps Tuesday. (I did lose some eggs during periods of low temperature and have already taken them out after candling.) Unfortunately the incubator has proved very temperamental. I suspect the wingnut and screw that set the wafer thermostat are a bit loose, and hence tend to jiggle when the lid is lifted while turning eggs. After deciding this was the case and taking extra care when lifting and setting the lid, I've seen no more temperature drops.

The second batch (9 eggs) is due to hatch a week and a day after the first. These eggs are now being turned by hand while the others are allowed to keep still; to stop any jostling and to make sure I turn all the ones I should be turning, I've set them into their own little mesh basket inside the incubator. Made of plastic gutter-mesh, the basket should help keep the more delicate later-hatching eggs safe from being jostled, contaminated with hatch-debris and so forth.

This is the worst time in the whole incubation period for me — a habitual fiddler, I have to sit on my hands. But at least now the temperature is holding!

Fingers crossed for some happy healthy chickens.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When is it time to say 'enough' with meat production?

One final post mortem find, and the end to my keeping of straight meat hybrids...

On both sides of the breastbone of one of the meat hybrid girls I found an area of green discoloration which had also affected the bone itself. This was deep mid-centre of the breast in the tender core muscle that lies against bone. The dead area appeared symmetrical, about 5cm long and 2.5cm wide. In between the bone was dark and eaten right through, connecting both areas of necrosis.

I saw no tumours or true lesions, and no sign of an injury or wound, just necrotic tissue. This perplexed me very much until I found references to something called Deep Pectoral Myopathy. I looked at various sites including www.worldpoultry.net (http://www.worldpoultry.net/diseases/deep-pectoral-myopathy-d95.html) and others. I believe this is what the poor girl had.

Apparently, due to intense selection for breast meat, areas of deep breast muscle may not receive sufficient blood supply, particularly during wing-flapping. Afterward the dead muscle tissue can turn green. Complications such as gangrene are also possible (explaining the eaten-away bone; or to my mind the bone itself may have lost blood supply in the same manner as the muscle, thereby producing bone necrosis).

While it's reassuring to know I didn't cause this issue as such, it's a pretty distasteful find. I can't imagine what pain this bird must have felt when flapping her wings. Meanwhile selection for enhanced meat characteristics goes on, with GM chickens not too far away.

We're told that unless we continue to increase food production, our food systems will be unable to provide for the world's population in the near future. It's hard for me to imagine how the meat bird could possibly be asked to do more for humanity in this regard.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Meat hybrid pullets update...

The heavyweight girls are only 24 weeks of age, but I feel the time has come to make a humane decision.

Yesterday one of the girls sustained a bad leg injury, possibly triggered by the rooster's added weight during treading. She was clearly in serious pain, and when I had a close look I could see that her hock looked abnormal, with a hard knot above the joint, and the joint itself was too loose. After I'd put her down I saw that the tendon was completely severed from the leg bone. There was no way she could have healed or had a good quality of life.

However I also noted that her liver was enlarged and friable, as well as being an unhealthy orange colour. She was extremely fat, with a huge amount adhering to the underside of her skin as well as filling the cavity. These obviously point to fatty liver syndrome, which is fairly common in commercial birds (both layers and meat hybrids) due to a combination of high food intake and the kinds of diets we rely on to meet production goals.

A few weeks ago I had to dispatch a leg-stricken bird, and also one a couple of weeks before that; both birds had slight liver discolouration but no signs of fatty liver or enlargement. In today's bird the liver was in appalling shape; I would say close to rupture. The difference in colour to earlier livers was astonishing.

In order to bring the birds into lay and help with shell quality I began 4 weeks ago both increasing feed amounts and adding commercial layer crumble and meat bird finisher (with extra shell grit) as well as soy meal to the diet. This resulted in a net decrease in the amount of whole grain (albeit sprouted) being fed. Although laying improved, the health decline in these 4 weeks has been incredible.

I'm not sure if this decline is merely due to a protein increase in percentage terms. Yes, meat bird finisher is higher in protein than layer feed and probably a fair bit higher than my sprout mix. However protein in general doesn't produce fatty liver syndrome; and I haven't found any literature describing soybean meal as a cause. In general fatty liver is put down to a diet high in quick-burning carbohydrates. Fatty liver syndrome is also, in my reading, more strongly associated with the use of artificial methionine against natural methionine; notably, meat bird finisher is high in the artificial form.

What else can I say? This has been an interesting and at times upsetting project, but I don't feel deterred from continuing with half-leghorn offspring (presuming some hatch). Earlier today I felt rather discouraged and indeed a little sickened by the poor birds' plight. I felt it would be cruel to produce chicks from these birds. However having thought it through (and writing it out here helps me do that -- apologies for any errors or omissions, but this is a work-in-progress) I can see that the excess fat and liver degeneration are dietary. These birds are programmed to overeat, and hence dietary issues appear more strongly in them than in other birds. I'll simply need to be more careful with what I feed in future.

But of course the whole project might prove too hard if the offspring of these meat hybrids suffer similar issues in terms of reproductive health. If I have to use commercial meat bird finisher to increase protein so the birds can lay at all, I'm walking a burning tightrope. But I've gone this far and have eggs set, so for now I might as well keep walking.

Monday, September 12, 2011

No cocci symptoms in layer chicks! Yippee.

So far, so good! These layer chicks are growing more and more robust and active by the day.

When first bought they were clearly showing signs of early coccidiosis, albeit very mild. This means they'd had some exposure before arriving here, though none was very sick. All came good after a day or two with a warm night-hutch and medicated starter.

After a few weeks in a brooder I'd seeded with older layer droppings they went onto a tractor on ground that I'd used to raise the meat hybrids. I left them in the tractor on the same ground for a week, longer than intended but still with commercial starter alongside other food. I left them there this long as I wanted the grass and weed cover eaten down. By the time it was close to ground level I moved the tractor.

Remember, the hybrids were on this ground when they showed cocci signs, so I'm going to go all-out and say these layers have now been quite heavily exposed. What they haven't been, however, is overwhelmed.

Some factors may be at play here:

- they're still consuming medicated starter. However I've noticed that they much prefer my home mix containing kefir, to the extent that I've barely had to add to the commercial starter hopper at all. I'd say they're only eating minimal amounts of medication, if any.

- the kefir may be providing some anti-coccidial benefits. Milk has long been used in this way, though I don't know to what degree it is generally effective. However when my meat hybrids developed coccidiosis they weren't having much kefir at all, as I hadn't begun souring skim milk for them. It remains possible that the kefir is a good preventive.

- the weather has been quite a bit drier than when I put the meat hybrids onto the same ground. However there have been two days of light rain and I would have expected to see some coccidiosis by now if the chicks were going to show signs. As well, the weather while raising the meat chicks was quite a bit cooler than now (warmth is important to oocyst ripening). Thus I'm not sure weather has been an important factor.

- these chicks may have been effectively 'inocculated' by their earlier mild bout of cocci. However only a few of the chicks seemed to have symptoms when I bought them, and I'm not sure the exposure was large enough to develop a full immune response. Still, it's quite possible that this alone explains their hardiness now.

It's hard to make judgements from all this, except that I can say that the combination of the above seems to prevent coccidiosis! Obvious, I know... Graduated exposure has always been the key to cocci prevention, however one achieves it (e.g. ionophores work by allowing some exposure but limiting it so the bird still acquires immunity). But still, 20 chicks aged about 6 weeks in a tractor on dampish ground for a whole week without cocci and with only very minor use of ionophores isn't bad.

The next step is to stop leaving chick starter out for the birds, and move fully to unmedicated feeds, whether I use my own mix or add in commercial meat bird finisher (also 18%) to cover my nutritional bases.

Friday, September 2, 2011

incubating time...

Well, I've got about as many eggs as I think I'll get... That is, a full dozen from the meaties and umpteen from the layer x anconas.

I believe it's time to fire up the incubator! Yippee.

I could wait for more meatie eggs, but they're only laying 1 or 2 per day between the 4 of them... Unfortunately their laying systems aren't up to the task, particularly with making shells. In another 2 weeks I'll have 15-20 eggs, but meanwhile this dozen will have gone stale. So might as well get cracking!

I've been storing them in our coolest room in egg cartons, tilting them at 45 degree angles and changing their orientation once per day. This helps stop the yolk sticking to one side of the shell membrane, as can happen when eggs are left for a while in one position. To make sure I end up with as many fertile eggs as possible I'm going to absolutely cram the incubator full, leaving out the auto turner.

My incubator is a simple Hovabator, nothing to write home about, but I've had good hatches in it before. Actually this one is brand new but I've got no reason to suspect it won't work. Even so I'm firing it up for 48 hours to make sure the setting is stable before I put the eggs in. A few plastic bottles full of water can act as a heat sink in that time, giving a better indication of how well the thermostat is coping.

I know this isn't natural chicken incubation, so it's probably making some people wonder at the title of my blog. However the small foam incubators are reasonably power-efficient (average about 24W without the turner), and because the meaties have a very short lifespan (let alone laying lifespan) I need to set as many eggs as I can right now. There's no telling when their systems will pack it in, much as I wish they could just go on enjoying life. Unfortunately they've been bred to self destruct.

However I'll be hoping to brood naturally when the chicks hatch. If I don't get a broody hen in time I'll simply cold-brood. That will at least cut down on the amount of energy that gets used in the process of creating new chickens! And later in the season there will definitely be broody hens I can use as sitters as well as brooders. It's just that I have to act now, while I have fertile meatie eggs.

Now back to the auto turner and those eggs I'll be setting... After candling at day 7 I should be able to discard any infertile eggs and make enough room to insert the egg turner if I really want to. If it's not a drama to keep turning eggs by hand I'll simply keep doing that (a lot depends on how busy I am in the next few weeks; I have some retaining wall projects going on.)

So that's where I'm at, folks—two days away from setting a bunch of eggs. Heaven forbid I accidentally drop that carton of broiler x leghorn eggs... They took a lot of effort from all of us to produce, and if there's one thing that makes me feel better about even the gammy-legged girl (who's still in the hospital cage on cushions), it's that she might have offspring with more survival chance than she ever had.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

chick feeding

Just thought I'd give a rundown of what I'm feeding the layer chicks. They're now 4-5 weeks of age, and have been on commercial starter entirely. They've been on the ground for some time, out in the tractor. But it's time to wean them off medicated feed. I don't like it (it helps breed resistant organisms) and I don't want to continually seed my backyard soil with resistant coccidia. I'd rather keep medicated starter for use in cases where birds that are raised without medications actually develop a need for it; indeed in the past I've treated mild coccidiosis simply by using some medicated feed.

So here's what I'm making up for the chicks now, using my handy 'Sprint' grain mill. First I make up the dry mix:

wheat 60%
corn 10%
peas 5%
sunflower seeds 4%

The above grains are milled coarsely together. Then I add:

lucerne chaff (alfalfa) 5%
soy meal (full fat) 16%

This dry mix is then formed into a crumbly mash using kefir (as a methionine supplement as well as probiotic and B vitamin tonic). I also add a pinch of salt and a larger pinch of seaweed meal.

Excluding the kefir, the mix above averages out at around 18% protein. On top of this the birds are on fresh pasture including clover, chickweed and other beneficial weeds.

At 5 weeks of age the birds can easily handle 18% feed. Technically the kefir lowers the percentage slightly but only because much of it is liquid (which tends to pass through, as birds don't absorb a lot of liquid in their colons, unlike some other animals). In fact I feel kefir enhances the birds' digestive system and probably makes up for a percentage point of protein in its own right.

Now I'm not feeding the above mix completely to these birds; they're still getting commercial chick starter to pick at for the next little while. This will be a gradual shift over the course of a couple of weeks, and I'll move the tractor every 48 hours and then every 72 hours during this time. This should help them get used to being on the ground without medication.

I've noticed in the past that having more than a handful of birds in the tractor can put more cocci-pressure on the system, with oocysts building up too quickly for them to handle, and in that case all it takes is a sudden period of warmth and wet weather for things to get out of hand. At the moment I have 20 chicks in the tractor. That's probably as many as I want in the one spot while I'm reducing medication in this way.

Next time I raise chicks (which will be soon, as I've now got a full dozen meatie eggs), I'll start the tractor on different ground so the home hatched ones aren't picking up much of the cocci oocysts these current chicks have shed. And I'll also be going medication free from the start, with an emphasis on management. As I found with the meat chicks earlier, I'll have to pay attention to the weather, crowding, timing of movement from the brooder to the ground, and many other factors. But I know now that these things can be managed. And as another benefit of doing things this way, there's always medicated feed as a backup. I won't be robbing that medication of any of its potency by using it all the time.

I'm not trying to push my feed recipe in any way, shape or form... I do things a little experimentally here, and can't vouch for a perfect result every time. But I am starting to feel more confident that I'm supplying what chicks need, and I'm also learning that feed recipes are a moveable feast. In fact, I believe that one of the keys to health is in varying the diet, for instance seasonally, or when certain ingredients become available. At the moment I'm able to source full fat extruded soy meal, and I feel it's a useful supplement (full fat soy meal from local beans isn't yet GMO).

So on the whole, while it's easy to get hung up on protein percentages, I feel some give-and-take is not only possible but wise. And at the moment, with both breeder pens producing fertile eggs and the layer chicks happy on the grass, I'm pretty much where I want to be.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Layer cockerels for the table?

Finding a high number of cockerels in a cheap chick purchase isn't necessarily a disappointment. What layer cockerels have going for them more than anything else, I feel, is an ability to forage. What meat they do end up having is usually of terrific quality because they've had ample exercise.

So at the moment I've got 20 layer chicks in a tractor, and it appears I have mostly males (probably 17 out of 20, if not all). While I was expecting a poor ratio as these were kindergarten-hatched, I wasn't quite expecting that many. But it's not a problem when I know from experience even the boys can be useful as long as they're not compared to genuine meat birds.

So they'll be pastured from now on (they're 3 weeks old and have their own little mobile 'igloo' for use in the tractor) and will be processed at around 15 weeks or when they begin to crow or fight too much. Fighting of course makes for stressed meat. I won't expect a great quantity of meat, but I'd expect them to have great flavour.

Meanwhile I'll go out now and take some photos.

Here they are, a little camera shy!

The blue object to the right is a tarp-wrapped 'igloo' made of bent mesh (to form a C section). The picture is looking at it from the side. To keep the sides from splaying I've c-clipped an elevated floor out of the same stuff (Bunning compost panel mesh). This also keeps the chicks off the ground at night, so even if water seeps down through the tractor (which is on a slope), the chicks can stay dry while they sleep. On top of the mesh floor is a piece of foam matting of the type campers and yoga trainers use. The ceiling under the tarp is also made out of this type of foam matting, so it's quite insulated; and there's a rear wall under the tarp.

The chicks had been cold brooder trained a week or two after I got them, so by the time they went out into the tractor they knew where to go when chilly.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

point of lay meat hybrid: update

Updated update: Another egg! This one is perfect, laid by one of the big pullets. She sat in the nestbox half the morning, but the egg is an ideal pullet size (not too large, with good shell).

I feel like an anxious midwife...


Another update. We're having a few trees taken down (dangerous trees such as old giant plantation pines that have developed a lean), and unfortunately all the noise and thumping is taking a toll on the meat hybrids as far as laying goes. They're quite unsettled and are spending the whole day perched on a mound in the corner of their pen.

As a result of stress the soft shelled egg laying is at epidemic levels! However I'm still seeing no signs of discomfort or internal infection, though the long it goes on, the more likely that is.

So the grand tally of usable eggs so far is... Two! And one of those is probably a double yolker. Alas, this was never going to be an easy project.

I'm beginning to feel it's time to start making a backup plan for the event that I don't get any chicks at all. That was always a possibility, though I felt the whole thing was worth a crack. But a second option for disease free starter birds may be looking at obtaining indian (cornish) or malay games via fertile eggs, and following commercial practices as far as dipping them in an antibiotic solution. This won't guarantee MG (the chronic respiratory germ) -free stock, but it would make it quite likely.

So I'm not quite 'back to the drawing board', but I do want to have a backup plan resolved before spring heats up. That means sourcing eggs and finding out where I can obtain dipping-grade antibiotics suitable against MG. Perhaps my local vet...? In case that doesn't sound particularly 'natural' ('the natural chicken', after all, is my blog name), I'll just add that goshawks are also natural, but I prefer to defend against those. I feel the generations that hatch without MG will have every chance to live much more natural lives without having to rely on antibiotics later on, so it's a case of limiting the use...


Just a quick update. Yesterday I noticed one of the girl was having quite a bit of trouble breathing, and today I felt it was time to end her suffering. She had a good life until the last couple of days, so this has been a fairly quick demise. I don't feel it was cruel to keep her going this long, but another day (or even a couple of hours) probably would have been.

As usual I had a good look inside and found no signs of disease, tumours or infection. That's good because at least she didn't have EYP (egg yolk peritonitis). However inside her laying tract was a fully formed shelled egg of beautiful shape, and behind it were a row of varying-sized yolks. She was literally about to start laying. What a shame!

Then again the process of passing an egg would probably have spelled the end anyway. Her cavity was very full of fat and this seems to have put a lot of pressure on her cardiac and respiratory systems. Unfortunately the balance between giving meat hybrids enough feed that they can produce eggs and not so much that they get overweight is very hard to achieve — though it's rather encouraging that she came that close to laying. Even if I only get half a dozen fertilised eggs I'll have something to work with next generation. Here's hoping for the few remaining girls...

I might just post a reminder about why I'm doing this. I found dual purpose purebreds very poor on the production front, particularly in terms of meat. And as I found even with the malay x leghorns, they weren't quite able to meet the table weights I wanted on a home mixed diet, though they might have done so capably on commercial grower feeds.

An ideal bird would be one that can produce a good amount of table meat to feed a family of four, without being so prone to overweight that it can't survive to breed. It would also need to be low-broodiness (for egg quantity), and have all the other characteristics we've lost in most of our utility purebreds: early maturity; good laying ability; good foraging ability; fast moult; hardiness; and good feed conversion.

I'm a long way from the survivability target, no doubt about that. But that near-lay egg in the deceased girl's cavity gives me hope. I feel that I can just obtain even a couple of leghorn crosses from the remaining girls, and put them with other healthy layer-purebred crosses, I feel I'll be close to achieving all my targets in just a couple of generations.

Remember too, I'm not looking to make supermarket meat and I'm not looking to force a bird to lay an egg a day for eighteen months before it drops dead of layer fatigue. I'm happy to carry birds over winter and to maintain animals with high feed requirements. I just want to come at this with MG free stock that still have the desirable production traits. And then I can cull for health and vigour, and let the production values settle to something realistic.