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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Chook Heaven

My friend wrote to me asking for help with her chooks. They hadn't laid an egg since December in spite of the best of care and conditions. I thought some of you dear readers would be interested in my reply. It has turned into quite a chapter on chooks, so here goes!
Hi Sall, 
Six months without eggs, that's tragic, whatever could be their excuse? First, to cover all bases I will outline the needs of a chicken. I said chicken for American readers. Better define the
 life stages of a hen first: In Australia, a chicken is very young, . It is fluffy and  hasn't fully feathered up.
Under organic standards for meat birds, your stock should come from day old chicks, week old for layers.This is because antibiotics are fed from day one in commercial operation.  After 6 weeks the chicks have grown their hard feathers and can leave their mother's  nest ( or the artificial equivalent ....the heat lamp).
hen on nest in clucky hen coop made by Bee
We call a newly feathered fowl a teenager here at Merri Bee Organic Farm, but officially it is a "started pullet", then a " grower", then at 6 months , a point of lay pullet, then a "layer"  or  chook . An "old boiler" is one who has past her prime as a layer. Now in commercial egg production, that is at just  18 months. We don't retire our fowls to chorizo or soup till about 4 years and many are  far older, but shame on us. You should really replace your chooks every 2 years for best production. 






Back to describing
 chook heaven.  What is it like, living the dream, if you are a chook?

 Bear in mind, modern fowls descend from jungle fowls in Asia.
mother hen and pullets

Being able to jump down from your secure perch early in the morning to catch and devour the protein rich fauna still moving about in the wet herbage is important. As we all know, the early bird gets the worm.
 As the sun climbs higher, the shade of trees and under-story plants, again rich habitat for insects, is a must. Living on the edge of a food forest would be ideal. As Bill Mollison says, create edges wherever you can. To peck ones fill from fresh green plants is vital, and as always a diversity of plants is best. In winter,  pampered poultry  have access to silver beet /chards , kale, cabbage, chicory,  lettuce, endive, parsley and pasture. Pasture consist of no less than 80 species for prize race horses, as highlighted by Peter Andrews in his book "Back from the Brink". Heavenly fields would contain the perennial grasses  with huge root systems: cocksfoot, phalaris, fescues tall wheat grass, kangaroo grass. Very  nutritious herbs with deep tap roots to bring up minerals from the deep include dandelions, marsh mallow and the all important comfrey, chicory and alfalfa. Scarlet runner  and choko are 2 perennial climbers which also die back in winter but come back for 7 years.
comfrey
Alfalfa or lucerne. Its roots go down 6 feet. 
These plants may die down in winter in cold climates but will power away in spring and  like the perrenial grasses , will stay green with minimal summer rain or irrigation.  The legumes will feed your fowls and your grasses , so look to clovers, trefoils , vetches, and again alfalfa or lucerne. Annual legumes like Broad beans, peas and lupins , nitrogen fixation nodules as well as  store-able protein.  In our hell dry summers, a mix of kale, amaranthus, marsh mallow, millet, sorghum , and sunflower seem to survive in the dust somehow.
 Sorrell and purslane are useful summer "weeds", the purslane being one of the richest sources of omega 3 oils besides flax or linseed which should always be sown in autumn for the fowls and menopausal women. With the first rains, broad cast the  annual cereals ( wheat, rye, barley etc), and mix in peas and lupins for protein and nitrogen fixation. In spring sow annual beans such as borlotti, snake bean , kidney , navy and the climber/ soil improver lab lab. They will do well in summer if they get their roots down in spring before the big dry. Lastly, pumpkin is important for its zinc rich  seed, so when you bung on some roast veges for tea, remember to put the seeds in the kitchen " chook bucket." I also put any compostable waste in there. They love trawling through for treasures such as macadamia nut meats clinging to shells, slaters etc and in the process shredding our paper waste.
Biological Paper shredder at work. If no rain , a light sprinkle with a hose will generate furious shredding  activity. Note the little gates in the corrugated iron which lead out to vege garden beds surrounded by cheap bird net. Its cheap but we are always sewing up the holes made by (we suspect) rats.


Of the tree crops useful to poultry Acacia has got to be essential as it's seed has  protein contents of 18%, is abundant on the ground under trees in high summer , easily collected and stored if you really want to, and the trees are fast growing shade and shelter .   Ever-lovin  Tagasaste , siberian pea tree mulberry and sea berry rank equal to the acacias. I can grow pigeon peas for a few years but frost usually takes them out well before they die of old age at 6 years. You will find many of the plants mentioned above in our seed catalogue http://merribeeorganicfarm.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/merri-bee-organic-seeds_3190.html

Acacia Victoriae  has particularly big seeds. 


 According to Juliette Levy in her Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable, a mixture of dried stinging nettle, kelp and comfrey is a stimulant for egg production . I reckon even the feather dusters may start laying eggs on this mixture. 
In addition to the natural diet described above, the chook needs a dry area for dust bathing ( you can add ashes, dried leaves of insecticidal plants such as eucalyptus, southernwood and wormwood  to their dust bath for added protection against body lice /mites/. ) and ad- lib access to shell grit ( or powdered lime stone). Yes you can dry their eggshells out and crush them and add to the shell grit. We don't feed fresh egg shells because it may encourage egg eating, and \ if you have dirty eggs or none at all, suspect an out break of this. Any chook you catch in the act  should be despatched immediately, no buts. This vice is easily taught to other chooks and before you know it it will become far cheaper to buy your eggs from someone else! 
Water of course  is the most basic need  and going thirsty will definitely stop egg production if not kill your fowls. Bear in mind that chooks will not enter bright sun to access water  so in summer, water must be in the shade and access to it must remain in the shade throughout the heat of the day . Automatic watering devices are a must really, and cleaning off  the dark green algae that always grows in the water container now and then is only fair to them .
 You won't get any eggs if a fox eats your chooks so again, a statement of the bleedin' obvious: Lock your chooks up at dusk in a dog and fox proof enclosure. Don't listen if someone tries to tell you foxes wont swim across a moat to get your chooks, they do . See my earlier post on this blog http://merribeeorganicfarm.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/raising-chickens.html

Other predators in our area include the wedge tail eagle and the chudditch . It is commonly known by two other names, the western quoll and the western native cat. This species has become endangered due to loss of habitat and increased predator activity. Fires account for much of the habitat loss. The chudditch can be found in the Jarrah Forest located in south Western Australia, the population of the species in that location is estimated at 3,000 animals. This species is regarded as the largest marsupial predator located in Western Australia.
Goannas
will eat eggs and this can be a real problem in January around here. We have transported one daily visitor by car to far off forests but either he /she or another one in its place comes back every day to eat eggs and sometimes to chew the leg off a chicken!  Pogo is a cute little silky bantam that lost a leg in this very manner in her youth.

Look Sal, this one has me stumped. Old chooks should give you one egg a week unless they  are fully geriatric or in their annual moulting period. The moult  is obvious, they go around looking shocking with only half their feathers for up to 8 weeks. This usually occurs in mid winter, but flocks take turns moulting we have found. Each flock should have a rooster for protection and ideally should be no larger than 25 fowls. Then the pecking order is established and no daily squabbles for supremacy occur as happens in larger flocks where there are too many chooks to recognise and know! So, firstly, are they laying at all?  I want you to check the distance between pelvic bones of a few of your lazy  chooks . If you can insert 2 fingers between these bones , the chook will lay soon or is going off the lay. If you can insert 3 fingers , she is a good layer in fine form.  If only 1 finger will fit, she is soup mate.  Other signs of a non layer are:
* you see her going to bed early and getting up late 
* she has a small pale coloured comb
* is fat and lethargic. 
If  your chooks look like non layers, try adding kelp to the feed and  increasing protein in the ration. I believe the chook food you are buying is organic so we are safe from GM rubbish there,  but a protein hit like milk, meat , insects legumes may be needed . I understand your girls are very lucky and have free range . I do hope the land has never had organophosphates or organochlorines applied which hang around forever and would minimize insect numbers and of course contaminate your eggs with pesticide residues. These OC's and OP's lodge in our body fat and in the fat of egg yolks and accumulate as they do not leave the body easily, but I am sure you know that. Everyone running chooks, cows or pigs and eating their products should ensure their land is clean of pesticides by a soil test on day one. Sheep, not so bad but the above mentioned critters eating habits mean they ingest dirt. 
Just as awful to contemplate as a persistant pesticide residue is the only other thing I can think of: human poachers??? Long shot I should think. 
Anyway, get back to me with any more observations and I will keep thinking. 

If you are interested in attending a workshop on keeping back yard chooks for eggs and meat , where we will go into even more detail in a very hands on way,  please email me and register your interest. 



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