Monday, 22 February 2016

The Chicken Diaries - Week 7

I love having the chickens outside, I could watch them all day! They are scratching around the cage (eating lots of dirt, mind you), and I even chopped up some baby bok choi for them but they didn't get excited over it. They are definitely uninterested when I don't chop the vegies up small!

86g (that actually says 437g) was Bubbles' weight gain which is good since she only put on 53g last week. I saw Bubbles raise her hackles at Spot yesterday - is that a bad sign that Bubbles is probably a boy?
Cacciatore put on 71g this week, and is now trailing Bubbles in weight by 20g. She's as friendly as ever and eats very well - in fact she is the first one to get all the juicy caterpillars and worms when I offer them!
I really want to give Mary a bath - her feathers are a bit soiled. She has put on 87g this week! Being outside must be good for her, and getting lots to eat. She has been much friendlier lately, and is often flying up to my leg when I sit next to their coop watching them.
A rare picture of Spot sitting quietly - it took ages to get this photo. 103g gained this week by Spot! Spot is very skittish and runs like crazy to avoid being caught, and seems to be definitely showing some male behaviour. Spot looks most like a chicken in terms of being feathered now.
The other exciting thing is that on Saturday, they started going into the hutch by themselves! I had been putting them into the roosting house manually each night, and I remember late one night I came home and they were all sitting on the ground getting ready for bed and I picked them all up and popped them into the house. Then on Saturday I noticed that Spot and Cacciatore were occasionally going up to the house by themselves in a flurry of wing flapping, and when I went outside with the kids at 8pm on Saturday night all the chickens were already inside! That was exciting! On Sunday I watched as they went up the ramp by themselves to go to bed just before 8pm, and I'm happy that it didn't take them that long to get used to the coop as home.

I also noticed that if I let them out to wander, if I chase them, they run straight back to the coop, so that's a good sign that they're used to the coop being home.

My Dine-A-Chook came today, and I set it up inside the pen but it's a bit high! I put some stepping stools for the chickens, hope they can reach it. I also need to buy a pet food scoop at some stage and more feed.

And if you're easily grossed out, give this next picture a miss.

My fly trap is getting full of flies. And do you know what else is in there - there are live MAGGOTS inside the trap. White things crawling around in the fluid, probably devouring the other dead flies. And the smell is a bit gross, but sometimes it's hard to tell if it's the trap or the chickens. It just smells like sweet rotting stuff. And the worst part is I keep hitting the fly trap with my head when I go into the coop. I have dreaded visions of me tipping the thing over onto my hair /shudder. But, the flies are well controlled around the coop, they're not all over the poo buzzing around my head.

Mum came to visit and saw the chickens, and was quite impressed with their size. Even my 18 month old nephew beamed with childish delight as the chickens ate feed out of his chubby little hand. I think it's almost time to switch them over to a different feed!

I was tossing up whether to use Vella's Pullet Grower (which is $12 for 10kg Sydney Pet and Garden) or to use the organic Country Heritage Feeds Chick Starter Mash (which is  $24 for 10kg at Sydney Pet and Garden). The organic feed can be used from birth till point of lay, whereas the grower is from 7 weeks to point of lay. The advantage of that is that Mary is still a bit behind the others so I didn't want to start her on Pullet Grower too early. Also, they website says that Chick Starter Mash (organic one) is good for meat birds too, which is what will happen to the boy chickens eventually, so perhaps it will be good for them. And I need to get more chook feed this week again, gosh they eat a lot!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Chicken Diaries - What chickens have I got?

I have been thinking a lot about the sexes of my chickens, as well as what the hell they are.

Cacciatore and Spot were similar to start but as they've grown they have started to look different!

Both of them had the barred look on their feathers - making me wonder if they had a bit of Barred Plymouth Rock in them. Below are some purebred Plymouth Rocks - the paler one is the male and the darker is the female. Pure males have 2 of the barring gene and thus end up with lighter bars.

However, I noticed that there might be a bit of Araucana mixed in for Cacciatore and maybe for Bubbles too! Here is Bubbles - look at her comb.

She doesn't have a comb like the other two, it seems to be just a bit knobbly. Apparently, the breeds that have pea combs include Araucanas and Brahmas. And it seems to me she only has one row as opposed to 3 rows. A single row indicates a female, three rows a male. Look at these pictures of female and male pea combs:

But females can have a red comb at a young age too, like this one:

Araucanas can have beards and a fluffy head. Here is a lavendar Araucana female:

And if you look at Cacciatore, she has that funny feathering on her head too! So perhaps there is some Araucana genes in there, since the 3 original chicks are from the same batch.

We'll see!

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The Chicken Diaries - Week 6

The big news for this week is that the chooks finally moved outside! They were way too big for the box and I felt like I was keeping battery chickens by continuing to keep them there.

My new coop arrived from Somerzby and it is a beauty! We built it an hour with the help of hubby's brother and sister (and myself) and then over the weekend dug up the tree stumps, filled in some dirt, lay down some pavers and put the coop into the position we wanted it in.

My daughter is playing with the chickens in that picture. That bottle with green liquid is a fly trap, and it seems to be doing quite well. There are a LOT of flies around the coop - boy do they love that chicken poop!

I managed to sell the other coop on Gumtree for the bargain price of $75. There was a lot of interest in it, and I sold it to a lady who had one chick only. I could have sold it for more!

Here are the chooks are hiding from me in the coop. Gosh they look big now!

Time for the scales!

Bubbles only put on 53g this week compared to the 70g last week. I am having my doubts about whether Bubs is a hen or a roo. Size wise, Bubs remains not the biggest, the neck feathers don't seem to be pointy and legs are not as thick as Spot's. However, Bub's head is still not fully feathered...

Cacciatore also not putting on as much as last week - 54g (same as Bubbles, really). She definitely has this feathery tuft on her head, which is rather interesting. I wonder where she gets that from? Also, I am wondering if Cacciatore is a roo, because she has been having these "fights" with Spot, which looks like roo sparring to me!

Mary put on 70g this week (compared to last week's 61g) - and her head still looks really scrawny! Her feathers are so soft compared to the others! She has difficulty climbing up the ramp compared to everyone else, and she flies around a bit more than the others.

Spot still piling on the weight, putting on 96g (compared to 93g last week). You can see his comb is a bit pinky and he is fully feathered. I keep looking at his saddle to see if he's getting some roo pattern saddle feathers (which are long and thin) but I think he's a bit young yet. He sometimes looks like he's rounding up the hens.

The kids are getting better at picking up the chooks, even my son can pick up Spot, though he prefers not to since Spot is so flappy.

I tried using the treadle (which you can see in the top picture under the nesting box) but they need to be 500g to activate it, and it would work when a few of them were standing on it, but they kept being startled by the lid closing with a bang, and would run away from the feeder. I tried propping it open but the pegs keep sliding, so for now I've just used the plastic feeder (wish I could find somewhere to hang it) and stood it on top of a terracotta pot. I have done that for the water also. The treadle is being used as food storage for now.

Flies around the coop are an issue, so I've put up a fly catcher which seems to be catching a lot of flies, but the downside is it stinks after a while. I guess between the rats and the chooks, I'm used to bad smells.

The chooks can't climb the ramp into the house yet - it seems a bit steep for them. And they are not going to bed there either, I have to manually place them there. I think I'll have to keep doing that for a little while yet till they get used to the idea of the hutch being their house. I've blocked up the nesting boxes so they don't sleep in them and dirty them, and I bought a poopa-scoop which is great for picking up the chicken poo from the sleeping area.

I have bought a Dine-a-chook waterer, to keep the water clean. The feeder seems good too, reducing spillage. The chooks throw so much food on the ground!

Royal Rooster also does a similar type of feeder/drinker, but it's a bit more expensive.

I've been thinking about planting some mint around the coop. Apparently it's good at repelling flies. I scattered a whole pack of mint seeds at the nesting box end and hopefully they will grow. Mint grows like a weed, so if it grows there that might give the chickens some nice shade and a nice smell, as well as provide some useful herb additives for cooking!

Monday, 8 February 2016

The Chicken Diaries - Week 5

The chicks are just about ready to go outside, I think.

Last Friday they managed to get out of their box and walk around the bathroom. I was greeted with a stinking poo covered mess on the bathroom floor as they explored the place. I wanted them to go outside, but then I was going to be away all weekend so I didn't want to risk them going outside. Maybe just one more week in the house. Besides, Mary is still small.

Popped them on the scales today and they had put on a decent amount of weight!

Bubbles has put on 70g this week! I thought that she was a boy, but now I'm not so sure. She and Cacciatore are almost the same size now, and other than her feathers, she hasn't got a comb or any other indications of being a roo. Bubbles eats well out of the hand.

Cacciatore has put on 82g, and continues to be as friendly as ever. I love how she jumps out of the box to greet me and try to climb up my arm. My forearm is forever covered in claw marks.

Little Mary is still trailing the pack, but she is about a week behind now in weight. Last week Cacciatore was 210g. Mary put on 61g this week. She is easy to pick up, and doesn't struggle or flap - if I could say there was a ragdoll chicken, she would be it. She ate out of my hand for the first time yesterday - she still prefers to eat from the takeaway container.

Spot has put on a whopping 93g this week! His comb is a little more pinkish than before, and he is still easily startled when approached suddenly, but when you go over slowly, he's ok with being picked up, though he still is a bit flappy. He eats well out of the hand.

I felt their crop for the first time last week! I felt a funny lump at the base of Cacciatore's neck and thought "Oh, what's that?" and then I felt all the others and they had the same thing. I thought is that the crop? Let me go check. And I googled it, and yes it was the crop, but I did panic at first, when I first felt it in Cacciatore.

I told my mother and she laughed at me. "You're a DOCTOR! With a foundation in science! How can you not know?" she admonished me.

"For goodness sake," I replied. "I know HUMAN anatomy - what human has a crop? Birds and mammals are VERY different!"

We made them a sandpit out of an old tyre (which was free) and filled it up with construction sand. I had read a lot about other additives to the dust bath, including dirt, ashes and Diatomaceous earth (DTE). I even bought some food grade DTE - which are fossilized microscopic diatoms and mostly made of silica. A bit like sand, which is silica. The Chicken Chick said that she doesn't use DTE because of the risk of respiratory problems. Silicosis is a well known medical condition from inhaling dusts in industry, and inhaling all that DTE could be hazardous to my health as well as to the chickens! DTE is supposed to be really good at treating mites and other bugs because it is a dessicant and it scratches and dries out the arthropods' little bodies. Maybe I could use that instead of a chemical mite treatment. I could also feed it to them. The guy at the pet store where I bought it asked me if it was for the chickens or if it was for me - apparently people EAT food grade DTE to get absorbable silica (rather than chow on sand) and say that it helps because "the sharp edges damage the worms, parasites and bacteria in our alimentary tract".

Let's just say, I am extremely skeptical. Firstly, people tell me that DTE is useless once it's wet, and it will be wet once I eat it (so it won't be much of a dessicant). Secondly, it's not going to be rolling around in my guts killing bugs, but mixed in with whatever else I've been eating. Scientifically, silicon is important for joint cartilage and bone formation and maintenance, thus boosting the suggesting that silicon is a nutrient of concern for osteoporosis, and perhaps osteoarthritis. Levels of silicon are high when we are young but dwindle as we age. Perhaps, there might be something there with the cartilage. But the other stuff? I doubt it.

Back to the sandpit. I was hoping the girls would dust themselves, but they didn't. They preferred doing it in the dirt - MAYBE because it was cooler there. Sand does get really hot. They looked very miserable in the sun, panting and laying on the ground looking lethargic, despite drinking water and hiding in the cardboard box I put outside for them. My daughter moved them to the shaded tanbark area which was not fenced and surprisingly they didn't try to run away, they just hung around together and let her feed them and pick them up and move them around. They looked much more lively and I even saw them picking up some rocks for their gizzards.

I've also decided that the coop I got was too small, and bought a bigger one. Time to sell the small one on gumtree!

This was the old one. It looked ok on pictures but in real life it's TINY! It's probably only good enough for 2 maybe 3 bantams, not big heritage chooks like mine.

I've ordered this, and it looks much better for the chooks. More room underneath for them too, so I can put feeders and maybe their dust bath under there. Maybe will have pics of it next week!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Eww! Are those maggots in my compost bin?

I have been trying very hard to get my compost bin to work. I've been worried about the carbon to nitrogen ration, about what I put in there, and whether it was wet enough.

I started with some dry leaves and sticks in the bin, then I dumped a whole heap of shredded paper and cardboard into the bin and then started to layer scraps and paper. Once we got the chickens, I started to put their litter in there as well, and also the rat litter.

One problem was fruit. Whenever I put fruit leftovers into the bin the fruit fly clouds that would come out of the bin was a worry! I didn't want to get any fruit flies into my mouth or my nose! I thought that if I kept covering the fruit with more carbon (paper and cardboard) I could get rid of the flies.

Every time I put something in the compost bin I would anxiously check it to see if the contents were "going down". It didn't seem to be decreasing in size - was the pile of compost going to get bigger and bigger and I would be left with a stinking, rotting pile of unusable sludge rubbish? I so desperately wanted to have good quality compost so I could reuse it for gardening! I had read in many places that "good compost" should smell like dirt or straw, and not stinky like rotten eggs. The worm farm smelled like dirt, so I knew that the worm farm must be going ok.

Yesterday, I had a bit of a shock.

I went out to put things into the compost bin and when I looked inside, the top of the pile was moving. I saw a grub crawling up the side of the bin, and it looked very juicy. I wondered what it was. I looked back at the rest of the compost and saw there were TONS of these things writhing around in the food.

OMG, there were MAGGOTS in my compost bin!

This is not what I saw. What I saw were bigger and fatter than these, and not so numerous. But you get the idea.
I quickly dropped the scraps in the bin and ran into the house to check Google. I hadn't put any rotting meat there, so why are there maggots in the bin? I thought about it, and maggots eat rotting things so they SHOULD be a good thing right?

It turns out that these weren't just ordinary house fly maggots. They were in fact Black Soldier fly larvae.

BSF laying eggs in corrugated cardboard. They like to lay NEAR rotting stuff but not on top of it.

These guys are actually FANTASTIC things to have in the compost. You know, ever since I was young I had seen these flies but thought they were some kind of wasp like insect but with no sting. I'd seen them sitting on plants at my parent's house in the garden, and they didn't buzz or swarm around you, they would just quietly sit there. I had actually seen one in my own garden the other day, and I had just dismissed it as another garden insect. And I hadn't actually noticed at the time, but there was no swarm of fruit flies coming out of the compost like it had on other days.

This was a great read on the internet about the Black Soldier Fly (BSF) which pretty much described me and my reaction which soon became a fascination with the disgusting buggers.

The Black Soldier Fly larvae are beneficial in a number of ways: They prevent houseflies and blowflies from laying eggs in the material inhabited by black soldier fly larvae, and unlike common house flies, they are not attracted to human habitation or foods.  They don't fly around as much as houseflies and are easy to catch and relocate when they get inside a house, as they don't avoid being picked up. Because they have no mouth, they are sanitary, and they do not bite or sting. Their only defense seems to be hiding.

They quickly reduce the volume and weight of compostable organics because they are voracious eaters - it's because they eat so fast that other insects don't have a chance to get in and establish. They even eat meat and dairy - things that I hadn't been putting into the compost bin. According to the ESR International, 45 kilos of food waste will produce 2.3kg of usable compost and 9 kilos of larvae. They do well in warmer temperatures - apparently 30 degrees is what they need to grow and reproduce - and the emerging adult fly only lives a few days, and its sole purpose is to breed and then die. However, they keep themselves warm in winter as all that eating produces heat, so if your mass of larvae is big enough they can keep themselves warm. And in the summer, when there are too many of them and it gets too hot, some will crawl away and the mass reduces to a manageable size.

These larvae are apparently an amazing source of nutrition. An Analysis of Dried Soldier Fly Prepupae by ESR International showed that the nutritional information of dried larvae contained:

42.1% crude protein
34.8% ether extract (lipids)
7.0% crude fiber
7.9% moisture
1.4% nitrogen free extract (NFE)
14.6% ash
5.0% calcium
1.5% phosphorus

They are great for chicken feed! Look at all that calcium!

Are these chickens thinking "Yum?" or "Eww what is that?" I'm going for the former.
There is apparently a large industry and demand for these larvae! There are companies in the world who recycle all organic waste (including faeces) with these grubs, and in turn take these larvae and turn it into livestock feed. There are companies who make containers just for harvesting BSF larvae and you can even get them in Australia.

So, now I was all excited about my latest inhabitants of the compost bin. I took the kids out to look at the moving mass, and got excited about feeding them. I hoped that they would keep reinfesting my compost bin so that the biomass would go down and I'd get a nice lot of usable compost. I wished that I had some way to harvest the larvae for the chickens when they were bigger, but how would I get in there? It was scared I'd fall into the Aerobin trying to get them out. I guess I should just leave them there to reproduce and make more larvae for me, rather than feed them to the chickens all the time. But it would be rather cool if I could get them separated.

So that's the great thing about having a worm farm and a BSF larvae farm. The BSF larvae don't like cellulose from plant stems or cardboard and paper, but they love rotting vegies, fruits, and a bit of meat and dairy - and even onion and citrus. The worms however love to eat paper and cardboard as well as vegies and a bit of fruit (but not citrus or onion). You can't actually put the two together, because the BSF larvae will eat the worms out of house and home, and also the BSF larvae like it hot, but the worms like it cool.

I thought it was cool to see nature in action, but it was interesting when doing internet searches on the subject how many people thought it was abhorrent or unhealthy to have these larvae in your compost bin (and slaters too!) and ways to prevent them from proliferating in your bin. I can't think of anything more morbidly exciting!

It's now a thrill every day to open up the compost bin and have a look inside to see if the larvae/maggots are squirming around gobbling up yesterday's leavings. I can't tell you how great it is to know that my compost bin is doing the right thing! I've been collecting all my sister's kitchen scraps as well (since she lives close by) and I feel like I'm doing something good for the environment. I wish everyone would have a compost bin!

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Chicken Diaries - Week 4

I look forward to Mondays, because it means I can pop the chickens on the scales again!

Bubbles has put on a healthy 46g! However, I am having suspicions that Bubbles is a boy rather than a girl - more on that later.
Cacciatore has put on 47g - very similar to Bubbles. However, unlike Bubbles, I think Cacciatore is a hen.
Mary II has done well and put on a whopping 55g. I wonder if her weight gain will slow from now. She has been eating like a trooper, but she still refuses to eat from my hand. She's so funny - she is such a dobber. If one of the chicks is sitting on the edge of the box or on top of the cover, she will stand there chirping loudly. She also chirps loudly when she's got no food. I could have my hand in the box, with feed in my hand and everyone except her is eating out of my hand and she will stand at the feed box and chirp loudly and indignantly and won't stop until I put food into her feed box.
Spot is still the biggest and put on 46g - which seems to be a decent number. I also suspect that Spot is a boy.
They are quickly outgrowing their box, and I am looking forward to moving them outside where they will have more room to grow and forage. They are still spilling their feed EVERYWHERE and I tried to make this contraption out of a takeaway container partially sticking into the box to try to reduce the loss of feed, but it's not working that well. However it does hold a decent amount of food, so at least there is more for them to eat, compared to the small bowl they were eating out of before.

Over the past week, I have noticed a few things that make me think that Bubbles and Spot are boys.

1. Tail development and feathering.

Apparently girls feather faster than boys and you can see that in the pictures. Mary is very well feathered despite being the youngest. Also, Cacciatore has a longer tail and had feathers between her wings on her back before her siblings, Spot and Bubbles. I took some pictures here to show you the difference in their tail lengths.

You could argue that Mary has a short tufty tail like the "boys" but when you compare those from the same hatch, you can see they are clearly different.

2. Size

Bubbles has a big head, and so does Spot. However, it could be just their down because now that Spot's switching over to feathers now, his head looks a little smaller in proportion than before. Spot and Bubbles are also the two largest chicks. Also the "boys" had thicker legs than the "girls" though that may have been because they were also larger.

Last night was the first time I took their light away and left them without their heat lamp. They seemed to do very well without it, though it was a warm evening. My chicks are growing up!