Sheet Mulched Potatoes

Andy seems to have dug up an extra oddly shaped tuber while harvesting our Yukon Golds…

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Not sure this will taste better fried, baked or boiled. 😉

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We begin our new 10×30 garden beds with potatoes. I lay down a thick layer of cardboard, add rabbit manure and straw, place seed potatoes about 6-8 inches apart in one or two rows and cover in some soil and straw, layering with more soil and straw as they grow. Once the vines die back it’s harvest time! For the best storage, do not rinse your potatoes and get them somewhere cool and dark immediately.

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Raising Pastured Chickens for Meat: Part 3 (Harvest)

20426931_10154716906836190_1323219837_o *** WARNING – THIS POST INCLUDES GRAPHIC  IMAGES OF BLOOD AND DEPICTIONS OF ANIMAL SLAUGHTER ***

20424832_10154716907841190_2016893481_oIt’s 12.5 weeks after we brought our tiny balls of fluff home from the hatchery, our freezer is now stocked with a year’s supply of chicken dinners and several happy local customers have Birdsong Farm chickens in their freezers. The question i agreed to answer when i begin this series is ‘how much does it cost to grow your own meat and is it worth the effort?’

A. Definitely worth the effort: i saw the birds daily, know what they ate, know how they lived, know how they died. I know they received no antibiotics, no fillers, no sodium or other injected additives. I know they did receive fresh vegetables, daily sunlight, room to roam if they chose and plentiful fresh water.

IMG_9302B. How much did it cost? This is the spreadsheet i use to track my chickens’ numbers. This includes cost of the chicks, cost of the feed (exactly one ton!), cost to power the brooder lamp, incidental costs. This does not include my labor but it does include payment to a local youth who helped us on the butchering crew. It also includes income made by selling meat to local consumers and a final tally of total weights.

Broiler (chicken) Feed Housing/ utilities Fryer chicks Butc-hering costs Total Expenses $in Lbs meat # Birds # Birds  Sold Income – expenses: cost or profit Income/Loss per pound
$4.49 $6.99 $48.50 $59.98 -$60.0
$5.00 $5.00 -$5
$276.15 $20.00 $296.15 $22.50 -$274
$263.00 $40.00 $263.00 $428.48 461 $165
$127.60 $128
$543.64 $31.99 $48.50  $40 $664.13 $578.58 461 70 20   -$85.55 -$0.19
Cost per LB $1.44

The numbers deconstructed: Out of 75 chicks, 70 made it to the freezer, weighing in at 461 pounds. Average weight of these 12.5 week old birds was 6.58 pounds. Total expenses divided by total pounds puts our total cost at $1.44 per pound or $9.49 per bird (by average). But, when you factor in the income made by selling 20 of these birds our actual cost to eat the remaining 50 homegrown chickens (enough for one year) is $1.70 per bird! Additionally, had i grown these all to sell I would be making $2.56 profit per pound selling at $4/pound: that’s $1,180. I don’t know about you, but i like them numbers.  And yes, sure: we’re not factoring in the labor. Time every day feeding, watering, moving fences and housing and of course one long as heck day turning them into meat….   but you could say they’re a free fitness program and excuse to hang out with friends for a day!

Not included in the numbers above are some of our long term investments, including a plucking machine, tables (that i also use at the farmers market) knives, etc.  The plucker was factored into last year’s total duck/chicken numbers and it’s still going strong.

My take away on numbers: I am personally extremely satisfied with this year’s numbers. I could have spent much less by processing the birds 1-3 weeks earlier. Their growth rate is a bit slower in the last few weeks and they eat a LOT at that age. But, i admit to liking ‘big cocks’ when it comes to the size of my broiler chickens. Most customers don’t love paying for 8+ pound chickens but i love having them in the freezer. If i’m going to go through the effort of killing/gutting/packaging/defrosting/cooking a chicken, i’d like one to feed me for a week. So, i buy the extra feed and shlep water the extra 2 weeks so that i can have big cockerels to butcher and huge roasts to cook. For me, this is more reason why i like to grow them myself: i get to choose when i butcher and how large i let them grow vs being at the mercy of ‘the going trend’ in marketable birds. That being said: We did encounter a LOT of body cavity fat while processing this year’s big birds. This is most likely due to the birds spending those last few weeks just getting FAT vs growing much more. So, next year i plan to harvest most of the largest cockerels at 10 weeks and the pullets at 11 weeks. Hopefully this will result in less fat and less wasted feed.


Some attention to processing day:

It isn’t easy. Since day one i had been trying not to think about processing day too much. It’s a long, hard day on my feet and I rely on the kindness and generosity of some really awesome folks who donate their time in exchange for chicken. It’s hard, but it can be done. (cue the infomercial voice) “You, too can raise and process your own chickens!” Here’s how we do it:

Step one: Catch the chickens and withhold feed. I am the fox in the henhouse. Late the evening before we catch as many chickens as reasonably fit in our homemade crates. (Comment if you’d like our plans). I catch each one individually. This year we are still using our Salatin style tractor. We don’t have a way to block them in the end that opens, so i have to crawl around inside to catch them. I wear protective glasses and a dust mask. This is nasty business and i was pretty stoked to have my young hired hand do the work of catching the second group the next day (I am so lucky to know a youth with great work ethic!) We do this as close to sundown as we can so that the birds aren’t overly stressed inside the little crates longer than necessary. In the past when we’ve done fewer numbers we catch them at dawn. They spend less time in the crates that way but there is greater risk of lactic acid building up in the muscles just prior to slaughter when caught/chased around so soon before slaughter.

Step two: Prep your butchering station. We butcher in the backyard where the shade of the house keeps the area cool until around 2 in the afternoon. We set up our plucker on a tarp so that the feathers can be dragged to the compost. We have a propane burner that heats a large pot of water (filled with hot water from the tub, not water from the outside house that takes hours to heat up!) to the perfect 145-150 degrees for scalding. I fashioned my own ‘killing cones’ out of used feed sacks nailed to some posts. We sanitize all our coolers and tables and have them propped up at ergonomic heights to help reduce SOME of the body pain that comes from standing around for hours. Each station gets a bucket for guts (which go to the compost heap) and a few ice filled bowls are set out for hearts/livers and feet. We set up the area the day before and in the morning on butchering day the chill tanks are filled with blocks of ice and water and we sanitize all the tables. Packaging station will be set up at the end once the scalder is done being used.

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Step three: Do the deed. Meat starts as an animal. This animal must be killed. There are a few ways to ‘skin a cat’ but I have chosen to slice the throats of my birds. Each bird is lowered into the cone, their neck is cut so that they bleed out. I save most of this blood to dry and use as blood meal fertilizer in my garden (waste not want not!). The cones hold the birds somewhat still and prevents them from bruising their bodies as they jerk around some while dying (it’s not pretty, sorry.) Once dead their heads are removed, they’re scalded until the foot skin loosens then dropped into the plucker 3 at a time. From here they go to the evisceration stations, or a chill tank waiting for the eviscerators to catch up. (Check out this homesteader’s awesome youtube vid on how to eviscerate a chicken.) From evisceration they go to a cleaner chill tank then quality control, THEN stuff their body cavity with ice and put into the final chill tank to cool down prior to packaging. We don’t add salt or bleach or anything but ice to our chill tank. Phew, we did it!

Pocket is a great ‘helper’ on butchering day: she helps keep morale high and she cleans up any dropped ‘bits’ from the processing table. Unfortunately she’s an excellent vacuum and ALWAYS overeats herself to the point of wide, sad, sleepy, stuffed corgi whereupon she spends the rest of the day in the house feeling mopey 😉

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Step four: Packaging  After taking a lunch break to feed my awesome troops Andy and i dive back into it. Packaging 70 chickens may or may not take about 4 hours when doing it by yourselves. Ugh. We gave up trying to verbally communicate by the end: nonsense was all we could get out.  We use shrink bags. They’re awesome and i get mine from a youth back in Texas at TexasPoultryShrinkBags.com. Highly recommend this guy. You heat your pot of water to about 190, put the chicken in the bag, insert a little straw, close with a zip tie, dip in the water a few seconds (some water and air will spit out of the straw), pull it out of the water, remove the straw and tighten the zip tie. Voila. Weigh, label and get it in the freezer to cool down asap.

 

Yes, it’s hard work to grow a year’s supply of chicken meat in one three month window, but i admit to feeling pretty proud. The first year i was terrified and daunted, the second year i hit my stride and this year i’d say i feel confident i’m doing a good job. There’s always room for learning as we move forward, and of course there’s room to make this more of a ‘business’ and push our production numbers. But honestly: i think 70 is the right number for us. We can grow them all at once (three months is long enough for ME to have these meaty, stinky, hungry chickens around), next year we’ll process over two days, sell around 20 to help pay for the project and eat humanely raised, pastured chicken meat for a full year.

Have you raised your own meat chickens? What did you do differently? Comment with your tips, stories or questions!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Raising Pastured Chickens for Meat: Part 2

In part one of this blog series we discussed some of the reasons we raise our own meat, how much it costs, bringing home your new chicks and setting up their brooder. Part two will discuss keeping the birds on pasture in a tractor, briefly touching on some improvements and part three will discuss butchering in brief.

Those cute fuzzy chicks have been growing like gang busters! We lost around 3 or 4 during the brooder phase: two were my fault (pasty butt that i didn’t remedy quickly enough) and 1 or 2 more just died. Hey, it happens: some chicks fail to thrive, others just don’t cope with the stresses of environmental inconsistencies as well as the others. Expect to lose 10% of your chicks. At 3.5-4 weeks old, Freedom Rangers are nearly fully feathered and ready to get outside! That brooder gets smaller every day when you’re a fast growing baby chicken.  If you have a brooder area attached to a run you can begin letting them out as early as 2.5-3 weeks old as long as they still have access to their warm brooder lamps. We move ours out to a pasture area enclosed with electric netting, so everyone gets moved at once.

Moving day: We collect each chick by hand and transport it in a large carry cage. It takes us several trips. We try to avoid stressing them as much as possible, but this moving day results in a lot of panicked squacking – never fear, chicks: you’re about to be sooo happy! Normally we’d pull the heavy cage full of chickens behind our lawn tractor in a trailer, but SOMEbody (me) ripped the tire off of it by accident and we didn’t buy a new one in time. Thank you for using your back muscles for the cause, husband!

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It’s ideal if moving day coincides with a spell of nice weather. Moving from a warm, dry brooder into a drafty, damp tractor surrounded by rain is not the way to ensure healthy chicks. But if the forecast is not working with your plans you may wish to add a tarp to reduce drafts and even consider adding one heat lamp to a corner. I think it’s important to hydrate the stressed out chicks as i place them in the tractor. This way I’m sure they know where to get water in the future.

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Thoughts on using a tractor vs free ranging: This year we are free ranging our chicks, within a safe boundary of electric poultry netting. But for their first 2-3 weeks on pasture we’re keeping them in a tractor. Ours is a Salatin style tractor that we’ve rigged up with some improvements. We still mostly hate it and will be building something better next year. Pros: large area for shade for the chicks, plenty of room for the chicks to loaf around, we added a roost for them to perch and plan on, easy to hang bell waterers from. Cons: really freakin heavy and hard to move, even with the tires we added that don’t really work well; hard to access the chicks on harvest day because it’s low to the ground, did i mention it’s really heavy?  The reason we confine them to the tractor for the first few weeks is two fold: at this age they’re still easy pickings for ravens, which are a problem on our farm. Confining them for at least a few days ‘homes’ them to the safe area and location of water.  The reasons we let them out of the tractor after the first few weeks are many fold: They get more exercise, they spread their manure out more evenly, they get to live lives as foraging chickens vs sitting around all day chickens (though to be honest, they still sit around most of the day in the shade), we don’t have to move the (really freakin heavy) tractor daily.

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It’s such fun to look outside and see the Rangers running about, catching bugs and chasing off starlings. They were a bit nervous about ‘the outside world’ that first time we opened the hatch, but now they move freely in and out. We no longer have to move the tractor daily, but still move it every few days (the manure builds up fast) and as the tractor reaches the far side of the netting we set it up with fresh pasture ahead. So far we’re loving this system. The hatch door we added to the tractor works well and is held open with a simple prop of board. They do still spend most of the day inside in the shade but spend most of the early morning and late evening out and about. We close them up at night to double protect against predation that might get over the fence. We haven’t lost a single bird since they went out to pasture, despite trying our best to crush one with a support beam inside the tractor the first time we moved it. Yay!

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These 6 week old Rangers are growing fast! We offer feed free choice, refilling their bucket twice a day plus more feed spread in a line in the grass. As they approach the 12 week mark that feed intake will go up a lot and most of their feed will be in lines in the grass so that they have easier group access to it. They’ve been foraging well along with eating the pellets, taking advantage of grass seed heads as well as any bugs they might find. We’ll butcher at 12 weeks and some will be HUGE by then, but hey: who doesn’t like a good turkey dinner that tastes like chicken? 😉

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PS:  Raising our chickens on pasture is good for the birds and it’s great for our soil. Our pasture was over grazed by horses for years prior to our purchasing the land. These little beaks, claws and butts are doing a heck of a job converting seeds into fertilizer. The patches of lush green grass following the tractor is enough to inspire happy dances from me :)

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Raising Pastured Chickens: Part 1

This post is to be the first installment of a 3 or 4 part series. This year marks our third season raising our own chicken and the first raising a few extra to sell, so i figured it would be a great opportunity to document the project.

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Introduction:

When my husband and i purchased this property, we did so with the goal of raising 90% or so of our own food. This began with eggs, moved to duck and rabbit meat and then the garden and lots of food preservation….. but i was still buying chicken in the store. And if you know anything about the chicken raising industry in this country, you know why i wanted to change that habit toot suite. The obvious first option would be to buy my chicken at the farmer’s market raised by folks i know and trust. But we don’t make a lot of money, and i have a lot of gumption: so i decided to raise our own.

The first year I decided to stick with the industry standard: Cornish Cross. This fast growing hybrid is ready to slaughter as early as 7 weeks old. Sounds easy! But they also over eat if you don’t monitor their feed just right…… which i didn’t quite ‘get’… needless to say we lost quite a few to heart failure and other obescity related ailments. The texture of the meat was ‘meh’ and the flavor was ‘nonexistent.’ They made great chicken strips.

Mark year two: let’s try something different! A friend of mine raises many Freedom Rangers a year to sell at the Corvallis Farmer’s market. This hybrid was developed to grow more quickly than the ‘heritage’ breeds or popular cornish x alternative, “Red Rangers” yet they grow slower than the cornish x and have more chickeny personalities and body structure. Sounded great and went great: we lost two chicks out of the batch of 55, harvested at 12 weeks (the norm with this breed is 10, but i like BIG chickens) and were extremely pleased with the yield and the flavor. Last year we kept the birds in a tractor (moveable pen) through their entire lives post brooding: there were many ravens raiding our muscovy pasture and i didn’t want to risk my chickens!   But this year we plan to tweak the tractor with a door so that the birds can truly free range once they’re large enough to be less attractive to overhead predators.

But is raising my own chicken really more affordable than purchasing at the farmer’s market? Last year we stocked our chest freezer with a year’s supply of chicken meat. The cost of feed + power in the brooder barn + housing materials (straw, pine shavings etc) and a new roll of electric fence divided by the number of pounds we harvested (just under 300 pounds out of 53 or so birds!) worked out to $1.84 a pound. Local farmer’s market price for pasture raised chicken is around $3-5 dollars a pound, typically $4    and the nasty Foster Farm’s ‘chicken’ is around $1.20…..   I’d say i’m happy with our results and hope to improve on those numbers this year!

 

So, here we go: Adventures in Raising Your Own Chicken on Pasture part 1:

Chicks!

IMG_8562We brood our chicks under a wood hover in a room in our barn. The hover has a heat lamp at each end that plug in separately. The room is drafty and leaky so we have some plastic jerry rigged in place to keep the drips out and hope that the warmth of the hover and the bodies of their buddies keeps the chicks warm enough. I do keep the windows of my barn closed with plastic through the winter and keep them ‘boarded up’ like this until the chicks are moved out, or it actually warms up outside.  I add straw to the top of the hover when it’s cold to help further insulate it. As the chicks grow i add wood blocks under the feet of the hover to raise it up, finally turning off one light during the day, then all the time, then the second light during the days until the chicks have enough feathers to head outside.

IMG_8565Before bringing the chicks home, i get the room all ready: shavings down, hover turned on, water and feed close enough to the hover they don’t have to leave the warmth for long. I add colloidal silver to one waterer and probiotics to the other to help boost their tiny immune systems. I also add a pan of chick grit to help them digest their feed. It’s important to check for any stopping up in the first week, and to carefully wipe their vents clean if they do get ‘pasty butt.’ The most important thing is to keep them warm, fed and watered.

We keep our chicks in the brooder for 3-5 weeks depending on their feathers and the weather. Important: When you bring your chicks home, always dip each little beak into the water so that they begin getting hydrated right away and learn where their water is.

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And since my life is never without anxiety: a temp employee at the hatchery accidentally packed up 100 cornish cross for me instead of Freedom Rangers! Gah! But since they’re the best at customer service, they met me just down the road with a new box of the RIGHT chicks and i re-homed the cornish….   The brooder was full that first day! Thank you for going above and beyond for your customers, Jenk’s Hatchery!

Stay tuned for progress, and let us know if you’d like to reserve the limited few we’ll have for sale or comment with questions about tackling your own chicken project! Raising your own chicken meat is pretty easy once you get the hang of it.

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