Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chicken Problems (and Potential Solutions)

Chicken problems. We've had 'em all. Let's start with the older chickens and work down, shall we?

Problems #1 and #2: Food Ran Out and New Pecking Order...At the Same Time

About a month ago, I had a small 4-day interruption in layer pellet availability at the same time I introduced the 8 new Araucanas to the flock. The 23 laying-age chickens had been laying between 14 and 18 eggs pretty regularly for the previous month, but then sharply went down to around 8-10. The food interruption and the new pecking order disruption were blamed for the egg drop.

The flock flocked for fresh feed.
Turns out, those factors were not entirely to blame.

Problem #3: Egg Eaters

First of all, the interruption in food and pecking order had the side effect of creating at least one egg eater. I know, because I found a mess in a nest box, and yolk on her comb the next day. By then, our daily production had dropped to between 3 and 5 eggs a day. It was a slow, steady drop over about 4 weeks.

Annie the Ancona with a yolked-up comb.
So, I ended up jailed 5 total chickens after a stake-out in which I saw some suspicious behavior by her ^, a Leghorn, a Buff, and two pullet Araucanas. I fed them electrolyte-enriched water and straight-up layer pellets, with some extra milk, during the entire time. I also gave them a trough of nothing but peas and flax to boost their protein ration. In case they were simply battling a deficiency, those several days of free-choice "complete nutrition" and added protein, vitamins, and milk should have gotten them back up to full strength. being then re-integrated into the new feeding system (see the next problem) should resolve this for good.

One interesting thing (albeit likely unrelated) was that Annie and the Leggy both had floppy combs. Hmm.

The usual suspects, behind bars in the winter pen (which I now need to formally rename).
With the egg eaters behind bars, my eggs were SURE to be safe now!

Well, kinda.

There were no more eating incidents, but the production was still wretched. The day of and the day after I hoosegow'd them varmints, we got 6 eggs. Total. In two days.

(Sidenote: if the egg eating re-occurs, I have no hesitations in whipping out the kill cone. It'll be like Christmas at the Cratchets, but tasty nonetheless.)

Problem #4: Feed changes

Meanwhile, Wife and I had been discussing ways to rid ourselves of GMO feed forever. We've been fermenting our chicken feed grains for a while now, but I wanted to make sure it would work to drop the pellets for good. I did a statistical analysis of the crude protein and the ratios, and concluded we were at about 14.5% protein (and that factors in the 3% boost provided by the multi-day ferment). In order to swing it, we'd have to add a higher protein component.

Enter field peas (25.5%)  and flax seed (22%).

The ratio ends up being 3 parts fermented grains and 1 part flax/pea combo. The downside to this system is that the peas are very hard. I've been soaking them, but in the near future I'll be adding them into the fermentation process to soften them up and further boost the protein like the other grains. Look for a formal post on that once I figure it all out. But for now, I'm soaking the peas, adding the flax raw, and scooping the grains in with it all.

Yes, it's a lot more work than simply pouring pellets. However, at local prices (and I'm paying more for the peas than I will once the other feed place gets them in cheaper), I'm only paying $5 more per 50 lbs. of feed than the "all natural" pellets. My #1 and #2 ingredients are no longer "processed grain by-product" and "soybean meal," so there's a huge win right off the top. And, it's about $15 less than the local organic feed (which STILL has soy in it as a top ingredient!).

The other change I've made is that we're now feeding ALL of their feed at once in the morning. Before, we'd been doing a feeding of fermented grains in the morning and evening. We'd have to spread the feed out along the fence line to make sure everyone in the pecking order got theirs, but even then, the older chickens got greedy and the youngins at the bottom of the order got zilch. Annie and the black Araucanas are at the bottom. Coincidence?

The all-at-once feeding method allows for about 10 chickens to crowd and scarf.
Within minutes, they move on, and the next batch comes along.
The pecking order maintains its integrity, and nobody misses out.

Now, we're putting all the feed in a big plastic tub first thing in the morning. I've noticed that the big chickens swarm and get their fill first, then as they wander away, the pecking order progresses nicely. They eat about half of their feed first thing in the morning, and then peck at it periodically throughout the day. I've been keeping a feeder of pellets handy to round out any nutritional deficiencies for now, but when it runs out, I'll likely load the feeder with peas and flax. They've been very slowly whittling it down (in the 10 pounds/week range at a 16% ration), but I expect with a 23%-ish supplement, they'll eat it a lot less quickly.

We've being doing the food-at-once system for about 5 days, and so far the results are pleasing. The chickens are not swarming the fence at the sight of me, and there's constantly food left in the trough. There was enough left over one morning that I tossed a bunch to the pigs. It's been a great system so far.

Yet, egg production is  not back up.

Problem #5: HEAT WAVE

I didn't connect the dots until two days ago. The decline in production correlates exactly with the rise in ambient heat index in our area. As it topped 90 every day, we went from 15 a day to 10 a day. As it crossed 95, we were down to 6. With temps above 90 and the heat index topping 100, the rate fell to 3 a day. This seems to be our bottom-out level. While all of the above problems were happening, the brutal Southern heat slowly and quietly engulfed us.

To attempt to combat the heat, I started filling up our wading pool with cool water and dropping big blocks of ice in the waterer. I've also been feeding electrolytes. They have shade provided by the coop, and they're in an open, breezy area. There's just not much else I can do. The internet advised me to just endure it and be glad they're not dropping dead. Woo hoo! No dead chickens.


Problem #6 Coccidiosis in the Chick-u-Bator

We stayed out for a late night Saturday after attending Mass and going to visit friends, which had a forecast of 30% chance of rain. We got a torrential thunderstorm. The chick-u-bator got soaked.

The chicks in the brooder.
Notice the green shade tarp on top.
I had to set the chick-u-bator outside because the electric in the shed inexplicably went out the week before our newest baby chicks arrived. The only way for the extension cord to reach power for the brooding lamp was to set it outside of the house and use the outlet on the deck. I keep it totally covered with a tarp at night and during rainstorms, and leave the tarp half-on for shade during the day. It's been working just fine.

But on that particular evening, I had left the tarp open. We had been threatened by a 30% chance of rain for days, and had remained bone dry. It never even crossed my mind to preventatively cover them up. Well, the rain sure came, and it was still raining when I came home. I covered the whole thing and left it, since it was dark and still raining.

The next morning, I opened them up early to find an already-dead chick, several sick chicks, bloody poops, and a stinking, sloppy mess. It was awful.

We went into full-on intervention mode, removing ALL chicks from the chick-u-bator. We were planning to send the meat chicks to the dry lot anyway, so they just joined the jailed suspects at that time. They've been there ever since, and they're all alive.

The meat chickens out back this morning.
The did this same thing to the food when I set it out for them.

I took the wading pool and lined it with fresh hay and DE, with a chicken wire roof. I set this on the porch. I took the sickest 5 egg layers and quarantined them separately in the greenhouse for a day. 3 made it. I fed ALL the chicks a heavy dose of fermented grain with lots of electrolytes and antibiotics in their water. I kept them warm and dry.

I put the egg layers in a makeshift emergency tractor while the chick-u-bator sun-bleached and absorbed a TON of DE. They were there for three days, and I just put them back in this morning.

This emergency "tractor" very well may have saved several chickens.
I did it from an old raised garden bed frame, the chicken wire used to top off the kiddie pool,
the shade tarp (held down with bricks), and some wood.
I used metal trays for food and water.
Lots of work, but worth it to save our chickens.

We ended up only losing those three - the one DOA, and the two sickest of the 5. The rest are recovered and doing fine now. I added fresh hay and got the egg layer chicks back in the chick-u-bator today. Yay!!


Well, I covered them individually, but I really, really hope that the jail & pellet intervention, the new food plan, the ice and pool, the medical interventions, and a little extra patience will cure all of these issues for good.

If not, there's always room for another chicken dinner. At least for some of them....

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