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.

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.