Why do we need another chicken blog or forum?

Many chicken forums are moderated to sell commercial feed, chemicals and ideology.
I prefer to find my own balance between nature, welfare and cost in raising happy chickens.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2 week old chicks in tractor on grass, no medication

Just an update. The chicks have just turned 2 weeks of age and I made them a new tractor to celebrate.
This is their first move out of the miniature wire brooder, which they were outgrowing. It's also their first time on the ground, though of course they've been on a floor containing a small amount of healthy adult hen droppings.

Their diet is the same as last time I talked about these birds.

So here they are in the new tractor, complete with hose-covered wire handles for dragging. It's basically a miniature replica of my huge tractor. This one is about 600mm x 1100mm, so it isn't very big, but quite sufficient for either a hen with babies or a dozen or more chicks on their own.

The structure is basically made of Bunnings compost panels (this whole unit took a single pack, plus one offcut from last pack; I could have done without that though).

Two panels were bent to form a semicircle when clipped together with c-clips up the spine (which is the top middle of the curve). Another panel was halved and c-clipped to the curve to lengthen it and make it even bigger. To keep them in this U shape (when seen in profile) the ends were then c-clipped to cut-out sections of panel. The front opening (to the right in this picture) has a lower section that doesn't open, so chicks don't come flying out all at once when I change food and water.

Over the top of the compost panels, once they were fairly rigidly clipped together, I then added a layer of bird mesh. It's not the really good stuff (which has square holes) because the compost panels provide security against big predators and little ones find any sort of small-holed mesh a challenge. With a good dog in the backyard I tend to focus on slowing predators down rather than building Fort Knox. Even so it wouldn't be easy for a fox to get at these chicks through the wire.

The unit is also pegged to the ground in 5 places. Yes, an animal could dig underneath. But again that's something that takes time to do, and my dog is very alert. If this unit was to be used away from the house I'd perhaps think about adding a mesh skirt around the outside. At any rate the tent pegs keep it from being lifted up.

Over the unit, as you can see, there are some small tarps (folded in half and fitted around the curve) and some offcuts of shadecloth to stop currawongs herding the chicks from one side to the other and pecking their eyes.

The feeder (attached to the front of the cage so it moves with it) is a piece of drainpipe slit lengthwise. This is set in at a slight slope so water tends to drain away, though practically speaking the tractor is never really on level ground anyhow.

The chicks are really enjoying the mixture of grass, sunshine and a generous long feeder.

Now for the simplest part of all. You can see I'm using a cat carrier as the cold brooder in this setup. That's because it's summer right now and although it's an unusually cold summer (current temperature 22C, last night down to about 18C) the chicks are doing perfectly with an open fronted sleeping area. They've been trained already to go into an insulated nest at night or when cold.

The cat carrier isn't just bare, of course. The floor is 2 layers of foam insulation. The walls and ceiling are a rectangle of the same insulating foam (camp/yoga matting) cut to size then bent into a curve that hugs the structure above and on the sides. The pressure of the foam wanting to turn into a rectangle again keeps it pressed against the walls. With another piece of foam at the rear, tucked behind the curved piece, and some loose wool (from my pet sheep) stuffed into the cavity between foam and cat carrier plastic ceiling, the little space is truly cosy. Lastly I've inserted a couple of pieces of packing foam across the front, as an extra heat retainer.

These chicks know where to go because they've been largely cold brooded (after being trained to use the insulated nest area in the first place by a ceramic bulb). They're largely self sustaining now. About 6 days ago I sold 5, so these remaining 10 birds are doing all the work at staying warm.

At 2 weeks of age you can see they are remarkably well feathered. Largely this is genetic (the red hybrid and leghorn parents are both early maturing) but partly it's because they've been asked to do some of the insulating themselves.

Of course coccidiosis is always a worry, but these birds are on the kefir diet and I'm not expecting to see any setbacks. They've had the usual regime of a handful of hen soil sprinkled through the litter from day one, and being moved from the starter-brooder before 3 weeks of age. However the grass under them is damp and it's been raining off and on for a couple of weeks now, so I'll be watching them closely. This is their second day on the ground so we'll see by day 5 whether I'll need to make any changes.

But I don't think I'll see a problem. :)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

home made chick feed

These chicks are a week old and haven't eaten any commercial feed. My feeding regime is quite simple: after mixing up the adult hens' feed (sprouts, kefir, lucerne chaff, soy meal non GMO, seaweed, oyster shell, salt) I usually have a little too much. I add extra soy meal and also extra kefir, whiz it up in the food processor and that's my chick feed. The wheat sprouts are thus growing right up until the point of consumption by the chicks. Because they're sprouted the wheat kernels are soft and whiz up to a crumble very easily.

The amount of oyster shell in the base feed is only 1.5%. It's too low for the layers, but they have shell grit available in their pens all the time. Thus I'm not harming the chicks with too high calcium.

At the moment they're in the cold brooder (the one made entirely of wire). I was planning to slip these birds under a broody hen, but unfortunately due to a domestic disaster I gave away all my hens. I was going to give away all the chickens but things calmed down. Ultimately it makes no sense to pay $5 for stale supermarket 'free range' eggs if I can get better eggs in the backyard at lower cost, with just a little effort.

Having switched my children's diet to one containing more vegetables and less refined carbohydrates, I'm also happy to feed scraps to these birds. The kinds of scraps I'm talking about are vegetable/egg patties, mince patties, home grown greens and so forth. My dog is already thriving on scraps (with extra bones, meat, liver, etc) and her severe flea allergy of two years ago entirely disappeared when I took her off commercial dry food, so I know what a difference it makes to use fresh food.

The one thing I'm really learning as I make these big shifts (from industry-processed to home-processed; from fillers to fresh) is that feeding even very young chicks doesn't have to be a science. As long as the basics of both human and animal diets are richly varied, fresh and/or made into living foods with additions like probiotics (lactobacilli from kefir, for instance) there's a lot of room to vary. Of course, there are some crucial things to understand such as what range of seeds and feeds will provide the complete range of vitamins (you can't for instance just feed wheat and linseed/flax), but again there's no need to be out there with measuring cups and scales every day. Sprouted wheat, corn and peas, lucerne (alfalfa) meal or chaff, non GMO soy meal, sunflower seeds (ground for chicks, whole for adults), kefir, fresh greens: these can be used to make a whole feed at home.

The chicks are eating a ground crumble of about 60% sprouted wheat, 6% sprouted corn, 4% sprouted peas, 4% sunflower, 20% non GMO soy meal, and 6% lucerne chaff. That's the dry basis. To this I add about a cupful of kefir made from powdered skim milk, and of course a pinch of seaweed meal per 10 chicks, and a very small pinch of salt. Then of an afternoon I add finely chopped grass, chickweed, dandelion, spinach or other greens. As soon as they're out of this small brooder and on grass, I won't need to chop greens for them.

This is the same diet as the adults, except that the bigger birds' soy meal and kefir amounts are lower, and I'll usually increase the calcium by adding more shell grit to the bucket just before putting it in their feeding troughs.

When soy meal in this country goes the way of US soy (almost entirely GM) I'll of course be changing the feeds and probably going back to using meat meal. I might even find a way to buy fish meal, perhaps by forming a co-op with other home feeding chicken keepers to buy bulk amounts. Or I might do more gathering of protein around the backyard, e.g. by laying out carpets on top of grass and scraps to draw worms underneath, harvesting them of a morning.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Growing birds on home diet

The above birds are 9 and 10 weeks old. All seem to be at an appropriate size and weight for age, with the exception of the leghorn x meat hybrids, which are obviously much larger. The black mottled birds are a lot calmer than purebred anconas, and I'm happy with their overall style, vigour and health. They're currently in with two commercial feed store pullets, both of which have just started to lay. Because I joined the groups only after a couple weeks' getting to know each other through an adjoining fence -- also because all birds are fairly young, and the introduced chicks are in a larger flock than the 2 individual older birds -- there have been absolutely no incidences of aggression, or even much if any pecking-order hassles. This surprised me as one of the older pullets is an ISA brown, notorious for brutality.

Diet I'm using for these birds now consists of sprouted wheat, bran, pollard, soy meal, sprouted corn, sprouted peas, lucerne (alfalfa) chaff, sunflower seeds, skim milk kefir, seaweed meal and salt. Earlier they had ground and then cracked wheat, corn and peas, but I've slowly introduced sprouted grains instead, so I'm no longer adding much in the way of bran or pollard. Whole sprouted wheat is a far better feed than any processed wheat product. However I'll be watching their weight to make sure withdrawing bran and pollard doesn't cause a setback (which it may do if the birds' gizzards are not able to handle larger seeds, even when they've been soaked or sprouted). An ongoing project...

The big fellow standing on the stump is a couple of days shy of 10 weeks, and is massive without being overly heavy for his age. He's able to get up and down via the ladder-ramp (bottom right corner), which leads up into the night shed, and has no problem alighting from the perch. Of course he may get too heavy for that, so I'll keep a close eye on his weight and decide if and when I need to find some other night shed for him.

goshawk protection

It's not just actual attacks that harm chickens; fear and stress stop the birds eating and can open the door to other problems. Unfortunately the goshawks in this area have a penchant for harassing my birds even with the pens fully netted. Indeed yesterday the goshawk didn't fly away until I was about ten feet from it. The chickens were almost injuring themselves trying to hide.

I realised it was time to give them some extra cover. So I wheeled the ancient barrow into the pen, and also rigged up a corrugated iron-roofed shelter using some cut pine logs and 2 spare planks. The roof is screwed onto the planks, which are long-nailed into the stumps; it's not going anywhere.

While it took the birds a while to get comfortable with the new arrangement, they were soon happily perching on top of the obstacles and also checking out the under-side. If the goshawk comes back, at least the birds will have a visual barrier between themselves and the eye of doom. As for the goshawks, they'll never leave the pens completely alone. But at the moment, as long as the netting stays intact, they can't get in, and even if something tears a hole in the netting the birds have got some chance of evading the talons.

I don't know if these things would work on free range, but it seems to me a goshawk would have a lot of trouble chasing prey under a low roof. If I ever free range again, that's what I'll do.