June 7: Animal Profile: Chicken

2016/06/07 deej 1

naked neck chicksNot an activity post today, but it’s been a cold rainy day with no notable achievements beyond running a bunch of meetings at my day job. So instead, I’m writing about chickens.

 

Chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) are the archetypal poultry in Australia, the bird that everyone thinks of when they think of farmyards. They’re descended from the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus), and gentic studies have shown multiple points of origin across South-, East and South-East Asia. Due to selective breeding, both for specific traits and for simple survival ability in different environments, there is a wide variation in size and colour among chickens. The largest can weigh as much as 4 – 5 kg (in the case of the Jersey Giant), while the smallest breed of bantam (the Serama) may weigh as little as 500g when fully mature. Their colours range through all shades of brown and beige, black, white, cream, and grey, both solid colours and in patterns.

 

Most chickens can fly, although the very large breeds become too heavy at maturity to fly effectively. Silkies have primitive dinosaur-like feathers which do not shed water and cannot support flight. Most chickens do not swim, although they will splash about in shallow water like any other bird.

 

Their normal social structure of a flock might include one or more roosters and several hens. The dominant rooster will mate most often, but the less dominant roosters might also mate, especially with the less dominant hens. Hens will tend to lay together in the same nests, and will happily raise each others chicks if they hatch them. Hens may “go broody” once their nest is full (a full clutch is usually about 12 eggs), which means they sit on the eggs keeping them warm and turning them as necessary. Eggs hatch after 21 days at approximately 38 degrees C. Not all breeds will go broody – some have had the instinct bred out of them – and not all individuals within a breed will go broody. Some hens are better mothers than others.

 

Most modern chicken breeds begin to lay at about 6- 12 months old, and lay regularly until they are 3 – 4 years old; after that they will often continue to lay sporadically. Commercial laying chickens are usually slaughtered after 12 months of laying as their egg laying capacity diminishes. Chickens have been known to live to be 16 or 17, and form distinct friendships and social relationships with other chickens, as well as other animals and birds, including humans. They’re reasonably smart, and can be trained with treats and a clicker (and a lot of patience).

 

Chickens bred for commercial meat production are usually slaughtered by the time they’re 6 – 8 weeks old, so their muscles are still tender. They grow so fast that if left to mature, they would die or be crippled by the weight and mass of their over-muscled bodies and insufficient bone growth.

 

Breeds:

We’ve tried a few different heritage breeds of chickens, and there is a clear winner for us: the Turkish Naked-Neck, aka Turken.

 

This breed has a gene which causes them not to grow feathers on their necks, and decreases the number of pin-feathers (fine, hair-like feathers found all over the body), making plucking much easier. The lack of neck feathers make Naked-Neck chickens better able to handle hot weather, as they have more exposed skin to lose heat from; in cold weather they simply huddle down a bit and their shoulder feathers insulate their necks as well. They also seem to be smarter than your average chicken, and friendlier to humans too – or at least, less scared of humans, and easier to tame.

 

We’ve had a couple’ve Barred Plymouth Rocks, and they’re fluffy and cute, but not especially bright. Silkies also have not so far shown themselves to be very smart, although they are sweet birds. We’re hatching some Silkie eggs in about a week (they’re in the incubator now), so we’ll see about silkies with a known background and environment (the last ones I got as 3 month old birds, and hadn’t been well socialised). My one Malay Game rooster is a scaredy cat, but very gentle with humans (and so far with the other birds as well, although he is twice their size so I’m keeping an eye on that in case he decides to become a bully).

 

The two Australorp crosses we’ve had have been very dominant, and quite aggressive with the other flock members. They’ve also picked up gastro a few times and haven’t been very healthy; that might be the individuals rather than a breed trait though.

 

Wyandottes are, in our experience, very sweet and gentle birds, with lovely personalities – but a pain to pluck because of all the pin-feathers. We do still have some Wyandottes, though – I like them in spite of having to singe pin-feathers off the extra cockerels when we pluck them. They’re also very pretty in my opinion; I love the silver laced colour combination. Our current group of five pullets (hatched a few months ago) include four gold laced, and one gold laced blue.

 

The Feathersite is a good resource for info on various breeds (not just of chickens – they have ducks and geese and all sorts of poultry). I’m happy with naked necks as my main birds, and the collection of odds & ends I have for a breeding project, but I am also considering a sideline in seabrights just because they’re pretty. Kinda like smart quail, although  they don’t lay as well as quail (about whom another animal profile, later).

 

What chickens need:

  • Water – Chickens, like all other animals and birds, need clean, fresh water to be available at all times. They have a tendency to kick dirt, food, and poo into their water, so it will need to be cleaned and changed fairly regularly.
  • Food – The natural diet of chickens is around 80% seeds and plants, and 20% insects. Chicks need 18 – 22% protein in their feed, and adult chickens need 15 – 18%. Insects are the best source of protein for a chicken, but they can digest plant proteins too, and will quite happily eat meat (including killing and eating mice and small lizards). Chickens can live on just pellets, but they benefit form having access to greens as well – pasture, vegetable scraps, weeds, etc. They also love most fruit (but DO NOT feed them avocado, as it is highly toxic to them). Adult chickens need shell grit to be available at all times, as they eat it for calcium which they need for producing egg shells as well as their own bones and for general health. All chickens also need regular grit (course sand and small pebbles) to be available, to help them grind and digest their food.
  • Shelter – Chickens are fairly hardy, but they need somewhere to roost out of the rain, and where they are protected from predators. There should also be perches available for them in the coop, with a minimum of 20cm perch space per bird.
  • Nesting Space – Chickens will lay an egg every few days (some birds lay daily, others lay once a week, most are somewhere in between those two extremes). They need a private space to do this – a covered box, protected from the weather, and 35cm in each dimension. At least one nesting box is needed per three birds (they do share, but more than one bird may try to lay at the same time).
  • Space – A minimum of 0.3 sqm per bird for indoor coop space, and 1 sqm per bird of outdoor run space is recommended by most animal welfare organisations. Obviously, more is better if you can do it.
  • Warmth – Adult chickens will do fine in most weather, although they can become ill if they get wet and cold (Silkies are especially prone to this, as their feathers don’t shed water well). Chicks need a heat source for the first 4 – 6 weeks, depending on the weather, starting at 37°C and gradually decreasing over the time.

What chickens have to offer:

  • Insect control – chickens aren’t as good at eating all the pest insects in your garden as guinea fowl, but they do control snails, slugs, and cockroaches with glee and enthusiasm.
  • Eggs – On average, an egg every 2 days is a reasonable rate for most laying breeds. Most chickens slow down or stop laying during the coldest part of winter, and during spring when they’re moulting (their energy goes into growing new feathers instead).
  • More chickens – eggs which are to be incubated should be put into the incubator within 7 days of being laid. They should be incubated for 21 days at 36 -39°C (with best development at 38°C) and a relative humidity of 50 – 65 %. Eggs must be turned 3 – 5 times per day to avoid the yolk sticking to the inside of the shell.
  • Meat – chickens are delicious.
  • Guano – chicken manure is just as good as seagull, or bat manure for providing phosphorus and potassium to plants. It is high in nitrogen so it should be composted before use, or used sparingly.
  • Feathers – every time you kill a bird to eat, you will need to either pluck or skin it. Chickens are usually plucked, and the feathers can be retained for use in craft or art projects, to add to compost, or (the softer down feathers) to use as stuffing for cushions, toys, etc.

June 1: chicken feed

2016/06/01 deej 0

One of the issues that anyone with pets or livestock runs into is feeding them. Not just the expense of providing them with the best possible nutrition, but also the practicality of it.

 

The cats, for example. We make up a raw meat mix for them, using human grade beef mince, minced ox heart, minced ox liver, calcium, gelatin, and a selection of supplements. Amusingly, it ends up being cheaper to do that than to feed them commercial cat food, although it does involve an early morning start every month or so to go to the meat market and buy ingredients, and then a couple’ve hours of mincing and mixing.

 

We do keep commercial tinned food (Ziwipeak) and cat biscuits * (BlackHawk Grain Free) as well, as a backup. According to all my research (even though I am not a qualified animal nutritionist), though, the raw mix is a healthy complete food for them – and they do like it.  I like that it smells inoffensive (plain, fresh, raw meat smell) and is of a quality that I’d be prepared to eat it myself. I have always disliked most tinned pet foods; the smell of them makes me feel ill.

 

* Cat biscuits should only ever be given to your cat with water; dry biscuits often lead to chronic dehydration and ongoing kidney problems later in life, because cats don’t drink a lot of water even if it’s available and their food is dry. Pour a little warm water over the biscuits and let them soak for a few minutes before giving them to the cat; it’s like cereal.

 

The chickens are a similar case. I’m not keen on feeding them pellets, because almost all of the pellets contain “restricted animal products” – which means brains and nerve tissue as well as all the other nasties which can’t be sold as dog food. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that’s asking for prion diseases. Also, my chickens are fussy and refuse to eat the pellets. And once the uneaten pellets get wet, they turn into disgusting, stinky glue which dries to a disgusting, stinky, solid mess of concrete-like .. stuff.

 

Pellets are, however, the best easiest way to get the right levels of protein. Insects are the best protein source for poultry, but we haven’t had much luck so far with our attempts at farming black soldier fly or mealworms for the birds. “Scratch mix” (mixed grains) doesn’t usually go over 11% protein at best, and chickens really should get 15% – 18%. The Peters Free Range mix has just enough protein, but it’s expensive and often unavailable. What to do?

 

My answer is, again, mix my own. So I’ve done the calculations, sourced sacks of raw ingredients, and made up my own chicken feed. It’s a mash style feed, meaning that it needs water added to stick it together, because there’s ground soybean meal in there to increase the protein – but the chickens seem to like it.

 

chicken feed recipeThis recipe provides approx. 18-20% protein, depending on the exact protein content of the grains, which is more than the chickens need for health & growth (show chickens get 18% or 19% feed for healthier feathers). Our chooks do also get kitchen scraps and weeds and whatever grass sprouts in their runs, so I think it evens out.

Crying Wolf

2016/05/12 deej 0

It was inevitable. We’ve had our first losses to a fox or foxes.

 

This morning, early, I heard the guinea fowl making a racket outside, including the one elusive one (which we are still unable to catch in order to pen her with the rest) squawking and scolding near the house. They’re irritatingly noisy birds at the best of times, and they take fright and scold at anything and everything. Pot plants are particularly scary.

 

So I thought, the kangaroos are going through the woods, or the parrots have gone to investigate or something. Or the lone loose guinea fowl finally got hungry and came to get some food from around the chicken run where the chickens scatter it by scratching for the tastiest bits.

 

After all, although the guineas have been remarkably quiet since their move to the A-frame pen in the woods, they’re usually noisy. Maybe they’d finally settled in a bit and were feeling confident enough to scold whatever was near them. I mean, every other time they’re fussed like that it’s been because holy shit there’s a new plant in the ground, or a parrot was nearby aiming for some of their food, or (once) a blue tongue was sitting in the sun next to the chicken run.

 

When I went to feed them and top up their water, though, I found that this time there actually was something scary. I’m guessing fox from the mess, but it could have been a cat or a dog I guess. We have four guinea fowl left (including the loose, wary one), out of the fourteen we had yesterday. I found four corpses, all inside the guinea pen. Six are just gone.

 

I’ve spent the morning carefully checking the pen for gaps, and fixing them. I found four spots where the fox managed to dig its way into the run – either there was a gap between the cable ties holding the wire together, or there was a flaw in the wire itself and it unraveled enough to push loose. So those are fixed, and the wire overlaps are reinforced, and I’ve pushed heavy logs against the base of the pen all the way round. No way to know if it’s fox-proof now, but it’s at least a little more fox-resistant.

 

At least the chickens don’t cry wolf – when they make a fuss, it’s because there’s something to fuss about. After lunch I’m going to check the chicken runs to make sure those are as fox proof as I can make them, just in case.

Re-use, repair, recycle

2016/04/28 deej 0

An unexpected vet bill a couple’ve weeks ago (furbabies are epensive when they get sick!) ate into our infrastructure funds a little, and although we do have pet insurance, it’ll take a few weeks for any of those funds to get back to us for use.

 

In the mean time, we have ten baby guinea fowl which are almost big enough to need their own grown-up enclosure, so they can start learning where home is. Not to mention the five wyandotte chicks which are growing daily, and sharing a brooder box with the guinea fowl keets.

 

We do have a little sheltered ‘baby run’ for young chickens, but it still has the last lot of babies in it. Because I have a breeding program in mind for my chickens, to produce a specific type, I need to keep multiple roosters – and that means multiple pens for the birds. At the moment, we’re not letting them free range because we don’t have fenced paddocks for them to discourage local dogs and foxes, so the pens have to be big enough that all the birds have enough space, too.

 

A-frame guinea houseNecessity being the parent of invention, we’ve rescued a few more of the unwanted old truck tail-gates from our neighbour’s yard (with his blessing – he wants to be rid of them) to use as the base structure for (a) the new A-frame guinea fowl house, to be located in well away from the house this time, and (b) splitting one of the existing, oversized chicken runs into two smaller runs which can each house a little tribe of a rooster and three hens. We have a roll of wire netting, so we should be able to get that done this weekend. Yay for free stuff, and for saving a lot of very useful steel from the tip!

 

The other project which is on my mind is the rose arbor I want to put up on the north side of the house, to extend the summer shade cover offered by the verandah. The verandah is amazing, but in late summer we get the winter solar path while we’re still getting summer temperatures, and the house gets hot. Best solution: more shade, provided by beautiful, deciduous roses. They don’t do much except feed the bees and make me happy, but not everything is about pure utility, and roses do make me very happy.

 

In the same spirit of re-using stuff we already have or have access to, I’m thinking that we could make the uprights for the arbor out of the logs left from whent he builders came through with a bulldozer to make a pathway to get the house in. They shoved everythign into a big pile, so it’s a huge job to dig all the good timber out again, but on the bright side, all those tree trunks have been drying slowly in the dirt, so they haven’t cracked. I think we could get something really lovely out of them, as long as we put down concrete footings and stirrups to keep the timber off the ground and away from the ever-hungry termites.

eating meat

2016/04/03 deej 1

In WA, it’s legal to kill animals for meat, providing you own the animal, and no part of the carcass (including waste, bones and offal) leaves your property. And assuming that your local council hasn’t restricted slaughter of animals in your area via local by-laws, of course – many do.

 

You can’t legally sell the meat, though. You can eat it, or feed it to friends, family, or employees, but not to paying guests (i.e. restaurant or bed & breakfast guests). If you want to sell meat (raw or cooked), the animal providing it must be killed in a registered abattoir.

 

That’s relatively straightforward for goats, sheep, alpacas, cattle, and other medium to large sized critters. There are a few abattoirs in WA which will take animals this size and slaughter them for you in small numbers. Birds and small animals (rabbits, for example) are harder – until recently the only poultry abattoirs in WA were the ones owned by vertically integrated large corporations such as Inghams. There are now 2 small, private abattoirs which I know of in WA, both on farms which also raise and sell free range meat birds (Southampton Homestead, and Wagin Duck & Game), although I don’t know if either of them would accept birds from other producers.

 

I was reading about these two new farms, and a few links down the rabbit hole I read a post about commercial Ross breed broiler (meat) chickens. None of the information in it is new, but it disgusts me all the same. These poor birds have been bred to grow so fast that they are not expected to be kept past 8 weeks of age – because they die or cripple themselves if you do keep them alive that long. The birds are hybrids, with specific pure genetic lines bred for the maternal and paternal bird for the hybrids, because the Ross birds themselves can’t survive long enough to breed or even begin to lay. Their leg bones can’t keep up with the obscene muscle development, and their hearts give out because of the pressure they’re under. That’s what you buy when you buy supermarket chicken.

 

I sympathise with the farmers who are trying to make a living producing meat animals. It’s hard. The amount that an animal eats and the length of time it lives before being slaughtered for meat are costs to the farmer, and the price they get for the end product is ridiculously low. As a culture, we expect our food to be so cheap that it’s virtually impossible for a farmer to make any money producing it (don’t forget the multiple points between farm and plate where the price is marked up). A gentleman I spoke to a couple’ve years ago said that at best he was looking at $1 profit per lamb sold, if it was a good year and not too many of them died of natural causes (disease, exposure, intestinal worms, predators, …).

 

But at the same time, the lengths we go to to produce this cheap and easily available meat are awful, and ethically unacceptable. It’s simply wrong that a bird should be deliberately bred and hatched that will be crippled after 9 weeks growth. It’s wrong that supermarkets gain a monopoly on food distribution and then refuse to pay farmers a fair amount for their animals (or other agricultural products for that matter – this is a big issue for fruit, vegetable and rain farmers as well). It’s wrong that people are so squeamish about the fact that we eat dead animals that they refuse to think about the welfare of those animals before they die.

 

Is it wrong, then, to eat meat at all? Do we add to the problem by adding to the demand, which is supplied by these practices?

 

I believe that what you tame you are responsible for forever – and that we are therefore responsible for our companion species which we have tamed and modified for our use and convenience. They can no longer live without us, and if we stop needing them (which is to say, if we stop eating them in most cases) they will probably become extinct. That would be wrong, too.

 

So my own, personal answer is that eating meat isn’t wrong, unless the practices which produced that meat were themselves unethical.

 

We raise our own chickens, for eggs and meat, and we kill them ourselves when their time is up. They live a good life full of sunshine and dirt baths and plentiful grain and fruit and kitchen scraps, and when they die it is painless and as stress-free as I can make it. We use a nitrogen controlled atmosphere slaughter mechanism, so the birds just go to sleep without ever knowing the difference. We keep heritage varieties, which in its own small way contributes to maintaining the genetic diversity of the species by keeping those breeds from going extinct. We do what we can.

 

We still eat meat. We don’t (yet) produce all of our own meat, although I have plans along those lines. When we buy, we try to buy products with known provenance (where the thing comes from and how it was produced) from butchers rather than buying from supermarkets. Even then, though.. I don’t feel right about eating chickens which have been bred to be deformed by 2 months old. I may not be able to buy commercial chicken any more, even from butchers. I may have to step up the meat production plans.

 

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