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.

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.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ancona and leghorn cockerels

The two cockerels I kept (a leghorn and an ancona) are shaping up nicely, and both are obviously fertile (with blastodiscs inside every egg). I'm happy with their size and growth, so I feel they haven't been set back too badly by the lupins.

Here they are having an afternoon singalong.

If the experiment trying to cross a layer type with the meat birds fails, I'll probably pick up some more leghorns and put them in with the white chappie above. Leghorns are notoriously flighty, and most people find the white ones boring (these were the original dual purpose birds when industrial chicken farming began to take off), but I like their looks, and find that they readily tame down when treated properly. They're still flighty when something flails or bangs, but this is a useful survival instinct when goshawks are around. Best of all, in my experience flighty males only rarely turn aggressive toward their keeper. It can happen with leghorns, but it isn't particularly common.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Feed store chicks...


Good news so far. The hunching and wilted looking red pullet youngster below is looking much better today. I've ended up setting the lamp up and also moving them all to a bigger brooder, and the difference is amazing. Best of all -- no bloody poop! Not a single one. And that was without treating them with a coccidiocide.

I've given them plain commercial chick grower plus a little soy meal to increase the protein to chick starter levels. I've also put kefir in the drinking water, at about 30%.

I also threw a handful of adult pen soil into the brooder, as I set it up on a completely new floor (two wardrobe doors lying together).

I'll see how they go, but they're looking good so far, all things considered.


A quick trip for chaff has turned into a chick rescue.

On the side of the feed store driveway was a hutch swarming with chicks from 1-3 weeks in age. There was no lamp above the unit, and the nest area was just sheet metal with no insulation, so one chick was already dying. The cage was also very soiled.

I could see a few signs of mild cocci (pale faces), but no bloody droppings were visible.
These are commercial blacks and ISA browns, with either some leghorn x or perhaps male ISA browns in the mix. They were apparently hatched in local kindergartens where hatching eggs has become very popular. The chicks have been either donated or sold (probably donated) to the local feed store by whoever runs the hatching business, and are unsexed. I feel there's a good chance they haven't come into contact with anything nasty except the cocci (which is everywhere), and so I picked out 6 of the healthiest looking to take home.

However after setting them up in the brooder, I felt guilty about the remaining ones having fewer live bodies to help them keep warm, so I went back and bought the rest. The woman in charge let me have the lot for a low price; I don't think she wanted to set up a brooder lamp and she was obviously upset about the dying one. Thus I've ended up with 20 chicks, some of which will be males, and some of which are looking a little pale.

Quite pale and a little hunched, this girl clearly needs treatment. She's been kept on dirty ground that's had many chicks on it before, and in all probability (given that she was on commercial chick starter) the cocci strain she's bumped into is immune to common coccidiostats.

I do need extra layers for next year, so this wasn't entirely an impulse purchase. Roosters are also welcome here as I'm often looking for healthy layer types (nobody likes to raise them to adulthood, so they can be scarce as hens' teeth when wanted). If too many turn out to be roosters, the extras will become table birds after a decent life on healthy food and a respectful humane death. I'm comfortable with all that.

But the stress of moving has upset them, and I'm now seeing bloody droppings. So it's not an ideal purchase, but it's a fact that I've made worse ones. (I remember, for instance, remote-buying 6 brahma chicks from Mudgee that were meant to be 12 weeks old and show quality. When they arrived they were 5 weeks old at the most, wrong-combed, and had respiratory disease.) These birds do have a couple of things in their favour: they were hatched at kindergartens and most likely won't have been exposed to too many other birds; they will have come from commercial eggs so will most likely be MG (mycoplasma gallisepticum) free; and the girls will be good productive birds when they mature.

For now I've got them in the mesh brooder under the enclosed carport, and the nestbox is thoroughly hay-stuffed and has the little 5w heat-pad turned on. If the chicks don't seem to know how to go inside to warm up I'll set up a lamp, but they seemed willing to use the nestbox compartment at the feed store. I'd say they were only beginning to chill because there was no insulation and it was just sheet metal. Not great on a cold day!

So there it is... Twenty chicks, and a bag of chaff.

GM chickens?

A forum recently brought up the issue of GM (genetically modified) chickens. I haven't read into this very much as I find the concept depressing. But here are a few of my personal thoughts...

The first is a question. Why?

Why do we need to allow such tinkering? Commercial meat birds are already so affected by the profit motive that they can barely survive to reproductive age. The majority have short lives of great discomfort. Why do we need to go further?

The second is a concern about potential disease transmission. By that I mean simply that nobody has ever convincingly explained to me how putting cross-order genes into a living organism won't lead to increased disease susceptibility. Is it possible a rat carrying some genes from jellyfish might help disease organisms that ordinarily harm only one order of life-form to cross species? I don't know; it's never been discussed by those doing the gene splicing. But if a disease that only ever affected one order of life-form suddenly becomes able to infect a whole new order... Do I need to say more?

The third concern is allergies. How do we know gene splicing won't cause allergens that affect individuals to sneak into a wider range of foodstuffs? Will we see higher rates of allergy? Incidentally higher rates of allergies have already accompanied (though I'm not saying 'been definitively caused by') the increase of GM products on our shelves.

The fourth concern is labelling. Will GM chickens be labelled so that people who for whatever reason want to avoid them can? I doubt it because it hasn't happened with other GM foods.

Here are some of the common arguments in favour of GM science:

We can't feed the world without GM. But when countries produce surpluses, do these automatically go to feed the starving? Nope; never have. Why should GM production overcome distribution (and goodwill) shortages? It simply won't happen. Furthermore, if we need to splice genes in order to survive as a species, won't we simply escalate in population to a point where GM science can't help us? As soon as we meet global population needs, global population will climb still further. This isn't an argument for population control by forced means (much less starvation) but it is a solid reason why GM arguments don't wash.

Man has always practiced 'genetic engineering' or 'genetic modification'. Utterly wrong. We have never crossbred chickens with tomatoes or sea creatures. It hasn't been possible. GM is a wholly new technology.

Some life forms have always practiced gene-swapping; it's perfectly natural. This may be true of bacteria and viruses, but it isn't true of the organisms currently undergoing gene splicing. In any case natural gene-transfer — for instance between disease-causing bacteria or viruses and benign forms — has had a slow process of evolution over thousands or millions of years, which is long enough for any negative impacts to be weeded out. Remember, evolution doesn't just mean survival of the 'fit'; it also means death of the 'unfit' (or unlucky). Do we really want to see evolution in quicktime?

Man evolved from nature; therefore GM is natural. I've read at least one comment along the lines that 'God created man with the intelligence and resourcefulness to invent gene splicing; therefore gene splicing is God's will.' There are some strange beliefs in the world, but this takes the cake. Murder is quite reasonable using the same logic.

I really don't know very much about genetic modification, but I've read fairly widely (as a layperson) on biology and animal husbandry. I also know one thing: as long as we have mysterious childhood syndromes that nobody is investigating the environmental causes of, we need to be highly suspicious of whatever goes in our mouths.

Say 'no' to GMO...

meat hybrids and laying

We're at the crucial stage now, and I'm finding it a struggle. Not as much of a struggle as the birds are, but here goes...

The meat hybrid pullets are now at 20 weeks of age. Apart from the one with major leg trouble a few weeks ago these birds have all stayed active and mobile. I'm letting them out once every couple of days under supervision; I'd do it daily only the goshawks are very good at noticing. So far, so good.

The combs have all reddened and the girls have been squatting for some time. Unfortunately a week ago the first two eggs that appeared were soft shelled. Even more ominously no eggs appeared after that for several days. And then yesterday egg material was expelled freely.

Not good.

The trick at the moment is balancing the birds' high energy needs (so much muscle needs a lot of feeding) without adding to fat in the cavity, which is going to cause problems with laying. They mustn't get fatter but they must get enough excess protein and energy to produce eggs. However with shells not being developed properly there's a third element: getting the mineral absorption right.

I believe this isn't a supply issue as the birds are given 3.5% shell grit in the feed, and there is also an ad lib hopper in each pen. Phosphorus in excess amounts compared to calcium can cause soft shelled egg laying, and it's true that milk has an improper ratio, but I'm only giving kefir once a day at about a cupful per 10 birds. Perhaps the skim powdered milk is higher in phosphorus than even straight milk, but even so it shouldn't cause this effect at the amounts I'm feeding; not when the layers are doing well with good hard shells on the same diet. It's not a vitamin D issue (D is required for the absorption of calcium) as their pen gets sufficient sunlight. I'm left with either a virus like EDS (Egg Drop Syndrome), which doesn't make complete sense given that they've come directly from a hatchery and haven't contacted many other birds; and gut issues affecting absorption.

What to do next?

First thing will be to slightly reduce protein so the laying stops for a short time (a week or two should help). That gives them a breather, though some may keep laying internally, which will be a bad thing in every way. EDS is improved by a break from laying, typically during a moult. Sometimes I feel a break can give the shell system time to catch up to ovulation as well.

Secondly I'll worm them. I haven't done so yet because they haven't shown signs of needing it (no diarrhoea, no weight loss), but they will almost certainly carry parasites, and these birds would very definitely have been bred without parasite resistance in mind. They might well have a few too many worms that are inhibiting calcium absorption by damaging the intestines. The layers of course aren't showing these problems, but whereas layers are bred to last 18 months before starting to fail (in the commercial setting) meat hybrids have only been bred to last 8-10 weeks. For this reason I feel their immune systems are likely to be massively more under par than those of their comparatively long-lived cousins.

Lastly on the thin-egg front I'll switch to commercial pellets (layer feed) for a while. This can be useful to find out if the mix I've been giving them isn't ideal. Actually they've been on half commercial mix for a while, given the problems I've had post-lupins (trying to source high protein feedstuffs) so this isn't a major change. And as I said the layers are doing quite well on the same feed. But it's worth a shot in case I've missed something.

So that's the current picture... A balancing act in the extreme! I hope I can sort out the laying as they really are friendly handsome birds. They're too huge for their own good, but they're inquisitive and quite gentle. They seem to know that their huge size puts them ahead of other birds when it comes to shaping up for a tussle. They're just a neat no-drama creature that's unfortunately been bred too far down a particular line.

Friday, August 5, 2011

How many pens do I need to raise chickens?

I just thought I'd do a round-up post of the setup here so anybody starting out can see what (in some situations) can work well. I remember feeling very confused when first starting to breed chickens about exactly how many pens and cages I would need.

There would be many improvements I could make, namely in terms of handling parasitical worms organically (i.e. more land to pen-rotate), but this is what I've got, and it's working well.

1. Incubator or broody hen. I know, obvious...

2. Brooder tub with lamp for chicks drying off and getting started (day 1-2). I use the largest tub I could find and it holds up to 50 day olds in the laundry with a single 40 or 60W infra red globe (depending on ambient temperature). I find with infra red lamps the tub can gradually overheat, so it's vital to keep checking. During this time I add probiotics and a tiny amount of healthy adult droppings to their food/environment. Slow exposure to coccidiosis seems to work best started at day 1 and including a range of protections such as soured milk.

3. Larger brooder for 2 days old to 3 weeks. I use either a cold brooder (see other posts) or a lamp. This brooder is also seeded with a small amount of adult hen droppings to make sure cocci exposure happens early. At 3 weeks artificially raised chicks start shedding high numbers of cocci oocysts and need to be moved so the brooder doesn't get 'seeded' with massive numbers that could harm the next chick batch. I have 3 brooders but only use one at a time, depending on how many chicks I have and how much work I want to do.

4. Tractor for 3 weeks to 10 weeks. During this time I shift the tractor regularly to keep the birds on grass and limit exposure to cocci. However I gradually slow this down, i.e. after 1 week on the ground I shift the tractor only every 2nd day, and after that every 3rd, 4th, etc. If grass disappears I always move them no matter what, even if it's a day. This tractor is nearly 4m x 2.7m so it's a good size.

5. Grower pen for 10 weeks to 16 weeks. During this time I select future breeders. The birds have usually become cocci immune before arriving in this pen.

6. Adult pens x 2, both with separate access to a sound-reducing night-shed (divided down the middle). This means I can keep 2 separate breeder flocks.

7. Broody hen pens x 2. These are sheds with mesh fronts that are used when a hen wants to raise chickens. I have a small ratproof one and a larger non-ratproof one. At 3 weeks the hen and babies are moved to either the tractor (if it's free) or the larger shed. I wouldn't need these if I was happy to artificially raise chicks all the time, but I often prefer leaving it to the hens.

8. Quarantine cage. I also use this cage as an overnight cage for the odd table cockerel to be processed early next day. It's a 1m square (approx.) mesh cage that I can take anywhere, e.g. onto grass if I'm wanting to use it as a temporary tractor. However it tends to stay empty unless I acquire a new rooster and want to make sure he's healthy.

I guess that's quite a lot of pens and cages, however it's not a huge setup in itself. But it works for me.