About Chickenstreet

Breeder of chickens, grower of peat free plants, gardener & writer. Author, blogger, blagger, chickeneer and some say gobby poultry pundit

Backyards, bias, and botulism

I read with interest this week the report in The Guardian of an undercover investigation into the UK poultry industry. It exposed some ‘dirty secrets’ of the process and offered some insight into the problem of campylobacter infections that over 250,000 Britons pick up each year.

It reminded me however of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago which seemed to slip by the popular press regarding poultry litter and botulism. Not in humans this time but in ruminants instead……

” Towards the end of 2012 there was a flurry of media activity regarding a report written in 2010 on the risks to the poultry industry that the inexperienced backyard chicken keeper presents. I was quoted in The Guardian as having said something along the lines of it’s not the risk the backyarder presents the industry but the other way around, and whilst that ‘sound bite’ attracted comments of support it does seem a little bit glib and throw away. My reasons were not in response to the RVA report but in fact related to another piece of news that came out on the same day which seemed to slip under the radar. This report related to use of broiler house litter on agricultural land and the botulism risk it presents to sheep and cattle.

I’m a gardener and vegetable grower and whether it’s a truism or not I’ve always been of the understanding that spreading poultry manure (litter) directly on to plants is a no-no as its too strong and risks burning the plants, and so I compost it for at least 6 months.  Most folks who garden or grow their own also compost their green waste, it is after all not waste but stacked full of useful nutrients that have come from the soil and so can be returned to the soil. Those of us who keep chickens also know that adding poultry litter to the compost heap not only helps accelerate the decomposition of the waste but can add significantly to the end product.  It seems a sensible way to recycle both the green waste and poultry litter into something useful, and let’s face it poultry can produce a lot of waste.

The volume though is nothing compare with what would be produced on an industrial scale so what happens to that waste? Focusing in on broiler litter it would appear that up until recently the litter could be used as animal bedding! Now if you have never visited a broiler unit then might not be aware of the levels of stock and stock density in such places, and so you may not be aware that within the 1000’s of birds being reared it is quite possible that one or two individuals may die for whatever reason and effectively be trampled into the litter and go unnoticed. It’s also well documented that cattle and sheep exposed to broiler litter have an increased risk of contracting botulism if that litter contains decomposing poultry.

Checking the AHVLA quarterly report on potential food safety incidents January to March 2012 confirms 7 incidents of botulism were identified. Of these, 4 were directly attributed to the use of broiler litter as cattle bedding which resulted in a total of 270 cattle being exposed to a botulism risk and 11 cattle dying as a result. Aside from the fact that using one animals soiled litter as bedding for another seems most odd it is also alarming that this should occur given that DEFRA confirmed in 2011 that poultry litter is a category 2 animal by-product and that the use of it as a bedding for other animals is not an approved disposal method and anyone who does is at “risk of committing an offence under the Animal Welfare Act (England) 2006 if animals suffer unnecessarily or are caused harm as a direct consequence of such action.” It is in fact now also an illegal practice under the Animal By-Products (Enforcement) Regulations 2011.

The issue is obviously still a problem today despite the legislation as the AHVLA felt necessary to reiterate the point that poultry litter should not be used as animal bedding in their information note published at the end of October 2012.

The waste though still needs to be dealt with so what is the current guidance? Poultry litter can be applied directly to farmland in an unprocessed state as this is considered “low risk”. There are some restrictions though and if the land is pasture to be used for grazing then it cannot be grazed for 3 weeks after application, nor should it be cropped for feeding during that time period. It can however be cut for hay or silage production during that time.

So what of the other 3 incidents of botulism during that first quarter of 2012? These involved the exposure of 280 cattle of which 12 cattle were confirmed as having botulism and 9 subsequently died.

The root cause of each incident could not be pinpointed but it was suspected that the first was as a result of the cattle consuming a bale of hay containing a poultry carcass. In the second incident the AHVLA believed the source to be a carcass in a bale of silage that had been cut from a field adjoining a poultry unit. And in the third incident the AHVLA suspected the infection was as a consequence of the herd being “turned into a field where wash water from a broiler house had recently been sprayed and the field was also adjacent to arable fields where poultry litter had recently been spread”.

Bear in mind these are only known reported food safety incidents, it is distinctly plausible there are a number more that go unnoticed or unresolved.  By the same measure it would be equally sensationalist of me to highlight a major concern over such a relatively small number of reported incidents, and to not add that there are many industrial units that follow procedure in repeatedly checking broiler houses for carcasses as well as repeatedly screening the removed litter for evidence of dead birds. However the AHVLA have advised DEFRA in a letter printed in the Veterinary Record (May 2011) against the use of poultry litter on any grassland as “there is concern that the litter itself may contain the botulinum toxin, which could remain potent for many weeks”. Add to that the very real possibility that scavenging birds and mammals may pick up carcasses from fields spread with poultry litter (even prior to it being ploughed in) and carry them to adjoining fields and farms, then it’s easy to see the size of the issue and the concerns it raises.

So on the grand scale of things just how much of a risk do backyarders really present the poultry industry? They are a molehill in the mountain range of food production but perhaps it’s time their traditional techniques were engaged and explored and not battered when surrounded by industrial practices that contain so many question marks.”

I shall have to revisit the figures when the 2013 reports become available. It’ll be interesting to see if there have been any changes

Meanwhile you can read The Guardian report in full here

 

Quick Tip – Checking for Red Mite

Ok, the web is littered with commentary on red mite and how to deal with it. The crux though in my experience is catching it early. Spot it early on and you have half a chance of defeating it…. let it go unseen and you will rue the day, and so will your chickens.

If you are new to chicken keeping then you may not yet have encountered the poultry keepers Nemesis, the Red Mite. You may however have read all about it and have a good grasp of the pain in the proverbial it can be but unless you have actually witness the cigarette ash like droppings they leave, or that microscopic tickle as they crawl over your arm or through your hair, then you might well not know whether mite is there or not.

So grab a handful of drinking straws, tie them into a bunch and then place them in a dark corner of the coop or nest box.  When it comes to mucking out the coop each week remove the straws, blow down them on a piece of white paper and if the resulting detritus gets up and starts walking around then you might have mite to deal with.

Drinking straws can help in detecting red mite early

Drinking straws can help in detecting red mite early

Filming with Countryfile

 

I’ve been watching Countryfile pretty much since it started on a Sunday lunchtime back on the 24th July 1988. Why? Well I’ve always had an interest in the countryside and farming. In fact was grafting as a farm labourer back then so it’s always been one to watch for me.
The programme brief has changed significantly over the years and whilst those changes might not be to everyone’s taste it does cater for quite a wide ranging audience reflected in the fact that it got moved to a prime time Sunday evening slot back in 2009.
So why the blog? Early this week I actually got to spend two days filming for an episode due to be aired in July of this year and the conclusion I reached is that my impressions of what it must be like to appear on such a programme were way, way wide of the mark.

IMGP7440
IMGP7424


IMGP7402

I’m not daft, I realise it wasn’t going to be all caravans, make-up and directors chairs but what I didn’t appreciate is just how hard the presenters and crew work in order to put an item together and that the polished product we get to watch on the box hides the amount of effort and time needed to put it there.

Hats off to those both in front of and behind the camera and if anyone says you have it easy I for one will set them straight.

Yours
Worn out of Oswestry

 

***STOP PRESS: Now due to be aired 7th September***

(images c/o GBPoultry)

An alternative poultry wormer… at last

Whilst reading through the farming press recently I was very interested to read that MSD Animal Health has announced that, following a positive opinion from the Committee for Medicinal Products for Veterinary Use (CVMP), the European Commission has granted the marketing authorization for the veterinary medicinal product PANACUR® AquaSol (fenbendazole 200 mg/mL) for use in chickens.

Currently there are various ‘gut conditioners’ on the market plus a number of natural preventative options that can help control the worm burden your flock might carry, but in terms of actual worming products the backyard keeper is limited to Flubenvet, hence the announcement catching my attention.

I’ve encountered PANACUR® before when used with pigs but what particularly attracted me to this as a possible alternative for chickens is that it is administered via water rather than through feed. Why is this an advantage? Many of my birds free range, particularly once the breeding season is over and consequently I can’t monitor precisely what they eat. Subsequently ensuring the right dosage of worming via feed can’t be guaranteed. However as there are no other sources of water other than that which I put out then in theory I should be able to ensure complete coverage of the flocks if I use a drinker based wormer.

I’ve contacted MSD Animal Health to enquire whether the wormer will be made available in quantities suitable for the small scale or backyard keeper and they have still to finalise the details. More information is gradually appearing as I was perhaps a bit quick off the mark in following up the announcement and a more thorough piece of coverage will appear in the next copy of Country Smallholding

The ultimate egg cup?

Now there can’t be many people, even those with little or no interest in chickens, that won’t heard of or seen the Eglu produced by Omlet.  In fact so iconic is the design that there is one permanently exhibited the Victoria and Albert museum.  Furthermore to celebrate 10 years since its creation those constantly inventive individuals at Omlet HQ have added another product to their ever expanding range of poultry paraphernalia; and to be fair, it is in fact an essential piece of kit for any chicken keeper unlike the somewhat bonkers hi-vis jacket released last year. Fair play, it put the Omlet name Egg cupabout the place but I can’t say my birds liked wearing it as the video shows.

The Eglu Egg Cup though takes it all one step further. Not only is the holder for the soft boiled chuckie egg made from a scale model of the Eglu itself, but salt and pepper dispensers come in the form of two plastic hens sitting by the house and the run becomes a toast rack! Now love or loathe the popular plastic housing, or the occasionally barmy ideas that comes from the designers there, you can’t help but admire Omlets latest venture, and with Father’s Day not too far away I’m hoping one of my children might be reading this as I’ve not had a freebie sample (unlike the jacket…..)

Chicken nugget – The Sussex

LightSussex (2)

The Sussex has a long history and could be placed in either the table or the laying sections as certain bloodlines would fit those categories. It does however serve both functions well making it predominantly a dual purpose breed today. Initially developed in the 19th century, it is a heavy bird with a block like shape and comes in a variety of colours. Like the Rhode Island it has played an important part in the development of todays commercial hybrids.

It is a very calm breed of chicken and can become very friendly over time being quick to trust its keeper. This composed nature extends towards each other and given sufficient space it is possible to keep more than one male within a flock. A robust bird, it copes well with all weather conditions and is happy free ranging or within a fixed run. The hens are excellent layers producing a good number of eggs often during the winter too. They can go broody, and if so they are known to be good sitters and even better mothers.

Particulars:

Cock weight: Large Fowl 9lb (4.10kg), Bantam 40oz (1130g)
Hen weight: Large Fowl 7lb (3.20kg), Bantam 28oz (790g)
Region of origin: United Kingdom

Colour:
Plumage: Light, White, Silver, Speckled, Buff, Red, Brown
Eyes: Dependent upon plumage; brown, red, or orange
Comb: Single, evenly serrated
Feet & legs: Featherless, white

Egg production – Medium to High
Egg Colour – Tinted
Show classification –Heavy; Soft feather

 

Egg Packing, post or collect? – Hatching Guidance

When it comes to hatching eggs collecting them directly from the breeder is always preferable if you can as it not only enables you to meet the breeder and their birds but it also means that you can keep an eye on the eggs from the point of collection to the point they are put in the incubator or under a broody.

It might seem common sense but when you do collect the eggs make sure they are packed securely and are safe from rattling around on the journey home. Excessive shaking can addle the eggs or cause the air sac to become displaced. Also don’t leave them in a place where they might be subject to direct sunlight such as the front seat, or excessive heat such as a glove box or car boot as this can result in the eggs warming up and the incubation process starting or worse still, cooking the contents. In fact to be on the safe side it’s probably best they are place in a cool box if the journey is going to be a long one.

Of course having the eggs posted to you is always an option but you are then left in the lap of the seller and of the postal service (and potentially your own penny pinching!)  Firstly it’s down to the seller to pack the eggs properly. This is simple enough to establish, just ask them before you commit to purchase. There has, and still is the debate going on as to whether traditional packing in a box with plenty of padding such as straw of polystyrene chips is better than the custom built polyboxes.SAMSUNG In my experience it’s not which is better, it’s how the seller packages the eggs in each that counts. Ideally the egg needs a cushion against shockwaves from travelling to the egg if the packet is dropped or bashed. Eggs carefully boxed in a bed of polychips or straw will provide the cushion, as will using a polybox larger than the egg you will be packing but wrapping each egg in kitchen paper so it fits snuggly in the recess.

Next is the postal journey. I send my hatching eggs Express Deliver next day by 1pm. At the time of posting this blog it costs £6.95 to send a polybox of 6 average sized chicken eggs by next day delivery plus around 90p for the polybox, sticky tape and some brown paper to parcel up. It’s not unreasonable then in my view to charge at least £7.50.

I’m often asked to send the eggs first class as its cheaper (around £5) but I won’t. Ok it’s the buyers choice but I doubt they will be blaming their decision to pinch a few pennies as being the reason why the hatch rate was poor now will they?With cheaper posting there is no guarantee on the delivery timescales, it could be up to three days and you have absolutely no idea what conditions the eggs are being kept in. Basically all the factors you would be looking to mitigate when transporting hatching eggs go straight out of the window. At least with express delivery those risks are kept to an absolute minimum.

Finally, don’t forget the price of the actual hatching eggs too. Don’t expect too much from half a dozen eggs that cost less than half a dozen eating eggs off the supermarket shelf as no breeder would devalue their stock and the work they put into keeping them by selling them so cheaply; they would sooner give them away, or save all the effort and sell eating eggs off the gate.

So unless you are actually visiting the breeder, seeing their stock and collecting your fertile eggs in person then don’t expect miracles from a bargain 99p half dozen eggs that you paid £2.50 P&P on which spend a week in the post and arrive loose in an egg box parcelled in bubble wrap. You might be lucky, you might get a show winner in there but in the end, you pays your money and you makes your choice.

 

Hatching Responsibilities – have you a plan for the unwanted?

Hatching chicks via a broody or an incubator is fascinating. I constantly find it an amazing process both as a biological scientist and a chicken keeper, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a hatch (actually that’s not true, I’ve recorded the details of every hatch I’ve done but perhaps that’s more to do with my anorak collection than anything). In articles and talks I’ve done I’ve been an advocate of hatching birds and engaging in the whole process of rearing chicks to full grown adults; it’s a livestock experience which if well planned for, is accessible to anyone with even a small amount of garden. But by the same measure I do bang the drum on the key term – “plan”.

La Bresse cockerel, 8 weeks old to be grown on for the table.

La Bresse cockerel, 8 weeks old to be grown on for the table.

Before you even consider the concept of hatching little fluffy bundles to beautiful matronly egg layers you need to be aware of one key element; on average 50% of what you hatch will be male. It might sound patently obvious but it surprises me just how many people claim to be aware of that basic fact but hatch anyway, but with absolutely no idea or plan on how to deal with the inevitable surplus males.

Now you might well have spotted ‘gadgets’ that proclaim to be able to sex an egg (they do exist, I tested one and guess what, it was no more accurate than my random choices). You may even read articles about the Australian Brush Turkeys and the way these birds have the ability to manipulate the sex of the chicks that hatch through the temperature control of their incubation mound in what seems like a similar manner to reptiles. The later though are biologically different; they use temperature-dependant sex determination (TSD) whereas the turkey in question works on temperature-dependant embryo mortality meaning the heat of the mound can define to a degree which sex of chick hatches and which dies in the shell. There may well be similar technique that could be applied to the artificial incubation in chicken eggs but as yet I’ve not seen any evidence of it that could be applied successfully in a backyard situation.

And so back to the inevitable cockerels; what is your plan? Rehoming or selling on is possible but unless you have a particularly stunning blood line of a breed then those options are extremely limited. Selling them on accompanied by pullets is an option but unless you have significantly more pullets than cockerels you could end up selling stock you wanted to keep. The bottom line is that until the birds hatch you have no idea what the ratio of male to female will be, so face the reality – you are likely to need to either cull out the spare males or grow them on for the table (unless of course if you have an unlimited amount of land and housing to accommodate the extra chaps). Planning what to do is part of your responsibility when it comes to hatching and rearing chicks, as is caring for the chickens you bought on a whim when swept up in the ‘fashion’ for chicken keeping.

Ringing up your nearest breeder asking them to take on your unwanted birds is likely to be met with a polite ‘no thank you’ and many animal rescue centres are simply not geared up for poultry and could struggle to accommodate them. Worse still though is the increasing number of reports of birds simply being dumped. And if you think I’m making a storm in a teacup then speak to Raystede Centre For Animal Welfare who recently reported 12 hens and cockerel squashed into a box and dumped overnight at their premises. As their Chief Executive said, it’s not only irresponsible but also “a criminal act” as is chucking them over my fence in the hope I’ll not notice the extra three or four cockerels in the field.

So plan before you hatch and remember, with it comes responsibility for the welfare and future of every chick that appears.