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Chickens

EggOpened_sm

Features of a [perfectly normal] Fresh Egg

Oh backyard chicken eggs. They are so delicious! And so misunderstood. Most humans know eggs as a yellow rubber disk that comes on their favorite fast food breakfast sandwich and do not realize real eggs have…features.

If you’re thinking about selling or giving away backyard chicken eggs, here is a handy infographic to stick in the carton. It is designed to assure those who buy your eggs that everything is going to be ok. Trust me, you’re going to need it.

Check out my youtube video about why you shouldn’t be selling backyard chicken eggs in the first place.

meatchicks

What to Expect When Raising Meat Birds and the Lessons I Learned From Mine

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It is exciting to see backyard chickens so in vogue across the country. This is the time of year when many chicken-rearing households assess their flock and plot and plan for springtime chicks. In true gateway fashion raising hens has lead some of us to contemplate raising livestock for an additional food source. Meat birds seem like the next logical step. Knowing that an animal has been treated humanely and was raised without hormones and antibiotics is certainly appealing, but what does raising them really entail? This past spring The Husband and I decided to find out.

chickhands

In March we bought our first half dozen Cornish Rock chicks. With two years experience keeping laying hens under our belt we approached this new endeavor confidently. We did our homework. We had lengthy discussions with our chicken Sensei at October Rose Farm. We strove to tilt karmic forces in our favor by building a mobile chicken pen out of an old Ikea bed frame. We researched tried-and-true chicken pasturing methods from experts on YouTube. We felt as ready as we’d ever be.

But a worry kept gnawing at the back of my mind. What about the end game? The dispatchment. Did I have it in me to see this thing through and do what ultimately needed to be done? Turns out I was right to suspect there was more to meat bird rearing than meets the eye: it has some undeniable, long term implications that a pursuer of this endeavor is wise to consider. Here is how it went down for us and, of course, my opinion about the whole matter.

Meat Birds Are Not like Egg Layers
Just after we got our Cornish chicks I had to be out of town for a few days and left bird-rearing tasks to The Husband. When I returned and peeked inside the chick corral expecting to see the usual fuzzy peeps dozing under the heat lamp I nearly had a heart attack: the chicks had doubled in size in three days and crowded the food dish like Walking Dead poultry zombies on the hunt for chick chow. The rapid growth of the Cornish breed was unsettling to folks like us who are used to the gentler growth curve of the egg layer. Egg layers progress slowly through their life stages until about the six month mark when eggs appear like magic in the box, and happiness and joy abounds; in contrast, meat birds reach butcher weight in six weeks (that’s weeks with a ‘w’). For over a hundred years this variety of bird has been selectively bred for one purpose: to put on weight as rapidly as possible. They are endlessly hungry, as evidenced by our entire adult Cornish flock regularly napping in the shade on summer afternoons with their heads propped in the food dish.

henyard

Let’s talk poop. Anyone who has ever mucked out a chicken coop is all too familiar with the stink chickens are capable of producing, but egg layer droppings are dainty and fragrant compared to the vast quantities of evacuant Cornish Rocks generate. These birds are poop machines. Our schedule for transporting them from the chick coral in the garage to the outdoor pen took an accelerated track due to them reeking up the joint. Once on pasture the situation was managed by moving them daily to fresh, absorbent grass, but it became clear that this daily move was not optional.  Cornish make a mess of the place fast. On the upside, our garden plot this spring will be smack dab in the middle of the spot the birds fertilized last summer. We anticipate one heck of a harvest.

Once on pasture the birds were easy to keep. We dragged their pen over fresh grass daily, fed them in the morning and evening, and kept an abundance of fresh water available. I observed no pecking order issues and no stress over their confinement – they didn’t pace the fence like my layers do when they’re caged. Heck, the Cornish birds

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Naptime!

didn’t even seem to realize they were in a pen. They didn’t scratch or pursue bugs like our layers, and the one time I tossed a tomato into their food dish thinking they’d wolf it down like candy they ran away in terror and refused to come out of the corner until I had removed the offending produce. For goodness sake. They only showed interested in feeding, drinking, pooping, and napping. In terms of maintenance and care, the Cornish mix birds were, well, boring. My free range layers on the other hand seemed to know a chicken when they saw one and napped beside the meat bird pen every afternoon as if showing solidarity with their former flat mates. It made me a bit sad.

The Process
We’ve come to the part where I talk about dispatching the birds. Please skip ahead to My Two Cents if this does not suit your sensibilities.

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Scalding the feathers off.

 Our backyard setup included a homemade killing cone made out of hardware cloth attached to a deck post with a bucket of sawdust at its base, a large pot of 130 degree water on a grill, a plucking table, a [razor sharp] utility knife, a large container of ice for giblets, and a camping cooler packed with ice and water.

To dispatch the birds The Husband positioned the chicken in the kill cone and, with the utility knife, severed the jugular vein and carotid artery in a swift motion. He held the head to the side to allow the bird bleed out into the sawdust bucket (decapitating the bird entirely could cause the nervous system to seize and impede this bleeding-out process, resulting in tough meat). Once the blood drained he removed the head and carefully submerged the bird, neck first, into the pot of hot water just until the feathers dislodged easily from the carcass, about a minute. He then handed the bird off to me at the table where I dried my eyes on my tee shirt sleeve and got to plucking. In my opinion plucking chicken feathers is a miserable job. But it is preferable to the one The Husband took on so I kept my trap shut and pulled my weight. After the feathers were plucked we dressed the bird by removing the preening gland, organs and entrails. We retained the giblets, heads, and feet in a container of ice for stock. We rinsed each bird inside and out under a garden hose and put it in the cooler for an hour. Afterwards we pat dried the bird with a clean towel and vacuum sealed it for freezer storage.

plucking

My favorite kind of plucking: when someone else is doing it.

Immediately following the slaughter I rinsed the giblets, heads and feet under running water and put them in a large stockpot with raw vegetables, fresh herbs, and water. I brought the pot to a boil then reduced to low for about 12 hours. From these parts we garnered 10 quarts of chicken stock that we pressure canned the following morning.

My Two Cents: Why We Do It.
We embarked on this endeavor because we wanted to reclaim the responsibility of feeding ourselves to the greatest extent possible. In the process we discovered that there is solemnity in the act of taking livestock for food, and it has made us far more conscientious consumers. Because we are so invested in this food source we are loathed to waste any part of the animal; nothing goes unused. Would we do it again? Absolutely. In fact, a few weeks after processing our first batch we started a second, and plan to repeat the cycle this spring. The quality and flavor of the meat is superior by far to the mass produced meat from the grocery store.

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How Do They Sell It So Cheap?
The big grocery store in my area regularly sell frozen chicken for .99 cents per pound, sometimes sixty-nine cents when a sale is running. As a raiser of meat birds this dumbfounds me. It costs roughly $1.50 per pound to raise and harvest our pasture-raised birds, and we do not have to pay employees to process the meat or buy fuel to transport it to market the way confinement factories do. Theenvironmental, dietary, and pharmaceutical conditions under which dollar-per-pound chicken is possible should be cause for alarm, not celebration. Raising our own birds has informed my conscience, turned us off to mass-produced chicken, and given us renewed respect for our local farms who do things right.

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We Need To Do More Than Complain.
Most modern omnivores are so far removed from the reality and nature of their food that any knowledge of the production or slaughter, even the most humane, is upsetting. But the shrink wrapped poultry in the grocery store and Fast Food 10-piece Nugget Meals did not spring forth like flora independent of requisite death; somebody had to do the difficult work. Every time we spend a dollar on our food, be it on food processed on intensive animal farms, or on local organic farms, or to raise and grown on our own land, a vote is cast for how we want our future food system to look.

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It behooves us therefore to understand what we’re buying into, and to pony up and learn how to do as much of it ourselves within our local community as we possibly can.Cornish Birds Don’t Act Like Chickens.
There is no breed of chicken on the planet that matures as fast and produces the amount of quality meat as the Cornish cross, but a factor that I continue to struggle with is the fact that modern humans have created, with Frankensteinian hubris, a breed for our consumption that grows so quickly it can be a danger to itself and is incapable of propagating on its own. Cornish crosses just don’t act like chickens; it is as if we’ve bred the chickenness out of the chicken. I’m still trying to decide whether the good life we provide for our birds compensates for contributing to the perpetuation of this Cornish cross breed in the first place.
restinginthefood

The bird at center has elected to nap inside the food dish on top of the chicken crumble.

We will raise meat birds again, no question, but the jury is still out on which breed we’ll choose this time around.

What about you? Have you raised meat birds? What breed did you choose?

Winter-Blues Old Bear

WinterBlues

As I lay in bed this morning under a pile of blankets – gazing through the window into the woods; watching it snow and snow and snow on a world already covered in snow; spotting a doe making her way across my vista, a lean, silent creature delicately nosing the base of this tree and that in her search for anything at all worth eating, and I thought to myself: oh how I hate New York winters. I really, really hate them. Wish I could sleep through them. Please make it stop. I pulled the covers over my head. If I stayed under here until our next vacation could the family cope? I know: snow and dark and cold are supposed to be no big deal to a northerner. I try not to mind them. But they just suck: they suck out my life force, make my bones ache. Make me wish I could stay under my covers until Spring. But the dog whined at the door and the chickens gabbled for chow so I pulled myself together and rolled out. Outside a tidy path had been laid in the snow between the coops and when I opened the door I found half the flock assembled for a meeting and the nesting box loaded: 10 eggs.

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Apparently neither knee-high snow, nor plunging temperatures, nor a sun absent from the sky for five days straight could dampen this dutiful flock’s mood. Lilac the Rooster guarded the door, behavior that ordinarily earned him considerable pain and suffering in the form of relentless pecks to the head, but when a guy’s domineering ways protect a girl from the wind and makes the house warmer, well now, hens can be persuaded to see him differently.

Rooster

Three seconds after coming back inside Tigger found her ball and whined go out again. Such a stupid dog. Was there ever a morning when I felt less like playing catch? I pulled my coat back on and grabbed the camera. Why not. Why not document all the things that make winter in New York such a drag. Back in the hen yard I opened the coop for a flock beauty shot and – holy macaroni – two more eggs! Twelve in a single 24-hour period from a flock of seven hens, and a record for the Schutt Farmette. Hurray for us? I watched the fat, sausage-roll dog barrel through the snow, smiling like this was her happiest day on Earth, and had to laugh.  Then she was done; tuckered out; panting and wanting back inside for a nap. Me too. Back under my covers to wait it out. Like a grumpy, stiff, sore, winter-blues old bear. I hate winters in New York. By the way, does anyone need eggs?

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Hawk in the Hen Yard


Monkeys before the Monolith.
Camouflaged…until it snows.

As the weather turns cold a most unwelcome visitor is transgressing the boundaries of our yard: an adolescent red-tailed hawk.  I’m slow to the window so it’s still a streak in my periphery but The Husband has seen it perch on the deck rail just feet from henhouse and high in the tree bough overhanging the hen yard. Silently sighting in our girls.
Hedwig Whoolio Mac Owlton
It is just a young thing now but what I know about young things is that they grow up fast. If a full grown hawk can carry off a rabbit a fat chicken is most certainly within its weigh limit capabilities and come winter, when easy prey are difficult for that hawk to spot under the protective blanket of snow, our hen yard will look like a free-range buffet.
Did you know Great Horned Owls are natural predators of Red Tailed Hawks? Let’s see if the installation of Hedwig Whoolio Mac Owlton precludes young Hawkeyed Joe from thinning out our flock this winter. 
Owl Sentry
Lilac The Rooster giving the stink eye

Silky chickens at the fence.

Integration. Sort of.

Chickens eating separately from each other in the hen yard.

Eating Separately

The Husband’s efforts to integrate our two flocks have paid off, if by integration he meant they’d share a yard while the Silkies go anywhere the big hens aren’t. To his credit, there are no fatalities to report. I was certain the Ladies harbored in their souls the panache for relentless, if not deadly, cruelty, but I underestimated their ability to grow bored. The hens took a few initial pot shots but now ignore the Silkies utterly save for the occasional peck on the head as a reminder that the fuzzy runts are to keep out from underfoot. More stimulating by far are the Silkies’ yard and henhouse, and twice I’ve found all six red hens crowded inside while the two little birds enjoyed a bit of tomato in peace at the opposite end of the yard. The new arrangement seems to be that the big girls help themselves to whatever they like and the little girls steer clear, and in this way our flock is integrated.

 

 

Silky chickens at the fence.

Not exactly MENSA candidates…

Silkies are indescribably obtuse – they’re afraid of strawberries for heaven’s sake – yet we have another victory to report: ours finally put themselves to bed at dusk instead of shivering in a huddle through wind and rain and making me swear. A burden off our shoulders with winter looming, to be sure.

 

The downside to all this integration is that my morning egg collecting has become an ordeal. Three hens now lay in the Silkies’ nesting box (after forcing the little ones noisily off their own property each morning, naturally), two lay in the compost pile (a habit formed during the Broody Pants scandal) and one dutifully lays in the henhouse. Eggs everywhere, but so far in predictable and accessible locals. Maybe once we batten down the hatches for winter the girls will adjust back to their proper spots.

Queeneye

Bow before your Queen.

 

As The Husband keeps saying, “Stop worrying. They’re chickens. They’ll figure it out.”

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October Rose Farm and our Chicken Sensei


Bottom’s up at the water cooler.

Now that the summer is indisputably over and we’ve a mere month to partake in the bounty and friendship that is the Farmer’sMarket, The Husband and I did what we’ve promised ourselves we would do for a long time: we visited our favorite chicken farmstead people in all of Upstate New York: Susan and Brian Underwood of October Rose Farm.
One Lucky Rooster.
Some people venture into farming with well-defined master plans, others with an inherited knack (and/or land) from familial roots. Susan and Brian Underwood of October Rose accidentally stumbled into chicken-raising when their teenage son reared a flock of egg-layers to pay for a trip to the Boy Scout Jamboree and, upon his return, surrendered custody of his 25 hens to Mom and Dad. Since then, Susan and Brian have painstakingly gathered knowledge and know-how to expand their farmstead into a beautiful, orderly, and sustainable spread at the tip of Skaneateles Lake.
Evening chores.
Rotation method.
Since product quality is necessarily tied to quality of life, and October Rose chicken and eggs are delicious, we were not at all surprised when we visited Susan and Brian to find hundreds of beautiful meat and egg-laying birds on pasture in the fresh air overlooking the Skaneateles valley. The Underwoods utilize a rotation grazing method that promotes pasture health and animal happiness. Broiler birds in pasture pens are moved to fresh grass every day; the Eggmobiles, which run a daily average of 50 pounds of eggs apiece, are moved to new pasture every week. Unlike the cringe-worthy living conditions and pollution of industrial farms, October Rose’s animals serve as the Cleanup and Renew Crew: the birds break down and scratch insect larva out of the manure left behind by grazing animals and then enrich the quality of the pasture with their own droppings. This revitalized soil enhances the grassland for grazing animals, and the cycle begins anew.
Turkeys.
It has been widely reported that October Rose turkeys are the best tasting in all of CNY, but should you wish to partake be prepared to plan ahead: orders for the Thanksgiving birds are typically sold out by June. Regularly available are plump, fresh chicken (whole, half and quarters) and fresh-laid eggs at the Skaneateles Farmers market every Thursday and Saturday, or by contacting the farm directly. I wouldn’t dream of making my chicken soup with anything but an October Rose broiler.
Eggmobile.
We’ve been customers of October Rose Farms for years. As a matter of fact, Susan Underwood – with her calm, hands-in-pocket patience – has become our Chicken Sensei. Without our weekly consultations with her at the Skaneateles Farmer’s Market we would not have dared foray into chicken-rearing ourselves. Susan has guided us through pasty-butt and broodiness and when we showed up to market a bit bummed after the unexpected death of one of our hens assured us that sometimes this just happens and, yeah, she knows what its like to regard a farm animal as member of the family.
Try having thatconversation with an industrial factory farmer.
October Rose Farm, twilight.
Watch this very fun and cool video of chicken-life on October Rose Farm.

10-Mile Meals

Our bounty from Saturday’s Farmer’s Market run.

A few years ago The Husband read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and it got us thinking about the seriously weird stuff we humans now pass off as food. It also got us thinking about the politics of food and life back when people were self-regulating, counting on their own — and the local community’s — enterprise to fill basic needs. Food wasn’t convenient or fast but people could pronounce the ingredients; and hardly anyone was compulsively hoarding useless chachkies from a local megamart.
Signs of Summer.
About that time The Husband and I also started noticing other things: the bunches and bunches of local food farms, farmer’s markets and little road-side veggie stands surrounding us; the fact that we felt better after eating fresh food rather than crispy chicken strips out of a cardboard box; that our food choices appeared to be damaging our health. We started talking about raising chickens and planting a garden and several times even toyed with the idea of making local farms our primary food source for a summer. Just for the fun of it.
It took a couple years of gradual toe dipping into the proverbial sustainability water but when spring rolled around this year The Husband and I felt ready to revisit the local food idea. In May we issued ourselves this challenge: make farmer’s markets, local farms and our own garden our family’s primary source for food this summer. We decided to try and ‘make do’ with Thursday/Saturday trips to the Skaneateles Farmer’s Market, visits to Wake Robin Farm’s store and an occasional trek to the Regional Market.
The Husband’s Lamb, Spinach and home-made Pasta dish
from Farmer’s Market sources.
This game of Make-Do has unexpectedly turned into something fun and delicious. We’re making friends, learning how to cook with fresh ingredients, and discovering a rich food culture in our region.
Now that we’re about a month into this thing I figured I’d share what I/we’ve learned so far:
Scape and asparagus.
We Don’t Know Much: There are a whole bunch of edible plants growing in the region that I’ve never heard of. What the heck is a scape? Or a rabe? Or rocket? And how do you prepare these things? Turns out the people who grow and sell food are also very willing to share family recipes. We’re trying new foods constantly.
Variety Abounds:We get our whole milk, cheeses, and yogurt at Wake Robin Farms; at the Skaneateles farmer’s market we get fresh local lamb, beef, chicken, goat cheese, canned goods, breads, herbs, and all manner of vegetables, both known and unknown. The flavor is worlds, worlds better than the processed stuff. No comparison.
Eating Local Makes You Loco: I thought this challenge was going to be too difficulty to stick with but the opposite is true: we’re energized, maybe because of the better food choices we’re making, and motivated to permanently cut out as much imported and processed food as we can. We’re looking into canning and charcuterie, pickling and salting, smoking and drying, to preserve our food for the winter.  
These Andy’s turnips are delicious
blanched or candied.
A New Kind of Saturday: Saturdays have become a new kind of day – one of food preparation for the upcoming week. Delicate, leafy produce spoils quickly unless thoroughly washed, dried and wrapped; meats and veg bought in bulk have to be separated and frozen or canned; we’ve learned to cook en mass and to anticipate future need. Saturdays have become the food-prep and preserve day for the upcoming week.
You Just Never Know: We’re dependent on what is in season, and weather, and temperature, the health of the farmer — all things we never gave a thought to before. We just never know exactly what will be on our plates in any given week, and we’ve learned not to freak out about it. We’ll figure it out. This is a diabolic shift in our food consumption and our attitude about food in general. It requires us to succumb to the process of cooking what we have on hand, even if those ingredients are the same ones we made our meals out of yesterday. Developing a robust recipe collection has been key to keeping us on track.
Beans from Ethiopia. El Salvador and Guatemala
roasted in The Husband’s  Behmor 1600.
Buying Local is Socially Gratifying: Building relationships with the people who grow and raise our food has been the single most enjoyable aspect of this challenge. These people are passionate. They are knowledgeable. And, frankly, in an apocalypse these are the folks you want to know.
Exceptions: There are certain things we cook with and consume that are not and never will be produced locally:  olive oil; coffee (The Husband is a home roaster and buys his green beans from Sweet Marias. He roasts in-house with his Behmor 1600 – this isn’t going to change); bananas (I love them – don’t judge).
So where do we get our food these days?
Good Karma Garlic
Susanville
Navarino Orchard– Sweet onions and potatoes, apples, strawberries, peaches, canned goods, fruit pies. (they also make barley and peanut butter doggie treats that our mutt loves.)
Byrne Black Angus
Byrne Black Angus– These guys do one thing: natural, grass-feed black angus beef.
Wake Robin Farm – Yogurt, artisan cheeses, and milk. Visitors usually get to see the cows just outback in the pasture.
Meadowood Farms Lamb sausage and a sheep’s milk brebis.
Susanville Good Karma Garlic – A large variety of garlic and tomatoes, and seasonal vegetables. The Good Karma Garlic keeps the fresh veg coming well into the cold season.
An October Rose broiler smoked on
The Husband’s grill.
October Rose Farm– Free range and antibiotic free eggs, chicken and turkey. 
Other Seeds of Change that got this Fat American thinking:
Food, Inc. documentary
Fresh documentary
The Future of Food documentary

Salad, Silkies, and a Wall.

Is it just me or are our new baby silkies members of the chive family?

Weeks have passed since I’ve had a free day to get outside and take inventory of the work we’ve put into this place. Could that explain the melancholy? The second the rain stopped yesterday I grabbed the camera and took off with the dog for a long explore. Bliss.

Our pallet garden shows signs of basil and summer salad greens. The last wild strawberries are coming on and the black raspberry bush is loaded – next week we’ll make jelly. The husband’s herb garden is taking shape and after a false start with lousy soil arugula is finally springing up in the pots on the deck. I tossed a handful of apple scraps to the ladies as I passed which they completely ignored until my back was turned. Our hens are touchy these days on account of us restricting their wayward excursions with a fence. But we were mindful: the hen yard is now so large the grass doesn’t show a sign of stress even after three weeks of poop and pecking. And despite their huffy attitudes we still win: I’m collecting eggs from the nesting box again.

Speaking of ridiculous chicken behavior, we got three more. In terms of poultry, can you ever really have enough? These fussy little silkies serve no earthly purpose other than to amuse The Girl. On my birthday last weekend the State Fair held a poultry show and I pinky-swore I would find a source for a silky chick (note: “A” silky chick. Singular. Numero uno). As fate would have it we encountered a crate full of for-sale baby silkies for cheap and next thing I knew we were carting three home: two I vaguely remember agreeing to plus a “bonus bird” – the runt of the litter who was just a woebegone, bedraggled little thing the seller threw in for free because it was on death’s door anyway.
Tigger enjoys the silkies as well.
Gee, thanks. Obviously The Girl latched onto the ugly runt (who has since been christened “Noodle”) with a vengeance. At first the poor thing slept standing up because the other two pecked it when it sat down and the second it fell asleep on its feet they would pick out its neck feathers. I read up on this and learned the runt of the chicken litter often dies of sleep deprivation due to this pecking-order horror show. So The Girl took matters into her own hands. She wrapped Noodle up in paper towel and carried it around in her shirt where it slept safely and warmly for hours every day. The silly bird has put on weight, now sleeps in the huddle with the other two, and has developed a gigantic attitude in the chick corral.

I call it Noodle Bonaparte the Third. Surly it will turn out to be a rooster. Good lord, are silky roosters noisy? I hope not for the neighbor’s sake. Because there’s no turning back on it now.
Aside from all this my wall is waiting. I finished the longer section and now have the steps and the short side to assemble. It’s a wicked heap of rubble but enough is enough; it will be finished by summer’s end.
Bliss.