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, 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.