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.

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.