Sunday, August 19, 2012

the nitty gritty of it all (part two)

Backing up a bit from my last post, I wanted to catalog some events and share some things we may do differently the next time we raise meat birds.

We housed the birds in the large, grassy, and enclosed outdoor run attached to the barn where the laying hens reside. Occasionally, I supervised some free-ranging time in the field, but for the most part they stayed in this setup, with various additional make-shift shelters like dog crates for shade and weather protection. Although they were always on grass, with plenty of bugs to eat as well, I would say the majority of their diet came from the grain we provided. Next time, we'd like to build a Salatin-style pen, and rotate the birds through pasture, allowing them access to new grass each day.    
 
There was a major setback a few weeks prior to the first butchering day, when we lost 8 of the biggest males to the elements. We had a hard rain and biting wind just before dusk, and the chickens got wet. Then the temperatures dipped down that night, and we realized after some research that those big boys had a difficult time keeping their body temperature up. That loss was quite a blow to us, especially since it was preventable on our part, had we just brought the flock into the garage (no electricity in the barns), and put them near the heat lamp. Big lesson learned. After this, we built a hay bale structure with a couple plywood planks as a roof, and rigged a light bulb to 3 small solar panels. This way, they had a light on all night, which allowed the birds to be active, eat, and keep their temperature better regulated. After this improvement, we suffered no additional losses, and the birds really seemed to love it. 


It looks very manger-like, don't you think?

The injured chick and fighting rooster pair were spared butchering, and have pretty much become feral chickens who run around with the goats all day. We're entertaining the possibility that they could perhaps be a breeding pair (Even if not, they are currently entertaining us, so we like having them around). There was one other bird who seemed to develop a temporary leg problem in which he couldn't stand up fully. I brought him into the garage brooder, and after a few days with his own food and water, the problem resolved itself. He was a very laid-back and large fella, and actually ended up being the first one we harvested.     


scalding pot
butchering station (yes, that is a lopped off traffic cone hanging from a ladder)

With the loss of 5 laying hens to the fox (two originally and three more of late), we also decided to integrate 2 of the pullets from the meat bird flock with our laying flock. I'd like to see if they might be good dual-purpose birds, and am interested to find out if they will come into lay since they are now eating layer feed and essentially free-ranging. It might work better for us to have a true dual-purpose flock, rather than trying to harvest so many broilers at once. Logistically-speaking, it's only possible for us to butcher a few chickens at a time without extra help - baby only naps for so long, even when carried on my back, and as first-timers, we are horribly inefficient! The 14 chickens we did end up butchering were spread out over the course of a couple weeks. I'm not sure if all-at-once or one-once-in-awhile is better. What I do know, however, is that this experience has educated, tested, and enlightened me in ways I never imagined. And this is just the beginning. 








16 comments:

  1. Great post Jaime! It is informative to read the experiences of first-time meat bird raisers. I think, for me, a dual-purpose flock would be of benefit. Grandma didn't raise meat birds, she just went out and caught a bird when she needed some chicken and when she needed replacements, she let a hen go broody. ;-)

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    1. Yes, so true! And no need for lots of freezer space either. These birds are so tender and suited to any way you'd want to cook them, though - I think that's one major benefit of a broiler-type....

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  2. Your lopped off traffic cone is AWESOME. Man, what a great idea.

    We are toying with the idea of meat birds - more of a long-term thought, but going through the recent meat processing workshop at least confirmed that we could, in fact, kill chickens when the time came. Still... I feel your losses due to weather. It really sucks feeling powerless and, at the same time, like you could have done something to save them. Lessons learned for us, for sure.

    Thanks for posting this. I learn so much from you!

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    1. Thank you so much for your encouragement, and for sharing your own experience as well. (The traffic cone was my husband's idea, and it really did the trick!)

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  3. Or, you could just swoop them all up at once and pay to have them harvested and vacuum packed for you... you still know what you have raised and what you are eating, minus the mess.

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    1. Yes, that's a great option as well! We don't have anyone in our area who offers that service, so we're on our own for poultry processing. That's okay, though, it feels empowering to know how to do it ourselves. I think we might be able to hire a mobile butcher for larger livestock if we venture into that.

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  4. Great post Jaime....i'm not quite there yet but i do like to read about your plans....and so clever to be able to do it with a bubba in tow Mama!That traffic cone is pure genius by the way!Have a lovely week x

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  5. Jaime, I raised the same breed for meat and kept two pullets and a rooster as a breeding group. Unfortunately, the male turned out to be a poor choice, as he was too large to 'function' well. I ended up processing him. But I have integrated the two pullets into my laying flock for the same purpose - to provide dual purpose chickens. I even got my first pullet egg from one of them! (Not sure if it's Bertha or Bessy). They seem to do very well and have meshed well with the flock.

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    1. Oh, too funny! This pair has been mostly on foraged food for some time now, so hopefully the rooster doesn't get much bigger. How exciting that your (aptly named) pullets are starting to lay!

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  6. You mentioned using the Salatin-style pens to rotate the birds through pasture. Another option is using moveable poultry netting. We use the netting to surround the chickens with their moveable coop and a shade structure made from pvc and tarp. It uses step-in posts so it's easy to pull up and move around. It lets them free-range but still be protected from foxes and dogs. We got our fence from Premier1. We use a solar powered fence charger with it. We also have hawks. The shade structure (prob 10x10 or so) helps with that. Whenever the chickens see a hawk they all run underneath it. It also keeps their food dry and the water cooler. Our chickens are Buckeyes which are a dual purpose breed. We've culled 6 birds so far and they are delicious! We should start getting eggs any day now. They are a heritage breed so hopefully we'll have at least one or two broody hens to help us raise more birds. They are very active so forage well. They have pea-combs to help them tolerate cold weather better. So far we love them! We'll see how they hold up! Happy farming :)

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    1. Hi Stephanie, your setup sounds like perfection! Thank you so much for sharing the details. We were tossing around the idea of trying electric poultry netting for the layers since we have not been successful at catching the fox. So glad to hear this has worked for you. I'm going to look into the Buckeyes - sounds like they would be very suitable for us - thanks for that tip as well!

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  7. Excellent post Jaime. This is one of the reasons blogging is such a great tool. You have a record and we all get the benefit of your experience. I have to say though, that learning things the hard way is no fun. Wish there was a way around that but it just seems to be the case all too often.

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    1. Very true, Leigh! I'm not sure there's any "easy" way of learning with this lifestyle ;)

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  8. Hello Jaime....many years ago my son raised chickens for his ag project in high school. It was a learning experience for us, too. But, we did have the expeienced help from the school's ag program. Fortunately for us, through the school program, all the birds were taken to a near-by processing plant. We were spared the part of actually cleaning the birds. I can honestly say, they were the best ever chicken meat I have tasted. Great post.....lots of good tips.

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    1. Thank you, Meggie! What a great opportunity for your son. Home-raised really is the best, for so many reasons!

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