Home Processing

Home Processing

This Saturday, we set about the hard task of processing, aka butchering, all our extra roosters.

This was our first time and it was certainly a learning experience.

We had hoped to get it finished quickly, but 26 roosters took us about 8 hours. (If TSC hadn’t given us roosters instead of the pullets I bought, we would have been done after the first 6.)

Our only knowledge going in was a few vague memories from family and the internet. Thankfully there are numerous blog posts and YouTube videos to walk you through the process if you are new to this.

Most people pluck the feathers to leave the skin on, which is what you get when you buy whole chickens at the store. Without a plucking machine this is a very laborious task. My mother-in-law said her mom always just skinned them, since it was faster. So that was the method we went with. It sounded much easier than it really was. It requires muscles that I don’t really have, and those muscles let me know it the next day!

Since we had never done this before, and we weren’t sure if we could physically/emotional handle this, we started with two roosters that had to go for their own good. One of them had a beak deformity that made it harder and harder for him to eat and the other was crippled and was not eating either. They were so small and skinny that it helped to know they were out of misery.

After those we found our strengths and weaknesses. Vince took over the actual dispatching of the birds and removing heads, wings, and feet. I took over the skinning and gutting. As the day wore on his mom came to help me skin, and things went a lot faster.

Vince’s sister was tasked with the hardest task of all, watching Isaac and Vivienne.

After all the crying, screaming, and general craziness, I would completely understand if she never wanted to watch them again!

Twenty-six was a bold number to start with, but we wanted to get it over with. The only way I’m doing that many at once again is if there is a plucking machine involved.

One of the biggest issues was one I didn’t foresee. The overly long day took its toll on the tiny people and they let us know by having foul moods Sunday (Happy Father’s Day) and Monday. We are all still trying to recover!

Because of the nature of the day I don’t have any photos to share, so I leave you with a photo of our spoiled rooster Perceval. He is a jerk , but he was the first chick we ever hatched… and he’s beautiful!

(He has his own house, since he doesn’t play well with others)

Incubating Eggs, Part 3

Incubating Eggs, Part 3

We made it to day 18!

The day 10 candling confirmed that the all those Minorca, and two other eggs, did not develop. While I am disappointed, it might have been a good thing. While the Minorcas are supposed to do great in our climate, they are extremely flighty and annoying. So we decided we aren’t going to bother breeding them, at least for now.

I candled the eggs again on day 14 and all the remaining eggs had happy little chicks moving about.

It is amazing to see!

On the outside it looks like any ordinary egg, but on the inside there is a tiny chick, growing and moving.

Now for the most stressful part, at least for me, day 18.

I candled them to double check the air sack was about the right size. I am hoping with more experience this wont be so much of a guess. A few of the sacks looked a bit smaller than they should, which makes me nervous, but hopefully I just saw it wrong.

I also removed the automatic turner, and bumped up the humidity. Everything I read said bump the humidity up to 60%-70%.

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Those first few days I struggled to get the humidity lower, well as would be my luck, I am now having trouble keeping the humidity high enough. They say not to open the incubator these last few days, but make sure to keep the humidity up so you don’t end up with “shrink-wrapped” chicks. So I am sitting here trying to decide which is more important keeping the humidity up or not opening the incubator.

I am a huge control freak and this whole process is a huge test of my patience and a lesson in letting go.

Just a few more days, and we will all know how this went.

I stopped at Tractor Supply Sunday to pick up bedding for the brooder to make sure everything was ready for any chicks that do hatch… and I left with 12 Rhode Island Red chicks. This is what some might call a problem.

Incubating Eggs, part 2

Incubating Eggs, part 2

Today is day 7!

This is a big day because we get to see how the eggs are doing, and because I have patiently waited this long. Yay, me!

So far, so good.

Most of the eggs are showing veins and a tiny baby chick, and the air sack looks about the right size.

The eggs that aren’t developing are all from the Minorcas, and it makes me wonder if it is more of a fertility issue than an incubating issue. Out of 19 Minorca eggs only 1 showed any signs of development. All the eggs have been handled the same since collection, so something is off.

From the Ameraucanas, 10 out of 11 eggs are showing development. From the Rhode Island Red/ Barred Rock crosses all the eggs showed development, but two of them were somehow cracked, so we pulled them from the incubator.

I left all the non-developed eggs in the incubator for now and plan to recheck those in a couple days, just incase they are extremely late bloomers.

A few of the eggs were light enough you could see the baby chick squirming around, which was super exciting.

I am a bit frustrated about the two cracked eggs because I thought I made sure none of the eggs were cracked. But we did use them as a learning experience. Instead of just tossing the eggs, we opened them to see how they looked at this stage of development. It is truly amazing how quickly they develop.

***Below is a photo if you are curious, or if it’s too much, stop reading here.***

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Below you can see all the veins connecting embryo to the yoke (its food source) and the giant eye in the tiny embryo.

Incubating Eggs, part 1

Incubating Eggs, part 1

Back in September we bought our first two sets of breeding chickens, Ameraucanas and Minorcas. I have been “patiently” waiting to actually start hatching those eggs. Well, that time has finally come!

The only eggs we have ever hatched were hatched by a broody hen, so all I had to do was give her eggs and check back 21 days later. Amazingly we had a 100% hatch rate on those eggs. Sadly she was not the best mom and by 3 months we only had one chick left… Perceval the Jerk rooster.

So once we purchased our breeders I began researching the best way to hatch eggs in an incubator. There is lots of slightly conflicting information out there. The only consistent information I could find was: experience will teach you what works the best. This is not the information I wanted. But let’s be real, it is true.

I should mention that the temperature should ideally be between 99-100 degrees depending on if you use a forced air or still air incubator. The conflicting information has to do with the humidity levels. Some say keep it high, other low, other day try dry incubation. Checking the weight of the eggs and the size of the air sack seems to be the best judge of humidity level.

I finally gave up trying to find the “perfect” information and bought an incubator, set it up and watched the temperature and humidity for a few days. So far Ive learned we live in a super, super humid area (because my hair couldn’t have told me that) and I have to use the smallest water trough in the incubator. The instructions said to start with the biggest trough as that is the normal one people need, I assume those people also don’t have frizzy hair issues, lucky.

I chose the GQF 1588 Genesis Hova-Bator Incubator by GQF. It got good reviews on both Amazon and chicken websites. It also has a large window, so we can watch and see how things are going. I splurged and got and an automated egg turner. Half the time I don’t know what day it is, so there is no way I’d remember to turn eggs at least three times a day. I went with the Little Giant Farm & Ag Miller Manufacturing 6300 Automatic Egg Turner because people said it was sturdy and easier than others to clean. We will see how this hatching season goes before I make any judgements myself.

I am still a little paranoid, but Friday we put our first eggs in as a test run. They say 80-90% hatch rate is good, I would be happy with 50%, thats a lie, I’d be happy if any hatched!

Thursday will be day seven and I can candle the eggs to see if we have any developments, until then there is nothing I can do.

Given my controlling nature, this is a huge leap of faith for me. On a chicken forum, someone summed it up perfectly, “hatching is NOT a science – it’s part art and part nature, part miracle.” So for now I just get to sit back and wait.

Chicken Math

Chicken Math

Ever heard the term Chicken Math?

I hadn’t either until I got my first chickens.

It appears there is this weird phenomenon where you set out to have a specific number of chickens and through various reasons you end up with anything other than that number.IMG_2433

For Example:

I originally got 4 chickens. When they were about five months old one was killed by a hawk, so then I wanted to replace her. But ended up adding 4 more, so we had 7.

Then we had a hen go broody, so I gave her 5 eggs to hatch. I was expecting only 2 to hatch… all five hatched. Then nature took its toll and 4 of the 5 didn’t make it. That was fine because 8 seemed like a good number.

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Well then when we moved to the farm, we discussed adding more chickens to get our laying flock up. Since the chick we hatched was a rooster we only had 7 layers and only got 5 eggs consistently. We decided 12 layers was a good number.

Back in July we finally decided to add to the flock, but get ready for more Chicken Math. We found Lavender Orpington Pullets to add to our flock. I didn’t want to deal with more roosters, since Perceval was such a jerk, so we spent a bit more to get already started pullets. So we brought home 8 pullets. Bringing of number of chickens to 16, so much for just 12 layers.

Unfortunately we were dealing with a terrible heat wave and we lost 3 of our older hens to the heat. I will admit, I didn’t handle it very well, and I still get a bit sad thinking about them. Hormones don’t help! Two of the three were from the original chickens I purchased, so I had gotten very attached to them. So then we were down to 13 chickens (4 layers, a rooster, and 8 potential layers).

So then morning sickness kicks in and we lost a month. Then we notice a strange sound, an extra crowing in the morning, then another, and another. It quickly became clear that 7 of those 8 pullets were in fact roosters… Any guesses how happy I was?

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About this time we were planning for P.Allen Smith’s Poultry Workshop, which meant more chickens. The plan was to get about 9 chickens, two set of Dorking breeding trios and Andalusian breeding trio. So we started looking for homes for the roosters, while we also planned for our new breeders.

Well we got there and the only Dorkings they had was a breeding pair, but they had Minorcas and Ameraucanas! I was super excited and we came home with 8 Minorcas (7 hens and a rooster) and 4 Ameraucanas (3 hens and a rooster). Now we had 25 chickens, hey it could have been worse!

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Minorcas
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Ameraucanas

Thankfully within a week we found a guy who wanted to 7 Lavender Roosters, so we are currently at a more reasonable 18 chickens.

However, guess who is still scouring craigslist for more chickens, yep this crazy lady here!

In my defense, due to age of the new hens and molting, we are only getting 3 eggs a day. That is crazy and we desperately need more layers.

Wish me luck!

Update: We have since lost an Ameraucana hen to internal laying, which caused a huge infection.

Labeling Eggs

Labeling Eggs

I was recently trying to design the “perfect” label for our eggs, and this has brought up discussions about labeling and marketing. When you look at egg cartons in the store, there are various terms thrown around that most people don’t fully understand, half the time I don’t even understand. Most of this is based on a difference in perception vs. reality.

Instead of trying to fit all this information on a small label, I thought I’d expand it into a post, but then realized even one post wasn’t enough. In order to describe how our chickens live, I first have to explain labeling terms and more about chickens in general. This post will focus on the terms you see on labels.

Let’s start with the term cage-free. When I first heard cage-free I was a bit confused because I thought chickens ran around the farm like in story books and tv. Turns out I was wrong. Some chickens are kept in small cages with little or no room to move. According to the Humane Society, “On average, each caged laying hen is afforded only 67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life.” Knowing what I know now about chicken behavior, this practice is neither humane nor healthy. So the question is, what does cage-free mean? It means that the chicken is allowed enough room to move, walk, stretch, and be a chicken. However, those chickens may still be kept in flocks of thousands with no access to outdoors.

The next term people often see on egg cartons is Free-Range or Free-Roaming. The only difference in this term and cage-free, is that the chickens have access to the outside. According to the USDA, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” There doesn’t seem to be a requirement of how long they must be outside each day or if every chicken even goes outside. Also, just sticking their head though a hole seems to count as access to the outside.

Pasture-Raised is typically chickens raised on pasture. They live in movable houses and are rotated to new pasture periodically. This is the healthiest and safest way to manage flocks of chickens. So, if you are dealing with store bought eggs or meat, go for those.

Antibiotic-free and Hormone-free simply mean the laying hen was raised without antibiotics and hormones. Although, it should be noted that US Federal Law prohibits the use of hormones in poultry and pork, so all chicken should be hormone free even if not labeled as such.

Other terms often on labels deal more with the diet of the chickens.

Enriched with Omega-3,means the chickens were fed a high Omega-3 diet which allows the eggs to have more than an egg from a hen fed a standard diet.

I’m not going to lie, “Vegetarian Fed” confuses me a bit. The label makes it sound like a good thing, but in fact it’s not. Well, I guess in a way its good, since it means the chickens can’t be fed weird meat byproducts that sometimes get fed to industry chickens. The thing is, chickens are omnivores. If you let a chicken loose to eat as it chooses, it will eat grains, vegetables, fruits, bugs, and even snakes and frogs. Let’s be real, their sharp little breaks are that way for a reason. By feeding them a vegetarian diet, they are missing out on key nutrients and that will effect the quality of meat and eggs. It also means they are most likely not foraging for yummy treats, which means they probably aren’t given access to a place to forage (aka pasture, nature, outside). The healthiest food will always be food from animals that eat what their bodies were designed to eat.

I saved the best for last, Organic. There mixed feelings about the term organic in general, but we won’t get into that right now. In chickens, organic means that they are fed an organic diet, live free-range, and receive no hormones or antibiotics. Unfortunately, given the vague definition of free-range, these chickens could be less healthy and nutritious than their pasture-raised non-organic cousins. Organic and pasture-raised would be the best when looking at labels.

Now if you really want to know and trust your eggs, the best way to do that is find a local seller and ask them about their chickens. Chicken people tend to love to talk about their chickens! Also, don’t be turned off if they say theirs aren’t organic, pasture-raised, or even free-range; chances are their chickens eat and live better than any industry chicken.