Sustainable Poultry

The amount of hormones, antibiotics and similar junk that has been fed, injected and sprayed onto the food that makes up the bulk of our modern diet beggars belief and is without doubt the source of many of the sicknesses which afflict us today.

So, what are the first steps to providing a healthy source of food for your family? 

One of the first animals that most people on farms and smallholdings decide to acquire are chickens because the birds are readily available, and because most people believe that they do not require much in the way of housing or feed. Few people realise that a poorly-managed flock becomes a constant financial drain on the resources of a household, especially one that is trying to be self-sustainable.

The mistake many first-time poultry-keepers make is to either get a few birds from a local auction, accept unwanted birds as a gift, or pick up some day-old chicks from a roadside vendor. These are all poor choices.

Most people believe that any bird will do, and they like the idea of a multi-coloured flock running around their piece of land or backyard. The problem here is that you never know what kind of bird you are getting. A mixed flock may look nice and homely, but invariably it has major limitations. Not all birds are equal.

At an auction, it’s generally the runts and poor layers which are available, so you will be starting off with very poor stock. It is very difficult to build up a sustainable flock if your foundation birds are made up of the unwanted birds from another flock.

The day old chicks for sale on the side of the road are very often males only. Battery chicks are sexed the day they hatch, with the females kept for mass egg production and the males (being “worthless”), are sold off to the passing trade. These males make very poor meat birds, and are not much good for anything else.

I have a friend who recently bought broiler birds from a local auction. They looked fine, but I could not tell what breed they were. However, the lady that sold them assured us that they were top quality broilers. Three weeks later, the chicks had not gained much weight and looked as if they were still only a week old.

So, the lesson here is, when you are at an auction and looking at any kind of livestock, beware! It’s always best to do a bit of research into what kind of bird is needed for your family, before you rush out to ‘get some birds’.

Are you looking for egg production, a meat bird, would you prefer a dual-purpose bird that is good for both meat and eggs? Or are you a vegetarian that does not want the birds for any kind of consumption but would rather have a scratcher to assist with bug control in the veggie garden?

There are chickens for almost every requirement that you may have, but how do you find out the right bird for you? 

This is an individual choice, and needs to be made with some kind of plan in mind. Setting out your goals and requirements are paramount. From there you can work out what is needed in a breed to sustain your family.

Our first flock of birds was a rush purchase for egg production. We bought a flock of 30 laying hens from a friend. Based on our understanding and calculations, we would be able to run a small profit from almost day one. The birds were duly delivered and we waited expectantly to make our promised deliveries of free-range eggs. However, the birds were just not laying as expected.

After much discussion amongst those in the know, we found out that a combination diet of grain and free-ranging was not conducive to high egg production. These birds had been specifically bred to be fed a high protein diet, they required 18 hours of artificial light every day and they needed to be housed in closed batteries. Not something that we wanted!

We wanted real free-range eggs and locking them up to increase production was not what we wanted to do. We had to rethink our entire poultry set-up. What we wanted was a hardy dual purpose bird that would do well free-ranging, with a grain based diet to supplement their protein requirements. In addition it had to have a high egg and meat production that would provide us with a good protein source.

I am partial to indigenous animals so naturally we had a look at what was available. I started speaking to an expert poultryman and he was able to supply me with some day old Koekoeks, these birds were considered for many years as one of South Africa’s finest dual purpose breeds.

The Koekkoek was developed in Potchefstroom by line-breeding three top class heritage breeds. The Black Australorp (Meat and Eggs), the Plymouth Barred Rock (Meat and Eggs) and the White Leghorn (Eggs) from this mix the Koekoek was developed and a unique South African breed was developed that fit the bill for a locally robust and productive bird. Unfortunately, it has now fallen out of fashion due to the commercial Ross, Cobb, Hiline and other breeds that are now used for concentrated meat and egg production.

The Koekoek has over the last 6 years been the main breed that we have worked with on our property. We have been through a number of generations of this amazing bird that is a consistent layer and a wonderful meat bird. As to being hardy, we have had birds that have easily survived –8°C winters with no additional heat or supplementation.

My advice to prospective poultry owners is to first understand what you want from a breed, because each breed has strong and weak points. Then find a breeder (or two: try to get cocks and hens from two separate lines) that keep the breed you are looking for. A good place to start is the classifieds section of agricultural magazines such as the Farmers’ Weekly.

Then you need to decide if you want to buy adult birds or if you are prepared get chicks and raise them. If you get chicks, they will be cheaper (so you will get more birds for your money) but you will need to have the correct equipment to raise them: infra-red lamps, drown-proof waterers, chick food dispensers, a cosy, well-ventilated (yet draught-free) area, and the right food.

All of this comes at a cost and needs to be factored into the equation. Depending on the season, it can take you up to a year to get them to the point of laying their first eggs. Birds generally start laying at six months, but if you start them late in spring or summer you could have birds that don’t come into lay before winter and you will then have to feed them through winter before the first eggs are laid in spring.

If you decide on adults, expect to pay a premium, as the breeder has already got them to a breeding age, taken the mortality losses and fed and cared for them. Expect to pay at least a few hundred rand for a trio of pure-bred birds. The cost however will be paid back in higher egg production and better slaughter weights than anything generally available from an auction.

A word of caution when purchasing from show poultry breeders: make sure that you ask for commercial stock and not show stock.

Don’t fall for the idea that you need show quality birds, as show birds often do not have the ‘working’ traits that one would need for self-sustainability.

Many working breeds have been reduced to pure show breeds and as such do not have the desirable traits which traditional working birds used to possess as the original robust genetic integrity has been traded for prestige on the show bench.

Very good examples of this can be seen in the low fertility or inbreeding found in Indian Games (Cornish Hens) and Wyandottes, which are two of my favourite breeds, but which I have stopped working with due to the poor genes available in South Africa.

The satisfaction that you gain from running a purebred flock is huge. The additional benefits are quality meat and eggs, and the fact that you will able to use the birds in trades with others looking for high-quality birds. We have used our birds to trade for other desirable breeds as well as selling birds directly for additional income or to pay for their own keep. The difference in quality is clearly apparent when two birds of differing quality are placed next to one another. To have a flock of birds which even a novice can see are superior is a worthy achievement.

I encourage you to have a good look at the heritage breeds of poultry that are available in South Africa. Within these breeds lie the future of your self-sustainability. They are genetically robust, they are able to provide and reward your families with quality meat and eggs, and this for very little input and maintenance as opposed to factory breeds.

Lastly, you will have the privilege of keeping alive rare and fast-vanishing breeds which may well provide the basis and genes of future breeding stock.

The next meat bird that many people try is the turkey. This is a bird that is almost guaranteed to frustrate, as they are notoriously difficult to raise and breed on a sustainable basis.

Nearly all of the turkeys that are sold in our supermarkets are Large Breasted Whites. This is a highly selected variety of turkey that is unable to reproduce: the turkey hens need to be artificially inseminated to produce viable eggs; their ability to self-perpetuate has been destroyed in favour of faster growth and more breast meat. The mind boggles at what needs to happen on a turkey farm ensure the successful production of the next generation of ‘healthy meat’.

With free-range turkeys the story is very different. The Toms (male turkeys) keep a harem of female hens that they preen, puff and generally show off for. Egg production is a hit-and-miss affair that may or may not work out. Often the turkey hen forgets where she’s laid her eggs and starts a new batch elsewhere. Two year and older hens seem to have better success and hatch rates.

Once the little chicks hatch, this is when the next danger period starts. They are notoriously prone to the slightest infection or draught. A common saying goes; “If the weather report says bad weather will arrive tomorrow evening, the chicks start dying tonight.”

However, once they have survived their first few weeks, what a pleasure! Being able to watch the fluffy little chicks transform into beautiful bronzed adults makes up for all your hard work.

Turkeys are predominantly grazers and go through a surprising amount of green food, always make sure that they have some form of greens available. Winter may be a problem, what we do is plant a lot of cabbage and other brassicas to supplement our birds in the dry winter months. One thing I can say is that free-range turkey is without a doubt one of the best-flavoured meats that you will ever taste. Unfortunately, there is no way to get real free-range turkey meat other than to do it yourself.

Finally, a word on using your birds for the table

This issue is by its very nature, sensitive. I for one look at the issue from a sustainability and health view. Trying to become self-sustainable and being an omnivore presents unique challenges. Some will vehemently disagree with my beliefs and frankly they have the right to do so. Each person has their own self entitled belief system that is shaped by their perceptions and worldview.

My belief system allows me the luxury of meat, for others it may not. The fact that our family consumes meat is compounded by the need to provide this protein source in a healthy and ethical manner. Either I buy plastic-wrapped, hormone-laden meat from a shop or I produce it myself.

The idea of eating meat which has been unethically raised revolts me and I take great pleasure in being able to feed my family with healthy meat from animals which we have bred and raised on our own property, and which have led happy, contented lives without the multitude of stresses that occur in an unnatural factory farm environment.

The slaughter of these animals is a solemn and dirty task, there is no pleasure in this act. It is however required to get this food source onto the plates of my family. What it does do for our family is underpin the cycle of life that we as humans are so quick to gloss over, or are even loath to consider. Especially when one picks up a clean and sanitised pack of chops, or de-boned chicken breasts off the supermarket shelf, without a second thought as to what was required to get this protein source to our tables.

Every one of my children understands exactly where the drumstick or chop that lies on their plate comes from. They have been intimately involved in raising and feeding our animals, and as such understand the work and sacrifice involved to get this food onto their plates. This in itself provides a profound respect and insight into the value of our animals and this I believe is an integral part of the noble pursuit of becoming self-sustainable.

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