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.

Thanksgiving Turkey

We did something this year we’ve never done before: provided the turkey for our extended-family Thanksgiving dinner.  We raise heritage turkeys – Bourbon Red, Royal Palm and Black Spanish.  Heritage breeds differ from those used in the commercial meat industry because they are able to breed naturally, and can even fly short distances.  Several of my turkeys regularly fly from the ground up to roost on the top of our horse shelter – 16′ off the ground.  By contrast, the broad-breasted varieties favored by ButterBall because of their huge breasts, are so heavy they can barely walk towards the ends of their lives, and have to be artificially inseminated as they are too big to breed naturally.

Because turkey toms will fight aggressively in spring, and I didn’t want to have to pen birds up to avoid the fighting, I keep only one tom – currently a Bourbon Red – which means that eggs hatched from the Royal Palm and Black Spanish hens are mixed.  There is no market in our area for mixed breed turkeys but we hatched them anyway, knowing they would still have a purpose.

The small breast and leaner muscle mass – my turkeys free-range several acres and eat a natural diet of greens and bugs rather than living in mass confinement and sitting in front of a feeder all of their lives – mean they need to be cooked differently in order to retain moisture and tenderness, so while I processed, I asked HWA to research the best way to cook a heritage turkey.

I had planned to skin him as I do most of my birds, and then slow cook him in an oven roasting bag.  I don’t have a pot big enough to dunk a bird the size of a turkey so did not think plucking was an option.  However before skinning, I tried pulling out a few feathers and long story short, I found that dry plucking was actually easier than plucking after the bird has been dunked!  The feathers released just as easily but they didn’t stick to my hands as they do when wet, so I was able to pull the feathers out by the handful and toss them immediately into the trash.  The only feathers that challenged me were the wing tips and the tail feathers, but a little extra muscle and those too pulled clean out.

Once the plucking and eviscerating were done, I turned him over to HWA, who basted with an herb butter concoction, including cutting a few slits in the skin and stuffing some herb butter into the slits.  We then trussed the wings to the body with string to keep the wing tips from over-cooking, stuffed the cavity with quartered onions and lemons, and placed him in the oven set to 225 degrees for a 12-hour cook.  A timer reminded us to re-baste every three hours.  After the 12 hours at low heat, we turned the oven up to 375 for about 30 minutes to brown the skin.

The result?  A moist, tender turkey that got rave reviews.  And, while my heritage birds may not have the enormous breast of a broad-breasted turkey, there was plenty of meat for anyone who wanted to, to go back for seconds.  And thirds.  And, in some cases, fourths.  When dinner was over, there was still enough meat left over to leave a gallon zip-loc bag with our host and take another home with us.  Just like families across the country, for the next week we dined on turkey leftovers.

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.  

Gutter Feeder

Over the years, I’ve tried many styles of chicken feeder; each have their drawbacks.  Some allow the birds to easily bill the feed out, making a mess and wasting a lot.  Others can be overturned, sat on, pooped in, or rained on.  I needed to come up with a way to allow the birds easy access to feed without wasting it.  After installing the gutters on the coop, I had an idea.  I took a left over piece of gutter, added end caps, and attached it to the internal wall of the coop.  Then HWA took a piece of 4″ PVC pipe and inserted it almost to the bottom of the gutter, leaving just enough space for feed to spill out into the gutter.  He attached the PVC pipe to the wall with metal strapping.  The top of the PVC is angled to allow pouring into it more easily without spilling.  I can now fill the pipe from the feed room side of my coop, and the birds themselves spread it down the length of the gutter.  The pipe holds enough feed to last about a day so I only have to fill it once, and this also allows me to better control the amount of feed I use.  The feeder takes up almost no room in the coop, since it is attached to the wall and sticks out only 3-4″.  And because it only sticks out a few inches, birds don’t try to roost on it or sit in it.  It is inside, where it is not subject to rain and snow.  But best of all, the steep sides of the gutter don’t allow the birds to bill the feed out, so I have almost zero waste.

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More recently I added a second gutter to the opposite wall – this time to provide oyster shell.  As it only needs to be filled occasionally, I did not attach a PVC pipe this time.

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The “perfect” feeder probably doesn’t exist but in my opinion, the gutter feeder is as close as it gets!