Category Archives: Chickens

Elvis has left the building

High drama in the chicken house again. First, I found a chicken dead and frozen in an odd position. We’ve been having a really cold spell for a couple of weeks, but not so cold he would have frozen to death. The water wasn’t even freezing in the chook-shed, a good sign. But, once dead and not moving, a body does freeze.

I wondered if he’d been beaten up by some of the older roosters but there were no signs of fighting. It looks as if he just gave up and keeled over, no particular reason. We took him to the dump to feed the wild scavengers that rely on that kind of food source to get them through the difficult winter.

Then I noticed a hen with a bare spot on the back of her neck, a telltale sign of an over-enthusiastically amorous rooster. The next few nights I paid closer attention to the spirit of the hen-house, and noticed that the general ambiance had shifted from a congenial cohesive group to several factions and splinter-groups; within days, an overall feeling of disharmony had taken over the chook house.

The next night Pavarotti, my stud-muffin rooster, looked particularly disheartened. He faced downwards towards the wall in one corner, planted his bum to the centre of the room, and wouldn’t even look at me when I entered. I was reminded of Napoleon at Elba: the General had lost control of his army. It was too sad.

That’s it, I thought, enough! Some of the roosters have to go, but which ones? There was such mayhem in the room I couldn’t tell which one, or ones, were the culprit. Although several hens were muttering under their breaths who the perpetrators were, I couldn’t bring myself to convict on hearsay. The investigations would have to proceed judiciously. At least I had a fair idea who would appear in the line-up. I grabbed up four of the bigger fellows–Elvis, Red, and the two Pavarotti look-a-likes–and took them to the old, now empty, chicken house. So began the slow, empirical process of elimination, but I knew from TV that most police work is just a hard slog.

Once the bullies were removed, a collective sigh of relief reverberated through the new poultry barn and everyone happily went to bed. When I went to check the next day, everyone was fine, but oddly, there were now only two roosters in the old chicken house. How is this possible, I wondered? The doors were locked overnight, the windows closed and no fox holes apparent around the building. It was a mystery.

I let the boys out, topped up feed and water, and forgot about them for the rest of the day. That night when I returned to lock them up I heard a pathetic sound coming from under the long, wall-mounted feeder! the Pavarotti lookalikes had wedged themselves into a 4 inch x 6 inch space beneath the feeding tray to hide from the others. It was obvious who the two bullies were! Thanks, boys! I crouched down, coaxed them out from their hiding space, took them back to the new poultry barn to join the others, and yes, they blended in just fine. The three tenors, reunited! Pavarotti gently let them know who was boss, and when he went unchallenged they were allowed back into the group. I felt relieved, and happy for my commander-in-chief, Pav.

All is quite on the western front, now that Elvis really has left the building!

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Filed under Chickens, Funny stories, Just for fun

Crack and sniff: How fresh are your eggs?

Because they all look roughly the same on the outside, the only real way to know if you have bought healthy, fresh eggs, is to crack them open. The following information will help you determine whether your eggs are fresh and if they have come from healthy chickens, or are old and have come from poorly fed, stressed birds.

First rule of thumb: it is best to bypass the cheap, supermarket brand egg.

These are usually produced in vast factory ‘farms’ (though certainly not my definition of a farm, hence the ‘single quotes’) with upwards of 500,000 birds in one facility. The birds are caged in buildings that are artificially lighted and ventilated. The feed is most likely a mixture of conventionally grown corn and soy, undoubtedly contaminated by Genetically Modified Organisms and laced with antibiotics; these confinement operations must lace their feed with antibiotics in order to keep disease from spreading among the hens. They contribute to the amount of antibiotics we humans are ingesting (along with milk, cheese, and other animal products that come from confinement operations). There is not much goodness in eggs like these.

‘In-store’ freshness tests

The shells should be dull, not shiny. The eggs should feel strong, not so delicate that regular handling threatens to crack them. Hold one up in front of a light: sometimes you can see through them well enough to see the size of the air sac inside–it should be small and lopsided or angled.

‘At-home’ freshness tests

  1. Place the eggs in a large bowl of cold water. If they float, they are quite old.
  2. Once cracked open and lying on a plate, the yolk of a fresh egg will ‘dome up’ and stay up, while the white will clearly be thicker in the middle part, thinner on the edges. (A family that buys eggs from me has morning breakfast contests to see who’s yolk stands up the highest.) The yolks should be a deep yellow-orange, not pallid yellow; this deep orange color will tell you that the birds have had access to fresh greens, like grass and mixed pasture. They should also be virtually odor-free.
  3. Another test you could perform (though you will know well enough by the above two methods whether your egg is fresh or not) is to break the egg into boiling water, as if to poach it. Most supermarket eggs break up into tiny pieces on contact with the water, whereas fresh eggs will hold together.

‘Get Crackin’: shaking the hand that feeds you

If you seek out eggs from a small local grower, consider asking the following questions to learn more about the eggs you buy:

What do you feed your chickens? The ideal feed is a combination of grains, legumes, grasses, greens, worms and insect–in other words, pasture raised with free access to grains, to supplement their range diet. Less than ideal, but still acceptable to many, are organic lay pellets and organically grown corn and soy. At the bottom of the heap are commercial lay pellets, conventionally grown corn and soy, and cottonseed meal.

Do you use antibiotics? If the health of a whole flock is threatened, then the judicial use of antibiotics can usually be tolerated by the consumer, as long as eggs from that period are not sold. The answer should not be, ‘Antibiotics are routinely added to the feed ration.’ (Nevertheless, this is the practice of conventional agricultural operations. )

How many birds do you have? In this arena, small is beautiful–and better. If the birds are separated into smaller flocks–maximum 100 to 150–the chickens can maintain a healthy chicken society and a natural pecking order, and thus will be less stressed.

What are living conditions like for the birds? The birds should have regular access to the outdoors. Their living quarters should not be cramped, and they should be able to express themselves as chickens. In other words, they should be able to run around, scratch for worms and bugs, and have personal space to get away from marauding roosters if they want to. If chickens are given enough space, they are less likely to become stressed and/or diseased.

How fresh are these eggs? Small producers sometimes store eggs for days or weeks until they have enough to make a delivery. Eggs should not be older than 10 days when they are brought to market, and should be labeled with the date of harvest.

Are the eggs fertile? If the producer keeps roosters, the flocks will better resemble a natural chicken society and the hens will be less stressed. There should be a good ratio of roosters to hens; 1 to between 1o and 20 is a good balance, depending upon the breed and aggressiveness of individual roosters. Many producers say they cannot keep more than one rooster because they will fight. This is a sign that the birds do not have enough space to get away from one another! A healthy, happy flock with enough personal space will not fight to the death, or pick on another bird and kill it.

What breed are your chickens? While this likely doesn’t matter much to individual egg quality, you may want to know for your own personal reasons. There are reasons beyond freshness and animal ethics to consider. For example, do you want your dollars going towards helping a farmer keep a heritage breed alive, develop a breed with special adaptive characteristics for your area, obtain farm status to lower their land tax, or increase food security in your neighbourhood by being able to be economically viable? These options are not only interesting philosophical motives, but also politically oriented, in that they help ensure increased food security by keeping the gene pool of chickens varied (which makes them less susceptible to a host of problems), developing regional characteristics in a local flock, maintaining important animal husbandry skills alive, and helping a local farm be or stay viable. These are all interesting, conscientious ways to spend your hard earned dollars.

May I visit your farm? While you might never do this, the producer’s response will give you an idea of whether he or she is proud of the operation or ashamed of it.

When asking these questions, remember that life is a compromise. In an ideal world, your farmer’s feed would be organic, the chickens would have constant access to fresh pasture, and they would roam around a large space, never at the risk of being predated upon. However your farmer has many variables to consider in creating a healthy, vibrant yet economically viable, ecologically sustainable farm. How much you’re willing to pay for the end product is a big part of that juggling act!

In the end, it is always better to shake the hand that is feeding you. You will have the confidence of knowing where your food is coming from, and where your dollars are going and what they are supporting. You may also develop strong relationships between yourself and the grower, and indirectly strengthen your community bonds (what academics call ‘social capital’).

Isn’t that better than mindlessly letting your dollars get funnelled through a chain supermarket check-out to an unknown conglomerate far, far away?

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Filed under Chickens, Conservation, Educational, Ethical farming, Food Security, How to..., Locavore, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Egg ‘profits’

A couple of years ago I asked one of our local grocery store managers (there are two grocery stores in the valley)  how many dozen eggs per week the store sold: the answer was 1500 dozen. That means  our community spends annually at least $312,000.00 on eggs, and likely twice that considering the second store! We are a remote, economically depressed community. Imagine if all that money kept circulating in our valley instead of the majority (the local stores keep a small percentage  of that money in retail mark-up) going to an anonymous corporation  a thousand kilometers away.  If we could develop a local food system, this money would be used to support small family farmers, who could farm in an ethical manner as I do. Then, our community would  not be supporting which treats animals inhumanely, raisies eggs of questionable integrity,  and polluties the environment with long distance egg travel–and let’s not even start on the idea of freshness!

Why am I on about this? I was recently crunching the numbers to see if I could make my farm economically viable through the egg business. Here are my preliminary calculations:

  • I am trying to build my flock up to 99 laying hens and am almost there. Hens only lay well for approximately 40 weeks per year(industrial producers might achieve 46-50 weeks by confining the birds in artificial conditions, stimulating them with artificial light, mutilating them,  and feeding them antibiotics and hormones). So:
  • 99 hens x 1 egg per day (almost) x 6  days per week = 594 eggs per week;
  • 594 eggs per week divided by 12/dozen = almost 50 dozen per week;
  • 40 weeks (to give the benefit of the doubt) x 50 dozen x $4.00 per dozen (average cost based on local grocery store)= $8 000 gross income.
  • That doesn’t sound too bad until you factor in the feed cost (which has increased dramatically recently) and the costs to build a henhouse, buy the chickens as day-olds, transport them to the farm, provide electricity for lighting and/or heating to raise them and keep water from freezing during the winter, provide bedding material (including trucking it to the farm), and pay the occasional vet bill. Oh–and factor in the mistakes, blunders, ice storms and power outages (e.g. 47 new chicks and no extra room in your bra to keep them warm!). How much is left of the gross income? It doesn’t take a sharp pencil or further detailed calculations to realize there will be next to nothing left over at the end of the year!
  • Other expenses that must be factored in if you are to make a serious ‘go’ of it include: the up-front cost of the building to house the hens, nesting boxes, roosts, waterers, feeders, and special lights for heating the chicks as newborns; egg cartons and their labels (legally you can’t re-use cartons!); and annual taxes –which are not lessened unless you obtain farm status, an increasingly difficult thing to achieve.
  • Additionally, there are labour costs. Like many small farmers, I have chosen to work on my farm rather than develop a career (for which I am well qualified) which would give me a good wage, full benefits replete with life and disability insurance, a pension plan, unemployment insurance and paid leave. Instead of selling my time to an employer, I choose to spend it conscientiously:  caring for my birds; checking their feed and water daily; letting them in and out twice daily; changing their bedding regularly; collecting and cleaning eggs; putting them in cartons daily; delivering them to customers; doing the specialty chores (which take an inordinate amount of time) like giving them greens or conducting the Poopy Bum Patrol; creating an ecologically sustainable farm; contributing to local food security; practising local economic development; increasing my community’s social capital; advocating for food sovereignty through meetings, discussions, educational workshops, and writing this blog; researching, reading and learning from mentors and trail-blazers.

In fact, as I write, the powers that be are considering upping the amount of money which a small farmer like me needs to make on a farm of 2 to 10 acres from $2500 per year to $10 000.

That increase in requisite gross sales volume will put many small farms in British Columbia, Canada,  out of business. According to Statistics Canada (2006) there are 19 844 farms in B.C. 9466 of them make less than $10 000 gross sales each year. In other words, if the powers that be have their way, nearly 9 500 family farms will go out of business!

The increase in required gross sales revenue, coupled with the Egg Producers Marketing Board’s ceiling of 99 laying hens, make it impossible to keep a two acre farm in non-industrial egg production alone.

Ah, you say, what about economies of scale? Why not get bigger? Why not have more hens? Because I’m not allowed to, that’s why.

Here is the British Columbia government’s regulation:

The British Columbia Egg Marketing Board (BCEMB) issues egg layer quota to registered egg producers. An egg producer is legally required to obtain quota from the BCEMB if they have more than 99 layer hens. Registered producers with quota are bound by the BCEMB’s Standing Order to produce eggs according to provincial and federal legislation.

The BCEMB Standing Order defines a layer, applied to chickens, as a laying hen, layer, and any class of a female chicken hatched for the purposes of egg production that is aged nineteen (19) weeks or older.

[See BC Egg Producers Board for more information; but be forewarned, it is difficult to wade your way through to understanding the rules and regulations–I’m still wading.]

The British Columbia Egg Producers Board governs how many laying chickens anyone is allowed to keep, without getting ‘quota’ (say, 10,000 or more). This legal exclusion of chicken numbers between say, 100 and 9,000, severely limits the ability of a ‘would be’ farmer to grow and develop a sustainable, economically viable, environmentally-more-sustainable-than-the-system-we-are-locked-into, local business.

Somewhere in these pages, there seems to be a window of exemption for  a flock of 99-399 flock limit, but I have yet to be able to find out how this is achieved. The next  stage up is 1000-3000, the ‘Small Lot’ farm. There is an application form on the website; however, it is not as easy as filling out the ‘Small Lot Authorization’ application form. You cannot simply grow your business the way you you see fit: if you want to be bigger than 99 or 399, you must decide which of the categories–Free Run, Free Range, Organic, Certified Heritage Breed (along with requisite mountains of paperwork, reporting, etc.)–you wish to comply with, and the mountain of paperwork you are willing to submit yourself to.

Here is a sample of the less-than-crystal-clear legal requirements:

Small Lot Authorizations – The Board has established a Small Lot Authorization program to a maximum of 10,000 layers.  A person who wishes to keep or maintain more than ninety-nine (99) layers but three hundred and ninety-nine (399) layers or less, must apply annually to the Board to be exempt from: the requirement of obtaining a licence, registering as a Registered Producer and paying marketing licence fees if they do not market their eggs through a Federally Registered grading station. The following conditions apply: (i) No person shall keep or maintain, in concert with another person or persons, such layers in facilities contiguous to or a part of each other, such that in aggregate, the number of layers kept or maintained, would if kept or maintained by one person in such facilities, require that person to obtain a licence and register as a Registered Producer. (ii) No Registered Producer shall permit a person exempt from the requirement of obtaining a licence, to keep or maintain layers in the Egg Production Unit of or in facilities contiguous to or that ordinarily would constitute a part of the Egg Production Unit of the Registered Producer. (iii) The producer is certified organic, certified heritage breed, certified free run or certified free range by an agency meeting the criteria contained in SECTION 7(p). (iv) For certified heritage breed flocks the applicant must demonstrate that 99 birds is too few for the maintenance of a viable heritage flock. (v) If the producer direct markets their eggs ungraded at the farmgate the producer must be in compliance with the Agricultural Produce Grading Act, Shell Egg Grading Regulation.  Should a producer decide to market eggs as Canada Grade “A” the producer must also pay Marketing Licence Fees on product marketed through a registered grading station. (vi) Priority for entrance into the Small Lot Authorization program will be given to applicants producing specialty eggs, including certified organic, certified free run and certified free range in regions outside the Lower Mainland. (vii) Persons currently holding laying hens that may qualify for a Small Lot Authorization have until December 31, 2006 to complete and submit an application for Board approval. (viii) If required, a waiting list system will be established for the Small Lot Authorization program.

This is not the end. You must meet the ‘New Entrant’ requirements. What are they? Ah, well … all is on hold, and has been since June 13, 2007 when the Egg Producers Board put out the following letter:

June 13, 2007

To : New Entrant Applicants

From : Mike Gillanders, Operations Manager

NEW ENTRANT WAITING LISTS

At their meeting May 30, 31, 2007, the BC Egg Marketing Board (BCEMB) reviewed the BC Farm Industry Review Board (BCFIRB) decision on eligibility for New Entrants and addressed the waiting list process that has occurred over the past several years while the BCFIRB reviewed the New Entrant policies. Due to uncertainty of how waiting lists would work and who would be eligible, the process has been very confusing for everyone involved.  The BCEMB Directors therefore resolved to replace the New Entrant selection by waiting list with a New Entrant selection by lottery. As a consequence, the Standing Order will be revised to remove the sections dealing with Waiting Lists and a new section will be drafted to detail how a New Entrant Lottery will operate. Once the new policy is approved, the details will be posted on our website and you will receive a copy.  Any persons who have paid the Waiting List fee will receive a refund.

Despite the fact that I don’t have inordinate material aspirations, the limitations imposed by the BCEMB are painfully prohibitive to my aspirations of working from home and increasing our community food security. It’s no wonder there has been a mass exodus from the rural communities and family farms, and a concomitant burgeoning of cities and their environmental issues. Why would anyone want to try to develop a farm and raise food for their communities when the profits are too low (or non-existent), and the barriers are too high?

When you cannot grow your business as you wish (build your chicken flock up to a reasonable number–beyond the allowable 99 but in keeping with your farm size and sustainability–without having to jump major ‘exemption’ or ‘special status’ hoops that might provide you with an actual profit at the end of the year), what is the incentive to farm? How can a small egg producer in BC avoid throwing in the towel and working off the farm, returning to the city, and becoming part of the unsustainable urban flock?

 

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Filed under Animal issues, Chickens, Ethical farming, Food Security, Locavore, Politics of Food, Sustainable Farming

Butchering days are over!

Three of the four turkeys I butchered yesterday.

Three of the four turkeys I butchered yesterday out and about on their final free range day. They were checking out the Christmas lights hubby had put on the barn.

Yesterday, with the help of my friend Clarence, I finished butchering the last of my turkeys. Clarence, who grew up on a farm and has continued to keep animals his whole 83 years of life, had never seen, let alone tried, a poultry plucker. When I told him about the one I’d borrowed, and what a great time I was having with it, he asked me to let him know the next time I was butchering so he could come over, lend a helping hand, and give it a whirl at the same time. Having learned so much from Clarence over the past couple of years, I was thrilled to be able to pass on some knowledge to him, for a change.

Before I lit the fire yesterday, I left him a message on his answering machine letting him know I was butchering today. I had just gotten the scalding water temperature up to where I wanted it, had hung and was cutting my first turkey, when Clarence appeared at my gate. “Don’t you just have the perfect timing!” I called out when I saw him, quickly finished the cuts on the turkey’s neck, rinsed my hands and, wiping them dry on my pants, made my way over to greet him.

Clarence never brings his truck into the yard but prefers to stop at my gate and walk in. He talks to all the critters on his way towards the house, calling out as he goes, ‘Hello goats, hey there duckies, how ya doing doggy,’ meeting and greeting his way up the driveway. There is often a chorus of replies: ‘mmm-baaaa, quack-quack-quack, gobble-gobble’. What is always absent is Tui the dog’s bark, which impresses Clarence to no end.  He takes this to show how intelligent she is. “You know my dear, she never barks at me,” he happily reports as if for the first time on nearly every one of his visits. “She knows me… you know… knows my voice.” He rounds out the thought with a final affirmative “Mm-hmm.”

Today, he had brought a big beef rib bone for Tui. He’d already given it to her when I’d spotted him, and she was happily trotting back down the driveway, head cocked to one side with the weight of the bone, balancing herself as she made her way back to her spot on the grass where she flopped down and started to work greedily. The bone must have been about twenty inches long. With the prize between her teeth and her paws, her Christmas had come early.

As I drew closer to him I was not greeted by the usual, ‘Hello my dear,’ but “Are your hands bloody?” Well, that’s not a question I’d ever thought I’d hear aimed at me, I thought, and stuck my freshly rinsed hands out for him to inspect. His eyes cast down searching for the answer instead of waiting for my reply. Then, clutching my hands in his and looking them over with care, he triumphantly declared, “Yep, they’re bloody,” pointing to a spot of blood on my ring finger that I’d missed. “OK, I’m satisfied,” he said, dropping my hands and continuing his march towards the barn where I had my butchering station set up.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, spotting something that he couldn’t ignore, he veered quickly off course towards the hung turkey: “Oh, my dear, you haven’t got him… her, cut well enough on the right.” Without pause, he took out his knife and expertly finished the job that I had rushed through in order to meet him a few moments before. I was surprised at how good his eyesight still is at his age, and impressed at how quickly he judged the situation and worked deftly to rectify it. One thing I’ve learned about Clarence is that he hates to see an animal suffer. While he is happy to teach these difficult skills, he’s also quick to finish the job if it is not done right soon enough.

For the rest of the day, we worked steadily together, taking turns at catching the turkeys and scalding them. He asked that I show him how to use the plucker with the first turkey. Suitably impressed and eager to try it out, he did the next one. “Wow, this sure works, my dear!” he called out over the whir of the plucker as he laid his first bird on the rubber spokes, his eyes widening in surprise as he watched the feathers fly off the bird. I looked over to see the result of his newly learned skill, and, in a momentary lapse of concentration–so excited about communicating his wonder at the job the plucker was doing–he nearly lost the bird to the grip of the plucker. “Wow, you see that?” he said, quickly turning to catch hold of the fluttering bird and recover his grip. As he regained his composure he laughed, “You ever drop one of these?” (For those of you who want the answer, click Poultry in motion.)

I let him do all the plucking today, as I could see he was interested in the machine. “Did anyone tell you that I’m taking you for lunch today?” he asked, one hand on the neck and the other on the feet of the turkey, the wet corpse sagging heavily between them still steaming from the scalding water, mist rising up around Clarence like a scene in a B horror movie.   “No,” I replied, looking over at him as the mist evaporated: ‘Elmer Fudd butchers his first turkey,’ I thought to myself.

It’s what I love about Clarence. He’s is such a character, he is almost a living caricature of himself: red and white quilted plaid jacket, buttoned down shirt, blue-jeans, Gortex hunting boots, completed by his green, Elmer Fudd hunting hat–replete with permanent cougar teeth marks from his attack 10 years ago. It’s his ‘Signature Collection’ line of clothing. You could take a photo of him today and, by digitally changing the background scenery, make it true for any season: here’s Clarence in the winter, here’s Clarence in the spring, here’s Clarence in the summer, and here’s Clarence in the fall. The only thing that would be altered to indicate the changing season is what he is wielding in his hands: in spring a seed catalogue, in summer a shovel or pitchfork, in fall a rifle, and in winter a snow-shovel. Yet Clarence’s simple taste is enchanting (the more so because he is unaware of it): underneath he is real, unassuming, and one of the most humble people I’ve ever met–not a pretentious bone in his body.

Having cut and plucked our way through the four turkeys, I ask him if he would mind if I added a couple of roosters. “No better time than now, my dear,” he hand-gestured to all the butchering paraphernalia about us. I’d been keeping the extra roosters partly because they are really pretty, but primarily because I like to let my hens (and thus my flock) ‘do their thing’ when the desire suits them to go broody (the technical term for motherly). For a lot of my time here at the farm, I have relied mostly on the hens to increase the numbers in my flock, supplemented occasionally by my feeble attempts at incubating eggs. It was only this past summer, after a miserable hatch rate (both mine and the hens’),  that I resorted to buying in some stock.

With the four turkeys done and on the table cooling, I looked at the roosters and began mentally weighing them. I want to cull out the smallest and keep the heaviest for breeding stock. I’m trying to develop my flock into good, all-purpose egg and meat birds–those who watch their figures get the knife around here. I spotted the two I thought were the smallest, caught them with my fishing net and brought them over to the hanging tree.

“Can you do this one, Clarence?” I asked, holding up one of the most beautiful roosters I have for him to see. “He’s just too pretty, I can’t do it.” I had been wanting to keep the reamining roosters: the Magnificent Seven I called them. I had grown quite fond of them and these two even had individual names. I still struggle with the ones that have names. Of course, once they were cut I was fine and did the rest of the processing, minus the plucker step, which Clarence was pretty thrilled with operating at this stage. I was also concerned that my knife wouldn’t do a quick enough job of the roosters. These ones in particular had glorious manes and, after doing in a bunch of turkeys that have no feathers on the neck, I knew my knife wasn’t sharp enough to get through all those feathers. I was relieved when Clarence obliged me.

Finally, as we were doing the final clean-up of the area, he touched my arm gently and said, “Awe, I’m glad you got all that work behind you.”  Throwing the last of the feathers on the fire he asked, “You ready to go for lunch now?” I rinsed the table-top and cutting board with soap and water, covered the blood up deep with sawdust, stacked the buckets and other items away in their place and carried the birds over to the garage. Clarence tipped out the scalding water and tidied up the fire and plucker mess. Once done, we headed into town for a hot lunch. It was a lot closer to dinner time than lunch by the time we were done, but it tasted good nonetheless! It is amazing how good a hot meal feels after a day out working in the cold weather, and I said so as I thanked Clarence for lunch.

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Filed under Butchering, Chickens, Turkeys

How deep is your l’eau?

More than ankle deep in the stuff!

More than ankle deep in the stuff!

We are bilingual in Canada, or so the theory goes. I don’t claim to be, at least not in our  two official languages. However, I do remember a few words from my elementary school days, or what my mother affectionately calls my ‘cereal box french’:  ‘l’eau’ for water, ‘fenetre’ for window, ‘Ouvre la fenetre’ (Open the window), and ‘un bois de l’eau s’il vous plais’ (a glass of water if you please). (I’m certain I don’t remember the correct spelling, so please bear with me while I prove the exception to the theory.)

Today, the view from my ‘fenetre’ is less than appealing, thanks to the amount of l’eau I see in every direction: it has been raining since June. OK, so that is a bit of an overstatement, but only just. It has, in all honesty, rained for most of October, all of November and, apart from a short ‘breather’ of about half a day, all of December as well. Add to this misery the fact that 0ur ‘daylight hours’ stretch all the way from 8 am to 4 pm; although, unlike most of the valley, we have two ‘cuts’ in the southern mountain range which afford us half an hour of sun a day, when the sun is not shining, it matters not.

Water running almost all the way to the turkey and chicken barns.

Water running almost all the way to the turkey and chicken barns.

If I had one (and I probably should, being Canadian and all), I could almost canoe from the front porch to the animals pens. If it weren’t for the trenches I dug between the house and the garden (where the pink gates are and to the left), beyond the garden and before the new chicken barn, and between the chicken barn and the turkey pen, a canoe would be the only way to get around our property now.

It has rained about 5 inches overnight.

It has rained about 5 inches overnight.

Must be 4 or 5 inches of rain.

Must be 4 or 5 inches of rain.

It is weather fit only for ducks. The goats refuse to leave the barn in the morning on days like this. When I try to shoo them out, there is a plaintive chorus of: “N-o-o-o…I-i-i-t-t’s a-a-a-a-a-a-a g-0-0-0-0 ba-a-a-ack to b-ed day!” as I open their door and shove them out into the paddock. I have spent most of November digging trenches around the property to try to funnel the water away from the animal–and our–housing. I have also spent a lot of time wheel-barrowing gravel and sawdust around the property in an attempt to raise the ground level and gain decent footing. This kind of rain wreaks havoc with our soft land, turning it from spongy grassland into a mucky, slippery mess.

A few brave chickens face the weather in search of tasty morsels.

A few brave chickens face the weather in search of tasty morsels.

Usually the chickens brave the weather. Unlike the goats, the chickens are amazingly hearty and not much keeps them down. However, today there were very few to be found in the paddock and around the place. Instead, I found the bulk of them huddling quietly in their barn keeping dry. I guess they heard and took the goats’ advice; I know I’d like to go back to bed and not face this weather.

chickens huddling indoors during the day.

An uncommon sight: chickens huddling indoors during the day.

It is dark at the best of times this time of year in Bella Coola, but on days like this it is overwhelmingly dismal. The narrow east-west valley makes days like this seem like it is early evening from the time you get up till the time you retire. We have several sky-lights in our home so it is not often during the day that I have to turn on lights, but these days are the exception to the rule; I have on nearly every light we own, inside and out!

I try to see the positive side. Our Christmas lights look so cheery against the gloom, hung up on the barn and in the cherry trees. And a sudden drop in temperature would rid me of all this slush… but… here’s hoping it doesn’t freeze overnight and leave me with a skating rink rather than water-front property tomorrow morning.

Normally a small pond, the duck paddock is now completely submerged.

Normally a small pond, the duck paddock is now completely submerged.

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Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work experience I go

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to have some junior high school kids come and spend the day with me–doing ‘work experience’. One of the high school classes had come and toured the farm in previous weeks; when the class was asked where they would like to be placed for work experience day, two of the boys chose Howling Duck Ranch! They both are interested in becoming farmers, and were keen to spend some time working on the farm and playing with my animals.

Alec Willie and Clayton Walkus spend time on the farm for work experience day.
Alec Willie and Clayton Walkus spend time on the farm for work experience day.

I picked them up from school in the morning and we got straight to the ugly stuff. I gave them the choice: mucking out the chicken coup or fixing the fence-line, which do you want to tackle first? They chose the mucking out job, so we set to it. I explained how it should be done, where to pile the muck, and where the replacement bedding was. They went at it heartily and seemed to enjoy the work.

It was a big job, and I was impressed with how they worked without complaint. The room is 12′ X 20′ and the bedding was about 4 inches deep. It took a while to get it all hauled out and into the compost pile. While they worked, the boys asked me all sorts of questions about farming in general, but chicken keeping in particular. They were obviously engaged in the task at hand, as the questions they asked about the chickens were very thoughtful: how often do you have to change the bedding, why are the nesting boxes the size they are, how often do chickens lay eggs, can they lay eggs without a rooster, what do you feed them? and so on.

Once all the old bedding was out, we began to barrow in the new bedding. Again, some good questions arose, and I tried to answer them all. I explained to them why I used sawdust instead of hay or straw as bedding (soaks up the urea better, doesn’t form wet heavy mats like hay does, holds the heat as it composts down better); why it is good to have some cedar in the mix (keeps away lice and fleas, and smells nice); and that I was, for the first time this year, trying an experiment with deep bed litter. I had read about this a long time ago, but not had the right conditions to actually try it out. Now that I have my new deluxe barn, complete with a 6 inch pony wall, I am enthusiastic about trying it.

According to Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, if you keep the bedding deep (8-12 inches deep), the action of the composting can not only keep the smell down but also add heat to the building. It can therefore cut down on your heating costs. He also merits this system with cutting down on work time, because you don’t have to clean it out as often as I have been. Instead, it is of benefit to keep adding litter and turning the bedding, to keep the compost action working and the urea smell down. He also claims that if the bedding is closer to 12 inches deep, research has shown the bugs that grow can actually contribute to the protein needs of your chickens. It all sounds good, and with no negative aspects, so I’m giving it a go!

They began to place bets on how many wheelbarrows full would it take to fill the coop again. How deep will the litter be? they asked, and then the  serious calculations began. Within about one barrow full, they were spot on in their estimation.

Clayton and Alex bringing in new bedding for the chickens.
Clayton and Alec bringing in new bedding for the chickens (note the hinged roost for ease of cleaning).

At some point during the new bedding refill work, Alec quite unselfconsciously started to sing, ‘I’ve been working on the railroad’. I’m not even sure he was aware he was singing out loud! It was a very sweet moment and I caught it on camera (but wished I’d had video capability). While they were getting the last of the new bedding, I was spreading it out evenly inside the coop. I was surprised to find a rogue egg. It must have been laid in the outside pile of sawdust by one of my chickens, and had survived the shoveling into the barrow by the boys, then the trip into the coop in the barrow, and even the dumping onto the clean coop floor. Miraculously, the egg was still intact! (It is the egg in the photo above being held beside Alec’s ear by Clayton.) Clayton asked if he could take this one home, so I let him–not sure how he was going to keep it from breaking. First, I asked if he knew how to check if the egg was fresh (I didn’t know how long the egg had been hidden there myself!); he didn’t, so I explained that you should put it in water, and if it sinks, it’s still fresh.

Filling the barrow with new bedding, singing a happy tune.
Filling the barrow with new bedding, singing a happy tune.

After this, we stopped for lunch. I made hot chocolate and brought out cookies. They finished their lunches and enjoyed the warm drink. Clayton, in particular, liked the cookies, and said so with enthusiasm (he even politely asked if he could take a couple more home at the end of the day). Once lunch was done we moved on to the fencing job. The boys walked the fence-line and decided where upgrades were needed. We got to work digging down into the grass so we could place boards and other barriers where there were gaping holes. Again there was a raft of questions that showed me they were engaged with what they were doing. While they were performing the tasks throughout the day, both of them had suggestions for how things could be done better and tried them out.

Eventually while mending the fence-line, the boys got distracted by the chickens who, quite easily, convinced the boys that it was very important to stop digging each time a worm was discovered and feed it to them; production came to a grinding halt as the boys fed the greedy girls by hand. Then we got to see the pecking order in action. Chickens are extremely serious about maintaining social order and the question of who gets fed first is not to be taken lightly. The boys picked up on the chicken’s social grace, or apparent lack of, and named one of the more boisterous chooks, ‘Miss Piggy’.

Alec feeding Miss Piggy.
Alec feeding Miss Piggy.

Days end finally came, so we got washed up before I took them back to school. They had one request before leaving: to play with the goats. Of course: the goats always eager to welcome them into their paddock, to nibble at new people, their jackets, their hair, their ears, or to have a nice scratch from the human playmate.  I was surprised that the boys remembered the goats’ names from their first class trip to the farm a few weeks before; they even  got a few correct when trying to identify which one was which. My husband can’t even do that now!

It was great to have Alec and Clayton on the farm, and I was thrilled to have their help in getting a big job done. They worked well together, were keenly interested in the farm, and asked how and why things are done the way they are. I would have them back anytime. Thanks, guys!

Nice clean barn with new bedding!

Nice clean barn with new bedding!

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Poultry in motion

Turkey plucker in background. Fire heating scalding water in cauldron.

Turkey plucker in background; fire heating scalding water in cauldron in foreground.

Last week I butchered 27 roosters, 8 turkeys and 2 ducks and, until a few days ago, I was doing it all by hand (see Butchering day: turkeys for complete photo documentary of the process).  Several days into the planned massacre, I had a food security meeting at the hospital (it being the only venue in the valley with video-conferencing capability). During the meeting, my mind drifted back to all the work I had to do back on the farm. While I was agonizing about how often I was having to sharpen my knife, it occurred to me that I might just be in the right place at the right time. After all, a hospital is the place where they cut people, in particular their skin, open. Why not use a scalpel?

With that thought I was suddenly anxious for the meeting to end so I could get back to the business ‘at hand’. My mind began leafing through the possibilities of who might give me a contraband scalpel; I mentally listed off the doctors whom I knew well enough to ask and noted, sadly, that all were either out of town or recently retired. While I was lamenting the loss of fruitful connections, one of the nurses walked by as if on cue. Perhaps I would be able to buy one: “Sure, but you might want to consider buying an exacto knife instead,” the nurse replied, listing off the virtues of the exacto knife: they are probably cheaper, just as sharp, not made for one time use, more convenient  and would last much longer. Laughing, he rounded out his thoughts with, “Besides, a scalpel is made for making nice neat incisions that are repairable–not really what you’re after.”

Who knew they were made for one time use? As I left the nurses’ station, I had the good fortune of running into another neighbour who at one time owned a chicken plucker. Convinced I was suffering the preliminary states of arthritis, but suppressing my desperation, I asked him nonchalantly if he still owned the contraption and whether I could borrow it. “It’s actually a turkey plucker,” he said rubbing his chin, then added mercifully, “Sure you can use it.”

Holding his hands in the air and turning them from side to side, he provided me with a quick virtual demonstration of how to use the machine, replete with the final stages of turkey plucking–holding it by the feet and gently letting it roll away from you, careful not to let it go but moving with it as it bounced up and down on the imaginary rubber prongs–and finally we made arrangements for me to pick it up the next day. (I wondered what the other patients thought we were discussing as we stood there in the corridor!)

cutting table, scalding cauldron, and turkey plucker.

The sum total of my processing plant: cutting table, scalding cauldron, turkey plucker, guts bucket, hand washing pots and towels.

The next morning, he and my husband man-handled the great machine onto the brick patio which surrounds our fire pit, where I would be working. After they both left, I got myself organized, then got a chicken slaughtered, scalded and ready for the plucker. I plugged the machine on and it whirred satisfyingly to life. Doing my best impersonation of my instructor, I gently laid the chicken over the turning rubber prongs. With a rapid fire ‘tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk’ (reminiscent of a playing card held on the spoke of my bicycle wheel by a clothes peg), the chicken throttled to life, leaped out of my hands, whisked itself through the plucker with nary a feather lost, and flew through the damp air, pure ‘poultry in motion’, before coming to an abrupt stop on the wet grass on the far side of the machine with an unceremonious ‘thwap!’

Turkey plucker almost winning!

Turkey plucker almost winning!

When I switched dance partners from chickens to turkeys, which are much heavier than chickens, the torque was several magnitudes greater, and once again I was caught off guard as the first turkey made one final attempt at flight. Determined to win, I hung on to his legs for dear life, bracing my gumboots against the machine in a desperate tug-of-war. When I thrust my body backwards in a final heave, the battered and torn turkey, still not exactly featherless, brought the whirling prongs to a momentary halt, and I retrieved my bird. If I’d been working alongside Kevin Costner, I would have earned the right (from the native Americans peering at me from the tree-line) to the name: ‘Dances with Turkey.’ While I lamented the loss of my first investment (battered and torn as it was), my dog Tui smiled smugly at the prospect of several gourmet meals.

Dances with turkeys.

Dances with turkeys.

After a few false starts, I developed a feel for it. Overall, it was a fantastic addition to my repertoire and sped up my processing operation almost threefold! Here are a couple of (not so great) photos of my ‘slightly more high-tech’ but still incredibly low-tech, little operation.

Hanging turkeys ready for killing.

Hanging turkeys ready for killing.

Cooling the meat down quickly after gutting.

Submersing the meat in cold water to cool it down quickly after gutting.

Final checking over for pin feathers and general good condition before bagging.

Final checking over of chickens for pin feathers and general good condition before bagging.

Bagging up final product ready for the freezer.

Bagging up the final product (chickens) ready for the freezer.

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Pressure canning meat and poultry

This post is at special request of Jo at Little Ffarm Dairy.

Chicken canned and ready for storage and winter use in soups, stews, and my favourite, curries!

Chicken canned and ready for storage and winter use in soups, stews, and my favourite, curries!

This past week and weekend, I completed a marathon butchering fest. In total, I butchered 27 chickens, 2 ducks and 4 turkeys which may not sound like much, but when you are doing it solo and without the aid of any modern day technology, it is a feat, to say the least.

In the midst of it all I also canned 8 chickens, all the stewing beef from our butchered cow, and am presently in the process of cooking two more turkeys and will can them later today. Having taken in the half a cow, I now have no room left in my freezer, so can I must! Food preservation is a juggling act at all times here, as we do not have much room in our wee house and we don’t have any form of cold storage… yet.

The following information includes recipes and methods for SAFE canning of meat, game and poultry which I have collected over the past few years:

Pressure canning is the ONLY SAFE METHOD for canning meat and poultry

Home food preservation must be done with care, to protect the quality and safety of the food. Jars or cans containing low-acid foods–such as vegetables, meats, poultry and seafood–must always be processed under pressure, to prevent spoilage or food poisoning. The bacteria which cause botulism, a severe and potentially fatal from of food poisoning, are not killed by using the hot water bath canning process.

PRESSURE CANNING MEAT (Beef)

All meat should be handled carefully, should be correctly slaughtered, and canned promptly or kept under refrigeration until processed. Keep meat as cool as possible during preparation for canning, handle rapidly, and process meat as soon as it is packed. Most meats need only be wiped with a damp cloth, though I make a habit of rinsing it in cold water (but that is just personal preference).

Use lean meat for canning: remove most of the fat, cut off gristle and remove large bones, and cut into pieces in a convenient size for canning. Pack hot meat loosely, leaving 1-inch head-space in Mason jars.

Prepare broth for filling jars: place bony pieces in saucepan, cover with cold water, and simmer until meat is tender. Cool liquid and discard the layer of fat that hardens on the surface. Bring liquid to a boil and use it to pack into jars packed with precooked meat (and poultry).

NOTE: Meat should not be browned with flour nor should flour be used in the broth to make gravy for pouring over the packed meat as the starch in the flour makes the sterilization process very difficult, and so this is not recommended for home canners. (Best leave this to Chef Boyardee and Heinz.)

Meats may be processed with or without salt. If salt is desired, use only pure canning or pickling salt (table salt contains a filler which may cause cloudiness in bottom of jar). I use 1/2 teaspoon salt to each pint, 1 teaspoon to each quart. More or less salt may be added to suit individual taste.

Follow step-by-step directions for your pressure canner. Process meats according to the following recipes.

When canning food in regions less than 2,000 feet altitude (dial gauge canner) or 1,000 feet altitude (weighted gauge canner), process according to specific recipe. When canning food in regions above 2,000 feet altitude (dial gauge canner) or 1,000 feet altitude (weighted gauge canner), process according to the following chart.

ALTITUDE CHART FOR CANNING MEAT AND POULTRY

ALTITUDE DIAL GAUGE CANNER
Pints and Quarts
WEIGHTED GAUGE CANNER
Pints and Quarts
1,001 – 2,000 ft. 11 lbs. 15 lbs.
2,001 – 4,000 ft. 12 lbs. 15 lbs.
4,001 – 6,000 ft. 13 lbs. 15 lbs.
6,001 – 8,000 ft. 14 lbs. 15 lbs.

Processing time is the same at all altitudes.

PRESSURE CANNING GAME MEAT

Pressure canning is the ONLY SAFE METHOD for canning meat.

Follow step-by-step directions for your pressure canner. Process your game meat according to the following recipes.

CUT-UP MEAT (strips, cubes, or chunks) Bear, Beef, Pork, Lamb, Veal, and Venison
Remove excess fat. Soak strong-flavored wild meats for 1 hour in brine water containing 1 tablespoon of salt per quart of water. Rinse. Remove large bones and cut into desired pieces.

Raw Pack—Fill jars with raw meat pieces, leaving 1-inch head-space. DO NOT ADD LIQUID. Adjust jar lids.

Hot Pack—Precook meat until rare by broiling, boiling, or frying. Pack hot meat loosely in clean, hot Mason jars, leaving 1-inch head-space. Cover meat with boiling broth, water, or tomato juice (especially with wild game), leaving 1-inch head-space. Adjust jar lids.

Dial Gauge Canner—Process at 11 pounds pressure – Pints 75 minutes and Quarts 90 minutes. For processing above 2,000 feet altitude, see chart for recommended pounds of pressure.

Weighted Gauge Canner—Process at 10 pounds pressure – Pints 75 minutes and Quarts 90 minutes. For processing above 1,000 feet altitude, see chart  for recommended pounds of pressure.

PRESSURE CANNING POULTRY

Pressure canning is the ONLY SAFE METHOD for canning poultry.

Follow step-by-step directions for your pressure canner. Process poultry according to the following recipes.

CUT-UP POULTRY

Boil, steam, or bake poultry slowly to medium done. I tend to boil it and make the broth at the same time. If you have broth on hand you can precook in the concentrated broth for more flavor. Poultry is medium done when the pink color in the center is almost gone.

Cut poultry into serving size pieces and if desired, remove bones. I always debone the meat as it is my personal preference. I find it easier to use in recipes if it is done this way. Pack hot poultry loosely in clean, hot Mason jars, leaving 1 1/4-inch head-space.

Make broth from bones and bony pieces, neck, back, and wing tips and the gizzard, heart and liver if you have them. Pack hot meat in clean, hot Mason jars, leaving 1-inch head-space. Do not pack food tightly. Cover poultry with boiling broth or water, leaving 1 1/4-inch head-space. Adjust jar lids.

Poultry may be processed with or without salt. If salt is desired, use only pure canning or pickling salt. Table salt contains a filler which may cause cloudiness in bottom of jar. I use 1/2 teaspoon salt to each pint, 1 teaspoon to each quart.

Dial Gauge Canner—Process at 11 pounds pressure.
With Bone – Pints 65 minutes and Quarts 75 minutes.
Without Bone – Pints 75 minutes and Quarts 90 minutes.
For processing above 2,000 feet altitude, see above chart  for recommended pounds of pressure.

Weighted Gauge Canner—Process at 10 pounds pressure.
With Bone – Pints 65 minutes and Quarts for 75 minutes.
Without Bone – Pints 75 minutes and Quarts for 90 minutes.
For processing above 1,000 feet altitude, see above chart for recommended pounds of pressure.

RABBIT

Pressure canning is the ONLY SAFE METHOD for canning rabbit.

Follow step-by-step directions for your pressure canner. Process rabbit according to the following recipes.

Soak dressed rabbits 1 hour in water containing 1 tablespoon of salt per quart. Rinse and remove excess fat. Cut into serving size pieces. Boil, steam, or bake to medium done. Rabbit is medium done when pink color in center is almost gone. Pack hot rabbit loosely in clean, hot Mason jars, leaving 1 1/4-inch head-space. Cover rabbit with boiling broth or water leaving 1 1/4-inch head-space and adjust jar lids.

Dial Gauge Canner—Process at 11 pounds pressure.
With Bone – Pints 65 minutes and Quarts for 75 minutes.
Without Bone – Pints 75 minutes and Quarts for 90 minutes.
For processing above 2,000 feet altitude, see chart for recommended pounds of pressure.

Weighted Gauge Canner—Process at 10 pounds pressure.
With Bone – Pints 65 minutes and Quarts for 75 minutes.
Without Bone – Pints 75 minutes and Quarts for 90 minutes.
For processing above 1,000 feet altitude, see chart for recommended pounds of pressure.

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Poopy-bum patrol

New babies arrive!

New babies arrive!

I have just gotten back from a few days hunting trip, without my buck. While I was away, fifty new baby chickens arrived and were snuggled into the nursery part of the barn by the OTT. I got home later that evening and checked on them before going to bed. I thought two of them didn’t look very strong and by morning one was dead, followed by two more later that night. And then there were forty-seven.

A mild case of poopy-bum, they are often a lot worse if you don't catch it early!

A mild case of poopy-bum. They are often a lot worse if you don't catch them early.

You get so you can recognize the ones who likely won’t  make it. One of the things I noticed immediately (and check for this every time I raise baby chicks or turkeys) was that several of them have what I officially call ‘poopy-bum’. This is a condition where the feces form a pasty plug that covers the vent (anus). It is life threatening; the birds will die if it is not corrected quickly. The medicated feed is supposed to prevent this, but it doesn’t seem to be 100% effective so I always do poopy-bum patrol for the first few weeks of their little lives.

Today, I set to addressing the immediate emergency: I took a bucket of warm soapy water, a roll of paper towel and a stool out to the barn, and let the games begin. The game goes like this: I sit quietly, watching the little rear ends as they race by. When I spot a poopy-bum, I reach out and grab it, put it in a small box, and repeat the process until I am satisfied there are no more poopy-bums on the floor. Once I have all the bums-in-need scooped into the box, I wash them gently, one by one, in the lukewarm soapy water.

Carefully dunking just the rear end of the chick so as to not get her too wet.

Carefully dunking just the rear end of the chick so as to not get her too wet.

To do this, gently take the chick in one hand and immerse the rear end in the water. The water should be the temperature that you would feed a baby bottled milk, lukewarm to the wrist. Rub the poop between your fingers, being careful not to pull on it, as you might hurt the tiny bird. Eventually  the water will soften the poop enough for you to clean it off the feathers. DO NOT pull on the poop: you may tear the skin off the bird, or even pull its innards out if the poop is stuck to its colon. Either event is fatal. Be patient: the poop will eventually dissolve, leaving behind a clean behind. Before putting the chick back with the flock, wipe its bum with paper towel until as dry as possible so the chick doesn’t catch a chill. (DO NOT blow-dry with a hair dryer: this will burn the skin completely. Let your heat lamps do the drying.)

Freshly washed, now clean, poopy-bum. Notice the bird is only wet where necessary.

Freshly washed, now clean, poopy-bum. Notice the bird is only wet where necessary.

The poop is incredibly sticky. Whoever invented glue from horse/cow hooves obviously never tried chicken poop first! The whole ordeal for one poopy-bum cleaning may take a few minutes, thanks to the tenacity of the poop. It will come off eventually and you will have saved lives in the process. If you don’t clear the vent, the bird will die. I shudder to think about how many factory farmed birds suffer and die in this way.

Little wet, but clean, bum returned to her flock.

Little wet, but clean, bum returned to her flock.

I have noticed that I can reduce the poopy-bum rate by feeding fresh, ground up weeds from the garden. Since employing this tactic, I have reduced my losses of brought-in birds significantly.

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Notice: More details added to turkey butchering post.

I’ve added some more photos and more detailed description about certain parts of the procedure that I thought were missing from yesterday’s post on butchering turkeys. These additions should be helpful to those ‘not in the know’.

Butchering Turkeys, a photo documentary

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