Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Backyard chickens

A big, boofy backyard chicken. This is how they are meant to look. (Image used courtesy Sustenhance, (c) Sustenhance 2015).
Have you noticed there seems to be an increase in backyard chickens? As a veterinarian I’ve observed a subtle increase in the number of clients keeping chickens over the last couple of years. And it’s not just me. At the Australian & New Zealand Veterinary Associations’ Pan Pacific Conference this year, there’s a workshop on treating sick chickens (find out more here).

Chickens are fantastic to live with. I work with a colleague who has three beautiful chickens that wander in and out of the house and produce enough eggs for two households. The problem is that many people aren’t sure how to appropriately look after chickens. Specifically, I have seen a number of cases of egg-bound chickens due to poor nutrition and husbandry. Feeding chooks is not just a matter of throwing them table-scraps and letting them poke around the compost heap. Producing and laying eggs takes a lot of energy.

So I asked veterinarian David Isaac, Animal Health, Innovation & Research Manager at BEC Feed Solutions, about what we can do to ensure the health and happiness of backyard chickens. A declaration at this point: Dr Isaac works for a company that produces food for chickens. However, he knows his chooks and is very welfare focused so we picked his brains.

egg bound chicken
This chicken was egg bound due to poor nutrition.
Dr Isaac DVM MRCVS graduated in 1997. He started his career as a field veterinarian and has been actively involved in improving animal performance and health, through nutrition, in the Australasian region for more than 17 years. A key member of the management team at BEC Feed Solutions, Sustenhance’s parent company, David’s role is focused on researching new and innovative products for the betterment of animal production, health and welfare. David has also presented numerous research papers on animal nutrition at national and international forums, regularly offering veterinary and technical support to the livestock and pet industries, and is a volunteer veterinarian at RSPCA.

What’s your day job?

I am the Animal Health, Innovation and Research Manager at BEC Feed Solutions, the parent company of Sustenhance, and a veterinarian passionate about animal health, nutrition and welfare.

How come backyard chickens have increased in popularity?

The general public want to have control over the safety and quality of food that they eat. This has led to more people producing their own sources of food items such as fresh vegetables and eggs. This passion for healthy, safe food coupled with easy access to young chicken, quality chicken feed, housing and equipment has increased the popularity of keeping backyard chickens.

What are the benefits of living with backyard chickens?

There are so many great reasons to keep backyards chickens. Some of the key benefits include:
  • Fresh eggs daily – no more supermarket products!
  • They help the environment - feeding suitable food scraps to your chickens is a great way to reduce and recycle your kitchen and food waste
  • They are good for the garden - chicken waste makes a great fertiliser
  • They provide entertainment for the whole family – learning to care for chickens provides education and endless hours of fun for the children!

Annabella Williams with chicken. (Image (c) Sustenhance).

What are the key things you need if you are going to keep chickens?
It is essential to give your chickens a good home in the form of a safe, clean, draft-free coop with good ventilation including:
  • Heat lamps (for brooding young chicks)
  • Brooder guard (for brooding)
  • Wood shavings as litter material
  • Feeders and drinkers with fresh food and water replenished daily
  • A nest with soft nesting material (e.g. wood shavings, straw)
  • Sanitising solution
  • Outside of the coop, chickens need a good range area to run around and display their natural behavior.
  • When considering what to feed your chicken it is important to have a high quality, nutritionally balanced feed and high quality health supplements. At Sustenhance we have developed our Perfect Poultry nutritional supplement to add to chickens’ feed to ensure they are getting all the vitamins and minerals they need in their diet for health, vitality and great quality eggs.

Annabelle Williams holds eggs. (Image (c) Sustenhance).
How can we enrich the lives of backyard chickens?

There are a few simple tips to ensure your chickens live happy lives:
  • Give your chicken an area to have a dust bath – they love to flap and roll and sit in the dust – a natural way to remove external parasites
  • Let your chickens out for at least three hours a day to forage and scratch, ideally during the afternoon before securing them in the coop overnight as chickens naturally go home to roost.
  • Provide summer shade to keep them cool
  • Implement a regular deworming program
backyard chicken chook
Mildred walks between two yards.
Nutrition related disease is common in pet chickens. What are the main diseases you see?

The most common issues in backyard chickens are poor featherings, feather pecking and cannibalism. This is mainly due to a lack of amino acids such as methionine, an imbalance of minerals or lack of fibre in the diet.
Poor egg shell quality as well as wet droppings are other common issues related to poor nutrition. In cases like these, a high quality supplement such as Sustenhance Perfect Poultry can assist in correcting the imbalances.

What constitutes a balanced diet for chickens?

A balanced feed consists of many components of nutrients. These are formulated in the right amount for each species. These formulations need to be further fine-tuned according to each stage of production. The feed needs to provide the correct amino acids, minerals, vitamins, fibre, carbohydrates and fat requirements at the different stages of development. Therefore, it is very crucial that the right feed is given at the right stage of production. It is harmful to feed a laying bird a starter or grower feed, as the requirements at each stage are very different.

Is there anything else owners should know about feeding chickens?
Chickens need to be fed the correct feed to match the type of chicken and the stage of production.  Refrain from giving grain mixes at the growing stage as this may lead to imbalance in nutrient levels which can cause excessive weight gain. Any additional feed sources such as grains, lucerne meal, forages and table scraps should not be more that 5% of the chicken’s daily feed intake. When using any medication to treat or prevent diseases in chickens, always check the label for the withdrawal period - if in doubt, contact a veterinarian.

What could we do to make the world better for backyard chickens?
It is incredibly important to provide your chickens with a balanced feed and a fresh source of clean water. Other ways to improve your chicken’s world include:
  • Letting them exhibit their natural behaviour by providing them with space to run around and a dust bath.
  • Spending time with them as to build the animal-human bond. This will give you the opportunity to detect any changes in their behaviour or physical appearance.
  • Keeping your coop clean – this prevents disease and vermin attraction.

Your company is promoting poultry health with a web campaign. How can readers get involved?

We want to make backyard poultry go viral during March and April with our Chicks Gone Wild campaign. To enter, capture the most crazy or funny home video of your backyard chickens or roosters then head to the Sustenhance Facebook page and upload your entry using the form on the competitions tab. We’re giving away a bag of Sustenhance Perfect Poultry to every entrant and the most ‘wild’ entrant will receive a year’s supply!

Thank you David. You can check out Sustenhance's channels below.

Instagram: @sustenhance