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, June 23, 2011

extruded lupins for poultry

I just came across a new product at my local feed store yesterday, intended for horses: extruded lupins.

Given that several of my meat hybrids had some liver streakiness at dispatch, I feel it may be worth trying the pre-cooked product.

However I don't know if the lupins have been treated with anything else or if they're suitable in terms of piece-size for poultry to eat, so I'm not sure if I'll invest in them just yet... Nevertheless I thought I'd mention it in case other people want to give it a try.

By the way, lupins (not lupini beans or 'lupin beans') are very similar to soya beans in terms of amino acid content and crude protein. Where Americans grow soya beans Australians tend to grow sweet lupins. Unlike soya beans they don't have high levels of anti-nutritional compounds/toxins, but they still do have a small percentage that probably varies per crop. Given that I'm using legumes as a staple, I think it makes sense to start cooking them to reduce those small percentages to as low as possible.

In light of this idea I'm starting all my birds on a new modification: all the lupins I feed will have been cooked first. Again I simply boil them up (simmer for 45mins-1hr) and store them in the fridge over the next 4-5 days as they get used. It's not a chore at all, or at least it's a good chore: there's something enormously satisfying about knowing it's good for the birds. And unlike the extruded product I'll know how old the home-boiled lupins are before they make it into the feed containers.

As you're probably aware if you looked at my feed recipe on other posts, it's basically sprouted wheat, corn and peas mixed with lupins, black sunflower seeds, molasses-water-soaked lucerne chaff, yeast, seaweed meal and salt to make about 18% crude protein. This is their all-day feed while in the evening they get steamed rolled oats (human grade, i.e. porridge) soaked in kefir made out of powdered skim milk, sometimes with added cooked lupins or mince. However lately all the birds have been a bit fussy about the lupins, so I feel supplying them pre-cooked will bring back some of that appetite.

I may go for the extruded variety at some point, supposing I get tired of cooking the things. After all, it's a fair bet they're safer long-term than whole raw legumes. Anyhow, it's all part of the experiment. :)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

making a low perch for meat birds

Meat hybrids aren't much into perching. And a good thing too, as if they jump down from anything over a few inches in height, they're likely to break a leg.

However resting on the ground is a recipe for health problems. For starters, sitting on top of fresh droppings will cause ammonia burns to both the skin and the lungs. Then there's the issue of matting feathers, rot and fungal diseases.

My particular pen isn't well designed for these birds, as it's right at the bottom of my yard, and draws moisture from everywhere else so it's damp year-round. The shed, which has no floor, is also quite leaky and tends to flood with rain.

The answer I came up with wasn't to demolish and start again — while a raised concrete floor in a drier spot would be ideal, it would break the bank. Any kind of perch fixed into the shed would make it difficult to scrape out droppings, so I also had that to consider.

The answer was to make a moveable low perch the birds can step up onto.

All I did was make a rectangular grid out of timber fence palings (smoothest side up), which are quite wide and suitable for perching. Narrow timbers would of course press deeply into the birds' feet and keelbone, since the hybrids are so heavy. This simple rectangle with struts sits up on half a dozen bricks so that the birds are raised out of the damp by several inches.

Underneath I've put some loose straw which I can remove and replace when I muck the shed out. This isn't greatly necessary but does help absorb ammonia. Even though the perch is easy to remove (just lift and pull out) it doesn't tip up when a bird first hops on top because it's quite heavy in its own right. Lastly I've made sure all corners and edges have stable bricks beneath; the whole thing is not rigid, but solid.

Since doing this I haven't had to muck out daily, and the birds' undersides are staying clean. It's surely a bonus for their health when they're not sitting in droppings all night.

The 7 girls are looking very well, and they even do the flapping run most birds do from time to time when they want to have a stretch and run around. I had visitors recently who actually admired them! They were surprised to hear they're supermarket meat hybrids; I think they imagined I had some special new breed on the go.

Meanwhile I've found homes for 2 spare ancona cockerels, so I'll be breeding with just one ancona and one leghorn come spring. But it's quiet times at The Natural Chicken because it's deep mid-winter (well, one day after solstice), I have no adult breeders, and although all 5 layers are laying daily they're all infertile, which just doesn't seem as much fun.

But there'll be time to set eggs when the youngsters are mature. For now, it's maintenance, maintenance, maintenance...

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Just a few shots of the 11 week old anconas. They're a striking bird when they start moulting into adult feathers.

As it happens though, I'm only keeping the cockerels. Being a bit of a stickler for productive (as well as healthy) birds, I'd prefer to cross these with the red layers I got from a local hatchery to make a fine layer that has some claims to being pretty.

The red layers are softer natured than ISA browns but have a very similar laying ability (and probably reproductive dramas after the first laying season). I feel the cross with anconas will most likely be a more durable but still good laying bird.

However it is tempting to continue these birds as a purebred line. They seem particularly good foragers with a nice ability to camouflage (giving them a possible edge if I ever do free range in future). Next season I may look around for some non-related anconas so I can stick a few purebred pullets in the pen. But I'm wary of being too seduced by the whole 'purebred' thing, because in so many rare breeds it seems to go hand in hand with poor productivity, low vigour and even uncertain internal conformation (such some light sussex I bought a while ago that continually seemed sick and failed to thrive, then proved on eventual autopsy to have no gall bladders).

I've bought anconas from the source I bought the current birds from before, and they grew up to be wonderful, hardy birds. This may be partly because the breeder is an old-fashioned type who selects for a range of things (not just looks), but it may also be because he's got sufficient numbers of birds to maintain a diverse gene pool. Whatever the case, I feel they're a handy bird to add into my backyard mix.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kefir for chickens...

My kefir grains seem to have adapted well to powdered skim milk. Currently I'm making up an evening treat for 25 chickens of about half a litre of kefir, half a bag of rolled steamed oats and anything else I wish to add by way of protein (sometimes cooked lupins, sometimes a little fresh mince or high protein food scraps). This gives about a quarter of a cup of afternoon treat per bird — a quarter of each bird's daily ration, except the meat hybrids, which wolf down more overall.

Skim powdered is quite cheap at around $6.50 for powder to make 10 litres. Ten litres of kefir goes a long way when used as a supplement (around 20 days). The oats as I've said earlier are $1.19 per 900g bag, and I use half a bag per day. In total for this supplement for 25 birds I'm paying just under $1 per day, or $1.50 if I add about 250g of pet mince (which I do roughly every 2nd day, not all the time).

I've also found a new butcher selling pet mince without preservatives for $2 per kilo. Again, using this as a supplement rather than a whole-protein source, it's not a bad price and it also isn't terribly fatty (a thing to avoid with mince). The butcher assures me it's lungs, hearts, offal etc with fat added for texture, rather than just fatty scraps.

This is most definitely not the 'cheap' way to feed chickens. In the old days I would have had a dairy and plenty of meaty bones and other farm scraps. The chickens would have been out all day picking up horse dung and finding plenty of B vitamins and probiotics into the bargain. And mostly the chickens would have been foraging for themselves, so they would have thrived on little more than grain.

When we move out of this block with its huge overshadowing tall trees and zero understorey (perfect prey territory for goshawks), I'm going to free range more, and that will naturally cut costs. However for now the plan remains the same: keep feeding an all-natural diet, aiming to supply essential amino acids and minerals in as natural a way as possible; and watch the birds like (but only a little bit like) a hawk. :)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

dressed weights of home fed meat hybrids...

Yesterday was the last day I could set aside to process chickens for some time. It was also their 11 week age mark. Actually they could have gone on for another few weeks without problems but I've got a busy time coming up, so despite wanting them to have a longer life I just couldn't delay it.

Processing went fine. I caught them singly with a handful of feed and made sure the area was cleaned completely between dispatch. This stops them seeing any sign of what's to come — chickens are quite visual and, despite what some people believe, they do watch and will show signs of distress when another member of their flock is culled.

After dispatch each bird was singly processed by skinning, eviscerating and then washing down. The parson's nose was removed at the start of evisceration (I don't use it in most recipes anyway) and this made removal of organs much easier and cleaner. Livers and gizzards were cleaned and put aside for further use such as making paté. Hearts, spleens, legs (I already have a freezer full for use in stock), a few gizzards, and anything that slipped out of my hands and touched another surface were fed to the dog, who hovers nearby at dispatch time.

I found the birds had a wide variety of weights, from 1kg up to 1.8kg dressed weight. These weights are far lighter than meat hybrids I've raised to similar age in the past, but it must be remembered that they weren't fed synthetic methionine as a bulking agent and also had a cocci setback. They're still a lot heavier than my other crossbreds at the same age. Indeed my malay-leghorns didn't reach this weight range until week 16. Remember too that skin + parson's nose probably add an extra 150-250g.

Now for a couple of evident health problems. The smallest bird appeared to have two issues: one was a flaccid gizzard with signs of a couple of ulcers in the gizzard wall and an enlarged proventricular attachment (possible runting/stunting); the other was a pea-sized tumour inside the cavity (possible marek's).

Three of the next smallest birds also had flaccid gizzards, one or two erosion sites, and lax proventriculus with enlarged attachment (again, possible runting/stunting). Two of these also had faintly streaky livers, though no liver enlargement.

All the other birds (there were 21 in total) had good solid gizzards and digestive systems, but about half had faintly streaky livers. Again they had no liver enlargement (the way to tell this is to look at the edge of the liver, which should come to a sharp line; enlarged livers tend to have a plumped, pillow-like edge) and all other organs appeared normal. Remember I'm not an expert in any of this, and can't do close pathology, so these are 'gross' observations at best. However I do know that there should be no streakiness in the liver. My guess is that the naturally-occuring toxins in the lupins were a little hard on the birds' livers (when fed raw); or else that the grains were mildly affected by mould toxins. As the feed was all properly stored and very fresh (none older than a few weeks), and the sprouting was all carefully managed, such mould would have most likely been present at purchase. The third guess would be that the livamol and/or meat meal (both fed in small quantities up to about week 4 or 5) contained toxic amines (as noted in earlier research on runting/stunting syndrome) and these toxins had some liver impact.

Oddly, of the three birds with possible runting/stunting, all were smaller-framed than their counterparts, but equally well if not better fleshed. This may suggest that whatever had caused the earlier stunting had begun to disappear or improve.

Possibilities seem to include a virus (they were raised in the same tractor as the earlier sussex, one of which also showed runting/stunting symptoms), genetics (the sussex may have had broiler genes), amino acid imbalance (a strong possibility, though I can't find sufficiently detailed information on how amino acid ratios affect the gizzard if the birds are well-muscled and feathered and show no other symptoms), or something like mould or other toxins in the feed.

There is simply no way to decide between these possibilities, even given the observation that the runted birds began to improve after a certain point. For instance, if it was to do with an adenovirus, perhaps their immune systems improved as the birds aged. An amino acid imbalance (if there was one) may have been corrected by adding soured milk in greater quantities, as I did after about week 5. Removal of soy meal, meat meal and livamol (any of which may have contained toxic amines) may alone explain the improvement in the grower stage. Lastly (if this isn't complicated enough) I began cooking the lupins at about week 6 or 7, out of a concern about naturally-occurring toxins in the legume being perhaps higher than generally believed.

Next part of the project is, of course, to taste-test the results. I'm not concerned that the streaky livers imply anything wrong with the carcasses; in fact even the couple of stunted birds are well fleshed and appeared basically healthy inside (with the exception of the one with a small tumour, which I don't like to keep for eating). However I did only keep the well-coloured livers for paté; the rest will also be dog food.

If I find the meat to be absolutely delicious, I might fine-tune the diet and keep going with the earlier plan to crossbreed the meat hybrids with layers to develop a stronger, healthier, better foraging, tastier meat bird that does well without synthetic inputs. After all, none of the birds appeared to be in any discomfort despite those very faint liver streaks or the couple that weren't growing as well as the rest. Only the cocci bout left me feeling unhappy with my own management, and if I raise these birds under hens in smaller numbers (and don't put them in the tractor just as it starts to sheet with rain) I believe I can reduce the likelihood of it.

The biggest change if I did this again would be to do only what I've done in the second half of this project: i.e. include no meat meal or livamol, but do include more soured milk and cooked rather than raw lupins. The mealworms may well have bred in sufficient quantities to provide some more protein as well. If I do this without changing much else, but still see birds with gizzard/proventricular issues and/or streaky livers, I'll be in a better position to decide on a probable cause (e.g. mould toxins from faulty feed). But that's for down the track.

Meanwhile, on to the next part of this long and fairly arduous project: finding tasty ways to honour the meat that those birds gave their lives for...