Who Rules the Roost?

I hate roost mites. Roost mites (or chicken mites, or red mites) are nearly invisible blood-suckers that are transmitted to chickens by wild birds. They multiply like crazy in warm weather. They bother the chickens and can even kill them under the right circumstances. And I hate that creepy-crawly feeling! Ewww! Get ’em off me! Humans are a non-target species, but still … yuck!

I have an article about them here. Roost mites live in cracks and crevices in the chicken house, in littler, and especially on roosts and in nest boxes. Roost mites are easy to control once you know they’re there, but they’re pretty stealthy — right up to the point where their population explodes and they’re everywhere. Roost mites are particularly dangerous to broody hens, who sit around in the danger zone 24/7, instead of spending all day outdoors like the rest of the hens.

While roost mites are easily killed with insecticide, this doesn’t kill the eggs, so it usually takes at least two applications to get ’em. More, if you miss any. I don’t know about you, but spending my summers spraying houses over and over with bug poison is not why I got into alternative agriculture. It’s unaesthetic.

Still, you gotta take care of the hens. When using insecticide, I prefer Malathion, which has almost no persistence at all (its half-life is only eight hours), so pesticide build-up is a non-issue. It’s also nearly impossible to poison a chicken or yourself with Malathion. Some of the things recommended in old-time poultry books were amazingly toxic (nicotine sulfate, sodium fluoride), or poisonous, carcinogenic, and generally disgusting (creosote). Don’t use those.

For longer-lasting protection, the traditional solution is a good one: oil the roosts with any kind of non-drying oil, and it will kill the mites. The oil will stay liquid and potent, at least in the cracks and crevices where the mites prefer to hide. Many oils have been used for this. Linseed oil works and smells great. Used motor oil also works great and is free, but it’s less pleasant than other oils. I changed the oil in my tractor yesterday and used the old oil to paint roosts areas around nest boxes that looked like it could use it. The dry wood soaked up the oil very quickly, so it’s not like the chickens are going to leave oily footprints everywhere. If I’d had a bucket of used french-fry oil, I would have used that, though I’m a little concerned that edible oils might attract mold or insects or french-fry pixies or something. I’ll try it someday.

The last time I did this, the treated areas seemed to stay mite-free for over a year, in spite of the wood seeming completely dry to me. Mites are almost microscopic, so no doubt they experience things differently.

As always, it turned out that anything that causes me to spend time in the chicken house resulted in my noticing things I’d missed before. (Half of farming consists of slowing down and paying attention.) I found mite-filled areas in places under the nest boxes where I had never suspected them before, though I’ve had that nest house for years.

The last time I did this, the oil smelled to high heaven. Something must have been wrong with the engine that the oil came out of, or the oil must have been a million years old. (Well, okay, all oil is a million years old. That’s why they call it a fossil fuel. But you know what I mean.) This time, it didn’t smell at all. Painting roosts is an odd way to monitor engine health, but there you go.

The other things I need to do are to reattach the door to the nest house so I can exclude the hens at night and keep the broodies out of there (It blew off in a windstorm and I haven’t gotten around to reattaching it, since I usually leave it wide open anyway) and move all the houses to a new patch of ground, which will leave most of the surviving mites behind. Finally, I’ll take my remaining wood-stove ashes and dump them in the hens’ favorite dust-bathing sites. Juicing up the dust baths with ashes helps rid the hens of lice and mites.

Predator News

We found a couple of additional game trails with telltale feathers here and there, showing that chickens had been taken that way by predators, and we set some more snares. So far we’ve caught a large raccoon in addition to the previously reported bobcat, and predation seems to be down.

I should mention that I learned predator control partly from the local Federal trapper (courtesy of the USDA-APHIS Wildlife Damage Program), partly from the instructional DVD that came with the Dakotaline Snare Package I bought to get myself started with my own snaring, and partly from Hal Sullivan’s excellent book, Snaring 2000

The latter two products get you up and running very quickly and easily. Catching predators with snares is easier and far more targeted than I thought. This is partly due to changes in snaring technology that have taken place over the past 20 years or so, and partly due to the fact that game trails are laughably easy to identify. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a game trail with chicken feathers on it, that heads straight onto my chicken pasture (through the electric fence), is not the work of an innocent creature.

I only recently started using snares. I used to rely on the Federal trapper. Unfortunately, the Wildlife Damage Service relies on matching funds from the county, and Benton County (in spite of being the home of an agricultural college) is run by clueless city slickers who think that all wildlife is cute and cuddly. Their understanding of rural issues is still at the Little Golden Book level.

In general, if you have a farm, you want to live in a rural county, where county government is run by farmers, since they know what’s what in the country. Ideally, you would be in a rural county that’s adjacent to an urban one, thus giving you a city market without having to put up with city cluelessness.

Didn’t there used to be more hens around here?

I recently fell into the free-range chicken farmer’s nightmare: missing hens. A few scatterings of feathers where hens had been nabbed, but obviously a lot more hens are missing than that.

Couldn’t happen at a worse time — during the upswing of the farmer’s market season. Demand for free-range eggs is increasing and I have a sharply reduced supply of hens, and therefore eggs.

I’m rounding up the usual suspects: tightening up the electric fence, finishing up the field mowing so there’s less cover for predators, setting snares on the obvious predator trails into the woods, asking around if anyone has some spare hens or started pullets to sell, ordering more chicks, and giving pep talks to the hens to lay six eggs each every day until the crisis is resolved. Except for the snares, all of this amounts to closing the barn door after then horses have escaped.

I figure it has to be bobcats again. The fact that there’s no chicken blood or body parts on the field seems to mean that the hens were nabbed and then carried off bodily (not eaten on the spot or dragged). This requires that the predator jump the electric fence while carrying a chicken. It takes a pretty big predator to do this (even with fences as low as mine) — bobcats, coyotes, or possibly cougars, or maybe even humans. But the M.O. is just the same as my last bobcat outbreak.

In the past, snares have worked wonderfully against bobcats. If you set ’em right, you get the miscreants and nothing else. The thing is, most bobcats aren’t chicken thieves, but the ones that are will kill every one of your chickens unless stopped. So it’s best to declare war only one the bad boys. The fly in the ointment is that the bobcats are so stealthy that you can be in big trouble before you realize that you have a problem at all. You can’t catch a predator with a snare you haven’t set.

What I’m supposed to do, in order to prevent disaster when Mother Nature deals from the bottom of the deck, is to start a new batch of pullets every couple of months, so there’s a steady stream of replacement hens. There’s a fairly brisk demand for pullets in my area, so I can start way more than I need and still come out ahead.

Why Chickens Should be Fed Outdoors

A lot of the biggest problems we’ve ever had on the farm were related to unwanted critters trying to get at the chicken feed. Recently, we put some pullets into a pasture house and put a feeder inside the house with them as part of the transition. Since this was an open-front house, the local crows started coming in for lunch, which scared the pullets. Moving the feeder outside didn’t get rid of the crows, but there’s a lot more room outdoors, and their occasional presence didn’t terrorize the pullets.

We once had rats in the brooder house. They were attracted by the feed but killed a lot of baby chicks when they were given the opportunity. Rats living in tunnels in the wood shavings are surprisingly hard to detect, so they can do a lot of damage and leave you scratching your head and wondering, “Weren’t there a lot more chicks here yesterday?”

I’ve even lost chicks to hens. Not because the hens do anything to the chicks, but because they frighten the chicks, who then pile into the corners of the house to get away from them. Birds have very weak lungs, so the chicks on the bottom of a pileup can’t breathe.

Raccoons and even goats will go to a lot of trouble to get at chicken feed, too.

So the moral of the story is that you either want your chicken houses to be absolutely tight against any kind of intruder, bird or mammal, or you want your feeders outdoors — at least when the chickens are small.

If your chickens free-range, then they’re entering and leaving the houses all the time, so making the house intruder-proof during the daytime isn’t practical, though you can close it up at night. Outdoor feeders can save you trouble here.

What I try to do is to keep the brooder houses tight and not let the chicks outdoors at all. After they are moved to a pasture house, they get fed outdoors. There’s a transition period that’s troublesome — they tend to be too scared after moving to go check out any outdoor feeders for a few days, so feeding them indoors is necessary. The house needs to be either made tight for this period, or the chickens need to be fed only small amounts of feed so they eat it all right away, and there’s none left over to attract bigger chickens, crows, or whatever.

Of course, outdoor feeders have their own problems (they should be weatherproof and serve more as a chicken feeder than a wildlife feeder), but that’s a topic for another posting.

Update on “Slow Cornish” Broilers

[Edit: Never mind. This batch was a bunch of “Fast Cornish” broilers, which isn’t what we ordered. The real “Slow Cornish” have been far too slow-growing for us, and we have reverted to the faster-growing birds.

Lesson learned: if you tell the hatchery that it’s okay for them to make substitutions, always look at the shipping invoice to see what they actually sent you!

The rest of this article reflects my thinking at the time, when I still thought we had Slow Cornish broilers.]

The current batch of Privett Hatchery “Slow Cornish” broilers is turning out very well, dressing out at an average of over three pounds at eight weeks, in spite of a bout of coccidiosis at three weeks of age.

We put them on medicated chick starter temporarily, two sacks’ worth, and they started getting better right away. They were already quite a bit perkier 24 hours after switching feed, and now they are a very fine batch of broilers indeed.

People on various discussion groups talk about the need to develop a new strain of broilers for pastured use, but they need to keep in mind the old comic-book maxim: “Never compose what you can copy; never copy what you can trace; never trace what you can cut out and paste down.” There’s no point creating a new type of livestock until you’re sure that there isn’t an old one lying around that does the job. Breed creation takes years, costs real money, and usually doesn’t work.

The odd thing about the Privett Slow Cornish is that we think there might be two kinds. The last six weeks or so, we’ve had smaller birds that look less like a standard broiler, and this latest batch is bigger and looks more like a standard broiler. We will investigate.

Growth rate is very important to us, even though many customers prefer small broilers, because we sell by the pound. A four-pound bird pays the bills a lot better than a two-pound bird does. The labor in raising and butchering the broilers is about the same, regardless of size, and (as you’d expect with small-scale nice products) labor is more expensive then feed or any other single cost. So our profits are based on pounds of meat per hour of labor. High growth rates are money in the bank.

The option of selling older broilers doesn’t pan out, not so much that it takes more labor and feed to grow a 12-week broiler than an 8-week broiler, but because customers complain about toughness after 10 weeks. When people say that the American consumer prefers tenderness to flavor, they aren’t kidding. Toughness is a deal-killer.

So we’re happy that the broilers are staring to fall into the right ballpark. Normally we do standard, fast-growing broilers, but there’s so much interest on the Web in slow-growing broilers that we’re making the experiment, partly for something to talk about.