Wednesday, March 30, 2011

All They Do Eat, Drink and Poo.

The next couple of weeks will find me intensely involved in making sure these Cornish X chickens have a clean bedding and that the feeders don't run out during the day.  It's like a sprint to the finish line.

It can be a hassle and a drain.  I can't lie.  But the whole reason I will put up with these freakish beasties over the next month is for the mouth-watering, healthy, wholesome meat they will provide for my family's table.

It really is unbelievable how fast they grow.

Here is their current progress at four and a half weeks of age.  Note how little ol' Mystery Rooster chick is still hanging in there with the big guys, bless his heart.  I'm kind of glad now that I have him, because it does help to comparatively demonstrate the Cornish X rate of growth.

I am studiously keeping notes on their feed consumption and my other costs involved with their care.  On the last batch we did, I kept track of what I spent on feed and weighed each processed bird.  I used those calculations to discover that with a little bit of elbow-grease on my part, I can put hormone-free, preservative-free, superior tasting chicken on the table for nearly the same cost of buying factory produced chicken at the grocery store at the average going price (not sale priced).

The difference in flavor and texture really stands out.  I put mine in a chicken tractor for grow-out and they do consume some greens and weeds which improves the flavor.  I also can't stand the texture of brined poultry. 

Did you know that part of the price you pay for chicken at the grocery store is for a significant volume of salt-water that is infused into the meat?  Brining equals mushy meat, in my opinion.  A well-raised and humanely processed bird will never require brining to "tenderize" the meat.  Store bought chicken nowadays is also Cornish X birds and they are so young at process time, they can't help but be tender anyways.  I believe they mainly brine them to increase water-weight in the meat. my soapbox.  What I wanted to show you is my new watering set up.

An endless supply of water! 
A reprieve for me from the constant chore of filling the water bottles!

I can now leave the house for more than 4 hours at a time and trust that my birds won't be suffering from dehydration when I get back.

This is a $10 stock tank float valve that I mounted to a little piece of 2x4.  I took a square bucket (left over from my horse's supplements) and cut it off at just the right height to allow the float valve to drop, which still leaves the edge of the bucket low enough for the birds to drink from it.  I slid the valve/2x4 assembly over the edge of the bucket and it holds with a snug fit, but it still allows me to easily remove the bucket for a thorough cleaning.  I hooked it up to the garden hose and put it inside the pen.  It sits up squarely on it's own.

I am so happy with this set up now.  (You figure out something new every year, it seems.)  They were beginning to consume 5-6 gallons of water a day.  That will increase as they continue to grow.

The recycled juice bottles I was using work great while they are small chicks.  Forty birds will only drink 1 or 2 gallons of water a day at that time. 

But once they start to grow...the frantic rate of cellular division requires a lot of water to support the energy expended for growth.  Basically, as much as they eat, they will drink. 

Then they poo.

But that's a whole other post...

While I'm at it, I'll go ahead and show you my nearly FREE feeder system.  No $30 plastic feeders from Tractor Supply for me - it cuts into my profits!

I politely beg free food-grade plastic buckets from my local deli or bakery.  They will throw these out otherwise (I would hope they at least recycle them).  As long as the folks behind the counter are not too busy at the time, they usually don't mind to get the buckets for you, as long as you ask nicely.  Make sure you get the lids too.

Then I hop over to the auto parts store or the automotive department of Walmart and purchase a plastic oil change pan.  These will only run you about $2.50 each.

Take your buckets home and wash them out well.  Then cut a series of one and a half inch diameter holes around the bottom of the bucket every two inches apart.  I use a large drill bit to penetrate the plastic at the center of the intended hole, then carefully cut it out with a jig-saw.  You can also use a razor knife, but I've found that to be too dangerous for my fingers.

Set the bucket inside the oil change pan, fill with feed, put the lid on and there you go.

As soon as the weather improves, I will be putting the meat birds out to pasture in my PVC chicken tractor.  I'll show you that too when the time comes.  I had hoped they would be outside by now, but we are having an unusually cold and damp spring.  For now they are stuck in my garage and they are beginning to stink!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Raised Beds, Quick and Easy

I finally got my onions planted this past Wednesday, just ahead of the next bout of rain (which made for a rather scary storm at that).  They should have gone out around the first of March, but hopefully there is still enough time for them to make some nice bulbs.

I have a hard time placing some of the smaller plants in my garden.  They seem to get swallowed up by the larger crops.  So I've decided to put in a series of raised beds on my property and take advantage of the added growing space.  Last year, I built my first raised bed for my everbearing Ozark Beauty strawberries and I love how easy raised beds are to work.

This 3'x18' bed I put in all by myself, without the help of my Bright-and-Shining-Farmer.  It only took me about an hour to build.  The process of filling it with compost, however, took quite a bit longer, totalling nine wheelbarrow loads.

I have a huge pile of rough cut oak lumber that was given to us by my brother-in-law.  He was going to burn it!  My father-in-law had bought it from a local lumber mill a few years ago and there was a lot left over after he built his barn.  We thought we'd use it to build a small goat barn, but that project is currently on the back burner.  There may still be enough left in the pile for that, even after I build five more raised beds.

This rough cut oak won't last forever, but it will last a long time.  I compost all of the bark from our wood pile and even buried, untreated wood takes a long time to break down.

I don't use any hardware or fasteners to assemble my raised beds.  I cut 18" long stakes and use them to hold the boards in place.  Stakes are easily replaced if necessary and when the boards do begin to rot, I can easily slip them out and replace them with others.

My little Garden Helper assisted me in planting the whole thing full of red onions, yellow onions and garlic.  This was a nice project for her to take part in and I just turned her loose with the bag of onions.

I was very particular in spacing mine, but hers were poked into the soil very close together.  It won't hurt a thing - we'll just "thin" them a bit later as we enjoy the young, green onions.

The wind was picking up ahead of the big storm, but we were able to get them all planted in time.  My helper had a good time digging in the dirt.

She was rewarded with a page of candy buttons for her labor.

Here is an article from Grit magazine with some helpful tips for growing good storage onions.  One thing that they did not mention is that you don't need to completely bury your onion sets.  I poke mine lightly into the soil with 1/3 to 1/2 of the tip showing.  You will get bigger bulbs this way.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Hint of Color

Spring is finally revealing her first hints of color.  I didn't realize until today just how starved my eyes have been for color and sunshine.  Amazing how blindingly green the grass appears after those first spring rains, isn't it?

Even the "weeds" are strikingly beautiful to me at this time of year.  I can't get much to grow in this little rock garden the rest of summer.  It is too dry and rocky.  But the mouse-eared chickweed and this purple flowering weed (that I do not know the name of) are thriving here right now and have made of themselves a lovely, naturalized display.

I also realized upon closer scrutiny that some mason bees have made a home in the center of my frog's belly.  See the small patch of brown with the small holes "drilled" in it?  Mason bees are wonderful pollinators to have around.

Just passing by, it is easy to dismiss these colorful weeds.  They are so tiny, it takes a closer look to appreciate their delicate details.

The mouse-eared chickweed is also edible, although I find I don't much like the taste of it myself.  I'm sure it's packed with lots of nutrients though.

They look like tiny little daisies.  My daughter thinks the fuzzy buds actually do look like mouse ears.  :)

We've been picking little bouquets of flowers for each other.  Hers are usually quite a bit squished and the stems too short to put into water, but I love them just the same!

My lilac is preparing to bloom.  They are one of my favorite flowers.  I like the old fashioned ones with the heavy scent.  These buds are only half an inch in length, but they look larger in this macro shot.

My old "lap dog", Sierra, is happy to see warmer days.  She will finally go outside and stay awhile now.  She loves to bask in the sun and feel the cool grass under her belly.

A hint of pink and a promise of good things to come:  my dwarf peach tree is getting ready to burst into bloom.

The deciduous trees are waking up from their winter dormancy.  They look like they've been lightly airbrushed in glowing colors.

The woods start to call to me this time of year.  I really look forward to going mushroom hunting in the next couple of weeks.  It is my favorite spring tradition.  I just love to be out in the woods.

The bees are busy about their spring housekeeping.  A few of the workers are returning loaded up with pollen.  We have a lot of biodiversity in their forage out here.  I don't think I'll ever need to feed them.  I don't like to rob them blind anyway.

I'm so glad that I can officially say spring is here now.  Seems like it took forever to get here this year!

Enough of a break - I have to go plant onions now.  :)

Monday, March 21, 2011


This is not a Cornish X!

This is a "Free Mystery Rooster" which I distinctly remember NOT ordering.  He was not listed on my packing invoice either.


The poor little guy is a fish out of water trying to hang in there with these big guys.  You can see how much larger the Cornish X are compared to your ordinary standard breed chick at three weeks of age pictured here.

They are four times his size!

It truly is freaky how fast they grow.  Their juvenile plumage looks pretty rough right now.  The only part of them that still resembles a chick is their fluffy, yellow heads.  Their bodies grow so fast, they can hardly stay covered.

I don't know what I'm going to do with this little guy.  The meat birds will be processed and in the freezer by 8 weeks of age.  He'll still be a baby - too small to put in with the layers - and he'll be all alone!

Maybe the hatchery worker should have thought of that before they decided to toss him into the box?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

2011 Beekeeping Season is Underway

Honey Bee Pictures, Images and Photos
Photo Credit
I got to have a nice visit with my girls today.  I had prepared some fondant for them over a week ago, but this was the first day that decent weather happened to coincide with free babysitting.

The hive was very quiet and calm as I worked.  You couldn't hear any buzzing at all as I opened them up and went about cleaning up the messy burr comb.  It was really a very pleasant and relaxing inspection. 

I did rile them up a little bit when I pulled out the first frame.  It was slightly attached to the inside wall of the hive body by an odd section of burr comb that I could not see at first.  It scraped along the side of the frame and I think I must have squashed a couple of bees, but it was a mild response and they gave up on me very quickly. 

I was pleased to find that the outer two frames on either side were completely full of honey.  They didn't really need any help from me again this spring.  I could have given the fondant to my daughter, who had already mauled it while it sat on the counter cooling.  Not that she needs any more sugar!

More good news, I also observed a few of the returning workers were already bringing in pollen.  It was a light green pollen and I believe it was a tree pollen; perhaps from my curly willow which is blooming now.  I like to mark on my calendar as various things begin to bloom around here each year, keeping my own personal almanac.  It helps me so much to know what to expect and to plan better.

My husband watched on from the gate, tossing an occasional handful of black oil sunflower seed to the chickens to keep them out of my hair as I worked.

The hive is healthy and going strong.  I will plan to do a couple of splits from them here in a few weeks.

We are planning to build a new hive stand, something better and more functional than the cinder blocks I have them on now.  I will have to move that to the top of my honey-do list.  I expect to get a lot more of these things accomplished now that the weather is improving.  It has been a muddy and miserable end to winter these past few weeks and we are now finally able to get back outside.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Not-So-Fun Part of Raising Chickens - Culling

I had to cull a chick this morning.  This is the first time I've ever been home by myself and haven't had my Bright-and-Shining-Farmer available to do the dirty work for me.

The poor little thing was already very small and had a gimpy leg.  If they are getting around, eating and drinking, I'll usually let the gimpies go on.  Inevitably they'll turn out smaller at processing time than the others.  Really, it's more sensible to cull for quality and I know that.

When I went out to tend the chicks this morning, I noticed that this one was weak and it didn't move to the feeders with the others.  It just laid there and panted.  The bigger chicks ran right over top of it to get to the food.  I knew it was suffering and I had to do something about it.

That's just part of good animal husbandry.  You have to acknowledge when you take on responsibility for an animal that times like this will inevitably come.

((Deep sigh)) But that doesn't make it any easier!

I got online and searched to see if there were any quick, painless ways to euthanize a chick that didn't involve a hatchet.  After reading a couple of threads full of useless arguing, it became apparent that there ISN'T an easy way to do it, so I went to the basement and got the hatchet.

I don't know why - I've processed many chickens for the freezer before, but when it comes to cute, fuzzy, yellow chicks it was a lot harder to steel myself for the job.

The chick was still squirmy enough that I knew the hatchet would be traumatic for us both.  I was upsetting it just by picking it up.

I took a deep breath.  I set the chick back down long enough to put on a pair of gloves, prayed quickly for strength and with a quick motion dislocated the poor chick's neck.  It died instantly. 

And instantly I was relieved of the burden, knowing that I had done the right thing.

I would have been haunted all day if I had turned my back on its suffering and let it linger.

I've had a lot higher losses in this batch of chicks than I have had in previous years.  This makes six now.  The only thing really different is that I got them a month earlier than usual and perhaps the unstable temperatures have had something to do with it?  Or it could be that the flake pine shavings I bought are too firm and are contributing to spraddle leg? 

McMurray Hatchery chicks have always done so well for me before and losing two or three very young in age has been the average.  I have 35 Cornish X chicks remaining and two more of those are a bit on the small side.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Young And The Roostless

Since Sunbeam's sad demise, the girls have been on lock down and I have only let them out for part of the day and only on days that I know I'll be home.  They are not happy about this and they let me know loudly and often!

Someone else who is not happy about this is Chirp, the neighbor girl's pet rooster.

He paces the run all day long, wishing he could be more valiant and come to the rescue of his lady friends.

"He's mine!"  "No!  I saw him first!"

I can live without a rooster, but the girls would rather not.  Unfortunately, I've had no luck with roosters.  All of mine have turned out to be mean.  It seems that Chirp, by virtue of not being my rooster, is a good rooster.

Even with the fenced pasture, I am still having about eight or nine hens that regularly fly over the 4-foot fence.  I was really hoping that wing clipping would do the trick, but it did not work.  About two-thirds of those I had to clip still fly over.

Garden season is quickly coming up, so I am debating whether or not I should go ahead and invest in an electric fencing system or if a few extra inches of poultry netting would be enough to do the job (I'm afraid that would look tacky though.)

Short of tying concrete anchors to their legs, I am really not sure how I am going to keep them in... I lose the benefit of free-ranging them if I can't let them out of their small run.  However, thirty chickens can't have run of the whole yard!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Truth in Gardening Disclosure

I read an interesting post on Chickens in the Road today, seeking readers' response to the cover of Comstock, Ferre and Co.'s 2011 seed catalog (pdf download). 

The comments section was really interesting; but most people found the cover photo to be appealing. 

Personally, I love it!  This fella could be the spitting image of my late father-in-law when he used to grow his beard out.  I think the man is a real person and very believable.  He looks like someone you would want to spend a little time talking with, seeking for tidbits of his well-seasoned garden wisdom.  It gives me a warm, nostalgic feeling and as I'm sure the company had intended - it bolsters my confidence in the quality of their seeds.

I was a bit put off by some of the snide and mean comments that people made, although there weren't too many of them.  I don't believe that the author of Chickens in the Road meant anything negative by pointing out the cover, but was simply illustrating how very different this seed catalog cover is from others. 

As she said, usually seed catalogs will paint an idealistic picture of gardening:  tidy, weedless gardens bursting with colorful bounty...cute little children in pristine sundresses showing off spotless, giant tomatoes...

But we all know that that is not the truth of the matter.  It's a sweaty, dirty, sun burnt, weedy, buggy, back-breaking, time-consuming labor of love.  One that if you throw your heart into it will hopefully pay off in a well stocked canning shelf with neat rows of colorful jars containing healthy, homegrown goodness.

I think that is what this man portrays.  I think he is a real person, not a staged actor.  He may have very well grown those particular veggies himself.  (In case you're wondering, those huge yellow things are Banana Melons.)  He may even be a friend or relative of the company.  I think I saw a brief glimpse of him in this video on the company's website.  I bet he put on his best shirt when they asked to take a photo of him for the catalog.  I bet he was tickled pink.  I think he looks like a really pleasant and engaging man and I agree with the other commenters who said they'd love to "stop and sit a spell" on his front porch.

As far as the tidy little cherubs showing off produce on the typical garden catalog covers - the only time you're going to get a photo op like that is when the grand kids come to visit...maybe...if you're quick.

Here is what my daughter looks like after a day of "helping" in the garden...

Now that's believable!

Comstock, Ferre and Co. was bought up by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in June 2010.  They are taking this historical Connecticut seed company back to it's heirloom roots.  I already get the Baker Creek catalog.  You can download a pdf version of their beautiful seed catalog from their website.  It really is something, so if you haven't seen it (or ordered from them before) be sure to check it out.  You will be amazed by the diversity of color, form and flavor present in heirloom vegetables.