Category Archives: chickens, etc.

On turkey hormones

I knew this would happen.

Our turkeys are fighting.

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Baby stands tall in the back

Granted, Thanksgiving Dinner (a/k/a Baby) was never destined to be a long-term resident around here, but…we had such peace until early this week.  It’s in the nature of things, I suppose, this desire to be “top dog,” but it’s disturbing nonetheless, this bloodlust: even the mother hen Ruby is in on it.  “What’s going on with the turkeys?” asked our daughter.  I asked her if she remembered when Mel, our mellow gander, turned mean, and she said “yeah, didn’t he have a poison in him?”  I had forgotten that I had told her he had “testosterone poisoning.”  That led me to give a lengthy explanation of hormones and how they act as chemical regulators in our bodies, “and you have a tiny bit of testosterone in you, too, girl.”

“I know, and it hurts right here,” she said, pointing to her heart.

Baby is something of a miracle baby, after all.  Ruby, his mom, sat on 9 eggs until she got attacked by a raccoon (the bastard got into her gated, latched pen) who ate all her eggs, and messed her up a bit.  I knew the instinct to sit was still with her, so I went on a wild egg hunt, grabbing what I could around the house/yard…tough going considering I had just sold the eggs for the week.  So, in a newly reinforced enclosure, Ruby got to sit on one fake egg from our daughter’s toy kitchen, two fertile goose eggs, seven infertile chicken/guinea eggs, and one lonely week-old turkey egg from the refrigerator.

On Mother’s Day, out hatched Baby and Jeffrey the gosling.

They’ve had a grand time ever since.  Ruby is a fabulous mother, and Earl is a fabulous though goofy father.  They’ve been a garrulous threesome ever since, following us around, making threats at the dog, in general, being rather gorgeous traffic-stopping yard statuary (“Are those turkeys?” from passing motorists).  But now Baby is in exile in the chicken pen, and sleeps by himself on the porch roof or back deck.  He’s bigger than his father, which surprises me.

P1010831Like father, like son

Happy Halloween

P1010756Nixie Knox says bawwwkbawwk!

We tried to tell her “But Nixie, everyone LOVES chicken!”

P1010746Nixie says I am so not amused.

Have a spooky holiday!  And parents:  Try to save some candy for the kids.

On goose stories

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Happy days in the back pasture: Mama, Daddy and baby geese

The grand goose experiment is over.

We found a great home for our mated pair, Mel and Yoli, on Friday.  Monday was the day their babies went to the butcher.

IMG_2750Geese, chicks and tiny turkey at the far right center

I am a little wistful about Mel and Yoli. As goslings, I loved their soulful eyes, their yellow-trimmed gray coats, how solicitous they were to the turkeys (same age, but much tinier), allowing them to climb onto their backs and under their wings to sleep.  They grew to be sweet full-grown geese, flying around the place when released from their pen, always up for a gambol, a stroll about the property with us.  Puberty happened in spring and we found out I didn’t have two ganders and a goose, we had two geese and a gander.  The non-bonded girl goose became the odd girl out, and the first in the freezer.

IMG_1233Nest-sitting Yoli and three-day-old Jeffrey

Mel and Yoli (named after Tom’s great uncle and aunt, a kooky couple) had a radical personality transplant when they became parents.  Jeffrey was their first-hatched gosling, brought out into the world by Ruby our turkey hen.  Ruby knew he was no turkey, so in the pen with his parents he went, little fluffball that he was.  I figured Mel would either attack him or accept him.  (Yoli was sitting 10 eggs, her parenting energies thus directed elsewhere.)  Mel of course accepted Jeffrey and the six goslings that followed him.

P1010483Baby Turkey and the geese, doing a little puddle work in the drivewayThis is as close as I could ever get to them.

Nine geese is a lot for any farm, especially one without a pond.  Of the seven goslings, one died fairly soon after hatching and one gosling got “spirited away,” just vanished one night (first time that ever happened here).

Like anything on this farm, any new undertaking has to be a joint venture.  Tom neither liked the live geese nor liked them as dinner, so…I can cross geese off the list of self-sustaining, easily-raised home poultry.  It’s a bit of a shame because they’re more flavorful and easier to care for than chickens; they graze constantly when the grass is green and otherwise are much more self-sufficient.  They don’t even need a shelter in our climate!  They just need some dry straw to nest in so their feet don’t freeze overnight.  I am really glad Yoli and Mel have the opportunity to raise more babies in the future.  I really thought they were adorable.

On new eggs

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The daylight is shortening yet we’re getting lots more eggs.  Magic?  Nope!  Young chickens.

Since we have kept chickens, I have always known who laid what.  This was not rocket science, as it’s rather easy to tell a white egg from a light or dark brown one, a spotted from a blue. This has been a rather convenient ability, as we can tell who’s ailing and who’s well, plus, it makes breakfast choices more easy:  “Whose eggs do you want today,” I ask the girl, “Pauline’s?  Letha’s?  You haven’t had Maggie’s in a while.”

But now, I find I am rather stymied at egg harvest time.  Lined up on their towel, newly washed and wet, I turn them over with my fingers.  It’s like we have chicken company or something, and the feeling is quite surprising.  Whose are YOU, little speckled one, little pointy brown one.  And new eggs from new chickens are indeed surprising.  Often, they don’t have the kinks worked out in the system, so double yolks are quite common, as is the somewhat gross jelly egg (soft, unformed shell) and–once–the egg-within-the-egg total freakout.

I am glad we like eggs.  With the wee bantam eggs, hard-shelled guinea eggs (guineas are stalwart daily layers in warm months, feedburners the cold months, so I guess it averages out), and now eggs from both laying hens AND meat chickens…we had better like them!

A tale of four roosters, in Seven Easy Steps

This is the year that we decided to move our chicken ranching up a level by breeding our own meat and egg birds.  Raising chicks, though rewarding, is hardly any human’s idea of a fun time:  it’s an ordeal.  And frankly, there is no substitute for Mama Hen as far as chicken smarts goes.  There’s too much to learn and we humans are poor teachers in the ways of All Things Chicken.

Step One in this venture: we’ll need two roosters, one for our egg girls and one for our meat girls.

Step Two was to decide what kind of egg-laying birds we wanted to breed.  Our motley egg-laying flock currently includes six dual-purpose (egg/meat) breeds (Australorps (Maggie), Orpington (Sarah), Wyandotte (Helen), Rhode Island (Verloe), Plymouth (Letha), Black Sex Link (Mary Ellen)), and two egg-laying breeds (Leghorn (Pauline), Ameraucana (Phyllis)); all hardy souls that can be found readily in almost any American henyard.  We wanted to try to raise birds that were threatened with disappearing according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and were a hardy, low-maintenance, calm bird, so we selected the dual-purpose Speckled Sussex, a breed known for its curiosity and kindness.

P1010337The Colonel

Step Three is to decide which of the meat roosters will remain to be THE rooster.  Chicken Patty raised six adopted meat chicks this spring, of which three were cockerels.  They are all currently in the henyard and so far one white slow-growing Cornish (like mama Patty) is showing promise of being a gentle soul. Chicken Patty, two red broiler chicks (Nice Rose and Sister) and one more white slow-growing Cornish hen (Girly) round out the meat bird crop, and all will soon have their own coop and run.  SO:  The name for the new meat-bird rooster?  The Colonel, of course!

Step Four in this venture was the acquisition of five bantam chicks.  Bantams are diminutive chickens:  usually they are a third to a quarter the size of regular ones.  Because they were bred for their size, chicken traits common in other birds (eggs, meat) were not a factor, nor quite frankly has any bantam selected for docility.  In fact, they’re rather flighty birds, both literally (they can fly anywhere) and figuratively, as in, they’re unapproachable.  They’re a lot like our guineas, in other words; lots of sturm-und-drang.  One of the quite useful traits that hasn’t been bred out of bantam chickens is the urge to sit eggs and raise chicks.  Should any of our girls decide not to sit their (now newly fertile) eggs, I figured having a few banty hens around would help as bantams don’t care whose eggs they sit on.  Consider them the surrogate mothers of the henhouse, our Plan B for incubation and hatching.

P1000703Poor little Ellis

Step Five isn’t really a step, as I thought I had thought this through.  Of the six Speckled Sussexes we had, one was a boy, Ellis, and therefore destined to be Egg Chicken King.  However, he became sick!  His illness caused me to break the #1 House Rule (No Poultry In The House Unless Plucked and Gutted) and did time in my office in a cardboard box, enjoying his scrambled eggs, milk and cornbread. I didn’t hold out much hope that he’d live, though, and it breaks my heart because he was so pretty.  Indeed, he died, a few days later.  There goes my hope of having home-hatched Speckled Sussex chicks next year.

_DSC7237Michael Jackson

Step Six:  what in the WORLD am I going to do with five bantam roosters?  Only one crows, though, and is quite a terror.  He’s the cute white chick my daughter insisted upon buying this spring.  As putative songster king of five boys, I started calling him Michael (as in Jackson), way before His Weirdness’ death of course.  He even crows his name!  MiCHAEL JACKson.  Then, magically, we started to find little bantam eggs in the nestbox.  Apparently, the other four are girls!  (sigh)  And, unlike his namesake, our little Michael actually likes girls.

_DSC7235Mary Ellen

Step Seven:  WHY is the Black Sex Link pullet, Mary Ellen, crowing?  Ah.  I think we have found Ellis’ successor in the egg-bird rooster department.  Mary Ellen (whose name is sure to be changed, or not) is a nice calm bird, very attentive and solicitous of everyone but Michael Jackson (who terrorizes any and all birds).

So…maybe I will have mutt egg-laying chickens after all.  There are surely worse things, including raising the chicks yourself.

On subcontracting

On Monday morning, my calendar flashed my appointments for the week.  “What in the WORLD could I possibly have scheduled for 7:00am on Wednesday morning?” was my bleary-eyed question to myself.

Here’s what the calendar said:  “7:00 a.m. Chicks 12 weeks”

Ah.  It’s much more clear now.  The meat birds are ready to be butchered.

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And boy howdy are they!  Unlike the last two batches of meat birds that I have raised, these feathered friends are actually CROWING in the morning.  It’s past time, it would seem like, for them to be freezer fare.  What a big task ahead for me:  I received 52 chicks in the mail the first week of June.  Eleven of these creatures were exempt from butchering, as they’re the new crop of laying hens (plus rooster).  Chicken Patty gets a husband and at least two sister-wives, so there go another 3 chickens.  And then there’s the turkey baby, and then there’s the 5 goslings, who are now full-sized geese.  Thirty-eight chickens, one turkey, and five geese.

help!

I happened to be on a post-movie panel discussion last month with the woman who runs our Eat Local listserve.  She came out to the farm and graciously took three of my new laying hen chicks, plus extra rooster, off my hands, as she had decided Speckled Sussex was what she wanted to concentrate on for her own dual-purpose birds, but (sadly) a raccoon ate all but two of hers.  So we were doing the Chicken Talk thing, and I asked her how often she made it out to my neck of the woods (she lives closer to Kalamazoo, about 45 minutes east of me) and she said “every time I need to butcher the chickens.”

Apparently, the guy in town with the sign on his lawn that advertises deer processing is an all-around butcher, and he charges $2.50 a chicken, and $7.00 for geese.

Part of the reason I am doing this whole poultry-ranching thing is to have a complete connection with the entirety of what goes into our meals.  Butchering the birds is a part of that, albeit a not terribly pleasant part; I do it alone, as my husband wants no part of it but the eating, and all my friends are not exactly…the types of folks who get into this kind of thing.  To do all those birds would take every weekend day from now until October.  But:  $2.50 a bird!

I checked out the guy’s facilities, chatted with him for a while, and have made another calendar date regarding the chickens.  But this time the date won’t surprise me.

P1000608Turkey girls love playing King of the Hill.  Earl of course just likes to show off his stuff “to the ladies.”

The Chicken Tractor, round two

Those little chicks I mentioned a while back are now between six and seven weeks old.  For the last two weeks, most of them have been living in the Chicken Tractor.

P1000288I’m still ambivalent about using this thing, feeling as I do that confinement is confinement and a perfect world would have them safe in their own enclosed pen, where they could scratch and dustbathe and in general do anything their chicken-y hearts desire.  This, however, is not a perfect world.  In my perfect world of the future, this is the last (knock wood) year I will be ordering chicks, ever, as I will now be handing the chick-rearing reins over to Chicken Patty, a husband, and a sister-wife.  Roosters likewise will be culled from our new egg-layers, as we have a rooster of the egg bird persuasion now too.

P1000294Hi!  You have treats for us?

But back to the tractor.  My concern for these birds makes me check up on them multiple times of the day.  I move it, then, three times a day to ensure they get their fill of fresh grass and clover.  I also verify that the tarp cover gives them at least 3/4 of their space in the shade:  it doesn’t get super hot here (highs at most in the low 80s) but I don’t want them to be uncomfortable. They get fed two times a day, with a two to three hour gap between feedings.  Unlike the first batch of meat blobbos that used the tractor last year, these slow-growing CornishX (the white ones) and some slower-growing red broilers move more, they perch, their poop is a lot more “processed” and they HATE lying in their own poo.  There are 35 birds in this tractor, for now.  Once they get to be about 12 weeks, half of them will be housed elsewhere (including the freezer) as I think they’d be too cramped in there when they’re all that big.  Full-grown birds should all be ready to go, then, at 16 weeks, though last year I waited longer than that.

P1000281Four of Patty’s babies in the grapevines

As a point of contrast, Chicken Patty’s adopted chicks are a lot smaller.  I attribute this to two things:  one, when the other meat birds had 24/7 feeding under the light of the heat lamp, the babies under Mama Patty got used to the idea of circadian rhythms.  And two, Chicken Patty’s six babies are running everywhere, all day long.  Patty did a wonderful job raising them until she didn’t, incidentally.  When they were just over a month old, her egg-laying cycle kicked back in, so she started roosting in the coop with the other egg girls, leaving her babies behind.  I am not sure if this is just nature or if Patty is just a flaky young teenaged mother, or what.  The babies sure can fend for themselves, though, doing a fine job foraging and dust-bathing and keeping themselves together.  There are three roos and three girls.  One of the boys will be Patty’s future husband…though not a blood relation, is this, uh, Oedipal?