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.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Making nestboxes on the cheap...

It's easy to convert something into a nestbox. Here is one I whipped up yesterday, for the meat hybrids. Since they can't go up the ramp into the night-shed, and their own roost area isn't ideal for laying in, I had to make something that could stay outside. Plant pot plastic is useful for this type of thing because it lasts a long time, unlike some of the more brittle plastics (like ultra cheap dog kennels).

The whole thing consists of 3 large tub-style plant pots sitting in a row, open to the front. The pots are screwed (heads facing inwards, sharps pointing out into the timber) onto the front piece of wood which acts as a stabiliser and foot-hold as well as retainer for the nestbox litter; and there's a second piece of timber sitting underneath the 3 pots near the back, which they're also screwed onto. The whole thing is a rigid unit.

At the front I've cut holes in play mats and screwed them to the pot rims. There's probably no need for this but it helps keep any driving rain out by limiting the opening size.

Lastly I screwed on a piece of folded corrugated metal. The screws point inwards but I've clipped off the sharp points. The fold goes over the back to stop rain coming in any of the plant pot's drainage holes. (I've left the drainage holes open but you could always plug them with silicone or even some spare corks.)

Since the birds' weight (if 3 hop in at once) might be too much and overbalance the unit by pressing down the front, I've also added about an inch and a half of fine gravel underneath the litter in the nestboxes. This tends to weigh the unit down and help stabilise it, given that it's fairly light otherwise. It also helps flatten the curved 'floor' of each nestbox so the birds are more comfortable when they have to stand up (as they do when in the act of passing an egg).

So there it is, an hour's work, not much to look at but the big white hybrids can't use normal nestboxes because of their stupendous size. They've already started sitting in this one.

Crossing commercial hens with heritage breed roosters

This year I'll be putting an ancona rooster over my five layer hens. The aim is to produce a good layer with a bit lower likelihood of reproductive problems than the commercial birds; yet a better laying ability than the anconas. They should also be fairly striking to look at.

Another project involves a leghorn over commercial meat hybrid pullets to cut back some of the excess weight gain and aim for heavy bodied but survivable birds.

Of the two projects I expect no troubles with the first, but probably quite a few with the second. For starters, even on limited twice-day feeding, the meat hybrids are enormous and probably have quite a lot of fat in the cavity. This always gets in the way of laying, and can cause heart issues. For now though they have good red combs without the maroon/purple tinge that can come as the heart develops an insufficiency. They're right at point of lay and have started squatting; I'm just waiting to see the first egg.

The first generation of the meat hybrid cross may also be too quick growing and heavy bodied to survive into maturity. However if I cross those birds to the ancona/layer cross (using Nulkaba layers instead of ISA browns for temperament reasons) I should get some interesting dual purpose birds.

The idea of both these projects it to water down something I see as a negative in the commercial birds. With commercial layers it's propensity to develop reproductive problems like internal lay, ovarian tumours and sheer exhaustion at 18 months. With the meat birds it's the massive overweight, the short lifespan and the likely weakened immune systems. By outcrossing both of these types to defined heritage breeds whose characteristics I know (having kept the same bloodlines in the past), I can hopefully retain all the characteristics I need.

These include good feed-growth ratios (without being too much for the bird's health); fast maturity; acceptable table birds by 16 weeks; good layers; and reasonably long lifespan; good vigour and immune systems. I don't want or need the massive growth of the meat hybrids, so of the two commercial strains those are the ones whose genes I intend to water down the most. Thus I'll be crossing them to a second generation layer type (the ancona x commercial layer most likely) to further reduce meat.

The results will be enormously varied at first, but if I breed only from the best then I should be getting somewhere in a couple more generations. If the whole thing fails I suspect it will be due to some of the inherent weaknesses in commercial birds; then it will be time to go right back to heritage birds and start over (Indian game and leghorns or similar should produce a decent dual purpose backyard bird).

But as I've said in the past, there are significant down sides to heritage breeds, one being that while commercial breeders have cleared their flocks of Mycoplasma Gallisepticum, it has tended to linger in many flocks that have been breed by backyarders down the years. (On the other hand the birds may have better immunity and milder germ strains, so it may show up less frequently or only due to major stressors.) Secondly Indian game are in general poor layers, so they're a harder bird to work with in terms of getting the numbers. They're also remarkably broody prone, which can be a hindrance as often as it's an asset.

Still, there are plenty of things to like about all the birds I've got at the moment. And if the meat pullets come into lay successfully and the leghorn cockerel develops as he should (both he and the ancona are really starting to shape up now, with a diet of half meat bird finisher and half sprouts with kefir and so forth), I'll be happy indeed.

Housing roosters quietly (part 2)...

Still not much progress on the spare rooster cage... That is, I whipped up a decent cage in about an hour using the compost panels (sets of 4 mesh squares), but haven't been able to join the play mats in such as way as to make them sufficiently sound-retardant. Individually they're not big enough to cover a full side, so there would be lots of joins where sound can escape.

By the way, you can see that I've made 2 doors. One is for easy egg or food/water access; the top door, which is larger is for shifting and removing birds. These panels aren't quite predator resistant enough for most backyards, as predators can easily reach through; however with a cover on they and either pegged down or floored, they should work well in many backyards. I'm lucky enough to have a good flock guardian so I can get by with only mild precautions. Raptors are my main issue so before using this cage I'll be adding some finer grade mesh.
Still, if I can find big enough sheets of material to glue the play mats onto, I could then form a four-sided roofed cage-cover that wouldn't be hard to lift and replace.

At the moment I only have the two mature cockerels and both are sleeping in the night-shed, so it's all fine. The night shed already has insulation (see my earlier post).

What I'm trying to do is find a way to keep spare roosters, as choosing which rooster to keep before the crowing ramps up isn't the best way to retain good breeders. Sometimes these birds end up having a temperament or health problem that wasn't obvious at the time of selection, when they were very young. Or sometimes they might not prove to have the characteristics I want. At 16 weeks it's a bit of a guessing game.

I'll keep searching for a way to make the cage-cover, and let you know if it works. If it does, it might be a cheaper way to keep roosters quiet than building a purpose-built shed, and it would always be flexible and easy to store (just undo the c-clips and flatten the cage).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Changing the diet to remove lupins

After more reading and more thought, I've decided to stop lupin-feeding (raw or cooked). The following article (a PDF) describes a study in which growth inhibition and other problems appeared even at 10% inclusion levels among broiler chicks. ps.fass.org/cgi/reprint/80/5/621.pdf Apparently some of the problems disappeared after dehulling or heat-treating, but the retarded growth and some skeletal abnormalities remained.

It just goes to show how widely you have to research if you're a layperson trying to formulate a ration on your own. The net is brilliant, but unless you know the right key words, you can end up googling the same old same old. It took me hours to find the above study and it seems very clear that lupins shouldn't be fed to chicks in replacement of soy. I wish I'd been able to find more information when first looking into lupins, as the basic agricultural information suggests that it should be perfect in replacement of soy.

I can however look back over the two years spent on this project, and see that some of the issues I've tended to ascribe to genes or to mealed feeds like meat meal may have in fact been due to lupins. The study in the above link suggests that there may be unidentified toxins innate to even sweet lupins that cause systemic effects in young birds.

Obviously I feel pretty bad about this. I've gone outside 'the lines' in trying to formulate my own feed, and with the best of intentions I've in fact been unwittingly cruel. But I feel to give up on the whole home-feed project and go back to fulltime commercially formulated feeds would only be a shift, not a fix. Remember that my reading on artificial methionine hit on studies that showed other forms of health damage (cardiovascular disease, fatty liver, etc). Artificial additives abound in commercial feed.

What I may do now is review my whole diet and try to reach my protein goals differently. I still don't want soy meal because I won't be able to avoid genetically modified soy (unless I find an organic producer). But exactly how I'll manage the protein levels I want without using lupins or soy is a bit of a question right now.

Give me time, give me time. Apologies to anyone who has taken the lupin feeding experiment as a guideline — hopefully you haven't taken it to an extreme. But my birds appear healthy generally so I feel a change in diet will remove any of the setbacks I may have caused — I hope this is true of yours too.

Best wishes everyone, and I hope I can find a new way to keep my chickens natural.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

liver damage from lupins? Graphic pictures


The following article needs to be seen in the light of more recent discoveries as I continue trying new feed formulas.

While I talk a little below about the dangers of lupins, I've since seen far worse liver damage (fatty liver) in birds fed commercial meat bird finisher for a couple of months. Indeed the results from commercial meat bird finisher were so dramatic that I now consider it a kind of poison, far worse than lupins.

Isn't that interesting? Toxins in lupins seem to have been responsible for a few slow growing birds and some liver blemishes, but commercial meat bird grower (high in artificial methionine) appears to have turned livers into yellow mush in a far shorter time. Fatty liver syndrome often results in liver rupture and the bird bleeding to death, so it's a terrible condition.

Meat bird finisher is meant to be fed to meat birds only for the last week or so. No doubt it's formulated to ensure the greatest weight gain with no regard for bird health (after all, the birds are considered terminal). But if the feed causes such liver harm in the birds, what does it do to humans when the meat of those birds is eaten?

My question turns upon whether D methionine (an artificial substance) remains in the carcass and goes on to cause health problems in people? As with my earlier post on methionine the questions relate to cardiovascular disease, liver triglycerides and perhaps even dementia.

I just wanted to add these notes because the following story otherwise appears to suggest that lupins should be avoided at all costs. I now see the whole situation a little differently, because if bird health matters, and if human health matters, I don't believe we should be feeding commercial meat bird finisher at all.

Many and indeed probably all feedstuffs are a balancing act between toxic effects and nutritional benefits. For instance even sunflower seeds contain mild toxins that limit their inclusion levels; so do many green feeds, peas and other useful feeds.

But it seems to me only natural feeds attract cautions about toxins and inclusion levels. Looking at what I've seen I'd say meat bird finisher should come with warning labels.


I'm sorry to post these, but some people may be curious as to what I meant by 'liver streakiness' in birds on the lupin diet.

Mind you the streakiness may also have to do with toxins from the grains, which can easily be infected with mould without showing signs of damage.

Below are a series of photos with some discussion. I post it partly to show what I mean for anyone curious about my former posts, and partly because it's useful for me to keep an online record of what I've been seeing in my birds.

However before I post the pics, a caution: they may be upsetting to anyone not used to seeing organs.

Also before I post, a word of explanation: these came from the lame pullet, whom I dispatched this morning. She seemed worse despite a day on soft matting, and was unable to shift from the spot. I couldn't find much swelling but it seems most likely she had ruptured crucial ligaments that control the leg. She was in obvious pain and with her heavy weight I didn't feel a bad leg injury could be managed.

Now for the pics. First, the positives. One: the liver comes to a nice fine sharp edge. Liver enlargement is best observed at the edge of the liver according to Cornell University's diagnostic site. I'll go with that — no liver enlargement. (Ignore the white patch, it's just something that was adhering to the bag.)

The spleen looks about normal. Any 'discolouration' is just reflected from nearby surfaces; the spleen was a nice granular dark purple.

The heart looks perfectly healthy to me (for a deceased heart, that is). There was no liquid surrounding the heart and no signs of ascites or problems in the lung tissue.

Now for the negatives. Firstly there was a predominance of fat, which was unexpected given that I couldn't find much fat when feeling the bird's body. But of course chickens like to hide the fat in their cavity. (Ignore the word 'like', I mean 'are forced'.) I've never seen this much fat around a gizzard before. The organ is completely submerged on one side:

Flipped over it looks like this:

It is a little gross, but remember these birds are engineered to overeat and put on weight. One of the issues with a diet devoid of artificial vitamins and mineral premixes is that birds may overeat just to obtain sufficient micronutrients. However remember too, this bird is 15 weeks of age, 3 times the lifespan of a normal broiler. This may mean that the diet is a little low in some essential nutrients, or it could merely mean that I've been supplying them with a little too much food to keep them in good health. I'll back off the food a little and see how the remaining birds go.

Now for the liver, which is the area I'm concerned about. You can see the faint streaking (or marbling) in the organ, with some patches faintly paler and more tan-coloured than the rest. Livers should be a uniform colour:

This, I feel, is a sign of probably toxins rather than a syndrome like fatty liver (despite the prevalence of fat elsewhere). Below is a shot of the gall bladder; you can also see the liver discolouration in the background. As far as gall bladders go, this one is about normal, if a tiny bit large (but then the bird was enormous). Again, it's the discolouration that's a concern, because I've seen it before.

It's a shame I don't have a whole lifetime over again — I would become a nutritionist. But it's hard to know what your adult passions will be when you're leaving school! Ho hum. In the absence of a good grounding in animal physiology and nutrition science, I'll just have to keep reading whatever I can find, hopefully avoiding anything that's not well researched and well grounded, and learning as I go.

The streakiness may indeed be from mould toxins in either the lupins or the wheat. Or it may be that the early diet of uncooked lupins was too much for the chicks and their livers were damaged (although I would have thought they'd improve once the lupins began to be cooked).

More thinking, more reading, more research required...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Feeding lupins to poultry: some observations (and thoughts)

Just some update shots. These boys are nearly 15 weeks old. They're possibly a little on the small side, but this could also be a matter of their living next door to the hefty meat hybrids (which would make turkeys look small). The only other concern I have about them is the slight pallor (almost a yellowing) of the combs. You can see it toward the rear of each comb. Their feathers are beautifully glossy and both birds are active, friendly and have terrific appetites.

Thinking about the yellowish combs, one concern is whether the lupins have higher than expected levels of toxins. Australian sweet lupins are supposedly low in anti-nutritional compounds, and can be fed raw, but apparently lupins from WA are almost always infected with a mould that (via its toxins) causes liver disease. (See www.agric.wa.gov.au/OBJTWR/imported.../lupins/Lupinbulletinch13.pdf.)  As some of the livers of the meat hybrids were quite streaky, I'm concerned about the combs in case they're a sign of jaundice. Then again the faint yellowing might be the chilly weather or something else entirely.

According to Wikipedia the alkaloids and other naturally occurring toxins in the legume produce neurological damage rather than liver disease. As I'm seeing no signs of neurological damage I might as well cease cooking the lupins. EDIT: See end of post. The question remains whether mould toxins are causing liver damage in my birds.

Other sources mentioned that the mould toxins tend to be confined to stems and leaf matter. This is unlike wheat where mould toxins are able to permeate the entire batch from even very low levels of fungal infection. Apparently only discoloured lupins have been found to have undesirable levels of mould toxins. Having looked more closely at the lupins I would say there is very little stem material (perhaps 0.1%) and only a small percentage of discoloured beans (roughly 0.5-1%).

Furthermore, if any of the birds were going to look jaundiced it would surely be the meat hybrids, which eat massively more of all the feedstuffs the birds are getting. None of the girls are showing any comb discolouration at all. I know this is tempting fate, but the bird below is typical of the meat hybrids (with the exception of the one currently in a cage for a foot/leg problem), and I feel the bird below is the picture of health:

Here is a side shot of one of the girls, showing their enormous body size.

It's hard to imagine they could achieve this growth (without huge fat accumulations) on a diet that kept harming their livers. The birds all (even the cockerels) behave normally and have good bodyweight for size. Perhaps I should trust that and just keep tweaking the diet according to any new information, without giving up the entire project. After all, if we can't learn to sustain our animals without relying on mega-science, how will they survive if things change?


A change of heart. For now,  I will keep cooking the lupins. Diets containing up to 10% lupins are associated with wet, sticky droppings, though according to the above sources this doesn't harm the birds. But having just realised how firm and healthy looking the birds' droppings have become since moving to the cooked version, I'm wondering if the slimy droppings mean something more ominous for chicks raised on lupins? After all, it's unlikely the research was done on small chicks. (Incidentally sorghum is an example of another common poultry feed that can depress growth in young ones.)

Even though my birds are close to maturity, it makes sense for me to continue the processing if it helps their droppings seem more normal. As I've said earlier, it's easier to cook lupins than it sounds, and I can always move to the extruded lupin product from my local feed store if I get lazy. In particular I'll keep cooking lupins for the youngest birds, and see how my next batch of growers fare in terms of overall health.

Lameness in meat hybrids

UPDATE: See below main post.
Alas, one of the girls has just developed severe lameness. She's in so much pain she doesn't want to stand at all.

When I picked her up she feels a bit too heavy for my liking -- while it's good that the home-mix diet is allowing them to develop a lot of muscle (she's not fat, just very solid), the huge weight will make recovery hard.

There does seem to be a lump on the foot pad, and I feel she may have cut it on something. The former owner of this property used that part of the yard as a rubbish tip, and it's possible the girls have scratched up some glass or sharp metal. After checking her foot more closely I'll examine the yard.

At the moment I've got her in a cage on a soft mat. When she's feeling a bit more settled I'll wash the foot and have a closer look. Bumblefoot is treatable but to be honest in such a heavy bird it may be kinder to cull. Chickens this heavy simply can't spend a lot of time on one leg, and often when there's an injury, the other joints are put under such stress they get damaged as well.

But I'll take a closer look later today, and decide what to do. It may be a simple cut that just needs cleaning and some time on soft clean matting. I'll also limit the girls' food a little more so they're not putting on quite so much weight. In a few weeks' time I'll be able to open the doorway into the rooster pen, and then all the birds -- including the girls -- will get a little more exercise.



Unfortunately this isn't as simple as a cut foot. Her foot is perfectly fine (in fact it's the non-limping foot that has a small scar). Neither foot is red or swollen.

It appears the lameness is in the hock or higher. These birds were all vaccinated for Marek's, but I'm aware of arguments that vaccinated birds can shed the live virus, and can also develop symptoms. Given the fast onset, and her huge weight, I feel it's much more likely to be a tendon problem due to weight-stress. This is a big problem in meat hybrids kept to adulthood. She may even have hurt herself getting down off the 5-inch-high roost.

Whatever the case, I feel it may be best to put this bird down (checking for any obvious internal problems — something I do out of habit) and concentrate on limiting the diets of the remaining 6. It's a shame as she was quite close to point of lay and her comb was reddening nicely. On the other hand she's gone along for nearly 3 times the lifespan of supermarket meat birds, and I know she's been cared and had a low-stress life till now.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

How to identify a corporate troll...

EDIT: 'how to identify a corporate troll' added below the main post.

I'm just an ordinary person and I have no links to corporations of any sort. You won't see ads on my blog because I don't want the clutter and have no interest in making a few dollars on the side. This is a blog for the love of keeping chickens, and for the love of sustainability.

Yet time and time again I bump into people with an agenda on chicken forums. Actually 'people' is the wrong word: I mean identities. In itself an identity isn't a bad thing; you'd have to be able to spot that my name isn't exactly a real name. Erica Bandanna is a made up name, sort of Australian (Eric Bana) and sort of freedom-minded (the bandanna). But I express my agenda with everything I say and do. It's about aiming for sustainable, independent, enviro-friendly, happy, healthy backyard produce and pets.

Identities I dislike are finding newer and newer ways to persuade interested members of the public to take particular views on particular commodities. The one I had a strong reaction to today used a discussion of a flock with mycoplasma gallisepticum to veer into what I felt to be an attempted promotion of vaccines. When I gently veered the other way (pointing out that biosecurity works well, that MG is easy to eradicate by depopulating and purchasing from clean flocks, and that some vaccines can spread the very diseases they attempt to control, the example I gave being tick fever) the identity quietly left the thread and started a new one talking about vaccines.

Yet even there it didn't begin with 'aren't vaccines terrific' — that might have been too obvious. Instead it began as a cheerful discussion by someone who wants to learn, asking what kinds of things other people vaccinate for. All very neutral and chatty.

And, I feel, an example of this at work:


I've always had a live-and-let-live philosophy. If some people want to compromise the quality of their information by developing bonds with corporations, let them. I'm reasonably immune to anything not backed up by not only good science, but good philosophy. But during my last close relationship with a chicken forum I wasn't as aware of corporate trolls as I am now, and I found myself frequently confused at the sneering attitudes of some of the identities I gently disagreed with. Somehow despite my open attitude (vaccines are fine, but here's another way... commercial wormers are fine, but here's another possibility that may be worth trying...) I kept finding myself on the back foot, defensive and not sure why. To make it worse I was using my actual name, and only later did I realise that may have been a bad idea. I don't believe corporate trolls would do a home-visit to scare someone, but it was unsettling to realise how many of these anonymous people I'd annoyed.

Of course now I know why I felt so insecure, and feel I can spot a hidden agenda (most times) from a mile off. But that doesn't stop me from disliking the attempted manipulation and wishing it didn't go on.

Alas, these things are part of the modern world. In fact they were (in lesser form and lower numbers) a part of the earlier world too, when political agents would send a letter to a local paper calling themselves 'Concerned Citizens' or 'John Bloggs', or when fake candidates would set themselves up for election only to steer people's preferences toward a major party. Nobody can prove these fake candidates are anything but genuine; fewer can prove Concerned Citizen is a corporate troll.

All we can do is keep researching and keep comparing information against our own views, our deeper philosophies and our personal situations. In the meantime, I hope others develop an ability to spot corporate trolls too... Because eventually you'll get so quick at spotting them, you won't get past their chatty, I'm-just-an-ordinary-humble-fellow introduction to let their views in. You may even find them amusing. After all, anyone who has to pretend to be a nobody to be a somebody is surely a bit of a nothing...

Me, I just want to find ways to breed durable chickens without major reliance on poisons, questionable additives or fake vitamins. And I want to share the experience in case it gives anyone else ideas they can use. Given the high numbers of corporate trolls who try to control discussions without appearing to do so, I feel it's the least I can do.


How to Identify a Corporate Troll:

- Do you find yourself subtly undermined when you post about organics, non-use of meds, alternative therapies or anything outside orthodoxy?
- Do you occasionally find yourself being sneered at even though you feel your post was innocuous and uncontroversial?
-  Do you wonder why some people get so riled up over what seems to be merely another way of doing things, especially if you weren't attacking their view?

Heads up! There's a troll in the area!

Unfortunately trolls are very hard to pin down. Firstly, behind every identity is (most likely) a real person, with some degree of personal interest in the field. Otherwise they wouldn't be doing what they do. If it's true that trolls are often employees rather than senior officials then it makes sense that they'd have some diversity of outlook, and some could even be rather 'nice' as people.

To 'see' a troll you don't use your main senses, you have to go 'underground'. You have to see them through their tactics!

- They may start innocuous threads on subjects they pretend to know little about, such as vaccines, in order to find subtle ways to dismiss every non-vaccination point of view. For instance, they might say, 'Oh, yes, I've never been into vaccination, but I just had my entire flock wiped out by a preventable disease! Can you tell me, is there any other way I can be totally sure this won't happen again, except vaccinating?'

- They usually heat up quickly when people dig in with even mildly anti-corporate or pro-independence ideas. Often a well reasoned post questioning reliance on something corporate suddenly dissolves into sneering. For this reason I suspect the ones who really express disdain for something mildly off-the-grid may be trolls. Let's face it, the rest of us don't get quite so personally het up unless we're personally attacked!

- Like all bullies they rely on associating someone else with unpopularity and negativity, while they portray themselves as part of a clever majority. To this end, they may use various identities at the one time in order to come across as a majority view and to intimidate honest individuals. But the more influential trolls (e.g. occasionally a moderator may be a troll) will raise an army of followers to promote the orthodoxy... There are many ways to be a bully!

- They raise feel-good topics in order to surround themselves with an air of goodwill and humour. Links to kittens playing, photos of their cats or dogs, pictures of them 'at home' with their arms around children all work well. Since normal people do this too, it's not something you can rely on unless you've seen them use the above tactics as well.

- They post idiot-topics pretending to be organic or 'alternative' in order to sound so incredibly stupid people will sensibly avoid that line of thinking at all. Naturally the 'good' members and moderators will jump on this silly idiot to correct them, thereby demonstrating to all the value of 'right' thinking. Any time I see someone posting that you can cure every known disease using X or Y, I suspect a heavily disguised troll.

- The worst kind of troll is also a moderator. However in this case they tend to depend more on their coterie than outright bullying. They foster an army of loyal believers who jump on non-orthodox players and cut them out of the game. Apart from this they use every other tactic in the book, and are probably quite busy inventing new ones!

Happy troll hunting!

Housing roosters quietly...

Always an issue in my neck of the woods -- neighbours love the earthy sound (and are far enough away not to be disturbed) but Darling Husband is super sensitive to crowing.

I've already knocked up a fairly well sound-insulated building, but there'll be times when I want more cockerels or want to keep an older rooster aside.

However do I have the money to invest in (yet) another proper shed? No! Yet do I want the flexibility to be able to keep more than a couple of roosters even if they don't get on? Yes! Can I free range all the roosters during the day? No! Goshawks goshawks goshawks... So whatever I use to hold roosters needs to be a day and night thing.

The answer, it seems to me, is to attempt to make smaller night-boxes that with some small adjustments would also make safe day-pens for individual birds. Even better if these can be moved around the yard to keep the roosters on fresh grass. In other words, I'm talking about tractors with some kind of flexible cover for use at night-time.

Now when I was growing up we kept a cockatoo in a large moveable cage, and at night the cage would be brought up to the verandah and covered over with a fitted blanket to keep the bird quiet until people were awake in the morning. By day the galah would nibble grass stems and generally gaze at the sky (probably wishing for friends).

I'm planning to modify this system to suit roosters. Rather than have sound-insulation fixed to the rooster box, what if I make a cage over which slides some kind of sound retarding cover for use at night?

Now there are a few tricky issues I have to solve. Firstly, roosters in small night-boxes with soundproofing can suffer from a lack of ventilation. Given that chickens have a higher metabolism than mammals, a small fully enclosed box can be dangerous indeed. However if you have too many air holes you defeat the soundproofing. A cover that fits loosely enough over a cage to allow the bird to gain air might be very poor at soundproofing.

Secondly, the cage needs to be big enough to contain an adult standard sized bird in comfort until he's wanted for breeding, yet not so big that it's impossibly heavy to move around, and hard to sound-deaden.

Thirdly, ideally it needs to have an open floor so the bird can access grass (which is a very good way to keep a tractored bird happy despite confinement). A floor may end up being necessary, depending on what predators are around.

Now for what I plan to do. I'm not doing it yet (I'll report on that when I get started, with photos and a how-to) but here's the idea.
1. 2 sets of Bunnings compost panels ($26 each).
2. 2-3 sets of Bunnings kiddies' play mats ($14 each).
3. Using c-clips, join the mesh compost panels to make a 1x1.2m (or similar) cage with a roof.
4. Waterproof the top of the cage by fixing a roof of some kind -- it can be tarp, sarking, insulation blanket, or even alsonite or sheet metal. (NB this kind of tractor will be hell in full sun, so the insulation blanket isn't a bad idea as a roof.)
5. Using glue and/or other methods (stitching with whipper snipper cord or using studs of some sort), make a cover that fits the cage snugly with a little spare room so it's easy to slip on and off. Double layers of the kiddies' play matting would perhaps be even better for sound insulation. This cover needs to go on all four sides of the cage as well as the top.
6. Drill 4 x 1.5cm  holes near the bottom of the cover on 2 sides, for ventilation. This may not be necessary if the cover isn't flush with the ground, i.e. air can still flow through.

Now to use the cover and cage together. At night, feed the cover over the cage (which should be pegged to the ground or else should have a floor to stop digging predators). In the morning, whip the cover off and hey presto!

What other possible issues can I think of off the top of my head? One springs to mind -- what if the weather is very windy and the cover manages to lift off? I suppose that could happen, and I'm not sure what I could do to prevent it, but I'll give it some thought. Another possibility is that it's too hard to get the cover to sit close to the ground and therefore stop enough sound. Lastly I can't be sure the kiddies' play mats are perfectly safe in terms of the chemicals they exude over time -- one would hope, given their intended function, that they would be, but I've hit toxins in play objects before. The play-mat-covers might also weather badly or might break too easily... All of this needs to be thought through and tested if the mini-rooster-tractor is to work in the way I hope.

Remember, this is a set of thoughts, not a how-to... I do have to do the testing before I proclaim this a workable idea. But imagine if it did work... I'm sure many would-be rooster owners would be very happy to know it's possible to keep roosters without night-time distress and without spending a fortune!

Now to start trying out my ideas...