Last Fall, we decided to take the plunge and attempt to raise our own poultry for meat. We already had a flock of egg layers, and due to several acquaintances who had raised meat birds before… we opted to give it a try. For anyone who eats chicken, that proclamation is usually met with one of two responses:
- OMG, I could NEVER do THAT (but these wings are great) or
- OMG, really? Tell me more.
The sad truth is, most people who eat meat have no understanding about what it goes through to get to the store for you even to consider buying it in all it’s shrink wrapped glory, stamped and looking all official. Another sad truth is that most don’t care. The reality is that most people think they are in no way capable of controlling their sources of meat without considerable effort and expense.
Part of why we chose this property was that it was already prepared to handle several forms of food that we could produce for ourselves with a bit of commitment and knowledge. When we first moved in, getting our first flock of egg layers was a no-brainer. We had a henhouse built into one of the stalls of our two stall barn, with a great BIG enclosed run that opened into our lower paddock… so why WOULDN’T we get egg layers? That first year we learned a LOT and hubby (with several bouts of profanity interspersed and one REALLY interesting ‘barefoot’ experiment to test the voltage) got pretty good at moving around the electric fencing, getting a routine down with the ladies throughout the day and we had eggs! We had a LOT of eggs. With our 12 hens, we ended up getting about 8-10 eggs a day which even when you eat a lot of eggs… still leaves a LOT OF EGGS. I sold some at work here and there and got pretty good at making and freezing quiches.
That first year was kind of like the honeymoon phase of having chickens. They were pretty chill, not much of a pain and our biggest problem was rats eating their feed and drinking their water. We went through a lot of feed that year, those rat bastards! When winter approached, we researched how to block the wind in the run so the ladies would still be able to stretch their legs on ground not covered with snow and we braced ourselves for the inevitable moment when it became so cold every night that our decision to not add heat lamps would come back to haunt us. Thankfully, chickens have been around a lot longer than paranoid chicken owners and the ladies did juuuuusssst fine (even when they freaked us out.)
What we never prepared for though, was to lose 3/4 of that flock over the course of 4 days to a weasel come Springtime. Beyond the pure rage you feel when something you care for is taken by a predator, the sadness you feel when you reflect upon the things you could have (SHOULD HAVE) done better is worse. Of our initial 12, only 3 survived and boy were they in rough shape. Tough lil biddies though, they were renamed post ‘massacre’ (IronFlap, Rapuda, Alpha) and now are the matriarchs of the current flock which is entering its 3rd year. That spring we added 4 pullets (adolescents) to the flock from my brother-in-law’s massive brood of Cuckoo Marans and built our flock up to 7 again. Needless to say, we got a lot LESS eggs than the previous year. Chickens molt when they are about a year old and the stress of shedding all those feather stops egg production. We got VERY few eggs.
Come mid summer, during a visit from the in-laws, we happened to stop at Tractor Supply. If you’ve never been, just prepare yourself for cuteness overload if you go during ‘chick days’ when they have tub after tub filled with cheeping, peeping (and quacking) fluff balls. Well, you can guess what happened. We added two more egg layers (Silver Laced Wyandottes that we bought un-sexed and rolled the dice) and pulled the trigger on 10 Cornish Cross… the traditional meat bird and well, the fatty of the category to be honest. These suckers grow FAST and are basically just an eating machine. Without regulation, they will eat themselves to death and need close attention in order to make sure you control their food, water, environment and cleanliness. With that decision, our farm changed, and we felt that we were taking another step towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
Those mutants (while they start out cute, they quickly change into very UGLY birds..
…which to be honest, made it easier not to get too attached) lived inside in a homemade brooder for the first 4 weeks. This is about 1/2 of their lifespan before processing. Hubby and I built our first ‘homestead structure’ during that time (a hoop house chicken tractor that was more reinforced than friggin’ Fort Knox… we were still a bit paranoid since the weasel attack) that sat in the paddock near the OTHER two remote coops for the hens (we refused to allow the laying flock back into the actual henhouse and run until hubby dug everything up and laid hardwire cloth EVERYWHERE to reinforce and keep the predators out better.) Once the Cross moved outside, they were able to try to act like chickens, but the breed is just pretty bad at that since they look like chicken body builders with little legs and a super small head. They waddled and acted as best they could like chickens for the next few weeks, all the while we were monitoring their feedings and cleaning the UNGODLY amount of poop from their tractor. We found a local small scale poultry processor in the next town over and soon it was time.
Not processing our own birds does afford us a bit of comfort, but it also is something that as meat eaters we feel we should be ok with doing. Eventually, if we continue to raise meat chickens we may go down this road.
I will tell you, our chicken is very different than what you would buy in the store. Mainly because we know it was cared for, provided pasture to range in, given organic grain and processed locally (by a place called O.P.P., I mean, C’MON) and packaged and frozen BY US. I know my anti-meat friends may take issue, but people: it is so much better than anything we have bought in a store.
So here we are, Spring 2018 and when we ordered our seeds for the garden, we ordered chickens. Four more hens for the laying flock (OH, btw, we ended up having a hen and rooster in that Tractor Supply Wyandotte gamble: Pretty Boy Floyd, and his lil lady Mae). We chose to add some heritage/rare breeds to our laying flock as well as add some colorful eggs into the mix. We also ordered 15 Freedom Rangers for our 2018 meat flock. Different from our last meat flock, this breed is leaner, and not as much of a body bulking mutant, but more like a chicken. Soooooo we will see how this group goes and if it is as easy to detach from them. We didn’t name the last batch, but these ones will be called Nugget (the roos) and Tender (the hens) just because calling 15 things Fatty seems … rude.
For those who’ve never raised chickens from chick, you can either buy in person from a local farm/store or you mail order them. Yep, they show up cheep-cheeping away at your post office the day after they hatch. Pretty incredible, but it must be somewhat traumatic.
Our Rangers arrived on the 12th and the brooder is again full of peeping little fluffy butts. The new egg layers arrive around the 9th of May and we can’t WAIT to see what these two new breeds bring to the farm…Cream Legbars: heritage breed that lays bright blue eggs; and Olive Eggers: a cross between two heritage breeds, usually a Cream Legbar and a Cuckoo Maran or Black Cuckoo Maran that blends the blue and dark brown egg tendencies of the two breeds into a olive green egg.
After 4 days, the nugs and tenders are settling in, starting to get their wing feathers and have already had two ‘spa treatments’… #pastybutt, the silent killer, took one of our littles on day 2 and now we check every few days. They are feisty lil beasts and are enjoying their brooder which is set to a slightly tropical temp of about 87-90 degrees. Lucky lil poopers.
While I know chickens are not for everyone, I think everyone should try raising something that will feed you. I grew up on a small scale homestead and while I might not have appreciated it back then, now I get it. Hubby and I know where our chicken came from. We never want to buy store-bought eggs again if possible. The time and effort required? Totally worth it. The heartache of loss and frustration of lack of preparation for some things? Still worth it.
I have friends with bigger flocks on big land and friends with small flocks in their backyard within the city limits. If you want to, you most certainly CAN. The first step, however, is deciding to take ownership of some of your food chain. It was a decision I am glad hubby and I made, and I hope more people make.
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