The perils of egg collecting!

It occurred to me the other day while sitting outside one of the chook houses clutching my eye, that egg collecting is quite dangerous.  I realise it’s not in the same league as welding underwater pipelines or being a UN peacekeeper, but I certainly didn’t have the threat of an “eyeball swat” hanging over me when I had a desk job all those years ago.

It was the worst eyeball swat yet.  My eye was streaming, I was dizzy and I had been given an instant headache which was to last two days.  I know I sound awfully precious but wing feathers are quite tough and I’m sure they’d be jagged too, if viewed under a microscope.  The bird had appeared perfectly sane when I’d eased my hand under her to collect the eggs and I don’t know what had made her decide that at my third handful of eggs, I was worthy of attack.

Not all the hens fit into the stereotypical ideal of plump, motherly, and slightly scatterbrained beings.  There are birds, usually the white ones, who try to tear chunks out of your hand and the threateningly curious ones who study your nice, shiny orbs from their perch and you just know they’re wondering whether they taste as good as they look.  There are hens who sneak up behind and have a go at the tiny sliver of skin between the top of your jeans and the hem of your shirt that’s inadvertently ridden up when you’ve squatted to check the lowest nests.  Some use me as a stairway to the upper laying rows and others taste-test my wedding band and the steel rivets on my jeans. 

But then one must remember they are omnivores, although they eat lots of vegetation as it’s standing still and can’t get away.  They love insects and small animals – woe betide any lizards who stray into their field of vision.  And I caution any visitors over 55 to avoid having a heart attack when alone with the chickens as there’s not likely to be much in the way of remains to identify you by!    

But they are cute too.  Sometimes they have a sense of humour – they amuse themselves with plucking pieces of hay from their nest and sending them raining down on your head.  Some wait until your ear is in close proximity before announcing they’ve laid their egg.  And Goldie, the pet chook who lives in the house yard, follows us around remarking “Graaass, graaass, graaasshopper”. 

We’ve been pecked, scratched, flapped, squawked at and excreted on by many of our beloved workers.  But in some ways these inconveniences pale into insignificance when compared to larger OH&S issues – bits of wire John’s used to “fix” things; being mobbed by five over-enthusiastic Maremmas after they’ve swum in the dam; stairs into the henhouse minus a government approved handrail, or no stairs at all, requiring that the egg-collectors scramble into the house in a most unbecoming fashion; and deep, leg-breaking dustbathing holes – not to mention the possibility of snakes lurking in the grass.

Maybe I’d better invest in some protective eyewear at least.  Or just send the kids!

Feeling the Heat

My usual way of coping with the heat is to complain bitterly, wish I had a swimming pool and spend the day cowering in front of the little air-conditioner, refusing to prepare any meal that requires the use of the oven.  Watermelon features heavily on the menu.

The sun shines cheerfully or mercilessly, depending on how you view these things, bringing our overnight low of 27ºC up to a balmy 39ºC by mid-morning and I glance at the clock to see how many “heating hours” are left and amuse myself by predicting whether it will be 42ºC or 44ºC by one o’clock.

The animals cope in different ways and, aside from their disappointment to find the grass browner with every passing day, the goats and cattle seem quite unperturbed.  Meggy and Peggy the pigs lay in their wallows and sleep through it all.  The dogs hide in the shade, panting and rumbling warnings to all who invade their personal space.  Trouble is they are sharing the shade with several hundred chooks.

And it is the chooks that have the most objections to this weather.  Apparently, they are happiest between 21 and 24ºC, a very small and pedantic temperature window if you ask me.  As the temperature rises they hold out their wings to increase the airflow to their skin.  At about 30ºC, they begin to pant, releasing heat through evaporation from the lungs.  Then the problems start.

In this process of panting, they exhale a lot of carbon dioxide, raising their blood pH.  To be honest, my head is too hot for any more reading or research into the physiological consequences of this.  The basic result of the heat is they drink more (of course) and eat less – and if you don’t eat, you don’t lay eggs.  There are currently around 600 of our birds refusing to lay eggs – just like I’m refusing to cook using the oven.

According to some books, at 40ºC panting is often not enough to cool the bird and death can occur.  So, after having 30 days between mid October and mid January that have reached 40ºC or more and a further 11 days 37 to 39ºC, I am just grateful they have survived.  (Of course my temperature readings are from my digital thermometer on the coolest side of the house under the verandah and may be at odds with official temps – but when your eyeballs get dry while walking down to collect eggs, you become convinced that the thermometer is actually erring on the Artic side).

So really, this is a longwinded apology to all our customers who will find us run short of eggs for the next few months while we endure this summer and the birds recover.  As we only sell eggs we produce and do not “top up” with eggs from other producers, we, and by extension, you the customer, are subject to the true natural cycles of heat and cold, flood and drought, day length and the other processes involved in seasonal production.

For now we will focus on making sure the hens have damp soil to cool down in, ice in their water troughs, enough shade to accommodate all those chooks and their disgruntled guardian dogs, and say a quiet thank you to the brave birds that are still managing an egg every now and then, despite all the trials of an Australian summer west of the Divide.

And I will be thankful that it is too hot for flies and snakes, the washing is dry within an hour, the lawn doesn’t need mowing and that the kids don’t mind eating watermelon.

Postscript:  The hardiness of the birds was truly tested on the weekend of 12 – 13 January with temperatures reaching 48ºC and 47ºC and blasting hot winds straight off a desert somewhere.  I am sad to say that we lost 5 birds, which out of almost 1000 is much better than all the disasters I had been imagining.  I can honestly say there is a huge difference in those last few degrees – I sat in the kiddies pool and I’m sure I was still sweating.  It was 37 ºC in the kitchen…. with the air-conditioner on.  So “bravo” to the 975 birds who endured unto the end.  Let’s be thankful they were not tested by fire, after the incredible inferno that destroyed most of the Warrumbungles and so many homes.

What on earth is ‘Eubiotic Lignocellulose’??

I hope no-one loses their lunch over this photo but in the spirit of a picture being worth a thousand words, please bear with my photo of chook poop and spare a thought for my sweet daughter who agreed to hold it!

While flicking through one of the poultry industry magazines we periodically get sent and having a quiet rant to myself about industrialisation and “technological advancements”, I came across two ads for poultry feed additives siting amazing health benefits.  What was this new wonder substance? Wait for it…It’s fibre.  From a bit of googling I found it was actually a finely mulched up wood.

Cellulose and lignin are, in extremely basics terms (because I don’t have time to look up more than basic terms), the parts of plant cell walls that give it shape and structure and hold all the more gooey components inside.  When a “monogastric” animal (eg us, chooks, pigs) eats a plant the two types of fibre (soluble and insoluble) pass through the digestive system, as both are indigestible and aren’t absorbed into the blood.

The benefits listed by these companies selling this finely mulched wood are very true.

The insoluble fibre creates bulk and moves food through the intestines.  This makes the manure drier and decreases diarrhoea, makes the bird feel full, and reduces stress.  The soluble fibre (also called “fermentable fibre”) dissolves in water to become gel-like and promotes nutrient absorption by slowing digestion and the fermenting process increases the population of lactic acid bacteria (the same sort of good guys found in yoghurt and probiotics) which in turn suppress the bad bacteria (like salmonella and e-coli).

I’ll go out on a limb and say that if mulched up wood does all this, then grass might too.  So I suppose that ‘eubiotic lignocellulose’ is a fancy way of saying that the animals should be out eating what they need to eat – grass.  Lucky we had some scientist to confirm what the birds already knew.  Pity humans don’t have the same instinct to eat their salad.

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