Oh, definitely the chicken. Or in this case, chickens, plural. And a custom constructed coop. And feeders. And waterers. And a plethora of medicated v non medicated chick feed, ingredient lists, do's and don't, lists of acceptable greenery and scraps, predator control, warming lights, and, and, and AND!
And....a lot of patience.
There's a big trend lately for backyard chickens. Reasoning ranges from having access to a fresher product you can control to being emotionally opposed to commercial egg production facilities. To be able to fully research the issue, I needed to not only observe high volume farms and small volume hobby owners, but to get in the game and raise a few for myself.
Having no prior experience with our fine feathered friends, I went to the undisputed source of knowledge on all things- the internet. I quickly became confused by conflicting information and concerned about sites which loudly proclaimed the benefits of producing your own eggs but were short on facts as to problems and risks.
Before I'd even read as much as I think I should have, and relying heavily on the limited amount of experience my husband had with chickens growing up, it was off to Tractor Supply Company's "Chick Days" to procure our new livestock. First things first; there's a state law in effect requiring purchasers to acquire a minimum number of chicks at a time. I understood the rationale behind this- to keep casual "oh aren't they adorable!" impulse purchases where they belong. The candy aisle. We looked through the different varieties offered, compared needs and projected production, and settled on six little red hens. Except they weren't red. Not yet, anyway. And they weren't hens. I learned they wouldn't be called that until they lived to a year of age. We also purchased 2 White Pekin and 4 Khaki Campbell ducklings of indeterminate sex, since I've always preferred duck eggs for baking. I figured that we probably didn't need that many for ourselves, but considered mortality rates and the fact we weren't sure whether we had male or female ducks on our hands.
Before we could take our very vocal birds home, we needed to make some additional purchases. Medicated feed was strongly recommended for the chicks for their first few weeks of life, though we we warned just as adamantly to avoid allowing the ducklings to consume the same food. We took our time in that row, talking to poultry owners who came in for feed about their preferences and practices. Eventually we settled on what we needed and headed home to begin our new adventure.
We hadn't built a coop yet, and used a large wire dog crate with fresh pine shavings for bedding set up inside our mini barn. A light fixture with an exposed bulb secured near the crate provided warmth for the chicks and allowed them space to move away from the heat if they need to do so. Keeping them cool wasn't a worry, since a storm blew in the next day bringing unseasonable low temperatures, wind and rain. The structure was dry but not very warm, so we used a small heating pad under the crate to keep the little fuzzballs comfortable.
My husband is your average weekend do-it-yourselfer. He reviewed some plans online, read a few books, then chucked it all and created a coop of his own design. Pencil never touched paper. Six trips to Lowe's and three days later, the coop was completed, and what a sight it was! Four feet wide, eight feet long, with an attached multi-story sleeping and nesting area. A slanted roof that went from 6 feet in height at the top of the housiong unit to the four foot height of the remaining of the living space finished the structure. Solid pressure treated lumber, a securely latching door, and even laminate flooring in the house. Nothing but the best for his new friends! We were confident they would be warm, dry, and safe in the new coop. The ducks, we decided needed more space for water play and were moved into an empty, roofed 10' x 10' kennel run. A large rubber basin provided a swim space for the ducklings, who didn't seem to get along at all with the chicks. After observing just how messy the ducks could be, I didn't blame the chickens for a moment.
In all the excitement present in articles about backyard chickens you don't read much about the ugly realities. Like what to do with used bedding, accumulated manure or the attraction your new birds present to predators. Thankfully, we live in a rural area and had space to compost the wheat straw we used for litter, containing the droppings and leftover bits of whatever scraps we'd allowed them to feast upon (melon, of any kind, was a big favorite!). I even posted it as available on Craigslist a few times, and happily watched someone interested in nitrogen rich natural fertilizer cart it off for their gardens. What would an urban owner do in the same situation, I wondered? It's a serious consideration for anyone in a small bedroom community, especially if there are any restrictions on animal waste. As for predators, we found our dogs, though highly interested in the new additions themselves, were very effective in deterring coyotes, foxes, raccoons and others from coming too close. The strength of the structure made a difference too, and kept the local raptors busy reducing the mole, mouse and snake populations instead of the chicks. There was plenty of interest, but happily, no successful predation of our birds.
Another thing you don't read much about; when to actually expect your eggs. Our chicks feathered out, gained weight, and grew up. We watched and waited for any "egg-tivity". We read up on when to expect our daily ration of homegrown protein. We eagerly checked the nesting area, brought treats, made sure they had plenty of supervised time to graze in the yard for bugs and sweet grasses. They certainly looked big and healthy enough to lay an egg!
I was worried that our impending move to a new home would bother the chickens. They seemed content where they were and with life in general. Yet move we must and we packed them up into crates for relocation.
Our new home came with an old, large building used as a coop for years but in some disrepair. We left our custom coop behind for the next family, and set to work putting the building to rights. Their new digs consist of an approximately10' x 20' wood building with a tin roof, concrete floor, elevated natural wood perches, milk crate nesting boxes and an upgrade to larger metal hanging feeders and watering cans. At first, due to the increased space, we placed the now humongous ducks inside with the chickens. It didn't take long to determine this would be a strictly segregated neighborhood; the chickens didn't like the ducks and the ducks took every opportunity possible to harass the chickens. The ducks received an outdoor pen attached to the new (old!) coop and constructed of old lumber recycled from other buildings on the property. We were steadily going "green".
Ah, such peaceful mornings! We now wake to the sound of the chickens making soft, contented noises and the ducks sounding suspiciously as if they are laughing at some joke only they understand. And one fine morning a few weeks after our move, we found it! The first egg! Has anything ever been as exciting as realizing your efforts, your work, your determiniation, has paid off in the form of one slightly oval caramel colored bit of satisfaction?
We had a home produced egg! And it only took nearly 6 months of time.
Our crowning moment was tempered by the remembrance of the time invested, the purchase price of the birds, their feed from growing chick to productive chicken, materials for building and then repairing coops, containers for food and water, dozens of hours of research and untold hours of sanitizing equipment, raking litter, hauling away manure and caring for the animals.
A few weeks later, we're at full production. Once one decided to get to work, the rest followed suit quickly. And they are hard at work. We're averaging an egg a day from each little red hen, um, pullet. They still enjoy the treats we supply them with, leap onto perches and spread their wings to be scratched and stroked, and are, quite simply, beautiful birds. The eggs are much larger now, and we frequently see double yolks, with strong shells and uniform color.
One advantage is that now that we have so many eggs a week (we never lost a single chick) we're supplying my husband's co workers' carnivorous habits. It pays for the feed our chickens consume, so other than the work involved, our own eggs are now, essentially, free. By the time we allow for labor, buying commercially produced eggs would be a more financially practical solution. But the birds are here now, and we have no intention of disposing of them now that we've got our answer to the age old question.
The ducks however...
Our Pekins turned out to both be males, and two of the Khaki Campbells, who started life like little loud kiwi fruits indistinguishable from the females, also were males. Were being the operative word. We had no interest in raising successive generations of poultry, and consigned the males to the freezer. The remaining two females have yet to produce a single egg and may yet be destined for the same fate.
Bring food or be food. It's a harsh reality of life here at our home. And I'm glad I can share this experience with my daughter, who understands exactly where the food on her plate comes from.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Choices. I’m all for them. As long as a person is making an educated decision, whether I agree with them or not, I’ll support them. The USDA recently conducted a sting operation against an Amish farmer for daring to sell raw milk to people who not only knew what they were buying, but went to great lengths to acquire the product. The folks did their research and made a choice based on what they thought was best for their families. And none of them tried to make me buy any.
I am an unrepentant carnivore. I am typically anemic and can’t maintain iron or B levels without adjusting my diet. Supplements just don’t absorb well for me so I work in foods rich in these nutrients. The upside is that my lipid levels never move an inch, no matter how many cheeseburgers and steaks I eat. Not so for some friends, who have made the choice to be vegetarians or vegans, for health concerns and, in some cases, to appease their conscience. And that’s ok with me. You won’t catch me sneaking bacon into the dishes I prepare for them or lying about the ingredients in a casserole to get them to eat it.
What I’ll never understand though is the lengths some folks will go to try to get others to follow their own dietary plans. You’ll never see a meat eater trying to push a slice of chicken on a vegetarian, yet the majority of the public, who are not vegetarian, are constantly assaulted with inaccurate information and fear based advertising about our food choices from the radical minority.
These VegAn’gelicals, as I like to call them, have elevated a vegan lifestyle to a religious fervor and rabidly proselytize in an attempt to push their morally superior choices on everyone else. And if they can’t get you to convert, they take your choices away from you.
So it is with the radical animal rights group the Humane Society of the United States. You’d think from the heart breaking commercials showing abused and neglected shelter pets that their enormous annual haul of $100 million a year (and assets of nearly another $100 million) would be going to help those shelter pets, right? Wrong. Less than 1% of that huge tax free windfall goes to the thousands of real humane societies nationwide (they don’t own or operate a single one anywhere); they spend much of it on legislating away your right to eat what you want.
An organization that spends the majority of its funds on eliminating animal agriculture shouldn’t be given a place at the table to create laws that affect this industry and the food we eat. Yet they are, claiming to be only interested in better welfare for farm animals and not on abolition. Their actions, however, speak louder than their words- animal products of any kind are not permitted at their offices or events. And recipes posted on their website and in their magazine are completely devoid of all animal products. You won’t find a single egg, a solitary tablespoon of butter, a splash of milk or any animal based proteins (aka meat) anywhere in their publications, all in the false presumption that all animal products are the result of mistreatment and abuse.
In the past few years I have met many producers, from the humblest mom and pop roadside stand to the largest commercial facilities. Though they were varied in their approaches and beliefs, all shared on common theme- all were deeply concerned about the welfare of their animals, and were confident their methods worked. It stands to reason, after all, that healthy animals that are well treated are more productive. I can’t and won’t argue that fact, or the methods employed by each producer. If I don’t like the way one does business, I just won’t buy the product. End of story.
To aggressively advocate that all animal products should be removed from everyone’s diet , and to do so on the platform that all animal based foods are the result of mistreatment, is ridiculous. To discover these deceptions are being perpetrated using tax free donations is appalling.
Browsing through the collection of recipes on http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/eating/recipes/recipes.html I come across some real whoppers. “Cheese sauce”, says one. Oh, I like cheese! It goes with nearly everything, and the simplest sauce recipe is a basic roux of butter and flour, plus hot milk and whatever shredded cheese you happen to have on hand. I’ve started a lot of low cost, tasty meals this way. So imagine reading this ingredient list:
1 cup of water
1/4 cup roasted red peppers
1/4 cup raw almonds
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons tahini
3 tablespoons whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons corn starch (or arrowroot)
Seriously? Who in the world, other than maybe the combined $40 million in annual salaries HSUS employee roster keeps items like roasted red peppers, raw almonds, whole wheat or arrowroot flour and tahini in their pantry on a daily basis? Why fake it in the first place? Why put so much time, effort and money- this isn’t an inexpensive sauce- to recreate a food you have a moral objection to eating?
Why go to such extreme lengths to pass off a substitute, when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating the original item you’ve worked so hard simulate?
The assumption ,or as I see it, excuse, is that you, gentle reader, don’t have brains enough to determine where your food comes from, and on the off chance that your food is the product of a rare individual case of animal mistreatment, you should simply avoid those foods forever. It’s really not the point at all. The purpose is to convert you to their lifestyle, regardless of high costs and unsustainable claims it is healthier for everyone. It’s just not true, and repeating a lie isn’t going to make it reality.
I don’t eat like you and you don’t eat like me. I think you’ve got the right to feel comfortable with wherever your foods, whatever they are, are sourced from. You should have the choice.
And national groups should be transparent about their real reasons for the influence they exert on those choices.
Otherwise, they are just as fake as the faux foods they are pushing.
at 3:28 PM
Friday, May 13, 2011
In this economy.
Boy, I hate that phrase. I hate the reality of it even more.
In this economy, we have to make sacrifices, budget our money as carefully as possible, cut back. We’ve set specific limits for all of our family’s needs, and this includes a strict limit of $450 a month for groceries and related household goods such as cleaning products and personal care items for three people. I’m a pretty talented cook and can make that work, and still provide nutritious meals for my family.
One hears many things though, about food quality and food safety. The internet abounds with articles, blogs, and videos from animal rights groups, farm advocates and self-proclaimed experts. It’s enough to make your head spin. So what’s a concerned mom on a limited budget to do?
The same thing she tells her twelve year old daughter every day- “Do your homework!”
Over the three years, I’ve been immersed in a self-guided course in American agriculture. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gotten my hands dirty and kept my eyes and my ears open. So when the opportunity to visit Polyface Farm near Staunton, Virginia presented itself, I couldn’t wait to go.
On a cheerless rainy spring morning I drove two hours to meet with a diverse group of agricultural tourists, including a dairy owner, a rancher, and multiple PhD’s. I wanted to learn for myself what the fuss was all about in regards to this location and its production methods.
Pulling into the driveway at Polyface, I was reminded of many of the farms I saw growing up in rural northeast Ohio. The countryside in this area of Virginia is exceptionally beautiful, and the cloudy day didn’t diminish my appreciation for the landscape. We were greeted by a young lady who informed us that chickens were being processed at that moment and we were welcome to watch.
Let me preface this next part with a few facts about me; I grew up in a hunting family and have butchered my fair share or wild game. I’ve been to Ohio Amish and California Asian markets where you could buy fish or poultry live and dress it yourself at home. I’ve been to commercial slaughterhouses. I’m confident I can observe everything from multiple perspectives objectively.
The processing area was an open air affair with just a roof built off a steel building. A flatbed truck sat with stacked plastic cages containing about a dozen birds each. I was immediately struck by the condition of the birds themselves as well as a pile of dead birds near the crate. They were rather dirty, had obvious wounds and a good deal of feather loss. An employee or intern was taking birds from the crates, inserting them head first into a spinning device with twelve inverted metal cones, each with an opening at the bottom for the chicken’s head. After inserting a bird or two at a time, the worked deftly to cut the throats, spun the structure and repeated, allowing the chickens to bleed out into a catch basin at the bottom. Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface, jokingly referred to the contraption as “The Wheel of Fortune”. The birds were not subjected to electronic or atmospheric control stunning or otherwise rendered unconscious by any means, and thrashed in the cones, sending a spray of blood into the wind blowing through the area. After being allowed to bleed out for a bit and without checking to see if the birds were still conscious, the worker grabbed them by the feet and threw them into a scalding tub, with paddles that churned through the water to loosen the feathers. Next the birds moved to a spinning tub which removed the feathers and in at least one case, chucked a bird out into our group. More workers were waiting on the line of steel tables, over which small hoses maintained a steady stream of water. The source of this water was never identified, but based on the farm’s remote location it was not city sourced. I should add I did not at any time see any treatment or filtration systems for any of the water on the farm. Feet were removed and tossed into five gallon buckets at the workers’ feet, as well as livers, both of which were items for sale in the Polyface store. Two dogs lounged nearby and I watched as two very happy farm cats gorged on chicken parts; some thrown to them and others they pilfered from the buckets and bins. As chickens were completed, they were tossed into either a large plastic water filled bin or a set of steel water filled bins. A request to explain the sorting was politely answered that one was for employee meals and the others for saleable birds. I’m not sure where the run off from the processing area went though I did not a small pond adjacent to the set up.
Mr Salatin stated that they process about 20,000 birds this way every year, a number not based on expected sales but rather on a limit set by the government on how many can be produced for sale before a USDA inspector is required. Based on comments made throughout the visit, it seemed the production number was restricted based solely on Mr Salatin’s objections to having an inspector on site. Having seen the processing first hand, I can understand why.
We next climbed into a farm truck and made the trek up the hill to see more of the farm’s methods up close and personal. Along the way, Mr Salatin explained the farm consists of 550 family owned acres, and an additional leased 1100 acres of pasture. We followed a single lane track up to a pasture where a small herd of beef cattle were grazing. A pasture area adjacent to them, separated by a hot wire, was home to rows of portable chicken enclosures ten feet wide by twelve feet long by about two feet high. Each contained approximately 75 birds. These were in two rows of eight pens each, in three separate sets that I could see on the hillside. The grass beneath us was sparse and liberally coated with large black watery streaks of manure. Mr Salatin explained that he places the chicken pens, for raising meat birds, in pastures recently vacated by the cattle. The birds, he said, graze on the grass left behind and peck for insects. They are also given a supply of water and feed bins, with a mixture I couldn’t begin to identify. The pens, we were told, were moved daily to give the birds access to clean space. Mr Salatin gave us a demonstration of how this was accomplished by grabbing a wire handle on the pen (there are two on each, on opposite sides) and dragging the pen several feet downhill. The birds were required to keep up with the dragged pen, and I noticed some being caught in the support structure and between each other as it was moved. The rear of the pen, in contact with the ground, also dragged a good portion of fresh chicken droppings along with it. The birds exhibited the same characteristics as those I had just seen in the processing area in regards to dirt, feather loss and wounds. I decided at this point, for sure, that a broiler would not be on my shopping list at the end of the day.
The cattle themselves were an odd mix. When I inquired to breeds, Mr Salatin said that he doesn’t bother with them, but instead picks his beef animals based on phenotype. He stated a clear aversion for anything in the color black, saying it was just a personal preference. The cattle I saw seemed healthy and content in their field, occasionally coming closer to our group to see the tourists. The source of the watery black manure was the cattle and I was informed later this could be due to the grass only diet and recent wet weather conditions. We learned a small group had just been sent for processing at a local slaughterhouse. We were not given a name or location and when I asked how many pounds of beef are produced annually on the farm using their methods, I couldn’t get a straight answer. I was told that the cut rate (percentage of meat produced from the animal vs waste) was between 54 to 59%. Did any of the waste go to any other use, I wondered? No. Hides, I was told, are not processed due to poor sale price, especially for small slaughterhouses, and nothing else was used; all waste was simply sent to a rendering plant. I did find that about 900 animals are harvested there every year. I saw only a few dozen the entire day.
Back into the truck and up the incline we went. We came near enough to see but did not directly come in contact with a large flock of egg producing hens, allowed to roam over an open field, with portable nesting housing. These large buildings are actually constructed on trailer beds, which can be easily attached to any ball hitch and moved nearly anywhere on the farm. The birds looked fit and all appeared to be breeds laying brown shell eggs. A member of our groups asked about the chicken’s exposure to Avian Influenza, since Virginia can boast thousands of migratory bird species. The answer shocked me. Mr Salatin claims that domestic chickens are conferred immunity to Avian Influenza by eating a few blades of grass per day. I’m not aware of any studies that would confirm this claim and I’m still searching for documentation. We weren’t told how often the eggs were collected or how often the mobile structures were cleaned. Too many red flags for me. I crossed eggs off my potential purchase list. As with any pastured birds, Salatin said he experiences some loss to predation, mostly by raccoons. Anatolian Shepherd “Michael” is on the job to keep those numbers as low as possible.
Further up the hill we went, to what Salatin promised would be “something beautiful”. He was right; the view couldn’t be beat. In a shady high field lounged a group of hogs of various breeds and ages. Mr. Salatin does not farrow his own hogs, citing concern for potential worker injuries from “sow anger” and buys them from any nearby producers he can. The hogs are moved from field to field, staying only long enough for a central feeding station to go from full to empty. The mixture inside is created for him by a local mill and he proudly boasts that it contains no GMO grains. The hogs, he stated, are finished on acorns. The animals I saw were inquisitive of our group, active, and appeared to acting like, well, pigs. They were busily rooting up stumps, nibbling on grass and resting in sunny spots. They seemed leaner than hogs I have previously viewed though overall my impression was of healthy animals. Hogs, like the cattle, are processed at an outside facility when they reach an appropriate weight. Predation in these high fields hasn’t been much of a problem, and Mr Salatin welcomes experienced hunters to his property to help prevent losses. We spent the greatest amount of time on the farm with the hogs, and the animals were calm and comfortable with our presence.
We did travel just a bit further up the hill to see one of the collection ponds used to provide water, by gravity, through several areas of the farm. According to Mr Salatin, there are three such ponds on the hillside.
Back on level ground we were shown a barn where meat rabbits are kept. This set up intrigued me, since the rabbits were in elevated wire cages and laying hens were permitted to roam the deep litter mix below. The rabbits were all heavy with thick coats. Many does had multiple kits that also appeared well fed and healthy. I noted feather loss and wounds on hens in this area as well as pieces of what recently used to be hens scattered amongst the bedding. There were eggs in several nesting boxes that were of good size and even color. I didn’t see any on the floors, and again, didn’t know how frequently they were collected. Mr Salatin stated that all the meat rabbits were tightly line bred from the same small colony started by his son years before. He said they suffered very high losses in their first few years. As a long time hobby breeder of conformation and working dogs, I would counter that the rabbits were actually heavily inbred. In either case, they looked like rabbits I wouldn’t mind putting on my plate. Unfortunately, there were none to be had at the farm store. Maybe next time.
A short visit to see the chick hatchlings, chickens and turkeys together in one large, warm barn, and our tour was done. All seemed content and adorable. Yes, I admit my food can be cute.
We ended with hearty handshakes and mutual appreciation talks in the farm store, where we were directed to a smiling young lady who offered to help us find anything we needed. Based on our tour and my observations, I was most interested in rabbits, pork and beef, in that order. I had no desire to attempt broiler chickens or shell eggs, seeing as I was no personally comfortable with them from a safety standpoint, and that the breeds were no different from what I could find at my local market.
Sticker shock assaulted me at the freezer section. Each individually wrapped item was clearly listed for product and weight, but not price. That could be found by consulting a list posted on the doors. While Mr Salatin had previously claimed his products average about twice the amount for the same cuts in cost, I found his estimate to be woefully inaccurate. Eggs, for example, average $1.50 per dozen for extra large white eggs at my local store. At Polyface, 12 large brown eggs were $4.00. I buy sale priced cuts of beef at my grocery and ask them to grind it fresh for me, a free service, resulting in an average price of $2.00 per pound. At Polyface, ground beef is $5.50 a pound. Boneless skinless chicken breasts typically cost me about $2.00 per pound. At Polyface, they cost an astonishing $13.00 per pound. Whole broilers? My cost about a $1.00 per lb, theirs $3.25 (cut is $4.30, while I usually spend less than $1.50). Chicken legs and thighs? About $0.49 to $0.75 per pound for me, $4.50 a pound at Polyface.
Mr Salatin defends his pricing and his methods passionately, and I have no doubt he is a devout believer that what he is doing is right. For his property, for his purposes, and his production goals, I have to agree he uses his resources well. As a consumer, I wonder just how many people can be fed from those 1650 acres, two thirds of which isn’t even his own, and the answer seems frighteningly small in comparison to alternative operations. Salatin says he is not an elitist, and challenges anyone who claims not be able to afford his foods to give up other things in their lives. That if he were to visit their homes, he’d better not see a big screen tv, a gas hogging SUV, a flier on the family’s upcoming Disneyland vacation or coffee in the pantry. To some extent I can concur. But I think it’s only fair to understand that some folks have so called luxury items from a previously way of life they may not be able to afford anymore, need larger cars for employment purposes and save money by making sacrifices in some areas of their lives in order to give their children a happier experience. He won’t find a home theater system, Navigator truck or a vacation any further than the local park’s fishing pier at my home- though trust me, he really doesn’t want to see me without my coffee. We’re struggling right now with everyday expenses and trying to put enough by for emergencies.
I bought two items that day. A 2lb London broil and a 2lb bone in pork roast, both marked at $7.00 per pound. This is well above the average I would pay for these cuts at my local shops, and I expect to do a taste comparison between them when I get the chance to buy identical cuts in similar sizes at the grocery store. But I can’t do that yet. I’m too busy trying to balance in the nearly $30.00 spent on these two cuts alone, an amount equal to two entire days’ worth of all food and household products for my family.
Do I expect them to be good? Only a taste test will tell, but I can be sure that no matter how good the taste, I can’t consider the expense worthwhile when I can use my talents as an educated consumer to choose tender, tasteful cuts at chain grocers and employ my not insignificant kitchen skills to using each cut as best I can to maximize flavor and stretch the servings. I just can’t afford to buy into the notion that a production method assertively touted as the ecological and morally superior choice is better in any way for my family. I can’t accept all this talk of model sustainability when introduced to free labor in the form of interns and apprentices, $50 DVDs and other kitschy merchandise, and recent publications by the owner asking for donations to keep his operation running. This doesn’t meet my definition of realistic production methodology.But that’s just my opinion. I appreciate the opportunity I have to choose healthy foods from modern agricultural sources and respect the choices of those who believe, as Mr Salatin does, that his methods are appropriate for their families.
at 2:10 PM