Category Archives: Poultry

The Incubator Diaries (Part 1)

I’ve been fighting off involvement with the livestock since we arrived on the farm. After years of working weekends and bank holidays, and being called out on emergencies I left farming about 20 years ago and didn’t want to be dragged back in.

However, I’m doing a bit more as time goes on, and recently bought an incubator (as I may have mentioned last week).  The idea is that we will be able to do more with visiting kids if we have young chicks and a bit of science to offer. At the moment I’m a little lost. Compared to the industrial machines I used to work with a plastic box holding 20 eggs doesn’t seem much of a challenge. For one thing, I keep wondering where all the other eggs are and for another I’m apprehensive about what happens if the attempt is a disaster.

All I have going round in my head is a list of things that can go wrong (dirty eggs, infertile eggs, poor egg storage, too much humidity, too little humidity at the end, dead in shell, mushy chicks, unabsorbed yolk sacs…). How will I ever hold my head up again if I make a mess of it.

Yesterday I noticed that the humidity had been falling since I switched on – stabilising at 36% when it was set at 40%. Of course, when I went through everything I found I’d pressed the wrong button and set the humidity level at 20%. I set it at 45% and the pump immediately started working, with humidity shooting up to 56%. It’s stabilised at 45% overnight so all is good for now.

This is our new machine. It has automatic turning and humidifying as there are times we will be away for days at a time and automation is more reliable than the farm staff.

It currently has eggs from the Polish Bantams and the ones that lay the blue/green eggs. I’m not even sure which they are, we just kept the coloured eggs and are hoping for the best. They must have some Araucana blood in them but the previous poultry keeper was a bit of cross-breeding freak. Well, he was when it came to poultry; I can’t really comment on his personal life.

Watch this space, as they say.

Keets and curly sandwiches…

Having had quite a lot of sandwiches left over from yesterday’s high tea, I didn’t need to make too much effort for lunch. In fact all I had to do was peel back the cling film. They had started to dry out a little and curl at the edges, bit let’s face it, having eaten in a number of typical English cafes in the 60s and 70s, and enjoyed the legendary hospitality of British Rail, I’m no stranger to dry, dodgy sandwiches.

We have saved today’s eggs from the Polish bantams and will start to hatch them in a week or so – you can generally keep them a week without a problem.The main problem is making sure we get good quality eggs and making sure they don’t get put in with the eggs for sale. You know how it is round here…

It will probably take that long to strip down the machine and get it ready to use as I don’t think it was actually washed after being hauled out of the back of the barn.

We started the day with egg collection and brought the keets in to the centre so everyone could get a good look. After that it was salt dough (we need around 750 of them in the next couple of months) and musical accompaniment selected by Emma (I believe it was some popular modern female singer called Jess Glynne). I have, of course, never heard of her. As a middle-aged man I am freeing up large amounts of brain space by refusing to learn the names of modern singers, or listen to their music.

This afternoon we planted a variety of stuff out and set some late seeds. Also swore at the slugs who ate their way through the lettuces in one of the planters.

Let’s see, what else? Well, we found Edie running round with a lead on, and had to find the farmer to check we weren’t missing a dog-walker. It’s apparently part of her training programme to be left to “stay” as the farmer walks away. But she didn’t. I think this part of the training might need a bit more work.

I seem to have spent a fair amount of time making an ID badge for one of the group. (That means it took me longer than I was expecting and longer than I would like Julia to know.) Shame it relates to another group. Same goes for the rubber bands she’s been cadging off me all afternoon – seems she can’t garden but she can sort plant labels for another project and use my bands to bundle them up. I’m all for cooperation but I’m definitely having second thoughts about this. 😉

Alasdair and I have just filled the bird feeders again. The peanut feeder at the front had been knocked off again and the elastic band had slipped so most of the peanuts were gone.

I’m beginning to wonder if the jackdaws have an answer for everything.

Nearly got a good picture of a mint moth – they are flying when nothing else seems to be about – but can’t quite master the macro capability of the new camera.

Quick nature note from yesterday – Julia spotted goldfinches eating seeds from the bergenias (Elephant Ears). I always think of them as being dull plants for municipal planting (they were actually donated by a local park). However they are tough as old boots (which we need for our wind-blasted clay soil) and if they feed goldfinches I’m not going to hear a word against them.

That’s about it for the day – just some paperwork and a phone call to do. And a cup of tea.

Rainy Monday and a feeling of Doom

Well, the elastic bands sort of worked. Only one feeder was knocked off over the weekend, and it retained its contents. On another feeder the band had snapped and was lying in the water container. It makes refilling the feeders a bit more complicated but as it seems to have saved a feeder of Nyger seed it’s worth it.

We had a blue tit visit the feeder I stuck on the window. It announced its presence with an irritating irregular tapping sound, which tends to suggest it might be a bit of a mixed blessing.

Out in the cherry trees down the drive Alasdair spotted a green woodpecker. We’ve had a bit of a chequered history with the species, having some good sightings locally but none round the centre. We hear them all the time and sometimes see something in the distance that flies like one but we’ve not had a good sighting. Alasdair is usually very good on IDs like this, so I added it to the list. A bit later I saw it too, as it rose from the ground and flew down the drive just as Alasdair had reported. Of course, I didn’t have my camera with me.

As I write this there’s more irritating tapping on the window. Julia says it’s a blue tit but as soon as I moved it spooked and flew off.

The keets are all keeping well, as are the two chicks that are in with them. We’ve called it a day with the eggs in the incubator as they were showing no signs of life and were well overdue. That’s what happens when you put dirty eggs in a dirty incubator. I know there’s a skill to it too (It’s not like the monster incubators we used to have at work) but basic attention to detail goes a long way to ensure hatchability.

There are around 17,000 pores in an egg shell. That is 17,000 places for a pathogen to enter. As the egg cools the contents contract and air and is drawn into the shell.

If your egg is laid in a dirty nestbox, or on the floor, the cooling process will suck in germs, which will find the mix of nutrients and warmth in an egg a very good environment.

When I worked in a hatchery we used to candle the eggs at 18 days and transfer them to a hatcher, which had a different environment for the last three days. It was dark in there, it was cramped and , above all, it was 37 degrees C (about 99 degrees F).

Just to add to the excitement, an egg would would occasionally explode when you pulled a tray of eggs out of the rack. These “bangers” were eggs that had incubated a full load of pathogens and, on being disturbed, burst under the pressure. When that happened we used to grab a disinfectant spray and mist the incubator in an attempt to stop a build up of germs. They used to work continuously, so there was never a time when we could switch them off. In fact those machines only stopped three times in 30 years – once when we moved them to another building, once when we programmed a major maintenance programme and once when we switched them off for the final time.

Anyway, backed to the cramped darkness and the stench of a burst egg. It wasn’t pleasant, and it was bad for the other eggs. Sometimes you could see this when candling as you could see a central egg and a spreading ring of eggs around it where it had infected the others.

And so, as my wife gradually draws me back into dealing with poultry, and into incubating more eggs, you can see why the feeling of doom is creeping up on me.

Two of the pictures are from today – the wet one with wheelbarrow and the red one with keets under a heat lamp. The others with poultry are from last week – look how the goslings have grown! Look at the way one of the parents (probably the gander) is thinking of having a go at me. He is going to end up with a shiny jacket and a couple of hours in a low oven if he isn’t careful.

The goats, looking like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth, are planning an escape. I know that because I had to spend 20 minutes getting them back in the pen later that afternoon.

Great days! 😉






Byron the farm apprentice was walking through the barn twenty minutes ago when he heard chirping coming from the large coop in the barn.

We don’t use it for much these days, having moved the last of the hens out a few weeks ago and moving most of the remaining guinea fowl out last week. (No, don’t look for logic, it was just one of the things the farm did to tidy up for Open Farm Sunday).

There are still a few guinea fowl left, indeed two of them provided a great deal of entertainment last night by chasing each other round and flying in and out of the barn to the accompaniment of much noise and posturing.

The chirping was coming from the roof of the coop, where the escapee guinea fowl often roost. There are always escapee guinea fowl. There have been since two days after Farmer David initiated the big guinea fowl round-up.  They are without doubt the escapingest birds I have ever met.

Anyway, to cut to the chase…

There were eight guinea fowl keets on the roof – one looking a bit shaky and one a bit wet. I’m pretty sure that the shaky one isn’t going to survive because it seems to have damage to the nervous system. The wet one is currently in the incubator as we rig up a heat lamp.

It’s probably best to avoid a discussion on Health and Safety here as I’m pretty sure that neither to rescuer nor the photographer were adhering to best practice.

There are also a couple of chirping eggs that we have put in the incubator.

Oh yes, there’s always a surprise if you work here!



The Friday post is late again

As you can see from the main photo, there’s nothing a chicken loves so much as a freshly turned flower bed.

With a lot of help from the Community Payback team we cleared a lot of the overgrown beds yesterday. This always seems to happen at this time of year – it’s too wet to go on the clay soil without damaging what’s left of the structure, then suddenly we are full of weeds.

We had six pairs of blackbirds on the allotment at one time, all enjoying fresh food sources. The Jackdaws and Pied Wagtails arrived a little later and the robin had a go too. Then the chickens arrived. They can move a lot of earth when they start scratching.

That was why we used to feed a “scratch feed” back in the days I was a poultryman keeping birds on deep litter. It was considered old-fashioned in the 70s but I learnt the business off a man who had worked in poultry before the war, so we did a lot of things the old way. We also used to get excellent results, and it’s possible that the two things are linked. There are nutritional and behavioural benefits to throwing grain on the floor (despite the presence of specialist “scratch feeds”  on the web, all you need to do is throw grain on the floor).

Anyway, back to the point – if you throw grain on the floor in a deep litter shed they will scratch the litter, which will stop it caking on top in damp weather, and will enhance the the composting effect.

I haven’t put a link to the term on the web because it turned up several pages of rubbish – there are even poultry keepers who feed “scratch” (as they call it) in feeders. Where is the “scratch” in that?

Putting grain in feeders to give the birds a choice of grain or layer ration is called choice feeding, but I think I may already have delivered more poultry-related content than most people want.

The only other thing of note for Friday was that the touch pad on my lap top has stopped working. I checked I hadn’t accidentally disabled it, and I hadn’t. Looks like I may have accidentally disabled it in another way, such as when I dropped it. Fortunately I have a wireless mouse as a back up.

Trials and Tribulations

Sorry for the lack of communication this week, it’s been one of those weeks. Whether I can accurately describe it as hectic, or whether I should just put it down to lack of application is one of those grey areas. There has certainly been plenty happening, but I have also spent a lot of my spare time in displacement activities.

I was going to rectify this as soon as we arrived on the farm this morning but the flock of chickens that came to look at us as we unlocked the centre indicated that all was not well.

They are supposed to be on the field by the vegetable plot. I sometimes wonder if we are a little tactless in putting them so close to the carrots and potatoes that will accompany them to whatever afterlife a chicken may have, but what they don’t know won’t worry them. The same goes for feeding apple pulp to the pigs after we have been juicing.

We’re not sure what had happened but it looks like someone has opened the doors and just let them out. One of them has a badly fitting bolt that needs leaning on to make it shut, and if it needs me to lean on it then you can be sure that no flapping chicken or gust of wind has accidentally opened it. Even if that had happened, what is the chance of the second coop opening too?

It’s either kids, the provisional wing of the Chicken Liberation Front or an egg collector with no common sense.

I hope they don’t do it again as we’re still in mourning over Nelson the white(ish) cockerel.  About a week ago I mentioned how the farmyard flock seemed to lead a charmed life regarding predators. Two days later we arrived to find a cloud of pale feathers and a distinct lack of cockerel. Looks like a fox caught him out. The main picture shows him from his good side – he was blind in the other eye, hence the name, and possibly why he didn’t see the fox in time.

Anyway, after some gentle persuasion most of them pottered back into the coops and the rest were safely locked away after some scrambling that looked like the training scene from Rocky.


It’s still not feeling very springlike. Though it’s ten degrees Centigrade outside, it’s overcast and there’s a gusting breeze from the north which makes it feel quite chilly.

This doesn’t seem to be a problem for the poultry in the yard, who are foraging actively as I type.


They don’t seem to have a bad life. They have food, water and plenty of room to roam. We don’t lose any to predators, so they must have found a safe place to roost, and they have plenty of shelter from the weather. With glossy plumage and chicks being hatched every year they seem to be in great condition.

On the downside, we rarely find their eggs, but they look so decorative we forgive them for that. We do, after all, have other poultry in runs to produce eggs.

I have to say that after my experience of poultry suggests that they don’t have an active intellectual life, but then again, with a brain the size of my fingernail, they are probably too dim to realise that. Even if they did want to read they are going to have problems without having hands.

Radio, on the other hand, is a different matter. I have known people play the radio to chickens. I’ve been told several times that poultry find it soothing. I have also seen it used where poultry sheds were near RAF bases – the theory being that they will get used to the noise and not panic when jets fly over.

One man told me that his poultry preferred classical music, but everyone else used popular music programmes (I’m tempted to mention the Light Programme but that might show my age). It’s difficult to decide what a chicken likes, as I suspect that the choice of programme was dictated by the musical tastes of the egg collectors rather than the poultry.

One day, if I am reincarnated as a scientist, I may research that question by playing Radio 1, Radio 4 and Classic FM to groups of poultry. It could be a tricky ethical area, as I’m not sure that being compelled to listen to radio 1 all day falls within the welfare codes.



Footnote: My experience of working with poultry on deep litter near RAF Wittering in the Harrier days (and they were noisy!) was that they all fluttered and fussed the first time it happened and then just used to go quiet and cluck a bit on subsequent occasions. 




Guinea Fowl Rescue

My grandfather kept poultry, my earliest memories are of my father working for Thornbers Hatchery around 1959-61 (he had a red Austin A35 van) and when I started work, after years of working round poultry in school holidays, I went to work on a poultry breeding farm under a man who had been on the staff of Wye College in the 1930s.

What I’m getting round to telling you is that I have an “old school” approach to keeping animals.

When we were collecting eggs this morning one of the group noticed that we had a guinea fowl with a foot problem. A big ball of much had gathered under one of its feet and was causing a limp. Normally these gather on the toes. It’s caused by walking around on wet surfaces and when you let the birds wander, like out guinea fowl (which are as hard as peacocks to keep from wandering), it will happen.

As I say, normally these balls of muck gather on the toes. They are made up of mud, straw wood shavings and what I will refer to as “other substances”.

The old school cure is to hit them with a hammer or (because this is a farm and we never use tools properly) a big spanner. If the ball is held against a hard surface and tapped with repeated gentle knocks, the ball will usually crumble away. It sounds a bit drastic but the bird is normally happy to watch and shows no signs of distress. Compared to pulling, cutting or soaking, it is quick, efficient and pain free. It just sounds drastic.

The cause of the problem for the guinea fowl today was that it had gathered a piece of binder twine around its middle toe and the trailing end had allowed the ball to form, so after breaking up the ball we had to cut the twine and unwind it.

This had cut into the toe and looked quite sore.

Unfortunately you can’t completely guard against bits of binder twine, but you do need to remain vigilant when keeping poultry.

As I’ve said before – never a dull moment!





Jobs for the Day

1) Check electricity meter readings

2) Feed Polish chickens

3) Make beadwork Christmas wreaths for keyrings

4) Make mince pies for visitors tomorrow

5) Answer interminable boring emails

6) Make lots of cups of tea (important job!)

7) Clean bird feeders and set up new seed feeder

8) Communal reading of Farmers’ Weekly

9) Set up skittle alley in barn

10) Referee cut throat game of Noughts and Crosses

11) Plan menus for meals on Wednesday and Thursday

12) Arrange for pick up of chicken that Johno is donating to one of the group

And that’s just for starters – there’s always plenty more to do. My next job, however, is making sandwiches for lunch…

Wednesday already?

Yes, it’s Wednesday already and the group is just arriving. One of the parents has just told us the guineafowl are all over the road (fortunately walking rather than flat) and the first task of the day is going to find them and guide them back into the fields. For those of you who have never kept guineafowl or peacocks – once you get them you will have a lot of people giving you messages like this as they tend to go wherever they like with complete disregard for modern traffic – a bit like like my great uncle who can’t see why he needs to go over 15 mph.


They like the roads and often have a walk along them, much to the concern of passing motorists. It’s easier for doing distances I suppose, and from what we’ve seen they also like picking up grit as they potter along.

Grit is an interesting subject when keeping birds. When I first started in the poultry industry we regulalrly fed two sorts of grit to our breeders, but then I was taught the business by someone who had started keeping poultry in the 1920s. As time went by grit became a thing of the past.

The two sorts of grit are insoluble or flint grit, which supposedly aids the grinding process in the gizzard and soluble grit, or oystershell, which is assimilated by the bird to ensure good egg shells. It now seems that birds are capable of digesting food without using grit. Modern poultry rations seem able to include enough calcium to make oystershell superfluous, though that isn’t what I’m talking about here.

Wild birds still seem to like picking up grit, a fact that is used in the medication of red grouse in the wild. They may need it to help with digestion but they probably also extract minerals from it as it breaks up. Again, modern rations contain enough vitamins and minerals for poultry without them having to eat grit.


For once I actually have a picture of the right species of bird!