Why do we need another chicken blog or forum?

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

Sunday, December 26, 2010

free range dangers...

I really envy people who can free range their chickens without major problems!

My first problem was the goanna. His daily predations on the nestboxes meant that I could only open the pens after laying time (which tends to be morning). If I tried collecting eggs as soon as they were laid I invariably missed them; the goanna could hear the 'I've just laid an egg!' cries, hustle in and rob the nests before I got there. So this meant I could only free range after all eggs were collected. My dog is actually quite alert to the goanna, and has a special 'goanna alert' bark, but even she couldn't get between the culprit and those eggs...

My second problem was the goshawk. Actually, two goshawks. They killed two adult leghorns and frightened everything else within an inch of its life. Since we don't have small shrubs, but our block is studded with and surrounded by tall trees, the goshawks inevitably have the advantage, while chickens have nowhere to hide.

My third problem was the brush turkey. I'd never heard of them attacking chickens, but on my few recent free range attempts the brush turkey had the adult hens and rooster cowering in a corner while he rampaged around. Every time a hen tried to escape he jumped on her, raking and biting. Again I had to return my birds to their pens. I did catch the brush turkey in the pen (by accident) but couldn't bring myself to harm or relocate him, so now the brush turkey has the run of the yard.

All that, and I've never had a fox attack... You wouldn't read about it, would you? :-)

In lieu of free range, I often take chopped greens and found insects to the chicken coops. In fact yesterday was a very profitable day in insect terms, after I found hundreds of cicadas clinging to a tree at head-height. I made a long-reach fly-swatter out of a length of heavy duty fencing wire and a square of mouse mesh. At first I presumed every swat would make the other cicadas fly off, but I soon realised they were either deaf or very resistant to vibration. In the end I caught about 50.

Sometimes free range is impossible, but that doesn't mean your hens can't enjoy real food!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

And the broody sits...

The silkie-pekin, true to type, started going broody after she started laying a month and a half ago. Since I had no fertile eggs I took her nestbox away, and for a couple of weeks she tried brooding on the concrete or in the floor litter, without getting all that comfy. Eventually she gave up, then started laying again, then went broody again. Luckily this was only a week or so before I started getting a few fertile eggs.

So here she is, doing a great job so far. I had my doubts early, as she seemed a bit hysterical. You know the hysterical hens? They jump up in the air when you go into the pen and squawk in a panic when you fill the feed container. I always move slowly and try to stick to routines, but putting the eggs in her nestbox made her rocket out looking for an exit. However after her initial panic she returned to the nest, stared at the eggs for about five minutes as though trying to remember laying them, then edged her way into the nestbox and sat.

And sat, and sat... What a good girl! :-)

Commercial meat hybrid on free range...

Here he is, Hugo, just coming up to 17 weeks. He's a ball of meat and around 7kg in weight, but unfortunately he can't get around all that well, and over the two weeks I had him cooped with the girls, he ate more than he should (because the layers were fed ad lib) and put on so much weight he could no longer mate. Thus while after 3 days some of the eggs were fertile, fertility peaked at day 5 and then began to decline.

There's no easy choice for a meat producer. The dual purpose and non commercial meat breeds have been bred away from their original characteristics. You can't get good growth rates in non commercial stock. But growth rates of the commercial hybrids are too high for their skeletal or cardiovascular systems, and even this fellow, who was fed reasonably carefully in his first 15 weeks, will probably not survive much into a second breeding season, if he makes it that far. :-(

However I'm currently using his weight as a means of helping to control his weight! My breeder shed has elevated hatches the chickens use to come and go. Since Hugo can't fly or jump he stays in the shed while the hens escape daily into the run. Every day Hugo gets to forage in the backyard away from the hens. I'm doing this to reduce his weight until he can mate again, then he'll be put back with the hens to obtain fertile eggs. I suspect that will be his one and only breeding season, though I do have 8 trial eggs under a broody (about half of which are probably fertile, based on tests).

The second generation birds (suppose I get any) should start to show moderated growth rates and better balance between health, vigour and muscle. Perhaps a third generation back to Malay game would help with that balance as well. But to be perfectly honest this is all experimental, and it may be that the offspring of the Hugo cross drop dead by twenty weeks of age, or show other problems that make them undesirable in the breeding pen.

My goal is to breed dual purpose birds that mature to 2.4kg at 16 weeks of age. Leghorn-malays can do that, but Malay game aren't easy to come by, and my cockerel died early in 2010 (the great mouldy wheat fiasco). Sometimes you just have to make the most of what's available, and in my area aside from commercial meat hybrids there are no table-oriented birds, not even the sussex. They've all been bred for show or eggs. So it's really a case of back to the drawing board and making my own.

Luckily it's all fun... Except watching a 17 week old cockerel struggle up a low step. But whatever happens to Hugo, he's already lived three times as long as most of his type... And I'll do what I can to make things the best they can be for him. :-)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Carcass weights... erm... nothing to write home about...

Well, I said I'd tell it all... And this has been an experiment.

The ISA x malay cockerels were at the right age to process today. And as they were beginning to square up to one another, it was time to make a move.

I locked them in their night roost last night, so they couldn't come out foraging this morning. Then at 7am I went in, captured the four that were going for the pot, and put them somewhere dim and quiet away from where it was all to be done (chickens are highly visual and recognise death, even from a distance). Since this is all about being as humane as possible, I made sure each bird was done quickly (I use the neck dislocation method). Each bird was processed fully, and the area cleaned up, leaving nothing that could upset the next one.

The only difference to my usual method was in skinning instead of plucking, because I was pressed for time. This results naturally in a slightly lighter carcass. Still, the leghorn malay crosses I've processed in the past have been over 2kg at 16 weeks. These ISA crosses were mostly in the 1.5kg range, not a great result. All but one of the birds were in good health with clean, deeply coloured livers, normal organs, thick gizzard walls, and no signs of worms in the digestive tracts.

The last cockerel weighed only 1.1kg dressed, but this little one obviously had a problem processing food. When I looked at the carcass, I saw no signs of ill health except a bit of a hunched back (probably a congenital deformity). Then I studied his insides further and found the oddest thing of all: complete absence of a gall bladder! His other organs were normal. It was an unusual find.

So the two remaining cockerels, which are nicely grown and would probably weigh around 1.6-1.7kg if processed, will perhaps not be worth keeping as breeders after all. Looking at the other birds of this cross, the frames are simply too small to make decent table birds at 16 weeks, when other factors (like crowing, fighting and treading hens) come into play.

This wasn't a bad experiment, as the pullets from this cross should make excellent layers (I'll be watching for age of onset and production levels, as well as broodiness, quickness of moulting and other influences on egg count). But for table birds, I think 16 weeks should be sufficient time to have 2.2kg dressed weight. Earlier malay-leghorn crosses were around that mark.

Back to the drawing board!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Do we over-worm our chickens?

Chicken forum gurus commonly set out to recommend regular worming. Some are so determined to push this practice, they never mention the almost-certainty that regular worming will produce resistant worms more successfully than it will rid the flock, or their ground, of parasites. Put simply, worming can only rescue susceptible birds from a worm overload; it can't eliminate worms.

More interestingly, a recent study of people suffering from irritable bowel (IBS) and similar problems found that a high percentage of those who chose to be infected with hookworms had their IBS symptoms appear to resolve! Now that's amazing. It appears the worm activity caused a strengthening of the weakened gut wall. (My reference for this, with apologies, is an article in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald of a few days ago... I know I ought to dig it out, and will try! Promise.) At any rate, it seems the idea that intestinal worms are inevitably bad is perhaps overstated in modern medicine.

The question of whether small worm burdens may be helpful aside, it's also true that different zones have different worm problems, and these problems are to a large extent related to things like humidity, rainfall patterns (e.g. summer rain can cause worm explosions) and, gasp, shock, horror, minerals in the soil. Yet you don't hear forum wormer-pushers mentioning that minerals and paddock rotation matter when it comes to worms.

Coastal soils in areas with high summer rainfall are almost inevitably depleted in copper, cobalt and other minerals. Sheep raised coastally in these areas often succumb to barber's pole worm, which causes anaemia. However I know from keeping sheep in an area notorious for worm problems (Coffs Harbour, NSW) that frequent worming isn't necessarily the answer. In fact, one lamb that had succumbed to what appeared to be a high worm burden failed to respond to worming treatments at all. The vet decided the worms were possibly resistant, and kept applying different worming products. The poor lamb just got worse. His wool had stopped growing, he had dermatitis, was bone-thin and pot-bellied, and had bottle jaw (a swelling around the jaw caused by anaemia).

I finally gave up on worming the poor fellow, and gave him injections of vitamin B-12 (effectively, cobalt) as well as drenches high in copper (mainly in the form of seaweed meal). Immediately — as in a matter of hours — I could see that his wool had begun to grow. He certainly had worms, but they weren't his main problem. He was susceptible to worms and had eroded gut lining because of copper-cobalt anaemia caused by poor soils, an insufficient mineral lick, and insufficient dietary protein.

After that terrible experience I began to keep my sheep entirely without worming, which is to say using a combination of paddock rotation, a copper-enriched mineral block, and a small amount of supplementary feed (barley, lucerne and lupins). This was only a short experiment (under 6 years) but it seemed to prove that, at the very least, an emphasis on minerals and protein could reduce the need for worming with harsh chemicals, and eliminate it in otherwise-healthy and well fed sheep.

Now to chickens, which are, of course, quite different to sheep. However it also seems possible that a creature that evolved in rainforest may have slightly stronger constitutions than they're given credit for. At the very least, I decided after my sheep experience to cut back on worming.

I now only worm when I see definite signs of a need. So far, my growers are entirely without mucky bottoms or other signs of worms. I'll have a check of their intestinal tracts when each of the four eaters are processed for the table, and speak up if I see anything troubling. I recently moved five adult pullets to the breeding pen, and was somewhat astonished to find that the ISA browns in particular — not exactly notorious for carcass weight — were chunky, weighty birds, as were the australorp cross leghorns.

Like everything I do, this blog relates a process of learning as well as reading, thinking, making mistakes and fixing them... But I'll let you in on a secret. Those ISA browns I found surprisingly heavy are about ten months of age, and neither has ever been wormed. They've been kept in a pen where I've raised several batches of layers, and the pen has had its share in the past of visiting birds. They've also spent time free ranging and digging the soil. Now, ten months isn't long to go without commercial worming. But if I'd listened to some of those forums, I'd have wormed them three times already! So whether or not I have to worm them in future (and I will if they appear to need it) I honestly think their present condition says it's possible to do things differently.

And sometimes I find myself wondering... Do modern chemical wormers make intestines more susceptible to future worm burdens? It sounds unbelievable, but on the other hand, it would be a good way for a chemical company to stay in profit... But of course I can't believe anyone, even a scientist, could be that hard-nosed.

Meanwhile I'll continue to wait for worm signs before worming... And I'll keep up the protein and fresh feeds, as well as mineral supplements like seaweed meal (judicious amounts only, of course: seaweed meal is high in iodine) just in case.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Feeding in the last week before processing cockerels...

Trying something new at the moment, just for the hell of it.

I have many bags of bandsaw dust in our freezer, scrounged off a local butcher who's happy to see them go to good use, for a small fee. However bandsaw dust (a byproduct of when the butcher saws chops etc) is quite fatty and too high in bone to be a good regular food, especially for laying hens. It's more of a treat for birds.

Next I bought some cheap rolled oats from the supermarket, which were a similar price (per kilogram) to a big bag from the feed store but easier to handle, and I only needed a weeks' worth. A similar bargain bought me some split red lentils.

Every morning my growers are getting the sprout diet. But of an afternoon I'm now giving them the following:

Four parts rolled oats
Three parts bandsaw dust
One part split red lentils (could also use split peas)
Tablespoon skim milk powder for a quarter bucket of mash
Warm water to make a firm mash, not too sloppy.

They love the mash and happily fill their crops on it. While I didn't bother weighing them before beginning this final week's diet, I'm comfortable saying that I think they're all putting on a little extra weight. Certainly their crops are very distended at night-time.

I wouldn't want to feed this as a regular diet to breeders, but as a fattening diet or for a short term boost I can't see there would be any drawbacks, particularly given that their morning feed is so complete, and that they also receive chopped fresh greens. And I'm happy too that the protein isn't in a rendered form.

I'll post results when the time comes...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Protein for the home flock...

Here at The Natural Chicken I've been including lupins in the birds' diet so I can reduce the soy. Lupins (not to be confused with Lupin Beans or Lupinis, which are toxic unless boiled) originally had high levels of compounds that inhibited the absorption of nutrients. However most modern lupins sold in feed stores have been bred to have low levels of these anti-nutritional compounds, and are therefore safe to feed chickens or other animals.
In my chick grower recipe, for instance, I now include 5-10% cracked lupins which have been briefly soaked in molasses water. Lupins can be a little unpalatable when birds are unused to eating them, but a small amount of molasses helps overcome any reluctance. At anywhere from 28-42% protein (according to http://www.lupins.org/feed/) they really are a useful feed.

However it can be difficult, relying on vegetable proteins, to meet the full amino acid requirement of growing birds. Remember that chickens are not natural vegetarians. The easiest way to ensure a full amino acid profile is to include a certain amount of meat protein.

Since meat meal is a byproduct of slaughterhouses, it includes reject meat from carcasses that may contain higher levels of chemical residues than those allowed in human diets. This isn't ideal, and it's always worth looking at other sources of animal protein than mass produced meals.

The obvious ones, from my browsing, are mealworms, earthworms and other insects. I'm not all that keen on feeding my chickens maggots, because there are dangers of botulism if maggots have been feasting on rotting meat, but mealworms sound fairly easy to raise, and would make a terrific additional feed and protein boost for young chicks. (I don't raise them, so can't tell you how to do it, but if you google you'll find very detailed how-to's, basically involving lots of icecream containers and bran.) As for other insects, well, it's cicada season here, but I'm not sure I'm up to climbing trees.

What I'm currently doing instead is trying to set up a worm farm just for feeding chooks. A trip to Bunnings for $24 worth of compost earthworms (or 'redworms') was my only expense, as we happened to have a defunct fishpond lying around. With the addition of a lid and of course a heap of compost and scraps, my worm farm was underway. Naturally it needs to be in a shady place; this one sits about 45cm deep in the soil, and is made of concrete and stones.

It's too early to say what the production rate will be, much less if I can actually farm worms without killing them by adding too many lemons or other no-no's... Frankly I'm pretty ignorant about earthworms. But I will say one thing: with my preference for avoiding insecticides and coccidiostats, I would think the worms in this farm have a pretty good chance of breeding quickly.

Once I have sufficient numbers to start feeding chickens, there remains the question of whether I feed them to the chickens raw, dried or cooked. Cooking would remove any internal parasites (earthworms can carry tapeworm, for example). Drying would mean they can be stored for feeding at times when protein availability is low (or extra is needed, e.g. when chicks hatch).

But all this is theoretical unless the worms proliferate... So watch this space! :-)

Oops! One important reminder. If you do get into earthworms, remember never to put chicken droppings in the compost if your birds have recently been wormed! The products that kill intestinal worms also harm earthworms.

Meanwhile the University of Manitoba's poultry feed information pages are very useful for anyone starting to make their own feeds. Try this link for starters: http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/livestock/poultry/bba01s12.html. And happy chicken feeding!

A week to dispatch... Misgivings, as usual.

The four table cockerels have only a week to live. That's harsh! But it's the reality. I can't help feeling sorry and wanting to give them a little extra quality-of-life for this last week.

We're a weird species... We breed animals that probably wouldn't exist in the wild, and we look after them as kindly as we can, then suddenly we kill them. When it comes to doing the deed, I always feel like a murderer.

But while turning pets into meat is weird, I believe factory farming — where the chickens are seen as meat even while alive — is weirder. Worst of all is viewing the population that eats the meat as another form of fodder (profit). How else to explain the sometimes-dangerous chemicals that end up in our food chain?

Unfortunately agricultural chemical companies are too far ahead of regulations. You can't regulate against a chemical unless you have definitive research showing its links to problems in the human population. That can take decades, especially if regulatory bodies are still working on a backlog of hazardous chemicals.

All of which means that while meat is murder, it's better than slow poisoning.

Once the cockerels are dead, it just becomes a simple process of turning a carcass into attractive food, something that begins in the backyard and ends, days later, on a plate. By the time that happens, I've stopped feeling remorseful, and started feeling almost... well, proud. :-)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Age of dispatching cockerels...

I have four cockerels marked for the pot; these are birds that I don't want to breed from, as either they're too small to breed useful dual purpose birds, or they're a tad too aggressive (one of the cockerels is particularly harsh on his siblings, even females).

The right time to dispatch chickens varies enormously. Purebreds like sussex take a very long time to develop flesh once they've grown all that bone; indeed, by the time light sussex have fleshed up, they can often be unpleasantly tough. By twelve months of age they're of a good table weight and meatiness, but they've had so many extra months of testosterone that putting them in the pot may mean either stewing or currying them.

Crossing purebreds is a good way to introduce hybrid vigour, which (depending on the cross) should shorten processing age. That's why a lot of people cross sussex to Indian game for table birds, of course adding the Indian's superior meatiness to the mix. The usual result is chicks that develop more quickly than either of the parent birds. More on hybrid vigour in a moment.

However in practice, I've found that Indian game are hard to breed from. If you run a purebred Indian rooster with sussex hens, you'll get a reasonable number of eggs, but you may have none fertile. Indian roosters, unless you get a leggy active one, sometimes have trouble treading more active hens. Conversely if you put the sussex rooster in with Indian game hens, you should get lovely fertile eggs, but due to the Indian's low egg output you won't get many of them. So for me, crossing layers to Indian game isn't the best way to produce useful birds.

In fact, I think purebreds are overrated generally, except in the sense that they allow the retention of genes that would be watered down (and out of existence) when crossing. For instance, I would never have been able to crossbreed using Malay game if I hadn't found some purebreds to begin with. But now that I have the Malay genes, do I have to continue using purebred Malays to produce my desired dual purpose birds?

The answer is a resounding 'No!' Hybrid vigour isn't some magical product of crossing purebreds, but is rather the removal of 'inbreeding depression' that results from breeding pure strains. In this sense crossbreds already exhibit vigour. In other words, when you cross two crossbreds, you don't get increases in vigour between generations, because you start from that basis. Since the only improvements come from genes you introduce to the mix, you can focus on traits you want in the crossing, and without hybrid vigour (or the removal of inbreeding depression) to complicate the results, you can make a truer assessment of where your breeding style is heading. There is therefore no reason, when breeding for utility, to stick to purebreds at all, except when you want to introduce known (and predictable) characteristics, or to increase genetic variation to hopefully result in long term survival against disease.

For these reasons I don't plan to keep crossing purebred Malay game to leghorns or other layer types, but rather to start using some of the offspring as breeders in their own right. The offspring aren't perfect meat birds (as the sussex/Indian cross would be), but I can always bring in new blood of a breed that has the characteristics I want later on. Meanwhile I can keep the hens as layers while taking my time choosing the right table birds and breeding from the remaining roosters.

Now back to age of dispatching cockerels (apologies for taking a long route). Since my birds have lost their inbreeding depression and are maturing fairly fast, I don't need to wait until the cockerels are a year old to be fleshy enough to dispatch. The question of age at putting them in the pot comes down to issues like crowing and pin feathers.

Age of crowing varies a lot between breeds, but so far the ISA/Malay crosses aren't voicing at all, despite the meat hybrid in another pen singing his head off. This is good as it means I don't have to be concerned about my neighbours just yet, and the cockerels have extra time to mature and grow flesh.

The second issue is pin feathers. Chicks moult in various stages, and each time they moult they regrow feathers that start out looking a bit like pins. These narrow pointy feather-buds are very hard to remove from a carcass, and are unsightly (not to mention off-putting to eat) if the skin is left on the bird when roasting or for other purposes. Plucking pin feathers is an horrendous chore, as each one has to be removed between the blunt side of a knife and the thumb. In brief, birds dispatched while still growing pin feathers are best skinned rather than plucked when processing for the pot.

If the skin is needed intact, the best way to end up with a useful table bird is to dispatch when the cockerel is between moults, and his pin feathers have fully emerged. In most chickens there are 4 moults between hatch and maturity, though not all are full-body moults. If you time dispatch between these, depending on the amount of flesh and the maturity of the bird, you should get a decent table carcass.

The first chick moult is a full moult, which occurs between 1 and 6 weeks when all the first feathers grow. The remaining moults are partial, occuring at 7-9 weeks, 12-16 weeks, and 20-22 weeks, depending on the maturation rate of each bird (e.g. some birds begin growing feathers later than others).

To avoid pin feathers, timing of dispatch should therefore be between 16 and 20 weeks, or after 22 weeks. It could also be early in the case of early crowers if noise or behaviour is a problem (say, 9-11 weeks). However for many people relying on medicated chick feed, dispatching at 9-11 weeks brings in the question of meat residues. The bag label may say 'nil withholding period' for meat from birds fed a medicated starter, but personally I'd prefer no medications at all. All the more reason, at least for me, in removing medicated starter as early as possible.

Meanwhile I'm planning to process the 4 excess ISA/Malay cockerels at 16 weeks, namely in 3 weeks' time. Of course it's not going to be fun, and not a day goes by that I don't look at each of the marked 4 boys and think, 'That's a really nice bird.' But it's simply not possible to keep every cockerel, and in the end this is the purpose I bred them for. The main thing in the meantime is to give them as good a life as possible, with fresh air, sunshine, grass, unmedicated feed and as little stress as possible.

Naturally if they began crowing at a young age, I'd have to look at processing them after the 7 week moult, or I could just skin them rather than pluck the carcass. But the nitty gritty of doing all that is best left for another post.

update on leghorn chicks, 2nd week without medicated starter

This is roughly their second week off any medications in the feed. They're currently eating the sprout diet with about 20% protein from lucerne, peas, meat meal and soya meal. Soya meal in Australia probably comes from US grown soy beans, and presumably it's genetically modified (91% of US soy is), but at present there are limited options for increasing protein. I don't like feeding genetically modified feeds as I think there's good reason to be concerned about long term health risks, but unfortunately growing my own protein sources (namely tagasaste and other legumes) is slow and will take some time to get going.

Here are some shots of the birds, aged six and a half weeks.

These are the girls, obligingly standing in a group:

I'm pleased to see no signs of coccidiosis in any of them. All their feathers are quite shiny, and there are no signs of pallor or being off feed. Furthermore the droppings are all sound.

As you can see, the grass has all been eaten out of the run, so it's time to move the tractor to a new patch. I'm tempted to leave it here and supply greens on the side, but they do love picking their own fresh greens.

Cold brooder how-to has been revamped...

For anyone re-browsing, I've added a few more details and clarifications to the cold brooder how-to. Some of these are important for safety (such as the note that my cold brooding experiences relate mostly to fast-feathering chicks); others are just adding details to flesh out a point.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Soft shelled eggs

Years ago I had a bunch of hens that all began laying soft shelled eggs when they should (theoretically) have been getting sufficient calcium. They were all on standard layer diets at the time, but I was also providing dolomitic limestone in a hopper. The other thing of relevance (when I found out what I'd done wrong) was that they'd been raised on a home-made grower diet that was high in meat meal.

After researching as much as I could, I learned quite a lot about soft shelled egg laying!


1. Okay, this is obvious: calcium deficiency. Increase availability of shell grit! However there are many other causes of calcium deficiency, so keep reading...

2. Calcium isn't being absorbed properly. That is, the diet may be sufficiently high in calcium to make eggshells, but for some reason the bird isn't able to take it on board. There are a lot of things to include here. For instance, heavy worm burden, coccidiosis, enteritis and other illnesses may affect the gut's ability to absorb what it needs to from food. A diet too low in animal-based protein may also compromise gut health, as vitamin B12 comes predominantly from animal sources, and is vital in establishing a healthy gut wall. Finally, algae in the water, even in small amounts, can inhibit absorption of nutrients including calcium. Never let water go even faintly green! Overall, if the calcium is there in the diet, but shells remain soft, you may need to look at whether your chickens have a healthy digestive tract.

3. Calcium-phosphorus ratio may be upset. The proper ratio is not far off 1:10 (calcium to phosphorus). Now here's where my meat meal mistake comes in... Too much phosphorus compared to calcium stops calcium being absorbed. Meat meal is often too high in phosphorus, even though its calcium content is high as well. The result can be soft shelled eggs! Bandsaw dust from the butcher may also cause problems with calcium-phosphorus ratio. The fix is obviously to remove any unbalanced feeds and increase plain calcium. Laying hens need about 3-4% calcium in their feed.

4. Too much calcium fed to growing pullets will reduce their ability to absorp calcium later in life (when they start to lay). The damage caused by high calcium too early can be permanent.

5. Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is necessary for the absorption of calcium. Without sunlight or a D3 supplement (like cod liver oil), it doesn't matter how much calcium is in the diet, it won't be absorbed.

6. Dolomitic limestone is *not* an appropriate calcium source for layer hens. The reason is that dolomitic limestone is too high in magnesium, and this competes with calcium for absorption. Plain crushed limestone should be fine.

7. Mycotoxins (toxins released by moulds) can inhibit nutrient absorption and affect shell quality (as well as laying generally). Remove any mouldy feeds and preferably only store chicken feed in airtight containers, and for no longer than a month or so. Even feed that looks perfectly clean and healthy may harbour mould toxins at levels that can harm hens.


Soft shelled eggs are more likely to be diet related, but can also be a virus causing Egg Drop Syndrome (or EDS). As EDS has been eliminated from commercial breeders it's less prevalent these days, so most cases of soft shelled eggs will *not* be virally caused. Still, if you have adult hens that suddenly and persistently start laying soft shelled eggs (for up to 18 days or so) then it may be EDS. In that case you may have to moult them (putting them off lay by giving low protein feeds) to bring shell quality back and get them over the virus. Interestingly, according to web information it probably originated from infected vaccines, after which it became transmissible between hens!

Apart from EDS there's another disease (more common) called Infectious Bronchitis (IB) that can cause soft shelled egg laying, but IB involves significant respiratory symptoms, and while some eggs will be soft shelled, the majority are wrinkly and misshapen. Thus IB is fairly obvious.

I hope this is useful... Might as well dredge the brain before it starts to disintegrate!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Remedies for hens that eat eggs...

I haven't had this in a while, but thought I'd do a round-up post with all my remedies (and some actually work!).


1. Exclude predators! Can't get around this one. You may need to shift the nestboxes to a safe zone and coop the chickens in this until laying time is over. Another option is to move the nestboxes close to a spot where you or your dog can keep an eye on things (if it's goannas). But frankly the only way I've defeated goannas is to coop the chickens in a secure pen until laying is finished for the day.

2. Harden eggshells. Feed extra calcium, maybe worm the birds (heavy worm burdens reduce nutrient absorption), make sure water is always clean (algae and germy water will also affect nutrient absorption), and make sure chickens aren't kept too dark, as vitamin D (from sunlight) is necessary for the absorption of calcium. You can give cod liver oil if you feel vitamin D needs an increase and there's no easy way to expose the birds to more light.

3. Increase protein *if it's deficient*. Some diets may be low in methionine, which can lead to cannibalism and egg eating. Standard layer feeds should not be low in protein, but if you dilute the feed with scraps without making sure the scraps are high enough in protein, the bird may gradually develop a deficiency.

4. Darken and raise nestboxes. If a rooster persistently gets in the nestbox to check it out for hens, you need to get the nest away from his immediate view.


A common suggestion with ingrained egg eaters is to blow out an egg and fill it with mustard or chilli. Frankly this doesn't work, or doesn't work often enough to justify the effort. Chilli doesn't work because birds don't taste heat, and to be honest mustard only puts them off briefly.

Putting golf balls in a nestbox isn't a bad idea, but it doesn't really stop the problem of hens associating one another's 'I've just laid' squawk with food. That's the real habit you need to break, because as soon as a hen makes her laying noise, the others will know there's a fresh egg ready to be smashed.

Using a 'roll nest' isn't a bad idea, but I've found that a determined hen will simply reach into the egg compartment. However you will certainly cut the number of egg losses if you use a roll nest. By the way, I've made ordinary nestboxes into roll nests by simply raising the rear on about a 10 degree slope, and installing a little shelf at the front for eggs to roll under. However you can't use nesting litter with roll nests, and often hens refuse to go inside.

The best solution is one that comes from understanding how chickens go about eating their eggs. They either try to stomp on the eggs; or they corner them against the nestbox side before using their beak. Some will roll the egg up out of the nestbox and try to smash it on the floor.

The best way to break an ingrained habit is, funnily enough, to make sure hens can easily get at the eggs, but make it much harder for those eggs to be broken. Since they usually need a nestbox to break eggs (or something else to break it against, like the floor when dropped), the answer is to *remove the nestboxes* and leave a completely plain open floor for laying.

The hens (and/or rooster) will try again and again to break those first eggs, but with nothing to corner them against (except the shed corners -- but most times eggs will be laid in the middle of the floor) the eggs will simply roll. This is also dependent on hard eggshells, but if eggshells are solid, then while you may get chips in the end of each egg, you're very unlikely to lose entire eggs.

You must do this for at least a week. In that time the hens and rooster will have exhausted their repertoire of tactics. Much longer than a week you might find they invent new ones, but most times you'll find that the hens and rooster no longer try to break the eggs, and no longer associate the 'I've just laid' call with fine food.

You've got nothing to lose by trying this, and it can be done on a concrete floor (preferably with a tiny sprinkling of fine litter like sawdust, just to help cushion the egg, but not enough to stop it rolling) or a dirt floor. The eggs will be dirtier than you'd like, but after a week or so you can think about returning the chickens to their usual pen. You may not want to use the same old nestbox as formerly (as it may awaken memories) or perhaps you might use other tactics like darkening and raising the box just to reinforce the new situation.

I've cured 2 sets of egg eaters in this fashion, because it breaks the cycle of birds associating one another's 'I've just laid' squawk with food.

Good luck!

Friday, November 19, 2010

ISA Malay crosses... 12 weeks old and bulking up!

Just a few snaps to show progress on the malay-ISA crosses. I'm quite taken with several of the cockerels as potential breeders for dual purpose and meat.

This is Thumpy... Should never name chickens of course (the favourites are always the ones predators go for), but I like his weight and colour. So far, no aggression.

One of the pullets:

Figaro... He's got the longest legs of them all, but is developing some weight as well.

And Thumpy again, in case anyone doesn't believe in the dinosaur-bird connection... :-))

Reducing medicated starter... *carefully*!

My leghorns are now 5 weeks of age. A week ago I began carefully reducing the amount of medicated starter in their diet, and adding meat bird finisher (which is coccidiostat-free). The reason for moving to meat bird finisher is that it's sufficiently high in protein for chicks to grow.

Now these birds have been reared so far in the brooder (3 weeks) then in a small aviary with a concrete floor (2 weeks). When I first put the chicks in the aviary, I covered the floor with a half-inch of crusher dust and then a layer of oaten chaff for litter, and this was sprinkled lightly with water with a small amount of adult hen droppings to introduce a coccidiosis challenge (as well as any beneficial bugs that may be in the hens' digestive system).

In those 2 weeks we copped a heap of rain, and the floor of the aviary ended up quite wet due to a leaky roof. Frankly it's not an ideal situation for young birds, but despite what must have been a considerable cocci challenge, none of the chicks became ill. I put this down to a low number of birds (I sold some, so was down to 7), the fresh litter with its reasonably controlled cocci load, and the fact that the chicks had also encountered cocci oocysts in small numbers in the brooder (via a tiny bit of adult hen droppings introduced into their water, along with some probiotics in a diluted Yakult drink...).

Yesterday I reduced the medicated starter to zero, and moved them to the tractor outside, on ground that has had chickens in the past 6 months but has also got a dense mat of new spring grass. I'll remain watchful even now, but I don't expect too many coccidiosis issues now, as these birds have proved themselves capable of dealing with wet ground and a seven day withdrawal of medication.

So to put this simply: I have five-week old chicks running on damp ground without medication. It's too early to be triumphant, but I'm hopeful that I can eventually be raising chicks without coccidiostats. Earlier and careful weaning will let me find out the limits on medication removal without unnecessarily harming chicks!

Above: the current diet consists of either commercial meat finisher or (as in the picture) the sprout mix including meat meal to raise protein content. Meat meal has its share of problems including too high phosphorus against calcium (if given to layers it can cause soft shelled eggs and other issues), and of course it's an inferior byproduct. However it's still commonly used in commercial chicken feeds, so it's difficult to avoid anyway, and often the alternatives are synthetic (such as artificial methionine). I've increased protein in other ways as well, such as higher lucerne chaff content (soaked chaff is best), and molasses-soaked field peas. The chicks are enjoying the sprout mix!

I'll keep an eye on the chicks and if they look at all peaky, or go off food (the first sign of cocci) I'll move the tractor daily; at present, however, I'm planning to only move it when the grass diminishes (probably a week or so).

Of course, it may be that my system will suit a completely medication-free approach; or it may be that I always need to use small amounts of medicated starter but can continually wean early with careful management. Or it may be that as time goes on, the coccidiosis oocyst build-up in my tractor area's soil becomes too great for young chicks... However there's a theory that cocciodiosis oocysts have predators of their own; if that's the case, I would expect that soil numbers will stabilise.

Lastly I guess I could try other feed inclusions like fine grade dolomite (claimed to help grind parasites like worm and coccidiosis oocysts up in the gizzard), apple cider vinegar (claimed to acidify the gut against various parasites) and garlic. However for now I'm just looking at nutrition, fresh feed and litter management.

The experiment continues...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Even if you can't fully cold brood...

...most people who brood artificially can cut their power use massively by creating a warm 'igloo' in the general brooder. Why use 100W globes 24 hours a day for 3-6 weeks when you can use a single 40W globe for half that time, and still brood high numbers of chicks? All you need is to ensure that the heat source is effective enough to warm the nest area up, and that chicks can get away from heat when they need to. And of course when you start switching the heat off during the day (an hour at a time, then two hours, depending on weather), you need to be sure the chicks have learned where to huddle to warm up.

But if you want to do this, the cold brooder plans on the right probably aren't the way to go. The small doorway is ideal when fully cold brooding, but when using a lamp, overnight you can find that the chicks get too warm and tend to cram themselves at the doorway, blocking the exit. Weaker chicks inside the 'igloo' overheat while ones stuck outside can chill.

To use cold brooding methods to reduce power use, a better design would be an entirely open-fronted nest area with a hanging curtain of towel or sacking cut into strips (like those flystrip door curtains you used to see hanging in front of grocery shops). Stuff hay around the nesting compartment on three sides and let the fourth be the fabric strips. If it's getting quite cold at night, you'll want to check the chicks before bedtime to make sure the brooding compartment is staying warm; if it isn't, simply block up the hanging curtain with a bit of wood, leaving a smaller doorway.

Alternatively, lamp brood by day (when chicks can more comfortably come and go) and totally cold brood at night.

Whichever way you go, I can't stress enough how important it is to watch the birds, especially until they've learned to use the 'igloo' on their own. But if you're using a cold brooder with a low wattage heat source to downsize your power bill, during the day in most weathers there's little that can go wrong. I can happily go off to work and tuck the chicks away at night when I come home.

In fact, heating an entire brooder is a recipe for coccidiosis problems, as keeping litter warm just requires a little extra humidity or spillage from a water container to create ideal cocci breeding conditions.

Of course it takes effort to get the setup right, and you must adjust it as the chicks grow; slow feathering breeds would clearly need extra room in the 'igloo'. But the reduced power usage is surely worth it!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

a minor glitch with cold brooding...

Well, I said I'd share the downs as well as ups...
In the recent hatch, I ended up with 10 or 11 leghorns and 1 malay game.

The little malay game was helped out of the shell and has never been as strong as the others. Because she's undersize and feathering very slowly, she's more vulnerable to chilling. By contrast, at three weeks of age the other chicks are spending all their time out at the feeder instead of helping build heat up in the igloo (which would help the malay stay warm).

To help the malay along I've reinstalled the 40W infra red globe, and she's sitting under it at the moment. I'm not sure she'll be useful as a breeder, but it's a timely reminder that cold brooding doesn't suit batches of chicks where the feathering rates differ.

Meanwhile, here are shots of a couple of cockerel chicks enjoying their new digs. I always move chicks from the chick-brooder to a larger ratproof area at 3 weeks of age, because 3 weeks is when they start shedding high numbers of coccidiosis oocysts. This way the brooder stays relatively clean for new chicks.

The floor of the new pen is crusher dust (basically very fine gravel) overlaid with oaten chaff. I also seeded the area with a sprinkling of water containing healthy adult droppings to make sure the floor isn't too clean — after all, they need some exposure to bugs so they can continue to develop resistance.

Friday, October 29, 2010

sprouts for health

Back on the sprout diet, with a caveat: make sure the grains are in good condition and not mouldy!
Here goes with the recipe:

70-75% wheat
10% lucerne chaff soaked in molasses water
10% corn
5% sunflower, pea and lupins.

Ritual: every 4 days tip 4 days' worth of wheat and corn into a large bucket, and fill the bucket to the top with water. After 24 hours strain the grain and hang them in a bag to drain completely. Over 4 days, feed either the soaked or sprouting or fully sprouted grains with other additives as above (chaff, molasses, sunflower etc).

Sprouting doesn't add vitamins or amino acids but it does 'unlock' vitamins that are there already and that might otherwise pass through the bird's digestive system.

The above diet will need a few added extras if you want it to be a permanent thing. Firstly free range or good fresh green pick (mainly for vitamin A, which ensures good immunity). Secondly, sunlight (for vitamin D). Thirdly, calcium (e.g. shell grit) for layers. Fourthly, a few of the necessary amino acids are best supplied by meat. Ideally this would be insects from free range, but at certain times of the year (or in a small yard) insects can be in short supply. A handful of meat meal, fish meal or similar can go a long way when the other inclusions are sprouts.

You can add seaweed meal and other supplements like dolomite for minerals, but be careful about quantities, particularly with seaweed (which can be extremely high in iodine). If you do add minerals, it's a good idea to provide them in a small hopper so birds can take the amount they need.

One last thing: salt. Chickens can't handle too much, but they do need a little of it, so the odd family meal scraps or leftover bread can fill the requirement.

Happy sprouting!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

buying non-medicated grower... difficult!

The local feed shop guy was astounded. 'You want what?'
'Non medicated grower.'
'Because my birds don't need cocci meds any more. I wean them at six weeks.'

He told me I'll lose birds, 100% guaranteed, they'll die. When I explained that I don't hatch many chicks, I introduce them to the parasite slowly and in measured quantities, I always keep an eye on chick behaviour (going off feed is the first sign of coccidiosis), and I raise them on a solid floor before moving them at 3 weeks to fresh ground, he softened slightly. But he still couldn't think of a supplier I could use.

One hour's drive away I finally found a feed store that sold 'meat bird finisher', which has a good enough protein content (20%) for six week old chicks but isn't medicated. They only had one bag, and told me if I want more I have to order it in. Fair enough, but that's a lot of petrol just to pick up some bird feed. Even sillier, it's come all the way from SA.

What I think I need to do is grow more of my own chicken feed, if possible. Of course I'll still have to buy in fish meal and meat meal, or some similar high protein concentrate — there just aren't enough insects here for all my birds, and the day-predators like eagles and goshawks are too damn keen — but I should be able to supply a good deal of their requirements.

With that in mind I've planted 8 tagasaste (tree lucerne) bushes, and will soon be sowing a range of other chicken-feed crops like peas and sunflowers. The grower tractor will become the fertilising spreader, and the quarter-acre in the middle of our block will be dedicated to food producing. It's not much, but it'll help.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

magpie and currawong attack

One more modification to the warm/cold brooder below: covering it with mouse mesh.

I came home from shops to find all the chicks with bleeding eyes from a combined magpie and currawong attack. The wild birds were able to chase the chicks into huddling against the bird mesh; then I presume they managed to poke their beaks through the bird wire. Two magpies and a huge currawong fled when I walked into the shed.

The poor malay chick copped it worst, but here's a shot of her 2 days later (I won't scare you with images of the fresh wounds). You can see the damage to the lower eyelids, already healing. Her eyesight is none the worse for wear.

Needless to say, the brooder is now fully mouse meshed and the top is partially covered in a sack to limit aerial access.

What this goes to show is that a brooder that works well in one environment may not work so well in another. We've only just moved here; up north, we had no problem with crows, magpies or currawongs, and the dog took care of most non-aerial predators. Down here (Central Coast NSW) the creatures that want to eat chicks are all a lot wilier, being well familiar with people and their antics.

No doubt I'll be modifying my set up even more as I go... But for now, she's safe. :-)

Ultra low power usage brooding...

More fiddling with the cold/warm brooder (the wire one at the bottom right hand side of this page).

Basically it was working well, but the 40w heat lamp (infra red) was too hot for the chicks in such a small cosy space. At night they were under only a towel and that was plenty warm. But during the day, the lamp was too hot, and the chicks weren't able to sleep comfortably in the igloo, yet being outside was just that little bit too cool.

So this morning I found a reptile heat mat at a nearby pet shop for around $20. Power usage is 5 watts! That's a huge energy saving (not that 40w is all that much in the scheme of things, but power matters).

I've installed it in a kind of wire mesh 'pocket' attached to the underside of the lid at the igloo end. Last but not least I've attached a timer so that power is only on for 15 minutes with 15 minutes off (as recommended by the heat mat manufacturer, in case the plastic it's embedded in overheats).

It works because the inside of the igloo only needs to be a few degrees warmer than outside for the chicks to want to huddle inside when they get a little chilly. Once inside, their own body heat is largely trapped by the straw surrounding the igloo, and they create their own cosy space. The 5 watt mat is really just a lure to teach the chicks to go inside when cold. At about 14cm x 15 cm it easily fits into the niche area between straw sections. The mat itself isn't touching anything flammable, as there's wire mesh above and below.

Lastly I've draped a small piece of cloth over the whole lid area, helping trap the heat and deflect it downward. Here are some shots without the towelling: one of the top of the closed lid;

... and one looking at the underside of the lid when it's raised.

Whenever you brood chicks, the best results come by watching their behaviour. I know my cold brooders work when chicks emerge at a full tilt run and spend a few moments flapping and cheeping madly before they tuck into their food and water. They don't cheep noisily, huddle outside or stand around panting; they just get about their business of eating and growing.

One last benefit of cold (or lukewarm) brooding: you don't get high numbers of coccidiosis oocysts building up around feeders and waterers. Why not? Because only the 'igloo' is heated! Since coccidiosis thrives in warm wet conditions, a cool run helps limit their numbers and reduce coccidiosis outbreaks.

Lastly, chicks under a mother certainly don't spend their whole time being heated externally. Having chicks learn when they need to find warmth is part of raising healthy chicks.


Training chicks to use the cold brooder after they've learned to associate warmth with light (via a lamp, whether infra red or plain) can be hard! I found while using the 5W heat pad that it didn't provide enough of a lure if there was a light source nearby, because the chicks would hurry to any source of light hoping to get warm. The process of training them to cold brood themselves would probably be quicker if the first 2 days after hatch involved a *lightless* heat source such as a ceramic reptile heater, and probably also a thermostat (so chicks don't overheat while crammed inside). But that's probably all getting a bit high-tech (and expensive).

This is a work in progress. But as a last caution, in case people are using any of this as a guide: whatever you do, don't use a 5W heat pad expecting day old chicks to know what to do to keep warm. That's a recipe for chick death. All cold brooding, and low-wattage brooding (as above) involves a lot of manual effort in the first week putting chicks into the warm compartment and letting them out for short periods until they learn where to go.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Australorp leghorns at 16 weeks...

Damn, I'm silly for only keeping two! And not the best two, at that. But here they are, aged 16 weeks, coming along well. The red lacing is from some brown leghorn in the parentage.

Malay ISA... Crossing for dual purpose.

Just a few of my Malay game x ISA brown chicks, now almost 6 weeks of age.

Note on the last picture the fat white bird in the background: that's a commercial broiler hybrid at exactly the same age, for comparison. It's about a third as much weight again as the heaviest of my home crosses. It eats like a pig, of course (poor thing). So far, though, it's not suffering any skeletal problems, and I think this is probably because it was bred in a backyard, where the owners would have selected only parent birds that were capable of breeding. It would be thrown out of a commercial meat farm for being too small, but I'm pleased it's not growing too fast to have a reasonable life (so far). Remember this is about the age when commercial hybrids go to slaughter!

The ISA Malay crosses aren't growing as quickly as I'd like. The leghorn-Australorp crosses were much better feathered, and also quite a bit bigger, at this age. I put this down to a number of factors including an egg exploding in the incubator, which took a toll on the hatchlings. Those birds that survived may have been slightly compromised (for instance the germ could have colonised their digestive tracts). Secondly it's to do with parent nutrition. The mother birds of this lot were partly fed on the sprout ration (for a while) and suffered a little setback from mycotoxins in mouldy wheat. They were put onto a better ration a month before I began collecting eggs, but may not have fully recovered, particularly in terms of B vitamins.

Next batch coming from the incubator will be pure Malays and pure leghorns. I'll be interested to compare growth. But for now, I'm pretty happy with these ISA cross birds, both in terms of appearance (I quite like the paler colours) and the fact that, after all those setbacks, the majority are now doing well.

Incidentally, they were moved to the large tractor yesterday. They've been on chick starter (medicated), but for the last 2 weeks have been given an increasing share of treats like chopped greens, garden spinach, wheat, lupins, cracked corn, seaweed meal (tiny amounts) and meat meal. I plan to take away all medicated feed in the next week, though I have to watch protein levels and make sure they're on the right nutrients. But with twice weekly moves in the tractor (or when the grass is considerably reduced) they should get quite a lot of vitamins from home grown.

Meanwhile of course it's coccidiosis-watch. The first sign is going off food, but these chicks are still tucking in. I'm not quite ready to try medication free chick rearing, but I will, when I've put in more research as to how to go about it. Unfortunately the disease hits so fast and can be so devastating I'm reluctant to just dive in!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Brahma rooster and friends...

This was Edgar, my gold partridge brahma rooster. A little on the short side, he was the gentlest of husbands. Unfortunately Edgar was one of the casualties of feed toxins...

Brahmas are not particularly productive egg-wise (at least in Australia), and they can be prone to brachydactyly (where the outer toe is too short) and undersize. As a recreated breed, though, they're doing well and have a number of afficionados.

As a meat breeder, the Australian birds seem a little limited by size deviations, and they're not as fast maturing as the earlier brahmas were reputed to be. Given some wyandotte influence they may also tend toward lower fertility than blade-combed birds. However you won't find a gentler animal in the yard, and the hens make excellent mothers. I've never seen an aggressive brahma rooster. Table prospects would be much increased by crossing to a game bird, but the result would most likely be unaggressive enough to keep in mixed groups until table age.

Lovely birds and much missed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

home made chook feed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 24, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

Erm... make that 22!

Captain Black the Mean...

Check out the sheen on that araucana cross cockerel!

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

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

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

Sunday, September 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the goshawk attack...

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

Friday, September 17, 2010

A useful tractor...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 16, 2010

coccidiosis control without antibiotics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned...

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australorp x leghorns

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

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

Crossbreeding with commercial chickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Useful dual purpose birds...

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

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

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

Cold brooding chicks...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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