Tag Archives: chickens

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…

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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!

week old chicks

The little fuzz-butts are just over a week old and still doing really well! There was one that seemed sickly when the box arrived, and sadly it died shortly afterwards. But the hatchery always ships an extra chick, just in case.

one chick

So I still have 25 birds, and the rest are doing wonderfully! They’re strong, curious, run all about their box and there isn’t a single weak one in the group. This may seem totally reasonable and normal if you’re not used to meat birds. But trust me, they’re doing way better than the standard cornish x meat bird chicks.

two chick

And you can see they’re already starting to get true feathers on their wings! I think meat birds just age a lot faster than layers. They feather out more quickly, start crowing more quickly, get to harvesting weight more quickly. But if you keep them around the hens start laying younger than regular layers do. And at a year and a half old they look and move like a 6 year old layer would. Something about carrying the extra weight, or maybe being bred to grow so fast, it wears them out faster too…

red chick

But at least with the freedom rangers they run, explore, and range like a normal chicken during the time they have. They’re tastier than a normal chicken too. I’ve tried raising a double purpose breed and eating all the roosters. You really have to keep them for a year before they’ve put on enough weight, and that’s a long time to keep a bunch of roosters around.

blue chick

So I get these guys instead!

mail order chicks

I didn’t go in to work at my normal time this morning. Instead I stayed home and waited for a phone call. It was later than expected, but eventually the post office called and told me there was someone who wanted to speak to me:

mail order chicks

Nothing says priority mail like the LOUD box with airholes!

It’s this year’s batch of freedom rangers. They’re so cute at this age.

chicks eye view

And now they’re all set up in my coop. We use the bottom half of a dog crate to hold them while they’re small. The plastic is easy to clean and bleach before putting 48 hour old chicks in it each year, and it keeps the drafts out.

settled in

In 12 days they’ll be too big for this space, but also less susceptible to drafts. See how I have some dozing under the light, some off to the side, and some running around eating and drinking. This is how I know I’ve got the heat lamp at the right height. If they’re too cold they crowd together under it, and if they’re too warm no one would be hanging out underneath. Baby chicks at this age need almost 95F under the lamp, any colder and they can get stressed and weakened. At least in June we can worry less about the weather getting too cold.

distructive little birds

Keeping free range chickens isn’t all fun, games, and free eggs. Oh no… Let me tell you a story about one of my flower beds.

My house didn’t have flower beds when we bought it. We’ve been putting them in one at a time whenever we have the energy and inclination. This flower bed is actually 3 years old, and by all rights should be pretty well established. The first year I filled it with annuals. Then last year I bought some perennials and attempted to make an actual, planned flower bed.

chicken craters

And this spring (just as I was getting excited because most of the perennials had survived the winter and were starting to come up) my chickens decided to move in. Why did they choose this spot? Who knows? Chickens, even free range ones, seem to like to pick certain spots to scratch, dust bathe, and generally hang out. The problem is they create these CRATERS where the ground used to be. It’s hard to tell from that photo, but some of those divots are bigger than my cats.

If I can say one good thing about the chickens in my garden bed it is that they’ve successfully eradicated the grass I hadn’t been able to remove. The bad part is they eradicated everything else too. They seem to have destroyed the BEE BALM and that stuff is supposed to be indestructible*. The only survivors are the echinacea and peony that I managed to protect under that ugly piece of chicken wire.

But that gave me a thought – what if I put ugly chicken wire over the whole garden?

chicken proof

So I did. I smoothed out the soil, filled in the divots, and I put the fencing underneath the rocks trimming the garden bed. If that keeps the birds out of the flower bed today then tonight I’ll plant my gladiola bulbs here! Also mulch, I think I need mulch to hide the ugly fence solution. Hopefully with the fence under the mulch the chickens won’t spread it around too much.

And then maybe next year I’ll put in some more perennials.

*although it’s possible the bee balm root mass is still there, we’ll see if it comes back to life.

Anything is fair game on the blog!

I spent saturday shoveling shit.

coop clean out

Yes, literally. It was time to clean the chicken coop! And the chickens are very happy now.

Not that our coop was particularly bad this year. I’ve really come to love the deep litter method. It sounds fancy, but really it’s just code for “throw another bale of shavings in on top of the mess.” Our coop is 10’x10′ with about 15 birds living there and I added another 9 cubic feet of shavings each month.

Theoretically I’ve heard this helps compost things in the coop and adds warmth to the space. I’m not sure I buy that. Maybe it works that way in Virginia, but up here in VT everything is still freezing solid. That’s why I can’t just go in and shovel it out over the winter.

One bale of shavings is $4 at the feed store, and that price it totally worth the ease and non-stinky-ness of cleaning the coop this weekend. I mean, yes, there was still some stink. But hey, that’s chicken poop for ya. And I dumped the whole lot of it right next to my lawn, so it can’t be that bad…

Instead of composting this year’s waste I’m putting it right to use. We have a 8-10″ drop at the edge of our lawn, it’s leftover from pulling tree stumps and roots (which were about 2 feet from our leech field – eek!) and we’ve been meaning to fill it in for 3 years. I dumped the coop waste over the winter’s food scraps right next to my lawn. Then covered it all temporarily with paving stones to keep the dogs from rolling in it. Next my plan is to cover it with mulch and plant annuals there. NEXT year it should be a lovely garden bed AND be at the height of the grass next to it. Hooray!