Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Piglets available mid November

Sage & Smokey have produced yet another beautiful, happy and healthy litter. So we are planning on keeping one or maybe two ourselves, therefore the rest will be available mid November. Enquiries to maesydelyn.qld@gmail.com welcomed.
But be quick, deposits required to hold piglets until collection date is agreed.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

What to expect when incubating eggs (or at least our experience/method)

Today is the last day that we turn the eggs in the incubator; you are not supposed to rotate/turn them for the last 2 days. In theory chicken eggs take 3 weeks to incubate. But ours generally start ‘pipping’ from 20 days, so as we generally make the last turn on the morning of the 18th day.

So now we just sit, wait and hope.

As we currently have eggs in the incubator and our young ‘Eatwells’ (heritage style table-bird chicks) in the brooder box it has brought up a lot of questions from people about the various stages of chicken rearing. So thought it wouldn’t hurt to have a refresher- at least as to how we do things. (*as, as always this is our experience, not a definite method)  

These are always and exciting and dramatic times. During which, any issue does make you question what you have done, or if you could have done anything.

So incubating you obviously need fertile eggs. This time we purchased some eggs from another breeder. Something we have often been asked to do; though we have been reluctant to guarantee our eggs as ‘fertile’. More that the hens run with a rooster. But whether they are purchased, or home produced you begin with storing the eggs, as they take time to collect.

First tip; store eggs intended for incubation in an egg box “pointy end” down.

We were informed that this is so the “egg cell” rises to the top in the wider egg.

Second tip; store your eggs at “room temperature” if possible.

Obviously this depends on where you are. Most people reference “room temperature” to be roughly 20°c, a comfortable temperature not too hot or too cold. Given we are in the tropics this can be more difficult. But a pantry or other “cool, dry place” is preferable.

I have also been told you “cannot incubate refrigerated eggs”. I know this is untrue, as we have successfully done it. Though the eggs refrigerated and then incubated were only in the fridge for a day or two. Generally the longer the refrigeration period, the less likely they are to activate.

Third tip; Collect eggs for a maximum of 7days, any older and the eggs ‘activation rate’ appears to drop. (This is personal preference and general observation)But it is worth noting that just because an egg doesn’t develop, does not mean it was not fertilised; as there are a number of factors that affect whether a fertilised egg activates. And time is one. 
No these are not
turkey poults... but chickens
Proud mum with 'her' babies
So once you have your eggs then you need a means of incubating them. Some people will purchase ‘fertilised eggs’ to go under a brooder chicken. We have had varying success with letting a broody bird sit on a clutch (of her own acquiring, we have never placed eggs for a bird). We have also had one species adopt another’s eggs- turkey, ducks and chickens hatching chicks, ducklings etc. But we warned if you have a mixed clutch that they do have different incubation periods and the hen may abandon the rest once the initial ones hatch.

We have also had good and bad experiences with the parenting abilities of the hens (losing babies or allowing them to wander off). And the welfare of the hen during the nesting period (not leaving to eat or drink, or even suffering with mites).

Our basic manual model

So generally for these reasons and the added bonus of being able to plan our hatchlings we generally incubate. To do this you need an incubator. Some in the poultry communities (this is generally more accessible on a local level now with social media etc.) may rent space in their incubators. Or you can purchase them. They come in varying levels of complexity and size.

Ours is very basic; it supposedly holds up to 60 chicken eggs or 48 duck/turkey eggs. And we turn the eggs manually.

We have loaned an automated one from a friend. And we were not overly impressed with the advantages- not having to turn the eggs, over the disadvantages- noise, having to prepare for hatching (if you miss this, it can get messy), too many controls (these are addictive).

Automated turning incubator
Am saying too many controls as heat and humidity affect the development of the eggs. So the more settings and dial there are, the more we seemed to ‘fiddle’. So this is why we like our basic one. TO be honest, given how technical some machines are, it is amazing that nature achieves all these factors!

So we prepare by cleaning the incubator. Though we always do this before placing it in storage, would rather be safe than sorry. Since eggs absorb almost everything through their shells, its just better to ensure their environment is clean to begin with. So we clean ours with enviro-friendly dishwashing liquid and warm water and then sterilise with ‘Breath ezi’ a biodegradable oxine- so kills bacteria, fungus etc.

Then we need to warm up the incubator. So setting it up and adding warm water (not hot or cold). Ours has a well in the base with some raised guides. We fill ours to the lip of these and it appears to have worked out well to date. This will need to be topped up (with warm water) throughout as this is what creates the humidity- never let your incubator run dry.

We run our incubator for at least 12 hours prior to using. Once we are around 12 hours we check to internal temperature. We do this using a digital thermometer inside, as we have never trusted the dial.  Depending on the external temperature, humidity etc. this can vary. Ideally the internal temperature should be 37°c, with 1 degree of tolerance. Any lower and they may not develop, or may have issues. Any hotter and they may also develop problems, or cook.

So once in, leave them for 2 days before turning. We then manually turn ours twice a day- morning and evening. To turn the eggs we turn them width ways- not point to point. This is continued for 16 days and then as I mentioned earlier left for the last few days til they hopefully hatch.

 Now you can candle your eggs during then incubation. We do so around the 1 and 2 week marks. You could do earlier and it is tempting from around 4 days onwards. However we try to hold out until the one week mark; we refrain from discarding eggs, though we do group any slow or nonstarters together. Then assess their progress (if any) a week later.

When candling you are looking for a dark matter, possibly some veins or a defined air sac. The mass shouldn’t move, or moves slower. An inactivated egg will be light and whilst you probably will see the yolk it will float to the top easily.

A word of warning, candling can be addictive. And you could damage your chances of successful incubation by ‘over candling’. As you are interfering with the eggs environment; temperature, humidity etc. and all these factors affect whether incubation is successful. So whilst it is tempting, try to keep your curiosity to a minimum. At the end of the day even a fertile and well developed egg does not guarantee chicks.


The next stage you have no real control over, it’s just a matter of wait and see. And it doesn't matter how many times we have done this, it is always exciting!

To break out of the egg the chick has to effectively suffocate, twice. The initial takes place once the air sac within the membrane is exhausted. Prompting the reflex to break through the internal membrane, a similar scenario takes place for the little bird to break through the shell. These can take place in reverse. Sometimes the initial reaction will break the outer shell, whilst the membrane remains mainly. 

This is an exhausting process for the chicks, and not all are successful. This is where there is often debate about ‘helping’ the bird out.

Sadly some are just too exhausted :(
In the lead up to a chick ‘pipping’ there is often noises- chirping and tapping. If this activity drops and the ‘pip’ then its possibly too late.

For a bird that has done the hard work and “pipped” they may take some time to actually hatch. It is at this point we have been known to help birds out.

Many argue that it’s a matter of survival of the fittest. There is also a risk that by assisting the bird you may unintentionally do more harm than good.

If the bird is too exhausted to hatch it could dry up inside the egg. By picking the shell and/ or membrane to help them out, you could nick a vein/artery and the bird could bleed out. It’s also worth noting that they will initially still be attached by a cord. They absorb all the nutrients from the egg sac through this and it will dry up and fall off in time- so never pull it off.

New hatchlings can stay in an incubator without food or water for 24- 48hrs. Generally we leave them until their nice and fluffy. At this point we transfer them to their next stage/home, their brooder box.

This is also the stage that you would be if you were purchasing day old chick- like our ‘Eatwells’... (something I convered recently, but am sure there's another post on the topic coming soon).


Tuesday, 4 August 2015

'Eatwells'; Heritage tablebirds

'Eatwells' Heritage Style tablebirds
Well our new ‘Eatwells’ have arrived; the heritage style meat chickens I struggled to source. There are a few producers hat are developing lines such as these, however they are generally only available to free range farms that meet a set of criteria. Other than not being commercial, our biggest downfall to most of these is our regional location.

Anyway we did manage to source some and purchased them as part of a syndicate, and had them shipped up. They are not the common commercial broilers; big give away being their variety of colours. But are a cross of heritage breeds, that should reach table weight within 12-16 weeks (as opposed to the 5-8weeks of the commercial broilers) and should be better suited to free range conditions.
The syndicate purchase- all collected within a few days


You may wonder why we have gone to such lengths to source a ‘heritage style table bird’ when commercial broilers will be table ready in half the time. And the answer is simple. Today’s broilers have been selectively bred for the purpose of maximum productivity. And are significantly heavier than the original crosses from which they were developed.

We have raised broilers in the past, under what we consider free range conditions. And even with access to grass and daylight they would sit in their shelter (generally in their own mess) and eat constantly. We resorted to taking their food away. And would have to place them our doors to clean out their shelter.

We also had a few busy weekends, leaving the birds grow out a few extra weeks. To which it became a matter of we needed to cull them as their quality of life was suffering (they could barely walk) and before they died of other causes (heart attack etc).  I guess commercially they reach their target weight in 35-40 days. So 10 weeks would be quite old.


So we are hoping that raising these ‘heritage style’ birds should produce a reasonable table bird. Faster than a purebred (the Sussex or Indian Game’s we breed can take up to 12 months to reach a reasonable table weight), but with a better standard of life than our experience with the broilers. And part of this is that our purebred birds have access to grazing, so am hoping these will exhibit more natural instincts; scratching, grazing etc.

So far they are only a week or so old. They arrived ranging from day olds to possibly 3-4 days of age. Some had dramatically more feathers than others. But all appeared to understand where the food and water were when they were introduced to the brooder. They huddle together when colder and spread out and stretch their wings to cool off. And they are already displaying some promise in hunting, as they scratch and peck at the odd bug or marks on the side of the brooder.

They will need to stay in the brooder for a few weeks yet, until they are fully feathered. And even they, depending on how the season progresses they may be transferred outside during the day, but returned to their brooder with its toastie lamps at night until the temperatures pick up a little.

So I cleaned out their box over the weekend. Depending on the number and size of the birds we generally give them a quick scrape out and top up of fresh saw dust during the week, and then a thorough clean out once a week. Obviously the more and larger the birds, the greater and quicker the mess develops.

So I prepared the other side of the box and took the opportunity to weigh a couple of the birds, before I transferred them. Mostly out of curiosity, and given the variety of ages it is going to be difficult to track them accurately, or particularly scientifically. Though there are a few distinct ones that I am going to try and track as a comparison til the end.

We have also begun tracking the cost for rearing these birds. As we often get asked is it worth it? To which we always agree it is, but when people want to know figures we generally couldn’t say.  So we are hoping to have an accurate figure to table.

As we are also incubating some Sussex eggs, that should hopefully hatch in a week or so (ever count your chickens before they hatch). I guess we should be able to compare these ‘table birds’ to a heritage dual purpose bird and hopefully in the future to that of any Indian Game we may hatch.


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Still waiting for our pullets to lay

So how long should you wait for a chicken to lay?

Well it depends entirely on the chicken, well the type of chicken you have. A commercial laying cross and hybrids generally begin laying from around 18-22 weeks. Pure bred bird however take a fair bit longer, possibly 26-32 weeks. Their laying quantity is also considered to be lower, possibly 150-300 eggs per annum depending on the breed. As a general rule, they should however continue to lay that quantity for longer. Whereas your commercial crosses will lay one a day (occasionally a second if you’re lucky) for a year or so, before the rate drops off.   We had (until Christmas last year) a Wellsummer hen that was still consistently laying 3+ eggs a week at 7 years of age; she was an original from suburbia, and was a pet more than anything- but she earned her keep.

It is also worth noting that it really does also depend on your breed. There are many laying breeds and dual purpose that will lay up to 300 per year. Such as our old Wellsummer and Sussex birds. We also breed Indian Game (AKA Cornish) these are not egg laying birds. And tend to be almost seasonal in their laying. Laying consistently for around a month once or twice a year. We do still have a few birds that would be 3 years of age and laying is around the same.


Indian Game hens
So as we had an enforced streamlining of our breeding program. The rather questionable dog attack of almost our entire laying and breeding flock whilst we were away for a few days over Christmas last year. We now have a few Sussex pullets, all between 8-10 months of age and a young rooster. But we still had not had a single egg.

Weather can also be a factor with chickens, along with moulting. These pullets have definitely not been moulting, as their feathers are immaculate and in great condition. It has been a fairly mixed winter/dry season. So we had upped their protein intake. Adding a molasses based protein meal to their rations, along with worms and a little dog food as an added bonus- yes chickens can eat meat. They naturally forage for bugs and insects, even vermin like small lizards or mice. And these guys are  free ranged and have access to all the gardens offering along with their grain. So figured it maybe a case that they are either laying where I cannot find them, or something else is getting there first. Maybe a crow or snake . Though I would have thought a snake would be unlikely due to the colder weather and crows generally leave some evidence, such as shells on the roof or something. So we decided there was only one way to find out… to confine them.

Not my preference by a long shot, but we do have a couple of very generous chicken tractor that we use for introducing young birds to the outdoors. More than ample area (especially if we move them around regularly) for 4 standard sized backyard chickens.

So Sunday evening I waited until they had gone in to roost and moved them- no they were no too impressed. This morning we had two eggs!

So now to illuminate what the problem was in their back yard area…

Especially as I have just ordered a couple of boxes of fertile eggs. I have always been reluctant to sell my own eggs as fertile, as there is no particular guarantee that they are fertile, just that they run with a rooster. But as I have not been getting my own to incubate, and we are wanting to begin rearing next year’s laying stock now.  I figured I would utilise the opportunity to introduce another bloodline. So eagerly waiting their arrival.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The patch is in and planted!

Last weekend we cleared our veg patch. Digging out the last of the raised beds, pallet beds and failed pathways we installed a few years ago.

I have to say the raised beds were great in theory and planned (well the planting out of them at least). And would probably would have worked well in smaller area, but the size of these beds not only meant we needed to trample all over them to reach other parts or other beds. But it became impossible to hoe or strim them and weeding the paths became an extra task that we would occasionally get around too.

So the boards came up and we burned them on the patch, along with some other garden waste; grass clippings, palm leaves and branches etc. We had a little bit of a clear out of our ‘pest’ palms recently; these are not considered native and were planted by the previous owners, most too close to the house or power lines. We also gave the neighbours over hanging trees a little bit of a trim too.

The garden was then weeded out and the soil turned over and evened out; by hand as the rotary hoe had a ‘technical issue’; the primer hoses had disintegrated whilst in storage… *Note to self, ensure there is absolutely no petrol left in it before we put it away.

Even in the rain, we finished the bed by fencing it off and fitting the gate- to make our access easy- lesson learned from last time. The fencing is mostly to keep the chickens off our seeds/seedlings, though for that afternoon we allowed them to pillage- as there were substantial grubs that were not wanted! And they would turn and break up the soil that bit more.

We did leave the ‘pumpkin patch’ (though downsized) was left outside the fenced section- as it is well established (feeding the ‘Cub’ well) and we wanted to keep it from taking over. 

And the other vines have been placed in rows of trellises- low to begin with. However I do have potential plans to add to them and create arches or over head trellising if necessary. Hopefully they will make an attractive feature, as well as a practical means of harvesting.

So prepped and ready for this year’s seedlings and seeds, this week they went in.
Sugar snap peas
Capscicum (Peppers)
Zucchini (Courgette)- seeds only at this stage
Carrots (seeds again)
Spring onions
Asian veg
Still have a few more seeds to go in gradually. And a few more herbs for the herb patch and shrubs for the fenceline (rosellas and a curry leaf tree).

Having experimented with raised beds, sister planting and square-foot gardening, we have decided that whilst rows are probably not he most effective use of space. Space isn’t something our garden is short of. And if the garden or paths are riddled with weeds then that is not an effective use of space either.

We have still opted for companion planting; planting those close together that are mutually beneficial (and avoiding those that don’t). But we have done so in rows, allowing space to hoe (and access). We have also planted in sections, with successive crops; planning for continued growth and hopefully consistent supply; as opposed to gut and nothing. 

The timing of these preparations seems especially apt this year. Whilst the preparing of garden beds are often synonymous of the early months for many in the northern hemisphere. New beginnings and therefore new life is often symbolic of spring in many cultures, here (in tropical Queensland) the most bountiful growing/ planting season is autumn and winter. (So yes we are a little late!)

However for us (me in particular) this year’s clearing out and fresh start or new beginning, to our sad and neglected veg patch (especially of late with our newest addition and the unbearable tropical heat) had many motivations and was especially emotional.

For one, our ‘Cub’. Although we have always been conscious about the source of our food and the pride in producing a meal for someone (or yourself) made from your produce. But having a young child you become really conscientious about what they consume; wanting to give them the best you can.

Gardening with a baby does raise its own challenges- especially here as we are constantly aware of her exposure to the sun (and heat). So the cooler, damper conditions and an unusually long morning nap were gratefully appreciated. Although she did ‘help out’ for some of it, as we want her to grow up with the knowledge and an appreciation of where food comes from and what is involved.

I am also excited to get a few fast flourishing seedlings in to kick start our produce, as we have visitors coming in 2 months, so perfect timing! And I can not wait to get in the garden with my nephew.

The other reason being more retrospective and reflective. Many know that for myself, my grandfather has been a major influence; especially in terms of undertaking this lifestyle. Most of my fondest childhood memories are spending time with my grandparents at their home and their massive garden; transplanting seedlings into grow bags each year and carrying them to the greenhouse. To this day I still do not understand why we didn’t carry the bag there then transplant them! And I still love the smell of tomato plants, despite not actually liking the raw fruit.

Picking and washing beans for Sunday dinner, or helping him pick elderflowers and elderberries from their enormous tree; so he could make wine each year.

I guess his pride in the results of a ‘good days work’ and in providing for his loved ones not only rubbed off on me. But was infectious and was instilled into me. I beamed with pride when I helped him as a child, and I beam when I continue this with our place now. So for me this fresh start for our patch, and my (our) renewed commitment to our veg patch and providing for our loved ones (family) is an ode to him. And a means for me to feel close (following his passing earlier this year)


So be prepared for many veg updates and brags in the coming future.


Thursday, 11 June 2015

Rearing chickens for the table

 Since I wrote a similar piece for pigs, I thought it only appropriate to discuss raising chickens for the table. Especially since we have recently found a breeder that supplies ‘Gourmet table birds’ for public purchase; Gourmet table birds being a heritage breed cross developed by the breeder and not the commercial broilers. We are working with this breeder and a specialist transport company to make arrangements to freight day old chicks here in coming months... So fingers crossed we are not counting our chickens before they have hatched. And you will be reading about them soon!

 So, what should you expect when raising chickens for the table?

In some respects it is not that different to raising chickens as backyard layers (depending on your set up). But in other ways it is slightly. And in this respect I consider chickens to be livestock. This is often a point of discussion with smallholders etc. especially since you can have a couple chickens in suburbia (generally). But these are generally layers and I believe that is where the difference begins.

Anyway, we generally breed Sussex and Indian Games, and then process most excess roosters and spent hens for the table.  
Sussex are considered a ‘dual purpose’ bird and Indian Games make substantial and tasty table birds. However raising pure breeds; particularly unsexed to begin with can prove a lengthy process, as they can take quite some time to mature. Another issue with raising flocks this way is roosters can become aggressive (especially to each other), although this isn’t generally true of Indian Games.

So purchasing stock specifically for the table could be a solution. As they are to have this purpose from the outset and are reared as such from day one.

With all poultry they require food, water, medication (if you wish), shelter and initially as day olds warmth and protection from the elements.

So as day olds you will need to provide a ‘brooder box’. This doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. For some of our first layers (we bought as day olds), we constructed a brooder using a cardboard box and a work light with a large wattage bulb.
-          Be aware energy efficient bulbs are meant to conserve energy by reducing the energy lost through heat. So purchasing a specialist heat lamp and bulb maybe advisable. And are generally available from pet or produce stores.
Now as we incubate/breed and in this instance would be anticipating a large number. We will be using the old wardrobe we converted.
-          We also use a digital thermometer to monitor the internal temperature. This lets us know whether to move the lamp up or down.
We also try and set the lamp up at one side, allowing the birds to move towards or away; regulating their own heat.
Best line the bottom of your brooder box; old news paper or wood shavings are great. This just makes it easier to clean and maintain. But be careful not to use anything to slippery/glossy as you can cause splayed legs, something that could affect them for life.
Depending on the number of birds you have and how much mess they make with their food and water will dictate how often you clean out your birds. But as a general rule of thumb I tend to change the shavings once or twice and then do a full clean out (including washing the feeders/waterers) once a week.

Once they have developed their second feathers (generally by 6weeks). They are usually ready to move out. This can vary on conditions and climates. I have been known to put a lamp in an outside chicken coop in winter before now!
Original suburban chicken coop & run
As young birds you may want to place them in a run, or tractor to begin with. This gives them time to adjust to the elements, as well as protecting them from predators. Or even other birds, if you already have other chickens (like us).
Tipshop cupboard conversion
Again these can be as elaborate as you like. We have constructed a number of various versions over the last 7-8 years.  From dog houses, old cupboards to second hand swing sets. But generally the basics remain the same. You want an enclosed area that they can roost and shelter, a meshed area for them to run and experience the outdoors. Somewhere/means of dispensing food and water and for you to access that. And light enough to move.
After a few days we generally begin ‘training’. Allowing the birds freedom whilst we are there and returning them to the tractor for food. This eventually just becomes an evening occurrence.

Swing set conversion

Birds can be kept confined for faster meat production.  This just isn’t something we do.

Food and water.
wider base- better suited to older birds
I have already mentioned you will need a means of dispensing these. There are a variety of examples on the market for all budgets. From simple plastic ones, slightly more expensive metal ones, to the self dispensing ones. I guess what you choose depends on your set up and budget.
Narrow lipped waterer
For young chicks I do warn that larger lipped waterers can be dangerous. As we have had birds climb in, and even fall asleep in them and perish. So I always advise if purchasing a waterer aim for narrow lips. For older birds I often cut up old milk cartons and tie them the tractor mesh. And have paddling pools for free ranging stock.
-          It’s also good practice to dip the beaks of day old chicks into their water source when introducing them to a new environment (i.e. your brooder box). So they know where and what it is.
-          Water needs to topped up and changed regularly.

 As for what to feed your birds. As day olds the grain needs to be fine ground. You can buy chick starter from produce stores specifically for little beaks. These are also generally medicated (at least here in Australia). There are also ‘meat bird’ versions that are higher in protein.
Older birds can be fed mash or pellets. Ours graze, so have access to grass and insects, and there are always those food scraps. So grains, rice, pasta, veg scraps (although onions and green potato peels are not advised) and avocado peels are toxic to all animals. Many people also do not realise you can feed chickens meat. As they naturally forage and eat bugs, protein is an essential part of their diet and makes a great ‘treat’, scrambling eggs is also acceptable.

I did mention that most purchased feeds contain medication, specifically for coccidiosis. This is a disease generally associated with commercial practices as it is passed through faeces. But is fatal to young birds, so we treat all ours, ourselves with a water soluble treatment; just in case.
We also worm our birds as part of our routine (generally monthly). Though this isn’t necessary until they are actually on open ground.

Other than that the main difference between rearing birds to be backyard chooks or roasters is the end result.

24 hours prior to ‘D-Day’ I advise securing the birds and giving them only water. This just makes the process a whole lot easier and less messy.
Then there is the process of culling and butchering. Some specialist poultry butchers will offer this service, however we process our own. This is something you should consider prior to purchasing birds to rear for the table. As you have to deal with the end process.
Personally as a meat eater I prefer to know the life our birds have had. And know I did the best by them. And although that responsibility can be upsetting or unsettling, it does prompt you to do the most with the end result.  

If you care considering a home kill there are blogs under the ‘home butchery’ tab. Including discussions about plucking and skinning.