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. :-)