Sunday, March 15, 2015

Probiotics For Chickens: What They Do & When To Use Them

What Are Probiotics 

Probiotics are foods or dietary supplements that contain live bacteria. They are given to animals (and people too) in order to add to, or replace, the bacteria that exists in the animals gastrointestinal tract.  Probiotics are said to provide health benefits but these benefits are generally not well explained or understood.

So Whats Going On in the Gut

Animal gastrointestinal tracts are populated by hundreds of different species of bacteria in mind-boggling numbers (There are billions and billions of bacteria in any animals gut). 

A chickens gut harbors billions of bacteria

Each of these types of bacteria competes for food and living space until all the available food and living space in the gut are used up. The type of bacteria and the numbers of each type of bacteria varies from individual to individual and changes over time as the animal is exposed to new types of bacteria. 

Most of the bacteria in an animals gut are not harmful. However, even seemingly healthy animals will have a some harmful bacteria such as e-coli, or salmonella in their guts. However, the bad bacteria are in such small quantities that they can't do any harm.  The population of these bad bacteria are held in check by the good bacteria that out-compete them for resources and keep their numbers so low they can't make the animal sick.
The gut is filled bacteria. Mostly good and some bad.

When It Makes Sense To Use Probiotics

A healthy adult chicken will already have a gut composed primarily of good bacteria. If you give that chicken a probiotic that contains new strains of good bacteria, you might alter the population balance between various good bacteria strains in its gut, but not necessarily improve the chickens health. Basically, you would be just swapping in a new good bacteria for an old good bacteria or increasing the level of one kind of good bacteria relative to other good bacteria in the chickens gut. Therefore, we don't see much benefit in providing probiotics to healthy adult chickens. However, the key words here are "healthy" and "adult." 

Healthy adult chickens don't need a probiotic supplement
Newborn chicks don't have guts that have had time to build up strong populations of good bacteria. Newborn chicks are more susceptible to having bad bacteria out-compete good bacteria if they are exposed to a potent source of bad bacteria. Contaminated food or water dishes are one possible source of bad bacteria. Chick feed may also harbor bad bacteria if it has been contaminated by rodent droppings.

We recommend providing a probiotic to chicks for the first week of life. This seems like a reasonable and cheap pre-caution.

We recommend giving newborn chicks a probiotic

We also think it makes sense to provide probiotics to adult chickens in certain circumstances. As mentioned earlier, a healthy adult will already have established its gut bacteria. Backyard chickens in particular get plenty of exposure to healthy bacteria by snacking on yard plants and bugs, treats and table scraps.

However, chickens suffering from a particular bacterial disease may be treated with antibiotics. The antibiotic will kill off the bacteria and it would also destroy beneficial bacteria in the chickens gut. This would leave the door open to bad bacteria to take over the niche formally held non-harmful strains or bacteria.

Lactobacillus is found in many dairy products

Providing probiotics to adult chickens after they have been treated with antibiotics also seems like a reasonable course of action. By "after" we mean giving your chickens probiotics for a week or two after they have taken the last dose of antibiotics. Why? Because antibiotics will also kill the good bacteria in the probiotic so provide the probiotics immediately after the last dose of antibiotics . 

Sources of Probiotics
Chicken owners can buy probiotics online and at feed stores. Most of these concoctions contain a relatively small variety of good bacteria including the following strains:

  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Lactobacillus casei
  • Lactobacillus bulgaricus 
  • Lactobacillus plantarum
  • Streptococcus thermophilus
  • Enterococcus faecium
  • Bifidobacterium

Another approach is to feed your chickens a small amount of food that contains these same good bacteria. The advantage of this approach is that foods will contain many more beneficial strains of bacteria than the commercial products and you may already have them in your refrigerator so they cost you nothing. 

Bifidobacterium is found in many soft cheeses
NOTE ON DAIRY PRODUCTS: Chickens have a difficult time digesting dairy products. If you provide cheese or yogurt do so in small quantities and only to adult chickens (not chicks). The best yogurt will contain little or no sugar. Try to get relatively unprocessed brands such as Chobani, Fage, La Yogurt, and Dannon. The same applies to cheese; relatively unprocessed soft cheeses are best. Raw milk "artisanal" cheese is the best.

Give dairy in small amounts and use low/no sugar varieties

Natural sources of these probiotics include yogurt, sauerkraut, sourdough, miso, and soft cheeses.

Probiotic Strains Typically Found in Yogurt
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Lactobacillus casei
  • Lactobacillus bulgaricus
  • Streptococcus thermophilus
Probiotic Strains Typically Found in Sauerkraut
  • Lactobacillus plantarum
Probiotic Strains Typically Found in Sourdough Bread
  • Lactobacillus plantarum

Probiotic Strains Typically Found in Miso (Japanese Soup)
  • Aspergillus oryzae (a fungus)
Probiotic Strains Typically Found in Soft Cheese (Gouda, Mozzerella, Colby)
  • Bifidobacterium
  • Enterococcus faecium
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Lactobacillus casei
What about Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)?

Many chicken owners give their chickens apple cider vinegar because they believe it provides health benefits to their chickens.  However, Acetobacter is not a probiotic. It differs in a very important respect from every other strain of bacteria mentioned so far in this article. Acetobacter requires oxygen to live and there is no oxygen in the gut. Acetobacter can't survive in the gut and so it can't out-compete the bad bacteria.

ACV alters the pH in the gut to make it more acidic. Commercial poultry operations acidify their chickens water in the week prior to slaughter, but they do this to decrease the overall level of bacteria (bad and good) in the gut so as to limit contamination during processing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Chick Starter & Grower Feeds Compared

We put this chart together for backyard chicken owners who are interested in comparing various chick feeds.

Below are tables that compare some of the larger brands.  We've also included the manufacturer's descriptions to provide additional insight regarding the benefits of their feed.

Feed Comparison

Manufacturers Product Descriptions

A Place To Put Your Feed

The New BriteTap Chick Feeder keeps chicks feed clean and then converts into an outdoor feeder for scratch, grit and oyster shells. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Cochin Chicken: The Amazing Backstory of the Chicken That Changed The World

 The Cochin chicken changed the world. Its history is the juiciest and most interesting of any breed we've ever profiled. 

Technically classified as a "meat" bird, the modern Cochin is generally kept primarily as a pet because of its beautiful plumage, feathered feet and docile nature.  While not of commercial importance today, the Cochin is of incredible importance in the development of both commercial and backyard chicken keeping. What follows is the back story behind the bird.

White Cochin

Mutiny on the Chicken

The first Cochin was brought to England in 1842 by Captain Edward Belcher as a present for the newly married Queen Victoria.  

The character of Captain Bligh in Mutineers of the Bounty was
based on Edward Belcher.

Belcher was an experienced sailor, war hero and explorer. He was also one of the most disliked men in the Royal Navy -- hated by both men under his command and his superiors because of his harsh and abusive treatment of others. 

Charges were brought against Belcher by the crews of the Aetna in 1833, and the Sulfur in 1841. In 1854 Belcher would barely escape a court-martial for the loss of several vessels during an expedition in the Canadian Arctic where he stubbornly refused to accept the advice of subordinates with greater experience sailing in Arctic conditions. 

After returning from his command of the Aetna, Belcher was also in civil court accused by his wife Diana of knowingly infected her with venereal disease. During the trial (which Belcher protracted to punish his wife) a medical examination of Diana revealed that Belcher had also beaten her.

Diana didn't get the divorce she wanted, but she did even the score. In 1871, she published Mutineers on the Bounty, basing her portrayal of the cruel and tyrannical Captain William Bligh on her husband.

Anthony Hopkins & Mel Gibson In the 19884 Movie Mutiny on the Bounty

No Royal Welcome

Blecher was a miserable SOB, but his skills as a military commander and sailor kept him in the Navy despite all the controversy surrounding his commissions. 

After defeating the Chinese fleet and capturing Hong Kong for the British in 1842, he returned to England  bearing a gift five hens and 2 roosters for Queen Victoria. Captain Belcher had acquired the chickens somewhere along his voyage that included stops in China, Sumatra and Vietnam.

The gifts were accepted by the Queen, but  the loathsome Belcher was not greeted by her as would have been the custom for a returning war hero.  Belcher's reputation for cruelty and his scandalous behavior towards his wife made him unacceptable for polite company in London.

Her Majesty's Cochins - Engraving from The Poultry Book

Exotic animals and other "curiosities" fascinated the Victorians and the birds that Belcher delivered were unlike anything seen in Britain.  Three times the size of a standard chicken of its day and with with feathers on its feet, the Cochin was an immediate hit with the Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  

The royal couple built a new coop at Windsor castle and began breeding the Cochin for both dinners at the castle and as gifts for other European royalty. 

A view of the coop built by Queen Victoria & Prince Albert

How the Cochin Changed The World

Then as now, people watch celebrities and Victoria and Albert were at the top of the watch list.  Their interest in the Cochin caught the public's attention and more people began to keep and breed chickens.  

Demand for exotic breeds skyrocketed after 1845, creating a price bubble that was similar to the tulip mania that gripped Europe two hundred years prior.  The money to be made in exotic breeds created a poultry ecosystem that included books on poultry keeping, poultry shows and exhibitions, breeding programs, and importation of other Asian chicken breeds. 

Queen Victoria & Prince Albert 

This fad, known as "The Fancy," spread to the United States where breeds such as the Rhode Island Red and Leghorn were developed by importing new stocks and cross breeding them to develop new breeds with desirable characteristics.

One of the characteristics was the size and weight of the bird. Prior to the 1850's, chickens were valued primarily for their eggs and for use in cock fighting.  

"The Fancy" resulted in new chickens breeds that could pack on more muscle mass with a lower investment in feed.  As the price of chicken dropped, it became much more affordable. Eventually, chicken replaced other poultry breeds such as ducks, turkeys and geese as the breed of choice.  Today, Americans consume more chicken than any other meat -- all thanks to the Cochin.  

Source: USDA