Friday, September 24, 2010

My Zombie Chicken Summer

Note: If you are a vegetarian please be aware that I am going to talk about raising MEAT chickens here, so if that will bother you please skip reading this post. And if you feel the need to suggest a vegetarian diet to me, save your energy. I was a vegetarian for 7 years at one point and I am well aware of the environmental, health and humane issues concerning raising meat for human consumption. However our family has now settled on eating minimal amounts of animal protein, raised in a natural and humane manner as much as possible; this whole project is about having more control over that.

Almost five years ago I very impulsively decided that we should get layer chickens. Friends of ours had them, they seemed rather easy to raise, not too time consuming and the idea of having our own supply of fresh eggs was VERY appealing.

Within weeks of getting those first little chicks I was hooked and was plotting to get more; more chickens, more livestock for our empty farm, more everything. I got bit by the self-sustaining-and-cute-little-farm-animals bug. Pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks; almost every farm animal has been on my list at one time or another in the last several years.

Unfortunately I have been foiled at nearly every turn. Proper fencing and shelter is not in our budget, neither is fixing up our barn which needs a lot of work for it to be safe for animals (the lower level where the cows used to be is filled with falling down ceiling tiles, which are surely made of asbestos). We COULD possibly build some things ourselves, but both of us are already overbooked between work, Doug's business traveling schedule, the kid's activities and just regular stuff like cleaning the house. We (well Doug, mostly) have managed to put together a few things for the chickens but it always takes FOREVER to finish the project.

However, one thing that seemed remotely possible was raising meat chickens. Again, I have several friends who have raised some for their own families and I was encouraged by that. And even though I am not a vegetarian any longer, I have continued to be concerned about the quality of meat that comes from factory farm, not to mention all the genetically modified ingredients that seem to be in every.single.thing we eat now. We are certainly not perfect in avoiding all that 'cause it is damn hard, but I do what I can to buy most of our food from the local farmer's market and it feels good to support farmers who DO have good fencing and barns. However, I still have this self sufficient urge so I decided on raising meat chickens this summer.

So Doug became my reluctant builder again. He built a large wooden box with a screen on the bottom to house the chicks while they were small. He altered the outdoor dog kennel so that the chickens could outside as they got larger. All this while he had been plugging away at building a new coop and run for the 40 additional layers I also got earlier last summer.

But that is a story for another post.

After reading up on meat breeds I decided on Cornish Cross chickens. They are bred specifically to grow reallyreally fast, hatchery to table in 8 weeks; this is the breed most commonly raised in the chicken 'factories' and are pumped up with steroids, antibiotics and who knows what else. I decided mine would be all natural, no medications, and fed only organic feed. Even with a different diet, I knew their meat would be the most similar to the kind of chickens we are used to eating. Other meat breeds have a different flavor and chewier texture, especially if they free range and I didn't want to totally freak out the kids right away. Baby steps here.

43 chicks arrived in a box via the USPS at the end of June. Actually a mail carrier came to our house with them on a Sunday morning, gotta love small town post offices. They were cute chicks, everyone (well just my 11 year old daughter actually) squealed over them and she helped me settle them in.

In about a week they were quite a bit larger and nearly all of them had runny, disgusting smelly poop stuck all over their butts. Since a plugged up butt can kill a chick fast, I cleaned off ALL of their butts with a washcloth and warm water several times a day for almost 2 weeks. Finally that lovely condition passed just in time for me to see that they had outgrown the box already and needed to go outside into the dog kennel. They were about 3 weeks old here:
We had kind of a crazy set up outside for them, a HUGE tarp to cover the roof and to also pull down over the sides in case it was windy or chilly at night. We also partitioned off a section of the kennel each night so that they wouldn't be quite so vulnerable to critters. Each night I would go out, shoo them all in, pull down the tarp and weight it down with large stones. No light back there either and I got stuck having to do this more than a few times in the pitch black night. (NEVER a working flashlight around when ya need one) Then I had to put the tarp up each morning so they could go out into the sun and move around a bit.

Not that they really wanted to move; most of the chickens parked near or IN the food bins and just ate all the time. When they were around 2 weeks old I started taking their food away at night to slow down their growth (that is recommended). They were still under the lights at that point and would just eat all night if the food was there. Later on when they were in the kennel, I just covered the bins at night, they would not eat in the dark, unless of course they were still actually sitting in the bin: The amount of food they ate was stunning. When they were around 4 weeks they really ramped up and were eating a 50lb bag of grains every 3 days or so. All together they ate seven 50lb bags, plus two 50lb bags of crushed corn in 8 weeks. I had to go out 3x per day to refill all the bins and oy, the water! I carried so many buckets of water out there every day that I thought my arms were going to fall off! They probably drank 10 gallons of water each day.

As they approached 8 weeks, their feed consumption slowed down a bit. Between about 6 and 8 weeks I gave them mostly crushed corn to "finish" them, meaning they would gain some fat and add more flavor to their meat. By the last week or so, they were huge, they had big thick legs, and could only walk a few steps before sitting down. Some of the smaller ones ran around flapping their wings but then they would have to sit down to rest too. Their rapid growth is very stressful on their bodies and I had heard they might just drop dead, especially in the last week or so. I only had two deaths; one died within a few days of moving out in the kennel and one died at about 7 weeks. I just came in one morning and found her on the ground. naturally Doug was out of town that morning and I had to pick up the dead body, ewww.

The other very notable thing about these chickens was that they smelled worse than I ever thought possible. Their poop was all soft and mushy and everywhere! I tried to keep the bottom of their box clean and had to change the bedding almost every day. Still though, the chickens spent so much time sitting in their muck that they had bare spots on their bellies where they had contact. Yuck. When they were out in the kennel it was impossible to keep that cleaned up and the area area the water container was so disgusting and did I mention the smell?????

And after a month or so we began to call them Zombie Chickens. They had little to no distinctive personalities especially in comparison to my very personable layer hens. A few of the Zombie Chickens would sort of jump up at me when I fed them but otherwise they all seemed pretty interchangeable. That certainly helped when it came time to get them "processed". I can safely say that I was in no way upset to take them in to get them butchered. In fact I was pretty glad to be finished with the whole thing, as it was so much more work than I had expected. And did I mention how BAD they smelled????? Yikes.

The day we took them in to the local poultry processing plant was interesting. I had bought a bunch of big plastic bins to transport them. Doug and I rounded them up one at a time, real fun (!) and put each bin in the car. There were holes in the lids but it was a hot day, I was worried they would smother (um, on the way to be slaughtered), and they were all panting; I lifted the lids up a little but then they started jumping around and then I was worried about them getting loose in the car. So I just drove super fast, kept the windows open for some airflow and everyone was ok but I will need to get some proper cages for transporting them next time. And when I got to the processor plant they helped me transfer all of one, one at a time, into some poultry cages and most of the chickens flapped their wings when I picked them up, splattering the poo stuck on their feathers ALL over me. That was like the icing on the cake, heh. I was very proud though, when I went back to pick them up and the guys there said they were good looking chickens and a good weight, most of them were about 4-5lbs a few were even larger.

And the ultimate connoisseurs (my kids) gave our first zombie chicken dinner a thumbs up! We have had several discussions about how we were going to be raising chickens for us to eat, and while they don't really want to actually HELP much with the chickens and gardens, they do appreciate the importance of knowing where our food comes from.
So, I accomplished my goal. I raised enough chickens for our family to eat for the coming year. They were fed high quality local organic feed (they were offered greens, garden scraps etc but were NOT interested), plenty of clean water and they were raised in a very humane manner. I might even say they were pampered, I spent a lot of time making sure the temperature in their box was just right when they were chicks and I went out in the middle of the night more than a few times to pull down the tarp if it was rainy or too cold and windy. I also talked and sang to them whenever I went in to care for them although it is entirely possible that my singing could be considered inhumane treatment. Hehe.

Plans are being made to do this again next year, but with a few changes. We are going to make the dog kennel into a more permanent meat chicken raising structure so we can do away with the butt ugly tarps. I will probably raise some more Cornish Cross but will add some other meat breeds that will be free ranging in order to get away from the whole grain fed thing. I am also considering raising a few turkeys but will have to convince my husband to do some more building. Wonder if I can sneak in a few goats without him noticing??????


paula said...

wow what a post tracy!
i find it fascinating and commend you on your learning/hard work.
those chickens look so odd with their short and stocky legs.
wondering...i've read you can feed chickens your food scraps...was that not an option?
i wish i lived near you i'd be buying some of that, looks DELICIOUS!!

Tracy said...

Thanks Paula, glad you found this interesting! It was nice to write it all down, now I will have something to refer to next year when I forget how to do take care of them! The layer hens get a lot of our food scraps and they gobble it all right up. These chickens just were not interested, i threw some stuff out there a few times but everything just laid there until it got all gross. They did eat up some of the weeds that were already in the pen, but weren't interested when I tossed in some more from the garden. Just the breed I guess.......

Janice said...

That was some really interesting reading; thanks for posting it, Tracy. I wonder if all that specialized breeding for meat also breeds the personality right out of the chickens. But, like you mentioned, it probably helps in the end not to become attached.

Anonymous said...

Loved reading this. I wondered where the name Zombie Chicken came from, I actually googled it when I read one of your earlier posts. They sound disgusting but look delicious with roasted potatoes;)

SamArtDog said...

I am amazed. Grossed out, but truly amazed. Hard to believe there's that much labor in a good drumstick, but it looks like these zombies had good-sized gams. I hope the whole fam damily knows how lucky they are to have a genuine pioneer mom, but I'm sure you'll remind them for the rest of their lives. Good job!

My sister saw your post and said, "Oh, is this that artist who did that neat church painting you gave me?"
I told her, "Different incarnation."

Claire said...

How interesting :-) I'd love to do this one day!

You must have a magnificent freezer!

Martha Marshall said...

Tracy, I'm so impressed. You're just an amazing family, and the best part is your kids are going to have a great foundation in sustainable living.

We're trying to do what we can -- buying local eggs, butter, peaches, etc., and growing as much as we can in the garden. It's so gratifying.

patty a. said...

You are a brave woman Tracy - cleaning poopie chicken butt make you absolutely fearless in my eyes! The chicken sure looked yummy though!

Shanster said...

Very cool - we wanted to do the same thing this year with maybe 6-8 chix. I remember back from my college days how the meat chix just sat there eating and sleeping and were SO different from laying hens. Amazing isn't it?

Great to read your post...I had heard using cracked corn soaked in goat milk (cuz I have plen-TY!) made for a really tasty chicken. Imagine that smell...the chix adding some milk setting in the sun? Ewww. But we got so busy with other things we haven't gotten to it yet and winter is almost here... great post!

Natalya Aikens said...

wow... you go girl! my father kept layer hens for years, but thought they lived a rather inhumane life cooped up in their ahem coop... the stench was awful...

essays said...

Zombie Chicken Summer? lol))