Tag Archives: chickens

bad year for chickens

It’s been a bad summer for our chickens, we’ve lost four hens since spring. I’m not entirely surprised, the batch of chicks we got when we moved in (spring 2008) are 5 years old now. And while chickens can live to be 10 or more, 5 or 6 seems to be when the mysterious diseases begin to pick them off…

Luckily the new ladies are all doing fine, we still have the four Zibbleses

zibbleses

Ok, that’s just two, but have you ever tried to herd chickens? We can’t tell The Zibbleses apart, hence the name… We also have two white ladies

white ladies

If you’re like me, you don’t believe that one in the back is a hen. I’ve spent 6 months claiming she was a very confused roo. But last weekend we watched her lay an egg, so I guess I have to adjust my thinking…

Those six birds? When we adopted them we were told they’re straight run. So these six hens must be a balance for all those occasions when “straight run” really means 75% roosters…

And we still have plenty of old ladies running around, laying the occasional egg and keeping the bugs down.

old ladies

But honestly? The flock is suddenly down to 10 birds, and I’m starting to wonder if I can pick up a hen or two off craigslist…

poultry

The chickens have been LOVING the recent spate of sunny weather. The grass and other plants are green and tasty. The bugs are out, the dust baths are dusty. Really, what more could a chicken ask for?

spring barred rock

I love watching these ladies, they’re better than TV (although some days that’s not hard).

scalpie

I’m a bit sad that we have no chicks this spring. But it’s for the best. Neil and I agreed that trying to process meat birds when I’m 7 or 8 months pregnant would not be a brilliant plan if we could avoid it. My mom agreed, so my parents ordered some extras this year to make up the difference.

old roo

And we have no layer chicks either. The addition of 5 young hens last fall means we have an ABUNDANCE of eggs right now.

eight eggs a day

We’ve gotten 16 in the last two days. I’m probably eat 3 eggs a day but we just can’t keep up with them! It’s a good problem to have, mostly.

calcium

Growing up with chickens I know we gave them calcium supplements from time to time. I remember the bags of oyster shells. That’s not something we’ve had to worry about much with our birds. I sometimes wonder if it means there’s more calcium in the soil (and thus the plants) that our Vermont birds forage for all summer.

But in the winter sometimes the birds get thin egg shells. There is calcium in their pellet food, but it can be a good idea to give them additional calcium, which they can choose to eat if needed. Instead of buying oyster shells Neil and I decided to try something different.

eggshells

Eggshells. Clearly this is why the layers need so much calcium. Why not give it back to them when we’re done with those eggs? First I dried the shells at 200F in my oven for about an hour. Then I put them all in a plastic bag and crushed them up fine.

crushing eggshells

This does several things. Cooking the eggshells dries up any remaining moisture, and probably should kill any bacteria*. Crushing them makes it easier for the birds to eat. It also makes the shells not look like egg shells anymore. The last thing I want to do is give my birds the idea of eating eggs…

crushed eggshells

All those eggshells above (about 2 weeks’ worth at 4 eggs a day, so maybe 50 eggshells total) gave me somewhere between 1 and 2 cups of calcium supplement. Which I put in a tray (separate from their food) over by where the birds like to lay their eggs. We’ll see if they like it, or just spill it everywhere…

*not that there should be any bacteria since we wash them when they come in from the coop. But it can’t hurt.

January thaw

The snow pack outside is looking pretty soggy, because it’s been above freezing for more than 24 hours. The rain on Sunday didn’t help much either.

January thaws are to be expected, what with it being January and all. It was a perfect weekend for opening the double doors long enough to get the Christmas tree out of the living room.

january thaw chickens

It was also the first weekend in months that the chickens actually deigned to come out of the coop and stand around in the muddy bits of exposed ground. So we all enjoyed a bit of a respite from the winter. But I hope it doesn’t last too long. I still want to get some more snow-shoeing in before spring!

they’re still here

This time of year I tend to skimp on the chicken content. There’s just not much to talk about. But don’t worry, they’re still here.

sheltered ladies

They’ve just taken shelter in a sunny, protected spot to keep out of the wind. Well, except for Thomas. He’s standing guard just the way a good rooster ought to. I’m afraid he’s getting old for a meat bird, but he’s still the prettiest rooster around.

thomas the friendly rooster

The new birds are getting pretty big. Well, the barred rocks are. The squirrely little white birds are still little and white. And squirrely, someday maybe they’ll learn I’m the source of food; but not yet.

new birds

Out of the 6 straight run birds I think we’ve got two roosters. Can you figure out which ones I suspect? If I’m right the roos should start crowing (and the ladies start laying) sometime in the next month. Then at last we’ll be able to stop buying eggs…

Chicken day

It doesn’t seem appropriate to blog about my meat birds all summer, and then skip the final step: we harvested the last of our meat birds last week.

This process is not fun. It is, however, an important part of owning our food. Chicken day lets us say “Yes, we take responsibility of the meat which we eat.” And I believe that’s important.

outside

I divide the process into two steps. The first steps happen out doors. Plucking, gutting – I think of these at the “dirty” steps. The scalding pot lets us pluck more easily, the coolers chill the meat until we can move it inside.

Chickens (like all living creatures) do not have bacteria in their muscles. So tell me – why do we ALL accept that chicken must be cooked until it isn’t pink to kill the salmonella? It’s because the process of slaughtering a chicken is so very hard to do at any speed without spreading the germs from the chickens large intestines everywhere.

Slaughter happens quickly but deliberately so I can make sure the chickens don’t suffer any more than necessary. Plucking and gutting happen slowly and patiently- they’re done outside so we can avoid spreading feces and make sure the meat going into the coolers is clean and safe. Also outside requires less scrubbing afterwards.

Once the birds are cleaned and in the coolers they look like giant rotisserie chickens – more like something you’d find at the store. We move inside now and butcher the whole roasters into halves and quarters, drums & thighs, boneless skinless breasts, stir fry meat, etc… We part out the portions down to sizes that are useful to us. Sharp knives and lots of towels are needed, but at least I can sit down now.

inside

Once the meat is bagged and in the freezer there’s still more to do. Chicken fat is rendered down to schmaltz. Leftover bones and meat are simmered down to stock and soup. I clean up and freeze the livers, kidneys, and hearts.

When you’ve put this much of yourself -your emotions, time, effort, and yes money- into raising 24 chickens wasting a single portion is very clearly unconscionable.

3 months

The meat birds are three months old now. And they’re full sized. The really freaky cornish cross breeds get this big in two months. But three months is still shockingly fast growth. Most laying breeds don’t get to be 8lbs, and the ones that do take over a year…

3 month old bird comparision

The rooster in the back is Thomas, the surprisingly competent 2 year old freedom ranger rooster we kept last winter. He’s the exception to the rule. The rule being that most meat birds seem to die of natural causes within 18 months. It’s as if their whole lifespan is just sped up. And if you look closely at him you can tell he’s got the gnarled feet of a much older chicken.

Still, this year’s batch are pretty happy birds, scratching and dust bathing, and sun bathing. They don’t run around as much as layers. But they’re still living the good life – chicken style.

sun bathing chicken

But the hard part is coming soon.

This and that

This: It’s the start of August, which means it must be time for my monthly check in on the world’s happiest little meat chickens (I did 1 day, 1 week, and 1 month, why break a good pattern?)

2 month birds

They’re still the happiest meat birds, but possibly not so little anymore. They’re about the same size as our squirrely little home grown layers, and almost as big as that brahma in the photo!

hanging out

And they LOVE free ranging. They’re the first birds out of the coop every morning, and hang out by the door, not wanting to go in until full dark.

But as they get big you can tell they’re meat birds. First, they have massive legs to support their weight. Second, they do get a little front heavy as those boneless skinless chicken breasts we all love so much aren’t exactly normal. However these guys still run, jump after insects, eat grass and seed and bugs. It’s just that they need to take frequent breaks.

hanging out 2

That: I picked two button winners from last week’s post! The blue buttons will go to the first number I drew. That is #7 so Jennifer R will get them. The brown ones will go to the second number: 1. And that’s Sarah! Congrats! Check your inbox, I’ll need your addresses.

maybe I should count the chickens, once in awhile

You know the phrase about not counting your chickens before they hatch? I totally get that. Even when you know how many eggs the hen is sitting on you don’t know how many will be viable. And the number of times a mama hen looses a baby and no one seems to know where it’s gone to? Yeah, that happens a lot too.

So I don’t usually count my chickens until they’re a few months old. But I got lax about it last winter, and so I’m left not knowing exactly how many chickens I have. I know that we kept 5 hatchlings last fall. What I don’t know is if that was 5 hens, plus the extra rooster. Or 5 hatchlings including the extra rooster.

And they all grew up to look just like their mom (well, except the rooster) so do I have 5 little brown hens, or 6? Well, this wasn’t a problem until now. We’ve had a night-time visitor twice this week:

poof of feathers

And now I don’t know if I have 3 or 4 little brown hens. That’s what Neil and I call “a suspicious poof of feathers” Sometimes a bird can escape and the tail feathers make a suspicious poof. But most often these mean that somewhere a fox has a pretty good dinner for her kits.

Actually I’m pretty sure that I only have 3 little brown hens (plus their mom) left. Because that’s who was inside the coop last night*. Sadly it means we’re not going to have little baby chicks following their mom out of the woods any time soon. I call it the Darwin chicken flock for a reason, it’s survival of the fittest when the hens try to hatch chicks outside the coop…

*Ok, ok, 3 little brown hens, their mom, 2 partridge rocks, 2 brhamas, 2 americanas, 1 speckled sussex, 2 roosters, and 24 meat birds. It’s not like that coop is empty or anything…

one month old

Guess who’s a month old today!

month olds

The happy happy meat birds! I’ve started letting them explore in the evenings

getting brave

And they’re getting pretty brave. We have an extra rooster and he’s the only creature giving these little guys trouble. Luckily our dumb-but-loyal bird dog Jake didn’t approve of this behavior and chased the rooster off but didn’t bother the little guys. Sometimes that dog surprises me…

still have a way to grow

Thomas the friendly rooster is from last year’s order of freedom rangers. You can see that this year’s birds have some pretty big shoes to fill!