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.

A Brief Appearance on BBC Midlands Today talking about Avian Flu

In case you don’t live in the Midlands area or didn’t get to see me pointing out of the anomalies in one country applying HRAs (High Risk Areas) and the neighbouring country not following suit.

 

My thanks to David for picking up on the story, it ran for most of the day and gave the issue and avian flu some much needed coverage

(it even fulfilled a life time ambition of mine by making it on to Farming Today on Radio 4)

Bird flu doesn’t care about borders even if we do – BBC News

Radically different approaches to bird flu lead to confusion at the English Welsh border. Read Dr David Greogry-Kumars (BBC 

Source: Bird flu doesn’t care about borders even if we do – BBC News

Detailed advice on the Prevention Zone controls in England from 28 February 2017 Avian influenza (bird flu) – GOV.UK

How to spot avian influenza (bird flu), what to do if you suspect it, measures to prevent it, Prevention Zones requiring birds to be housed, and recent cases.

Source: Avian influenza (bird flu) – GOV.UK

A Critical Incident Reflection from the Chicken Coop

Critical incidents are occurrences that let us see, with new eyes, some aspect of what we do. The critical incident in question is the outbreak of bird flu this winter, and whilst at time of writing we seem to be emerging, to some degree, from the strict prevention orders, it has given me a little time to reflect on what has just happened.

Reflection is something I’ve been taught and encouraged to do whilst studying for a Masters however I’ve recently found it useful to apply to the poultry breeding part of my life.

You simply ask yourself three questions, what happened, so what and now what.

What happened? – Europe, including the UK, was hit by bird flu over the winter of 2016/17

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So what? – It resulted in a prevention order being implemented in December 2016, extended, and then extended with modification possibly until April 2017. This required enhanced biosecurity measures to be applied and birds to be kept indoors or in covered runs to minimise the risk of contact with infected wild birds. Not a simple task for a poultry keeping regime that relies on a free range, outdoor livestock.20170221_084210

 

The winters also seem to be increasingly wild and unpredictable in terms of their weather and it is safe to say that a husbandry technique that is built around free range and pastured rearing of poultry doesn’t work in gale force weather.

 

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Now what? – In the short term my breeding programme is at best delayed, at worst abandoned for the 2017 season. My maintenance costs for the winter have escalated and I have limited stock available for the markets and auctions; not that there have been any to sell through due to restrictions on poultry gatherings, consequently my income from poultry for the year will be hit.

In the longer term is this really a one off. or will next winter result in the same problem or possibly the arrival of H5N9? I will assume that prevention orders will the occur in future years, and as it seems that “lock downs” are the easiest way for the authorities to minimise the risk of bird flu impacting poultry, then I will spend the summer months adjusting my husbandry regime such that I can fully free range in the summer (should there be no prevention orders in place), and I can contain the stock under cover during the winter months, should bird flu and the associated prevention orders reoccur.

It will be a different way of working and I suspect there will be more to consider than just the housing, however I’m not convinced that this is the last we will see of these types of prevention measures that we backyarders and smallholders have had to implement, so I encourage you all to look back and reflect in readiness for the next time it happens.

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

 

 

Avian flu prevention zone extended to 28th Feb – Press releases – GOV.UK

The Chief Veterinary Officer has extended a Prevention Zone to help protect poultry from avian flu.

Source: Avian flu prevention zone extended – Press releases – GOV.UK

UPDATE 6th Jan 14:30: for the full legal declaration read here https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/581957/ai-prevention-zone-170106.pdf

Just in case you needed a reminder, the lock down on poultry flocks and ban on poultry gatherings (auctions, shows etc) has been extendBPRHead2ed to 28th Feb. Needless to say this will have a significant knock on impact for breeders and small poultry businesses even if the order is lifted when the second deadline is reached.

Good luck to all my fellow poultry people, I hope you whether the storm at this critical point in our poultry rearing year.

Poultry gatherings suspended following avian flu case – Press releases – GOV.UK

Further measures announced to reduce the risk of avian flu spreading

Source: Poultry gatherings suspended following avian flu case – Press releases – GOV.UK

It is a huge shame that in precisely two weeks we have gone from preventative measures taken as a precaution, to an outbreak of AI, albeit localised, and then to the inevitable ban on poultry gatherings such as auctions, fairs and exhibitions.dsc_2618

It comes as no surprise, and whilst it is not something I would have wanted to predict at this time of year when we are only part way through the winter show schedule, there was always an air of closing the door after the horse has bolted, given the announcement a fortnight back.

That isn’t a reflection on the authorities, or those who have worked hard to come up with the most viable approach to the problem being witnessed on the continent. It is instead a sad a reflection of the knife edge on which we perch when it comes to disease pervasiveness and industrial scale global food production.

A ban on poultry shows is minor collateral damage from which the hobby will recover, however I suspect the same cannot be said of those producers whose livelihoods depend upon the livestock they grow for the food chain. The truth is, the more uniform and clinical something becomes the higher the risk that transmission will result in a total wipe out. If this were not the case then there would be many more dead wild birds being found with AI across our countryside.

Bird Flu and the Backyard Poultry Keeper

I recall the morning of the 7th of December 2016 as being much like any other at that time of year. It was dark outdoors as I filled the kettle and switched on the radio. The weather had turned slightly mild and damp after a nice spell of icy cold weather. I remember thinking we could have done with another week of the cold weather just to ‘clean the ground’. The poultry really do seem to benefit from seasonal shifts like that as opposed to the mild merge of muddy autumn into murky winter. Aside from that, they always look resplendent free ranging on a frosty, bright day.

Routine had the radio playing the Today programme on Radio 4 and it’s not every day that poultry makes it on to the news. No surprise then that myai-symptoms ears instinctively pricked up as the Chief Vet came on air and informed the reporters that due to outbreaks of a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza which is sweeping across Europe, DEFRA have invoked a precautionary “prevention zone”. This order required all poultry and captive birds to be kept indoors for 30 days in order to reduce the risk of possible infection occurring from domesticated birds coming into contact with infected migratory wild birds. Initially this only impacted England however within days Wales and Scotland quickly followed suit and the zone became UK wide.

ai-transferIt had been on the cards. I had been following the discussions taking place between the authorities and the industry during the autumn as I recall the spectre of the AI hovering over the country a decade ago. The impact that had still resonates, but for me it is not so much from an industry perspective, but from that of the backyarder and smallholder.

I haven’t done the maths but I suspect I wouldn’t be far wrong to say that 98% of the poultry in the UK is owned by 2% of the poultry keepers and as such a large element of the risk can be managed with a plan that works for a small minority of keepers. The reverse is, 98% of poultry keepers owning 2% of the poultry and these are dispersed and relatively unregulated and unmonitored.

ai-free-rangeWe are predominantly free rangers who view a chicken coop as a place where the birds roost and lay their eggs. as opposed to a building where the flock can be contained for 30 days, and there lies the crux. Precautionary prevention zones are sensible and far more desirable than an outbreak and the subsequent indiscriminate destruction of birds that fall within that biohazard zone, and I suspect that if the action is successful (measured on the basis of no infection occurring whilst the order is in place) then they will become a more frequent occurrence.

Commercial keepers of thousands of birds have the capacity to contain their flocks within the sheds has been analysed and generally agreed as a feasible approach but what of the small scale keeper?

DEFRA have state the “The Prevention Zones requires all poultry and captive birds, including backyard flocks and other captive birds, to be housed or, where it is not practicable to do so, requires steps to be taken to keep them separate from wild birds. If you keep your birds near your home, consider housing them in alternative accommodation, such as a garden building, a garage or redundant building that could be adapted to house your birds temporarily.”

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This is sound advice for those who have such buildings and DEFRA went on to say “Remember to check for, and remove, hazardous and toxic substances such as rat bait, and make sure the birds have access to water and somewhere to perch. You must also practice good biosecurity – for example disinfecting footwear and equipment and washing clothing after contact with birds.”

Victoria Roberts, one of Britain’s leading poultry vets, and fellow magazine contributor, when asked what action smallholders and back garden poultry keepers should take said “In its most pragmatic terms, ‘indoors’ means protection from wild bird faeces, so a covered run is better welfare for chickens than being shut in a dark shed. Free range hens will need entertainment if suddenly confined, such as branches for extra perching, vegetables hung up etc. to avoid conflict.”

One twitter user asked me if wire mesh over the top of the run would be enough to keep her flock safe. I reminded her that bird faeces would still be able to drop through the mesh and that a tarpaulin cover would prevent this, but to ensure it had slight tilt on it so that rain (and snow) could run off safely and away from the flock underneath.

Victoria has also echoed this point adding “The birds need to be kept in the hen hut until the keeper can construct a makeshift run that is covered.”

It is ultimately a case of common sense as this disease is no different than many in that it is spread through:

  • movement of poultry, people, vehicles and equipment between and within locations;
  • the introduction of birds of poor or unknown health status;
  • contact with other flocks;
  • using shared equipment and vehicles, which have not been effectively cleansed and disinfected;
  • contact with vermin or wild birds;
  • birds drinking from contaminated water sources;
  • birds eating contaminated feed;
  • unsatisfactory cleansing and disinfection of vehicles, sheds, feeding troughs and other equipment.

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The objective therefore is to remove, or at least dramatically reduce, the risk of your flock coming into contact with wild birds or their faeces. Here are some specific considerations for when a prevention zone is invoked.

 

Keep the flock indoors – if this is possible then it is the easiest option but observe the welfare needs of the birds closely by increasing your cleaning regime, providing additional items of interest for your flock, and observing a tight biosecurity plan to reduce the risk of infection being carried into the housing. It should go without saying but any proposed building must also take into account the importance of adequate ventilation.

Keep the flock runs covered – permanent indoor housing might not be possible it which case a cover over the run is needed. Small gauge mesh will only stop birds from entering the run and whilst better than nothing at all, a solid cover is far superior at reducing the risk. Consider erecting a solid lean-to on the side of existing houses, this could be a fence panelling for example, or adapting a fruit cage using tarpaulin. Creating temporary outdoor pens using straw bales and a tarpaulin roof with small gaps for light and ventilation is another option. Be aware though if bad weather is likely to be a problem, it may be necessary to erect a windbreak around your structure.

Keep moveable coops in the same place – if your birds are housed in moveable arks or tractor units then don’t be tempted to move the house to fresh ground. This will simply increase the possibility of your flock coming into contact with wild bird faeces.

Keep your access to the housing and run area to a minimum – by doing this you will reduce the risk of you contaminating the area with wild bird faeces you may have come into contact with elsewhere on your property

Keep your equipment clean – use disinfectant such as Virkon to keep equipment and footwear clean, and ensure the clothing you use when working with your poultry is washed after contact with birds.

Keep feed and water out of the reach of wild birds – make sure that drinkers are under cover and ideally put feeders in the coop. Avoid placing water in the house unless you are using nipple drinkers; regularly drinkers will get knocked over in any skirmishes in the coop.

Keep your birds contained – avoid unnecessary handling and movement of your birds on or off site, and where practical avoid visiting other poultry keeping establishments to reduce any possibility of cross contamination.

Keep a close eye on your poultry – if you have any signs of illness then seek advice from a qualified vet.

 

The 6th of Jan is when the restrictions are due to be lifted however time will tell if the pre-emptive action has paid dividends, but more over whether all 100% of the UKs poultry keepers have conformed and made their contribution to keeping the UK bird flu free.