Before You Get Your Baby Chicks, You Should Read This

During this past week, I’ve been chatting with several people who are interested in raising chickens.  It’s that time of year – fruit trees are blooming, the weather has been beautiful, and if you dare to walk into a feed store, you’re sure to be tempted by the sweet chirp of baby chicks.  The day old birds are, without a doubt, one of the cutest things in the known universe, which is reason enough to get a few for pets.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how delicious real eggs taste, though, which is an even better reason to start a flock.

eggs

The logic sounds simple so far, right?

The next step gets really complicated.  Before you even purchase chicks, you need to decide whether or not to raise them following strict organic standards.  When you buy chicks from a hatchery, you’ll have the option to get them vaccinated before they’re shipped to you.  The chicks from the feed stores in our area are usually not vaccinated because the stores need to give customers the option to raise them organically.  (We live in Northern California; this may not hold true in other areas of the country).

If you don’t get vaccinated chicks, you have the option of giving them medicated starter feed.  Chicks that have already been vaccinated shouldn’t have medicated feed because it will counteract the vaccinations.  The medicated feed only helps prevent certain illnesses and does nothing to prevent others that the vaccination will cover.
chicken saladI’m 99.9% sure that anyone reading this blog will gravitate towards following the organic route. When we first got chickens, that was certainly what we did.  It seems obvious: antibiotics and vaccines seem like disgusting ingredients for an omelet.  A few years ago, we had an absolute disaster that made me realize that it’s not nearly as simple as you’d think…. It’s probably an important story to read for anyone thinking about getting a flock.

It was the first time that we’d decided to try getting a larger flock so we could sell eggs at the farmers market. Since we’re off the grid and don’t have a 24 hour power source, running a heat lamp for first six weeks of the chicks lives was virtually impossible. We found two different people on craigslist that sold pullets that we ready to be outside without the heat lamp.  We went to both farms and both seemed perfectly lovely.  The pullets were all healthy and happy.  We fed them organic feed and raised them up to egg laying age, and then………… they started dying. It wasn’t all at once, but we were having one or two hens die every week. They would look slow and lethargic for several days, then have trouble walking and standing up, and no matter how much tlc we gave them, they died.  Our coop was very clean, they had plenty of food and water and plenty of space to run around, and we were completely baffled why we were having so many problems.

Initially, none of our research really yielded any good answers, and most vets that we spoke with only worked with larger farm animals.  One morning, when I found another hen that was clearly suffering, who could barely stand and looked like she was having trouble breathing, I got fed up. I packed her into a box with some blankets and took her to the vet we use for our dogs because I had to do something.  When the vet saw her, he told me that she was far too sick to help, and we had to put her to sleep.  The vet office sent her body to UC Davis for testing to figure out what was going wrong.  (At this point in the story, I start losing any kind of farmer street cred that I may have had.  Who pays money to get a chicken put to sleep? Just wring their neck and it’s done.  It was a weird morning, what can I say…)

Holding a frail, sick hen in my arms while she died was about the most awful thing ever. I left the vet office in tears, drove across the street and parked under some trees near the hardware store, where I sat and cried for an embarrassingly long time.  I felt sick to my stomach that all of these animals in my care were dying.

When we got the test results back from UC Davis, my suspicions were confirmed: the hen had Marek’s Disease.  Marek’s is something can a hen can carry for a long time and seem completely healthy, but then will flare up during a stressful period.  For our flock, the trigger was the transition into egg-laying.  If one hen had it, the whole flock was definitely carrying it.  There’s no treatment and it has a 90% fatality rate. Once Marek’s flares up, it’s a slow and painful way for a hen to die.  They become more and more lethargic, and then experience asymmetrical paralysis, meaning the hen will lose use of half of her body.  A hen that’s dying of Marek’s will often have one droopy wing and one leg that’s limp and outstretched. Eventually the hen won’t be able to breathe and dies.  UC Davis told us that the only way to get rid of it in our coop was to “depopulate” the flock, clean the coop, and leave it empty for several months.

The crazy thing in all of this? When you order day old chicks from the hatchery, there’s a little box you can click on the order form, and for a couple extra bucks you can get all of them vaccinated for Marek’s (along with several other diseases) when they’re a day old.  It’s not organic at all, but it would have prevented the whole nightmare we went through with our hens.  We’re still not sure how we ended up with Marek’s in our flock, but it was almost certainly because one of the farms I got our birds from had it in their flock.  This was the point where we decided: we will always raise our own chicks, even if it’s a total pain in the butt doing it off the grid, and we will always get them vaccinated from the hatchery.  After that we feed them organic grains, and I just figure that by the time the six months have passed for them to start laying eggs there can’t be much medication left in their system.

If you’re wondering about our doomed flock, we didn’t have the heart to kill all of them the way UC Davis recommended.  The chickens that hadn’t gotten sick yet were still happy and healthy, so we let them hang out with us until the disease flared up, when we would take matters into our own hands and put them out of their misery.  It was really depressing, but it seemed like the nice thing to do.

I’m sure other people have had different experiences raising chickens.  Most people don’t end up with the mess that we had. This was the single most important lesson we’ve ever learned about chicken farming, though, and I hope that sharing it helps other people make conscious decisions about their farming methods.  Things are not always as black and white as they seem, unfortunately, and animal husbandry can be a lot more intense than growing some tomatoes in your backyard garden.

 

P.S. I still would rather raise them organically, so if you have a good solution…. please tell me!

On Killing Chickens – Graphic Post

This is the story of how we went from having too many roosters running around to having a freezer stocked with chicken: This post is graphic and may be upsetting to some people, so if you’re going to start crying/be traumatized/send me hate mail, you should click away right now and go read about baking cupcakes or something.

The other day, I was walking by the chicken coop and noticed that four of the roosters were terrorizing one of the hens.  They were grouped around her, taking turns mounting her, ignoring all the other hens in the coop.  When they weren’t on top of her they were pecking her right on top of the head, trying to keep her on the ground.  It was pretty horrifying, and I ran into the coop and rescued the poor hen the second I realized what was going on (she’s fine, don’t worry).

That was when I decided:
I have to get rid of these damn roosters.

Over the years, I’ve lost many of my chickens, but never on purpose.  The first time was when someone came over to my house with their dog, and even though my dogs love our chickens, this dog jumped out of the car and killed one of my hens within ten seconds.  I cried in the woods for the whole afternoon and wouldn’t talk to anyone.

I know, it’s just a chicken.

But there’s something so sweet about (most of) them, how they run through the grass chasing bugs and how they adore corn and will follow you around all day trying to get it.  I love how they can be such troublemakers, finding the one tiny hole in a garden fence and then eating a whole bed of seedlings in five minutes.  Gradually, I’ve learned not to be so heartbroken if a chicken dies.  It’s a natural part of raising animals and farming.  If I’m doing my best to protect them, there’s not much else that can be done.  Chickens die. It happens.

Even though we’ve been keeping chickens for years, I’ve never killed one of them myself, and I took this decision very seriously.  There are huge stretches of time where I don’t eat meat;  I like tomato-cucumber sandwiches for lunch and a bowl of chickpea curry for dinner, and I rarely crave steak.  There are a couple times a month that I do like to make something with meat in it, though, and I absolutely want that meat to be from a humanely raised, local and sustainable.  All of those pretentious sounding catch phrases seem more important when it comes to killing an animal.  The thing is, I’m not interested in the top-dollar, organic chicken from the natural food store — I’ve never met the farmer, I’ve never seen the chickens, and I know better than to believe a bunch of stuff written on plastic packaging.  When I want to eat meat, I want it to be venison that was a gift from a hunter friend with a stocked freezer, sausage from my neighbors pigs, or trout from a nearby stream.

I finally got up the nerve to call up another farmer and set a time to bring my roosters over to his house, where he graciously agreed to show me everything I needed to know.  I was nervous, and even though I knew I was doing the right thing, I couldn’t sleep the night before I was going to kill them.

The main thing I want to tell anyone who might be struggling with that same decision is that it turns out, it’s not that bad at all.  Thinking about it beforehand is much worse than actually doing it. It helped me a lot to have a very experienced farmer show me how to do everything quickly and without a lot of unnecessary emotional drama.  He told me “it’s okay to be friends with your food.”

There are a lot of ways to kill a chicken, but I’m sold on the method we used.  (I wish I could offer more step-by-step pictures here, but since this was my first time and it was almost dark outside still, I didn’t bother trying to take a lot of good pictures.  I know that a quick google search will show you if you want to see.)  My friend pulled a stump from his firewood pile, hammered two nails into it about 1 1/2″ apart, and then set a trash can right next to the stump.  He showed me how, in a matter of seconds, you firmly grab the chicken with one hand on its feet and the other on its neck, lay it on the stump so its neck is in between the nails, and then, holding its body onto the stump with one hand, grab your axe and just give it a really good whack on the neck.  You immediately toss the chicken into the empty trash can where it will bleed and flop around quite dramatically.  The most important thing I learned is not to hesitate once you decide to start, to be determined and strong about it.  My roosters were dead within seconds, before they really even knew what was going on, which is what I wanted.  I probably don’t need to tell you, but I want to emphasize two things: 1. Roosters hate it when you pick them up and will try to fly away.  Grab them strongly and be ready for this, because if they do fly away and you have to chase them all over the property trying to catch them, it will make the process much more traumatic for both of you.  2. This is not the time for a half-hearted attempt with the axe.  Go for it.  Roosters have stronger necks than you’d think and you need to put some power into it.

Once the killing part was over, the plucking and butchering was much easier than I expected.  We dipped the carcasses in boiling water for a minute and then plucked the feathers into the trash can, a process that was simple and finished quickly.  (I thought it would take a long time and make a huge mess — It didn’t).  My friend cut their feet off and then showed me how to take out the guts, which, although it was disgusting, I kind of… liked.  It’s a good kind of disgusting.  It reminded me of scooping out the seeds from the inside of a pumpkin, but warm and mushy. It was easy.  Then you just give the birds a rinse in clean water, pack them into freezer bags and stash them away for future dinners.  My friend told me that you should let them rest in the fridge for a couple days before you eat them because the meat will be more tender, so I haven’t actually cooked anything yet, but I’m excited to make chicken and dumplings tomorrow.

Now that it’s over, I’m hugely relieved.  I realized I was making way too big of a deal about all of this and getting way too emotional.  It’s really bad to have too many roosters, and it makes complete sense to feed your family with the extras.   When it was over and done, I felt a huge sense of pride and accomplishment thinking about how many meals I could make with all of this chicken.  That day, I actually ended up doing a bunch of other tasks that I’d been putting off, because I realized that if I could kill and butcher chickens before it was even light outside, these other things I was worrying about were also going to be a breeze.

If you’re at all like I was, torn about the idea of doing this, putting it off even though you know you should, I urge you to go ahead and do it.  It was a very positive experience and left me feeling very empowered.

For a fantastic tutorial on chicken butchering, including all the pretty pictures I didn’t take, I highly recommend the Girl’s Guide to Guns and Butter’s Chicken Butchering 101 post. 

Good luck!

Do it! Projects for 2012

I was just writing out some kitchen resolutions for 2012: things I want to learn how to do, things I want to get better at doing, and things that I really enjoy and want to make sure that I keep doing. I realized I have a perfect year of cooking laid out, with one big project for every month, things like…. learning how to make fresh pasta (I’ve only done it a handful of times in the past) and learning how to make cheese (never done it!).  It’s a year of from-scratch-do-it-yourself-local-fresh-inspired-homestead-kitchen skills.

In 2010, I loved reading the Hungry Tigress’ Can Jam, and learning how to make bacon with the Charcutepalooza last year was absolutely spectacular.  I want to continue challenging myself to tackle new projects and skills, keep my cooking inspired, and my kitchen and pantry filled with amazing treats.

Instead of focusing on one specific technique for a year, I’m planning a year of twelve different skills, mainly centered around making foods from scratch that I may not currently be doing, or that I want to do more of, especially thinking about those last few ingredients that I still buy at a store, even though we supply most of our own vegetables, canned goods and fresh eggs.  I’ll be posting the results here, with recipes and photos like usual, but some tutorials for people who may have little or no experience with that particular area of cooking.

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If you’re interested in turning this into more of a group project, e-mail me by January 15, 2012 at thejamgirl@gmail.com and I’ll get something organized.

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I’m not interested in spending a lot of money on fancy equipment and ingredients or doing work that doesn’t make me all warm and fuzzy inside.  It should be fun.  These ideas are also about consciously budgeting time to do things I enjoy, so that in October, I don’t look in the pantry and wistfully think about how I wish I’d made some time to pick blackberries for jam.

P.S. Grow it Cook it Can it turns one year old today, and it’s so much fun looking back at the cooking projects from this year.  Thanks you for reading and I’m excited for another year of flowers, jam, tomatoes, prosciutto, pickles, chickens and all that other stuff that’s so much fun.