Friday, September 30, 2011

The Chicken Harvest: A Trial Run

This week we spent much of our time planning and gathering equipment for the chicken harvest.  Our local feed store had a chicken plucker that they loan to clients.  No one in our area had killing cones so we had to improvise concerning cutting and bleeding the chickens.  We bought a turkey fryer because it had a propane burner and a pot big enough for scalding the chicken.  We created a processing area in the barn, complete with utility sink, table, garbage cans and cooler.

After dinner this evening we went to the barn to get the harvest underway.  My job was to catch the chicken and hold it while Rob tied the feet and slit the throat.  We hung the chicken over a garbage can and waited while it bled out.  After the chicken stopped bleeding we dipped it in the water to loosen the feathers for plucking. 

Using the chicken plucker was a little different than expected.  Holding a dead chicken while it's pummeled by flexible plastic rods designed to remove the feathers was a little disturbing.  As with so many things around the farm, I'm sure it will get easier with practice.  The company website boasted that the plucker could clean a chicken in 30 seconds.  Obviously, the person operating the plucker had more experience than we did.  The website didn't mention how long it took an inexperienced operator to pluck a chicken using the chicken plucker.  I'm guessing it was still quicker than we could have done by hand.

Rob handled the evisceration of the birds while I waited to rinse and put them on ice.  I was so thankful that he was willing to do the gutting because I'm really pretty certain that the chicken harvest would have stopped never to be resumed if I had been given this responsibility.  I'm not sure what I would have done with ninety-three roosters but I wouldn't have been eating them.

We got two birds done before it got too dark to work effectively.  In the process we learned that we need a sharper knife.  We also learned that, despite the issues with the chicken plucker, we prefer plucked chicken to skinned chicken. 

Tomorrow we'll spend some more time harvesting our chickens.  It would be great to get half of them done.  We'll see how quickly we increase our skill.  Though the job was difficult and messy, we were able to do it.  There is a sense of accomplishment in that.  I think it's safe to say that we've done something that most our generation in this country has never done and will never do. 

Two chickens down, ninety-two to go.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Houdini Cow: Contained at Last

Last weekend we put up an electric fence in an effort to contain the cow.  We were both amazed at how easy it was to set up the electric fence.  Due to the ease of installation we really didn't expect the fence to work.  There was no way that something so simple could be effective.  As predicted, the cow blew right through the single strand without blinking an eye.  We weren't surprised and were glad that we had more wire.  We quickly added a second strand of wire to the electric fence.  The second strand caused him to slow down and protest the first time he came in contact with the new fence.  After an afternoon of fence training and two escapes, he seems resigned to life inside the fence.  This was a better result than we've had training any dog we've ever had.  

Throughout the week, T-Bone even seemed to be enjoying his new found, if limited, freedom.  He moved around the yard, into and out of the barn.  Every now and then, I've had to look for him only to find him laying under a tree or grazing in the back of his field.  What a relief it's been to have the cow where he belongs rather than standing on the front porch.  It's been almost a week with no wandering cow.

I wonder what will keep things exciting around here now.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Houdini Cow Strikes Again

Just in case you were wondering, yes, I did have to capture the cow again today.  He pushed out through the large sliding door in the back of his stall.  I've chained it shut.  Dare I hope that will keep him in?  Stay tuned for the next adventure of the escaping cow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Houdini Cow: The Next Great Escape

The cow got out again. How an animal with no opposable thumbs manages to get free from so many different containments is beyond me.  This time he unfastened his halter clip from his lead.  Then he went strolling across the pasture, down the drive way, out the gate, across the street, and up the hill.  He looks like a normal cow but I'm beginning to think there's something extraordinary about him.  I'm wondering if a fence is just another attempt at the impossible.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Houdini Cow

This morning I spent several hours cleaning up after the cow.  When we talked about getting a cow to raise for beef I never really imagined all of challenges that a cow would bring.  I certainly never would have expected a cow that could escape from any type of confinement.  I never realized that having a cow was similar to having a really big dog.  I suppose I should be thankful that he can't dig.

Last night, the cow got tired of being in the pasture so he moved into the barn.  Unfortunately, he didn't go to his stall.  He wandered.  Our barn is part garage and part barn.  We park three cars there and use it to store camping, sports and farm gear.   The barn side of the building has a dirt floor.  The floor on the garage side is concrete.  The cow went straight for the garage side of the barn.  He knocked over trash cans, relocated bags of feed and helped himself to the chicken food.  He made a mess and then he made several more messes.

After discovering the cow loose in the barn, my husband shut the cow in his stall.  That strategy lasted most of the day.  At least the cow allowed us to believe that he was contained.  Late this afternoon we found the cow, once again, wandering in the barn.  The cow unlatched one side of the large sliding door in the back of his stall and squeezed through the gap the door made when he pushed against it.  The door is not an easy one for me to open.  As the cow will tell you, there are advantages to having a lot of extra wait to throw around.  Thankfully, we found the cow before he was able to make more messes in the barn.

The challenge now is to figure out how to keep the cow where we put him.  We've purchased a new cable and stake for the cow.  We have plans for a fence.  Hopefully, we'll find a way to keep the cow contained.  I sure won't mind if I never have to spend another morning cleaning up after a cow.  Cow messes are a lot bigger than dog messes.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Chief Chicken Catcher

I have a new skill to add to my resume.  Once again, my skills and abilities are being increased in ways I never imagined by the farm.  My most recent skill is chicken catching. 

Every so often one of our layers gets out of the hen house yard or one of the meat birds escapes from the chicken tractor.  That kind of escape has gotten to be a routine event.  The key to catching a runaway chicken is to surround and pin down.  If the bird has no escape route it will usually hunker down in confusion.  This momentary inactivity on the part of the bird makes grabbing it a fairly easy job.  Grabbing a chicken does require both hands.  The key when grabbing a chicken is to make sure the wings are folded next to the body and the feet and beak are facing away from the grabber.  If you have the wings down and the feet and beak away from bare skin there really isn't much the chicken can do to escape.  As long as you have a good grip, carrying the chicken and putting it where you want it to go is easy. 

A few weeks ago we transferred half of our meat birds from a single chicken tractor into a second chicken tractor.  Moving 50 birds from tractor one to tractor two helped me perfect my chicken grabbing technique.  Having the boundary of the tractor certainly made the grabbing easier.  Also having plenty of chicken targets increased the odds for success.  I was even able to share my chicken grabbing expertise with my brother in law.  While he doesn't have nearly as much chicken grabbing experience as I do, he learned quickly and, because of his help, the time and energy required for moving the chickens was much less.

I'm not really sure how I'll list my new chicken skills on my resume.  Chicken grabbing expert doesn't sound quite right.  In fact, it sounds a bit perverted.  Chicken catcher might work.  Chicken wrangler?  Chicken coordinator?  Chicken director?  Any other suggestions?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Escape Artist Cow

Over the last few months I've learned to expect the unexpected.  Farming has brought more of the unexpected than I ever thought possible.  I've gotten pretty good at rolling with the events of a day.  I've even begun to plan extra time for the crisis of the day.  Usually, I'm just waiting to see what the crisis will be.

This morning I thought I had things pretty well under control.  It was raining and I knew I'd need to give myself some extra time to check the food and safety of animals.  The cow was in the barn and I figured, with the rain coming down, he'd probably be happy to stay there.  I was wrong.

While I got dressed and gathered up the last supplies we needed for our first co-op meeting I sent the kids out to check food and water for all.  M7 came running back in almost immediately to let me know that the cow was in the garage.  If you've read other posts you know that the cow and I have a tentative relationship.  His enthusiasm for me is much greater than mine for him.  Also, when he gets out and wanders, he gets cocky.  He relishes the sense of freedom and isn't too eager to return to a stall or to be staked out in the pasture.  Chasing down the cow was not an event that I'd left enough time in my schedule manage and be on time to co-op.

Approaching the garage/barn, I could see the cow munching happily, his head buried in a bag of grower/finisher feed for the chickens.  He'd finished about 1/3 of the bag by the time I snapped the lead onto his harness and began to pull him out of the garage.  Though he was pleased to see me, he wasn't thrilled to give up his snack.  Thankfully, the promise of fresh grass appealed to him and he followed me out of the garage.  He jumped and frolicked his way across the front of the barn and into the pasture.  With not much more effort, he was staked down and ready for a day of munching.

We were a bit late for co-op.  My careful time management didn't include the capture of a cow.  Some things just can't be anticipated.  I'm still not sure how he got out of his stall.  That will be an investigation for a drier time.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Chicken Experiment: Calculating the Cost

The chicken experiment continues.  I've become a regular at the local feed store.  They know me  now.  I go in once a week and buy five bags of chicken grower/finisher.  $60.   A few days ago, my husband commented that he was sure we'd spent $600 just feeding these chickens.  It was a bad day for him.  He wasn't trying to be unsupportive, he was frustrated about other things.  He did vocalize a concern that is a universal plague for farmers.  How do you make more money than you spend?

As far as I can tell, the only way to make money by raising meat is to grown your own feed.  This is something we are looking into, but we aren't there yet.  We don't have the equipment or the knowledge.  It's possible that we might be ready to get this started next spring.  Right now, feed comes from the feed store.  The costs add up quickly.  When the chickens were several weeks old 250 lbs. of feed lasted a long time.  Now it lasts just a little longer than a week. 

Our chickens aren't the fast maturing type.  They will look like healthy, happy chickens until they are ready to harvest.  They won't have jumbo breasts.   They won't weigh eight or ten pounds at twelve weeks. This is important to me.  I know there are breeds of chicken that will grow faster and mature sooner than our chickens.  Those chickens concern me just like the use of antibiotics concern me.  I'm not against chickens for meat.  I'm growing 100 chickens for meat.  I have serious concerns about chickens developed for meat without consideration of the well being of the chicken.  A chicken that can't move isn't a healthy bird. 

The catch is that the sooner a chicken matures the less you have to feed the chicken.  The less you feed the chicken the less it costs to produce chicken meat.  Four weeks, at the rate my chickens are eating can mean $2.40 per chicken.  That's the difference between profit and no profit. It's huge. We've tried to cut our production costs by employing the chicken tractors.  I'm sure we'd be spending more by this time if we didn't have some "free ranging" going on but we are still spending a lot of money on feed.  Granted, at our production rate it doesn't make much difference.  We are really only hoping to cover our costs.  Given the costs of the chicken tractors we've produced, we have quite a bit of costs to cover.  It will take several chicken crops before we break even.  But if we plan to make this farm into a viable business we have to figure out how to make money.  Are we willing to produce factor chickens in a non-factory setting in order to turn a profit or do we maintain our principles and produce real chicken for real people?

As a consumer, it never really occurred to me to wonder what breed of chicken I was purchasing.  Today, as I picked up my last, I hope, bag of frozen chicken breasts I wondered what breed of chicken I was getting ready to eat.  Where did my chicken come from?  What kind of chicken was it?  Not just breast or wing but what color were the feathers?  What did it look like?  How did it behave?  A year ago it wouldn't have even occurred to me that my bag of frozen chicken breasts had feathers at one point.

It's said that when we know better we do better.  I'm not sure that I know better or that I am doing better but my perspective has shifted.  With that shift comes a sense of responsibility for my chickens and for my family.  If we lived in a city, I could charge upward of $3 a pound for my antibiotic, free-range, happy chickens.  Here in the country, I hope for $1.50 to $2 per pound.  We'll probably sell our chickens for $6 or $7 each.  Most will be in the four to five pound range.  My ethics say that raising the kind of chickens I raise the way that I raise them is the right thing to do.  My profitability says something must change.  We'll be tweaking and trying chicken production again in the spring.  Maybe with experience, we'll see an improvement in profitability.  Maybe with experience, we'll find a market to get top dollar for our birds.  Maybe with time, we'll find consumers that value what we are trying to provide enough to pay for our birds.  At the very least, I know my family will be eating happy, healthy chickens and I will be able to tell you about the color of their feathers and the breed of the bird.  I will be the most informed of consumers.