Untimely broodiness – breaking the habit

In normal circumstances I welcome broody chickens with open arms (although given the manner of some of my broodies I mean that metaphorically as you would be lucky to get anywhere near them!) However during the late summer months, and in particular during July and August, it can be a real problem if you find a hen that drops.

Not only are these months amongst the hottest in the UK calendar that can make the hen house an uncomfortable environment for a sitting bird, they are when the breeding season is over for me and even if I have fertile eggs available I don’t want young chicks being reared by a hen so close to the weather turning for the year.

There are other reasons too why the broody is unwelcome at this time of year. Firstly it is when that nemesis of the poultry keeper, the Red Mite, is at its peak. You might not have a red mite problem but a broody sat on a nest in Red Mite season can be an absolute magnet for these and other external parasites that can all too easily knock a bird out of condition. If this happens earlier in the year then there’s usually ample time for the hen to recover and recondition, but in August the moult, and the winter, are just around the corner and the bird should be ranging, building up reserves for what’s coming rather than depleting energy stores wasting her time sitting around on an empty nest.

This is when you need to deploy the Broody Buster.

Physiologically, a hen is designed to brood eggs as part of their reproductive process and the cycle of brooding in chickens is approximately 21 days from the point when they first start to incubate to hatching. During this time she will rarely leave the nest other than to quickly feed and drink. Her preening, dust bathing and feather care will also be curtailed and she will lose weight, lose condition and potentially pick up external parasites.  If the eggs are fertile, and hatch successfully, the hen will leave the nest and care for her brood and also start to care for herself again. As such, the 21 day period is survivable for the hen and should not have any adverse impact on her long term health. However, if a hen is left to brood with no prospect of a successful hatch there is a significant risk she will remain broody for much longer than the 3 week period and in doing so damage her health (aside from it inducing other hens in the flock to become broody).

Brooding is primarily the desire to nest; incubating and hatching is secondary, shown by the fact a hen will brood fresh air if her internal switch is flicked. In order to break this behaviour it is necessary to place the hen in a non-nesting friendly place. The quarantine cage is an ideal piece of kit to use. First remove the plastic tray and place it on top of the cage as a roof (if the base is not removable then simply turn the cage upside down so the base now acts as a roof). Place the cage on two bricks in an exposed but shady outdoor position. Add food and water, and then place the hen in the cage. This can be done within the flock enclosure or away from the main group. The hen will protest and this is when a battle of wills takes place between the keeper and the hen. She will not like being unable to nest and will want to return to her favoured location. She will, however, settle. If, after a couple of days, her behaviour seems more normal (pre-broody) she can be returned to the flock. If she again becomes broody then repeat the process for a few days longer this time. Eventually she’ll lose the desire to nest, at least until the next time.

It might seem a little harsh but it can save a lot of heart ache and hard work.…. at least until the next time she growls at you from the nest box.

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Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens questions the viability of free range egg production in avian influenza high risk areas – Farming UK News

This might not be what people want but I can’t deny the logic behind the fact that if you can’t free range then don’t free range. It’s up to you to decide if that means don’t keep chickens, or do keep them but in a contained environment.

“UK’s Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens has said that egg producers in some higher risk bird flu areas should consider whether or not to continue with free range in future”

Source: Chief Vet Nigel Gibbens questions the viability of free range egg production in avian influenza high risk areas – Farming UK News

More sugar coating of egg production – aka Alternative Facts

So…fancy some alternate facts? Read this emotional ‘plea’ to ‘save’ spent hens. They are barely a year old and looking for new homes Source: Hens could be slaughtered – unless people don’t come forward to offer them new homes – Coventry Telegraph

Yep, you read it right, farmer goes and buys 5,000 hens, puts them in a system where once they reach that ripe old age of around 72 weeks they are so desperately in need of a rest from laying eggs and want to moult that they slow down layning and therefore cease to be economically viable so get killed

It is the nature of that farming system. The ‘product’ or should we say livestock consequence is referred to as a ‘spent hen’. The value of a spent hen is around 10-30p per bird. All will go for processing returning a small payment of at least £500. Not much and but it is how millions of hens are disposed of because that is the nature of commercial egg production. Sell them all for £2.50 and you make a tidy £12,500 instead. Sure not all of them will get sold via that channel but sell 1000 and you get £2,500 plus the £400 for the remainder to be sold as ‘spent’, a far more tidy outcome for the disposal of a by-product of egg production.

I know I’m preaching to the converted if you read this blog but for the sake of the hens, poultry keepers and the industry as a whole, lets have a bit of transparency and stop inferring the producer is anything other than complicit in the fate of such animals and start reporting the actual facts.

And if you feel you might have read this rant before by me then you are not wrong… it was almost a year to the day that a similar story appeared in a paper and I blogged on it then

 

 

Farmers left with fowl problem as consumers flock to free range eggs

3eggs

 

I was interested to read the below article in the i paper particularly as it resonates with many of the articles I have written on the subject over the years in titles like Country Smallholding, Fancy Fowl and even the Guardian back in 2012

 

“Free range egg sales have reached the same level as eggs from cage-kept birds for the first time as Britons’ appetite for one of nature’s ultimate pre-packaged food reaches record levels.   Data released by the UK’s £910m egg industry and the Government shows that 614m free range eggs were sold in the third quarter […] “

Source: Farmers left with fowl problem as consumers flock to free range eggs – The i newspaper online iNews

It puts a different perspective on the “free range” dilemma when it comes to consumers and the supply industry.

I recall some years back a reader contacting me with what is quite possibly one of the most difficult poultry posers I’ve had in a while.

The reader had been looking at the food they ate and in particular eggs as they were concerned about the production method. They had only recently learnt about the standard practice of culling millions of day old male chicks as part of the rearing of laying pullets for egg production and wanted to know of any way in which they could purchase more ethically sound eggs. As the correspondent said “if the egg production method hurts my conscience the only way is to not eat eggs but I need to know first before I make that decision”

In a nutshell if you buy eggs from a commercial supplier then you are buying into the culling of the male chicks at day one.  Also just so I’m balancing it out, if you buy off gate then you could potentially be also buying into the same destruction of the males at day one if that seller is using hybrids (these are sex-linked meaning the males are removed at day one).

The only answer is to source a poultry breeder who uses a dual purpose breed and therefore making use of the male birds that he/she breeds by fattening them for the table. These people are fully utilising the livestock they are producing.

 

Let sense prevail… incubators off.

As another breeding season draws to a close I find myself looking back over my hatching records, and the cross section of growers I have on the go. In front of me on the wall is a ‘post-it’ note that states “No Eggs To Be Set After End Of May”. It is in my son’s handwriting, and to be fair it’s there for a good reason and acts as growerssmy annual reminder.

For too many years I’d still have my incubators whirring away in August, September and even early October only to find myself ruing the day I set the eggs. Why? By November and December the resulting hatchlings have outgrown their indoor facilities and need to go outside, but outside its cold, wet and muddy. Hands up if you too have learnt that lesson only to forget it the following year?

 

As a poultry breeder there is a constant temptation to set eggs.

 

 

 

In some yearOwlbeard-White-Day old 1s I’ve had hatchlings popping out everywhere, and it’s been a bumper season for sales, and so I’ve kept hatching well beyond my common sense threshold. The risk is though, you see it as the poultry equivalent of making hay whilst the sun shines, the trouble is ‘making hay’ is a harvesting event, setting eggs is more like sowing seeds. As a gardener you read the label, it tells you when to sow and when to harvest. You don’t get that warning when breeding poultry, so in many respects the note acts my label.

Leghorn-Brown-Day old 1 (640x451)

He wrote the note I think primarily because he too ends up having to help out and when the weather is poor, pushing a wheelbarrow along a path with 6 inch of mud on it, whilst the wind successful empties the contents of said barrow across the paddock, is a spirit sapping task even for the most happy-go-lucky individual.  I’ve written about it before but the winters at the moment seem to be more mild and more wet, with occasional unpredictable extremes such as having a BBQ in March one year only to be under 3 feet of snow the same month the following year, and as such I’ve shifted my breeding plans at least for the time being. I’ve shorten the window of time for setting eggs, and lengthened the period of time the males are apart from the females…… and I have to say I’ve found it altogether more manageable.

As such sense is prevailing and this rather faded post-it note has served me well. It has also meant I’ve had more time in the summer to just enjoy watching the youngsters growing outdoors on the grass, rather than spending hours indoors covered in dander and dust dealing with day olds. You never know, I might even venture towards a summer holiday one year!

 

Race is on to rehome thousands of chickens (to increase profits?)

“CAN you make sure these chickens do not fall foul of the slaughterhouse and give them a new home?”

Source: Race is on to rehome thousands of chickens (From The Argus)

Yep, yet another pile of misinformation with cracking quotes like “Legally hens cannot be kept on farms for longer than 78 weeks because the quality of the eggs fall and the shells become thinner” and yet rehoming the hen is legal and in it’s also legal to sell the eggs they produce “off gate” to any old Tom, Dick or Harry.

Can someone please show me the law that states a commercial laying hen is illegal and must be slaughtered at 78 weeks of age?

So what’s the truth?

One truth is that the consistency and quality of the eggs being produced will be reduced result in an impact on the profit so the industry regards the hens as ‘spent’ (read, not economically viable)

Another truth is that at 78 weeks of age the hens will be heading into their first full moult. During this period they will not lay and consequently they will cost money to feed whilst delivering no product. That’ll be not economically viable again then I guess.

And then there is the one massive elephant in the room… the very industry tugging your heart strings to rescue the hens from slaughter is the very same industry that consigns them to that fate from day one by the structure of its supply chain.

Oh, but let’s not forget the little bit of maths

9,000 ‘spent hens’ will at best attract 50p per bird when sent for slaughter so according to my maths that will bring in £4,500

If however 9,000 get rehomed at £3 a bird then that brings in £27,000. A tidy profit indeed.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about whether the story exhibits compassion and mercy or contradiction and money.

What goes in must come out – the blindness of backyard poultry keepers?

 

Smack your chick up?

Smack your chick up?

I’m quite vocal at times about the contrast between commercial poultry rearing and small scale or backyard keeping. I can be quite damning about some the legislation because I’m a great believer that in a large majority of cases one size doesn’t fit all. In fact the concept of one size fitting all seems to stem from the issue that pragmatism and scalability get side-lined. This is either because they are too expensive or are only relevant to ‘the little people’ who, by definition, are irrelevant in the grand scheme of the poultry world!

It follows on then that given my documented opinions I am sometimes challenged by people as to whether my attitude stems from a belief that small scale poultry keepers know better than the big boys and the authorities, or whether I’m just an outspoken idiot. I guess when I put these commentaries out there then it’s only to be expected that someone is going tackle me about them, I mean I’m hardly the Jeremy Clarkson of the poultry world (and have no intention of punching the Editor of Fancy Fowl) but I do realise that if you voice an opinion you are unlikely to find everyone is in agreement.

So. Do we know best? No, we don’t. I for one though do know that when it comes to livestock whatever you put into it needs to either come out again, or you better be very sure it has no consequences staying within the animal, and this is certainly one area where I think a number of small scale keepers and the Fancy can be found at fault.

It’s not so much the food stuffs used in this instance (although obviously there are issues that need to be addressed on that point) but the regime of chemicals and drugs that get administered and applied willy-nilly. There’s many a poultry keeper I’ve spoken to who decided to keep chickens because they had become concerned over the welfare of the livestock used to produce meat and eggs. Some were uneasy about the cocktail of antibiotics and vaccinations that were being administered to the chickens that supplied the high street, and this led them to rear some of their own birds. By the same measure I’ve spoken to and heard of many more backyard poultry keepers who seem to have forgotten that Betty the Hen is in fact ‘livestock’ and therefore falls under a different category to ‘pet’. Being blunt this means the stuff you squirt all over your cat to prevent biting insects can’t be applied to your chickens unless the label specifically says so. This is because ‘cat’ isn’t something you see on the supermarket shelf. By the same measure injecting your chicken with a ‘cure’ that keeps you dog fit and healthy is also a bad call, on account of the fact your dog doesn’t lay eggs for Sundays full cooked breakfast.

And then there are those I encounter within the Fancy who apply all manner of unlicensed products to their birds whilst spraying industrial insecticides throughout their sheds to minimise the risk of disease and pests burdening their show winning flock. When I challenge them a defence of “ah but these are show birds” is offered but this isn’t a defence unless you have no intention of either consuming or selling on stock or eggs. Ultimately if these people release either eggs or birds from their flock then they are running the risk of putting something into the food chain that shouldn’t be there.

As a Kansas State University pharmacologist recently said, “what you don’t know about your chickens could hurt you and others”. People who use, administer and apply ‘off-piste’, under the counter medications and chemicals need to be aware that there are potential drug residues that could sit within the eggs and meat of the bird for an indeterminate amount of time. These people do exist too because if I for one had a pound for every time I heard “I use XYZ and look, my birds are fine, and none of them have dropped dead” then I’d be able to afford a few rounds at the pub for sure.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I might be outspoken about what I consider to be daft when it comes to the application of legislation surrounding what can and cannot be fed to poultry, but this is because I’m trying to apply common sense, pragmatism and scalability. However, when it comes to the control of medications and chemical treatments then there are sound reasons why they should not be used around livestock. This is because of the risk to the food chain, so unless you can genuinely claim to “know best” then be aware you could well be inadvertently dosing our food chain with fluoroquinolones , phenylpyrazoles and all manner of lethal concoctions.  Eat that.

Review of the Year: Ten of 2015’s Biggest Poultry News Stories

Even if you only keep a few birds as pets or for an egg supply for the kitchen it is worth keeping up to speed on what is happening within the commercial side of our ‘hobby’

c/o The Poultry Site

CHRISTMAS SPECIAL – An editor’s selection box of some of this year’s news stories that have had the biggest impact on poultry production and trade around the world.

Source: Review of the Year: Ten of 2015’s Biggest Poultry News Stories – The Poultry Site