Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Eggs-perience Chickens

For the most delicious chicken ever -- grow your own!

Debra Tyler led the Eggs-perience Chicken workshop at Local Farm in Cornwall CT. We learned how to feed, house, care for and slaughter chickens.

Feeding and Housing:
If you're starting from scratch, get metal containers. If you already have plastic bins be aware that they are not rat-proof. Choose your feed based on what you are raising. Broilers get a different ration than layers. Organic feed for all livestock can be purchased from Lightning Tree Farm, Millbrook, NY. They can be reached at 845-677-9507. Chickens are not, by nature, vegetarians. They'll eat grubs, insects, small rodents. The chickens will enjoy your food scraps - just don't give them any poultry or eggs. You'll need a dish for water and one for feed. They can be placed on the ground or hung from the "ceiling" of the coop. Feed twice a day, making sure your second feeding is well in advance of dark. Don't feed more than the chickens will eat or you'll just be attracting rats.

Debra has her chickens in chicken tractors. This portable shelter, from The Chicken Tractor book, is 10' long, 4' wide and 3' high. It will hold 10 hens. Made of 2x4's, plywood and chicken wire, it's lightweight and can be moved by one person. Cover 3 sides with a tarp to prevent raccoons from catching the chickens. Three nesting boxes fit across one end giving easy access to collect eggs and for cleaning. Put raccoon-proof latches on the top doors. Screw handles onto each end for ease of moving. Bed the nest boxes with hay or straw.

Electric mesh around your chicken tractor will protect it from raccoons, roaming dogs, etc. Premier http://www.premier1supplies.com is an excellent source for electric fence, chargers, and now sells chicken equipment as well. Also online is Gallagher Fencing. Local sources are Tractor Supply, Agway. Electric mesh fence is easy to install and easy to move. You will need to ground your charger -- you can use a coil of wire laying on the ground, or a metal rod driven into the ground. Debra uses a crowbar driven into the ground. Your mesh will work better if you mow/weed whack the area before you put up the mesh.
To electrify your chicken area you will need: electric mesh, a charger (solar or plug-in), wire to connect the mesh to the charger and the charger to the ground rod, and a ground rod or coil of wire if you're area is wet enough. A fence tester is recommended to ensure your fence is working and carries enough charge.

Chickens come in a wide variety of sizes and colors. They can be purchased as chicks from http://www.privetthatchery.com/ , Clearview Hatchery and http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/ to name a few.

You can move the chicken tractor every day - the chickens will have mown the grass and fertilized it. Moving it every day increases the fertility of your field. Or you can leave it in place for 3 months, adding straw or hay to the entire 'floor' of the coop so the chickens aren't standing in mud. The layers of straw and manure build up and create a wonderful garden bed. Add a bit of soil, put in seeds of a light crop - like lettuce, and you have a new bed!

Another option for housing was a cattle panel turned into a hoop house. It's not as easy to move and you have to create a door to get to the birds.

Broilers are short-term birds, layers you'll keep for years. The layers begin producing eggs around six months of age. You may want to build a more substantial coop for your layers as you'll be keeping them through the winter. "Chicken Coops" by Judy Pangman has many wonderful coop designs.

The broilers ready for slaughter had not had food for hours so they'd have empty bellies. They were all Cornish Kings purchased as chicks from Murray McMurray. A good-sized meat bird, they're ready in 8 weeks for slaughter.

After catching the bird, carry it by the legs with the head down to quiet it. It might squawk at first but it will settle down. Tie its legs together - another handy use for baling twine!

Hang the bird with its back against a wall. Have someone hold the wings -- they'll need to hold quite tightly. Or use a cone to hold the bird. Place something absorbent underneath like hay, straw, shavings, a bucket, to catch the blood. The blood or blood-soaked straw can be used as fertilizer.

To pith the bird: Hold the bird's head, open the mouth, insert a sharp knife with a narrow blade through the roof of the mouth and twist.
Take the neck skin below the jaw (visually its above the jaw now since the bird is upside-down) and pull it toward you, insert the knife in the neck and cut towards yourself -- severing the arteries. Hold the head back so the blood drains quickly. Once the blood has stopped draining it's time for scalding.
You'll have a pot of hot water (apx 180 degrees) at hand. Holding the bird by the legs, dunk the bird into the water. Swish it around. This will both clean the bird and loosen the feathers. Check the bird every 20 to 30 seconds by pulling on the wing feathers. When they come out with a tug, you're done.

Hang the bird by the feet again and remove the feathers. Handle the skin gently -- it will tear easily. Compost the feathers.

Now to dress the bird. Cut off the feet. Set them aside for scalding and removing the skin and toenails -- the feet can be added to the stock pot.

Cut the head off behind the jaw. Remove the neck glands. Loosen the crop and remove the neck. Set it aside for the stock pot as well. Remove the oil gland at the top of the tail and toss it in the gut bucket.

Then cut under the tail, cut around the vent, preserving the tube and remove it along with the guts of the chicken. Toss into the gut bucket. Let liquid drain if necessary. Sweep the membranes out and into the gut bucket they go. Save the heart and liver.

Hose the bird well with cold water. An outdoor sink is nice if you have one.

Now bag the bird. Put the parts you're saving into the cavity and close the bag. Put the bird in the refrigerator and let it rest for a day before cooking.

We roasted our bird and it was delicious! Garlic bulbs under skin, olive oil and thyme on the skin. Tender, juicy, so good! Even old birds are good -- they have more flavor than 8 week old ones. It will be tougher, necessitating longer cooking. Crock pots and other slow cook methods are ideal.

Keeping chickens requires less space than I had thought and slaughtering is less messy and less difficult than I expected. Now to start on our chicken coop .... there are chickens in the future for us!