Well it’s definitely been an adventure in Chook-land, I gotta say. We had made plans early in the year to try our hands at raising meat chickens, and with a bunch of family tragedies hitting us right around the time they were supposed to arrive in late spring, we didn’t get them in the mail until July 1st. We also definitely were wanting to raise heirloom chickens, in particular ones that were most if not all on the conservation lists, to support the breed, as we had no interest in those crazy fast-growing GMO birds that some folks take home, toss in a stall and never see the light of day, and are done in 6-8 weeks. Another reason? Slow and steady growers like heirlooms tend to not only taste better but to have more of our favorite – dark meat. Neither of us are big white meat fans so abnormally large chicken breasts were not appealing to us anyhow.
So now, as we reach 13 weeks, we are nearing processing time for the bigger ones, and tapping our feet impatiently for the others to finish up already!! Because the longer they live, the more feed I buy, and worse, I have got to admit…? The more I get connected to them. Sigh… No, no naming of course (that would be impossible with 48, thankfully), but I am the one who talks to them multiple times a day and they run towards me while running away from the less-frequent-visitor, my husband.
We are about 75% sure we’re going to keep a few of them and do a wee bit of renovation to the duck coop to add a couple nesting boxes and places for them to roost (our 4 ducks just have a basic giant wooden box with straw inside their run, as they’re so much lower maintenance than chooks housing-wise, and half the time just sleep in the run if it’s mild outside since it’s totally fenced/roofed in), as ironically, all of our ducks have gone on strike and NONE have laid eggs in over 3 weeks now. WTF! They are almost 3 years old and have NEVER done this before (and yes they get lots of calcium/grit and free-range all day in & out of the garden, as well as dig into their favorite organic feed, plus have lots of extra greens, brewer’s yeast and herbs…and we don’t use any pesticides). Nothing has changed on our end. Cocoa, our Khaki, has struggled since last fall with laying ‘water balloons’ which we’ve read could be due to something that’s malfunctioned in her reproductive tract, but the others literally laid nearly every day, through the cold season. Usually they stop when they molt for a week or so each year but this? Aggravating! So a few of chickens might just be the backups we need…hmph!
So I’ve connected to SOME of them, not all, hahaha… The Delaware (above left) have definitely carved a special place in my heart as they are super docile and make me laugh when they roost on top of the waterer, and well, are the least obnoxious compared to the Golden Laced Wyandottes (middle), which not only are the slowest growers but also little escape artists, finding their way through the tiniest of spots like dinosaur rats. Word is they also have to be at the top of the pecking order so I’m guessing there might be some ego issues were we to keep them with the ducks. The Australorps (the black one in the picture at the top of this post) are a close second to the Delawares for me to keep but some are so big that, well, their destiny is preordained. And finally, the Houdans (above right) are literally as airheaded as they look. Along with being one of the two who committed suicide in the waterer early on, yesterday two were laying on their sides figuring out how to get up after a long nap and it took them a good 10 seconds or so, I think because they never know what way is up…? And since they’re not cold-hardy, lay only about 100 eggs a year, and considered to be one of the best tasting French chickens? Oh yeah we know where they are going….mah belly! But they are interesting to watch, not only because of their crazy haircuts but because they have five toes. So we’ll see what we decide to do next year.
In the meantime, our DIY parts of the process have gone pretty well thus far!
The ramshackle-looking tractor (pictured above when they were first introduced to the garden) survived a bunch of rain and wind, provided great shade on the warmer days as well as a good place for them all to cuddle up at night together out of the elements. Lessons? 1) Do a way better job with the PVC glue at the joints; 2) Never use crap wood for a ‘gate’ as it will ultimately begin to disintegrate in a way that made us grateful to have extra bungee cords to keep it attached (and chooks still inside!); and 3) Remember that our land is NOT perfectly straight so there have got to be precautions to ensure the sneakier ones can’t dig their way out of the corner spots since the tractor doesn’t lie flush. Yeah, we never had issues with predators, we had issues with two chooks getting out and then not having the brains of course to figure out how to get back in…right now it’s scrap wood on the ground but I’d like something a little less annoying 🙂
Most recently, I found a video on how to make a kill cone that you make out of an old bucket so I gave that to the husband as a project. Looks pretty good…and saved us $30 at the feed store for a metal one!
With processing the first batch (no way are we doing all 48 at once!) coming up this week, we’ve got a plan in place, and are super thankful to have the barn to do this in. They’ll spend their feed-less night on death row in a stall in the barn, where we also have a couple of tables set up, coolers, the cone, and the electric canner which will act as the scalder, not to mention the plucker we’re borrowing from a friend of Dan who lives not far from us. And if we’re lucky, our next door neighbor who is great at the evisceration part to show my husband in a more hands-on way than the blogs/videos we’ve been watching. (So far I’ve committed to scalding and packaging, with my husband on the knifing and gutting).
What are your biggest lessons learned on raising meat chickens? Love to hear your stories and funny things you’ve experienced along the way…