Getting to the heart of a pressing issue.
Getting to the heart of a pressing issue.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
|Monkeys before the Monolith.|
|Camouflaged…until it snows.|
|Hedwig Whoolio Mac Owlton|
|Lilac The Rooster giving the stink eye|
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.
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.
As The Husband keeps saying, “Stop worrying. They’re chickens. They’ll figure it out.”
|Bottom’s up at the water cooler.|
|One Lucky Rooster.|
|October Rose Farm, twilight.|
|Our bounty from Saturday’s Farmer’s Market run.|
|Signs of Summer.|
|The Husband’s Lamb, Spinach and home-made Pasta dish
from Farmer’s Market sources.
|Scape and asparagus.|
|These Andy’s turnips are delicious
blanched or candied.
|Beans from Ethiopia. El Salvador and Guatemala
roasted in The Husband’s Behmor 1600.
|Good Karma Garlic
|Byrne Black Angus|
|An October Rose broiler smoked on
The Husband’s grill.
|Is it just me or are our new baby silkies members of the chive family?|
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.
|Tigger enjoys the silkies as well.|