Category Archives: Chickens

A grizzly end to self-sufficiency

Well, the inevitable has happened. It was a dry summer, so not  many berries around for our ursine co-inhabitants here in this remote rainforest valley. In addition, the fish runs were down. Then last weekend we had our fifty-year flash flood, which swept away both fish and berries, and blurred the notional “boundary lines” which the officials fondly imagine keep humans from bears/cougars and keep the peace. For the last month there have been intimations that those boundaries were about as effective as Chamberlain’s piece of paper in 1939: neighbours reported seeing a grizzly bear routinely ambling around my property; my husband (who is tending the farm while we decide what to do with it and our lives) eventually saw him/her sitting thirty meters from my house, across the grass and orchard, behind the two boundary fences, calmly surveying the pickings. The next night he made his move and broke the main branches on my two pear trees and apple trees. David reported the attack to the RAPP centre in Kamloops and also crosses the road to the Ministry of Earth and Water, where a generous parks official lent me an electric fence, which friends and he set up encircling the orchard; meanwhile we picked almost all the remaining fruit. He thought about ringing our year old $22 000 chicken barn instead, but felt it was as solid as a building could be.

Two weeks later he heard that at least two neighbours down the highway had their chicken houses ransacked and lost their entire flocks. Then the floods hit, and everyone was preoccupied with surviving, then with trying to save their possessions, cars, houses, fences, bridges, stock, food. That same night one of my egg customers phoned to warn about these attacks and offered the use of her gun; frankly, she said, she wanted to protect her food supply.

David decided to move the electric fence, but was suffering a back injury and decided to postpone it until the weekend and some more healing had first taken place. Meanwhile he increased the lights and radios around the chicken house, and stowed away and secured the bags of feed even more securely behind at least two four inch thick doors.

The following night around 11  pm he heard the scream of a hen. There was a new moon so it was black outside, but from my house he could see an illuminated side of the chicken shed about two metres  away and he could see no commotion. He could only guess that the bear had entered from the side, the weakest side of course. Without a dog or gun, surrounded by neighbours, with the flooded slough still saturating the ground all around, he could do little besides yell “shoo bear!” and bang some pots and pans. Later that night he heard more shrieks, but at dawn my restless fears were allayed when he heard the familiar cock crow. Unlike Peter, he felt relieved of his guilt–until he dressed and went down to let them out to free range, and discovered the side door ripped open, and a line of carcasses stretching through the broken page wire fence and under the trees towards the neighbour’s lawn. Inside, the remainder of my flock were traumatised, the biggest rooster hobbling about with one wing extended, a claw puncture mark on his back. There was even one dead chicken, otherwise untouched, inside the hen house.

He reported the attack to Kamloops (a mere 743 kms drive away) and was contacted at work later that day by our Conservation Officer who by good fortune had just made it back into the valley that day. They rendezvoused at 6 pm and David showed him the wooden barricade  had erected overt the broken door. The CO laughed and said a grizzly would toss that side with his little ginger, literally.

“That’s what I feared,” Davie confessed, “but I have no other defence save the electric fence. And that seems so puny.”

“Actually that’s the best defence,” he said. They tracked the bear scat and chicken bodies across my neighbour’s property and back into the bush which stretches a hundred meters to the highway. He didn’t want to go any further.

“So,” David quite rightly asked, “since you’re staying nearby, when I see the bear tonight I’ll phone you and you can come and shoot it?”

“I wish I could, but no,” he sighed again. “If the fence is broken, then I can.”

“So twenty carcasses, a ravaged chicken house and a loss of livelihood aren’t enough.”

“You got it. Ministry policy. I must obey. If he attacks your goats, on the other hand, then I can shoot.”

“Who makes these rules?”

Apparently, he shrugged with–what I hope was–embarrassment and turned away.

David spent the next three hours and into the darkness moving the electric fence to surround my chicken house. My remaining flock reluctantly returned to the scene of the crime except for one canny rooster which, for a time, tried to roost in a nearby tree. David left them to the tender mercies of the night, the barricaded door and turned on the electric current, and hoped for the best.

That was last night. At dawn they were all still safe, but the biggest rooster was barely dragging himself around. David did, however, find bear scat outside my living room window on the grass and in front of the goat gate ten meters across from my house. He noticed the wooden superstructure above the five foot log railing fence (which I had erected to dissuade the goats from jumping out) had been broken down. I have seven pygmy goats now, and five get moved every night out of their pen and into their locked quarters in the nearby barn; the two grown boys like to take their chances in their run. They were safe, but I wonder for how long. Part of me dreads going out tomorrow morning and finding two goat carcasses by the fence; the other part looks forward to it so that then I will have reason to get the CO to shoot the grizzly.

Or maybe I should work with the current capitalist regime, move back to the farm, and put a sign at my gate saying: “BEAR VIEWING STATION: see the grizzly at close quarters as it kills chickens, smashes fruit trees and rips apart pygmy goats–LIVE! P.S.: Since my livelihood is being destroyed in front of your eyes, donations gratefully accepted.”

35 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Bears, Chickens, Conservation, Educational, Food Security, Goats, Politicking with predators

City mouse acquires country mouse skills

My first attempts at knowledge transfer

Tami and I pick out the first roosters to be dispatched.

Tami and I pick out the first roosters to be dispatched.

City mouse met country mouse recently over a chicken carcass here at Howling Duck Ranch. I have a city friend who, inspired by my posts about slaughtering turkeys and chickens humanely, was keen to come up for a visit and learn something about taking control of his own food source. He brought his four year old daughter Meah along, and his partner Tami. As we discussed the planned cull, Virgil recalled the scene in Lonesome Dove (the great TV western which I recommend to all my friends and visitors) where Clara’s two girls announce the arrival of visitors to their lonely ranch and blithely ask, ‘Can I kill a pullet for dinner, mama?’ As he relayed the story to me he concluded, “If a ten year old little girl can be excited by it, a 30 yr old man oughta be able to do it, too!”

The day of the slaughter of my meat birds dawned and I got up early, as you have to when there’s so much preparing before and cleaning up after. It was after I’d got the gas heating the water barrel, and were about to select our first two roosters, that Virgil and Tami emerged warily from the house. Virgil walked over with confidence but Tami approached the turkey barn verandah with apparent hesitance. I checked in with them that they really wanted to do this and they both nodded. Tami and I went first to the barn to pick out the first victims. I showed her how to catch a chicken which she mastered adeptly.

Once back outside, I promptly demonstrated the technique of knocking out the bird by whacking its head against something hard, in my case it is a saw-horse, to render the bird unconscious before slitting the jugular. It makes for a more humane dispatch.

Virgil's first attempts at using the chicken plucker.

Virgil's first attempts at using the chicken plucker.

Virgil was keen to try, and quickly mastered the art of swinging the bird overhead but controlling the wings and legs so as to not break any bones unnecessarily as you do this. He was an equally quick student of slitting the jugular and showed no revulsion at doing so. At the sight of running blood Tami excused herself. I later learned that she went back to the house and tried to keep from fainting; a confirmed city slicker would have stayed there, but—to her credit—she overcame her squeamishness and reappeared to help us. “That’s why my tatoo says ‘Mind over matter'” she explained when I told her how impressed with her determination I was.

Showing Tami how to gut and dress the chickens.

Showing Tami how to gut and dress the chickens. The scalder was not hot enough on the first bird so we ended up having to do a bit more hand plucking before gutting the bird.

Meah, Virgil’s not-quite-four-year-old daughter, wisely raised with no illusions or squeamishness about where her food really comes from, was simply thrilled that she was looking at tonight’s dinner. She watched keenly as I demonstrated how to scald, feather-pluck, and gut and dress the birds. She prattled on asking her dad if we were going to eat the chickens for dinner. It was all the more disappointing for little Meah when we realized that by the time the bird was roasted that night, she should be asleep. We promised her cold cuts the next day as Virgil put her to bed.

While dressing out the chickens, Tami showed her knowledge of veterinary assistant work by examining the organs and explaining how they looked healthy and why. In one instance, she was able to show me lesions on the gizzard, possibly due to the bird having eaten something sharp (I have found a nail inside the crop of a turkey).

That evening, over glasses of wine, we honoured our meal, commented on its delicate flavour, and analysed the day’s emotions. Both our visitors felt ready, both in the knowledge and emotions departments, to slaughter their own birds in future.

9 Comments

Filed under Butchering, Chickens, Educational, How to...

Butchering chickens (graphic photo documentary)

How to butcher chickens: a documentary in photographs

Warning: this is a graphic ‘how to’ photo essay on chicken dispatching and butchering, do not read any further unless you are really interested in learning the art of home butchery. Note these directions will work for turkey, chicken and ducks (and their wild cousins). See butchering turkey post for specifics on turkeys.

I was all set to butcher my Cornish Crosses this morning but they are still too skinny! So, instead I decided to butcher some of my larger roosters from last year. Although they are getting along fine with each other, I really do have too many of them. I am going to give one of my favourites away to the friend who lost all her chickens to the marauding bears in January. She has finally gotten herself another flock of gals who are in need of a beau. So, its the Pavarotti understudy who is the model for the accompanying photos. He was big and gorgeous but not new blood, so he has to go.

1. Step One: Preparing the work area.

Clean your work station so it is ready for the job.

Clean workstation ready for the task.

Clean workstation ready for the task.

Mine is about as simple an operation as anyone would want. Here is the list of equipment I work with:

a) An easy to clean table for the gutting and cleaning process (mine is a piece of smooth arbourite that sits on top of my table).

b) Block of wood for knocking the bird unconscious and killing cones to place the bird in to bleed out.

c) Knives sharp enough to do the job easily. I keep an assortment of sizes for different aspects of the job.

d) Plucking machine (not necessary, but helpful on the hands!)

e) Scalder and heat source: in my case is an old beer keg with an end cut off so I can fill it with water which sits on a metal stand so I can get a flame underneath it for heating the water. This is my newly acquired elaborate piece of equipment that is actually borrowed from someone who no longer uses it. Alternatively, place a metal container over an open fire will also work (see Poultry in Motion or Butchering Turkeys for examples).

f) Clean plastic or metal containers for rinsing the ‘keepables’ (heart, liver, gizzard, and neck) and cooling the birds after processing.

g) Various buckets for hand washing, collecting the guts and blood, towels for drying hands, cloths for wiping up, dish soap, running water.

2. Step Two: render the bird unconscious

Grab the bird by the feet then swing the bird over your head and swifty, and with force, bring its head down onto a hard surface so as to knock him unconscious. This is the first time I’m doing it this way since speaking with another farmer about how he kills his birds. He convinced me that it was worth trying. The idea is that you render it unconscious before slitting its jugular and therefore it is a more humane way of killing the bird than simply slitting it while fully conscious. Until today, I have always just slit them once in the killing cones. I must say, this method is preferable and there is a definite ease in dealing with them in the killing cones. When they are not unconscious, they can kick and fuss and even jump their way out of the cones after they are cut. This does not happen when the bird is unconscious. It made for a much more relaxed dispatch process in general.

Rendering the bird unconscious by hitting his head on the wooden board.

Rendering the bird unconscious by hitting his head on the wooden board.

A life defining moment:

I once saw Australian Aboriginal women do this with monitor lizards in the Outback. She drug it from its hole (after tracking it) by the tail and swung it overhead–exactly as I’m doing in the above photo–and brought its head down over a rock. It was shocking at first to see and yet my immediate thought was, ‘That is the kind of woman you need around if you’re ever in a pinch!” I was so impressed with those ladies that I thought, “I have to become one of those kind of women”. It’s taken a few years–not to mention a few tears–but I’m nearly there!

3. Step Three: killing the bird

Place the bird in the killing cone. Then, bring its head through the hole at the bottom. Have your knife ready (it will need to be very shard for chickens, especially roosters because they are heavily feathered in the neck region where you will need to cut). To locate the jugular vein, look at the chicken’s cheek. You will see it’s ear tuft of hair and jowl. The jugular is located at the edge of the cheek/jawline in line with its ear. Imagine the corner of your jaw and then look at the chickens jaw for the same point. Cut there. You will know that you have cut correctly when the blood spurts out of the neck. If it is slowly dribbling, you have not yet found the jugular–keep cutting. Repeat on both sides.

Grab the head and locate the jugular area before beginning your cut.

Grab the head and locate the jugular area before beginning your cut.

4.  Step four: Scalding

Put the bird in the scalder for several seconds and swish it in an up and down motion to allow the water to penetrate through the layers of feathers. The scalder water temperature should be at least 145 degrees F. Opinion varies widely on how hot the water should be. I make sure it is above 145F and no hotter than 170F. If it fluctuates between those temperatures, I don’t tend to worry about it. Simply take the heat source away from the water if it gets too hot. If you cover the scalder with a lid between birds the water will hold its temperature surprisingly well.

Chicken after several seconds of dunking in water scalder.

Chicken after several seconds of dunking in water scalder.

5. Step Five: Plucking the feathers.

Place the bird on the plucking machine. Gently roll it over from side to side so that all the body parts are eventually exposed to the plucker. Alternatively, place it on the table and start plucking by hand! Not all the feathers will come easily, some will have to be hand plucked even with the plucking machine.

The plucking machine saves my hands from a lot of tedious work!

The plucking machine saves my hands from a lot of tedious work!

Finishing touches of feather removal must be done by hand.

Finishing touches of feather removal must be done by hand.

6. Step Six: Remove lower legs.

Once you have the feathers off it is time to start the butchering process. Grab hold of the lower leg and bend it backward slightly. Take the knife and begin your cut at the joint. Cut through the cartilage and avoid cutting the bone. This makes the leg removal cleaner and easier.

Removing the lower leg.

Removing the lower leg.

7. Step Seven: Cut off the head.

Place your hand on the head, tilt the head back and sever between the head and neck. Once you have the meat cut all the way around the base of the head, you should be able to pull the head off. This is better than cutting through the bones in the neck as it leaved the chicken certainly clean of bone shards. Then, cut into the neck skin just below the top of the breast bone. Be careful not to cut into the flesh inside or the crop which is located in this throaty area.

8. Step Eight: Remove the crop.

Cut the skin all the way around the neck so it will be removable. You don’t have to cut as high up towards the breast as I have in order to get at the crop. If you want to retain more of the skin around the breast, then cut up from the neck towards the breast  (instead of from the breast down as I have in the photo) just enough to get your hand into the chest cavity. Pull the crop away from the chest cavity and locate its outlet that goes deep into the body. Then locate the esophagus which lays alongside the crop outlet. Cut both these tubes and remove them from their location. Gently pull the crop and the tubes out of the body and pull the neck skin along with it to remove it from the chicken entirely.

Carefully cutting into chest cavity.

Carefully cutting into chest cavity.

Locate the crop being careful not to cut it open.

Locate the crop being careful not to cut it open.

Carefully cut the crop away from the body cavity.

Carefully cut the crop away from the body cavity.

Note: I’ve taken too much of the skin around the breast away to make the perfect roasting bird. Luckily, this fellow is going to be made into Chicken Byriani by my friend from Hyderabad, India on Friday night so it is not a problem.

Pull the crop along with the neck skin down over the neck and off the bird.

Pull the crop along with the neck skin down over the neck and off the bird.

9. Step Nine: Gut removal

Cut into the stomach cavity below the breast bone and down towards the anus, being careful not to cut into the meat or the guts inside.  Cut down and around the anus. Gently pull the anus and colon away from the bird. Then place your hand inside the bird and pull the organs away from the cavity wall. Turn your hand from side to side to help dislodge the connective tissue. Grab hold of all that you can, including the lungs which are at the back of the bird, and pull it all out of the hole you’ve made. You can either toss all the guts away at this point (a bit of a waste of good nutritional value in the form of lost giblets), or clean the heart, liver and gizzard for use in the gravy and stuffing.

Carefully cut into stomach cavity of bird at base of breast bone.

Carefully cut into stomach cavity of bird at base of breast bone.

Cut towards the anus being careful not to cut through colon.

Cut towards the anus being careful not to cut through colon.

Here is the colon on the inside of the bird still attached to the now removed anus.

Here is the colon on the inside of the bird still attached to the now removed anus.

Gently pull the anus and colon out and away from the body of the bird.

Gently pull the anus and colon out and away from the body of the bird.

Place your hand inside stomach cavity and dislodge all the innards from the chest wall.

Place your hand inside stomach cavity and dislodge all the innards from the chest wall.

10. Step Ten: Prepare the giblets.

Cut the heart in half and wash in clean water. Cut the gal bladder from the liver and wash the liver. Cut open the gizzard and remove its contents then clean and wash it. Place the above in cool water.

The innards of the chicken: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, gizzard, and intestines.

The innards of the chicken: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, gizzard, and intestines.

Cut open the gizzard being careful not to cut through the inner sac.

Cut open the gizzard being careful not to cut through the inner sac.

Pull the inner sac away from the gizzard.

Pull the inner sac away from the gizzard.

The giblets cleaned and ready for packaging: neck, heart, liver, and gizzard.

The giblets cleaned and ready for packaging: neck, heart, liver, and gizzard.

11. Step Eleven: Remove oil sac:

At the base of the back just above the tail feathers is the oil sac. Place your knife above the sac and cut fairly deep into the skin. You want to go in and behind the two sacs and come out above the tail feathers but below the sac. In the photo below, you can see clearly a nub where a feather used to be. This is the base of the oil sac and where you want your cut to come out below.

Remove the oil sac at the base of the back above the tail.

Remove the oil sac at the base of the back above the tail.

12. Step Twelve: Prepare for storage

I always wrap the giblets in celophane and place them along with the neck into the body cavity as you would a turkey. This way the are available for use in gravies, curries, or stuffing. They add nutritional value to our lives that we are no longer getting in the form of organ meats thanks to our contemporary lifestyle of store-bought meat. Then I place the birds in zip-lock freezer bags and freeze if I’m not planning on using them right away.

The giblets are wraped in celophane and placed inside the bird along with the neck.

The giblets are wraped in celophane and placed inside the bird along with the neck.

The chicken weighs in at precisely 5 pounds.

The chicken weighs in at precisely 5 pounds.

94 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Butchering, Chickens, Educational, How to..., Learning to Farm

The romance of the revolution

One of the little Mille Fleurs I adopted.

One of the little Mille Fleurs I adopted.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend in the valley gave me her bantam chickens because she was having troubles with a fox. One of her chicken coops is set too close to the edge of her property and the fox was taking one chicken per night. Before she lost them all, she asked if I could take them. One look at the beautiful little creatures and there was no doubt I would be smitten (I think she knew that too!). While quite ‘useless’ to me with respect to chicken and egg sales, they are simply delightful to look at. Not only that, their little crows and peeps are of a different tone from our larger chickens, which only adds to their charm.

I put them in with Elvis and Company in the house that once held Mrs. Mallard and my Muscovy ducks (which we named the ‘Little Goose Coop’) because the chickens are fewer in number and I could keep the bantams separated from the main crew while they got to know one another. In addition, I could also keep them relatively safe. I say relatively, because I too am having trouble with a fox. Luckily, my set up is a bit more fox proof than my friend’s, though certainly not foolproof!

I kept them separate for about two weeks before letting the bantams out to mingle with the ‘big guns’. All was well at first until the little bantam rooster and Elvis were commingled for the first time. Of course, I was worried about the bantam because Elvis is my prize fighter (see Elvis has left the building)–that’s why he has had to be separated from the main chicken house–and I thought the new little guy wouldn’t stand a chance against the heavy weight champion.

Napoleon and his gals searching for nibbley bits.

Napoleon and his gals searching for 'nibbley bits'.

As expected, the minute I let the little Bantam rooster and his gals out of their end of the chicken coop, Elvis was on him. Surprisingly, I needn’t have worried. As soon as the first squawks were heard, Tui (my dog) burst onto the scene and had the fight stalled in seconds, but only for a moment.  The roosters separated only long enough to move the fight to a new location, with Tui in hot pursuit. Amused by the scene, I watched it unfold and repeat itself several times. However, it soon looked like it would repeat itself ad nauseam and I was worried about the little guy, so I finally intervened. I broke them up with a, “Get a new idea, you two!” and they got on with their separate lives for the rest of the day. Peace and harmony were restored to the farm–at least momentarily.

That was two days ago. Yesterday, at the end of the day, the second battle of ‘Brumaire’ erupted again right here on the farm. I had just sat down at the end of a long hot day’s work and was nursing a well earned cold beer, when I heard the call to arms again. Alarmed by the commotion, I got up to investigate looking for the nearest stick with which to break up the battle–but I needn’t have moved. The two roosters were no longer locked in a vicious battle. Instead, Elvis came tearing around the house with the little general in hot pursuit, like Napoleon and his grenadiers driving the Council of Five Hundred from the Orangerie. This action, coupled with the declaration, “The revolution is finished,” echoing across the lawn, left no question as to who the little general was or what his hard-won status would henceforth be: Napoleon is the supreme executive of the old ‘little goose coop’, now re-named the French Consulate.

Note: the original Brumiare was the coup d’etat which set Napoleon Bonaparte on the path to becoming the supreme executive of the French Empire in 1799.

9 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Chickens, Funny stories

Cornish Crosses not fat enough!

Well who would have thought that I’d have to put off my butchering dates because my Cornish Crosses are too skinny? Not me or any of you either I bet! Instead of butchering at 9 weeks as I’d planned, I’m holding off for another two weeks to see if they gain the weight needed to get to 4 lbs as I’m hoping. While the later date is a bit of a shock, the reality is they look really happy and healthy and no sign of the dreaded list of possibles: heart attacks, water bellies, laying down to eat, coming off the legs and so on.

My skinny, free ranging Cornish Crosses!

My skinny, free ranging Cornish Crosses!

My little guys and gals are running around like all my other heritage breeds and free ranging for a lot of their food. In fact, they are the messiest birds I’ve kept in terms of wasting food from the hopper. There is more food on the ground around the hopper than I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what they are doing with it that the other birds don’t, but perhaps the behavior warrants a ‘quit playing with your food’ lecture.

Cornish Crosses hanging out in their yard.

Cornish Crosses hanging out in their yard.

As it stands, I’m now going to wait another two weeks to see if they get bigger. They are 8 weeks old today in the above photo. When I  first got them I was worried and alarmed at their rapid growth. However, after I moved them out onto the free range pasture their alarming rate of growth seemed to slow to a more natural rate of development. So far, they run and jump and flap and race around like any chickens I’ve kept. I’ve got renewed confidence that I’ll be able to keep a couple of females for breeding and they won’t die of heart attacks before reaching maturity. Well, that’s my thought a present!

12 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Chickens

Screetchy Britches becomes a mama

Screetchy Britches takes her brood foraging.

Screetchy Britches takes her brood foraging.

A couple of months ago one of my young hens was making the motions of a broody-girl. Every day as I collected the eggs she would fan herself out, act defensively, peck at my hand and screetch her little head off as I entered the barn to collect the eggs.  I didn’t even go near her nest recognizing straight away that she was ‘broody’ and wanted to be left alone to do her thing. After a few days of listening to her vitriolic protestations over my egg collecting duties, a suitable name popped out of my mouth one night when my husband entered the house after closing up the hens and I asked, “How’s Screetchy Britches doing?”

She was new to this mothering thing and consequently wasted a lot of eggs over the course of a couple of weeks. Being young, she didn’t do a very good job of keeping the older gals out of her ‘chosen’ nursery nest. She was sitting tight enough for me to mark the eggs under her  and stop collecting them, but every few days I’d find that she’d move three nests down and was sitting tight again on yet another clutch.

Finally, I moved her to the old chicken house where I have the Cornish Crosses fattening up. Normally, I never move a hen once she’s sat on a clutch and until Screetchy Britches first attempt, I’d never had to. I was worried the move might upset her enough to have her go off the idea of becoming a mother but sick enough of the waste of eggs to give it a try. It worked out beautifully. Last night when I went in to close the houses up for the night, Screetchy Britches was sitting proudly with her three-strong brood. It was a perfect hatch. Because of all the nest switching and egg wasting of previous weeks, when I moved her to the new location I only brought with her three eggs–lest she waste more by not sitting tight or by fleeing back to join the others in the new barn.

Today, she’s already got them out of the nest and into the yard in search of good nibbles!

4 Comments

Filed under Chickens

The Cornish Crosses first days

Newly arrived Cornish Crosses having their first feeding.

Newly arrived Cornish Crosses having their first feeding.

Now that the Cornish Crosses are safely nestled in the nursery, it is once again time for poopy bum patrol. It seems that these little creatures have a much higher rate of poopy-bum than the other chicks I’ve raised. I don’t know if that is typical for the breed or because they were highly stressed having not made it here straight away as they should have. And, there is the possibility that the feed store fed them medicated starter while under their care even though I’d already had them vaccinated. At any rate, I have had to do daily patrols and cleanings for several days now and with about 40% of the chicks.

The key thing about these birds that all the literature warns about is the rapid growth. Many advise restricting their food intake in order to keep them from going ‘off their legs’. I’m not quite sure how you restrict these little guys’ food exactly and worry that I’d be starving them so I’m going to try another route to solving this problem.

As with all my baby chicks, I will take them fresh greens as a daily supplement. Not only does this help with the poopy-bums but I’m hoping it will also slow their growth rate down a bit. I was worried that these little guys might not like the greens and at first it looked like they might not eat it. Of course, it only takes a few of the brave to take an interest to get the whole flock jockeying for position around the plate. I’ll employ the ol’ Weight Watchers rule of fill up on vegetables and see if it works–here’s hoping it is a universal principle!

11 Comments

Filed under Chickens, Educational, How to..., Learning to Farm

First attempts with Cornish Crosses

With any luck, this is what I'll end up with when these babes are full grown. Photo credit: JB Farms

With any luck, this is what I'll end up with when these babes are full grown. Photo credit: JB Farms

Spring has sprung here on Howling Duck Ranch and it is marked with the arrival of the new baby chickens. I have ordered 50 day-old Cornish Cross birds for meat. They are said to be easier to raise than the straight run Cornish broilers with less chance of heart attacks and water-belly that the broilers (regular supermarket birds) are prone to.

The arrival was not without its complications. They were supposed to arrive on Friday afternoon on the mail truck. However, around 11 am I received a phone call from the Williams Lake Post Office letting me know the chicks would be arriving there at 5:oo pm, oh, and could I please pick them up before they close. The Williams Lake Post Office is a nearly 500 kilometer one way trip away!

Needless to say I spent the better part of the afternoon in a panic trying to find someone to care for the chicks over the weekend and arrange for a courier company to pick them up on Monday and bring them in to town. Thankfully, the feed store owner came through for me, they picked the chicks up on Friday night and the only courier that comes to Bella Coola said they would bring them in on the truck on Monday. Even so, the feed store owner was worried about them making another long trip without food and water being less than a week old by Monday.

As luck would have it, someone from Bella Coola dropped into the feed store yesterday and the feedstore pounced! Would you mind taking these chicks with that order of yours? Being a neighbourly sort (as many of us who live in the sticks are) he kindly obliged and my wee-uns arrived safely last night in the gentle care of a man I’ve only met once last year at a party! He did a fine job as everyone arrived alive and well.

So, this morning’s chores once again included the now routine ‘poopy-bum patrol’. So far, everyone still looks well. In fact, I’ll be surprised if I lose any more (one was lost in the mail before making it to the feed store). If there are no other losses, this will be the best rate I’ve had. Usually with 50 chicks I expect to lose 2-3 chicks in the first week. Fingers crossed for these babes.

I decided to try the Cornish Crosses for two reasons this year: my customers wanted a heavier meat bird and I want to breed them into my range birds. I’ve been breeding a heavy heritage mix of bird over the past few years in an attempt to get the best of all worlds: a good egg layer, good meat bird, efficient range bird, and cold heartiness. In the end, the heritage breeds are only so big and don’t have the real ‘meatiness’ of the breast that we’ve become used to thanks to the hybrid birds of the commercial flocks.

I’m by no means doing a professional job of this. I’m not worrying about line-breeding or incubating generation after generation. Mostly my chickens take care of themselves. They do the mating and the hatching on their own. My only hand in the process is to cull the ‘Jenny Craigs’ (the skinny light bodied chooks) and ensure good breeding stock. So far, we’re all quite happy with the program.

This year however, now that I have these Cornish Crosses, I plan to separate some of the bigger hens and mate them to the Cornish Roosters. We’ll see if those plans pan out!

7 Comments

Filed under Chickens, Educational, Ethical farming, Heritage foods, Sustainable Farming

Putting a damper on things

This post is in honor of Howling Duck Ranch’s new friend Mitch, who is presently amidst the worst fires in Australian history!

You’ve been asking how the chickens are doing. You’ll be happy to hear that they are all doing fine! They are especially happy today now that the cold weather has broken finally and they are presently grubbing around the yard in search of tasty morsels. Some of them spent time laying in the sun today, the first we’ve had in ages. While I was taking a break from writing today and enjoying a warm lunch of vegetarian pasta, I looked out the window and spotted Pavarotti being groomed by one of his favourite gals and I thought, “Gee, Mitch would like to see this.” Unfortunately, by the time I got the camera ready, they’d completed the task of sorting out his plumage and were back lounging in the sun. Nonetheless, here is a photo for you; I hope it will help dampen the fires and clear away some smoke so you folks can breathe easier this weekend!

This is the rain we experienced last November-December 2008.

This is the rain we experienced last November-December 2008.

Chickens inside on a rainy day.

Chickens inside on a rainy day.Notice the blue tarp which I roll down over the roosts at night.

You will note that I’ve taken out the chicken roosts on the left hand side. I’m experimenting with one of Joel Salatin’s ideas of using deep bed litter and saving myself a lot of time in mucking out their house! So far, it is working really well. If you want to learn more, read Pasture Raised Poultry, by Joel Salatin at Polyface farms. Link to his website is in the blogroll, or click here to go directly to his list of publications.

2 Comments

Filed under Animal issues, Chickens, Ethical farming, How to..., Just for fun

Of ice and hens

A friend of mine from New Zealand asked me the other day why I stay here, when there are much easier places to farm–I’m beginning to wonder that myself! The night before last, it started snowing; it looked like Mother Nature was just brushing the dandruff out of her hair.  But by morning it had snowed about 18 inches–not that it isn’t picturesque, but it is a make-more-work-for-me-kinda-scene that I am growing tired of this year.

I blame the goats for my negative attitude towards the ice and snow; they hate the snow and that makes me not like it. They stand in their shelters and bleat and moan about it, like I’m somehow personally responsible for their  lack of comfort. It is quite hilarious to watch them run from their barn to their day-paddock; like cats treading through puddles, they lift their feet high trying  not to get them wet. It is the best darn high-stepping trot I’ve seen, and would make many a horse person envious. There is usually a puddle or two along the way and they all leap over it, one by one. I picture them jumping puddles like that at night when I can’t sleep. This is what happens when you don’t have sheep.

When I watch these domestic animals and know how relatively pampered they are, it makes me wonder how the wild goats survive these Canadian winters. Actually, each Canadian winter I survive makes me wonder how any wild creature survives out there without shelter, heat, and readily available food. This year’s cold stretch lasted longer than the previous years I’ve been here, and I noticed the other day the wild birds were eating snow–I guess their puddles and water sources were all iced up and they were desperate.

The chickens, on the other hand, are relatively stoic, and I appreciate them for it. They seem to come out of the barn in nearly all weather. The only time they didn’t make an appearance this winter was for the week of sheer blizzard conditions we had in December. Otherwise, they are out grubbing for a portion of their living. It is helpful that they are an energetic bunch because, even with their enthusiasm for self-sufficiency, I’ve had to buy a lot more feed than previous years, and the feed costs have risen. Consequently, the attempt to be profitable is ever-receding into the horizon. I have yet to do the books, but I’m not all that enthusiastic. We both suspect that the off-farm job is actually paying for the eggs I’m selling. I don’t need to do the books to know we are going through more feed than we are realizing in egg sale returns, so I’m putting the accounting off as long as I can.

I want to farm, but I’m still not sure how I can actually make it work. It is just not enough to have a cute place and funny animals; I need a wage like everybody else. The funny animals take time and effort, and I could justify having them as pets when I had a nice salary; I am having a more difficult time justifying them, along with the ducks, now that I don’t. Surprisingly, when I say that to people (who have nice salaried jobs), they are shocked. “Oh, you can’t get rid of your goats, they’re so cute!” is the most common response. Yes, they are cute. So are the ducks. But cute doesn’t pay my taxes, replace my roof, or replace my truck as it rusts away. When did our society come to expect farms to be cute, and farmers to not make money on their farm? When did we stop caring that, like any other service industry, if it is not supported and can’t make a profit, it won’t last? This principle is well understood for all sorts of business and services, and yet farms seem to be thought of as something that shouldn’t make money. It is as if we’ve all come to accept that it is logical that farmers should work off the farm to pay for their farm. What other business would this (ill-) logic apply to? Would you run a restaurant that way? How about a mechanic shop?

Thus far, neither my ducks nor my goats have had to work for their living. Now that I am trying to make the farm a going concern, I have to look around it and put everything through an income-generating test: does it, or can it, make money? In light of this, I’ve slaughtered most of the ducks and lost the last two females to foxes. I’m going to take the last drake to the game dinner and he won’t be wearing a bow-tie, but I haven’t told him yet. In addition, I have been toying with the idea of finding a buck for my does and putting them to work. I know they will not make money because I’m not allowed to sell the meat, but they will at least provide me with a return in meat and milk. The milk I can make into cheese and the meat I can eat. The fact is, my workload will not change much in order to realize some milk and meat returns for us, directly.

Thus far in my farming career, I have yet to witness the birth of anything that doesn’t hatch, but I am drawn to the idea of mammalian births. I have finally managed to find a willing buck, and now I just have to get emotionally prepared for the result: extra work and butchering the kids. While I love the idea of seeing my goats pregnant, giving birth and having some kids around, I know that ultimately I’ll have to eat them or sell them. Our place is too small to expand the herd and I can’t just keep adding glorified pets to the equation any more.

I’ve managed to evolve emotionally this year and hone my butchering skills to cope with chickens and turkeys. If I get the does pregnant, then I’ll have to fast track the emotional fortitude to do in a baby goat. Learning to hunt this year has helped with the idea. After all, a goat is just a small deer. Still, there is one thing to butchering a deer you didn’t know personally and another thing to do in one of ‘my babies’ (it doesn’t help that they are called ‘kids’!).  Honestly, I’m not sure I’m there yet. I guess if I get the girls pregnant, I’ll have a time limit for that trajectory!

I’d like to raise more chickens and turkeys than I do, and maybe get into rabbits and goats, and sell the meat. Sadly, with all the prohibitive regulations it is nearly impossible to start anything without having to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars (think meat slaughter, poultry slaughter). I’d like to run a goat dairy, but we have the predators to deal with, on top of the prohibitive aforementioned capital investment. In addition to all of this, I’m living in an area where there are few people, so I wonder if there will ever been enough demand to make a farm work here.

Finally, I am struggling with the idea of investing more money here when there is such a huge risk of having my stock devastated by a bear or cougar. Even the losses I have taken (some chickens and ducks) amount to what may have been my profit margin. In light of the above, I toggle between wanting to go out and get a decent paying job so I can go back to playing at farming (and just supplying our own needs), and continuing to work at something extremely under-valued, in the hopes it will amount to something, someday.

I also face legislative blocks. Small farms in British Columbia cannot make a living on the wholesale market. This is why exemption status for small farming is so important. If we want to have local foods from small, sustainable farms that treat their animals humanely, we need producer-processor rights so that we (small farmers) can legally do direct marketing, attain the sales value, and avoid sharing the profits with middle-men. There are many places in the world that still allow this, but we have recently outlawed this in British Columbia for the majority of farming products. That’s why there are days when I think I should go somewhere and get a wage, or find somewhere I can farm more easily… but then I look up at these glorious tree-clad mountains and granite crags, put on my gumboots, and happily trudge out to care for my charges.

16 Comments

Filed under Chickens, Ducks, Eggs, Ethical farming, Goats, Learning to Farm, Sustainable Farming, Turkeys