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, September 30, 2011

ISA brown and black layer pullets: some observations

Here are the kindergarten-hatched girls:

Two of the blacks, showing the nice shine on the feathers. When healthy, this sheen is typically a deep bottle green. I've heard that a violet or purple sheen is indicative of nutritional or health problems, though I haven't been able to verify that. However I'm quite happy with the growth and look of these birds.

These are the three ISA browns (or ISA brown types) from the mix. Funny how they stick together! They're active, able bodied birds, but are notorious for being stroppy with any newcomers and being prone to peck and feather-pick. Given a good area to scratch in and decent feed they don't seem to peck or pick at one another, and interestingly while very tame the roosters don't tend to be aggressive toward the handler (unlike many other breeds). However it's true that they give newcomers a hard time, and their tameness seems to go hand-in-hand with a tendency to be bullies. I've found, however, that when they're crossed to something flightier or in fact to anything else, the offspring lose a lot of that ISA brown territoriality.

A close-up of one of the blacks. These are typically a cross between layer australorps and rhode island reds (both commercial utility strains, not common backyard strains). They're a great forager like the ISA browns, but seem to have a slightly milder temperament. I've found them to be terrific layers and great pets.

Four of the five blacks picking at the litter. Their male counterparts are still in the tractor and are larger than the girls, as well as having a much stronger hunger drive. While the girls are quite respectful, the males keep trying to eat my fingers as I stoop in to fill the feed trough. But they're great little chaps and I might even keep a couple of the black cockerels in case I lose a rooster to a goshawk. They'll always be useful to increase egg laying ability among purebreds and backyard crossbreds, and despite opinions to the contrary, I think they have been selected for hardiness. After all, while they're vaccinated to the hilt in commercial situations, they're also kept in massive sheds where sheer numbers create disease risks via stress. And given that they're on-sold to commercial egg farms, the breeders have to be sure that the offspring will survive the laying year. This contrasts with the variety of backyard breeding situations and approaches, some of which don't consider hardiness or longevity at all, and many of which don't cull or select for egg laying. Thus while there's a common generalisation that commercial birds will lay for a year before collapsing due to layer fatigue or reproductive disorders, when crossed to a rugged kind of backyard bird, the result can be selected for the best of both worlds (egg laying ability plus hardiness).
Just some thoughts!

Monday, September 26, 2011

ceramic bulb in the tub brooder... not!

Three of the ancona x bubs are out of their shells and bouncing around in the incubator. That leaves, um, 57 or so to go... I'm not counting them before they've hatched this time around, as temperatures were a little unsteady. I'm expected quite a draggy hatch.

It was a slightly annoying day, despite the emergence of chicks. Usually I settle hatchlings in an infra-red-lit tub for 2 days before putting them into the cold brooder. This gives them a little head-start and allows me to make sure they're all eating and drinking before the challenge of learning to use an unheated 'igloo'.

However the infra red light has its drawbacks, not least being the fact that it is a light and not just a heater. Since cold brooded chicks have to learn to go inside a dark space to get warm, a heat lamp confuses the issue.

Today I went to the pet shop and paid $53 for a 60w ceramic heat bulb. Now since the infra red lamp provides sufficient heat at 40w for my small tub brooder, I felt a 60w ceramic bulb that gives out only heat (rather than heat and light) should be perfectly adequate. Wrong! The damn thing gives out barely any heat at all. That is, the bulb itself gets terribly hot, but not only does it not heat the brooder air, but it doesn't heat the brooder litter or floor or walls higher than about 25C when suspended at a safe height. This is despite having a reflective shield above the globe aiming to direct the heat down.

How disappointing! Clearly the infra red bulbs give much more heat on a per-wattage basis.

Perhaps the ceramic bulb will be useful when teaching chicks to use the cold brooder, as if I hang it over the wire mesh on top of the little igloo the chicks should feel the warmth and go inside through the doorway when chilly. This will help retrain them out of going toward the light when they're feeling cool. I wouldn't want to leave the ceramic bulb switched on for any length of time though, because a straw-stuffed 'igloo' full of chicks could easily overheat.

So not a great purchase, but perhaps not a useless one...

Friday, September 23, 2011

cocci update: layer chicks immune

Updated update:

Well, I'm going to call it on this one: these chicks are immune. They've been in the damp pen now for 7 days with no symptoms, and have been consuming only home-mixed feed for a few weeks now. If they were going to get cocci they would have.


Last night we had so much rain the roost shed was knee deep in water, as was the lower end of the pen. Poor chicks were sodden and drenched. I make them a little umbrella-roost out of a trestle table with a plank underneath, and they spent the night drying off above the waterline.

Today amazingly they're none the worse for wear, all eating to their hearts' content. Typically cecal cocci takes 5 days between challenge and symptoms, so I'll be watching them closely given the drenched pen.


Well, here they are, the pullets out of the recent chick purchase. They're now around 8-10 weeks of age and I feel fairly confident that they're cocci-immune.

Having said that, a major challenge might overwhelm them even now, so I've taken the precaution of laying wood chips down in the pen the meat hybrids were living in.

Before laying the new surface I also took out the top 5cm layer of soil from the central part of the pen where most of the droppings had accumulated. (This removed soil is now happily growing beans, tomatoes and other seedlings in a few garden beds.)

Surprisingly I've ended up with 8 pullets, so of the 20 bought, only 12 are cockerels. Given that some of the female ISA browns had almost certainly been removed, this is a pretty good average.

I'm still going to be watching them for cocci signs, especially now that rain is forecast and warm weather is already here. But they've been off medicated starter now for a couple of weeks. Thus even though this pen is my dampest and is the one I'd be most concerned about in terms of oocyst build-up, I'd be surprised to see any harm now.

The cockerels are staying in the tractor, as unless I can find homes for some of them, their destiny is the table. As usual I get a bit attached to the handsome little things, and it's worth putting in the effort in case there are any breeders around who want utility above looks. Commercial hybrid roosters can increase egg laying in a backyard crossbred flock, though it's rare that anyone wants to bring in their good points without going to a purebred first. But still, it's worth a shot. I remember when I was looking for a commercial layer cockerel and either couldn't find one at all, or couldn't find one that hadn't been exposed to respiratory disease. And these birds have the further good point (for anyone with similar core values to mine) that they've been reared on pasture with, since their fourth week of age, natural vitamins in preference to artificial ones.

Best of all, I can see from the rich green shine in the black birds' feathers and the good rate of growth in all that the diet of ground, cracked and sprouted grains with soy meal, oilseeds, minerals, grass and kefir is agreeing with them.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

incubation update: 3 days from hatch


Whatever you do, don't attempt what I've photographed below. After taking this shot and writing the post, I began to notice that the temperature in the incubator was dropping. Each time I opened the lid it dropped even more, stabilising a degree lower each time. I felt it was a dodgy thermostat but I now believe the plastic mesh box used to separate the later-hatching eggs was to blame. I think perhaps somehow its presence upset the dynamics of the incubator and played havoc with the thermostat. I can't be sure of this of course -- it may have been dust in the wafer that coincidentally became dislodged as the mesh box was removed -- but it's better to be safe than sorry.

I've got 2 lots of eggs in the incubator, staggered a week apart. I just thought I'd set out what I did and why, so anyone else looking at staggering a hatch might have some extra info to go by.

Not that I'm expert at it! However I do know that if the hatch is staggered by only a few days, there can be problems with the excess humidity of the first hatch affecting those that are just about to break into the air cell. I've usually had zero hatch in the later batch if they were only a few days older and tried to break into the air space when there was a lot of excess moisture.

The first batch in the incubator are due to hatch on Monday (in 3 days' time). However there were some temperature problems (too low) for a few days so I'd expect them to be a bit later than that; perhaps Tuesday. (I did lose some eggs during periods of low temperature and have already taken them out after candling.) Unfortunately the incubator has proved very temperamental. I suspect the wingnut and screw that set the wafer thermostat are a bit loose, and hence tend to jiggle when the lid is lifted while turning eggs. After deciding this was the case and taking extra care when lifting and setting the lid, I've seen no more temperature drops.

The second batch (9 eggs) is due to hatch a week and a day after the first. These eggs are now being turned by hand while the others are allowed to keep still; to stop any jostling and to make sure I turn all the ones I should be turning, I've set them into their own little mesh basket inside the incubator. Made of plastic gutter-mesh, the basket should help keep the more delicate later-hatching eggs safe from being jostled, contaminated with hatch-debris and so forth.

This is the worst time in the whole incubation period for me — a habitual fiddler, I have to sit on my hands. But at least now the temperature is holding!

Fingers crossed for some happy healthy chickens.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When is it time to say 'enough' with meat production?

One final post mortem find, and the end to my keeping of straight meat hybrids...

On both sides of the breastbone of one of the meat hybrid girls I found an area of green discoloration which had also affected the bone itself. This was deep mid-centre of the breast in the tender core muscle that lies against bone. The dead area appeared symmetrical, about 5cm long and 2.5cm wide. In between the bone was dark and eaten right through, connecting both areas of necrosis.

I saw no tumours or true lesions, and no sign of an injury or wound, just necrotic tissue. This perplexed me very much until I found references to something called Deep Pectoral Myopathy. I looked at various sites including www.worldpoultry.net (http://www.worldpoultry.net/diseases/deep-pectoral-myopathy-d95.html) and others. I believe this is what the poor girl had.

Apparently, due to intense selection for breast meat, areas of deep breast muscle may not receive sufficient blood supply, particularly during wing-flapping. Afterward the dead muscle tissue can turn green. Complications such as gangrene are also possible (explaining the eaten-away bone; or to my mind the bone itself may have lost blood supply in the same manner as the muscle, thereby producing bone necrosis).

While it's reassuring to know I didn't cause this issue as such, it's a pretty distasteful find. I can't imagine what pain this bird must have felt when flapping her wings. Meanwhile selection for enhanced meat characteristics goes on, with GM chickens not too far away.

We're told that unless we continue to increase food production, our food systems will be unable to provide for the world's population in the near future. It's hard for me to imagine how the meat bird could possibly be asked to do more for humanity in this regard.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Meat hybrid pullets update...

The heavyweight girls are only 24 weeks of age, but I feel the time has come to make a humane decision.

Yesterday one of the girls sustained a bad leg injury, possibly triggered by the rooster's added weight during treading. She was clearly in serious pain, and when I had a close look I could see that her hock looked abnormal, with a hard knot above the joint, and the joint itself was too loose. After I'd put her down I saw that the tendon was completely severed from the leg bone. There was no way she could have healed or had a good quality of life.

However I also noted that her liver was enlarged and friable, as well as being an unhealthy orange colour. She was extremely fat, with a huge amount adhering to the underside of her skin as well as filling the cavity. These obviously point to fatty liver syndrome, which is fairly common in commercial birds (both layers and meat hybrids) due to a combination of high food intake and the kinds of diets we rely on to meet production goals.

A few weeks ago I had to dispatch a leg-stricken bird, and also one a couple of weeks before that; both birds had slight liver discolouration but no signs of fatty liver or enlargement. In today's bird the liver was in appalling shape; I would say close to rupture. The difference in colour to earlier livers was astonishing.

In order to bring the birds into lay and help with shell quality I began 4 weeks ago both increasing feed amounts and adding commercial layer crumble and meat bird finisher (with extra shell grit) as well as soy meal to the diet. This resulted in a net decrease in the amount of whole grain (albeit sprouted) being fed. Although laying improved, the health decline in these 4 weeks has been incredible.

I'm not sure if this decline is merely due to a protein increase in percentage terms. Yes, meat bird finisher is higher in protein than layer feed and probably a fair bit higher than my sprout mix. However protein in general doesn't produce fatty liver syndrome; and I haven't found any literature describing soybean meal as a cause. In general fatty liver is put down to a diet high in quick-burning carbohydrates. Fatty liver syndrome is also, in my reading, more strongly associated with the use of artificial methionine against natural methionine; notably, meat bird finisher is high in the artificial form.

What else can I say? This has been an interesting and at times upsetting project, but I don't feel deterred from continuing with half-leghorn offspring (presuming some hatch). Earlier today I felt rather discouraged and indeed a little sickened by the poor birds' plight. I felt it would be cruel to produce chicks from these birds. However having thought it through (and writing it out here helps me do that -- apologies for any errors or omissions, but this is a work-in-progress) I can see that the excess fat and liver degeneration are dietary. These birds are programmed to overeat, and hence dietary issues appear more strongly in them than in other birds. I'll simply need to be more careful with what I feed in future.

But of course the whole project might prove too hard if the offspring of these meat hybrids suffer similar issues in terms of reproductive health. If I have to use commercial meat bird finisher to increase protein so the birds can lay at all, I'm walking a burning tightrope. But I've gone this far and have eggs set, so for now I might as well keep walking.

Monday, September 12, 2011

No cocci symptoms in layer chicks! Yippee.

So far, so good! These layer chicks are growing more and more robust and active by the day.

When first bought they were clearly showing signs of early coccidiosis, albeit very mild. This means they'd had some exposure before arriving here, though none was very sick. All came good after a day or two with a warm night-hutch and medicated starter.

After a few weeks in a brooder I'd seeded with older layer droppings they went onto a tractor on ground that I'd used to raise the meat hybrids. I left them in the tractor on the same ground for a week, longer than intended but still with commercial starter alongside other food. I left them there this long as I wanted the grass and weed cover eaten down. By the time it was close to ground level I moved the tractor.

Remember, the hybrids were on this ground when they showed cocci signs, so I'm going to go all-out and say these layers have now been quite heavily exposed. What they haven't been, however, is overwhelmed.

Some factors may be at play here:

- they're still consuming medicated starter. However I've noticed that they much prefer my home mix containing kefir, to the extent that I've barely had to add to the commercial starter hopper at all. I'd say they're only eating minimal amounts of medication, if any.

- the kefir may be providing some anti-coccidial benefits. Milk has long been used in this way, though I don't know to what degree it is generally effective. However when my meat hybrids developed coccidiosis they weren't having much kefir at all, as I hadn't begun souring skim milk for them. It remains possible that the kefir is a good preventive.

- the weather has been quite a bit drier than when I put the meat hybrids onto the same ground. However there have been two days of light rain and I would have expected to see some coccidiosis by now if the chicks were going to show signs. As well, the weather while raising the meat chicks was quite a bit cooler than now (warmth is important to oocyst ripening). Thus I'm not sure weather has been an important factor.

- these chicks may have been effectively 'inocculated' by their earlier mild bout of cocci. However only a few of the chicks seemed to have symptoms when I bought them, and I'm not sure the exposure was large enough to develop a full immune response. Still, it's quite possible that this alone explains their hardiness now.

It's hard to make judgements from all this, except that I can say that the combination of the above seems to prevent coccidiosis! Obvious, I know... Graduated exposure has always been the key to cocci prevention, however one achieves it (e.g. ionophores work by allowing some exposure but limiting it so the bird still acquires immunity). But still, 20 chicks aged about 6 weeks in a tractor on dampish ground for a whole week without cocci and with only very minor use of ionophores isn't bad.

The next step is to stop leaving chick starter out for the birds, and move fully to unmedicated feeds, whether I use my own mix or add in commercial meat bird finisher (also 18%) to cover my nutritional bases.

Friday, September 2, 2011

incubating time...

Well, I've got about as many eggs as I think I'll get... That is, a full dozen from the meaties and umpteen from the layer x anconas.

I believe it's time to fire up the incubator! Yippee.

I could wait for more meatie eggs, but they're only laying 1 or 2 per day between the 4 of them... Unfortunately their laying systems aren't up to the task, particularly with making shells. In another 2 weeks I'll have 15-20 eggs, but meanwhile this dozen will have gone stale. So might as well get cracking!

I've been storing them in our coolest room in egg cartons, tilting them at 45 degree angles and changing their orientation once per day. This helps stop the yolk sticking to one side of the shell membrane, as can happen when eggs are left for a while in one position. To make sure I end up with as many fertile eggs as possible I'm going to absolutely cram the incubator full, leaving out the auto turner.

My incubator is a simple Hovabator, nothing to write home about, but I've had good hatches in it before. Actually this one is brand new but I've got no reason to suspect it won't work. Even so I'm firing it up for 48 hours to make sure the setting is stable before I put the eggs in. A few plastic bottles full of water can act as a heat sink in that time, giving a better indication of how well the thermostat is coping.

I know this isn't natural chicken incubation, so it's probably making some people wonder at the title of my blog. However the small foam incubators are reasonably power-efficient (average about 24W without the turner), and because the meaties have a very short lifespan (let alone laying lifespan) I need to set as many eggs as I can right now. There's no telling when their systems will pack it in, much as I wish they could just go on enjoying life. Unfortunately they've been bred to self destruct.

However I'll be hoping to brood naturally when the chicks hatch. If I don't get a broody hen in time I'll simply cold-brood. That will at least cut down on the amount of energy that gets used in the process of creating new chickens! And later in the season there will definitely be broody hens I can use as sitters as well as brooders. It's just that I have to act now, while I have fertile meatie eggs.

Now back to the auto turner and those eggs I'll be setting... After candling at day 7 I should be able to discard any infertile eggs and make enough room to insert the egg turner if I really want to. If it's not a drama to keep turning eggs by hand I'll simply keep doing that (a lot depends on how busy I am in the next few weeks; I have some retaining wall projects going on.)

So that's where I'm at, folks—two days away from setting a bunch of eggs. Heaven forbid I accidentally drop that carton of broiler x leghorn eggs... They took a lot of effort from all of us to produce, and if there's one thing that makes me feel better about even the gammy-legged girl (who's still in the hospital cage on cushions), it's that she might have offspring with more survival chance than she ever had.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

chick feeding

Just thought I'd give a rundown of what I'm feeding the layer chicks. They're now 4-5 weeks of age, and have been on commercial starter entirely. They've been on the ground for some time, out in the tractor. But it's time to wean them off medicated feed. I don't like it (it helps breed resistant organisms) and I don't want to continually seed my backyard soil with resistant coccidia. I'd rather keep medicated starter for use in cases where birds that are raised without medications actually develop a need for it; indeed in the past I've treated mild coccidiosis simply by using some medicated feed.

So here's what I'm making up for the chicks now, using my handy 'Sprint' grain mill. First I make up the dry mix:

wheat 60%
corn 10%
peas 5%
sunflower seeds 4%

The above grains are milled coarsely together. Then I add:

lucerne chaff (alfalfa) 5%
soy meal (full fat) 16%

This dry mix is then formed into a crumbly mash using kefir (as a methionine supplement as well as probiotic and B vitamin tonic). I also add a pinch of salt and a larger pinch of seaweed meal.

Excluding the kefir, the mix above averages out at around 18% protein. On top of this the birds are on fresh pasture including clover, chickweed and other beneficial weeds.

At 5 weeks of age the birds can easily handle 18% feed. Technically the kefir lowers the percentage slightly but only because much of it is liquid (which tends to pass through, as birds don't absorb a lot of liquid in their colons, unlike some other animals). In fact I feel kefir enhances the birds' digestive system and probably makes up for a percentage point of protein in its own right.

Now I'm not feeding the above mix completely to these birds; they're still getting commercial chick starter to pick at for the next little while. This will be a gradual shift over the course of a couple of weeks, and I'll move the tractor every 48 hours and then every 72 hours during this time. This should help them get used to being on the ground without medication.

I've noticed in the past that having more than a handful of birds in the tractor can put more cocci-pressure on the system, with oocysts building up too quickly for them to handle, and in that case all it takes is a sudden period of warmth and wet weather for things to get out of hand. At the moment I have 20 chicks in the tractor. That's probably as many as I want in the one spot while I'm reducing medication in this way.

Next time I raise chicks (which will be soon, as I've now got a full dozen meatie eggs), I'll start the tractor on different ground so the home hatched ones aren't picking up much of the cocci oocysts these current chicks have shed. And I'll also be going medication free from the start, with an emphasis on management. As I found with the meat chicks earlier, I'll have to pay attention to the weather, crowding, timing of movement from the brooder to the ground, and many other factors. But I know now that these things can be managed. And as another benefit of doing things this way, there's always medicated feed as a backup. I won't be robbing that medication of any of its potency by using it all the time.

I'm not trying to push my feed recipe in any way, shape or form... I do things a little experimentally here, and can't vouch for a perfect result every time. But I am starting to feel more confident that I'm supplying what chicks need, and I'm also learning that feed recipes are a moveable feast. In fact, I believe that one of the keys to health is in varying the diet, for instance seasonally, or when certain ingredients become available. At the moment I'm able to source full fat extruded soy meal, and I feel it's a useful supplement (full fat soy meal from local beans isn't yet GMO).

So on the whole, while it's easy to get hung up on protein percentages, I feel some give-and-take is not only possible but wise. And at the moment, with both breeder pens producing fertile eggs and the layer chicks happy on the grass, I'm pretty much where I want to be.