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.

Coccidiosis on pasture? Impossible!

Man, I thought I’d seen everything. But this one’s weird. The life cycle of coccidiosis is interrupted if you move the chickens to a new patch of ground every day. Coccidiosis is a in intestinal protozoan parasite, and it depends on infecting and reinfecting the victims through feces. Not just any feces, either — feces that has been aged enough but not too much. The coccidia in the poop aren’t ready to reinfect the birds until they go through a life-cycle change, which takes about three days. With daily-move pasture pens, you leave yesterdays poop behind before (to get technical about it) the oocysts can sporulate.

Well, it’s not working with one pasture pen of broilers. This has never happened to us before. Our best guess is that the chicks we were getting from Jenks Hatchery all these years had received the coccidiosis vaccine and we didn’t know it, while this year’s ones from Privett didn’t get it. If they got a good solid infestation in the brooder house, maybe it keeps getting worse for a while even with daily moves on the pasture. Don’t know for sure.

Anyway, the symptoms were the usual: pinkish spots on the poop (that’s blood, ewww!), listless chicks with dirty feathers.

Also, the fix was the usual, and seems to be working fine: Switch to medicated chick starter. Works like a charm, and the chicks look a lot perkier already.

Some people don’t like medication — they dislike it so much that they’d let their chickens suffer and die rather than cure them. I hate that.

I think that over-medication is silly and is also bad form, but coccidiosis is no joke. We do what we can to prevent it, including the deep-litter system in the brooder house and daily moves on pasture, but when prevention doesn’t work, one needs to go to the cure without hesitation.

Anyway, the chicks are doing better, and that’s the main thing!

Crows, Hoophouses, Predator Control.

Our local crows discovered a loose piece of hardware cloth in of our portable hoophouses and killed about a dozen young broilers. I need to update my hoophouse page to point out that we’ve made all our broiler houses burglar-proof, with chicken wire covering the whole thing, and hardware cloth over the chicken wire near the bottom to keep raccoons from reaching in and grabbing broilers.

While there’s a lot of romantic nonsense about country life being just like a petting zoo or a Little Golden Book, that hasn’t been my experience. If we don’t react to predators right away, all our chickens will soon be dead. We’ve tightened up the house. So far, so good.

Last year I had a lot of trouble from crows. I tried everything. What worked was shooting a few of them. The word got out and the rest stayed away. I was sad that scarecrows didn’t work, because I like the look of a field with a scarecrow in it. (Maybe I’ll set a couple up as a fashion accessory, rather than for any better reason.)

The neighbors report quite a bit of coyote activity, so I suppose it’s time to start patrolling the perimeter fence again. It turned out, rather to my surprise, that finding predator trails is trivially simple even if there isn’t a trail of feathers from stolen chickens. All you have to do is look. Then you use the intervention of your choice.

My personal preference is live and let live, which is why my electric fence is my first line of defense. I’m okay with zillions of predators crossing my property so long as they leave my livestock alone. But the ones that cross my electric fence are showing an excessively high level of motivation and constancy of purpose. With these, the first choice is to exclude them (maybe the fence is too high or too low or doesn’t have enough voltage, and fixing this will exclude the predator and all his friends). If that doesn’t work, shooting is second best and trapping is third.

Lots of people would phrase that last part to be, “Trapping is the method of last resort,” but that implies hesitancy, and when you hesitate in the face of predators, more of your critters get killed. Responding quickly is very important.

I’ve found snares to be very effective when used sensibly. I don’t like leg-hold traps. I’ve found Hal Sullivan’s Web page to be very informative, and I’ve used his snare kits and benefited from the DVD that comes with them. The main thing to do is to identify trails used only by the predators eating your chickens, and set a snare in that place only. You don’t want to go setting them in the local equivalent of Grand Central Station; you’re after specific animals, usually a single individual.

With pastured poultry, placing the snares inside the electric fence pretty much guarantees that you won’t be catching innocent bystanders.

Privett “Slow Cornish” Broilers — So Far, So Good

Karen makes all the decisions on the broiler side of the farm. (Actually, she’s in charge of almost everything, these days.) Two years ago, she experimented with the “Freedom Ranger” broilers, which gave mixed results. These were supposed to be more like standard-breed chickens, which they were, with all that this implies, good and bad (which I may go into later).

For many years we got our modern, hybrid broiler chicks locally, from Jenks’ Hatchery in Tangent, Oregon. This worked very well for us, and we had our operation tuned to the strengths and weaknesses of the modern hybrid broiler. These broilers grow like weeds but are lethargic and “don’t act like real chickens” after the first few weeks.

Well, Freedom Rangers went out of business. Jenks’ Hatchery has been mothballed after losing their contract with Draper Valley, so we were forced to try something new.

Karen turned to Privett Hatchery in Portales, New Mexico, which is where we always buy our egg-type pullets. At the moment we’re using their “Slow Cornish” broilers, a white-feathered, broad-breasted hybrid broiler that looks like a modern broiler but acts more like a real chicken (active and alert).

So far, they seem to be on the growth curve in Table 20-10 of the the 1991 edition of “Commercial Chicken Production Manual,” which puts them in the right ballpark. They’re only 6 weeks old right now, and the few we butchered dressed out at 2 lbs. This is too small, of course, but we expect 3.5 lbs. at 8 weeks and 5.75 lbs. at 12 weeks.

This is way faster than standard-breed broilers, which dress out at 2 lbs. at 8 weeks and 3 lbs. at 12 weeks — if you’re lucky. I think it’s also faster growth than the Freedom Rangers provided, though I’d have to dig up Karen’s records to be sure.

So far, so good. It’s a little early to tell at 6 weeks just how they’ll turn out, but I have a good feeling about these broilers. I recommend Privett Hatchery. They’re very good.

Interesting Article on Early Egg Farming

A Watt Poultry article gives a pretty good rundown of the early egg industry, marred mostly by a few patches of garbled numbers.

The authors correctly identify the pioneering breeders who changed the egg industry in the first third of the 20th century (including James Dryden, whose book I need to reprint some day) and have some interesting tables of productivity per hen.

The numbers giving the amount of labor required per hen are garbled, but the numbers that report how many hens represent a full-time job at different technology levels are correct. The numbers tend to explain why you shied away from doubling your flock size this year!