Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Fox visited our Chickens

Day before yesterday the chickens made a racket. They've frequently made rackets in the past and we rushed out to see what was wrong, only to find that they were quibbling over a bug or a rooster was after a hen. So when we heard the racket We were unimpressed. My husband meandered out; I stayed in my comfy chair.

He quickly returned, exclaiming, "There's a cat after the chickens!"

I jumped up and ran to the door and saw a ginger colored cat with a fluffy persian tail slinking amongst the chickens. Well that just ticked me right off. I took off running toward the chickens in my bedroom slippers. I was gonna kick some cat butt.

The cat was fast and fluid. The cat was a fox!

I herded the upset chickens into the coop while my husband went looking for the fox. He never found the fox though he conducted a long and thorough search. The photograph is a trifling sample of all the feathers that were on the ground.

We thought we'd lost a chicken or two, for sure, yet they are all present and accounted for. I've looked and looked at the chickens but can't find any with raggedy tails or bald botoms.

We were really lucky. Fortunately for us this was a very young fox -- not too strong and fairly inexperienced. We're glancing outside at least hourly now, sometimes more often.


Thursday, October 19, 2006


Here's a letter I'm sending to the editors of my two local newspapers and my state and federal representatives (with the last bit changed, urging them to change NAIS so it does not apply to animals raised for personal consumption). If you are like-minded, please feel free to plagiarize and modify (or not) for your own use as you see fit.

I am writing to voice my concern about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) being promoted by the USDA. This program, implemented in 2004, is designed to identify and track every livestock animal in the US, to “protect American animal agriculture from foreign or domestic disease threats.” (USDA website). The goal is to be able to track a diseased animal back to its place of origin within 48 hours. It sounds great. It sounds safe. Reading the USDA and WV Dept. of Agriculture literature makes me want to hop right on the bandwagon.

But wait. After brushing away all the hype and rhetoric, what does NAIS really entail? Every farm gets a premise ID, uniquely identifying it in a national database. In addition, animals must be identified. Large groups of livestock which are always moved as a unit get a single animal ID. Small farmers who may sell a few sheep at an auction must ID each animal individually. The movement of the animals is then tracked. That doesn't sound too bad.

How might this affect me? I have a flock of chickens for eggs and meat for my own consumption. I have to register my premises and pay a fee. I have to fill out paperwork and note when every chick is born, and pay a fee for that too. I have to figure out how to uniquely ID each chick and pay for that. If a chick wanders off or gets killed by a coyote I have to fill out paperwork and report that. If I sell or trade a rooster, I have to report that. If one of my children wants to show an attractive chicken at a fair or use it as a 4-H project, we have to fill out paperwork and document every time the chicken leaves the premises. That sounds pretty expensive and time consuming.

Animals subject to NAIS include cattle, bison, horses, goats, poultry, sheep, deer, elk, llamas, alpacas, swine, and aquaculture. If you take your horse to a horse show or a riding trail, you have to fill out paperwork documenting that movement. Any time one of your animals leaves your premises and comingles with other animals, it must be reported.

I can see how this is a good program for large producers of our nation's beef or pork supply, despite the fact that we haven't had a single case of mad cow disease or avian flu in a human the US. It makes good management sense for them and, because they move and track huge groups of animals at a time, it is not cost prohibitive. For the small farmer, or backyard farmer, it makes no sense at all. If I buy one of my neighbor's pigs, I know exactly where that meat came from. There is no need to have it entered in a national registry. The small farmer who is already working on a tight margin will likely be driven out of business by this program because he simply does not have the money, time, or staff to deal with the required fees, tagging, and paperwork.

This program is slated to be mandatory by 2008. I urge everyone reading this letter to educate themselves about the NAIS. Excellent starting points are (pro) and (con).


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Stairway to (Squash) Heaven

I grew one vine of butternut squashes this year, and got these handsome squashes plus one more that is hiding out in one of my kitchen cabinets. I don't have a root cellar and my small but sincere pantry is kind of overwhelmed right now so I'm storing the squashes on the stairs. I hope they don't mind the warm temps. I think they look kind of nifty there.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Mystery Chicken

When we ordered chicks, we got 25 "straight run" Speckled Sussex chicks. Straight run means a random mixture of males and females. We also got a free "mystery chick".

He'll be going to freezer camp soon but I thought I'd take his picture first. He's a very pretty fellow, if a bit on the small size. I don't know what kind of chicken he is. Probably a male of an egg-laying breed. It wouldn't make sense for the hatchery to give away anything else.

For some reason Blogger is giving me absolute fits with uploading pics. The larger version of some of my recent pics is cut off at the bottom, but I went with it because most of the time I can't even get the pics to upload at all. I'm sure they'll have it ironed out soon. For what I pay (free) I can't complain.


Monday, October 09, 2006


We have kits at Palazzo Rospo! This is the most exciting thing we've had happen here in a long time. I knew two of the three does were pregnant, and I knew they'd dug burrows. I thought this litter had died, though, because the doe pretty much sealed up the burrow for several days. I'd read that if a litter dies the doe will "bury" them in the burrow. So I was sad, but she's awfully young so I figured better luck next time.

Well yesterday I noticed the burrow was opened back up. And TODAY I saw kits in there! Their eyes are open and they came out and nursed a bit under the dog crate hutch.

After they'd nursed a bit, the doe hopped down to get a drink of water and nibble on some strawberry plants I'd brought up from the garden and put in their feeding hutch. She just left the babies there in plain site, and I got a couple of shots of them before they went back down into the burrow.

There are at least three live kits and one dead one The dead one is easily visible lying on the ground just inside the entrance to the burrow. I didn't mess with it. I figure if it's still there after the kits are well and truly out and about I'll dispose of it then. I didn't want to mess too much today on their first day out.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Butchering Chickens

This past weekend we butchered a couple of the roosters. We didn't butcher the handsome fellow pictured above. He's one we're definitely going to keep. When there is danger, he sounds the alarm. He stands guard outside the chicken house calling everyone in to safety. When the dogs bark, he rushes up to square off with them. He's very brave and protective. He's also got a sweet disposition and comes over to visit whenever I'm outside. We're keeping a spare, too, in case this one's bravado proves fatal.

Anyway, about the butchering. We figured we'd just do a couple, to figure out what was what. Then probably next weekend we'll do eight more and keep two roos and all the hens until we know which hens lay well, which go broody, etc. May butcher some hens later, but not yet.

ANYway... here are my observations. The text is graphic but there are no gory pictures.

Chickens are easy to catch if you let them all out in the morning and throw out some feed (my normal routine) then grab them by their feet while their butts are up in the air and they're distracted by the food. They are very calm when carried by their feet. They remain calm when you lay them across the chopping block. Very co-operative.

It's surprisingly difficult to behead a chicken.

They bleed less than I thought they would.

Butchering isn't as "wet" as I thought it would be. It's more sticky than wet.

We plucked the first bird and realized we'd scalded it a little too long. To make the feathers come out easily, a bird is dipped in water between 130F and 180F and swished around a bit. His feathers didn't come out very easily after several seconds of swishing, so we dunked him again and then his feathers came out really easily but his flesh was barely cooked at the outside edge. In the end we skinned him, and the second bird we skinned without even plucking. In the future, we'll mostly skin without plucking, as it saves heating up the water and all that. We don't really eat roast chicken anyway. Always grilled, stir-fry, soup, or burritos - dishes that utilize skinless pieces or meat off the bone.

I don't see HOW anyone can cut around the vent, then loosen the innards from the neck and pull everything out the vent (that's what I've read you're supposed to do). Everything is too firmly attached, you can't see what you're doing, and my hands are too big to go down in there. We didn't even try that method.

Instead, we did what my Grandmama told me to do, and it's one of the ways Carla Emery describes in her book. We took kitchen shears (note to self: order real poultry shears!) and cut along one side of the backbone, and opened it up. All the innards are easy to see, identify, cut free from the body, and dump out. On the second bird we cut along both sides of the backbone, and it was even easier.

The innards are more colorful and easier to identify than I expected. I expected everything to be kind of grayish nondescript and all mixed up. The lungs were *bright* pink, the liver a rich mahogany color, the gall bladder bright green. The gizzard was surprisingly firm. Hmm... I don't remember seeing the heart. Maybe we have heartless chickens!

It didn't stink as bad as I thought it would.

Chickens like blood. The other chickens made a pest of themselves, nosey things. A couple even jumped up on our makeshift table (plywood across sawhorses, with a plastic tablecloth). We had to shoo them away.

I thought it would bother me a lot, but it didn't really. NOW I'm bothered by the fact that it wasn't more difficult for me, emotionally (what kind of heartless beast *am* I?). My husband just rolls his eyes.

I marinated one chicken and grilled it last night. I used a grill with a propane tank and mistakenly left front, center, and back burners on. I was only supposed to leave front and back burners on. It was crispy to the point of challenging the structural integrity of our teeth :( I was really upset with myself for messing up the cooking after spending FIVE MONTHS brooding, raising, feeding, counting the chickens. GRRR. But, I'll pay better attention next time, and I suppose it's a lesson learned. My husband was very understanding.

Deep in the middle of the pieces, where the meat wasn't burned, it was a bit chewier than store-bought chicken but not unpleasant. It was juicy, despite being way overcooked and the chicken having very little body fat. The breasts tasted pretty much like store-bought chicken breasts, and the dark meat was richer, more like dark turkey meat (store-bought).

I simmered the carcass for several hours, then strained the liquid into a container. I picked the meat off the carcass bones and added them to the strained liquid, then froze it all. That will be soup one day.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Chickens at Five Months

This is probably our most handsome rooster right now. We have a couple that are awfully pretty. We bought 25 straight-run day-old Speckled Sussex chicks at the beginning of May. Straight-run means it's random luck as to whether they are male or female; we just get whichever chick was grabbed when our order was being filled. We actually got 26 Speckled Sussex chicks plus a free "mystery chick" for a total of 27 chicks. We ended up wth 13 hens and 13 roosters, plus the mystery rooster.

One rooster died a couple of weeks ago. He was standing by himself with his tail feathers down when I went to let them all out of the chicken house for the day. I isolated him and gave him electrolytes in his water, but he didn't pull through. He died after about three days of illness. We figure he ate something he shouldn't have. I dug a hole and buried him.

It's odd how something is a certain size when living, then when dead it's reduced and seems smaller. Then when you go to dig a hole to bury it, it magically grows to be even larger than it was in life. That's what the rooster did, anyway.

The hens should start laying eggs any day now, or maybe a month from now. They don't have nest boxes so that's a project I need to do pronto. As soon as I process the last of the tomatoes and dig up the potatoes (if they're still worth digging after all this rain). Maybe the hens will hold off egg laying for another week or two. Fingers crossed.


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