Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Raising Chickens

We're raising 10 chickens for meat this summer. I say "we" because it's truly been a team effort this year, with Chris picking them up at the post office when they were just one day old and caring for them for 2 weeks while I was away finishing a masters degree, and Sarah foster-parenting them any time that Chris and I are away. Last year we raised 5, kind of as a warm-up. The meat and broth we get from the chickens will supplement the venison and other wild game that Chris hunts throughout the year. We won't buy much other meat. However, we are currently in the habit of buying turkey pepperoni from the grocery store and chicken wings from a restaurant in town. It's important to state that I'm not strict about any of my food choices. If someone prepares me dinner, I'll eat it. I'm grateful for the gift. And, like everything else in my life, I tend not to be dogmatic about any principle. It seems there are always exceptions to any rule and occasionally circumstances that push the ideal across the line of realistic.
We order the chickens with some friends and split the order (10 for us, 50 or so for them). For the first couple of weeks the chickens stay inside under a heat lamp in a warm, dry garage on wood-chip bedding. As soon as possible, I put them out on the grass so they get acquainted with grass nibbling and cricket crunching. If they learn to forage, they'll need a little less feed and, I've heard, may have a bit more omega 3 fatty acids in their tissues. Plus, the cricket-chasing gives them something fun to do. After they have enough feathers, they stay outside in a sheltered, moveable coop. I just move the coop once or twice a day so they have fresh grass (food AND bedding!). Our yard isn't the sort that needs to be pretty. The chickens trim the grass and fertilize it at the same time. I think it's beautiful.
The chickens are a Cornish X, bred for "efficient feed conversion." They get really big, really fast. Last week, during one of our recent deluges, I was moving the coop and noticed that one bird wasn't moving with the coop. I had to pick him up, move the coop, and then set him back inside. I didn't notice any injuries. The next day, I moved the chicken to a smaller coop by itself to let it rest. An online search for advice provided me with two lessons: this breed is notorious for a variety of leg problems, and I should give it a week to rest and see if it gets better. So, I did. It didn't, and now the chicken is marinating in the fridge. It was a relief to kill the chicken yesterday. It couldn't walk. It ate and drank just fine, and until the last day or two, didn't seem to be in much pain at all. But the chicken never should have had the problem in the first place. In the future I plan on finding a different breed that isn't as prone to disturbing leg disorders. Part of the cause is the rapid growth of the chickens. All of the other 14 chickens we've raised have been just fine, but I don't want to raise such rapidly growing chickens again.
If we harvest the chickens when they are about 9 weeks old, the meat will cost us about $.80 a pound (plus the carcasses will provide broth). I haven't checked the grocery store, but I'm assuming this is a great deal compared to anything found there. So far this is the best deal that I can find for chicken. I know that the chickens have been treated well, fed well, and are free of chemicals. I also know they won't be contaminated with salmonella or any other bacteria from handling or processing. I know this because I do the work.
If I didn't raise chickens, I'd probably go backpacking more. I might play more guitar. But I still get to do these things. And having a like-minded and willing friend like Sarah, lightens the load. Having invested all of the time and energy into these chickens makes the meals we'll eat later so much more precious. You tend not to waste anything. You tend not to take it for granted.
So, we have 9 chickens now. They are happy and growing fast. I watched them hunt big fat crickets as I filled up their water tonight. Tomorrow we'll eat spicy Thai grilled chicken dinner. Life is good.


Melissa said...

Love it Molly! My grandfather was a world renown poultry vet, so chicks were always a part of our lives. We currently split lamb/chickens where I keep me horse. It's nice to be in control of your food chain, instead of buying grocery store hormone infested, poorly raised meat. You can keep the venison though. No matter how much I try, I can't. :)

Andy Crawford said...

Moveable chicken coup huh? That's a pretty good idea.

How are you going to find time to watch "The Hills" on MTV and read People Magazine with a garden and chickens? joke.

I just read an article on potatoes. They seem pretty suceptible to fungus. It was a really good article if you want me to email it to you.