Monday, May 22, 2017

Meat chickens, getting real


The first batch of meat chickens, 6 Cornish Cross, were sent to the butcher last week. They were 7 weeks old which was a bit early - it's more typical to butcher them at 8 from what I've read.


Back when they were babies - the white one is a Cornish Cross the other is a Red Ranger.

This was my first time raising them, in the past we've done the slower growing Red Rangers.  At first I was sure I would hate these birds. They were so food driven for the first half of their lives that if the feeder ran low they would literally run up and bite at me when I went to feed them. Not peck at to investigate, but actually bite.  Trust me at no time were they starving. It's in the breeding.  These birds are designed to get so big so fast that I was warned that their legs would give out under the weight of their bodies if their feed wasn't managed.  Still, they blew through feed. Thank goodness we have a local feed mill that sells excellent freshly-ground mash for about $14 per 100 lbs.  I mean, when you open a bag of this mash, it smells like actual food.

They were fed three times a day and once they went out on grass in the chicken tractor I started scattering feed on the ground as well so the would have to scratch and search once they got all the easy stuff eaten. It gave them something constructive to do and taught them that food could be found not only in the dish but in the grass too.


Cornish Cross rooster next to Red Ranger hen.

They acted mostly just like regular chickens if a bit lazier. They pecked, they scratched and took dust baths.  They sunbathed. During the last week they were getting a treat of something,  I think the little man's leftover breakfast, when I heard an odd noise - one of the roosters had a toast crust in his beak and was calling over the hens.

They got so huge that I started to worry that if they weren't butchered soon we'd have losses. In fact, the day I took them to the butcher one of the roosters was starting to get a slight limp. They were starting to look like feathered bowling balls.


So, to the butcher they went.  I don't mind butchering one or two chickens but I did not have the time to do 6.  It's so inexpensive to have the local place take care of it.  We drop them off the night before and I pick up perfectly dressed carcasses the next day.


All 6 of them weighted between 5 1/2 & 6 1/2 lbs each dressed, mostly towards the larger side of that range. We had one on the grill and it was delicious.  A mild flavor than a heritage breed but still more "chicken-y" than a store bought one and with far better texture too.

I decided that since these were so large I would part the rest of them up and freeze them that way.  A couple of years ago we invested in a vacuum sealer, which is such a great deal if you raise your own meats.  It's a bit of an expense to buy the rolls of sealing bags but it completely avoids the heartbreak of opening the freezer and realizing your hard work has been freezer burnt.


Ready to freeze.


All of the trimmings went through the Kitchen Aid meat grinder.  We ended up with quite a bit of ground chicken.  


I made some into nuggets with panko crumbs and spices.  They were a huge hit with both adults and little people.  Finally, healthy nuggets!


All of the carcasses are simmering away on the stove today cooking down into stock.

So, what did I learn?  I had some misgivings about supporting the whole industry and idea that is the Cornish Cross franken-chicken.  This is a chicken that is literally too large to mate naturally, and is the product of chicken artificial insemination.  They're not sustainable.  They are prone to heart problems and leg deformities simply because sometimes their bodies literally can't keep up with their rapid weight gain.   

If I had raised these birds indoors for their whole lives I would feel like the product wasn't any better than something from a factory farm.  But.  They had better, more natural lives that probably 99% of chickens raised for meat in this country.  They were outdoors with more than enough space to wander around and do chicken things. They had the chance to actually enjoy lives as chickens  and I am more than ok with that.

Life increasingly forces me to be realistic about what I can and cannot do here.  Time and space-wise. A chicken that goes from peep to freezer in 8 weeks is what I have the time and (barely) the facilities for (if you can call my crap-tastic PVC chicken tractor "facilities").  The Red Rangers have another 4 weeks until I  can harvest them and although I'm getting my numbers down, the amount of birds on this property is starting to get to me.  Because...

There were plans in the spring to turn an area of our large steel outbuilding into a proper barn space but when I started clearing brush away outside I realized that the previous owners had ruined the ground by using that area as a huge rubbish burn pile.  They did this all over our 5 acres.  I unearthed nothing but broken glass and burned out mattress springs, nails, batteries etc. Because we had the adjoining building torn down last summer we didn't know the extent of the damage to this area until I got into it.  There is no way to put any living creature on that ground that doesn't include bulldozing out the trash and trucking in topsoil.

So the plan for a barn was scrapped and I decided to forge on anyway building a really ugly PVC chicken tractor and doing a lot of shuffling of birds (ducks, peeps) between makeshift shelters.  It's sucked, really, and I just want the majority of the birds in the freezer ASAP.

So, lessons learned.  I do hope to do another batch of Cornish Cross later in the summer when all of the extra ducks and chickens are gone.   Eight weeks is just about right.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Every day you're alive is a special occasion



I was wishing Donna a Happy Birthday over on her lovely blog the other day and I was reminded of this story. It's something I read in an advice column back in the 90's maybe, in the local paper so it must have been published in Dear Abby or Ann Landers.  

If you have an extra two minutes it might just put a different spin on your day.

This isn't the way I remember the story as I read it but I guess that's the way it is with memories. I must have been a teenager at the time but it stuck with me.  Even more so over the years as time has passed and loved ones have passed away.

It's worth thinking about.  None of us know how much time we have.  None of us. Ever. 

But you can choose to live. Put on the lipstick.  Have the second, or what the hell, third glass of wine.  Cook the elaborate meal.  Tell friends you love them. Make the effort. Find something in the everyday, never mind how small or insignificant it may seem to others.  Show up to your life.

It matters.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Day in Pictures

It's been a week.  We were all laid low by bad respiratory infections, the kind where you just lay in bed all day with a box of Kleenex and feel bad for yourself.  Unless you are a toddler - then you cry and nurse 24/7 and act totally irrational.  Which makes everyone else in the house feel SO much better.  Then to add insult to injury, the car died.  It's in the shop and it looks like the starter finally went.  So hooray to all of that.  But we are finally starting to feel like we are out of the woods and I know we are all so grateful.

It was hot today.  HOT, hot, hot... 84 degrees in mid-May with a higher temperature expected tomorrow.  Ironic since our "last frost date" is not until May 31st but we'll take it, gladly.  Nothing to do but stay inside and try not to wilt.  The air is too muggy to breathe.  Here is our day in pictures.

 

Finally took down the Christmas bunting and replaced it with a summer one.  Because it's May and the old one had reindeer on it.  Also, check out the new sexy bicycle!


Grandpa Pig scaled a tower of blocks.


The dozens of seedlings waiting to be set out were watered.  This is like, 1/10th of them.  I have some extra heirloom tomatoes, oregano and alpine strawberries to share. Anyone?  


 I should have skipped the chickens and ducks and gone straight to geese.  Why did no one tell me they are so wonderful?  I mean, the ducklings are cute too. but come on.  Geese!


Lettuces were picked for sandwiches and fish tacos.


This sandwich did not have lettuce.  Homemade bread, home harvested honey, organic peanut butter.


Then we filled up the redneck pool I bought this morning at the dollar store.  It was amazing fun. 


After dinner I rounded up the Cornish cross chickens and drove them to the butcher. I'll pick them up tomorrow, dressed and plucked for all of $2.50 apiece.  Really excited to get them back - they seem huge.  Foot for scale. 

Rounding them up did not go well.  It never goes well.  This time I was crawling through the brambles with a net.  One of the roosters took a swing at me.  The lady across the street took her kids inside as I was a stuffing a chicken into a vodka box.  The only boxes I could find in town today were from the liquor store.  It was super classy, but there you go - that's me in a nutshell.

So, upward and onward.  There's so much to be excited about this time of year.  And tomorrow is another day.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Quail harvest - butchering, results, costs & process of raising quail for meat

Hey there. I'm going to talk about butchering quail. There are a couple of pictures with very minimal blood, nothing graphic. I am also going to talk about bird penises. Yep. It's a hoot around here.

At seven weeks old the quail are old enough that the males have started to crow regularly and show interest in mating, to put it politely.  Because baby quail are sold un-sexed, there were plenty of males  in the group and not in a good way.  It was time to thin down the flock before the males started fighting or stressing out the ladies too much. The goal is to keep a small breeding flock for eggs and future incubation.  Plus, they're beautiful and have a wonderful little song and are really nice to have around.

They have been mostly raised in a quail tractor, on grass.  You can read more about the tractor pen here.  They left the garden after that post and went into the lawn. I was moving them to fresh grass every day, sometimes twice a day, which only took a couple of minutes.  The feeder was upgraded to a trough-style chick feeder and they got a bigger waterer. The shelter was changed from a pet carrier to a wooden crate covered with pine brush.  They still mostly did not use it.  There were plenty of things to keep them occupied and they seemed happy with the space per bird.  I had no losses.

When they are mature it is very easy to tell the sexes of the brown Coturnix quail apart.  The males have a rust colored breast:


The hens have speckles:


The white Texas A&M are impossible to sex by feathers:  


This one of the birds that I kept.  Please be a female.

You can do something called vent sexing which involves flipping the birds over and checking out their private bits.  You're looking for evidence of a foam-like substance that helps carry sperm.  Male quail, like male chickens, do not have penises. Waterfowl do, seasonally. Yes you read that right. You can read all about duck penises here in the New York Times.

At this point in the story some people, like my husband, might say "oh, my God, stop talking. Where is your filter?" I will apply it here. Better late than never.  Let's just say that although there are certain things you can see while vent sexing, the process is not perfect for various reasons the details of such we will not go into.  I tried it exactly once.

Anyway. The plan is to keep a male Coturnix quail and a group of females, ideally six. In my opinion, the brown quail grew more quickly than the A &M. I've decided on half browns and half A&Ms for the fun of seeing what patterns come out of the matings. 

***update: yeah, didn't work. Within hours the male brown was attacking all of the white birds and they were harvested too. Turns out 2 of the 3 white birds were males.***

I've been butchering quail each afternoon this week while my toddler is napping.  Here's how I do it and it works pretty well for me.


Put a plastic bag in the sink. Have a roll of paper towels handy along with two containers: one for the dead and another for the cleaned birds. Also you need a pair of heavy kitchen shears. Take off your rings and tie an apron on.

Tear off a couple of squares of paper towels and go outside and get your bird.  Please don't withhold feed from them. There's no reason to and if you take them off the feeder all the better as it's far less stressful for the bird. They're pretty docile and won't even notice you picking them up if they're busy with something.  Cover bird snugly with the paper towel and hold it to your body as you go back in the house.  They calm very quickly like this.

Place bird in left hand over sink as shown below.


Wow, my hand looks fat there.

Pretend this bird still has a head - what you want to do let the bird poke its head out from the paper towel, then gently stretch the neck out like this and firmly cut the head off with the shears. Do not worry about not having the hand strength to do this - it takes about the same effort as cutting a sturdy flower stem.  Hold on to the body tightly and let the bird drain into the bag.  A purely reflexive flapping of the wings will happen but I assure you that bird is dead. DO NOT DROP THE BIRD. I dropped two and I promise you, they will spray you. Either avoid this or learn to laugh at yourself.

Put bird in the dead bird tray.  Put a fresh paper towel in the bottom of the bag to cover up the head and the blood so the next bird you bring in doesn't have an OH, SHIT moment before it dies.
Compassion at all times, please. Taking the extra second to do this is the least you can do.


Repeat with remaining birds. I chose the birds to process based on; extra jumbo brown males first, un-sexed white quail on body type and color pattern (getting rid of the ones I didn't want to save).


After all of your birds are headless it's time to skin them. Cut off the feet below the knees, pinch the breast skin between your fingers and tear. The skin comes off very easily and quickly. I clip the wings off at the second joint.  Then remove the crop and neck with the shears. Cut a very shallow V following the outline of the rib cage, follow the ribs down and cut around the exit under the tail. This whole lower internal section should come away with one gentle tug. It helps to have the cold water running at a trickle to wash away any loose feathers as you work. Rinse out the cavity, pat dry. Place in clean tray and repeat with the other quail. Let rest in the refrigerator at least a day for the bird to go in and out of rigor before you cook or freeze


So far in this way I've done 15 over three days with more to do tomorrow.

Here are my costs for this project:
  • I purchased 27 day-old quail for $15 locally.
  • The local feed mill charges $14.40 for 50 lbs of game bird crumble. I've used about 75? lbs = about $21.60 They had a full feeder at all times. Also they've been raised on the ground with the opportunity to chase bugs, eat seeds and greens.
  • Wood chips for brooder - maybe a 1/10 of a bale = .50
  • I am not counting a heat lamp or the cost of the quail tractor because I will use it for brooding and raising many more birds.
So the cost so far is only $37.10 or $1.37 per bird.



I pulled 10 quail at random and put them on the scale (yes, it was set back to 0 to account for the weight of the bowl).  All together the 10 weighed just about 3 lbs on the dot, dressed out (4.8 ounces).  Please someone check my maths but I think that's about $4.56/lb.

To put it in perspective, Google quail meat.  A very popular outdoor store sells them 12 for $69.99 for 4 ounce birds. Without shipping. That's $5.80 per bird for ones that weigh less that mine.

We were doing sliders on the grill tonight and decided to put on a couple of quail to try them. I spatch-cocked them and secured the legs to the breasts with toothpicks.  Olive oil and and a generous shake of herbs de provence.  They were very, very good cooked medium/medium-rare and my husband wondered how many more I could raise before fall.  If we were making a whole meal of these we agreed that 2 per person would have done it.


So, that's the quail project in a nutshell.  From brooding, housing, feeding and processing (and taste) I think it has a much greater return than raising other poultry.  

I'm happy to edit this if anyone wants more information or there's something I've left out. Thoughts?  has anyone else raised quail?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A mild frost



We had a mild frost here twice this week. I'm positive it only happens because I've put in so much so early, but there you have it.  The little man and I mulched the first potatoes heavily but the tops still were burnt.


I hope they recover. Everything else seems to be ok.

In other news, the rooster quails are starting to crow so I've been working on reducing my numbers this week. The next post will be the results and thoughts on the quail project.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A day in pictures

It was very cold and rainy here this week.  Not much is going on so here's a bit of our day in pictures.


Me and Bee doing morning rounds.


Lamb's ear.


Giving a gosling a snuggle.


Deciding how to stock the camper.


The meatballs are just about ready. The end of next week?


A bowl of duck eggs turned into...


Almond and brown sugar meringue cookies.


Lettuces are up.


Bee looking pensive.


I don't spend a ton of time in the garage so everyone runs to the far side of the brooder when I do come in.  My waterfowl order last week was missing a gosling so they sent it, and a free duck, this week.  Into the mail on Monday morning and just arrived today (Thursday) at noon.  I thought for sure they would be dead but after a long drink and something to eat they seem to be doing fine.


A train de-railed in the kitchen.


It's been raining for days and the quail are in the old rabbit hutch until the ground dries. 


That's a sweet potato behind the sofa.


Elise. Technically an old picture but didn't want her to feel left out.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A very long weekend update

It's been an unusually busy weekend around here. I have talked and texted with literally about 30 different people about the camper since listing it for sale and I think I have it sold.  We'll see tomorrow but after talking on the phone with one lady multiple times and emailing another 20 pictures to her I'm confident that I've accurately represented the camper.  She's making a two hour drive tomorrow morning to see it.  Here's hoping.

Saturday morning was the auctioning of my grandparents' estate. I had agonized for weeks about if I should go or not; how I would feel when I got there and saw strangers buying their posessions, if things would feel incomplete later on if I had stayed away from it.  I woke up in the early a.m. and laid in bed realizing that into matter how badly it might upset me to go I would feel worse staying at home knowing it was happening.

 So we got up with plans for me to go the auction which started at 10 and while playing on the floor before breakfast the little man managed to shove a massive splinter up under his big toenail.  It was his first major boo-boo. The splinter was so large it went the entire length of the nail and into the nail bed. I nearly passed out.  It was broken off and we ended up taking him to the pediatric ER to have it removed. The people there were wonderful and he had mostly forgotten about the whole ordeal by the time we got home. The bag of goldfish crackers and toy the nurses sent him home with helped.

I got to the auction very late. Let me set the scene: I was already feeling uneasy. It was raining and overcast and muddy. My grandfather's garden was being used a parking lot.  People were carting things away from the barn and house. I squared my shoulders and prepared for the worst. But immediately I saw some of my mother's cousins, and my uncle and his family.  I went over visit and heard the news: my second cousin had bought my grandparent's house and some of the property.  The barn and fields had been lost to someone who bought them for hunting land but the home and some acreage would stay in the extended family.  It was like the clouds had parted and I could have wept with relief.  Maybe that sounds dramatic but for some reason knowing this made everything else so much easier to deal with.

 My grandfather and his brother bought a 100 acre farm together in the 1950's, split the land and built homes next door to one another.  They both had big families and it came to be that one of the babies came very quickly.  So quickly that my grandmother ran outside and helped deliver her sister-in-law's baby in a car in my grandparents' driveway.  The cousin who bought the house? His mother is the baby my grandmother helped deliver. He literally bought the property his mother was born on.  My grandfather's brother's family has managed to keep a large part of the original farm together and I admire that greatly and am grateful for it.  I am grateful that it wasn't bought by a stranger.

So it turned out to be a good day after all, and I am very glad that I went.

It's been raining here this weekend but otherwise beautiful.  And HOT. 84 degrees today. For anyone who forages, morel mushrooms are up already.  I haven't had a chance to go picking yet but maybe tomorrow.  We had a very good dinner from the garden tonight.


Lots of thinnings from the garden: orach, spinach, chard and radishes sauteed in bacon fat along with shallot, garlic and red pepper flakes.  Deglazed with lemon juice and tossed with pasta and asparagus .



My apprentice was also hard at work.


Because it was so nice and warm today all little ones spent the day outside airing out and enjoying the weather.  The goslings ate grass and the chicks and ducklings hung out in the old rabbit hutch where they were out of the reach of cats.

Also because it was so nice today, the not-so-little ones enjoyed some summer drinks: half Sierra Nevada beer, half carbonated strawberry lemonade.  Over ice with frozen strawberries.  


If this were a video you would see a lot of hand waving and hear: "ma. MA. MAMAMA!" the volume of which increased as he realized he wasn't getting that cocktail.

So, minus the terrible splinter incident, it turned out to be an excellent weekend after all.  Here's hoping for some more good days. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Camper for sale, baking day

It's time to sell the Shasta. We parked it in the front yard last night with a sign out front and I posted it to 5 different Craigslist sites within an hour and a half radius.  Still more than a little depressed about this because there are so many things that I LOVE about the Shasta (the light!) ( the room!) but this just isn't the right camper for us at this stage in our lives.  It WOULD be perfect for someone to decorate and turn into an outdoor guesthouse but that person is not me.  We don't have overnight guests and our property looks hillbilly enough without parking a camper in the yard permanently. I listed it at $1,800. It has brand new tires and the bearings were just packed.


So far I've received six different scam offers and a gentleman offering to trade me for a boat.


It's been so depressing that the only thing to do today is bake. I'm making rhubarb coffee cake and bread.  Maybe alternating between eating myself into a coma and playing with the new goslings will take my mind off things.