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.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The flock having a day out...

Update on bare bottomed chicks...

Starting to make sense. I've spoken to the breeder, and he says he also had some chicks hatch with bare bottoms and extremely slow feathering. I'm relieved to know it wasn't something I did!

 Fortunately 2 chicks were mostly fully feathered a week ago, which is more normal. One has a bare bottom, so I'll have to watch offspring if I use these 2 for breeding.

 Unfortunately I don't have the patience to look after generations of slow feathering birds, so the others aren't keepers. Never mind; in my experience (which is small but climbing), it's rare to find all the traits I want in one package (which is why I've set out to make my own).

It's a shame isn't it? All I want is about another 400g on my birds at 16 weeks. Meanwhile meat hybrids go off the scale at half that age, and also feather quickly. Meat hybrids also haven't sacrificed egg numbers in any major degree, unlike purebred meat birds like Indian game (Cornish) and speckled Sussex.

I always felt that meat hybrids were a little disgusting to breed from. No backyarder wants to reproduce traits that cause pain or early death. But chicks that can't feather up and are more vulnerable to chilling, picking and other unfortunate results are arguably just as sad. It seems I'm between a rock and a hard place here.

Back to the drawing board! (Lucky I like drawing boards.) :-)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

One last post for the day: rats! UPDATED

Running rat tally: 26 rats caught in 4 nights. Still trapping!

Original post follows...

Gee I've rabbited on today!

But it's been a pretty chickeny weekend.

One of this weekend's maintenance jobs was to cull back some of the rat population. They've been building up for a couple of months and they don't seem to eat baits (besides which it seems the possums and antichinus inevitably suffer if baits are used).

Rats are incredibly smart, and very wary of any kind of trap. Forget buckets with water and a greased bottle on top; forget snap traps and automatic-closing cages. The rats are so smart, anything that smells dodgy will drive them away, and one near miss with a trap containing a moving part will deter them for good.

Here's where my chick brooder really shines, because it has no moving parts. Earlier in a post I mentioned making a tube of vertical rods to form a cylindrical entryway in the top. The rats can climb in easily but can't climb out because they can't grip the thin rods well enough. This tube can be taken out when the unit is to be used for chicks and put back again (opening the flap which sits on top) when it's going to catch rats.

I'm not sure why this unit works so much better than normal rat traps (even ones with a similar entry-hole), but I've caught more than 20 rats at one time using it. Perhaps the sheer size tends to put rats at ease; or maybe they're vaguely aware that it's a regular part of the chicken setup. Being large, I can also add a lot of food at one time, ensuring that all the bait isn't eaten before most of the rats are inside.

Another benefit of such a big cage (about 1.4m long) with so many hatches is that I can place food and water inside without touching the end of the cage where the rat entryway is. Rats are often deterred by human smell. They seem to have no hesitation in climbing into this particular unit. The only drawback with such a big cage is, of course, that I have to trap the rats a second time in order to dispatch them. I have my methods, but others might choose to feed the rats commercial poison baits while they're confined.

Yet again the unit has done its job, catching six rats in one night. The rats were a mixture of adults and juveniles. That's probably all I'll get out of the feed shed, so tonight I'll move the unit to the silkie/pekin pen, where I've seen evidence of rats under the concrete slab (which was badly made and is starting to break up). Hopefully I'll be able to reduce the population there to only a handful, or fewer. Of course I can't see myself catching all of them. But I find that doing this once every couple of months stops the horrible plagues I've seen in other people's chook yards (evidenced by rats coming out even during the day, because they're so crowded some don't get the chance to feed at night).

I'm sorry, rats! You're smart and amazing survivors... But you're not meant to be here.

The dog, the chooks and the goanna...

Lucy is right to look proud of herself. I heard her high pitched, frantic 'goanna' bark and went outside to find a large one up a tree. She'd chased it there after it obviously came around looking for cheap treats.

This goanna ate just about all last summer's eggs and turned my flock into egg-eaters. (Goannas smash eggs in the nestbox, and the chickens soon learn that their eggs are yummy.) I was tearing my hair out until I relocated the layers away from that side of the yard, which verges on bush, to an area where at least the neighbour keeps his grass short.

Now the goanna has to run the gauntlet of the dog, instead of being able to hop over the fence from dense bush straight into the pen!

I can't imagine a better dog than my Lucy. She does everything I want and nothing I don't want. Does that sound like normal dog-owner boasting? I'm sure it does! But she really is the perfect chicken guardian and personal companion. She has very strong protective instincts and while she loves fresh caught meat, chickens (even baby ones) don't figure at all on her menu. They're her family. I can send her running into the pen to chase whatever shouldn't be in there, and whatever it is, she'll grab it.

I'm sure I've said all this before, but the goanna up the tree was one more reminder that my dog rules!

Now if I could just get her to tackle those air-assassins, goshawks...

rooster aggression and heredity

The answer yes. It is highly hereditary. (Just in case you were googling to find out.)

There may be cases of sporadic aggression in placid strains, but if you breed from an aggressive rooster, you'll almost certainly see it in the offspring.

By 'aggressive' I don't mean normal rooster jauntiness, picking fights with other boys and keeping cockerels in line. Even game bird behaviour isn't the type of aggression I mean.

I'm talking about roosters that turn on the handler at every opportunity. You go in with a bucket of feed and these boys come charging with claws and beaks striking.

In some cases (if the hens are upset) this is normal and ordinary too. You can't expect to upset hens and not provoke the rooster to protect them. And in breeding season all roosters are a little more protective than usual.

But a rooster that comes at you regularly whether the hens are upset or not is in my view a waste of space. There are plenty of non aggressive roosters around, so why keep a nasty one?

So how do you know a rooster is going to be aggressive? In general you can't tell until the hormones kick in, and by then you'll probably have already culled out most of the non-keepers. Unfortunately temperament is among the latest things to fully show up. However here are some indicators I've noticed that can tend to go with later aggression:

1. overly tame. Cockerels that show no fear around people are often very aggressive as adults. (There are exceptions to this.)

2. aggressive parent hens. Milder hens are more likely to breed non aggressive cockerels; extremely cranky hens often produce savage roosters.

3. certain breeds are strongly infused with aggression. However within a breed determined breeders can remove aggression by culling against it. Light Sussex are often aggressive, and some leghorn strains are particularly bad for it.

Note that there's very little relation between aggression among the birds and aggression toward the owner. Thus ISA browns, while very mean to newcomers and each other, in my experience aren't often aggressive toward the owner.

Unfortunately my malay x leghorn cockerel has just started shaping up to me. He's 18 weeks and a very beautiful bird, but I know from experience that unless there are other stressors (like upset hens) a cockerel that shows the behaviour at 18 weeks will be a monster at 24. Unusually, he wasn't overly tame as a youngster, and in fact has always shown a fair degree of flightiness. But I can see from his half sisters (who are pure leghorn but aren't flighty and are very tame) that he probably has some aggression in his bloodline. Thus I probably won't want to breed from those particular leghorns either. There's simply no point in carrying on traits that make chicken keeping painful.

But a quick word about using rooster handling techniques against aggression. I've certainly tried in the past. With some roosters showing temporary aggression it can probably help. The methods are to never let him tread hens in your presence, never let him eat in front of you, 'peck' him when he tries to eat, and basically dominate him the way a top rooster would. Pick him up when he doesn't want to be picked up and carry him around (the ultimate indignity).

Frankly, these techniques don't work (in my experience) against hereditary aggression, or they only work for a week or two. The moment your guard is down a rooster like that will come slicing and striking. But I quote the methods here in case anyone else wants to try.

Meanwhile, in a few days there'll be a nice healthily raised cockerel in the refrigerator (very meaty he is too!), and I'll be searching for a new breeder, with the usual regrets (he really is a handsome bird).

Update on chicks! And more about sprouts and protein.

UPDATE: Warning!

About a week into feeding small amounts of raw pet mince, I've decided to call a halt. I'm seeing a few odd signs that may (or may not) be related to preservatives. One pullet acted very strange immediately after gobbling slightly more than her share. She stood 'hung' as though in a trance and stayed that way for about five minutes, until I walked up to her and touched her. Also the egg count has suddenly halved, with one laying pullet (of course my favourite) going off lay, pale in the comb and holding her head slightly tucked in (which I've noticed seems to go with reproductive and/or intestinal pain). It may be something other than the mince, but I don't like the chances.

Oddly the chicks seem none the worse for the mince, which is surprising given that they're eating more of it per bodyweight. Perhaps whatever is in the mince affects an active reproductive system before it harms anything else. It could be that the material is high in phosphorus as well as sulphites (too much phosphorus I've noticed is very quick in affecting the egg laying system), which is odd given that it's supposedly meat and not bone. Whatever the case, I'm withdrawing it from the feed.

Unfortunately pet food laws don't at present require full labelling of dangerous sulphites. Apparently too they are strongly associated with thiamine deficiency in cats and dogs. Since all the raw minced beef or other meats check by an RSPCA analysis showed high levels of sulphite preservatives, it looks likely that the pet mince I bought is similarly high. www.catvet.com.au/articles/thiamine_deficiency_pdf.pdf

You have to wonder at labelling laws when a chemical additive can go on being used despite veterinary evidence that it consistently does harm.

Meanwhile, back to my usual problem: how to supply adequate protein with essential amino acids without upsetting mineral ratios. Meat meal is a problem product, no doubt about that. I want to limit its use to very low levels, even below 5% if I can, because of phosphorus. Yet for various reasons I still don't want to use artificial amino acids, so that means commercial feeds are pretty much all off the menu.

The DPI NSW website suggests the use of artificial premixes (vitamin and mineral supplements) on top of grains, meat meal and legumes for home feed makers. I appreciate that modern chickens are a long way different from their jungle ancestors, with higher requirements for both vitamins and minerals, but pre-1940s nobody used artificial methionine. Somehow, some way, when raising no more than a home supply of meat and eggs, it must be possible!

 Original material follows.
My twelve light sussex chicks are a weird mob. I've never seen such fluff and feather oddities!
For instance:

This chick is far from the worst affected. One chick has a bare patch covering its entire rear end, and also covering the crop area. I'm pretty well stumped!

All these chicks hatched with the bare spots, so I've been hedging toward the opinion that it's breeder diet related or genetic (or, more likely, both).

Of course, it could be that my non commercial chick feed isn't helping them overcome breeder diet shortages. For instance, too much phosphorus and calcium can limit a bird's ability to absorb manganese. Wiry down and feather abnormalities can occur due to lack of manganese. Meat meal is high in phosphorus and calcium, and I've already canvassed its unsuitability as a sole protein source for layers, so I'm certainly not averse to removing the majority of the meat meal from the chicks' ration.

Yesterday I began a slightly new approach to chick feeding. Once more, I want to stay away from medications if possible and also avoid artificial methionine (one of the building blocks of life that has been spread through our chicken feeding systems at all levels, and which to my reading may have health consequences both for chickens and people who eat them).

Soy meal is of course another possibility, but over 90% of US soy is genetically modified, and you don't have to be paranoid to feel a little uncomfortable about the lack of consumer choice with GM products. I've also read several well supported web articles that highlight second and third generation health issues to do with GM soy. We might not grow GM soy in Australia but we certainly import soy meal, and even if GM is safe there are also likely issues concerning contamination with hexane, the solvent used to extract the valuable soya bean oil.

This leaves few sources for healthy protein for growing birds, but I found my local pet shop stocking 5kg bags of beef mince for $2.80 per kg. The pet shop owner told me the supplier said the meat has no added preservatives, but I hope she'll excuse me if I don't fully believe her supplier's word. Yet perhaps the health benefits of using fresh protein can outweigh health problems created or exacerbated by any preservatives contained.

Thus at present the chicks' new diet is half the sprout diet (their morning feed) including a small amount of meat meal as well as lupins, sprouted wheat and corn, sunflower seeds, lucerne, molasses, seaweed meal, yeast etc, and half a mash containing pet grade beef mince, rolled oats, a little leftover household kefir (fermented milk low in lactose), sunflower seeds and millet. Both morning and evening feed are balanced at around 21% protein. As well as the above they have access 24/7 to fresh greens via tractored grass.

I suppose it sounds like a gigantic hassle, but it's not. The sprouts are made every fourth day and hung in a shadecloth bag which is lightly hosed once a day and let drain. (I might give the bag a punch in passing, to make sure it doesn't mat.) I simply grab an amount of sprouts each morning and afternoon to make up the mix.

Everything else that's dry matter is in handy bins with screw-lids. I simply set out two buckets and make one mix for chicks, one for adults. The longest time taken is to walk the two buckets around the various pens.

The kefir of course I'm already making for home use. There's always some that doesn't make it into smoothies and whatnot, and a handful of chicks don't need much. About a tablespoon of kefir makes it into their daily mash, and helps increase its protein level while adding vitamin B-12 and probiotics.

On days when I don't feel up to a whole lot of effort, I might make a dry mix instead, using mainly vegetable protein. If the general ration is balanced some variations are okay. And of course as the chicks grow they'll eat more of the larger grains and legumes, so there'll be less need to do an oat mash in the afternoons. For that matter, on days when I don't feel like too much effort, I may simply do a dry mix with meat meal for the youngsters, and let them pick at it through the day, maybe tossing in a handful of pet mince of an afternoon to complete the protein balance.

As usual my attempt to write a brief chick update has turned into something else. But then, everywhere you look, there's something new to learn, particularly when it comes to what gets into the human food chain via animals.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

One of my girls isn't well... Aw damn. Update.

Below I posted about a sick chicken. I just thought I'd provide an update. Yes, she did have egg yolk peritonitis. Unfortunately she was growing thinner by the day and was clearly in a lot of discomfort.

Graphic description follows...

When I post mortemed her I could easily see the creamy yellow smelly substance (a sign of infection) throughout her cavity and covering most of her organs. The peritoneum was thickened and discoloured and her intestines showed signs of pinpoint haemorrhages which are possibly due to pathogen overgrowth in the gut wall, or may be a secondary condition (such as coccidiosis due to immune overload). There were no signs of Mareks or tumours, and there were no worms throughout the length of her intestinal tract. Interestingly her caeca were massively enlarged (these are two blind pouches toward the end of the intestines). Her reproductive system seemed to have virtually disintegrated.

Poor sick girl. She would have been in terrible pain. Here she is in brighter days...

Fortunately the other girls are all well. Here is one of the deceased pullet's sisters, my favourite in colour and type:


My first sick chicken in a long while... She's a 25 week old pullet, one of the ISA brown x malay games. And she's not all that obviously sick — just a little light in weight, and off the lay. Yet her comb is red and her vent looks like that of a laying bird (i.e. moist and fairly wide).

But when I look at her in the yard I can see she isn't feeling well. It's hard to put my finger on what it is, but the main thing is that her head tends to stay tucked in. She doesn't forage quite as well as the others and a few times I've seen her sitting in one spot, head tucked in, eyes closed. This has been going on for a few weeks (ever since the goshawk attack on the flock) so it's time to give her a thorough going-over. She doesn't tuck her tail down (common with intestinal pain) so that's one good thing, I suppose. Even so, egg yolk peritonitis is a possibility.

Egg yolk peritonitis can happen to birds that should be laying but aren't producing eggs. Sometimes the eggs break inside the bird and encourage bacterial growth in the body cavity — usually this is non-recoverable. But usually there are symptoms like constant dribbling out the rear end and stained feathers. My pullet has nothing like that; indeed her bottom is clean and fluffy. Nevertheless EYP is something I have to watch for, since there have been a few soft shelled eggs under the roost, presumably from this girl.

I'm not sure which way this will go, but I don't like to see her suffering. I've separated her and will make sure she gets her share of the food in case that's the problem. I'll also be better able to watch her diet and intake when she's separated, and I can up the calcium in her feed. It will also be easier to watch her droppings in a small cage.

It's not a hopeful development. It may be that my phosphorus-calcium ratio is out, and the soft shelled egg laying has stopped her feeling well without progressing to full-on EYP; or it may be that she has some underlying congenital disorder or even visceral Mareks. (I haven't yet had the joy of a Mareks outbreak... Presumably at some point I will.) She might possibly have a tapeworm, so I guess I've got the option of using some Panacur (a sheep drench that can also be used to treat tapeworms and other worms in chickens, with careful holding periods). However I don't like using wormers without other symptoms like diarrhoea, so the responsible thing to do would be to first check her droppings for worm segments or eggs.

If she has a tapeworm treatment will be easy; if it's something more ominous it will be a different, sadder, story. I suppose she might also have been injured internally by a goshawk (since she first became sick on the day of the attacks). I gave her a once-over by torchlight, but it wasn't very thorough and perhaps I need to check her over more fully today.

So I have a few things to do with this poor girl. In the end it may be she has some underlying problem and it may never be found; these things happen. Nevertheless when balancing a home ration, there are many things to get right, and it's important to investigate any illnesses.

All my other chickens appear well and are laying nicely shaped hard-shelled eggs. That's a good sign regarding the ration. And the chicks in the tractor still appear to be doing well on a modified version of it (with rolled oats, bandsaw dust and kefir).

Let's hope I can find out what's ailing the pullet, and that she mends!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

coccidiosis in the past...

Some time ago when we lived in mid-north NSW (an area with wet summers conducive to coccidiosis), I used to raise batches of chicks in a concrete-floored shed.

I only raised 4 batches a year, and because I hadn't had problems in the past I didn't bother changing the litter (I was aiming for a sort of deep litter effect). Unfortunately deep litter is an artform in itself. At any rate, by the 3rd batch in the one season I began to see coccidiosis in the chicks even though they were on medicated starter.

All these chicks had been raised at 2 week intervals, and the weather was warm and humid. Even so I should have expected the medicated starter to work. But obviously the parasite numbers had overwhelmed the coccidiostat, or else some resistance had developed. It's also perhaps possible (without being a microbiologist I'm only wondering) that the coccidiostat in the feed had destroyed the microbe balance in the litter. Whatever the case, it was an eye-opener, and after that I began to think about ways of weaning my system off medications if I could safely do so.

However my first foray into unmedicated chick rearing was also problematic. The first batch went fine but the second developed cocci signs and had to be put on both medicated feed and a sulpha drug. I can see now what went wrong — it was management failure, pure and simple — but it sobered me into thinking I could never leave medicated feeds behind, whatever their limitations.

But my current chicks are just over 3 weeks old and doing very well on ground that has had chicks on it before. Not in high numbers, of course, and not for a few months, but it's certainly far from virgin ground. Moreover these chicks have eaten only very low amounts of medicated starter, and since going into the tractor have been fed the sprout diet with added meat meal, bandsaw dust, rolled oats and the odd dose of kefir, which is a fermented milk drink rich in probiotics. They haven't been in the tractor long enough to know for sure, but I suspect that they've already developed good resistance against coccidiosis. Furthermore, we've now had 5 days of light summer rain without them developing the telltale droopy wings or (a first symptom) going off their feed.

Next batch of chicks (which may not be for some time) I'll be raising in the same way, but the tractor will be in a new position to start with. In this way I should be able to limit the oocyst numbers while the birds' immune systems respond. Since coccidiosis is a terrible disease that can claim birds quickly, I'm not taking it lightly. But there are good signs so far as I head toward medication-free rearing.

After all, it's overuse of antibiotics that has ruined their effectiveness on germs like MRSA. As beef-producers head away from grass feeding into feedlot and end-stage fattening via pellets that contain antibiotics of their own (to control rumen pathogen overgrowth caused by a change to grain), it seems to me there is all the more reason to withdraw medications in favour of management and non-synthetic remedies wherever we can.

Relatively clean ground (not sterile), probiotics, lightly soured milk, judicious infection with small amounts of healthy adult droppings, and quality fresh feed may go a long way toward keeping chicks from developing coccidiosis in their first months of life.

But time will tell if this system can become permanent. Wish me luck!

Monday, February 7, 2011

how do you dispatch a chook?

Apologies for what's going to be a nasty-sounding post. But if you raise chickens for meat and eggs as well as pets/hobby, you have to know how to dispatch.

A lot of people lately seem inclined to take their chickens to a vet. I've done this in the past myself, though only once — the cost was just plain prohibitive. I wish it wasn't. There are times when I've been unable to dispatch a sick bird, but unable to afford a vet, and the resulting death has been appalling. Later I've castigated myself for being weak. Once I even made my partner (who is not into chickens!) put a bird down for me, the ultimate in weakness. But dispatching something you've cared for and nurtured just doesn't feel natural.

And yet somehow I've gotten over the worst of all that. Yes, we're taught that animal cruelty is fiendish, but we're also deluded into thinking supermarket food hasn't suffered. Or we're taught to shrug and accept that some degree of suffering is okay if it's feeding the masses. Given the mainstream chicken industry's reliance on artificial feedstuffs and medications (a necessary reliance in that profit-driven mass-scale system), it's time to face the facts of where meat comes from. And the simplest fact of all is that it involves death.

With that preamble over, here is my general 'how to'.

First, some points. You don't want to use toxic chemicals to 'put a bird to sleep'. You want to bleed the carcass so the meat stays fresh for long enough to relax from rigor mortis and be good to eat. (Typically rigor mortis passes in 24-48 hours while in the fridge.) You want to kill a bird with as little stress as possible so the creature doesn't suffer and also so the meat isn't tough.

A lot of people use the axe, and in general it's very sure. I suspect the weight of it helps stop the person wielding it from baulking at the last instant (a thing that's very natural for anyone brought up to be kind). However it's messy, and in practice that method of killing sets the feathers hard.

American home growers seem to prefer debraining and throat cutting, and debraining (or sticking) seems to be quick as well as having the benefit of loosening feathers. However it's hard to go from debraining to throat cutting swiftly enough to get most of the blood pumped out while the heart is still beating, and it's messy. (You also need a killing cone.) Europeans tend to prefer the neck dislocation method, which if done properly results in the bleed-out being into the neck cavity and also destroys the brain at the moment of dislocation, but doesn't involve a two step process (so I feel it's quicker).

As you can probably guess, I don't particularly like the debraining method, for various reasons (mouths are sensitive... I can't bring myself to stick a knife in there to reach the cleft that leads into the brain); but as it happens I also don't have the arm strength to do the classic European method of dispatching a large cockerel by hand. For this reason I use a modified neck dislocation method that doesn't require great arm strength.

This is done with the bird calmly and gently placed on the ground on its chest. A metal rod (or broomstick, though the thinner and harder the rod the better) is placed, again gently, over the bird's neck just behind the skull, laying cross-ways. There should be no pain or stress at this point, and all the chickens I've done it to seem relaxed, especially if they're used to being handled. Holding the legs, the handler steps down firmly (but not trying to crush the neck!) on the rod and in the same instant pulls upward hard on the legs. The neck quickly dislocates just behind the head and the bird bleeds out into the cavity.

I've done it this way many times, and while I can't say it's painless, I do know that it's very quick and sure.

Now that I've spelled it out, I need to take a break... There's nothing enjoyable about killing. But there's nothing about supermarket meat that shows respect for life, either. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and do it.

Keeping ahead of cocci by moving the chicks...

 Well, with rain coming, a leaky aviary roof and chicks 2 days short of 3 weeks (at 3 weeks they tend to shed a lot more cocci oocysts), it was time to move the mob.

Meanwhile, just a reminder about the diet of these chicks: I began with the intention of keeping them off all medications. However unfortunately I've still been unable to source non-medicated starter locally. As a result I've been giving these chicks (since day old) my usual diet plus ordinary medicated chick starter on the side.

They clearly love the sprout mix (which contains lucerne chaff, molasses, lupins, sunflower seeds and other goodies), and have eaten only very small quantities of the commercial crumble. In fact, some days I haven't bothered giving them any chick starter at all. It appears the pullet mother has taught them to tackle some of the larger grains, and they all seem fond of whole sprouted wheat and the whole sunflower seeds. I'm not sure any of the chicks are yet able to eat whole sprouted corn, but I'm sure it's not likely to be long away (and at any rate all the sprouted mix is eaten during the day, including corn and peas).

But I do have doubts about the quality of the protein my diet gives them while they're not on free range and able to self-supplement. For this reason I only took the medicated feed away entirely yesterday. On the whole I'd say they've had a quarter of their diet so far being chick starter, and three quarters being my non-commercial mix.

Now here they are, a couple of days shy of 3 weeks:

Testing them for bodyweight I've found them to all be healthy solid birds, with good breast and leg flesh, and no non-thrivers. Like all of the larger breeds (especially show birds) they're slower to feather than my leghorns, which would all be fully feathered except for faces at this age. But in terms of body weight I'm very pleased.

Most importantly given their stage of growth and the conditions they've been kept in, I'm seeing no signs of coccidiosis. Their droppings are firm and normal. The best-feathered pullet was upset by the severe heat two days ago (around 40C) but even though she had droopy wings that day and the next, she's perfectly normal now. Heat stress may lower immunity and lead to cocci, and there was one day that was 40C and also brought rain. I wouldn't be surprised if she's got slight cocci symptoms, but I'm not going to treat unless the droopy wings return or I see the slightest other sign. So far, so good.

Now to put this in context, the aviary they were in until yesterday was perfectly dry until 2 days ago (when the 40C weather was topped by rain). Unfortunately the roof leaks, so that day and yesterday the floor was quite damp. (That's why they all look a bit grubby in the picture above.) It has also been used to rear 5 sets of chicks and house several adult birds, though I've cleaned it out thoroughly between groups. But the entire time these chicks were in the aviary (from day 1-2 to yesterday), I didn't once clean out the floor. Sloppy, huh! Mind you, if the bedding hadn't stayed perfectly dry, I would have been in there daily with a shovel. Most certainly after a day of rain and the heatwave only just gone, it was high time I got the birds off that floor.

All this means that these birds have surely encountered coccidiosis parasites, but haven't succumbed. With things quite mixed around in terms of feeding I can't, of course, be sure that the medications in the starter crumble haven't achieved some effect. But on the other hand I saw no signs of the birds actually eating the crumble in any real volume; the only topping-up I seemed to do was because of litter scratched into the feeder. Meanwhile all the non-medicated food I put in got eaten completely.

I'm inclined to say the combination of dry litter, probiotics, exposure to a mother hen's digestive flora and droppings, and the fact that the litter had been new to start with all helped keep these chicks ahead of disease.

Now for the real challenge: being on damp ground. All 12 chicks and the pullet mother are now in the large grower tractor, which I've also surrounded with a low shadecloth strip to stop currawongs plucking babies out through the wire. Skirting this tractor (by the way) are panels of a weld-mesh type product cut into 25cm wide strips, and pegged to the ground. This will stop most diggers (except for rats). And now that the chicks are almost 3 weeks old they're fairly safe against rats, with a few management extras (such as the wandering dog and my next job being to mow). I would still say coccidiosis is the main thing I have to watch for now.

This is day one of the chicks' being out and about. I'm also going absolutely cold turkey on the medicated starter and introducing bandsaw dust (from a butcher) for a little extra fresh protein, in case my general mix has any deficiency. The shift to a new pen alone is quite a challenge, and the withdrawal of all the medicated starter is most likely (if they've been eating much of it) another one. But if I keep a good watch on the birds and move the pen regularly I have good hopes that this will all stay well. And if I do see coccidiosis, or if the chicks go even slightly off their food, I'll be quite happy to medicate.

The point is, only if I have to. And isn't that good agricultural husbandry anyway?