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, April 29, 2011

The sussex maturing... With odd feathers.

These are the two light sussex cockerels I kept for possible breeding. The smaller one is above.

However the largest of the two has very odd feathering on his wings — almost 'angel wing' (though that's a waterbird phenomenon).

This is him below:

And again (bad photo but you can see the way his wingtips curl out if you look closely at the left hand wing):

It's a little like photos I've seen of helicopter disease (malabsorption syndrome or infectious runting-stunting or whatever you like to call it), however this bird is definitely not stunted. He was the largest of his brood.

The only other thing I can attribute it to is genetics... Remember the sussex (show birds) all hatched with down abnormalities, and these seemed to be associated with feathering abnormalities as well. Meanwhile a brown layer that hatched among the brood feathered normally.

Diet may be connected, but I wonder sometimes if I'm too quick to blame diet for any glitches I see... Certainly the number of warnings I've read about only feeding commercial feed makes me feel I'm out on a limb. At any rate the sussex have been different from all my other birds.

I guess I should try to keep in mind the basic goals: breeding hardy birds that can sustain themselves and help sustain the family without having to employ nutrition scientists or buy fake food. If the sussex can't thrive on a varied diet without rocket-science nutrition then perhaps they aren't the right birds for here.

Rain! Spoiling chicks' outing... Updated.

Update: saw a droopy chick this morning; sulphaquin added to the water. Pen also moved. Remainder appear normal but I might as well treat the lot.
Gradual exposure wasn't managed well this time around.

See further update below original post...


This is the seventh day of steady heavy rain, and it's taking its toll.

For the first time I've seen a sign of possible coccidiosis — a chick with blood-tinged droppings. None of the birds is sick or hunched, but things can move quickly once coccidiosis is there.
It's time to go back to basics. I may have to medicate the bleeding bird but in any case I'll move the tractor to fresh ground (i.e. ground that hasn't had chickens on it before).

If I move the tractor daily onto unexposed ground I should be able to stay ahead of the parasites, since coccidia have a 48 hour interval between being deposited on the ground and becoming infective.

However I'll have to make sure no new birds are tenured on this spot in the near future, as where the tractor was sitting is now probably quite heavily seeded with oocysts. It's a little reminder that 30 meat chicks is a high number, and I would probably have been smarter choosing to only brood 15 — or else be a bit quicker with managing pen movements.

Having said that... there were a few reasons why I didn't move the pen earlier. The first is that the chicks were quite young and I didn't want them to get stressed by a sudden move so soon after getting comfortable. Secondly the temporary cold brooder I set up in the tractor was pegged to the ground and partly supported by the tractor structure (via bungee cords), so I wasn't able to move it without dismantling the whole thing (that was silly but I was in a rush). Thirdly toward the end of the week I caught one of the many lurgies my girl brings home from school, and everything became a bit much. To top it off the rain turned the various chook pens into stinky mush.

This morning, feeling better, I've moved the tractor to fresh ground and spread mulch on all the worst areas in the adult pens. At least that's the two worst jobs out of the way. :-)
Here's the pen in its new position. Tomorrow I'll move it again.

Now for the revamped portable cold brooder... Later this morning I went to Bunnings and bought a set of 4 compost bin panels made of galvanised wire mesh. Using these I rigged up a better cold brooder which consists of a rectangular box on top of 4 legs (the legs are wired onto the box and are made of galvanised brackets). The whole thing cost less than $40 but will be useful if ever I'm brooding a large number of fast growing birds in future (I'll post a photo shortly). Best of all it's a complete unit and very light so it's easy to move — just pick it up, take it out of the tractor, move the tractor, then put it back in. It's also large enough to accommodate all 30-odd birds for another 3 weeks if need be (though they're feathering very well and probably don't need much of an igloo any more).

Around the edges of the base of the box I've hung dishclothes cut into a fringe so birds can come and go between the legs. In the shallow rectangular box (with no lid) that forms the top of the cold brooder I've spread about 8cm thick of hay; on top of that I've sat a tarpaulin. The hay breathes out through the sides under the tarp, but it's also quite airy because of the loosely hanging curtain fringe.

As for the coccidiosis, that's something I'll be watching very closely. If I see birds looking unwell I'll medicate (I have a bottle of sulphaquin in the shed). But so far they're eating well...

... and drinking well.

It would be better all round if I can manage the coccidiosis away before it's too bad; but whatever the case, it's the chicks' health and comfort that matters, and I don't see the point in being hard line about medications.

But so far I don't feel they need that kind of intervention.

I do, however, feel that artificial methionine in chick starter is best avoided — at least until someone with a research capacity settles the topic of whether dementia, heart disease, artherosclerosis, fatty liver and other conditions (associated with higher blood methionine) might be connected to what we feed our meat birds.


Further update:

After adding sulphaquin to the water, I noticed by the afternoon that there were about 5 droopy chicks, and even the healthiest birds looked just a tiny bit off colour. However by the next day (second day of treatment) the droopers had all improved, and on the third day (which was plain water) I could see no cocci signs in the birds, only in the droppings, which contained remnants of shed intestine.

I'm feeding them a majority medicated starter and backing the grains off somewhat. When the digestion is upset, whole grains can be a bit too much of a challenge. The birds seem to think this too, as they're definitely preferring the commercial feed right now.

Having exposed them to adult droppings while in the brooder, I was expecting that the chicks would have a little more immunity than they proved to have. But perhaps that drenching downpour would have set back any growing birds — certainly I would have kept them in the brooder longer if I'd realised heavy rain was on the cards.

In future I think adding handfuls of adult pen soil to the brooder, and gradually increasing the amount, may be a way to prepare them for the tractor stage. But I've also been leaning toward natural brooding for some time now, having bred and kept a few sitting-inclined hens. The fact that none of the hen-raised anconas has developed cocci is significiant, I think, especially since their pen was even wetter during the downpour than the ground under the tractor holding the meat birds. While there are fewer anconas than meat birds (hence a lower droppings rate) their pen is also much smaller, so these droppings are quite concentrated. For some reason these chicks are doing extremely well with the same diet (half medicated, half home mix).

In future I'll be keeping chick numbers around the 15 mark, I think — it's much easier to manage that number without them outgrowing the brooders and much easier to regulate cocci loads when I set them a new challenge (such as tractor life).

And as I've said earlier, I'll brood naturally where possible. The health of the anconas under their malay-ISA hen seems to make that a no-brainer if I want to keep medication use low, but still have healthy birds.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Chicks seem healthy... Diet is 50% home made, 50% commercial.

Just a status update.

Two days ago I began to fear that even the new larger brooder wouldn't cope with 30 meat hybrids and their rate of growth, so I made up an el cheapo cold brooding hutch and set it up inside the chicken tractor.

Wouldn't you know it, an hour later it began to absolutely pour! Only half the tractor is covered, and it's very open to weather — not a great situation for 3 week old birds (not to mention the 3 layer chicks that are probably only 2 weeks old).

But I needn't have worried. After having to put them in the new igloo on that first night, I found that they used it automatically from then on. They are getting a bit wet in the open, but not wet enough to chill, and they huddle in the cold brooder happily if they feel cold in the day. As usual they emerge at full tilt and eat themselves stupid.

What a relief! I must say I wouldn't have moved them until after the wet weather if I'd known it was coming.

Now for the diet update — over this week I've been reducing the medicated starter in favour of the home mix. It's now at 50% commercial. I don't want to do it too fast this time as I'm concerned about their gizzards being able to handle harder grains. I'm still adding very small amounts of meat and soy meal, but the basic protein content is coming from legumes. Later in the day they're getting a small amount of human grade mince mixed with oatmeal and kefir or similar, to supplement with animal proteins.

Cracked corn and millet are the (unsprouted of course) grain element, then I'm adding other ingredients like lucerne, sunflower, livamol, yeast, lupins, etc as per the usual diet. The protein content is around 20%. Recommended meat hybrid diets are more like 22 or 23%, but I suspect this is purely for high production and growth rates — and I don't actually want that. I want the birds to live a little longer in peace, without going off their legs or developing cardiac failure. A tall order given the breed, but let's see... (It's worth adding the note that artificial methionine is associated with cardiomyopathy.)

Next item on the agenda is a grain cracker — the chicks aren't keen on the whole sunflowers, and I can't find a supplier for fresh sunflower meal unless it's doctored with various vitamin premixes (such as the horse supplement I came across). I might invest in a grain cracker to make the most of things like whole sunflower seeds (which chicks aren't keen to try yet).

Over the next few days I'll be cutting out commercial starter altogether. I'm seeing no cocci signs but of course the birds are a bit too young to show the most common signs. The ground has been very wet so almost certainly they're under challenge, especially given the higher than usual number of birds.

Sitting among them trying to get them used to the new igloo was really strange... They're not at all identical in personality, and there was one meat hybrid boy who wanted to come and sit under my hand.

I wish I could free range them completely — but not here, not with the goshawks. Then again they seem as happy as chickens can be, scratching in the dirt and running about. Let's hope it lasts for several weeks longer yet.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What do you do with home grown?

Tonight's dinner for four is 2 of the home grown sussex cockerels gently baked (lid on) in spices and then topped with lemon sauce (juice of 2 lemons, garlic, paprika, tumeric, cayene pepper, salt, sesame oil, chicken pan juices, cornflower).

Skinned chicken is a little more delicate to cook with than skin-on, but if you cook with a lid, add about 30ml water in the beginning and don't overheat you get a very nice result. In this case the birds were halved, lightly seasoned and cooked at 165C for about an hour and forty minutes, then topped with the sauce. After trying the meat before adding the sauce I was very pleased with the flavour, which was a lot richer than I expected for such young birds (11 weeks).

In the past I've mainly fed table birds a commercial diet with a bit of extra grass and maybe some of the sprout diet for extras. The sussex were raised almost entirely on the home sprout diet. I'm inclined to suspect the meat flavour was because they ate a natural (if not organic) diet rather than grains fortified with artificial methionine, though it's too early to tell (especially after only two have been processed!). Perhaps after I've dealt with some of the meat hybrids at a similar age (11 weeks — depending on how well they're still getting around and how they're enjoying life) I'll be better able to tell whether the flavour is consistently better for natural food.

Of course it sounds almost stupid to think it wouldn't taste better... But you never know. :-)

Racism? My hen doesn't like white chicks.

My malay x ISA brown has been broody for a few weeks, so on the weekend I went to a local auction and purchased a dozen chicks for $28 from someone I've bought from before. Unfortunately one died on the way home (it was badly pasty-bottomed and had obviously been sick and weak for some time) but the remainder looked perfectly healthy. That night, after brooding them with a lamp for the day, I put them all under the hen, who seemed to take them quite well.

However the next day I noticed quite a lot of cheeping, and found that the hen had decided that 3 of the chicks were not 'hers'. These 3 chicks were all fully white or white with a faint tinge of brown. All the chicks the hen decided were 'hers' were anconas (which are mostly black). Basically she seems to have decided the white chicks are interlopers.

I've heard of game hens being racist in this way before, so I wasn't suprised. However having just got my 30 meat chicks to use a cold brooder I wasn't keen to raise 3 chicks under a lamp. Frankly it would have been a huge waste of energy and an extra burden on my time. And yet what else could I do? They were only half the size of their meat cousins and I couldn't imagine what would happen to them if the bigger birds decided to attack.

Yet with breath held and readiness to take them back out I did put them into the cold brooder... And miracle of miracles, not a single meat chick harassed them! The little ones are now completely integrated and seem to be using the cold brooder in exactly the same way as their big friends, which are at least twice the size. It probably helps that the youngsters aren't day olds but look closer to a week in age, and they're feathering fast enough that staying with the 'herd' isn't a big problem (chicks with fewer feathers than the meat birds would chill more easily as they follow the 'herd').

What a stroke of luck — this could easily have gone a horrible way. And it's not perfect to raise layers with meat chicks as they're always going to be outgrown and have to fight harder for food, but as the meat birds get heavier I imagine the wiry fast layers will compete quite well.

So now I have 33 in the cold brooder and 8 under the hen, all doing well... And the chicks are all on medicated starter this time (which I'll keep up for another week then reassess). Hopefully weaning them onto the sprout diet a little more slowly will allow all the birds' gizzards and digestive systems to keep up with what's being fed... And hopefully my problems with the poor sussex and his runting-stunting-type illness (below) will be a one-off case now that I'm cutting back on meat meal.

We'll see! Meanwhile both the hen and the cold brooder (with its 33 growing bodies) are making my life a lot easier... And I don't have to worry about power outages. :-)

cold brooding again!

Back to cold brooding — as usual I wanted to limit external inputs like heat/light but still raise healthy chicks. And as usual while there have been issues (not least being that the meat hybrids outgrew the original cold brooder in a week), it's working fantastically so far. By 'fantastically' I simply mean that the chicks are no less robust, healthy and active than chicks raised under lamps, and yet they now basically look after themselves.

After they became too big for the original cold brooder (the timber box with little door and inner mesh circlet), I did a little extra work on the design. Remember that that 600mm x 600mm box was their square nest enclosure; there was also a detachable timber-walled run, which was about 620mm x 1200mm. (You can see the original cold brooder under my 'how to' to the right.)

To make a new cold brooder, I used the old one (timber box plus run) in a new way. Basically the old timber-walled run is now the actual nesting area, and the old nesting area is now an insulated roof. In this version the insulation is mostly above the chicks rather than around the sides. (More on the nest setup later.)

If you look closely you may be able to tell that the double-storey-looking section to the far left (with a lid and weight on top) is my old box brooder on top of the old boxed run. These now abut the new run (which is hard to make out in the photo because it isn't continuously meshed on top, but has a central lift-up lid framed in old timber planks).

It looks ugly, but it cost nothing because I had mesh offcuts lying around and our old farm shed is full of planks and other pieces of timber. Some people would prefer to buy the materials and frame something nicely, but I don't mind the rough look and I do enjoy using waste material (especially hardwood).

This setup has no floor but the floor of the shed is concrete, so there's no danger of anything digging in. However because this shed also gets some run-off through it during drenching rain, I've elevated the run and the nesting area on a couple dozen planks to form a basic sort of floor. This is a possible point of vulnerability if a fox dislodges the planks, but even if it did, the unit is a little too heavy for a fox to then flip over to get at the chicks.

Now for details on the all-important nest area. In the photo below, it's the section to the right. You may be able to see that just below the box sitting on top of the lower section are tufts of hay that mark out where the nest actually is (ignore all the hay spilt on the ground below). In other words the nest area is only that square section just below the upper box.

This style of cold brooder contains all the insulation in the box above the nest, with the box meshed below so the insulation can't fall into the brooder. I've also packed a little loose hay between the insulation-holding roof box and the meshed top of what used to be the old brooder run below.

The basic principle is a three-sided timber box with a fringed curtain along the front and all insulation contained above the chicks, in the upper box. A more standard way to make this kind of cold brooder is to use a predator-proof and weather-proof shed and make the nest area out of a 4-legged box with a fringe of hessian or other fabric all around. Being all around gives better ventilation and air supply; in my version above, chicks in the back of the brooder might suffocate if the majority crowd near the fringe. To avert that I've made sure there are a few gaps around the edges where the upper box meets the lower one (the area stuffed with loose hay). I've also made sure the insulation inside the upper box (which only comes up about halfway) is very loose, allowing a degree of ventilation through it as well. Thus chicks deep inside the brooder can still breathe.

Like all cold brooders, the insulation needs to be quite close to the chicks' backs and the chicks need to be closed in at night for a while until they associate going through the curtain with getting warm (you can use a temporary board across the fringed area and take it away when the chicks need to come out; just be careful not to limit ventilation). To make sure chicks' backs are up at the insulation I add extra floor material and (as with my earlier cold brooder) take it out as they grow. A simple timber strip on the floor at the entrance (or on all entrances if you use a 4-fringed brooder) will help keep nesting material inside until it needs to be taken out.

In the photo below you may just be able to make out some of the fringed curtain that hangs across the entrance to the nest compartment.

As I've said before, you know the cold brooder is working when chicks emerge at full tilt, looking happy and active exactly as they do under a lamp. However until chicks learn to come and go from the insulated area it can be quite hard work to have to keep putting them away and letting them out again. In this case though, my chicks have learned to use the fringed brooder very quickly, perhaps helped by a few design features such as the narrow 'foyer' before the curtain.

When I say 'design feature' perhaps it's more honest to say 'accidental design feature'… It was a result of the original timber-walled run being longer than the brooding box currently being used as its lid. The fringed curtain needed to be placed directly below the rim of the upper insulated box. This left a small section of the old timber-walled run sticking out (before joining onto the wider new run). A better way to describe it might be a bit of a 'bottleneck', if that makes sense. But this narrowed area has proved a bonus because the chicks like to huddle in the 'foyer' as the day grows cool, and huddling there as a group eventually forces some of them through the curtain into the inner compartment. When they realise it's warmer inside, their happy cheeps soon draw others inside, and the chicks quickly learn that going through the curtain is a good idea.

These chicks are 2 weeks old. They've been cold brooded in the above brooder for the past 5 days entirely without extra heat and without having to be taken out and put in the nest area. I'm finding the setup very low maintenance at the moment. Funnily, the day I shifted them to being fully cold brooded (up to day 9 they had a lamp during the day) we had a lengthy blackout and a cool snap that sent temperatures down to 13C at midday, which is cool for this climate zone. It was the overcast chill that I think taught the chicks what to do better than I'd been able to. Without sunlight streaming into the run area (as it normally does) they broke the association between the run area and heat, and resorted to the cosier nestbox. Associating light with heat is a real problem for chicks reared under a lamp initially, and sunlight being generally warm can also confuse them and stop them learning to use the nest. The lack of any other option than cold brooding also stopped me from being able to switch the lamp on out of worry that they wouldn't survive. There now — a lesson all round! Chicks can learn to use a cold brooder quite capably if they're forced to do it.

Now they're using the cold brooder very well indeed — as soon as they start to feel cold, they go up near the curtain and gradually move inside. Huddling isn't the sign of danger we've been taught when raising chicks in a heated brooder. In that situation it probably would be a sign of inadequate heat generally. But huddling is an essential part of cold brooding.

Another important note about all cold brooding, but especially with high numbers of chicks, is that the nest area litter needs to be checked daily for moisture content. This is because chicks defecate on their bedding and that, combined with their respiration in such a small area, will tend to make the litter increasingly moist. This is especially a problem with meat chicks because of their high metabolism. I probably don't need to say that damp litter is not good for insulation (in an artificially heated brooder the litter tends to stay more dry). Thus about every 3 days, I open the top of the nest area by lifting off the upper box and opening the mesh door below, and I exchange mucky litter for clean dry litter. I've also put a lid on top of the upper box to help stop condensation from our shed roof from dripping into the insulating material and destroying its insulating abilities. In a dry and fully walled shed this wouldn't be an issue, but you can see the lid on the box below. Holes already drilled into the insulated roof-box (from when it was my original cold brooder nest box) mean that the litter inside should be able to vent to the open air to some degree. If this box had no vent holes in its sides, I imagine I'd have to raise the lid on a few blocks above the timber box so that the insulation material inside the box could breathe.

In the photo below you can see both the lid (with its weight to hold it down) and the narrowed 'foyer' area where chicks congregate before moving into the nest area to the left.

So there is it — a lengthy saga but hopefully more information for anyone considering how to do this themselves. I wouldn't suggest anyone cold broods without a good background in raising chicks in the first place, but at least I can say that the balance between ventilation, insulation, adaptability and chick health comes quite naturally with time.

And given the problems with service infrastructure lately  — and what seems like profit-motive indifference to individuals — I'm happy to know I can brood chicks off the grid if need be.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sussex chick demise...

In the interests of full record-keeping... And because I don't want to pretend to myself either...

Something was badly wrong with the chick, but even after an amateur post mortem I still can't be sure what it was. It didn't appear to be coccidiosis as there were no signs of pinpoint haemorrhage along the intestine; that was a big surprise. However the intestines seemed to contain food at the same degree of digestion pretty much all the way along (chick starter — a uniform pasty grey). He was also remarkably thin.

His gizzard and proventriculus were misshapen, and both were lax and floppy, especially at the junction between the two. His liver was very faintly marbled rather than uniform in colour, though this was subtle. His kidneys looked perfectly healthy and there were no obvious signs of infection; his lungs looked quite normal. However his heart looked distinctly pale and seemed to contain little actual muscle, and there seemed to be some watery fluid around the heart.

All in all, he was a very sick bird.

It's impossible for me to know what happened, but I did find something that mentioned most of the above symptoms: www.wattnet.com/Archives/Docs/701pi36.pdf?CFID=25710...

The article mentions that gizzard and proventriculus malformations and floppiness can relate (among other environmental and contagious conditions) to the breakdown of amino acids in meat meal or other animal protein meals, which produces toxins. These toxins in themselves apparently harm the digestive process, and may have some relationship to the proliferation of enteritic viruses.

A quote:

'High levels of DBAs [Dietary Biogenic Amines] like histamine, 3HT, 5HT, histidine, dopamine, gizzerosine and serotonine, can be found in dietary constituents such as tankage fish meal, corn screening, soyabean meal, vitamin premixes, fats, poultry meal, meat and bone meal. The biogenic amines are [...] considered toxic to animals.'

The condition has apparently also been known as 'malabsorption syndrome, infectious proventriculitis, infectious runting syndrome, pale bird syndrome and stunting syndrome'.

Looking up malabsorption syndrome elsewhere, I get:

It seems that malabsorption syndrome involves the full gamut of causes: viral; genetic; and management. Is that a way of saying nobody knows? Even so, on the management side I feel quite guilty. Once again I find myself abhorring meat meal and wishing there was something better, even as I can't know if this was the main problem.

So what should I do? The 30 broiler chicks are peeping happily in the shed and eating ordinary medicated chick starter. The plan was to gradually introduce sprouts and cracked grains (with protein) over the following week, and do everything the same as for my light sussex. But with one bird out of twelve showing a serious condition that may be due to contagion or may be due to management, I have to question which way to go. And to complicate things further, it may be that the diet was perfectly fine and the birds were genetically predisposed. Remember, only half the eggs hatched, and many had weak legs and signs of fluff/feather abnormalities right from day of hatch.

Perhaps it's best to remind myself why I chose to make my own mixes: commercial foods contain synthetic vitamins and some of these appear, to my reading, to have negative health consequences for people. Even organic feeds may at present contain artificial methionine. I do still want to limit the use of synthetic feeds if I can.

So here's a plan, with minor changes to what I've done so far:

Chick starter for 1 week, pure (with some kefir for probiotics).
Chick starter + cracked grains, sprouts, yeast, lucerne, chopped greens, kefir whey and fresh protein (e.g. mincemeat) for 1 week (half-half) but no meat meal.
Whole sprout/yeast/lucerne/greens/protein diet from week 2 onward, and again no meat meal.

This will be expensive as I have to buy mincemeat from a butcher (typically, $7 per kg). It's very hard to get fresh unpreserved mince more cheaply than that. But I have to get the protein percentages right.

The benefit of not changing absolutely everything this time around (for instance not throwing in the towel and going back to commercial feeds fully) is that I can gain a better idea whether meat meal is a possible culprit. I can't be 100% sure because the current chicks have different genetic makeup to the light sussex, but I can probably settle my own mind to a large degree. At least, if I notice any chicks that are weaker, paler or unthrifty, I'll have a fair idea it isn't the meat meal. And then it may be time to reassess the whole diet.

Meanwhile, plan B (which isn't an alternative but an adjunct): find a cheaper, better, safer protein source for long term home chick raising. Well, that's already been on the back burner. But maybe it's time to kick along a little...

Monday, April 4, 2011

30 broiler chicks...

Wednesday is delivery day for 30 day olds of a meat hybrid variety. I'm quite looking forward to doing some intensive (well... relatively intensive) raising with once more an emphasis on non medicated feed.

However I'm aware that meat hybrids eat a lot and therefore put out a lot of droppings. This means their capacity to ingest floor litter and their own droppings is probably higher than with layer chicks. Secondly raising 30 chicks in the tractor means far more frequent moves than usual to avoid the risk of coccidiosis (normally I raise 10-15 at a time). Not only do I not want the chicks to suffer, I also don't want to seed the soil with high levels of parasite oocysts. Intensive chicken raising almost certainly does this, and it's quite possible that regular outbreaks of coccidiosis are going to be inevitable if I keep more than a handful of chickens on my not-very-big block. (On the other hand resistance to ionophores is also inevitable, bringing the same situation as above... Take your pick.)

Incidentally, coccidiosis seems to have entirely bypassed my sussex, with one exception: one of the 10 week olds is smaller and weaker than the others. He was the one looking especially peaky the other day. If any of the others were off feed or had pale combs I'd be inclined to say my system had let them down, and the move to the backyard pen (as opposed to the tractor) was too hastily done — I should have increased exposure more gradually. But with the others unaffected and this little one quite noticeably failing to thrive, I'm inclined to say he has something else wrong. I'll give him a couple of doses of sulphaquin, but if he's no better after a couple of days or a week, I'm afraid I'll be putting him down.

I'm sorry if that distresses anyone — like everyone who's 'into' chickens I don't like having a bird get sick or die. The best sight in the world is healthy chickens. But I have a small area, limited rooster housing, neighbours I don't wish to keep awake, and a fairly clear purpose in mind, being the raising and breeding of strong healthy birds to provide backyard entertainment, pleasure and food. A pet with a weakness, or an unthrifty show bird, has no place here.

Back to the incoming chicks. I've been against meat hybrids since the last failure to breed, and even now I'm not sure I'm doing the right thing in trying to get a couple to breeding age while putting the rest in the freezer. But this time I'm working partly for myself and partly for a friend who wants to buy 10 home grown and naturally reared meat birds at slaughter age. She doesn't have time to do the raising and diet-mixing (though will do the processing), but like me she sees this as a valuable project given what's available on supermarket shelves (and more importantly how it lived, died and got there).

You know, if supermarkets stopping plumping chicken meat with saline solution, and if producers stopped feeding meat birds artificial amino acids and synthetic vitamins in favour of natural ones, and if humane practices were incorporated into breeding as well as housing, and if food could be just food with no extenders, preservatives, emulsifiers, colourants, fake flavours, irradiation, pesticide residues and myriad other additives, I'd keep chickens as pets and not have the slightest interest in dispatching them, or growing my own vegetables for that matter. But we live in a world where food has become massively different from all the foods our ancestors and recent relatives ate, while mystery syndromes abound. For me at least, there's no question but that I should produce whatever I can at home.

I guess that's enough soap boxing for one evening... I just wanted to spell out the next part of my miniature farming venture. However I should add that the thing that excites me right now isn't the prospect of healthy meat later on, but the arrival of 30 newly hatched chicks to look after. No matter what colour, shape, breed or purpose, I do love looking after chicks!