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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A few thoughts on 'heritage' poultry, and home rations for chickens

Just thought I'd post this. I originally wrote it as a reply to someone on a poultry forum, when he raised the topic of feeding birds using 'heritage' methods and old style grains.

However after I'd written it I realised it pretty well summarises my feelings about the industrial farming system and the need for new approaches now. I'd quite like to keep it on my blog as a record of what I've tried to do and why.


"[Dear Poster about heritage feeding]...I totally agree with what you're trying to do. Unfortunately though, if you can't free range 24/7, I can't help feeling you're going to have to go the whole hog with formulating a ration. It doesn't have to include synthetic additives such as are in nutrient balancers and in commercial feed, but I would think it needs to be pretty well designed. Even limited free ranging will help cover some omissions or errors, but not all... For instance in particular during winter you may see vitamin shortages, particularly the ones like A and K that are available in leafy fresh greens, and B vitamins in general might be a little low in your ration (I'm not a nutritionist, so don't take this as gospel at all; but those are my impressions from a quick read). From my reading yeast is a good additive for B vitamins (though not B12) and sprouting wheat and other greens like kale in a greenhouse may supply winter greens.

"If I were you I'd look at some of the 1930s and 1940s poultry keeping books, because they were written after some good studies on nutrition had been accomplished but before modern synthetic vitamins and other dodgy additives had become widespread in feeds. The University of Manitoba website has a really interesting review of a popular 1945 poultry feeding manual, and if you haven't seen it before but would like to check it out (forgive me if you've already done a whole heap of reading), it's here... http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/livestock/poultry/bba01s23.html

"Just to explain where I'm coming from, I hope you don't mind if I set out a few of my thoughts on the whole heritage breed/feed thing... It's something I've thought about a fair bit, but excuse me if I'm going off on tangents or if you're way ahead of me... It's a great topic though, and highly pertinent now with the petrochemical industry starting to cough and splutter...

"It seems to me that back in heritage days (let's say 'pre-industrial' to be clearer) farms were much more varied in their livestock, cropping etc, so it's arguable that the range of vitamins available on-farm was higher. For instance some vitamins were obtained (for poultry I mean) by picking through the droppings of other animals and so forth. In a way you could say pre-industrial farms were run much more like an ecosystem, with everything in some way complementing everything else. At the same time, birds had been bred to suit this system. They weren't expected to lay massively well and if they were highly productive in one way (meat or eggs) it usually meant very low productivity in other ways, to keep an overall balance. Nobody paid any attention to 'formulating complete feeds' for poultry because there was an environmental balance based on how small-scale farms ran.

"Industrialisation and monoculture farming changed all that, and small farms became no longer viable. Productive-type birds were also bred for even greater productivity at the expense of being able to survive on forage alone, while to a large degree the keeping of dual purpose heritage breeds became a show-thing (with the exception of a few game type breeds and perhaps one or two others, depending on where you live... In Australia we lost most of our genuine utility birds). At the same time thriftiness, foraging ability and hardiness were often neglected.

"However the highly industrialised monoculture approach to things is now starting to meet the reality of diminishing oil. A more positive way of looking at the situation is to say that small integrated farms could become profitable again, if they're closer to markets, as they can beat transport costs. That's if industrial giants don't do everything they can to kill a return to small integrated farming. But most of us don't have fertile smallholdings and for most of us doing things off the grid will be a compromise at best. sad

"My compromise has been to try to learn everything I can about poultry nutrition (I'm not there yet, nowhere near), and put a lot of effort into a feed recipe based on natural ingredients (i.e. no petroleum industry derived vitamins), while also keeping heritage x commercial birds rather than straight heritage purebreds (for better feed conversion among other things). Perhaps you won't need to make any compromises at all, if you source the right birds and have the right setup for them. Great if you do!

"It's nice of you to start a conversation about these things, and I'm sure while there haven't been many responses so far it's not because it's an uninteresting topic. Some [forum members] have connections to industrial farming and are ever-ready to jump on those who want to try formulating diets themselves, but many more people will see the long term point to all this, and realise that Uncle Industry isn't necessarily going to be there for all of us in the next several decades. If they are there for us, well and good, and we can all relax; but meanwhile those of use pottering about on our own won't have done any harm, and we just might have done some social good for ourselves and others during hard times..."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Raising chicks off medicated starter

A little earlier I explained my current projects as crossing red layer hybrids to an ancona, and meat hybrids to a leghorn.

Here they are now (most of them) and as you can see, they're all quite well grown. The big heavy robust white ones are the meat hybrid x legorn. Some of the others (ancona x) are developing nice feather patterning, especially on the males.

Now for a little bit of background, especially on the feeding regimen.

With some temperature problems it wasn't a great hatch, but I ended up with 26 chicks from the first hatch and, a week later, 8 chicks which I put under a broody hen.

The 26 older chicks were given heat for a little under a week, by which time they were able to use the cold brooder (with gentle encouragement when they forgot where to go to stay warm). They were shut in at night only for the first few days after the switch to a non-heated brooder, then they could basically come and go.

They were also given medicated starter (the only version I can buy) for the first week only. This was to help them over the hump of being incubator hatched and then the change to cold brooding. Since I'm not a scientist, and haven't had my home feed tested in a lab, I start chicks on commercial feed just to make sure their first meals are completely formulated.

I also sprinkled adult hen droppings in some dirt and seeded this through the brooder litter. Apart from that there was little floor litter besides some gravel. The floor, being wood, doesn't really need litter (which is often there to insulate as well as soak up liquids).

After the first week, I switched the feed over 2 days to my home made mix. This consists of freshly ground corn, sunflower, bran and pollard (though usually I use freshly ground wheat), soy meal, lucerne chaff (alfalfa), seaweed meal, salt and kefir (soured milk). Every day they were given freshly chopped grass or other greens (e.g. dandelion). Lastly, I made sure the chicks had access to stone grit and shell grit if they needed.

The birds grew well, and then were transferred to the tractor (at 3 weeks of age). Again, I do this at that age so as not to seed the brooder with high levels of cocci. During their time in the brooder I didn't change much except remove droppings from the nest area (where they sleep in close confines, hence it needs to stay dry and fairly clean). Droppings built up on the brooder run floor and as they didn't smell of ammonia and weren't clinging to birds' feet, I left them there. It sounds terribly unhygienic, but by this stage chicks were scratching straw out of their nest area, and thus a layer of deep litter had begun to build up. Deep litter has a controlling effect against coccidia.

So as I speak, these birds have been in the tractor on the same spot as other chicks have been raised for the past week, with no signs of coccidiosis. I haven't moved them since putting them on the patch of grass as there's still plenty of green growth there. It's a large tractor for only 26 birds. I'm presuming the main reason that they haven't come down with coccidiosis is that since they're not meat hybrids, they don't put out a huge amount of droppings (meat hybrids soil the ground much more quickly, due to high volumes of food passing through). Thus the area they're on is still relatively clean.

So here we have 26 chicks just coming up to 4 weeks of age, on ground that's had several batches of chicks raised on it before, without medications for 3 weeks, and I'm seeing no coccidiosis.

I'm not saying this is a perfect system, and I still can't say if deliberate exposure from day one is the main thing, or whether it's the soured milk they've had in the diet all along (even when given commercial starter I moistened some of it with kefir), or whether it's something else going in my favour (such as local weather conditions). But I will say that it's been warm and humid and we've had rain since they've been out on grass, so I do feel that coccidiosis would have shown up by now.

Still, I'll be moving them today to new ground to keep the greens up to them. And I'll be watching them fairly closely to make sure none starts showing symptoms. But for now, it's all good. Need I add, the chicks that went under the broody shortly after hatching have remained in the same aviary since hatch, and as with the tractored chicks they're coccidiosis free too. But as they're now 3 weeks of age, I feel it's time to move them too. I'll be putting them in the tractor with the week older birds, and putting the hen (though she'll hate this) back in the hen-pen.

Clearly it's possible to raise small batches of chicks without using medicated starter, as long as some basics are observed (and I would also add that separation of several weeks between chick batches is a very good idea--we're taught that coccidia live for many many months in soil, but I suspect a good many die off in those first few weeks between hatches).

Some slow-feathering genes apparent in this bunch...

Best of all, I haven't seeded my soil with drug resistant coccidia; at least, not so far.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Logging in okay... Will keep going for now. :-)

Update on earlier post: I seem to be able to log in, so will keep on for now at this address.
Thanks for staying with me.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Blog PAUSED due to account issues... Update later.

Hi there. Apologies for this inconvenience, but I'm having trouble logging in at times. Google data-mining requirements may be clashing with my choice of using a pseudonym for certain aspects of the blog.

However I don't like running a blog that might upset a few commercial interests under my real name. I'm sure most people reading this well-intentioned blog will understand why. If not, look up Monsanto and its treatment of small-time naysayers. I'm very, very smalltime, but you never know how badly folks get irritated by alternate points of view, particularly when they clash with profit goals.

For these reasons I'm looking into moving the blog to a different carrier. That will take time, and obviously it could mean that some viewers become lost. Hopefully that won't happen!

If I can still log in to this blog when I set up the new page I'll make sure to put a redirect so you can chase me up at the new address. Hopefully I can transfer all aspects of the blog including back-posts.

If I don't manage to log in to Google again, then I might ask people to do a general search for 'the natural chicken' or any post titles or keywords you might recall (like 'artificial methionine is it safe' or 'layer cockerels for the table'). You should be able to track down the new blog that way.

Apologies for these hassles. The web is becoming more and more difficult to use while retaining some measure of privacy. For those with alternate views to giant corporations it's perhaps becoming even harder... But that may just be a fancy of mine.

Best wishes to all, and thanks for reading... Fingers crossed for a smooth transition when I set up the future website.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

D-day for layer cockerels for the pot...

Well, they've started to crow, a little on the early side at 12 weeks. I have a neighbour to think about, and these birds are out in a tractor beside his house, so I think the best thing would be to dispatch them early and let the neighbours get some sleep.

It's a shame though, as I'd intended to let them grow as long as possible eating fresh grass and having a safe happy life in the tractor. They always rush at the door when I bring food, and they're friendly happy little birds without undue aggression. Alas, their early maturity goes against longevity in the crowing department.

At just past sundown I took a trolley with a cage on it up to the tractor, and began carefully and gently catching each bird and loading him in. I was so gentle (and they're so tame) that none made more than a tiny chitter of alarm. There was no chasing involved, just a gentle pickup. I know this sounds ridiculously sentimental, but it matters to me that they don't get anxious.

At the moment they're in the warm dry shed in a small cage, all sitting side by side. Dispatch time will be first thing in the morning, probably when the sun is not quite risen. They'll still be sleepy but I won't say it's going to be a good morning for them; all I can hope is that none sees what's coming, and all stay reasonably stress-less until the last. Then it will be quick -- I know that much.

Sad, isn't it? I find I can face this more easily if I allow a token survivor. Tonight I felt through the mass of warm feathery bodies until I'd found the heaviest black (I'd prefer to keep a black rather than an ISA brown, as their temperaments are better for my purposes) and took him down to the roost area housing the pullets from the same hatch. There he'll stay until I decide on next year's breeding setup, or unless I find myself at saturation point rooster-wise (which isn't hard to reach on a narrow acre where neighbouring houses are close).

Of course I have to keep in mind the ultimate goal, which is a self sustaining dual purpose flock. If the leghorn x meat hybrids prove to be healthy enough to reach breeding age without massive intervention, I guess I'll prefer to keep more of those roosters and fewer of the strictly egg laying ones. But still, it's hard to take twelve or thirteen healthy young boys not yet in their prime and process them for food. They'll be tender but less flavourful than older birds, and in any case I can't help but admire them as living creatures. I don't doubt that they think and feel and worry, even if they don't do these things to the extent (or in the way) that we do.

I'd better stop before I give home meat making a bad name... It's not that bad, and the night before processing is always a little sentimental. Hope that's forgivable!

On with the show.

Friday, October 7, 2011

between the broody hen and the cold brooder

No photos yet, but last night I tucked 8 two-day-old chicks under the malay x ISA brown, who had again gone broody. Readers might remember that she raised several ancona chicks quite a few months ago.

The hatch from my recent incubation was quite a patchy one. The earliest-set eggs were exposed to low temperature swings at a vulnerable age and I believe many were lost to this. About half of this first setting hatched, with many deaths in shell. It turned out that the little plastic mesh box I'd made to house the second setting (the later hatch) had upset the internal dynamics and stopped the thermostat working properly. Once it was removed (after the first hatch), the temperature stabilised correctly, and of the later-set eggs, all but one hatched successfully.

But back to the broody, my malay x ISA game. She wasn't the best mother in the world, because she rejected all the white chicks (leghorn x) and was only interested in raising the dark ones. However at the moment all the chicks, black (ancona x red layer) and white (leghorn x meat hybrid) are doing well under her. She's a good mother when she decides to commit, so hopefully these chicks were placed under her early enough for her not to get too choosy.

The earlier-hatched ancona x red layer and leghorn x meat hybrids are running around in a brooder at a week and a day old. They all look in good health and up till yesterday were given the 60w ceramic heater to keep warm. This heater was put above the straw-surrounded nest area; the run is of course unheated. The chicks learned where to go to stay warm almost immediately.

Now I've taken away the ceramic heater and am encouraging the chicks to use the nest area without added heat. They're slightly confused and kept trying to huddle in the lit area where daylight streams in from the north side of the carport, but I've now blocked the light from that direction. It's a mild day, in the low 20s temperature-wise, and I'm confident these week-olds are capable of keeping themselves warm with a little extra guidance as to where to go. There are about 25 or 26 chicks in here, a sufficient number of chicks to cold brood.

About once an hour over the next few days I'll check the birds and make sure they're going into the nest area when they need to cosy up. Meanwhile I'll start thinking about diet.

Up till now they've been on 100% medicated chick starter from a shop. This is still the easiest way to get little chicks eating and to ensure that they're getting a full range of nutrients at first hatch. However the medication irks me and so I'll be switching them over in the next week to a home feed made of finely ground wheat, corn and sunflower, soy meal, lucerne (alfalfa), kefir, hard grit, seaweed meal and salt.

At three weeks old I should be able to put them in the tractor, and the whole sequence starts again, this time hopefully without temperature swings or staggered hatching.