Raising Meat Birds

I read and research a lot, both online and via magazines like Mother Earth News.  I also listen to podcasts related to farming and homesteading.  Time and again, when someone refers to raising meat chickens, it turns out they are raising Cornish Cross. So, I thought it might be worth talking about an alternative to the traditional Cornish Cross meat bird.

First, what is a Cornish Cross?  Well, technically it is a hybrid bird, created by crossing a Cornish with a White Rock.  In reality, I know of several people who have tried to recreate the Cornish Cross using these two “ingredients” and the chicks that resulted did not grow nearly as big or fast as the chicks sold in the feed store.  So I have my suspicions that the hatcheries have their own secret “recipe” – a closely guarded secret – to creating the fast-growing meat bird labeled only as “Cornish Cross”.

Regardless of how it is created, a Cornish Cross is “engineered” to grow to eating size in only 6-8 weeks.  That’s right!  From hatch to butcher in under two months.  This is all wrong in my book.  In order to achieve that kind of growth, something has to give and in this case it is quality.  Quality of life for the bird.  Quality of the final result: the meat.  Cornish Cross chicks have little desire to do anything but eat.  Towards the end of their lives they sit in front of a feeder and eat almost non-stop.  Their growth rate is too fast for organs to keep pace so if not butchered by 8 weeks of age, it is highly likely their heart will give out.  But worse, their legs cannot grow strong enough, quickly enough to support their weight, so they cannot walk far, and frequently one or both legs are broken by the time they are butcher age from the stress of trying.

Chicken meat sold in grocery stores – even that sold in health food stores and at farmer’s markets labeled “free-range” – is almost exclusively Cornish Cross.  Regardless of the labeling there is nothing healthy, humane or wholesome about a Cornish Cross.  It doesn’t matter that they have access to free-range if their legs and hearts can’t support their actually doing it!

On our homestead our primary goal is to produce food that is better than food we can buy.  Our feeling about raising Cornish Cross is that if we sit a bunch of chicks around a feeder all day – how is that any better than food we could buy?  We decided there has to be another way, and it turns out, there is.

Several years ago I traveled across our state to acquire my starter flock of heritage Barred Rock and New Hampshire Reds.  Most people are familiar with these breeds and don’t think highly of them.  That is because all they’ve known are hatchery birds of these names.  The lines I acquired can be traced back over 100 years and bear little resemblance to their hatchery counterparts.  Hatchery barred rocks are scrawny, with irregular barring and they are bossy and unfriendly, both to the other birds in the coop and to people.  By comparison, my barred rocks are huge and meaty.  Their barring is known as “zebra barring” because it is tight and well-spaced.  And in the coop they are quiet, docile and non-aggressive.

A barred rock hen (front) with a cockerel behind her.  The cockerel still has a lot of growing and filling out to do as he is only 5 months old in this picture.

A barred rock hen (front) with a cockerel behind her. The cockerel still has a lot of growing and filling out to do as he is only 5 months old in this picture.

My New Hampshire Reds are similarly striking.

New Hampshire Red rooster.  The vivid orange color is a beautiful contrast to the zebra stripes of the Barred Rocks.

New Hampshire Red rooster. The vivid orange color is a beautiful contrast to the zebra stripes of the Barred Rocks.

Both Barred Rocks and New Hampshire Reds were developed as “dual purpose” birds.  In other words they can be kept to provide either eggs or meat.  No, they don’t grow to eating size in 8 weeks like a Cornish Cross.  But they do grow to eating size in about 16-18 weeks.  So, what I do whenever a batch hatches, is to make a notation on my calendar when they are 16 weeks of age.  Then my calendar sends me a reminder that it is time to butcher and that way I don’t risk raising them too long.  I’ve found that age to give me optimum meat to feed ratio.  Yes, they will grow bigger if raised for longer, but the amount of feed it takes to add on every pound after this age isn’t worth it.

So – my meat birds get to live for twice as long as their Cornish Cross cousins.  And their lives are ever so much more worth living.  They start their lives with a mother who protects them, teaches them how to forage and keeps them warm under her at night.  Almost from hatch they free-range and get to eat lots of greens and bugs.  As discussed in previous posts, this makes for healthier, happier birds but I believe it makes for healthier meat as well.

Which brings me to the meat.  Is it tougher or stronger in flavor than Cornish Cross?  That is hard for me to judge as I have not eaten commercial chicken in so many years, but I can attest that the chicken meat we produce here is very tender and tasty.

So for anyone who has previously raised Cornish Cross and sworn they’d never do it again due to the smell, or for anyone wanting to raise healthier meat than they can buy, there IS a viable alternative.

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Poultry Management

Earlier today I heard from someone who bought turkey eggs from me last year.  She hatched a Bourbon Red tom, of whom she had recently sent photos.  He was in full strut – looking just like his sire – and appeared to be a gorgeous bird.  Unfortunately the message this morning was that he had died.  He looked fine yesterday; today he is dead and she doesn’t know why.  This has left me pondering.  Her poultry do not free-range.  In order to maintain purebred eggs, she pens each breed separately.  By contrast I have almost no pens.  A hoop coop is my only means to separate birds and I use it sparingly – for a broody hen sitting on eggs, a group of juveniles to help them transition from brooder to main coop, or short-term when I too, need to ensure eggs are fertilized by a particular rooster.  Otherwise, my birds all sleep in the main coop at night and have the freedom to range anywhere on our fully fenced property by day.

I do this primarily for ease of care.  Fewer pens means fewer feed and water bowls to maintain.  Less hassle with heated bowls and extension cords.  Less time spent building coops or shelters and maintaining runs.  Substantially lower expenses for materials for all of the above.  And, in the event I am sick, injured or on vacation, it is easy for someone else to care for them.

I enjoy lower feed bills as a result of the birds foraging.  They eat grass, clover, dandelions, burdock, compass plants (to name only a few) along with all the bugs they can find.

In summer they are able to seek out the coolest spot they can find to hang out – under bushes and behind objects that cast shade.  In winter they similarly have the freedom to find a place to stay out of the wind so they can keep warm.  When keeping birds in pens, it is hard to provide them with the conditions they require due to changing weather patterns and many of the losses of penned birds can be attributed directly to their inability to keep warm and dry or to stay cool.

But over time I’ve started to wonder if having the birds free-ranging isn’t only advantageous to me, but to the health of the birds themselves.  I’ve noticed that after birds have been sequestered in the hoop house, their priority upon release isn’t to flap their wings and run or fly.  It isn’t to seek out buddies (or in the case of roosters, hens to be mated).  Their priority is to eat greens.  After the door is opened, they run immediately to greenery and start eating almost desperately.

Clearly there are nutrients in the greens and bugs they find for themselves that are absent in prepared grain formulas.  And I believe those nutrients are essential to their well-being.  My birds are exceedingly healthy.  I haven’t dewormed in a couple of years because I haven’t seen any evidence of the need to.  And it has been years since I’ve lost a bird to illness or disease.  By contrast, birds raised in pens often don’t thrive – and, as in the case of the turkey who died this morning – their deaths are sometimes unexpected and the cause undetermined.

I’ve always found watching the birds foraging, peaceful.  But over time I’ve become convinced that the freedom they enjoy doesn’t just make my birds happy or lucky – it helps keep them alive.

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Well, Poop!

I’ve long imagined myself self-sufficient.  I envisioned an idyllic setting, perfect weather and beautiful pens filled with well-behaved animals.  At the end of each tremendously gratifying day on the homestead, I’d head inside to dine on a meal prepared entirely from food I’d grown and raised myself, then sit in front of a fire burning wood I had chopped, and read a book.  Probably about homesteading.

I dreamed the dream while living in the city and going to college and raising kids and finally achieved the reality when we moved out here to our little homestead a few years ago.  Now my days are as idyllic as I always dreamed they would be.  Oh wait.  There is one little thing that never featured in my day-dreaming.  Poop.

It turns out that homesteading is really 98% dealing with poop.  There is a book entitled “Everybody Poops” that is popular with parents of toddlers.  I may have even read it to my own kids.  Sadly it did not prepare me for the reality that Everybody Poops.  Including animals.  And it hit me the other day that homesteading really isn’t about self-sufficiency or producing food or going off grid.  It’s about poop.

I don’t think there is a single day – and I am talking 365 (sometimes 366) days of the year – that I don’t deal with poop.  I scoop the poop from the horse run at least once, usually twice or thrice each week.  I use a pitchfork to shovel cow poop out of the barn and from around the round-bale feeder every morning.  I shovel the poop-saturated bedding from the chicken coop on an as-needed basis – the need arising much more quickly than would be my preference.  I scoop poop from the cat litter boxes that the barn cats use at night between their rodent patrols, and each week on trash day (so that it can immediately be hauled away), I take a pooper scooper and scoop up as much dog poop as I can find from the area around the house where we spend the most time.  Before guests arrive, I scrape free-range chicken poop off the porch,  and before sitting in a lawn chair, I check that turkeys weren’t there first.  Every time I step outside the back door, I step over messes left by the ducks hanging around the downspout.  And mice poop, well, everywhere.  Amazingly – and contrary to all my fantasies – even the adorably cute lambs and goat kids poop – they really do.  Most of their poop becomes fertilizer for our pasture but their sleeping area needs to be cleaned and raked out regularly.

So it turns out that “homesteading” is really just a very nice word that means “dealing with $#!#”

Lest you think I’m having a down day or experiencing a more encompassing change-of-heart about homesteading, I’m not.  But I laughed aloud this afternoon when I hit me how much of this life I so enjoy is, ultimately, dealing with poop.

Processing

Warning: For those squeamish about where their food comes from, this is a post to skip over.

I’ve been asked many times what method I use to butcher or “process” my birds.  I won’t go into the “how I feel about it” in this post as that is summed up pretty well here.  Rather, this post will be a straightforward how-to of my method, which has evolved over several years.  Like any skill there is a learning curve and each person has to find the way that works best for them.  Not too many generations ago, most people grew up watching Grandma butcher a bird each week for Sunday dinner, but in a short space of time we became so accustomed to buying our meat in styrofoam trays at the grocery store that when HWA and I first agreed to raise chickens and process excess males into meat, the “how” was something of a mystery to both of us.  Without Grandma to teach us, we turned to YouTube, and spent several hours poring over a variety of videos, searching for a way that seemed the most humane and doable.  We settled on a method wherein the bird is placed into a cone upside down, with the body securely held by the cone and only the head and neck emerging.  From there it appeared to be easy to take a knife, slice across the artery, and the bird bled out quickly.  This seemed humane since a single cut with a very sharp knife is almost painless initially (think about cutting a finger while slicing vegetables and how you can watch the blood start to seep before the pain is felt).  By the time the brain has sent the message to the bird to say “Ow!  That hurt”, it is largely unconscious.

So we set up a cone, sharpened the knife, caught the first bird, got it positioned…..and then each stood back to watch.  You see, while watching the videos, we had each pictured the other doing the cutting.  Neither of us was mentally prepared to make that first cut and while HWA did eventually do it, I can’t say either of us enjoyed it, or that we got it perfectly right that first time – or even over the next few tries.

After the first half dozen birds, there came a time HWA was unavailable and I had no choice but to do it myself.  The learning curve started anew but since then, I have done all of them and over the last several years have honed my technique to one that I now feel confident will work every time – one cut – meaning a quick and painless demise of my bird.  The key for me was learning that the best place to cut is immediately above the jawline.  To this day, I gently hold and caress the bird’s head with one hand, while feeling up the jawline with a finger of the other.  Once I have identified the best spot on each individual bird, I bring out the knife and with one swift – and quite forceful – cut, I slice and watch for the spurt of blood that indicates the artery was severed.  I say forceful because the first few times, not wanting to hurt the bird, I was too gentle with my cut and only barely pierced the skin.  I learned that it takes quite a bit of strength to cut deep enough to both penetrate the skin AND cut through the artery, so now I give it all I’ve got in order to cause the least pain.

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Her bill is just sticking out the bottom. Usually I have to gently pull the head out a little further so that the neck is exposed.

 

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Here is a duck going into the cone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It takes several minutes for the blood flow to stop, but the bird is only conscious for the first 20-30 seconds.  I have found that in most cases there is a fluttering of wings at around the 20 second mark and a second about 20 seconds later.  These are a muscular reaction to the loss of blood and NOT the bird’s attempt to escape – despite how it may sometimes look.  After the second flourish, I walk away to complete a few chores, leaving the bird to thoroughly bleed out.

Once the bleeding has slowed to the occasional drip, I remove the bird from the cone and take it into the kitchen.  Some people like to plan a butcher day and process multiple birds at once outdoors.  I prefer to incorporate processing into my day, much as Grandmother did a hundred years ago.  So I work at my kitchen sink, the height of which does not cause me to stoop, and where I have warm running water available when I need it.

Following the same order each time allows me to work efficiently.

  1. Remove the head
  2. Remove the wings from the “elbow” joint out
  3. Remove the feet from the “knees” down
  4. Remove the skin
  5. Remove the innards

I start with the head because my cut already has that started.  With scissors I cut the remaining skin, then use the knife to cut through any muscle, and then simply twist off the head.  For the wings and feet I use the knife.  Feeling for the joint with my finger tip, I cut the skin at the joint, and the knife slips effortlessly through the cartilage connecting the joint, to quickly sever it.

Then, using the scissors, I cut the skin from the neck opening, down to the back.  At this point pulling the skin off the body is not unlike undressing a baby.  The skin separates easily – especially if I push my fingers between the skin and the flesh as I work.  I pull it off the wings and legs as I come to them, until eventually I have a “hide” attached only at the tail.  I sever the tail and voila.

At this point I rinse any loose feathers off the carcass, wash the knife and prepare to cut open the abdominal cavity.  I make this cut laterally across the bird, close to the vent, cutting quite carefully through the flesh in order to avoid cutting into the intestines which lay close by.  Once I have an opening large enough for my hand, I simply scoop out the innards in one big scoop.  The lungs hug the rib cage closely and I use a finger to scrape them out, one lobe at a time.  Each lung should come out in one piece.

Once the bird is empty, I rinse the cavity several times, then place the bird in the crockpot.  No water, oil, spices – just the bird.  The lid goes on, it is set to the “low” setting and for the next 8 hours it cooks down.  By the end of the 8 hours, the meat is – quite literally – falling off the bones, into the liquid that has collected in the bottom of the crockpot.  Once cool, I separate meat from bones and bag it in ½-pound portions in ziploc bags.  These are “freezer ready” portions that are used in a variety of meals, from casseroles to sandwiches.  The liquid is a protein rich broth that will cool into a jelly-like substance in the fridge.  I use this as soup base, to cook rice or couscous, or in place of water or stock in many recipes.

And what of the innards?

  • Heart – this is rinsed and goes into the crockpot to cook along with the bird
  • Gizzard – I cut this open, dump the contents into a bowl, peel away the lining, rinse and this also goes into the crockpot
  • Testicles – into the crockpot
  • Liver – this goes into a ziploc bag into the freezer along with the livers of the previous few birds.  When I have a half dozen collected, I cook them up and enjoy a highly nutritious and very delicious meal (recipe to follow in a future post)
  • Kidney – birds only have one.  This is also collected to be used at a later date when I have enough.
  • Intestines.  The intestines are really a marvel – when stretched out they are quite long, but in the bird they loop around and between the loops, fat collects.  As the bird ages, the amount of fat stored between the loops of intestine increases.  I unravel the intestines (carefully because I don’t want to pierce them and have the contents contaminate my work) and peel off all of that lovely yellow fat.  This is rendered down in a fry pan until it is liquid, and then poured into my grease keeper to be used for future cooking.  Once the intestines are free of fat, I place them in my “scrap bowl”.
  • Feet.  These I clean thoroughly, trim the toenails off and place in a pan covered in water.  Simmered on low for several hours they make a very rich chicken stock.  The toenails are placed in a container along with crushed egg shells, to be offered to laying hens who need supplemental calcium.
  • Lungs go into the scrap bowl.

And what happens to the scrap bowl?  It is fed back to the birds.  I know this sounds cannibalistic but it is only we humans who think about such things.  When I offer this bowl to the birds they don’t shun it because it used to be their flock-mate.  They simply look at it as a high protein treat and there is fierce competition among them to get the “best bits” for themselves.

At the end of the day there is very little waste.  The carcass – including the neck, which most people discard – is eaten by us.  Any innards not eaten by us are eaten by the birds.  The feet are turned into stock and once thoroughly cooked/simmered, are given to the dogs.  The only waste then is the head, the wing tips and the feather-covered skin.  I suppose I could try to save the feathers but we only need so many feather pillows.  Even the bones get a second use.  Once I have removed the meat from the bones, I put them back into a stock pot, cover them with water, and simmer for several more hours.  The result is another nice pot of stock, which I use as a base to make soup.  Only once the bones have been used twice, do I throw them into the compost, where they will be used a third time to enrich the soil for our veggie garden.

My birds sacrifice their life to feed my family – I don’t want any part of their sacrifice to have been a waste.

New arrivals to the farm

A few weeks ago, I wrote about broody season.  Well, now it is baby season.  Two turkeys have each hatched poults and multiple chicken hens are raising anywhere from a single chick to several apiece.  With the chickens, I hatch eggs and give them the chicks, since I want to raise purebred chicks, rather than the barnyard mixes they would hatch if left to their own devices.  However my turkey hen chose a wonderful place to brood so I allowed her to sit on her own eggs and she did a marvelous job.  When the eggs started to pip and zip, it was like popcorn, and when the hatch was over, I discovered that all 14 of the eggs she had been sitting on had hatched – in about a 12-hour time frame!

Mama turkey is now busily raising her brood of poults – who keep her busy.  She allows them to jump on her back and peck at the back of her head, or jump up and grab her wattles and hang on, dangling.  Or even to grab her snood and dangle from that.  The time will come those kinds of behaviors will not be tolerated but for now, they are babies and can get away with all of it.

There is nothing sweeter than watching a mother with her young.

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The Meat I Eat

Producing as much of our own food as possible is gratifying – and sometimes hard work.  But, while watching babies grow up is fun and rewarding, the day comes when they are no longer babies.  I process all of my own poultry.  Is it easy to take a bird I watched hatch, and lovingly raised, and end its life?  Certainly not.  But I do it because I want their life – and their death – to be as beautiful and stress free as possible.  They know me.  They are relaxed around me.  While walking them to the killing cone, I talk to them and I can feel them in my arms – relaxed and happy.  What more can one ask, but that death be fast, almost painless, and that in one’s last moments, one feels happy and relaxed?

We have a few pets, but all the rest of our animals are destined for the table by way of the freezer or crockpot.  Some people have problems with that.   But, hell, to live well and die well and know that there was value in both the living and the dying?  Isn’t that as much as any of us can hope for?

I’m not claiming I do my fowl or livestock any favors by killing them — clearly I don’t.  The point is that while I do not enjoy the killing, neither does it distress me; my animals live better (warm, watered, protected, and fed) and die better (quickly and without suffering) than if they lived wild.  The birds are free to fly or roam wherever they please.  (Some turkeys choose to spend the night atop the sheep shelter roof.  Some ducks spend the night on the pond.)   The goats and sheep are fenced, but that is more to keep them safe from coyotes and cars than to restrain them.  (Even when they are let out they stay close to home.)  So to whatever extent they have the capacity to choose, my animals seem to prefer the life I give them to the more feral or wild existence they could have anytime they wish.

So.. slaughtering my animals is not a pleasant task, but I do it comfortable in the knowledge that the life I gave them was safe, spacious, warm, and well-fed and that the death I give them is quick, painless, and stress-free compared to the death by disease, injury, predation, exposure, or starvation suffered by their wild kin.  

It’s broody season

I went to do the final check on the poultry last night and at least four hens stuck their butts up in the air and screeched at me like the little feathered velociraptors they resemble.  Yup – it’s broody season.  I am sometimes asked what it means when a hen “goes broody” and I explain it as the avian version of pregnancy.  Hormonal changes occur in birds that tell them it is time to “sit” on a clutch of eggs and hatch out youngsters to raise.  And, once a hen is full-blown broody, it is next to impossible to dissuade her.

This being spring, broody birds are no surprise.  From April to July last year I perpetually had broody birds – at one point a dozen or more were sitting on various nests throughout the coop at the same time!  Several hens brooded multiple times.  One particularly broody hen raised turkeys, ducklings and finally a few chicken chicks for me.  She didn’t care what she raised – if it was a baby, she’d call it over, tuck it under her wing, and mother it.

Some of my friends dread having hens go broody because a broody hen doesn’t lay eggs, so production is compromised.  As for me – I LOVE me a broody hen.  Every year I raise enough chickens, turkeys and ducks to meet our egg and meat consumption needs, but raising them in a brooder is a lot of work.  A hen will do it all for me – from keeping them warm and safe, to showing them how to find food and water.  She’ll even teach them to forage well, while out free-ranging.

So my plan for this weekend is to collect specific eggs I want incubated, mark them, and tuck 2-3 under each of the newly broody hens.  And, in three weeks or so, the new mothers will be introducing their chicks to life at the coop.  It is spring on the farm and I couldn’t be happier about it.