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.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

All fine on the western front

There I was panicking as usual... Nothing respiratory, no coccidiosis, just 12 healthy scratching eating chicks.

Today they're tucking into the sprout mix (with yeast, alfalfa and a tiny bit of seaweed meal) and this afternoon a mash of oatmeal, whole kefir and bandsaw dust (on top of available sprouts etc).

The hide in the pen has made a huge difference to their state of happiness! No cowering in the shed, no nervous panting. I wish I'd realised the goshawk was bothering them earlier... Stress alone can kill young chickens.

Never mind! All's well that ends well, and the pen is now well shielded.

Monday, March 28, 2011

More on chicks' health...

Good news, at least so far. The 3 chicks put into a cage and given chick starter yesterday are perfectly fine today. As their combs weren't very pale and they lacked other symptoms, it's probably not all that likely they were severely affected by coccidiosis. In fact it may not have been that at all.

The remainder are all thriving and the sneezes appear to have vanished, with no signs of mucus or anything else respiratory. In fact, today they all look like normal chicks.

However late yesterday I noticed the chicks all cowering inside their shelter, and realised the resident grey goshawk has probably taken to dive-bombing. With netting stretched above the pen he can't catch the chicks, but he can certainly scare the life out of them when I'm not looking.

Today I made a 2m x 1m bamboo grid and suspended this just below the netting to make a hide in a corner of the pen. On top of the bamboo grid I laid several green bamboo cuttings that have made a nice leafy overhead screen. I also wired more leafy bamboo lengths in an upright position around the northern pen wall (which is the direction from which the goshawk cases the pen, flying low among the forest trees as he scopes through the mesh). Since these sections of bamboo are quite tall and willowy, they bend over just under the netting and form a bit of a concealing arch.

I've always cursed the neighbour's bamboo for getting out of control and covering our front yard, but I'm a bit of a convert to its usefulness. Garden stakes, pen shields, trellises, you name it — I'd never plant the invasive sort, but now it's here it can be a very useful thing.

Meanwhile I don't know about the chicks' sneezing — it's too early to tell if there's an underlying illness — but all the birds are bright and happy today. I'll keep an eye out.

It might seem a little premature to keep blogging without knowing outcomes, but I'd like to be as honest and up front as possible, in case there's any good reason to warn others off what I'm doing. After all, in the absence of a clear 'how to', this is trial and error.

But hopefully more trial than error. :-)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The quarantine learning curve...

Note to self.
Do not assume 9 weeks is sufficient quarantine.
Or to put this another way: always stress one's chickens before assuming they are free from disease and moving them to proximity with existing birds.

Unfortunately the change to the new pen has brought out sneezes in the little ones. They have had no contact with sick birds, though their tractor pen was stationed under trees, so of course bird droppings may have fallen onto the ground inside the cage. But having raised many chicks in this way, I don't believe such disease transmission is common. What I'm thinking, of course, is that the birds may harbour mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG, the germ associated with CRD).

MG is transmissible via eggs and thus can appear in hatchlings even if they've had no contact with other birds. However it usually remains sub-clinical in a well flock, and tends to show up as an outbreak only when the birds are stressed. Often this isn't until point of lay for female birds, but changing to a new pen is probably the ideal way to make birds show the disease.

Now I don't intend to jump any guns here. I've separated 2 of the chicks and have put them onto commercial (medicated) chick starter in case the slight droopiness is coccidiosis instead of something respiratory (remember, they've been off meds, so the coccidiostats should be quite effective at stopping cocci escalating and giving the chicks time to get over the load they have). The 2 chicks are also on wire and off the ground in the short term to give them the best chance to get over cocci if that's their only serious problem (and if the sneezes are just coincidental). Given that they haven't started to do bloody droppings and that they're still eating, I feel I've caught it early if cocci is the case.

The question of moving to active anticoccidials (Sulphaquin or similar) is harder to decide. In a show or pet situation it would seem unquestionable to use such medications to help these 2 sick birds. However these birds are going to be meat (the spare ones) or breeders (the best male). Furthermore, Sulphaquin may have a slight antibiotic effect on respiratory illnesses like MG, masking underlying disease. In this case, I'd rather know exactly what I'm dealing with in regard to the sneezing. Thus for the next few days I'll watch the chicks closely and try to rely on coccidiostats alone. If they develop bloody droppings and other direct cocci signs then it will be clear they need Sulphaquin, and I won't hold back. However if the respiratory symptoms worsen then that's another story.

One thing is sure: MG is *not* something I want in my flock. It produces a cycle of revolving illnesses when birds are stressed and cannot be eradicated once breeders have acquired it — that is, you can produce a 'clean' flock by using antibiotics on the breeders, dipping eggs before incubation, and practicing impeccable hygiene, but you also have to cull all the carriers. I've bought MG carriers before, and always regretted it. As soon as a grey goshawk swoops or I have to change pens, the birds turn rattly and unwell, and then it's often a battle to get them back into shape.

According to most agricultural perspectives, in the case of egg-borne organisms like MG, it's best practice to cull the entire suspect flock and start again with known non-carriers. I know that seems harsh, but because my interest is backyard production, I tend to follow agricultural rather than pet or show advice. My preference is to keep the disease out rather than put up with cycles of illness and poor production, so culling may be necessary.

Unfortunately, having already put the chicks in proximity to my adult birds, the next couple of weeks is going to be a time of watching and waiting.  I'd rather know there's a revolving illness than hide it behind a veneer of temporary (and artificial) wellness. But that doesn't mean I enjoy seeing sick birds — in fact it's distressing and depressing, since my entire approach has always been about being humane.

But I count humaneness in the breeding (for vigour and hardiness) as much as in the treatment of birds. And unfortunately in this case I need to know what's going on.

UPDATE: I've just taken out a third sneezer, so that makes 3 in the sick cage. But the third bird doesn't look unwell apart from the sneezing, so we'll see.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Possibly the world's most ramshackle pen...

Just whipped up a new pen for the growers. When I say 'whipped up', I pretty much mean 'whipped myself' — I've got so many scratches and tears it's not funny. It all comes from trying to avoid forking out money and therefore having to cut old materials down to size.

I won't say it's a beautiful thing, but it does the job and should be pretty fox-safe. The corrugated iron fencing is in the ground about 20cm — it should be 40cm, but the fence was long built. (Fortunately my neighbours don't mind a pen right up against the fenceline. You can probably see how much they care about their fenceline given the huge overgrowth of lantana and morning glory.) Above the existing low fence are two layers of mesh (one thick animal mesh; the other chicken wire) held up by star pickets. Around all ground level perimeters inside my yard are either low brick retainers or a pegged-down mesh skirt to stop diggers. Up on top, the bird netting is against raptors as we have a few spiteful grey goshawks that happily attack adult hens.

So in the pen are now my 11 growing Light Sussex and 1 mystery bird (looks a bit of a game cross, but she's a lovely deep rich mahogany colour). Here they are stuffing their faces (literally) with some mixed oatmeal, kefir and bandsaw dust. Every few huge gulps they stand panting and adjusting to the new crop tension...

And now for the most ramshackle part, the shed:

You're probably thinking, 'How could she dare show that?' But in a weird way I'm happy to have such a lean-to structure. It cost nothing at all, except a few scratches when cutting the sheet metal. There's no timber to rot, and everything is wired to star pickets or metal rods, most of which are in the ground. I had to be cautious when wiring things together in places where chooks can reach, because chicken toes and legs are easily trapped inside wire loops left out and about. Similarly I had to tuck all free sharp ends away from the interior. As a structure it's gappy, small and dirt-floored, and will no doubt get wet during rainstorms, but it's better than the tractor tarp which is all the light sussex have had for a roof until today.

The good thing about housing growers is there's no need to be too fussy about pythons or small goannas getting in (those creatures are usually after eggs or young chicks), thus wider gauge wire mesh is generally okay. Similarly there's no need to make extra room in the shed for nestboxes. It's just a roof and some rudimentary walls.

So the total cost of this pen was $21.00, which was the price of the netting. Everything else was lying around waiting to go to the tip or hanging on nails in the toolshed. Yes, I know, it looks like it only cost $21.00! :-) But at least now the growers are close to the breeders so they can start making friends through the safety of wire. And having brooded and raised them to 9 weeks elsewhere, I've made sure I'm not going to introduce mycoplasma gallisepticum or other egg-borne illnesses to my clean flock.

So that's the last 2 days' worth of chook keeping... Now for some band aids!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Call me old fashioned, but shouldn't food be real?

I remain convinced that growing industrial meat hybrids on a healthy diet (including a lot of living foods) is better in many ways than raising traditional dual purpose chickens on commercial manufactured feed (with its DL-methionine synthesised from non-food sources including propane). And yet I feel very mixed about my recent order of 25 commercial meat hybrids from a hatchery.

It's sad, isn't it? Even if you want to raise home grown meat using traditional purebreds, the chances are you're feeding them a form of amino acid that results in increased blood methionine in the bird, is associated with high liver triglycerides, fatty liver syndrome, and in humans elevated blood methionine is associated with dementia. (See my earlier post about artificial methionine.)

I could continue with the dual purpose birds, but it seems that most purebreds have entirely lost their meat characteristics. Unfortunately I've been unable to source Indian game with any reliability, and the light sussex I bought as eggs are proving problematic to raise, with a majority having an extremely slow feather gene that makes them unsuitable for my general needs. So again I've been pushed toward the meat hybrids, which have a few benefits above dual purpose or meat purebreds: they feather quickly; they can lay well; and they have very good feed conversion.

But I would want these genes to be very diluted indeed. I simply don't want meat birds that can't walk or have a good life right up to slaughter at 16 weeks.

I plan to grow the meat hybrids as slowly as possible, and when they reach the latest age at which they can still be useful for meat, I'll process some and keep the healthiest and hardiest as breeders.

Plenty of other people have done this, though I'm sure like me they have mixed feelings about the bloodlines... But when breeding backyard birds you pretty much have to work with what's available, no matter what you'd prefer.

In an ideal world, there would be Indian game that can still lay sufficiently to make them popular and well represented around the place... Alas, many have breeding problems.

The drawing board is looking pretty messy right now!

Chicks now nearly 8 weeks old, no coccidiosis

Just an update on those strange half-feathered light sussex show birds...

They're about 3 days short of 8 weeks old, and still on the ground in a tractor. I've just moved them to a new position after nearly 2 weeks in the same spot. Yes, I know, that's terribly lazy. In that time there have been numerous light rain showers, so the ground under the exposed front half of the tractor has certainly been dampened several times. I haven't seen even the slightest case of coccidiosis despite that the birds are eating only a home made mix of wheat, corn and pea sprouts, sunflower seeds, lupins, alfalfa, meat meal, yeast, molasses and seaweed meal. They also get some grass, and two or three times a week I make up a mixture of bandsaw dust (from a butcher), oatmeal and kefir.

Now it may be helping in my situation that our soil is very sandy. This drains very well and would tend to destroy coccidiosis more quickly than heavy clay soils. And the tractor is also sitting under large pine trees that drop needles and sap onto the ground (pine sap is a known biocide). But still, it does seem that the combination of frequent probiotics (kefir), soured milk and a wide variety of foods has made a difference to the chance of coccidiosis. Maybe the day one exposure to a tiny amount of adult hen droppings (in the water/probiotic mix) might have been the key.

Remember also that I've had adult birds bought at point of lay suddenly develop severe coccidiosis when put into one of my pens... (I figured they must have been raised to adult age on wire, with no exposure to soil pathogens.) Coccidia are certainly alive at my place, even in areas with pine trees.

Really it seems to boil down to the probiotics and early exposure to small cocci numbers, gradually increasing over time.

When I bought these light sussex I saw numerous growers with clear coccidiosis signs (drooping wings, hunched posture). The breeder relies 100% on coccidiostats along with raising on wire in the first instance, then he gives his growing chicks limited periods of time on free range. Clearly the coccidiostats aren't working even when range periods are kept short. The numbers in the soil must be too high.

It seems possible to me that he has several unfortunate events happening:

1. Coccidiostat resistance among the pathogens. Put simply, the medications in the feed no longer work on his particular strain of coccidia, because the pathogens have been bred to be immune.

2. An overabundance of coccidia in the soil because of the removal (via coccidiostats) of any competing organisms such as protozoa that may feed on coccidia... Just a possibility and I'm only a layperson, so don't quote me! But still, it could partly explain the massive coccidiosis problem.

3. Each chick that he puts down on the ground has imbalanced intestinal flora. Due to lack of competition from other organisms, coccidia flourish in his birds' guts and are therefore shed much more heavily into the soil. The cycle escalates.

4. Of course it seems obvious: he raises too many young birds on the same ground.

Now I hope I'm not picking on a breeder... I felt his husbandry was terrific and his adult birds all looked fabulous. It's just interesting to compare situations, as a reminder that either I've been very lucky this time around, or I've found a way to wean birds away from medications in favour of natural cocidiosis control. Obviously I hope it's the latter but of course I could come a complete cropper in six months or a year!

I hope not — and I'll be moving the grow-out tractor to a new position (albeit one that has had growers on it before, but not very recently) when I next raise chicks. In fact I'll be taking all the precautions I've talked about here, such as moving chicks out of the initial brooder by the 3rd week, giving kefir and a wide range of feeds, and moving them as frequently as I can once in the tractor. The next big challenge will be 25 meat chicks I'm buying shortly to raise organically for myself and a friend (who is into organics but can't put the time into growing birds). Being such fast growers with so many health challenges anyway, raising meat hybrids off medication and using the sprout diet will be an interesting experiment, and things on the cocci front could easily go very wrong given the high volume of feed/droppings passing through each bird. So I'll need to be very cautious with my practices.

Meanwhile I've got 8 week old chicks on damp ground that has raised chicks before (albeit in low numbers), without medications. That's got to be worth a smile! :-)

Raising worms...

This may amuse others...

I had a feeling my 'worm farm' wasn't quite so much farming worms as releasing them to the environment... Poking through the morass the other day I didn't find one worm! Plenty of beetles, larvae, evidence of rat burrows, oh my!

So the worms have fled the coop, so to speak. :-)

Meanwhile every time I open the plastic compost bin lid I find a host of worms hanging around the rim of the lid. It makes me laugh — worms galore where I don't intend to farm them; none at all in my dug-in worm farm. Whenever I pick up something that's been sitting in one spot for a while (e.g. flower pots) I find worms!

The official 'worm farm' is proving all a bit too much effort for too little return, frankly! So I might forget about organised worm farming and go for something else instead.

The new plan is to find a large piece of heavy flexible material like rubber matting, old (unsprayed) carpet or even sheet plastic. This will be laid out in a large area on top of a sprinkling of kitchen waste. After several weeks I would hope to find a nice nest of redworms living under the fabric.

Well, that's the theory... And based on the number of times I've lifted a flat heavy object off the ground and discovered heaps of worms, I can't see why it wouldn't work. The large surface area (as opposed to a limited worm farm) means I maximise the chances of having worms gravitate toward it and set up home under the sheet.

Of course rats may decide to dig into the fabric (depending on what I use as flexible sheeting), but the whole system is intended to be moved around regularly so that no great pest-nests build up nearby. And it can be laid down over weeds etc to break them down.

Meanwhile I suppose I could peg bird mesh on top of the flexible ground-cover if I really want to exclude rats... But as I'm setting this up away from the chook pens I doubt rats will be a major problem.

It won't look wonderful and it won't be marketable in Bunnings (our major hardware chain). But it should at least turn up some worms! And hopefully the addition of food scraps and worm castings to soil will create improved areas for gardening at a later date.

Now to find a nice flat heavy sheet of something... Rubber matting would be ideal, but old lino might work just as well, with a few lengths of wood (old palings etc) to hold the edges down.

I'll update if this method produces better worm 'farming' than the closed box idea...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chick igloo size in a cold brooder...

I've been asked a couple of very good questions about chick igloos in cold brooding.

Remember, the igloo part is the mesh circlet that surrounds the chicks sleeping inside the brooder. Around the igloo is the stuffing that insulates the nest.

So to size: there's a very easy way to work out the right dimensions of this inner igloo for any number of birds. I do it with pen and paper — I draw an oval about the size of a chick, and keep adding bunched ovals until the number is the same as chicks I want to brood. A circle around the whole bunch is the size of the igloo.

I calculate that 15 standard-size chicks at 2 days of age will want an igloo about 20-22cm in diameter and 8cm high. If your igloo is 10cm high then add bulk to the floor and the chicks will be cosier.

It's best not to copy my exact dimensions as chicks vary. The main point to keep in mind is that the igloo needs to be only large enough to fit all the chicks when sleeping together, all touching. As they grow it needs to grow. So the best way to do this is to keep the igloo without a roof so it's only a mesh circlet, and make that circlet adjustable.

What I've done is to cut two strips of guttering mesh which are fixed to the box doorway. These are then overlapped to make an inner circlet of the right size (which is 100% adjustable). To stop chicks getting between the overlap I pin the inner flap to the outer one with a simple wire clip (the wire ends always poke out into the space of the box, not into the igloo where chicks' eyes can be injured).

Below is a loose diagram of what I mean, seen from above. The inner circle is the igloo; the outer rectangle is the box; the door is hanging open at the bottom.

The igloo in this version has no mesh lid attached so there's nothing in the way of adjusting the circlet. However over the top of the whole box (including the circlet) is a larger mesh lid which I can open and shut to add or remove stuffing and adjust everything. The blanket (or sack-cloth) sits on top of this entire lid.

But I just want to add one observation: brooding 15-20 chicks is far, far better and easier under a hen. In fact I haven't used the cold brooder this season at all, because I haven't had many chicks. Cold brooding really comes into its own when you have 30 or more chicks, no broody hens and want to reduce power bills.

I hope this helps. Apologies for my site's insufficient comments display... I'm working on that. :-)