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, January 23, 2011

Using bantams as broodies...

There's no doubt about it, that silkie x pekin pullet was a great investment. She not only sat perfectly up until half the eggs had hatched (unfortunately ants began to attack the still-hatching chicks), but she's now acting as a mother to all 12 that survived artificial incubation and the ants. It's been so long since I hen-brooded that I'd forgotten how easy it is to raise chicks. Mind you, she won't be sitting many times in one year.

I've also replaced her brooding box (a cat carrier) with a slightly modified nestbox so she and the chicks can all fit comfortably with room to grow. I did this because she's such a small hen that a few chicks might not quite fit under her at night. I wanted to make a really snug nest without any danger of a small chick suffocating. The ideal nest was something with sides that could retain heat, but also breathe.

The result was rather easy using a few bits and pieces I had lying around.

First I made a semicircle of plastic mesh curved into a C shape and fixed to a board (so in cross-section it formed a D lying on its flat edge). This had to be big enough to arch over the hen and her chicks, with extra room to grow.

About 10cm out from this inner D I made another semicircle of mesh, fixed at the edges of the board (imagine two D shapes joined at the straight line, one larger than the other).

I then stuffed the gap between both mesh curves with straw, and made two rear ends out of the same materials fixed slightly apart and stuffed with straw as well.

Over the top of all this (because my brooding area isn't rainproof) I loosely fixed a woven plastic feed bag, with enough slack to ensure that the straw underneath could breathe, and with a small gap around the edges for airflow.

Thus even if the chicks outgrow the hen before they've feathered sufficiently to survive overnight on their own, they'll have a large but very snug nest igloo to grow into.

Unfortunately the hatch was pretty poor, with about half in both the incubator and broodied eggs emerging from the shell. There may have been some B-vitamin shortages in the parent birds, since 4 chicks came out of the incubator with serious leg problems (though all toes were fine). Mild temperature spikes such as I had with this new machine shouldn't result in so many leg issues unless there were genetic or vitamin deficiencies as well. (Remember, these are the light sussex show eggs.)

Oddly, I've ended up with one little ginger-chocolate fellow which looks to be a gold laced wyandotte, only with a straight comb. There were a few ISA brown eggs to round out the two dozen, and they were free, so it hardly matters what he is, but he's certainly pretty.

In any case, since I don't need more than a few birds to pick my meat breeder from, everything so far has turned out fine!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Goshawks are back...

Predictably enough, my freerange enterprise has come to a halt. One of the full grown pullets was found hiding among the pumpkin vines with her head tucked into her neck and her tail down. Two circling goshawks and a load of scared hens tell the rest of the tale.

Goshawks are big enough to kill a large chicken, but not quite big enough to fly away with the carcass, and even killing takes a bit of luck. When a goshawk got into my pen it damaged two adult hens but didn't manage to finish them off (though both were badly injured). To catch them it had to chase them into a corner, so I had reason to suspect chickens free roaming would be able to escape.

For the most part it seems the grown chickens know how to protect themselves while free ranging. They either dive into the old shed for cover (it's very black in there, and a safe haven from hawks), or duck under the low-spreading mandarin tree. Their warning noises to one another are immediately effective. But I remember from when the goshawks were daily pen-visitors that the predators don't give up. Sooner or later I'll have other birds in shock.

So it's back to penned birds for a while, at least until the goshawks get bored. As long as aerial predators like these have a forest to shield their approach, the hens will be vulnerable.

 It might be high time to start planting more understorey shrubs...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Rats in the chook yard...

They're always a problem around chook pens. You can't ever really get rid of them unless you pick up every grain before going to bed... Let's face it, life is too short.

Poisons are reasonably effective, but not nice to use. Last time (in desperation) I laid out baits, I killed an antichinus and a ringtail possum. It was very distressing, as I hadn't realised such animals also take baits (or perhaps eat poisoned rat carcasses). But the blue stuff in their dying droppings was fairly obvious.

I've been trapping successfully for quite a while now, using the mesh brooder with a little sleeve-insert made of rods that all point inward. I only trap when rat numbers build up, and this seems to keep overall populations fairly low. For instance, the first time I used my brooder as a trap, I caught 21 rats in a single night. The most I've caught since then is 10; usually it's only one or two.

The art is to place the cage near rat burrows and leave the cage doors open for a few nights, with ordinary chicken feed inside. Only when rats are happily coming and going do you shut the doors and force them to use the sleeve-insert as an entry tunnel. Then they can't get out, and next morning they can be caught in smaller traps and dispatched as humanely as possible (one method is just to put some snap-traps in the large cage, or I suppose you might use baits, though you would want to leave drinking water in the cage so as not to be cruel. Death from baiting can take nine days!).

There are plenty of warnings on the net about handling dead rats (Weil's disease spread by broken skin touching rat urine, for one), so I always wear gloves when dispatching them, and scrub like a surgeon afterward. Amazingly, in some countries rats are eaten by people. I'm sure these are country rats, not urban or suburban ones! I'm almost ashamed to add that my dog eats rats after catching them, though she usually leaves the rear end untouched. Sometimes you just have to trust your dog to know what's best...

Meanwhile, to someone who's trying to get back to natural foods for chickens, it seems strange to bury fresh protein by the bucketful while buying layer feeds containing artificial methionine and other amino acids... But everyone has their cut-off point, and rats are mine.

Balancing risks with free range...

It's just not natural keeping chickens penned, is it?

However at my place, a forest of tall trees with very little low shrubbery and a family of nearby goshawks means that free range is always risky. Then there's the sneaky goanna who slips through open doors to steal eggs. Even a German coolie (dog) can't be everywhere.

But bit by bit, I've begun letting the birds out of an afternoon when the eggs have all been collected. Part of this process is giving the younger chickens (though I won't free range under 12 weeks) time to learn what to do when danger calls. It's very heartening to see them all learning to scurry under shelter.

The best result of all this is that some of the birds that were lingering at point of lay have come right on. The eggs are terrific in size, shape and shell thickness. I suspect it's not so much the insects the birds are eating (though they do pick up a few) as all the fresh greens. While I'm fairly diligent about ensuring penned birds have green pick, I can't supply the range of fodder the birds acquire while out and about.

Unfortunately, of course they've discovered my garden beds... But I'll move those to the front yard and give the chickens the back (which has better cover from aerial attack).

I'm sure all you free rangers out there are smiling wisely... You've known for ages the different fresh forage (including insects and other critters) makes to hen health. Maybe even with goshawks divebombing the yard, it's worth the risk.

And the best thing? The vitamins aren't synthetic.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Coccidiosis quote of the day...

'It might sound a little crude, but to me, a chicken is basically a gut with a pair of lungs[.]'


I suppose when you're feeding hundreds of thousands of people, you tend to develop a pretty perfunctory relationship to the birds.

I'm not going to criticise people who farm to feed thousands.

But the article is interesting for other reasons, namely the high incidence of coccidiosis in chicks raised with coccidiostats (or 'ionophores').

By contrast, according to the above article, vaccinating with known doses of live coccidiosis at staged intervals appeared to produce uniformly healthy birds.

Of course, you don't see labels on coccidiostat-supplemented feed bags saying 'Warning: this product will eventually lose its efficacy'. For that matter, until coccidiosis 'vaccines' were produced commercially, you rarely heard about ionophore resistance. Now it's almost a point of pride: the ionophores have failed! Yay vaccine!

Coccidiosis vaccines, of course, aren't the injections most people think of when they imagine vaccinating. They're simply spray applications of controlled loads of known parasites at particular stages of chick growth. It's very hard to be that precise in a backyard.

So the question is do we have to be that precise? What about those of us hatching purely for home use?

Under the right conditions (warm and humid), large numbers of chicks raised immediately after chicks raised after chicks will be highly likely to develop coccidiosis problems even on ionophores. But what if coccidia have parasites or predators of their own?

In any ecological system, prey (or pest) species are naturally more numerous than pest-predator species, and they also tend to develop chemical resistance earlier (as they usually breed faster). Thus chemicals used against pest species often wipe out pest-predator species, while the original pest species develop resistance and flourish in ever-greater numbers, requiring new chemicals.

By this line of reasoning, it seems possible that chemicals that control coccidiosis might actually be stopping coccidia-predator bugs from flourishing. For one thing, chicks raised with hens tend to develop coccidiosis resistance earlier than brooder-raised ones. Perhaps — and this is a layperson's suggestion — the droppings of healthy adult hens might contain a good balance of organisms that help keep coccidiosis under control.

According to various coccodiosis information sheets, resistance to the organism is generally immune based, not to do with complex interactions between parasites and minuscule predators. And perhaps chicks raised with hens achieve immunity sooner not precisely because they're exposed to adult hen droppings (though this also fits the vaccine model of limited exposure) but because they're often free ranged. But still, the 'predator-pest balance' approach is an interesting line of thought for anyone trying to limit synthetic inputs.

In a way, though, this is all thinking too much. The one guarantee of life (at least in my experience) is that something will always come from left field. So in the meantime, I'll keep tinkering with my practices and writing up what I find.

The light sussex show birds now cooking in the incubator and under a hen will be the test batch for my using no coccidiostats at all. (They're at day 11 now, and googing up nicely, with every egg I set showing development.) Raising chicks off medication entirely is a big step for me, especially as this ground has now had chickens on it for quite some time.

Keep watching. If the chicks get sick, I'll medicate at once (I have some Sulphaquin), and post results. I'm not in this to prove a point; I'm in this to try to find non-chemical ways to keep chicks healthy, if possible. And by 'possible' I mean to the extent that management can take the place of ionophores.

Meanwhile, with chicks due out in just over a week and a half, it's time I ordered some high protein feed... Or if I can't find any unmedicated starter to suit, I guess I'll be making my own.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Pigeon pie?

Pigeons are a bane around chook pens. They eat a lot of food, shed mites and lice, and can spread disease (though in reality I've seldom seen a sick wild bird). They also, at least in my place, get into the pens and forget how to get out again.

I caught a wonga pigeon yesterday in the pen, and took it out to let it go. While holding the bird I couldn't help having a bit of a grope to see how meaty it was. Wongas are very plump to look at, but anyone who keeps chooks knows that can sometimes just be feathers. How amazing! This thing was a bundle of meat! It was as heavy as one of my bantams, but a lot smaller around.

The funny bird sat on my hand for 10 minutes after I'd let it go. It must have been in shock, but even when it ceased panting it stayed there quietly (weighing a ton). I patted it for a while, telling it I had no intention of harming it, and the bird seemed to be thinking about that... Then after a long time it shrugged and took off.

Wonga pigeons are gorgeous, native, probably protected and certainly I adore having them here. If it had been one of the introduced wood pigeons (not city ferals) I wouldn't have had a qualm about using it for pigeon pie. Well... not too much of a qualm. All right, a bit of one... But only because I'm so habituated to consider farmed animals meat, and wild animals dirty pests or something to marvel at.

We're a weird mob, aren't we? Wild meat is somehow 'dirty' while supermaket meat is 'clean'. But the more you look into tiny elements of how our meat is made, the more you realise industrial scale meat is no more than a giant experiment in population health.

Pigeon pie: take 4-6 pigeons, pluck and draw, slice off the breast meat and lay it skin side down on a knob of butter, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley; sear to seal the meat on both sides, then add 2/3 cup of stock; cover with a lid, bring to a simmer and cook the meat through on a gentle heat for about 15 minutes; remove and retain pan juices; dice cooked pigeon meat with carrot and bacon, refry for a minute or two, put into a shortcrush pastry base; meanwhile simmer the pan juice and stock until it cooks down to a syrupy brown liquid and pour this over the pie contents; cover with a pie lid and bake. (You might also do this with mashed potato as the pie lid.) :-)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Synthetic methionine in commercial feed... Is it safe?

DL-methionine (the synthetic version) is so ubiquitous in chicken feed that organic chicken producers are having a hard time finding a natural replacement.

Adding synthetic methionine is cheaper than adding natural protein. This is why modern chicken feedstuffs rely on it. In other words, it's purely about industrial scale production. Yet the practice also seems to have percolated down to backyard chicken feeds.

Methionine is one of the crucial building blocks of life. According to the Evonik website (http://history.evonik.com/sites/geschichte/en/chemicals/inventions/degussa/methionine/pages/default.aspx), DL-methionine came into widespread use from 1974-7, but had first been synthesised decades earlier as a way to combat nutritional insufficiencies in soldiers.

The question is whether there is a difference in metabolic terms between synthetic methionine and natural forms.

As it happens, there is. You see, DL-methionine contains both the naturally occurring isomer of methionine (L) and its mirror image (D) in equal ratios. But only L-methionine can be utilised to make animal protein. To be used in the body, D-methionine (half the DL) must be converted to L first, and this conversion is not 100% but around 90% in chickens.

What happens to the extra 10%? Well if you read what happens in calves, it seems likely that it results in elevated plasma methionine: ‘Although the unnatural D-isomer of methionine can be used efficiently by growing calves for protein deposition[…], it leads to higher concentrations of plasma methionine than does the natural L-methoinine[…]’ (See J. P. Felix D'Mello, Amino acids in animal nutrition, CABI publishing, UK, page 341.)

If the use of DL-methionine has a tendency to raise methionine plasma levels in calves, then it stands to reason that carcasses of DL-fed broilers could easily contain traces of D-methionine. This substance is not well used in humans. (See:

As it happens, excess dietary methionine is also associated with artherosclerosis. The excess methionine artherosclerosis association seems to exist whether or not there is also elevated homocysteine (a subsequent product of methionine, normally described in association with artherosclerosis). While the source for this paragraph doesn't discuss different isomers of methionine, it's worth wondering to what extent methionine excess occurs after ingestion of D isomers? See
‘The atherogenic effect of excess methionine intake’ at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC299913/

Needless to say, DL-methionine seems to have adverse effects on the chickens themselves. In 'Effect of herbal or synthetic methionine on performance, cost benefit ratio, meat and feather quality of broiler chicken' (see * below for the extended citation), Halder and Roy set out to compare performance between a control group fed no added methionine, a group fed DL-methionine (the synthetic form), and a final group fed a natural version (herbal-derived methionine).

In general, performance between both methionine-supplemented groups was similar (being above the unsupplemented group), but liver triglycerides were noticeably higher in the DL-methionine supplemented group than in the natural-methionine supplemented one, and the livers in synthetic supplemented birds were larger as well. In their words: '[...]supplementation of HerboMethione® in diets decreased liver triglyceride markedly when compared to bird fed DL-methionine (synthetic) supplemented diets.'

Of course, liver triglycerides are associated with heart disease, among other problems. The DL-methionine fed birds were also slightly lower in carcass muscle but higher in carcass fat than the natural methionine fed group.

Interestingly, the DL-methionine group also had a higher death rate than either the unsupplemented or natural methionine supplemented groups, though the study authors state that most deaths overall were accidental. As a side note, subtle neurological damage typically produces increased rates of accidents in humans. Chickens might not be intellectual superstars, but I'd like to see a study on the use of synthetic methionine in relation to neurological health.

When it comes to feeding the home flock, or for that matter feeding our children, I feel we backyarders are over a bit of a barrel. We either trust that science is on top of these questions, or, looking at the increasing prevalence of modern mystery syndromes, suspect that we've been playing a long-term guessing game.

All the more reason to go back to dual purpose utility breeds and aim for a natural diet. Remember, variety covers a host of sins, and will help keep ahead of deficiency. After all, wild chickens don't base their entire diet on a couple of staples like wheat and soy. And in 'olden days' (pre-1950s) chickens got by quite well on non-synthetic diets because they included milk and milk byproducts as well as other methionine sources. See http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/methionine.html.

* For the study quoted in my main text, see Halder, G. and B. Roy, 2007. Effect of herbal or synthetic methionine on performance, cost benefit ratio, meat and feather quality of broiler chicken. Int. J. Agric. Res., 2: 987-996.

DOI: 10.3923/ijar.2007.987.996

URL: http://scialert.net/abstract/?doi=ijar.2007.987.996  

Is 15% enough protein for adult hens?

Many layer feeds are formulated at 15% protein. I sometimes wonder whether adhering to a minimum is good for birds?

Too much protein can force hens to lay too often, and that can be bad for their long term health. If fed too high a protein mix while young, their combs can overdevelop. But to my mind it could also be that these symptoms relate as much to the protein source (e.g. meat meal) as to the presence of extra protein at all. Without having full access to nutritional information databases (as I would have if I were a scientist), these are questions, not conclusions.

In sheep, adding protein (in the form of lupins and lucerne with a little barley) to their grass diet vastly improves worm resistance. Agricultural theory seems to suggest this is entirely to do with feeding dry matter uncontaminated with worm larvae (therefore reducing the amount of contaminated grass ingested). Having kept sheep without the use of commercial wormers (except when attempting to save a sheep that hadn't been fed extra protein or minerals) on wet, warm summer coastal grass, I think there's a fair bit more going on. It does seem as though extra protein may strengthen the gut's ability to fend off even the nasty barber's pole worm (which causes anaemia and can easily kill its host). Without wishing to generalise from a handful of sheep, these experiences still make me wonder whether 15% protein is high enough to keep chickens healthy. Interestingly, my 1940s chicken book suggested that worms were not a big issue in poultry, and the author was somewhat skeptical about the introduction of worming chemicals. (I've often said before, I wonder whether wormers themselves may predispose the gut to new worms?)

There are strong incentives for feed producers to aim at the lowest possible protein level: protein is among the more expensive of feed inclusions. But perhaps at minimum levels, chickens can't fend off worms very well. It's possible the use of minimum protein helps us stay addicted to agricultural chemicals.

These are questions, and I don't mean to make a claim either way. Whatever the case, 15% is too low for growing birds or for table birds. 20% is closer to the mark. 21-23% probably wouldn't hurt. I'll make sure I watch my chickens for signs of worms, and I'm not going to let animals waste away or get ill if they clearly require chemical worming. But I certainly won't be jumping for the chemical bottle if other methods prove to be useful in a preventive sense.

Feeding cut grass...

There are so many sites that warn against feeding chickens cut grass!

As children we always threw mower clippings in the hen yard. Nobody ever mentioned it could cause impacted crop. And as is often the way with knowledge, ignorance seemed to protect our chickens.

Now some people argue that if you mow your lawn, you shouldn't even leave the clippings lying around during free range periods in case your birds swallow some! Best to catch all those lawn clippings in a catcher and... what? Chuck them in the green bin for council to deal with, I expect. They certainly don't break down well unless they're mixed with other material to stop them forming a mat. But do they form a mat inside a hen?

I don't know. Perhaps it can. But the question I want to ask is: can people who claim this really be sure they're not seeing a combination of problems, rather than cut grass being the entire problem? It's not as if anybody has done studies... In fact the only evidence I've read for this (like the 'rest your eggs for 24 hours before incubating' idea) is anecdotal. Even superstitious! (Don't leave your eggs for 24 hours... Put them in the incubator as soon as you can. If it takes the core of an egg 24 hours to stop moving after being transported, then when you place them in the incubator you'll only be setting them in motion again... So set, set, set!)

Ahem... Back to grass. I've never used a catcher when mowing my lawn. Frankly, what a chore! Much easier to let the stuff lie while it dries out, then harvest the dried clippings for nestbox material or floor litter in the shed. The chook poop will mix through the stuff and it becomes extremely good compost. Meanwhile I've often let chooks out to range over the cut lawn, and never seen impaction. That's in 10 years of ranging my birds.

I've also thrown the stuff into the chook pen to cover up the range of sins chook pens are prone to... No problems with impaction there either. Then again, I always supply other greens such as spinach, so why in blazes would a hen prefer horrid scratchy mower-oil-infused grass?

But still... I'm sure they do eat some.

I suspect there are other factors at work in impaction cases. How many of those who warn against using it have no qualm with using antibiotics? Yet antibiotics are known to sometimes cause a breakdown in a chicken's digestive system, including the crop. I wonder whether a history of antibiotic use might predispose a hen later (because of upset or the wrong bacterial balance) to impaction when she eats grass?

But what if there's a purely mechanical reason? Feeding fine-particle foods arguably helps stop the birds' gizzards (the muscular stomach that grinds food) from developing the necessary strength to handle tough foods. Certainly flabby gizzards can cause digestive problems and may contribute to impaction. Once a bird's gizzard has failed to pass something, the blockage can easily back up to the crop, resulting in 'stasis' (or inactivity). (Pellets are of course only fine-particle feeds turned briefly solid by the addition of a hardener. Once in the crop, they tend to break down and partially dissolve.)

By contrast, feeding hard whole seeds like wheat and corn actively strengthens the muscles of the gizzard. This is one of the reasons why whole seeds are introduced slowly to chicks, so their gizzards have time to muscle-up. Now, I'm not saying gizzard and/or general digestive weakness is the main cause of impaction, or that feeding lawnmower clippings is harmless, but I do say that these questions don't appear to have been researched much by those who say you should never feed cut grass.

Have I ever had a case of impaction in my chickens? Why, yes. A single hen arrived here with a bad habit of feather-eating. She didn't eat what the other chickens ate, but pretty much survived on feathers. Eventually her digestive system stopped working, and on autopsy I found a blockage in the proventriculus caused by a bent, stuck feather shaft. So in essence it wasn't crop impaction that killed her, but a general stasis caused by a blockage in the tube that leads into the gizzard. However it did present as crop impaction, with the crop not seeming to empty properly (nor for that matter to fill properly, either). She hadn't been eating any grass.

At the same time, it's probably never a good idea (no matter what your chickens' gizzard health) to confine birds and give them mowed grass as their only green feed. Chickens naturally love grass and may try to consume too much in one go. Heck, maybe that might even cause impaction.

But I'd say it's still a very open case...

Sorry, Hugo...

Never name chooks!

Hugo didn't make it to 20 weeks, unfortunately. Or perhaps fortunately. He really wasn't very comfortable.

His comb was darkening at the tips (a possible sign of cardiac insufficiency). He gave up trying to tread hens, because he couldn't get his tail down. And then we had 3 days of 35C plus heat...

It was time to bite the bullet. He was never going to be a breeder, and was finding it harder and harder to get around. He panted a lot and looked stressed. So poor Hugo had a lovely big meal of mince and oats (his first in several days of lighter feed), a long wander around the yard to nibble grass, and then first thing in the morning he went where the less fortunate cockerels go... When it all came down to it, I didn't want to use him in the breeding pen. I didn't want to see those characteristics in any offspring.

And now that Hugo is gone I feel better. It's always a sign of a good decision. You walk out in the yard and see only happy healthy birds, and know you're not reproducing pain.

Meat isn't everything.

ISA brown x malay laying onset age...

Nice to see my first pullet egg from the ISA brown x Malay game.

She's 19 and a half weeks of age, which is a pretty good age of laying onset.

ISA browns tend to lay from 17 weeks onward. However Malay game are a lot slower, so 19 and a half weeks is a very good result. It suggests the cross is going to be a pretty good layer, despite being a lot meatier and larger than the commercial hybrid parent. Assuming she doesn't go broody at the drop of a hat, laying at 19 and a half weeks puts her roughly on a par with the average non-utility leghorn.

Not bad for the first stage of creating a proper dual purpose chicken!

Meanwhile I've also bought some non-aggressive light Sussex eggs, which come from exceptionally large, meaty, early-fattening stock. In fact they're show stock, but since Sussex have no upper weight limit (and heavy weights are valued in the show ring) they can be a very useful bird to cross with when trying to make decent table birds. However they're also big eaters, with fairly poor feed conversion ratios (at least in Australia), so I'll be using them fairly sparingly as I crossbreed.

At this stage I'll keep using leghorns, the Malay-ISA crosses, the australorp-leghorns and eventually the sussex in the hope that the end result will be good layers that can dress out at 2.2-2.4kg at 16 weeks.

But this might sound more technical than it really is... I'm not exactly trying to compete with industry. All I know is what I prefer as a chicken owner.

And that's healthy, happy birds that can supply some eggs and meat without breaking the bank.