The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
Chook Care in Autumn
Managing Poultry Organically
The husbandry of organic poultry, like the cultivation of organic plants is most likely to be successful where the methods adopted are those which mimic, as far as practicable the conditions that exist in the natural environment from which the birds or plants originate.
In the case of poultry their original natural environment was the forest floor in Malaysia, Burma or the Philippines and whilst controlled and occasionally accidental cross breeding have developed many variants, all species still inherit the basic characteristics of the original Red Jungle Fowl.
The domestic chook is a sociable creature that cannot tolerate isolation and is uncomfortable in flocks of greater than twelve to fifteen birds. Amongst hens there is a very clear 'pecking order' which once established is rarely disturbed and roosters protect the flock, find the food and generally improve social cohesion. Poultry are conservative in nature and dislike sudden changes in food or accommodation.
Whenever her hormones dictate the hen will become broody and the frequency varies enormously depending on the breed. All being well, fertilised eggs left under a broody hen will hatch in 21 days and it is usual to have this occur in spring or early summer so as to increase the chances of birds that will lay through winter when colder weather usually limits production.
Provided they are in an unstressed environment young hens start to lay six months after hatching and apart from the odd break for a day or so every fortnight will continue to lay for a year. Following this they will moult for about 8 weeks in autumn or 12 to 16 weeks if it occurs in summer. Stress may cause moulting at any time and the period of moulting is longer each year as the bird ages.
In the wild, chooks roost in the low/medium height branches of tree at night, selecting the same spot each time unless seriously disturbed. They prefer hidden nests in which to lay and for hygiene they need dust baths. It is not difficult to replicate these conditions for the backyard chook but because the area available is not limitless, hygiene becomes more important and special attention needs to be paid to the cleanliness of both the structure used for overnight accommodation and such things as water and bedding. Pine needles, dried tansy, lavender and pennyroyal mixed with the bedding will deter insects
Over-crowding needs to be avoided. In addition, unless the keeper is willing to sacrifice some of his flock to predatory animals and birds, as would occur in a natural environment, he needs to give some thought to security such as providing wire netting roofs over areas containing chicks and young birds.
In a free range situation domestic poultry only need a couple of cups of grain and access to grit as supplements to what they will find for themselves. Because of the lack of insects some meat meal is sometimes required in winter. Where the poultry is kept in a confined area such as a small run or a straw yard, grain hoppers suspended at chooks' eye level (to deter vermin) are required. In addition grit, household scraps and green feed are also necessary. In both situations clean drinking water is essential; each bird needs half a litre daily. The cost of food can be significantly reduced by growing crops especially for that purpose. This can often be integrated with the growing of conventional green manures such as lucerne, comfrey, clovers and oats and the occasional scattering of a packet of birdseed. Stored poultry food needs to be protected from vermin and one way of doing this is to mix it with dried leaves from plants such as neem, rosemary and white cedar. Other aromatic leaves such as melaleuca, tea tree and strongly scented eucalypts are also suggested.
Additional considerations for organic poultry keepers
Although he may try to replicate the natural environment, there are limitations to the poultry keeper's ability to do so which introduce problems he must somehow manage to overcome.
Alanna Moore: Backyard Poultry, Naturally: Bolwarrah Press
Meg Miller: Backyard Poultry, Organic Magazine Autumn 1985
Linda Marold: Chookwise Self published
A A McArdle: Poultry Management and Production Angus and Robertson
People who keep chooks usually have eggs in mind, but some are looking towards a more self-sufficient way of life, and others are interested in farming for profit. If you're thinking of keeping a few chooks at home, then read on.
How to keep them?
First decide on the way you wish to keep them. The free range system is OK for those with quite a lot of space. Here chooks can scratch among the stubble after grains have been harvested, cleaning up insects and weed seeds. A mobile house is provided in the field that is moved periodically onto another area. This way the chooks find their own food, which makes it cheap and they spread their own droppings which increases soil fertility. Unfortunately with this system the foxes may get fat and some eggs may be lost in clumps of bushes and in hedgerows. Another draw-back is that egg production is usually heavily reduced in winter.
A semi-intensive system is suitable for small holdings where space is limited. A permanent chook-house with access to at least two plots alternately is provided. The floor of the house is covered with straw and the hens are given scratch feeds in the straw in bad weather. Lights in the house can be used to ensure egg production in winter.
What chook to buy?
Pure breeds? First crosses? Hybrid crosses? Strain crosses?
Pure breeds, like the Rhode Island Red or White Leghorn breed true to type and are moderate egg layers.
First crosses, produced by the mating of two pure breeds. For example, a Rhode Island Red and a Light Sussex are a very good cross bred chook for small holders. As colour is sex-linked even day old chicks can be identified as male or female. Males are silvery white, whereas females are orange-brown. Generally speaking, first crosses are generally hardier, but it will be necessary to buy in new stock periodically.
The commercial hybrid has been developed from several different strains and breeds and this is by far the best for egg production. But they do not make good table eating and they need to be fed on commercial feeds. Also they are generally not as hardy in outside conditions.
What age to buy?
Day old chicks? Pullets? Point of lay?
Day old chicks are the cheapest way of buying stock, but by the time you have fed them for 20 weeks and sorted out the males from the females, the price consideration has narrowed considerably.
Pullets are female chooks between 8 and 20 weeks. They will be stronger and have no cockerels amongst them.
Point of lay is the most expensive way to purchase stock but muck less feeding time is required before egg laying commences, and of course, you do not have to wait for 20 weeks.
So, go ahead. Try keeping chooks and you will probably find it satisfying to be further down the track towards self-sufficiency.
Do check out some designs for suitable houses in which to keep them. Ideas and established methods can be obtained from The Australian and New Zealand Complete Book of Raising Livestock and Poultry by Katie Thear and Alistair Fraser published by Australia and New Zealand Book Company.
1. Consider replacements for early spring and summer laying. If buying chickens or pullets, remember that fowls should be of the dark feathered variety to cope with the coolness of the Southern Highlands.
2. The fowl house should be thoroughly cleaned out, perches and structural wood painted with oil to discourage mites. Litter material should be renewed. A cover for the front of the house should be organized, hessian. shade cloth. old match stick blinds are suitable to keep out the cold at night. These can be rolled up during the day.
3. Chooks should be wormed now. Add 1 dessertspoon of genuine cider vinegar to 4 litres of clean water every day for 7 days. Repeat every 2 weeks during autumn. Finely chopped garlic added to morning feed during the cold months will also prevent worm build up.
4. Inspect legs for scaly mite. Treat by painting thickly with oil (any oil olive or even sump) on a daily basis until the condition disappears.
5. Clean the yard thoroughly and ensure that there is good drainage. Sand spread in the yard also helps. Nests should be repaired, cleaned out, painted for mites, do this after laying has finished for the day. Put fresh lining material in the boxes.
With the lay of a property allowing for a small cell grazing approach, the introduction of a larger chicken flock could potentially add many benefits. As the pasture is improved to feed the cattle, additions in the way of beneficial herbs, can be included to the advantage of both chooks and cattle.
For the protection and control of the cattle and chooks in the system, electric fences would be used. The cattle could be controlled by moveable electric fencing and the chooks by mesh electric fencing.
Many herbs are available which will be chosen to be eaten by both of the main livestock, and also may interest the geese. The geese are a necessary input on the property as their capacity to act as a warning device is very important.
An additional animal could be a Maremma dog. These dogs are trained to guard livestock, whether it be cattle or sheep or poultry. As the need is to make this a profitable enterprise, the small cost of this addition should easily be paid for in the savings from fox and wild dog and cat attack on the geese and chickens.
Pasture and feed requirements.
If the chooks and cattle are rotated through a cell grazing system, there is a requirement for improved pasture.
Concentrating on the chooks, and touching on the requirements of the geese and the dog, will show an obviously very low requirement per chook or goose per day (no DSE figure is available) so their effect on the pasture would not be significant.
The feed for the dog could easily be catered for by using the rabbits or kangaroos that live on or visit the property.
The feed requirements of the chooks varies greatly depending on the age and the stage the chook is at. The adjacent table shows the requirements
Other vitamins and minerals are also required in very small measures. Grit in the form of soluble and insoluble salts is also needed to help with the digestion of the other foods as well as adding a good source of calcium to the diet. Without adequate calcium the egg production would be greatly reduced, as the eggshell would be weakened and also the bones of the hen would start to break down as she would compensate to ensure the viability of the eggs.
The climatic conditions of the Southern Highlands area are such that cattle, chooks and geese can prosper in late spring, summer and early autumn, but for the birds problems will occur during the rest of the year unless an adequate housing system is in place. If the boundaries of the property have been left in the natural condition with many trees and good general wind protection , the approach for cattle and poultry might be to add shelter-belts to protect some of the open regions.
One suggested system of housing is a moveable house, possibly made like an igloo/hot house with polypropylene tubes and solid plastic covers, metal and timber perching and a rigid frame for easy moving. As the purpose of the chooks on the property is to produce eggs, and at stages meat, it would not be logical to have them using energy to travel great distances to and from shelter. Also to be included in the housing would be easily transportable nests, as the chickens like familiarity of surroundings, especially for laying.
This system will work in the warmer months but as it cools, a permanent house, outside the cell, would be required to give the warmth and protection from wind. They require a temperature range of 10 C to 32 C (optimum is 21 C - 30 C), otherwise they can be stressed and possibly die. Wind chill factor has to be considered also.
The permanent housing has many specific design requirements, such as adequate ventilation, solid floor for easy cleaning, perches that are free standing to control lice and mites, watering, feeding and laying facilities. It would also need a way of being heated, whether by using passive solar design, or by housing the cattle under the roost, or in a connected building so their heat flows through. A further alternative is to use the heat from the dams as a thermal mass.
This permanent housing during the warmer months can be used to house the cockerels that are being fattened for meat. Cockerels require a higher input of food for each kilogram of meat, but as they are a naturally occurring addition to the flock they should be used.
As these chickens will be generally free range, a system of feed troughs and water troughs would need to be in place. This would be additional to the troughs for the cattle and would have to be designed so inquisitive cattle could not upset the trough.
The breeding cycle of chickens is very short. An egg is incubated for 21 days. This can be done with a broody hen, or in small scale home designed and built incubator or there are very large scale incubators commercially available.
Day old chicks can be purchased and brought onto the property but problems may exist in being confident of the organic status of the chicks. However they do have the advantage of being immunised against common diseases that could potentially destroy a commercal scale operation.
A chick is then cared for by the hen for a period of around 6 weeks. It is around 16 to 20 weeks before the pullet is sexually mature, 20 to 24 weeks for the cockerel, depending on the breed and the time of the year of hatching. Due to this short span there is the capacity to have many spread hatchings during the year, but unless there is problems with a specific hatch, the load on the management of the chickens is increased unnecessarily. It seems best to keep to two or three specific times each year.
The maturity of hens is reached between 4 and 5 months, and with cockerels between 5 and 6 months. Only one rooster is required for 10 to 15 hens, and the number must be kept down to control the fighting between them for dominance. From this time the decision as to adding to the flock or selling as meat becomes important. The size of the flock would need in total to be about 200 chicken to one cattle.
On the cell grazing approach, the poultry can be grazed at a spacing from the cattle. If there are 10 paddocks in the cell, the chickens would be grazed about 3-4 behind the cattle. This would give the pasture time for some regrowth and this short regrowth is the sort of feed that chicken will eat, and also allow time for some disease and parasitic problems to lessen (this should be done until the links between cattle and chicken disease is clarified by research). Chickens only like short grass and weeds to feed on and so they need to come in sooner rather than later to the system. By this stage they will be able to clean up any new insect, and disturb and scatter the manure from the cattle and their own.
The housing of the chooks needs to be moved within the paddock if the movement between paddocks is not fast, so as to spread the nightly volumes of manure and allow the sun and rain to all parts of the pasture. If the build up occurs the pasture might be damaged by the intensity of nitrogen.
Within each of the paddocks there should be planted a variety of herbs for the general health of the cattle and the chooks. Some of the herbs would be Anise (for digestion), Borage (for respiratory conditions), Chickweed (as a tonic), Chicory (for calcium, copper and iron), Chives (for worm removal in poultry), Cleavers (strengthens shells, again calcium, copper, and iodine, silicon and sodium), Comfrey (good for bones). Garlic is very important for both animals, as it helps with all worms including liver fluke, and is an antibiotic. Others to include would be Fenugreek, Fennel, Mustard and Hyssop. Mulbery and lemon trees are also beneficial, as may other plants would be. The animals would both be aware of their needs and would feed on the appropriate herb or plant when the need was apparent.
By having the chooks in a free range environment, many of the problems they encounter are alleviated, such as lice and mites. These are problems usually occur because of the closed environment in which they live. Also the general happiness must lead to added sense of well-being and therefore larger desire to reproduce. Also the meat would be less stressed and the feed eaten would be put more into growth than lost in stress.
Flies can be a further problem to chooks, but the free-ranging system should avoid the build-up of manure (ie the moist environment for the flies to lay in) , and so the fly population kept low.
Problems can occur with the introduction of new animals. If care is taken with the introduction of new animals to the property by quarantining and checking for signs of disease. Feeding them natural remedies and tonics before introduction to the rest of the flock will keep most problems out of the flock.
If disease problems do occur, very swift action is required, so a watchful eye on the behaviour of the flock is necessary to pick up early on any problems. Any chicken that does not seem well should be removed, and if nothing else can be done, quickly disposed of.
|up to 6 weeks||6 weeks to laying||laying season||during brooding|
Recommended rations in percentage
|Distillers Dried Solubles||1.25||
Vitamins per kg of body weight
|Water volume per chicken (ml):||10||20||25||25|
|Overall food consumption per day (kg):||0.02-.04||0.07-.08||
|March||October hatchlings begin laying|
|April||Start to bring flock into permanent housing|
|May||Early hatchlings - neck moult pause production|
|June||Low laying quantities through to October|
|July||Sell 2nd year layer Sell May hatched hens which are in excess|
|August||Start sell May hatched cockerels|
Setting of broods - late in month Sell May hatched cockerels May hatchlings begin laying
Setting of broods - best time to catch early layers and alleviate some daylight problems.
|November to February||
Main egg laying production. Manage flock according to feed availability
J21 Aut 98