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.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Some growing anconas...

UPDATE: Final result is 5 girls and 3 boys. Still not a bad ratio!

Just a few ancona shots. Seems I have 5 or 6 girls and only 2 boys. One of the 'girls' is very faintly in doubt, but still that's a good ratio.

I only want to keep a boy or two, so the rest will be for sale. Hopefully they'll go to a nice home and become excellent layers for somebody.

You can see all these birds have a substantial comb for their age. That's an ancona trait: big combs. Later in the girls these combs will flop over. The big telltale sign for sexing at this age are the wattles.

The obvious boys do have fairly flared red combs, but also their wattles are quite large and dangly. None of the ones below have that, so I'm calling them girls.

Later (if it stops pouring) I'll go down and take some shots of the clear cockerels, for comparison.

All sexing is under 100% accurate, but the big combed birds I find a lot easier...

Maybe natural chickens aren't meant to be a staple meat?

The more I try to feed chickens naturally but economically, the more I see the vanishing point.

To obtain protein from an animal, you need them to have either a marvellous ability to turn vegetable matter into meat (cows, sheep), or a marvellous supply of full-profile protein. Commercially, supplying the extra amino acids is done using artificial versions derived from petrochemicals. These may have population health effects, but that's no concern to the producers, it seems.

What I'm finding is that it's easy enough to supply a full protein profile without relying on fakes, but it's not easy to do this economically. If I ran a dairy, perhaps... But on a home budget on a mere acre?

Mind you, I'm not comparing these chickens to supermarket ones in terms of cost-to-raise; that makes no sense. What I'm comparing them to is the effort in raising another meat like lamb. I'm starting to sense that chicken meat (needing protein from animal sources) is and should be an expensive meat after all! It should be more expensive than lamb because lambs, having the wonderful rumen, can derive everything they need from vegetable material (with a few minerals etc thrown in).

Now I can also understand why in olden days chicken meat was a luxury... Raised naturally in a large group, it is expensive. Raised naturally on free range with a high bug population... Well that would be different, but there would be losses to raptors and so forth, so even that will entail a cost.

Fortunately I didn't start doing this to make cheap chicken meat. However I do feel my attitude evolving, the more I experiment. I don't feel tempted to give up and buy supermarket chicken, but I do feel a need to step back and rejig what I'm doing. Natural, yes, no question about that — as natural as possible given that I don't live on a highly arable acreage. But maybe natural in the case of chickens means lighter, better-foraging birds with occasional pot-cockerels rather than a meat production line?

In a way this dovetails neatly with what I believe anyway: we need to respect where meat comes from. Cheap meat will always have something wrong, whether it's nutritional (cheap petrochemical-derived food) or in terms of sustainability (over-fishing and toxic waters). Yes, I do believe it's time to rejig where chickens fit into the scheme of things...

Fattening meat birds...

We're at the 9 week mark with the meat hybrids. All are doing well despite heavy rain and mushy ground,  and have been off coccidiostats for over a week. (Even then they were on very minor amounts, with about one part commercial grower to nine parts home made.)

There are a couple of birds noticeably smaller than the others, but none are unwell or failing to thrive. These may have been slightly damaged by the cocci bout earlier. However now that they're off medications and not developing symptoms I can pretty much feed them what I please, which means I can start 'fattening'. (The hen chicks of course will be fed an ordinary ration as I want them to breed.)

At the moment I'm giving a morning feed of the sprout diet as I've mentioned before: wheat, corn and peas (sprouted), sweet lupins, lucerne (alfalfa) soaked in molasses water, yeast, seaweed meal, salt. Greens come from the ground under the tractor. This feed tends to last them most of the day.

During the day, I leave a big round tub in the house and slowly fill it with the following:

- table scraps — high protein, no raw peels or fibrous waste; just anything nutritious.
- half a bag of steamed rolled oats — $1.13 for the 900g bag, but this is spread over two days between 40-odd chickens (including the layers). If I have plenty of home made fritter/bread/pancake scraps I'll cut down on the oats.
- soured or leftover milks including kefir made from reconstituted skim milk (though powdered milk doesn't work very well with kefir... But I can usually get it to go some of the way).
- carrot-ends, bean tips, swede ends, potato peels cooked up in a pot — these are only a minor element of the mix, as they're low in protein. Potato skin, however, is fairly high in methionine.
- lupins that have been boiled in a big pot — about twice as much by dry weight as the oats.
- About the same quantity of soaked or sprouted wheat as the oats, to supply amino acids for protein building alongside the lupins.

Does it sound difficult? It is if I set out to 'do this' as a chore. However I find that putting a pot of lupins on to boil takes almost no time at all if I'm already in the kitchen. I leave it on a low heat, lid on, for about an hour and stir if I feel like it. Everything else is just a bit here, a bit there — mostly it's done while I'm cooking anyhow. I cook enough lupins for 2-3 days and store remainders in the fridge so for the next few days it's just a matter of taking some out. Fortunately we have absolutely huge storage bowls.

Or I might do it this way:

- pet quality mince, thoroughly rinsed in hot water, then drained in a sieve. About 300g for the whole flock seems to keep the layers in lay and the meat birds growing. It costs about $4 a kg, which I suppose is fairly expensive, but as I say it does 40-odd birds.
- a full bag of steamed rolled oats.
- kefir or whey or skim milk, lightly soured.

In older days, this is what they did to fatten birds:

- put each cockerel in its own small elevated cage inside a shed, with an opening for its head to fit through. Below the opening is the feed trough. These were called 'cramming cages'.
- mix up half steamed rolled oats and half skim milk into a slurry.
- feed the birds this mixture for 10 days without supplying extra water, and then process the birds.

However in older days, skim milk just as likely came from the farm down the road, i.e. fresh. Modern skim milk powder seems very hard to grow souring organisms in... Though I'll keep trying as it would be a neat way to turn a fairly so-so product into something healthy and non-digestion-upsetting.

So there you have it: my current fattening regimen. Hopefully it won't 'fatten' literally... But if you want muscle you have to supply protein. And given commercial feed's artificial methionine content (see earlier) doing it this way isn't a bad option.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The old 'grass is deadly for chickens' gag... Works every time.

If an insidious forum-moderator wanted to steer all his members away from home-grown and into feed-store-bought produce, he could do worse than run the 'grass causes sour crop' line.

Not only do the chicken-health-conscious have to avoid feeding grass clippings to birds, they have to avoid putting it as litter in the pens.

There may be a case for the 'grass is dangerous' claim, but you'll notice that people who claim it very often have a high interest in advocating antibiotics for illnesses, and in shushing anyone who says they've used it safely for years by saying 'that's purely anecdotal' — as it happens, so is the argument that grass causes crop impaction (instead of saying it may be faulty crop/intestinal flora combined with fibrous feeds).

I'm not going to say grass clippings are good pen material because they're not — they cake together like pancakes and you can slip on them when the ground underneath is muddy. But when you have nothing else and especially if you can mix other materials (like leaves) through, you can stop the pancake effect and help reduce the amount of manure building up on the surface of the ground.

As for feeding lawn clippings, I'd tend not to only because of the mower gases and oils that would have spread through the grass. Certainly birds starved for green pick may gorge on the lawnmower clippings and make themselves ill. But I can see little harm in having piles of clippings everywhere if the birds are also given fresh green feed and have a variety of foods to help them develop stronger digestive systems.

I think I've written on this subject before, so forgive me if I sound like a harpy. But I do see the authoritative voice coming up often and I also see new chicken owners frightened into spending a lot more at the feed store than they may need to. The fact is, there is no better way to get natural vitamins into a bird than feed something fresh, whether it's greens or protein. So do be careful about using clippings, but don't avoid grass altogether, and if you're uncertain about safety, do what I do, and cut it with scissors!

What's the ideal litter for an outdoor pen?

I've tried many things, but here's something cheap and readily available if you live near a pine forest.

I've been cursing our property's pine trees ever since we moved in. Their needles kill everything else, and there are often beads of sap that stick incorrigibly to everything they touch. Then the trees themselves are overgrown and tall, providing a habitat for goshawks to then swoop down on unprotected birds. Lastly they overshadow our block, making it hard for us to develop an understorey.

But now I've found a cost-reducing use for them:

What a fabulous pen floor they make! They're non slip, a pretty colour, and the droppings tend to drain through when it rains instead of piling on top.

They're slower to break down than many other litters like straw, and I feel there may be some antiparasitical properties as well.

They're also quite soft underfoot, so a heavy bird like the hybrid above can walk comfortably. In fact I've even put pine needles in the night-shed for a comfy floor and nesting material.

Our area has a reasonably high rainfall, and there's nothing worse than a slushy pen. However pine needles seem very good at keeping the mud away from the surface, and are quite fine to walk on even in the squelchiest weather.

Last but not least... In my 'neck of the woods' they're free. Having spent $14 for a bag of sugar cane mulch earlier in the year, this is a big saving. And I would say they're a much better choice.

So instead of cursing the trees for their various drawbacks, I'm feeling lucky they're here.

By the way, I'm sure many other trees can be used in this way — last year I was gung ho about eucalyptus leaves and she-oak (two native Australian trees that also like to kill everything that tries to grow nearby). Both also have antimicrobial properties, though eucalyptus leaves aren't particularly nice to walk on. The springy, spongy feeling of pine needles underfoot is certainly a pleasant change.

And after all 'the natural chicken' isn't just about the birds themselves, but about raising and growing as much as possible at home, including the mulch.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

managing roosters with only one soundproof shed

The rooster shed is working well at reducing noise; actually I should call it a 'breeder' shed.

It was an old cubbyhouse that I've lined with extra boards, some old real estate signs (glued to the ceiling) and some carpet. The back of the door was doctored by gluing neoprene over it. The neoprene (wetsuit material) overlaps the jamb so it helps stop sound bleeding around the door edges when the door is closed. (As you can see in the photo the door is slightly ajar.)

A hatchway at each side faces onto two different pens. Originally I did it that way (putting a sound-deadening hatch at each window) so I could alternate use of the pens to keep the ground from developing a huge parasite problem. However as I raise more birds I'm finding that I want to keep several roosters, not just one.

This brings up the obvious issue: noise. I can't very well have a sound-deadening shed for one rooster if another 2 or 3 are crowing loudly outside. Yet roosters often don't get along when they're with girls.

So the answer I found was to divide the sound-insulated shed in two and use both pens (one housing juvenile cockerels, the other the rooster and hens). Here are the separate hatchways opening onto each pen. You'll notice that each side has a roost just inside the window ledge.

The division inside the shed was made of some c-clipped mesh panels that keep themselves upright (they aren't fixed to either wall) by being a bit kinked (like a concertina) and having one end folded to form a perpendicular brace. (In plan view it looks a bit like an L.)

The end of the 'L' is tucked behind some nestboxes to help keep it steady.

On the other side the division only just reaches the wall and isn't permanently fixed there either. I hook it to the wall both top and bottom so there's no chance birds can squeeze through. Meanwhile I use this section as the doorway. As all the panels are c-clipped I can fold the divider out of the way whenever I want.

At night, all the birds roost in the same shed, and if the crowing is too loud with the hatches open, I simply close them. The structure is big enough to supply air all night, but there are also vents (which were part of the original wall) and they don't seem to let too much sound through. As the shed is fairly dim it's unlikely I'll see bad squabbles between a rooster and cockerels when both lots are inside. I can always place some shadecloth down low on the divider panels if that happens.

It may look fiddly, but this represents about $50 of investment and took an hour to set up. The galvanised panels came in sets of 4 'compost panels' for $26 from Bunnings. Yet making the divider has solved two problems at once: how to keep more than one cockerel and how to keep the noise down (by using one shed as two).

Just as a side note, keeping a lot of young cockerels in a pen of their own is only possible if the birds are either naturally placid or have been raised together, and a few of the highly aggressive breeds will never suit having an all-male pen. But given that I only keep placid birds, this lets me at least double... heck, triple or quadruple!... the number of adult males I can keep before I start seeing (or hearing) problems.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Feeding meat hybrids: update

Well, the tractor was getting a little crowded, and I wanted to begin watching the female birds' diet a bit more closely, so I've removed 10 pullets into a large pen and kept mainly cockerels in the tractor.

All are doing very well on about 80% home mix, 10% commercial grower and 10% scraps/mince/kefir/rolled oats or whatever else looks good. It's a bit ad hoc but growth is pretty even and more to the point the birds all look well.

To keep the pullets from developing leg problems, I've given them a shed with no roosts. However so they're not sitting on the litter I've added some log offcuts and a spare tyre. They can perch on these easily without being so high that getting up and down is difficult.

Eventually — here's hoping — they'll reach point of lay and deposit the odd egg in the middle of the spare tyre. I've kept 10 pullets but expect only half that number to reach laying age. If they all survive into lay (which would be great) I'll obviously need to add another couple of nests.

This pen abuts the one currently holding anconas and leghorn x chicks. As it happens they're the same age as the hybrids, but you wouldn't know it to look at them. When the hybrids reach sexual maturity I should be able to let an ancona rooster visit them through a little hatchway during the day. At night (due to noise/neighbours/cranky husband) I'll have to put the rooster back in the night-shed. But that won't be difficult.

It's the generation after that which I'll be most interested in. If I breed the hybrids to an ancona, I should get some black-speckled birds (not that I know or care about colour genetics) that lay reasonably well but more to the point aren't overweight at a young age. Perhaps rather than using the anconas I'll put a leghorn x cockerel over them instead. That would mean slightly better laying, as the leghorn x come from utility strains and are very productive. The males from that mating I would want to put with the ISA browns — that will keep egg laying utility high, but would add some colour so the birds are slightly less visible to goshawks. (That's another reason to use the anconas instead.)

All of this crossbreeding may end up in the wastebasket, or may end up producing long lived but productive dual purpose birds. If it ends up in the wastebasket I suspect it will be for reasons of ill health — meat hybrids are notoriously susceptible to Marek's. (Despite being vaccinated, one already had signs of some type of tumour disease — see one of my earlier posts.) But if I can maintain a balance between moderate weight gain (as I said earlier I just want a slightly weightier carcass at 16 weeks), good (not extreme) laying ability and hardiness, I'll be very happy indeed.

If not, of course it will be back to the drawing board, and I may go back to the malay-ISA or malay-leghorn. They were very nice birds and the malay-ISA I used as a broody has just gone back into lay despite it being mid winter. She's only been off the chicks for a couple of weeks, so that's pretty productive... If I could just have gotten those cockerels 400g heavier they would have been the perfect dual purpose bird!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Changing feed

It can be very hard to get commercial-raised adult birds to switch to a new diet. Just recently I bought a handful of layers at point of lay from a hatchery, and found that they wouldn't attempt to eat any of the home mix. Over a few days they gradually took a little of it, but I would say they were eating about half a normal amount of feed for the first two weeks, and as a result laying was greatly delayed.

The prevailing advice is to do a half-half mix for a week to gradually change birds over to a new feed. However I didn't want to buy a bag of layer pellets just to do a one-week withdrawal to a new feed. Besides, my other birds do well on varying feed.

Accepting variety is a vital part of keeping birds healthy on a home mix. There are times when an important ingredient becomes unavailable (recently I couldn't buy yeast) and so other ingredients need to be added to make up for whatever vitamins are going to be missing. There may also be times when an available feed is of poor quality. And of course price sometimes dictates a change. As a result the home feed isn't a fixed diet but a constantly shifting, constantly changing thing.

The key to being able to vary the feed in this way is to get the chicks used to variety very early on. They have to get used to not only each individual ingredient, but also the fact that the mix itself changes over time. Happily this seems to work.

The only shortcoming is that chicks whose feed includes whole grains etc may be more vulnerable to coccidiosis when the owner is relying on medicated feed (not management) to keep parasite numbers low. If you add non medicated ingredients to a chick's diet, you reduce the amount of coccidiostat each bird eats. Not everyone may be interested in reducing reliance on medications. In that case I would suggest only adding a very small amount of extra feeds, e.g. by way of an afternoon 'treat'.

In the meantime rest assured, when birds are weaned off medications they can still be introduced to a varying natural diet, though the process takes time. My new layers are now eating the mix quite happily, and three out of four are laying (the other is taking a break until the day length increases).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

We're not meat, we're chickens! (Unless we're being nasty...)

I often feel the term 'meat hybrid' is slightly cruel. It isn't of course, but I can see why mass scale farmers might be tempted to view them as meat even while they're alive. They do some silly things sometimes (like nearly flattening one another in their race for food).
 But I still think they're sentient in some way. They have personalities, even if they don't carry those differences to an extreme (in a prey animal that flocks together, individuality is a curse). And who's to say this fellow isn't thinking?

Stepping into the tractor is always an adventure. Firstly they crowd at the front so much it's hard to find a clear spot to tread — I have to carefully nudge them away with my feet. Secondly they like to try to eat anything that presents itself — fingers, bucket, toes — and if it's not edible, some of them will square up to the stray object (such as the feed scoop) and try to start a boxing match. Yet they're quite nice creatures, and I haven't seen any of them squaring up to one another.

The layers are a slightly different story when it comes to both temperament and making pets. Since these are to be breeders I've had to be a bit firmer when it comes to aggression between the birds (they're not aggressive at all toward me). One of the leghorn x (the white birds) was really making life hell for the others, so I've removed him. It doesn't make sense to raise cockerels to adulthood before dispatching if they're going to harm each other. Fortunately now that he's gone the remaining cockerels are getting along quite well.

The removed bird was processed into healthy dinner for my beloved flock protector. Although only 7 weeks old and a layer, he still provided my dog with her complete daily meal, and nothing was wasted (except the feathers, head, feet and intestines). I feel it was a fairly good result from a non-ideal situation.

So that's today's round-up, with ups and downs (and probably some contradictions)...

layers doing well, time for mealworms?

The layer chicks are the same age as the meaties, i.e. 7 weeks. It's so lovely to pick them up and find that, despite a diet of only 50% commercial feed, they have as much feather and bodyweight as any layer could. I'm also happy with their behaviour and feel their nutrition has been close to just right.

If I could add something to their diet, it would be more fresh meat. However that's not going to happen with mince at $7 or $8 a kilo and pet mince fiddly to feed (because of the need to rinse/heat to remove preservatives). Never mind. As they go on, I'll find ways to keep up the amino acid supplement while they get a basic protein percentage from the mixed legumes and grains.

Meanwhile I've invested in a $10 container of mealworms. I've never kept mealworms before, but I'd bought a bag of bran from the feed store as a chick diet ingredient, and figured 'why not?' Vegetable peelings, old flour, skim milk and bran seem to be all the mealworms want in life... Hopefully I can let their numbers build up to a level where they're able to be fed to the chickens daily.

Worth a shot, anyhow... I'll keep you posted. Hopefully they won't do a 'worm farm' and vanish on me...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tractor life

The tractor seems to be working perfectly now. I shift it every two days: by then the meat hybrids have thoroughly soiled the ground. They seem to be enjoying the sun and the grass — it's such a lovely sight when they take a break from eating to sunbathe.

They're now 7 weeks old (plus a day or two) and while there's a fair bit of variation in size, none is looking seedy. I did roll the tractor edge over a cockerel accidentally this morning — I couldn't see past the tarp as I was very slowly dragging — but he doesn't appear to have been harmed. Thank heavens! This didn't start with a desire to save money but to raise healthy chickens as humanely as possible.

Their feed is still 50% commercial grower and 50% home mix (sprouted wheat, corn and peas; cracked sweet lupins; sunflower and lucerne with molasses water, seaweed meal and the one I always forget to mention, salt). On top of that I add an afternoon treat which is high in methionine — 50% soured or skim milk with rolled oats to soak the moisture up, and 50% pet mince which has been rinsed thoroughly in hot water to remove sulphur dioxide preservative. They wolf it down, but then they wolf everything down. :)

You can see what the daily feed looks like behind the dozing birds in the photo below:

They really eat a lot, and drink a lot:

Their growth rate is just about what I want. By that I mean, they aren't gaining weight so fast that they won't be able to walk in another week or two. A couple are quite big but the majority are nicely balanced and even hop up into the upright feeder sometimes. I like to see birds that can perch if they want to (even if for safety's sake there's no perch there).

The photo below shows one of the heaviest cockerels... I think 10 weeks might just about be a maximum he'll get to before leg issues occur. But I'll be happy if all the cockerels make 12 weeks and in a few cases 14. As for the pullets, as soon as I've made the meat selections, I'll start increasing the time between morning and afternoon feeds so they do a bit more foraging. At the moment feed is available all day, and I'm relying on its higher fibre content (compared to fully commercial feed), slower progress through the digestive system, and more 'satisfying' nature to keep the birds' weight from skyrocketing.

They're sleeping on the ground under the tarp, as the cold brooder was taken out some time ago. No more mats, either — they don't need them unless it's raining so heavily that water is trickling underneath the tarp. Temperatures at night are getting down around 5C, with a frost about 3 days ago (so it must have been near zero celcius). I'm happy with how they look, and in fact when I went out to check on them on the coldest night the area under the tarp was surprisingly warm. They have such high metabolisms they really crank out the heat.

But just on the subject of looks, as you can see, the feathering is still patchy on some. Here's the worst one:

It looks bizarre and the fact that I had a similar issue with the sussex was what made me review the diet for methionine. Having said that, the layer chicks raised partly with the meat birds above feathered properly.

Still, as things go I'm quite happy with the balance between growth and chicken health. In future I'll only brood 15 (not 30) to reduce coccidiosis issues, and I'll pay more attention to weather reports as well as seeding the brooder gradually with adult droppings. The fact that these birds had to be shifted to new brooders three times (because they outgrew each one) meant that each new brooder run was also probably devoid of coccidia to start with. Thus when they hit the ground under the tractor they were hit with a massive increase in oocysts (especially when it rained). Well, that's my thinking, faulty as it may prove to be...

Then again, if I get breeders from this batch and manage to hatch offspring that are a little lighter and healthier, then I probably won't get meat hybrids again. That's the plan! :)

Friday, May 13, 2011

cocci update

I seem to have gotten the meat hybrids through the cocci bout. All but one are still going well and appearing completely healthy.

The one I lost was obviously very sick and unable to stand or walk. He was culled and given an amateur post mortem. The ceca (two long 'horns' coming off the main gut) were both full of dark blood. Clearly he had severe cecal coccidiosis. However there was an unexpected post mortem finding, and that was a large grey tumour or growth under his breast. It was the size of a broad bean, which is large for a chick not quite 5 weeks old, and quite hard, with a covering of many blood vessels. I don't know what to make of it beyond presuming it was a type of cancer, but hopefully there won't be sequels.

For the other birds, treatment was mainly a coccidiocide (sulphaquin — which is no longer able to be purchased) but I also moved the pen every 24 hours to new ground, and gave them all 2 days on pure chick starter (medicated), then slowly changed the diet back to 50/50 commercial/home mix. Now I'm moving the tractor every 2 days. I'll gradually extend the length of time between moves.

I've also taken the layer type chicks out of that pen and put them with the ancona chicks, while taking the malay x 'mother' back into the layer flock. The mother had to go back to the flock because she would have killed the layer type chicks that had been raised among the meat hybrids (remember she rejected them earlier). However 5 week old chicks are quite good at accepting others of their own age and size. Meanwhile raising all the baby layers together is better in terms of keeping an eye on their diet and health. If I'd left them with the meat hybrids they would probably have been starved out as the meat birds grew (and layers at 5 weeks on do like to roost, whereas the meat birds shouldn't).

All the chicks are on 50% commercial (medicated) chick grower and 50% home mix. The medicated grower component will be reduced in the next 2 weeks. By week 10 I mean to have them on an entirely natural diet (though not organic due to price and sourcing issues). By 'natural' I mean fresh natural greens, occasional bugs, grains and legumes, oilseeds, probiotic soured milk, fresh or mealed meat, yeast and shell grit. This contrasts to commercial feeds which have petrochemical-derived methionine to make up for the amino acid shortage in the wheat-soy base.

I've become aware that I may not have enough methionine in their diet, so I've started to increase soured milk. Signs of lack of methionine were that the meat hybrids (just like the sussex) have been feathering a little more slowly than I expected, especially around the rear end. The sussex did feather up eventually, but I do feel a bird should be fully feathered at 6 weeks.

I'm also trying fresh pet mince, but this time I'm soaking/cooking it first, to extract some of the preservatives that destroy thiamine. Ironically cooking also destroys thiamine, but this only affects the meat. I take it that if you feed sulphur dioxide laced meat it also destroys thiamine in the other feeds given at the same time.

By week 12 I'll roughly sort the keepers from the freezers. Keepers will be well grown but active. If all the birds still appear happy then I won't process any. Why hurry? If they're doing well, haven't overgrown their legs and basically seem to be enjoying life, then I'll be happy too. If they look happy but a bit crowded, I'll move some to another pen. No drama. By the time they start to crow, however, I won't have much choice — I have neighbours to think about, and only one sound-deadening rooster shed (which I've divided in half down the middle so I can keep a mature rooster with hens on one side, and young growing cockerels together in the other — each shed side has an exit to its own pen).

Eventually with the meat birds I plan to get down to a manageable bunch of healthy-as-possible girls, which will stay in the tractor. When they begin to lay, I'll start putting a rooster in with them during the day, and collecting and setting eggs. A majority of the offspring should be a lot longer lived and healthier than the meat parents, and should be genuinely good dual purpose birds.

After I get to the stage of having healthy heavyweight dual purpose birds that don't go broody too often, and also lay quite well without reproductive problems, I'll look at crossing them to some of the purebred utility dual purpose breeds. I should be able to introduce some fancy colours and other traits (for instance cochin or brahma would help with temperament). But that's for the future, if I make it that far.

This is all trial and error — as you can see, I've made errors in the past (e.g. cocci). The methionine question is still up for grabs. But so far I don't think any major damage was done. Even if my birds stay slightly slower to feather than normal, as long as they're growing well methionine may not be a dramatic issue. In any case I don't want birds that put on meat as fast as the hybrids — such fast growth is a product of industrial farming, and can't really be sustained without it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Happy anconas, happy malay x ISA brown mum!

Time for something a bit more up beat... Just thought I'd include a few shots of the malay x ISA brown mother and 'her' brood, all coming along nicely.

Below is a good comparison shot of male and female anconas. (Note: they're not 100% purebred.) However you can see the gender differences fairly clearly: the pullet (left) has a much lower stance, smaller legs, and a smaller, narrower, duller comb. There's room for error on all these observations but at this age it's a fairly reliable guess.

And a quick note regarding coccidiosis: these birds were in a small, very wet pen during the rainy spell. The above pen is much drier. I moved them after the meat birds started to show symptoms because I worried these guys would too... But they haven't needed medications and are still going well on a 50/50 diet.

Today I saw the malay x mother encourage one of them to eat a whole sunflower seed (which it did). If the chicks are trying larger whole grains then in theory they'll develop stronger gizzard muscles. Having processed quite a few birds, I feel this is true.

Cocci seems to be under control, birds back to normal...

The two days on sulphaquin seem to have been enough to eliminate cocci symptoms in those birds that were starting to droop. All are active and eating well again.

I wouldn't say they're 100% healthy, but healing takes time. The two birds to the right of this photo were the worst affected, and will take longest to get well. However they were eating happily this morning, and perhaps look a little further under par due to the cold (it's quite chilly and breezy where the tractor is at the moment). Still, I'm happy enough with their progress. Coccidiosis can be very fast to take down birds and the two pullets to the right probably suffered the most.

At the moment I've got them on a 90% commercial starter diet — this contains a coccidiostat to keep the parasites from getting out of control. I'm just going to do this for a couple more days and then start to reduce the medicated feed again, in preference for a more natural diet. This weaning will take place fully over the next one to two weeks. Hopefully my mistake with moving the pen infrequently (plus heavy rain) was the only real trigger for their illness, and I won't be risking their health by continuing with the dietary change.

So here's the plan in detail. Watching closely for coccidiosis, I'll start withdrawing the medicated feed once more, and slowly reintroduce cracked corn, millet, protein meals, lupins, lucerne (alfalfa), sunflower seeds, sprouted grains, kefir, oats and meat (bandsaw dust from the butcher, or common mince). I'll also be adding very small amounts of seaweed meal for minerals (seaweed meal is too high in iodine to be fed in large amounts), and a pinch of salt (birds do need some salt, though I always forget to mention it).

The aim is to have 6 week old birds on a fully natural diet (that is, natural but not stringently organic), with processing time set for around the 10-12 week mark instead of around 7 weeks as with commercially reared birds. The point of that is to enhance flavour, protein complexity and therefore nutritional status of the meat, while letting the birds enjoy a tiny bit more life... Meanwhile I aim to keep 3 or 4 of the best pullets to attempt breeding from later on. 

Worth a shot? We'll all have to wait to find out...

Meanwhile he's a comparison shot of the layer chick (front) with one of the meat birds. As you can see, the meat cockerel has that slightly more 'tucked' look while the layer didn't seem to suffer coccidiosis at all.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Details of most recent cold brooder...

This post is just to show some details of the latest brooder version, which I'm using in a tractor. However I need to add a very strong caution about following my lead: be sure that no rain can seep underneath the nest area (a tray full of litter for the birds to sleep on may help), no draughts can blow through from any direction, and the ambient temperatures are not going to be even a little bit Siberian (though of course this depends on the age of the birds). In fact the best place to use a cold brooder like this one would be in a cosily sealed shed, with clean dry litter all over the floor.

As with all cold brooding remember too that the trick is to balance insulation and warmth against ventilation (alongside the ability to expand the brooding area as chicks grow). It's not rocket science but neither is it a total cinch get right first time. The safe thing is to remain vigilant until you know what you're doing. And also as with all cold brooding, chicks have to be taught to use it.

Here are some details of the unit. It was incredibly easy to make, and took my birds from the day they turned 3 weeks of age (when they outgrew their former brooder and run). I feel this is the right age to try using a brooder like this one, because the birds have some feathers and are that bit more hardy, and this brooder is really quite airy. Furthermore the metal legs can tend to dissipate heat away from the unit, whereas a wooden-legged brooder might not... (To stop that I've got the curtain running around on the inside of all metal parts.)

Anyhow, here is the basic skeleton (as a sketch):

It's basically a rectangular mesh box. Two of the extended sides form supports for an open area underneath. However these mesh sides aren't quite strong enough in themselves to keep the unit from flexing, so I've added 4 makeshift 'legs' made of cheap brackets wired to the box base. You can see how they sit below:

The height of these legs and hence the height the box of hay sits above the ground is dependent on the height of the chicks. For very young birds all cold brooders need to have their insulation (or ceiling) as close as possible to the chicks. My birds, being older, could cope with a space under the box being about head height while standing normally (younger birds would need a slightly lower ceiling, so they have to duck when entering). Naturally the area enclosed by the fringed curtain (or the perimeter of the legged box) also reflects the grouped size of that particular number of birds. There can obviously be some leeway with this; you don't want chicks to be packed like sardines so that some spill out through the curtain and others can't breathe.

I've put some fairly thick material as a curtain all the way around this brooder (attached by c clips to the base of the box), and along the front where chicks come and go I've cut the fabric into strips to make a fringe:

When first starting out with this kind of cold brooder it's vital to make sure that chicks can go nowhere else except into the nestbox — that is, they can't pace up and down the sides looking for a way in and eventually chilling. If the run is the same width as the nest area the birds will happily learn to go through the curtain into the warmer area under the hay.

The hay in the box on top isn't packed firmly, and is about 10cm deep:

As you can see from the above photo I've got the hay sitting on a layer of shadecloth so it doesn't all fall through the rather wide mesh.

The tarp on top of the unit wouldn't be necessary in a cosy shed, and in fact is a bit of a drawback. That is, as the chicks breathe the hay is meant to breathe too, allowing water vapour from their exhalations to rise up and dissipate without wetting the hay. However with a tarp on top the hay can get damp quite quickly. For this reason I've got the sides of the box above the layer of hay quite open, with the tarp pinned so that it really only covers the top, not any of the sides. The tarp is partly there to stop any moisture falling into the hay from above (my tractor isn't 100% waterproof on top) and partly to stop chicks scratching all their insulation hay out during the day (which they would otherwise love to do). However in a dry shed you could just lay a sheet of mesh on top to discourage scratching.

Remember this cold brooder is being used for birds around 3 weeks of age... However it's getting down to about 5C (last night was even colder) so I'm pleased to say it's working well for birds at that age.

Just one more thing: I've seen similar brooders to this one being recommended for younger chicks. In particular I remember one made of timber, with wing-nuts that allowed the 4 legs to be lengthened or shortened depending on the age of the chicks. I'd be a little careful using this kind of brooder in really low temperatures — I feel they can be a little too airy for really young chicks. But on the other hand chicks do need ventilation, and it's very easy for my other cold brooder (the square timber box version) to become filled with dampness and ammonia from a couple of nights' brooding.

Ultimately this is an art for people with a bit of free time and a great willingness to fiddle and fidget... But I must say, when the chicks emerge at a happy run exactly as they do from under a hen, it can be a very rewarding way to brood. :-)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Down to one light sussex... Misadventure!

Never count your chickens... Not even after they've hatched.

Just on sunset, I lost a light sussex in the weirdest way. I took them all a snack but daylight had faded early, and both the light sussex had already gone to roost.

Thinking there was still enough light, I called them out and put a little bit of food on the ledge just below their hatchway. It turns out this was a deadly thing to do!

Trying to get to it first, the two birds went for the hatchway at the same time. The little bloke fell backwards into the shed while the larger one came outside. I wasn't too worried as the hatchway itself is only about 40cm above the floor — it's not a long way to fall, and I seem to remember that chickens have wings.

About minute later he still hadn't emerged, so I went in and had a look — he was up on the roost heading for the hatchway, and seemed fine. Then he came outside, climbed down the ramp into the pen and went over to the feeder to get his share. A few seconds later he stepped back from the feeder and fell over, spasmed a few times, went very pale and died.

Just like that — gone. I don't even know what to make of it! I've had several breeds including heavy ones, but have never lost a bird to a minor fall. But somehow the jolt must have ruptured something, perhaps his heart or liver. I won't know because it was too dark to do a post mortem, and frankly the last thing I wanted to do was cut the poor fellow open.

So there we have it — sudden sussex death syndrome. His brother will be a bit lonely now — and he's the one with odd wingtips, so not a great breeding prospect.

Quite an odd and unsettling day!