Change of Plans

Today I had a visitor.   Mr. Fox came into my yard at 11 and by the time he left 15 minutes later I had lost three of my chickens.    I can’t tell you how frustrated and angry I was.     After years of having a working rule that my chickens never free range before 10, I learned that life happens.  It made me frustrated.    I also was reminded to listen and that life and death are only a few breaths apart.   It made me angry.

Today I was busy with work and I did not spring the birds until quarter to 11.   My little terrier went out with me.   He was constantly sniffing the air, and spending time marking.   I became impatient with him.   I had work that was waiting and scolded him telling him I had no time for this doggie nonsense.  (in retrospect these were signs I should have recognized as something not right that I missed.)   The dog and I headed inside and settled in my office.   Just 15 minutes later I heard what sounded like my chickens heading by my office window making noises that told me something was not right. I headed out leaving the dog inside, instinct told me this was not a place for my little dog with a big heart.  I found the chickens all in the coop on high roosts.   I counted them up and realized I was missing three birds.   I would find two of the three carcasses.  The fox spent the rest of the day coming back and challenging me for more birds.  I kept them in their run, but was constantly checking on their safety to ensure the fox did not breach that barrier.   To be honest if I could have ensured a clean shot I would have eliminated the varmint.   Unfortunately I did not have the skill or tool to do so.  So I am going to be fighting this battle for days to come fox vs. chicken safety.

We were planning on butchering this weekend.   As a result of the birds I lost, my plans for what I will keep and what will go to the freezer has changed.   The fox got the barred rock, the dark Brahma, and the Norwegian Jaehorn.     I now plan to butcher the leghorn, the austrolorp and the silver laced wyandotte.   We will keep two speckled Sussex, buff Brahma, buckeye, buff orpington and Easter egger.   A couple of them look like they may be going into a molt.   If so I may keep less than six.

I wish I had felt I had the time to photograph Mr. Fox.   His coat was beautiful and truly a handsome specimen. I would love to be sharing that with you.    But my job was to protect my little flock of livestock.   So I screamed, chased and threw rocks.    My dog barked and marked.  I suspect that this will be my job for days to come.   My plans for my flock have changed all because of a visit from Mr. Fox.

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Responsible Animal Ownership

CourtneysDigiscrappin_YourLife_WA4

I just read a news article “Backyard chickens dumped at shelters when hipsters can’t cope, critics say”  Why does this surprise anyone?   Have you visited a dog/cat shelter lately?   I am always amazed at how many adult animals are surrendered  in and the reasons they are turned in.

I have blogged before about when you take on chickens you need to be prepared for the full cycle of life.   I also have talked in this blog about  when I have culled/butchered chickens and how it is a sucky part of owning a small flock.   I haven’t done it to gross folks out or offend them, though some of the private offline emails have received indicated that I am a whole lot of nasty things because of some of the posts.   I do it because I want to share with folks  that there is a cycle of life to the food we eat and the animals that we own.   When you fantasize about the farm life and how wonderful it would be to grow your own things and then harvest them, don’t forget just like your life agriculture  isn’t all rosy.   If farming or ranching was easy we would still have millions of families still in agriculture.   Instead the number of people who grow the food we eat is smaller than ever.   More and more of our citizens are so far removed from where their food comes from they can imagine how it all happens even if their logical mind tells the.

I am an advocate for folks growing some of their own food.   I think it is important for folks to understand how hard it is to bring food to the table.   But I hope you start small and think about what you will do if it is only a phase.   Assume it is, it might be one season or a ten year phase, but odds are it will come to an end eventually.   If you start with a small garden a little sod can put your life back the way it was.   If you choose to have animals it is much more complicated to get started, but also much more complex to stop.   With animals you need to be prepared to respectfully end it which in many cases involve butchering.

Remember if you want to be more self-sufficient you can’t be self-sufficient if you only do the easy things and leave the hard decisions for someone else to make.

Reprieve, Not a Pardon

This weekend Mr. Ranger Sir and I had plans to to cull the roosters from our not so tiny flock on his only day off  for the next few weeks.   Instead of the wonderful early summer weather we had planned for, we had wind, rain, and cold temperatures.   We decided that we were not going to stand outside and butcher under those conditions just to get rid of the roosters.

No one needs as many roosters as we have.    We have leftover packing peanuts from when our baby chicks were shipped to us.   After years of never getting a wrong sexed bird, we got two this year.    So we are feeding lots of chickens for no other purpose to fatten them up.    Our roosters were finally just large enough to butcher.   Now seemed like a good time because their personalities have not turned nasty towards  humans, dogs,  one another or the hens.     Except for two of them, they are big ugly roosters, the male counter part of sex linked hybrids. Ok…ok…ugly might be to0 harsh of a word but they are definitely not handsome roosters like the barred rock or the gold laced wyandotte.     The fact we decided not to put ourselves out in such adverse weather conditions means the roos  have received a reprieve not a pardon.    Next date the bus leaves for a freezer camp is sometime after the 7th of July.   Lets hope everything stays peaceful until then and we don’t regret our decision.

Do Not Rinse Your Chicken

Is your raw chicken full of nasty bacteria?

Is your raw chicken full of nasty bacteria?

WHAT?!?!?!?

This is a direct quote from the FDA website.

“Do not rinse raw meat and poultry before cooking. “Washing these foods makes it more likely for bacteria to spread to areas around the sink and countertops,” 

I heard this the other day and thought no way.   It must be an urban or internet legend.   The “trust no one” cynic in me went straight to the FDA page and found out yep they did sure say this.    The thoughts that race through my mind when I read this are somewhat frightening.

  • In this era of we need smaller government we have gutted our food inspection process.   We have so few government inspectors that they can no longer do the job the public assumes they are doing.   Instead we are depending on the meat industry to police themselves.    Think about all the food-borne illness that comes from meat claimed to be USDA Inspected.   Asking a meat packer to inspect the meat they are processing is like asking a fox to guard a hen house.   Not happening.  The bottom line at the meat packing house is profit.
  • The fact such a broad statement is made is makes me think that most of our meat is more likely than not to be a carrier of some kind of bacteria that could cause illness.   So odds the  your meat carries bacteria, and the meat processor and the USDA are depending on you to fully cook the meat without poking the surface to prevent illness.   FYI – You supposed are too turn your steak with a tongs not a fork!  That fork tine might take bacteria to the inside of your medium steak and make you sick.   Yuck!
  • The inside of a whole chicken has all sorts of nasties left inside them.  I am not talking the giblet bag folks, but that junk attached inside the chest cavity.   Commercial processing does a darn crummy job of finishing a chicken.   I am always amazed at how much ‘guts’ are left inside whenever I see a store bought chicken.   As someone who processes her own chickens I can tell you it takes just a few seconds with a hose to get the last of  that connective and organ tissue caught there inside the bird out.   I always wonder why they leave something ripe to grow things behind, but they do.   It seems to me a prime bacteria growing place, that 30 seconds of spraying with water could get rid of. Gross, double gross!
  •  Look at your packing and you will almost find this universally, “Water added for processing.”  Do you know what this means?   Your store bought chicken is first of all cooled in a communal dunk tank, and from the sounds of it with their innards intact.   When I am done fully dressing my chickens, I admit I throw them in a cold water bath, but only until I am done with the batch I am butchering.   Then they are taken out and dry aged in the refrigerator.     Based on personal experience I don’t get how they can absorb so much water unless left a long time in that communal water.  What a wonderful place to spread bacteria, and get absorbed in to the meat/muscle tissue of the bird.   Also because chicken is sold by the pound what a great way to inflate the price!   Here is the explanation from the FDA page on this water added statement.

    “Poultry is not injected with water, but some water is absorbed during cooling in a “chill-tank,” a large vat of cold, moving water. The chill-tank lowers the temperature of the slaughtered birds and their giblets (hearts, livers, gizzards, etc). During this water chilling process, turkeys and chickens will absorb some of the water, and this amount must be prominently declared on the label. It is not unusual for poultry to declare 8 to 12% retained water on the label.”

I know I have blogged on this before, but I do come back to this again because I think it is important for consumers to think about where their food comes from and how it is handled.   I am lucky because we are able and willing to raise and butcher our own chickens; we know the woman who raises our lamb,  know the rancher who raises our grass-fed beef, and lastly know Dan our butcher, who slaughters and cuts our meat just as we want it. At our house we are are willing to acknowledge and cook our meat based  the fact that they are different than commercially raised chickens and feedlot cattle and lamb.   Most folks don’t have these luxuries.    Many of  you have no choices on your meat; your store gives you no options; your budget does not allow you to be choosy.   What I hoping this blog will do is allow you to be aware that your food isn’t  guarantee to be safe just because it came from a store or has the USDA Inspected seal on it.   Ask your store if they can make some options available to you including dry aging of your chicken.  Seek out a relationship with a small farmer or person at your local farmer’s market.   Lastly treat the meat in your home with great care to prevent cross contamination.  There is no perfect situation and we all have to make choices regarding money and time, both of them in short supply.   Carry on and make the best choices you can for your dinner plate.

Chick Report – 9 Weeks

This Year's chicks sit just outside the doorMy new chicks are now nine weeks old.  They are fully integrated in with the existing flock.   Sort of.   The existing flock will not tolerate them for the most part, but the newbies dodge their way around them just fine.   Each morning I open the coop and let them all out.   When confine to the chicken run the newbies lay low, but as soon as the gate is open for free range time my adult flock heads out, leaving the newbies full run of the coop.   You will often find the newbies sitting on the stairs outside the little door enjoying the world.

We are feeding a flock raiser without calcium and providing oyster shell for our layers.  Life isn’t to bad for the chicken farmers.   No more separate feeds, or spaces.   We get to treat them all the same. It is just a wee bit early to start thinking of butchering.

My meaties are huge and we are starting to think about sending them to freezer camp.   Our packing peanuts are not far behind.   Last night one of the roosters was mad and pecked at my husband when he put them away last night.   It means their days are numbered.

Procrastination Pays Off – For the Chickens

Each fall we butcher part of our flock of layers to end up with about six to overwinter. We have a flock that is always in a state of rotation.   Each spring we get a few new chicks and each fall we cull older birds and poor layers to get down to our optimum number of six.    It works great as chickens lay best in the first two years.   After that they start to slow down.   That two-year limit also works good you as far as eating goes as well, as after two years they really limited in their use to stewing and stock.

This year we procrastinated our last butcher cycle.   We knew we wanted to get rid of three birds, but were having troubles deciding who was on that last list of the year.   The hens were laying unusually well even though the days were getting shorter.  We only had one poor layer who was on the short list.     We only had one hen was on the too old list.   We kept on talking and debating who the third one should be.  No single bird rose to the top of the list of the remaining birds.  We thought with time it would become obvious to us.

We were lulled into thinking we had plenty of time to get down to our magical number.   This fall was unusually warm.   It seemed like  winter was a long time away.    So we continued to put off the decision who to put on our final list of the year.  We did not feel the clock ticking because as long as we can run a hose, we can butcher.    I know Grandma’s from years gone by probably butchered year round, but I am not quite as tough as her.

Finally we went from late summer to a full-blown winter.  Cold sub-zero and lots of snow.    We had a snow storm that gave us the most snow in a single snow fall in 10 years.   It seems that our procrastination paid off big for our birds.   That debate on who should be number three, resulted in us having nine birds for the winter this year.

Chicken Isn’t What It Used to Be

I just read a great blog article on meat cuts from Kitchen 101.   It reminded me of a great article by Gina Bisco on cooking with heritage chickens.   I have supplied links to both and they are worth a visit to read.   So many folks today don’t know any more about the meat they buy in the grocery other than the price per pound.

I am an owner of a small backyard flock whose size ranges from as many as a dozen in the summer to six over the winter.  My backyard flock is always a mix of ages and breeds. We eat both the eggs from our birds and our chickens themselves.   I  have to deal with the reality of culling hens from my little flock.   Culling sucks, enough said.  But with this comes an assortment of really good eating, that modern recipes have no idea how to handle.

Modern egg laying chickens are a specialized breed. A chicken’s best laying production usually tops out at about two years of age.   Production birds that lay the eggs in your store, don’t usually live to their second birthday.   Production birds are egg laying machines and don’t end up on your table after their useful life.   There isn’t enough meat on those bones, and it isn’t the big breasted bird you find in you meat department.

Modern meat birds are also an extremely specialized breed.   These birds without any growth hormones, just years of selective breeding have given us a bird that almost everyone today considers normal.   These birds are highly efficient with food, growing from chick to dinner table in as little as six weeks.   These birds are susceptible to a host of health problems because they grow faster than often their legs or heart can handle.

Heritage dual purpose birds are the breeds your grandmother or great-grandmother had.  They could lay eggs and when the family was ready they could be dinner.  They ended up as fried chicken on a picnic, Sunday’s roasted chicken, or chicken noodle soup.   They are the breeds that are the basis after much selective breeding that made our modern production egg and meat birds.   They are not as productive as modern egg layers, nor do they have monster sized big white meat breasts.  They are a jack of all trades and a master of none.

One of the problems of having a flock of old-fashion dual purpose birds is that the modern cookbooks and online recipes call for that famous skinless boneless chicken breast.  That monster blob of white meat that  can serve two with only half a breast.   It is easy to cook; easy to cut; without much form and can take on almost any taste.   Old-fashion birds actually have assorted classes based on their age and size.   They are broiler, fryer, roaster and stewing hen.   Those are listed from youngest to oldest, smallest to largest.  These like the many cuts of meat from your four-legged meat source also need different kinds of cooking methods, to be at their best.  For this you need to get out to your favorite used book store, library book sale, or scour estate sales for old cookbooks.

If you have a dual purpose or heritage flock, you first need a print out of Gina Bisco’s article.   She has done her research and brought it all together in a single source.    Armed with knowledge of your butchered bird and cook books that actually call for broilers, fryers, roasters, spring chickens, stewing hens you are on your way.  Once you understand how to use your chicken no matter the age, you will then be empowered to know how to use them in your modern recipes and understand any adjustments you might make.

If you have a back yard flock and have had less than stellar results when cooking them, I hope you will be inspired to take another look.   If you have purchased chickens at your farmer’s market and gotten something you did recognize as chicken, hopefully you will now.    Most of all I hope you will appreciate the depth of character a chicken can provide and not always insist on the mass of white meat known as skinless, boneless chicken breast.