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.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

providing protein for layers without poor mineral balance

I've been very happy with the growth of my ancona x red layers and my meat hybrid x leghorns. When I bought the new commercial layers I was anything but happy with them. At nineteen weeks of age they were only a fraction larger than my twelve week old ancona x and meat hybrid x birds. I now suspect they were a little under the stated age, as their combs were also quite poorly developed for age.

To complicate things, shortly after this there came the setback with bad wheat, and all my birds suffered. While on the suspect wheat, the ancona and hybrid x birds stopped increasing in size at the rate they had, and their combs stopping growing larger. Meanwhile the commercial layers are only just starting to lay now (at 23 weeks). What a drama!

But with onset of lay comes a new problem: how to add protein without upsetting the mineral balance of layers.

My usual practice with chicks (milk based protein to offset a wheat-soy base) isn't practicable with adult layers. This is because they need a massively enriched calcium level. However while milk is high in calcium it's also fairly high in phosphorus. The problem with high phosphorus levels is that phosphorus competes with calcium for absorption; thus the wrong ratio quickly produces problems like soft shelled eggs. I probably don't need to spell out the problems that can come from soft shelled eggs, but egg yolk peritonitis is a common one and it's deadly.

Free ranging the birds is a great way to get them to find their own greens and protein, in which case the pressure on the diet to be complete is a lot lower. Not only will they find a lot of calcium via greens, but they'll also eat insects that will supply omega-3 fats and calcium from shells alongside high protein.

Thus I've been braving the goshawks and letting the adult birds out every day for several hours at a time. It's no surprise that a day after they started being let out, one and then another began to lay.

Once again, in view of milk's problems mineral-wise, I've been looking for other cheap animal protein sources. As in earlier posts I've been thinking through the gamut of choices: worms; pet mince (good but may have sulphites that need to be washed out, and is almost invariably too fatty); normal butcher mince (expensive); and of course high protein scraps.

As it happens I've found a pretty good butcher shop that sells whole lamb livers very cheaply ($1.50), so that's being given every 2-3 days in small quantities. But on other days I'm relying on either scraps or whatever the birds rummage up. They're also getting small amounts of kefir in their feed (but only a quarter of what the chicks get, per bird), and of course they have soy meal. Given that they're starting to lay after their bad wheat setback I'm pleased that this is all working. One whole lamb liver is lasting me two weeks, so it's not exactly an expensive addition, and the scraps and insect forage cost me nothing at all except a little bit of worry when it comes to goshawks.

As for goshawk deterrence, I simply haven't seen the old boy around in a while, so perhaps he's decided to range elsewhere. Or it may be that having two near-adult roosters out and about now is keeping the divebombers at bay. There's also a new trampoline giving the chickens somewhere to hide where they can still peer out at the sky. Lastly, the ancona x have inherited their father's flightiness, and are rapidly scurrying for cover at every blink. Which isn't a bad thing in this backyard!

So that's a bit of a roundup more than a proper discussion of protein, but I hope it's reasonably clear.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Little case of cocci in a chick: UPDATE

Still no signs of cocci in any of the chicks that remained here, so that's positive. We've had many days of rain and the pen has definitely been warm and damp, but the chicks are handling it. Good news.


The other day I sold a handful of chicks, and the new owner rang me up the next day to say one was sick. Clearly she has cocci (and after I suggested what to buy, the chick apparently came good again). The stress of transport probably contributed, but I don't think it's a major factor.

Now I confess I've been a bit lazy with the latest chicks, and have put them in the large pen from four weeks of age without taking off the surface litter, and to top it off we've had a week of heavy summer rain. However none of the remaining chicks in the pen now are showing signs of cocci, nor have the other sold chicks succumbed, so the pen isn't the problem in itself, nor is the rain, nor is transport stress.

Normally if one bird has coccidiosis the others will show signs either at the same time or a little later. When you get one chick with coccidiosis while the others are well, it could be a sign that the sick bird has other underlying illnesses (whether congenital or infective).

Which brings me to a new thought. Although I've stated that the chicks were fed bran/pollard instead of sprouts, that's not strictly true -- they did get some. It's just that their staple diet was made up using the bran/pollard. This little girl may have been unlucky enough to eat more than her share of the bad wheat, or to be unable to cope with its effects on her digestive system, predisposing her to secondary ailments. Marek's is another possibility, though I've never seen classical Marek's signs, so it's fairly unlikely.

I'm just putting this 'out there' so anyone reading this blog will realise (if they haven't already) how many co-factors there are in managing coccidiosis; and sometimes it may be that a bird simply doesn't have the immune strength to cope with moderate challenges. If the other chicks had been sick I'd be saying the opposite and going hell for leather to clean up the pen and improve management. But it's not as simple as management in this case, I feel.

Naturally I've offered to swap the sick bird for another, but the new owner is happy to keep her. I hope she stays well.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

When feed goes bad...


I took the remaining wheat back to the shop and they gave me a replacement bag. That doesn't help my birds, but it's good enough (and frankly I was surprised that the store attendant took me seriously). However I think she soon realised it wasn't coccidiosis and I do know what I'm talking about.

At any rate, three days after removing the suspect wheat, I'm seeing my first eggs from these layers. The two (rooster and hen) that were ailing have improved to being indistinguishable from the others.

It's a great relief, but also a reminder as to how easy it is to forget a basic principle (the basic principle being, examine feed closely and don't use it if there's anything amiss). Wheat that doesn't sprout well is surely a huge sign of a problem.

Silly me, but it's fixed now... hopefully.


A couple of weeks ago my usual grain store was shut, so I bought 2 bags of wheat from the more expensive place up the road.

Straight away it went into plastic drums with good lids, so I had no reason to think there would be any problem. However I noticed over the following week that this wheat doesn't soak up water quite as well as normal, and its sprouting rate is somewhat reduced. That is, only about half the grain will sprout at all, and it's usually beginning to moulder before the second day. I've never had wheat behave like this before, and I've been sprouting for years now!

Meanwhile some point of lay birds I got earlier have still not come into lay and two of the commercial meat hybrids had a few days in which I could see that they weren't well. Both carried their tails low and were a little listless.

The little chicks are eating exactly the same food as the older birds, with one difference: instead of sprouted wheat forming the chief grain, they've been getting mainly bran and pollard (mixed with all the other things I usually mix). They've also been given extra soy and kefir. They're doing incredibly well and look absolutely super.

I've realised the wheat is most likely very old, and has been improperly stored, or damaged, perhaps by beginning to germinate some time ago. Whatever the case, it's bad.

Now that can happen with other feeds as well, so please don't be put off sprouting. If I look close I can see that this wheat is slightly greyer than usual, and has a dimpled appearance, as though it's been withered. I can't see signs of weavils (which I've had in the past when wheat is poor) but it does appear the seed coat is damaged. Most importantly though, it's barely sprouting even though conditions are perfect (good clean water at 3/4 of the bucket, only 1/4 being wheat; good storage here; hanging in shade; and daily rinsing).

If I haven't poisoned my birds completely, I should start seeing eggs within a week or so of taking that wheat out of their diets...

But it's a wake-up call, at any rate.