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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Happy Easter!

No business or useful information/insights here: just the joy of Spring on a farm full of ducks (and Easter rabbits of course!)

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Native Pollinators: Build a tiny house with a big impact

Build A Mason Bee House

Save the Bees! And wasps and hoverflies and ladybugs and butterflies…..

There’s a lot of attention to bees in the media lately: hive collapse, mass deaths due to improper pesticide use, the list goes on. But much of the “Save the Bees” attention is focused on the European Honeybee- a foreign import to this country. When you think of honeybees, you most likely think first to ‘honey’ and worry about a world without this natural sweetener…. but honeybees play a larger roll for agriculture:  pollination. Bee farmers and vegetable/tree/fruit farmers work together to ensure solid pollination of crops, while harvesting natural sweetener. The potential loss of honeybees would be devastating to the food systems we have in place.

But, there are OTHER bees who were here long before their European cousins – native, solitary bees!! They need our help too. Read on for 4 simple tips you can take to help your native bees plus a building guide for our mason bee house.
Honeybees are colony bees: they live in hives surrounding one queen and make honey to feed future generations. Most of our native bees are solitary creatures – they forage on their own and lay their eggs inside holes in the ground, in rotted wood or in broken ends of pithy shrubs. They pack their eggs in with mud or sawdust and they are as varied as you can imagine, from teeny tiny Perdita Minima to the friendly and fluffy Bumble Bees. Bees are, in fact descendants of their protein hungry Wasp cousins, but prefer the sweet pollen of bolting radishes, apple blossoms, dandelions and other weeds to meat.

PollinatorsI am by no means a bee/wasp/fly expert, but I do have eyes and ears and natural curiosity. In early spring when the nights are still cold, I often find a single Bombus/Bumblebee perched on one of my fruit trees, deep inside a blossom or on a warm branch nearby. Still weak and sleepy, these friendly bees are just waking up and need early nutrition. In spring and summer when my lavender, catnip and mints are in full bloom, the sound of all the tiny to large native bees is deafening. Kneeling down to look closely I can count more types of pollinators than fingers on my hands: bees, ladybugs, butterflies, moths- all gorging on the bountiful feast! And in fall when the veggie garden is slowing down I allow lettuces, broccolis and radishes to bolt, offering a late season meal to the pollinators as they’re preparing their winter egg caches. Once you begin to observe the multitudes of tiny pollinators, you will surely want to do all you can to give them the best chance at life – for their sake and yours!

Providing food and habitat for our small friends is the best thing we can do to ensure a stable food supply for us humans who count on tiny mouths and furry legs to pollinate our crops. Here are a few things to think of and to try to become a better neighbor of native pollinators:

1. Broaden the Blooms: plant native flowers, shrubs and trees with staggered bloom dates and allow a few vegetables (like lettuce, radish and especially broccoli) to bolt in the garden. Native pollinators need food to be available in early spring, early winter and all seasons in between. Lavender and mint are easy to grow and highly favored by bumbles but they also need food as soon as they wake up: fruit trees bloom early, as do many wildflowers. They will also need a late season snack, too so include flowers and shrubs that bloom late and hold onto those blossoms until frost-killed. Bees love yellow, blue and purple. Butterflies love hot oranges and reds. Sunflowers are popular with bees and birds and the pernicious weed Queen Anne’s Lace is a favorite among hover flies. Research native plants particular to your growing zone and plant a wide succession of blooming times.

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2. Home Sweet Home: Solitary bees don’t live in hives like honeybees: they prefer to bed down in holes or hedgerows. Put up bee houses in a sunny, East-facing location near your garden to attract the bees right where you need them. Bee houses can be as simple as drilling holes in a chunk of wood, stuffing teasel into an old can, or can be more crafty affairs. The key is to mount the house where it will get morning sunlight and to include assorted sizes of holes to offer vacancy to all sizes of pollinators. Unlike honeybees, mason bees do great in a greenhouse or hoophouse and don’t get trapped in the plastic/glass trying to escape. Bee habitat can even be as simple as a brush pile. Some shrubs have hollow/pithy branches when broken and make excellent egg depositories.

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3. Quench their thirst: One of the most commonly forgotten requirements is drinking water. Bees can easily drown in open water buckets or troughs. Place marbles or stones in a birdbath or bowl so the bees are able to stand on the stones and drink safely without falling in and drowning.

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4. Give Them a Kick Start: Found a bee that looks too tired to fly away? It probably is! Bees work hard and occasionally run out of steam. If you find a bee on the ground that looks too sleepy to move on, offer it a spoonful of sugar water – he’ll thank you for the extra kick!

Solitary Bee House Building Plans

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Our bee houses are made using recycled cedar siding and local, dry Teasel. Teasel is a weed found along the edges of pastures and ditch banks and looks a bit like a tall thistle. In the fall, the stems dry and are totally hollow. One Teasel stem can provide many sizes of tubs from top to bottom. They’re thorny, so wear leather gloves when handling them. Bamboo would be another great choice. The dimensions of these houses are not overly important: you want a top that protects the house from rain and it should be at least 4-6 inches deep to provide long tubes to fill with lots of eggs in the fall. Add a loop screwed to the back for hanging on a garden post or tree facing East. It may take a while for the bees to find their new house, so be patient. Hang them in the spring and hopefully you’ll have some new residents come fall!

 

 

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