Monday, 25 January 2016

The Chicken Diaries - Week 3

On the 23 January (Saturday) we decided to drive to a breeder and get my son a new chicken. He had asked if he could get a new Mary and I thought, I might as well get a different breed of chicken and make sure it's female!

Misty Gums Poultry is in the the Hills rural district of Sydney and specialise in breeding Heritage hens. Paul, the owner, is friendly and supportive, and told us that he could only 95% guarantee we were getting a pullet. He offered to exchange a rooster for hen, or for credit to buy a different chicken. So, that made me happy because then we would definitely end up with a hen, one way or another.

Since my son liked Sussex chickens so much, I got him a light Sussex. There were plenty of other chickens there including some Silver-laced Wyandottes and some magnficent looking Barred Plymouth Rocks (and boy did these chickens look BIG - I guess that's what I'm getting myself in for!)

On the first day, Mary II was sleeping a lot and not eating or drinking. I had put her in with the others and they were establishing their pecking order. Hubby was not happy so we then removed her later in the day and she ate and drank a little after her separation. By the morning, she had escaped her separate pen and was sitting on the floor, but when I put her back she chirped loudly and constantly. I think she was missing the company of other chickens!

So I put her back with the others and she settled down and ate and drank voraciously, much to my relief!

So I've put them on the scales for their 3 week old pictures:

Bubbles is getting a nice lavender coloured feather coming through. Perhaps she's a blue chicken!
Cacciatore is getting feathers faster than the others. Her tail feathers are the longest and she looks a little scrappy at the moment as all her down is falling out.
Mary is already feathered very nicely, and though we thought we were buying a chicken the same size as our others, we didn't realise that she was actually almost 2 weeks behind (in weight) compared to our others. She is a light Sussex and is starting to get the dark feathers around her neck. She is a very loud chick.
Spot doesn't like being picked up, and is the biggest of the four. She flaps crazily when she is being picked up, but will sit on your finger once you get away from her box (otherwise she'd keep trying to fly to it)

Friday, 22 January 2016

What keeping chickens has taught me and the kids

I thought keeping chickens was about getting fresh eggs, getting rid of my kitchen scraps and for digging up my garden.

But there was a whole lot more I learned about chickens once I got onto Google to research how I should be looking after them.

In my quest to learn more about chickens, I came across this post in Flavour Crusader:
Australia’s chicken history 
Just a generation ago, Australians kept chickens for their eggs. The meat they ate was six-month-old males (cockerels), or spent layer hens. Eating chicken was considered a luxury, savoured at Christmas and other special occasions. Over time a cottage industry developed, providing greater volumes of much the same.
Chicken, something that I had taken for granted as being a cheap meat, was a luxury? I do remember my parents and others of their generation talking about their backyard chickens and composts.

Behind cheap and convenient
Just two companies control 70 per cent of the Australian chicken meat market: Ingham (owned by US-based TPG Capital) and Baiada (with brands Lilydale and Steggles). Since 1990 the vast majority of broilers are from the same genetic stock—the Cobb 500 or Ross 308—developed by international agribusiness. They may be slaughtered as early as 35 days. The meat is unbelievably cheap.
35 days! All the chickens we eat are just chicks themselves? How can they get to 2-3kg in just over a month?

It's because they are bred to be that way. In an article in the Australian "Is this Australia's most expensive chicken?" Bruce Burton, a farmer who raises the much touted Sommerlad chicken, talked about his experience trying to raise meat chickens.
“We spent five years trying to find a venture that suited our needs and the size of the farm … We had some layers and I absolutely fell in love with chickens. So I bought 60 standard Cobb and Ross broilers 18 months ago and I was just aghast at what I found. 
It became clear really quickly these birds would do nothing more than sit by the feed bin and eat. They wouldn’t forage. I had layers that went everywhere, ate everything, and these birds that wouldn’t leave the feed bin.”
In short, these big-breasted birds failed to thrive. Feeding them with organic chicken feed simply wasn’t enough and they started dying. 
“I was basically told I was an idiot. I was told these things are a super hybrid and they need to be fed rocket fuel and that’s the only way you’ll keep them alive.” 
Basically these chickens were bred to put on weight and slaughtered before they were ready to reproduce. They wouldn't survive to reproduce because they were so heavy breasted they could hardly walk - essentially, it was like obesity. The heart couldn't keep up with the rapid weight gain that it would give out after 7 or 8 weeks - perfect for the meat industry that needed rapid, fast growing birds that would produce maximum profit after minimal time. They can't walk because they're so fat, and would probably need antibiotics to stay healthy and prevent disease from sitting in their poop all day long.

I could see why people who read this would suddenly go vegetarian. It sounds like a horrible way to live. But the reality is, animals are farmed for food. Surely there is a better way that I can slake my meat requirement and do it in a way that seems humane.

So I started thinking about eating my own chickens. If the chicks turned out to be males, I would probably have to send them away or eat them, because crowing roosters are frowned upon by the council, especially in the suburban backyard. My chickens would be raised ethically, but then I had to think about how I wanted them "despatched". And what was I going to tell the children?

I decided that they should know the truth.This is where chickens come from. Chickens and meat don't come from supermarkets or the butchers packaged in plastic. They come from real live animals, and they should respect the life the animal gives to become our food.

My workmates and colleagues told me I was cruel to my children by telling them I was "killing their pets." That it would traumatise them. But I think my children are resilient enough to understand about life - and I was hoping that it would promote a healthy respect for being kind to animals, when you raise them for slaughter.

I started looking into Heritage Chickens. A Heritage chicken is a purebred chicken, from a long line of livestock (and are the chickens they "show" today at competitions). It all sounded like dogs to me. Lots of people like the look and the temperament of purebred dogs - so was that the same for chickens?

A heritage poultry breed has stood the test of time. A century ago, all the chickens were purebreds, and predictability of their laying, their food/temperature tolerance/temperaments allowed farmers to choose the breeds that would best suit them. Heritage breeds are longer lived, more adaptable and resilient and can hide in trees or eat rice or other foods if their feeds run out. The ISA brown, which is the egg laying chicken that everyone seems to want for eggs in their backyard these days, only lays for a few years, has a 4-5 year lifespan and apparently is prone to eating its own feathers to keep up with its sulphur and protein requirements for this mass egg production.

There are a few breeds of chickens that I thought were interesting and I would like to keep:

Wyandottes originated in the United States and are a dual purpose chook that lays about 200 tan/brown eggs a year. They are such beautiful birds with some colour strains having these gorgeous feather patterns (laced ones shown here)! They are quite broody - meaning that they like to sit and hatch eggs and look after chicks. They are quite large and can be 3kg for a hen, and 4kg for a rooster.  They are a docile chicken and good for children. It would be my number one choice of chicken to have in the backyard.

Plymouth Rocks also originated in the United States. They are also a dual purpose chicken with a calm temperament and lay up to 280 brown eggs per year. It is quite cold-hardy and will continue to lay through winter. They are 3-3.5kg in size and I think their barred pattern is quite stunning. They tend to go broody and are good mothers.

The Sussex originated in England (can't half tell with that name!) It is another dual purpose chicken, it lays up to 250 tan/brown eggs per year. They can be large (3-4kg) and are good foragers. They are alert, yet docile in temperament and can be quite broody. This is the chicken that my son likes best.

Araucana (left) and Cream Leghorn  (right) chickens lay blue eggs, and I thought that would be an amazing thing to have! Araucanas are said to be friendly but also prone to being flighty and lay up to 180 eggs per year. Cream Leghorns lay up to 180 eggs per year and are said to be autosexing (you can tell male from female chicks by their feather colours). They are both 2-3kg in size and bit smaller than the other breeds listed above.

So it sounds like having a heritage breed means I'll have a chicken that lives longer, acts more "like a chicken", and is hardier - something that sounds much better as a backyard pet than an egg laying machine hybrid. That wasn't something I had considered when I first wanted to buy chickens - all I wanted was an ISA brown so I could have eggs - but now with all these other beautiful breeds, I feel like I want to have them all.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Chicken Diaries - Week 2

Oh dear.

Mary started limping the other week and now is looking pretty lame. Her right leg looked as if it was dislocated at the hip and it was rotating at a weird angle. She would walk with one leg twisted a full 180 degrees and was in fact scrambling along, rather than hobbling. She could still move it and grip with it and scratch her head but she looked really awkward.

I did take pictures of them at 2 weeks.

Heaps more feathers in, and Cacciatore has tail feathers coming in.

However, on 21 January I took Mary to the vet to see if I could do anything for her about her leg. The vet said that chickens can do well with their leg amputated but she was too young for an anaesthetic, and that she had actually broken/dislocated her knee joint which was causing her pain when we touched it. The leg was also warmer than the other leg, indicating it was inflamed or swollen, and the vet advised that I euthanase her, so I did, sadly. We explained to my son what had happened, and he had lots of questions about what happened to her and why is she going to sleep, but we said she had to go to chicken heaven because her leg was too sore. He asked if he could get another Mary, and I think we will, but I might get a purebred heritage chook so we can have a varied flock. And I want a hen not a rooster!

So now I am down to 3 chicks. I weighed them last week:

 (Clockwise from top left - Bubbles, Cacciatore, Mary, Spot).

I weighed them today and they had put on a lot of weight!

Mary - 150g (weighed at the vet)
Spot - 165g
Bubbles -146g
Cacciatore - 136g

 I'll weigh them again at the 3 week mark, and see how much weight they put on in just 4 days!

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Chicken Diaries - Week 1

They have grown a bit in one week!

I moved them out of the blue rat cage base because they were kicking litter and poo and food everywhere. Now they are in a cardboard box with high walls. The light hangs a bit more safely now too, as it's not touching anything and we stopped using paper towel on the tray after the 3rd or 4th day.

They were constantly kicking litter into their water bowl, so I had to keep fishing out soggy paper pellets which was gross (and they look like poo when wet), so I elevated the water on a small box and that seems to have solved the problem.

Now they are consistently eating out of my hand and the kids hands. At first you had to put your hand in there and be quiet for 5 minutes before they'd come to eat food from your hand, but now they come straight to your hand to eat, which is really cute.

They are getting more feathers and some are even getting tail feathers!

Bubbles has started getting tail feathers and is one of the larger chicks. She crouches down when you put your hand on her, which makes me think she's a girl, but you never know...

Cacciatore is the smallest but is the one who will come to your hand to eat first, and often will climb onto your hand and you can lift your hand out of the box with her on it.

Mary is also one of the larger chicks. Personally I think Mary is a boy...

Spot is not as big as Mary, and has a funny little crest just above the beak. She hasn't got any tail feathers yet.

The chickens are used to being handled, but if you don't hold their wings down there is a lot of flapping that makes you worry they are stressed. My son is scared to hold the chickens still but is happy to pat them and let them eat out of his hand, but my daughter loves to pick up the chicks and feed them and walks around the house holding them.

More progress photos next week!

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Chicken Diaries - Day 2

The chicks ate out of my hand this morning! And I swear they were bigger after just one day. I took a picture of them this evening with my makeshift tent and they were so cute, scratching around in the kitty litter trying to get their food that I sprinkled out there, just to see them scratching around like real chickens. I was shocked because a cockroach crawled into their tray and they attacked it and ate it!

I read about "pasty butt" the other day, and worried that my chicks might have it. Apparently it's seen in young chicks. Droppings stick and clog up their bottom and they literally get so constipated and blocked up they die. Sounds horrible! Here's a picture I found of a chick with pasty butt.

And here is a normal vent in a chick. Fortunately all my babies looked normal!

It can happen if they are stressed - too hot, too cold, eating the wrong food (ie dont' give them anything other than the chick starter food).

I'm wondering if I should start using hemp litter. I've thought about using that for the coop, and I haven't seen much talk about using hemp for chickens. I think I might go out and get some and start using it and write about my experiences with it.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The Chicken Diaries - Day 1

Christmas holidays are over and now all the shops are open so I was excited to take the kids to look at chickens since I said we would get them this week.

I had originally planned to get pullets - 4 month old chickens - and try to tame them before they start laying. I was reading about how to best tame a chicken and many people said that to raise them from chicks. I thought about whether it was a plausible idea, and when I read more about it, it didn't sound much harder than looking after rats.

So we went to my favourite pet store (where I get my rat food from) because they had lots of chickens previously and have always had chickens. But, when we got there, there were no chicks! Only hens! One of the store people asked if he could help me and when I asked if there were any chicks, he said he had some out back. So, out the back there was a cage full of black chicks - ooh were those Australorps?

He told me they weren't purebred. But they were $3.50 each and unsexed and so cute! So a snap decision was made - I bought four of the adorable creatures. 3 were black and yellow, and the other was yellow. The kids were thrilled - and couldn't wait to get them home so they could hold them. So here are my four chicks - and I'm hoping they are all girls!

The pale chicken is my daughter's, named Bubbles. This one with the yellow chest and yellow above the nostrils is my one, named Cacciatore.

This one with the black tipped beak is my son's chicken, named Mary (I thought he meant Merry, but he was adamant about Mary), and the last one is my husband's chick, that he named Spot.

So I've got them in an old rat cage, with some rat litter on the bottom with a lining of paper towel on top. Then I made a tent out the corners of the cage and covered it with an old shirt so the chicks could stay warm.

I was worried they would be cold, or that the bulb would melt the plastic box, or set fire to the shirt or the paper towels, but I think I've finally got it at the right height. In this picture the bulb was too high.

Our coop isn't here yet, but these little fellas will be inside the house for a little while yet. I'll be documenting their progress until they have their big move to the big coop. Welcome to the family little ones!