Raising chickens and looking after poultry.

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Raising Chickens and Poultry:

Housing:


To keep your chicks healthy, they need light and airy, but draught free housing, lined with something like sawdust, rice hulls, or my favourite - sand, or some other non slippery surface. They find newspaper, straw and dried grass a bit hard to walk on at this age.

This bedding material needs to be changed regularly. Every three days at least, this avoids diseases like aspergillosis and Coccidiosis, major causes of droopy chickens and their subsequent death. The sides of your container should be at least 30 cm high to stop chicks from flying out.

Additionally, it is a good idea to cover the top with a mesh that will keep pet, cats, mice and rats out. Your box or container should not be too big as the chicks can stray and not find their way back to the heat, food or water.

Heating:


When you get your chicks home, they need to be kept warm. This is true for chickens of any age as moving is stressful and a day or two in a warm dry spot will help settle them in. Baby chicks would normally have a mother hen to nestle under, but an electric light bulb will do the job.

A 40 to 60 watt bulb is a good size and two sources is always better than 1. If you have nothing else, use a reading lamp, with an incandescent bulb, over them (not a fluorescent one which generates no heat!).

It should be placed about 20-25 cm from the bottom of their box. If it is too hot for them, they'll all move away - too cold they'll huddle together, so adjust the height of your heat source to allow an even spread of chickens underneath it.

You will know if they ae happy and comfortable as they will be active and peeping to each other all the time they are awake. Unhappy baby chicks will shout, bawl and make a racket.

Feeding:


The best feed for chicks and young birds up to 8 weeks old is chicken crumble, sometimes also called Chicken Starter or chick crumb. This is anywhere from 18% to 21% in protein and provides a balanced diet to allow for good growth in chickens.

If you are dead set on organic type feeds, avoid crushed oats or rolled oats as this may cause bowel problems. The major feed requirement is protein and some breeds need more than others.

Canary mix may be OK, but may still lack some of the vitamins and minerals needed for strong growth.

Green vegetables like silver beet and spinach or a clump of grass should be provided regularly too.

Many breeders use Turkey Crumbles, which contain around 24% protein (You may need to add an anti-Coccidiosis medication to this mixture or to drinking water to guard against this disease). The problem with all these propriety mixes is that to boost the protein level it is usual to add meat meal. Given the world wide concerns about BSE and Foot & Mouth Disease, we try to avoid meat meal in the diet of our poultry to prevent such diseases entering our food chain.

Other chooks:


Keep older chickens away from chicks as they will bully them and may even kill them until they are big enough to escape and hide - rarely before 10 weeks - and fend for themselves.

Large breeds move more slowly than smaller layer breeds and have little chance when cornered by a hen or rooster in a nasty frame of mind. Chickens are also best kept in groups around the same age to prevent bullying by older birds.

Bullied birds become stressed and are more prone to disease, so freedom from this form of stress can be as significant as other health factors. Sick birds will be stood on or bullied too, so it is always good practice to keep sick birds separated until their health recovers (apart from the obvious reasons to avoid spreading disease by contact with water, food or faeces or dander).

Poultry Fertility:


There are many factors that influence the fertility of eggs used for hatching. Fertility depends on the hen but also the vigourousness of roosters, their feeding and genetics

Whilst it is quite obvious that the female plays a vital part in the fertility of hatching eggs, an overlooked factor can be the fertility of the male.

In-breeding and selecting breeding birds from a small pool of stock, as often happens with dwindling numbers in rare breeds, are two factors that can influence fertility and cause it to fall. When birds become very closely related, it is usually time to seek outcrosses of other strains of the breed to maintain a vigorous and hardy breed. Early signs of poor fertility traits are birds failing to hatch or birds which are weak and do not live beyond a few days or week.

Good health:


Breeding stock (in fowl, guinea fowl and turkeys) should be maintained on a diet that has at least 16% protein and probably closer to 18% for the light breeds.

Minerals and vitamins are essential and deficiencies in these can occur without being obvious when the birds green pick disappears in the dryer months. Add extra vitamins to the feed each second day to keep breeding stock healthy. Black sunflower seed and lucerne meal are excellent for adding oils and essential vitamins.

It is also important to worm you birds regularly (every few months).

As fat hens lay fewer eggs and are more stressed, keep your feeding regime sensible. Fowl of average size need no more than 125 gm of quality feed daily, so keep your hens and roosters lean for best results.

Healthy birds will be active, have bright combs, stand erect or alert and be producing firm stools. Constantly runny stools are a sign of worm or Coccidiosis infestation and should be fixed quickly to avoid bowel tract damage.

Looking after chickens in Autumn:

Birds Moulting:


During Autumn all birds begin to moult (except those which have hatched this season). They lose lots of feathers from their backs, necks and the sign of a good layer is that they may go very bald all over (so it's said - who knows!).

Moulting birds need lots of protein in their diet to grow new feathers, so don't drop the protein level of the roosters diet any more than you would the hens. Hens stop laying at this time, as they can't put protein into laying eggs as well as into new feathers, so the feathers win.

Many rooster go into a bit of shock and lose condition very fast. They rarely have to pull protein from their bodies to grow feathers, so they are very stressed by all this. Keep their diet well stocked with protein, vitamins and trace elements. As sunlight begins to be a bit sparse, vitamin D will be needed as well, so a bit of cod liver oil is a good boost.

The Coming Cold and wet:


As Autumn extends into winter, birds can become stressed by the cold (especially if they are still moulting and don't have a full feather coating to keep warm). So provide a shed or pen which is warm, dry and not too drafty (they need fresh air still). Watch for signs of droopiness and medicate if need be.

Wet conditions increase the stress for fowl as they need dry feathers to keep warm. Turkeys display a moderate tolerance to wet conditions. Ducks and Geese love the wet, but even they can be "wet through" if they lose condition and lose oil from their feathers. Muscovy drakes are particularly vulnerable to cold and wet conditions.

Diseases:


Changing weather conditions can cause stress in birds. Birds become sick when they get stressed. It is not the only cause of illness, but is a big factor, especially in times of weather changes.

Commercial breeders solve this problem by providing a temperature controlled environment all year round for their birds. Sniffles and colds are common and can be avoided buy the provision of adequate housing.

Have the birds sleeping quarters well prepared to avoid stress. Warm pens with clean dry litter is essential. Change litter frequently (weekly if need be) to keep the roosting area dry. Birds will often roost here during the day in inclement conditions. If birds begin to look droopy, stress may be setting in and medication should be administered to avoid increases in internal parasites (worms and the Coccidiosis protozoa).

Culling:


Get rid of all the birds that are not needed for breeding (unless they hold sentimental reasons for their presence). Cull out unthrifty looking birds, and birds that do not comply with the standards you have set, be they for show or utility purposes. A normal sized fowl eats almost a 40kg bag of feed a year, so they are not cheap to keep. An unproductive bird eats as much as a productive bird, so there need to be good dollar reasons for keeping each unproductive bird.

Selecting Breeders:


Female breeders need to be good layers no matter what type they are. This almost eliminates any birds that are more than three from the fowl list and any that are over five from the geese, duck and turkey list. Unless they are the rarest of the rare, they will produce little beyond these years.

Roosters over three years of age are beginning to lose fertility and turkey toms over three are too big for the hens and can damage them easily when mating; so young birds are the best for all poultry species.

Chickens in Spring:

Eggs and Fertility:


With winter sniffles and wet weather over, the grass begins to grow and young roosters begin to show their mettle. It is a vitally important time for the breeding fowl as they need good vitamin supplies - usually double that found in layer rations.

Hens and pullets should not be allowed to grow too fat as that makes them poorer layers. A good average is 125 grams of quality feed a day (probably half of what those of you who "love" you birds feed them!). Quality feed is around 17% protein and contains trace elements, vitamins, calcium for shell growth and greens (lucerne meal is good if there is no grass around).

Watch the fertility of your eggs and change your rooster quickly if it is poor. Fertility may start at 20% but should rise to a normal level for the breed within a month - this could be from 60% to 95%.

Stopping Cluckiness or broodiness in chickens:


You may not want to stop you hens from going broody, but beware the one that goes clucking in the main laying area. If you allow it to stay there, you will end up with a massive pile of eggs under her which she cannot cover and which will come out at odd intervals. Don't let this happen.

Shift the clucky hen into and area of her own under a few eggs. In a day or so, place under her a dozen of her own sized eggs (preferably at night) and take the others away. She will now sit and hatch them all at the same time.

If you don't want clucky hens, place cluckies in an uncomfortable environment, not is a nice warm straw filled box - somewhere with a wire floor and with lots of greed feed to eat. They usually get over it in 3 or 4 days that way.

Getting the best during incubation:


Breeding birds need a diverse and nutritious diet to ensure the highest level of hatchability from eggs. Second year hens, which lay larger and better eggs for hatching can be used where achievable, in spite of the fewer number of eggs laid by each. Eggs for hatching should be discarded after a fortnight, if they haven't been set.

Eggs are laid over a period of time and when the mother knows the time is right, she will begin to sit on them. She does this so that all the new babies will hatch at the same time, as incubation starts from the day the mother begins sitting; not from the day the eggs are laid.

Each day until the incubation begins, the mother turns the eggs to keep the nutrients inside the egg in contact with the "germ cell" and to ensure that the yoke sac does not stick to the inside of the shell. Eggs are kept at around 18°C in normal conditions, so if you are collecting them before putting them under the mother, do not refrigerate them, as the 3°C inside the fridge is too cold and will kill the "germ cell".

When eggs are newly laid, they contain a protective coating, which acts as a protection against outside infection. Washing the eggs, will remove this protective layer and needs only to be done if the eggs are badly soiled, in case the "germ cell" is permanently damaged by contamination.

Eggs should be rotated regularly before they are set in the incubator or under a hen. This can be easily done if you store them in egg cartons and rotate the cartons frequently by turning each on its side and then on the other side the next time. Do this daily, at least, but more frequently is better.

If using a broody hen to hatch eggs, place a batch (between 8 to 12 eggs depending upon the size of the hen) in the nest and watch to ensure that the mother can cover all the eggs while sitting (remove any not covered, as these will slowly be rotated out into the cold, eventually destroying all the eggs).

You need do nothing more until the mother brings all her babies off the nest at the end of incubation. She will sit very tightly for the last 3 days of hatching. Do not lift her up at this stage to see how the chicks are hatching, as this will drop the humidity around the hatching chicks and dry them out. Then they will stick to the shell and die.

If you are using an incubator, set the temperature to the required level (usually 103°F or 39°C for still air incubators and two degrees C lower for fan forced incubators) and put water in the required area to maintain the humidity level correctly. It is safer to run your incubator for a few days before setting eggs in it to ensure that the temperature remains stable and the thermostat is functioning properly.

Before putting your eggs in the incubator it is best to mark one side with an "X "and the other side with an "O" and start them off by lying them all out with the X showing or all with the O showing. This way when you come to turn the eggs next time, you know which ones have been turned and which have not. Eggs should be turned regularly and at least twice daily (more often is better). The incubation period varies but is around 21 days for fowl (18 to 20 for some bantams), 28 days for geese, turkeys, guinea fowl and most ducks and 35 days for Muscovy ducks. See our table of hatching times for poultry eggs.

Candling involves shining a light through the egg and observing whether the embryo has formed or not. This is done at seven days after incubation has started. If the egg is fertile, you will see a small blob like a passion fruit seed (the eye and brain forming) and sometimes a network of veins and arteries branching from it. If the egg is infertile, it will be clear or evenly shaded throughout with no blobs at all. The infertile eggs should be removed from the incubator as they may contaminate the fertile eggs if left behind.

When the eggs are three days off hatching, cease turning them. This allows the young birds inside to orient themselves and it ensures that the incubator builds up sufficient humidity to stop the young from drying out and sticking to the shell as they hatch.

Young can be heard chirping / squeaking a day before hatching. This happens as they begin "pipping" and breaking into the air sack in the egg and then through the shell. At this stage, never open the incubator as the sudden drop in humidity and temperature can kill the young birds. Wait until all the young have hatched and fluffed up before you do so. This can be up to two days after the first young have hatched. The young will not die, as they have sufficient nutrients and water in their stomach to last 48 hours or so.

Avoid "chilling" young as they are removed from the incubator and put in the brooder. Many chilled young contract complications and die within a few days. Young turkeys that flip themselves over, should be returned to the incubator until they are a day older and their legs are co-ordinated.

Temperatures and humidity levels are approximates based on our own experiences. Temperatures during the last week of incubation can fluctuate quite substantially as hatchlings begin to moderate their own body temperatures, so ventilation holes on the incubator need to be adjusted to avoid overheating of eggs (see your own incubator instructions).

Do not open your incubator until the hatch has finished, usually around 1 days after the first young has hatched) as doing so can dramatically drop the humidity level inside the incubator and cause hatchlings to stick to the shell or suffer mortal chilling.