Tag Archives: chickens

Guest post: Chicken wrangling

The following post was written by the groom, Andy McLeod.

Since camp ended and the cow I’ve been milking went back to Maryland (summer people and their dairy cows, sheesh) I’ve been feeling a little guilty about staying home, not earning any money and not “working,” while Julia goes off work everyday, slaving away in her lakeside office or snorkeling. But I have not been idle (see previous post and add to that cleaning up from all that canning, splitting fire wood and wrangling chickens).

J.M. Hatchery told us that Freedom Ranger chickens need 9-11 weeks to grow to slaughter weight, so we scheduled a date with the slaughterhouse for 11 weeks. After about 7 weeks of buying bag after bag of grain, it became apparent that most of the roosters would be ready at least two weeks before our date. Fortunately, West Gardiner Beef, where Julia’s parents and many other people we know bring their animals to meet their end, was able to fit half of our birds in a couple of weeks earlier. It was a Friday so that left the chore to me alone, since Julia had to go out on the lake to look for invasive plants.

Andy with one of our pastured Freedom Ranger roosters

Thursday afternoon I started separating the birds into keepers and takers.  We have two pens — the smaller one held 13 and the larger one housed 35 birds. Sometimes we let the lucky 13 out to poke around in the woods. We tried to let the 35 out but the door to their pen opens only at the top, so the opening is a few feet off the ground. We propped boards up as ramps inside and outside the pen so they could walk up and then down to freedom. But they wouldn’t do it. One chicken would walk to the top of the inside ramp and stand there looking out — like that kid at the playground who climbs to the top of the slide and freezes in fear while all the other kids are waiting on the ladder yelling at him to just go. And like the kid on the slide, each time, the chicken, well, chickened out and went back down into the pen, forcing all the chickens waiting behind her to climb back down too.

The smaller pen’s door opens all the way to the ground, which means they only had to jump six inches over the bottom board. Even that seemed like too much of a barrier at first, but once those first few brave chickens made the leap, the rest followed. So on Thursday I opened the door to the smaller pen, shooed out the smaller hens and one tiny rooster and kept the big guys. That was the easy part. Next, using a borrowed dog crate, I started sorting the birds in the big pen. The first few were easy to catch by just grabbing them by the feet. After a few seconds of being upside down, they went into a kind of trance and just hung there, looking around. But once they knew I was after them, the rest of the chickens ran to the far end of the pen. That meant I had to crawl into the three-foot-high pen, kneeling in chicken poop. They also seemed to know I wanted them by the feet, so they sat way in the corner with their feet tucked safely under their wings. Once I had a crate full of chickens, I then grabbed them by the feet two at a time and carried them to the smaller pen.

Once all the big, fat chickens were sorted into the smaller pen for their last night, I then had to catch the smaller hens and rooster and put them in the larger pen. They’re pretty easy to catch. You just walk toward them slowly with your arms out wide and herd them in the direction you want them to go. If you get them pinned against the outside of the pen as you approach, they just hunker down and hope for the best. If you grab them around the body, making sure the wings are tucked under your hands, they don’t squirm much at all. With all the chicken sorting, I was worried about new chickens being picked on by the old flock, but after an initial inspection of newcomers, everyone seemed fine with the new arrangements.

With the sorting done, all I had to do was load the 24 largest chickens into the waiting pet carriers Friday morning. I foolishly gave myself only 15 minutes for this chore. Of course some of the chickens escaped while I was loading others.  As I’ve said, they’re easy to catch, but considering my time constraints, I was a bit rushed. Luckily, the extra-large roosters couldn’t run very far before they need a rest. Once I chased them into the woods at the edge of the field, it was just a matter of getting them to trap themselves in a bush or tangle of branches. With everybody loaded up, I was off to the slaughterhouse.

24 chickens cooling in the fridge before being frozen

It’s a strange and confusing experience to raise animals to eat them.  While they were alive, I wanted them to be happy and comfortable and to lead a good life. Up until the last minute, I was concerned about their well-being — trying not to brake or swerve too suddenly with them in the back of the truck and worrying that they were too hot or thirsty on the ride — only to hand them over to blood-splattered butchers to be unceremoniously beheaded, feathered and gutted in a matter of minutes.

I am not philosophically opposed to eating meat that has been raised in a humane and environmentally-friendly manner. I think animals play an important role in the small farm model and can provide valuable protein to an otherwise vegetable-based diet. But at the same time I find it emotionally troubling to kill an animal just as it’s reaching full size and maturity. How can I put that much energy into caring for something, not only making sure it is well-fed and healthy, but also that is has fresh air, clean grass and comfortable living quarters, only to eat it in the end?

I’ve been considering being vegetarian again.  It doesn’t feel right to leave the dirty work to someone else and I don’t think I want to do this often enough that it doesn’t bother me anymore. I don’t want to be numb to the suffering of others, even if they are my dinner. Maybe I’ll get my protein from eggs and milk. I’ve found no difficulty in enlisting the outputs of animals for my own use, and it warms my heart to see a flock of plump laying hens foraging in the bushes.

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Choosing chickens

The best chicken I’ve ever eaten was in Costa Rica. I lived in a tiny town called La Esperanza (literally translated as Hope) in the mountains of Costa Rica for a year. I taught English in the public elementary school and spent many afternoons walking the steep, dusty roads to share food with new friends. My visits to Costa Rican families centered around food. Since these families didn’t have a lot of money and primarily survived on subsistence agriculture, meat was a luxury they cooked for guests. And it was delicious!

In La Esperanza most families seemed to have a flock of chickens. I would often see a mother hen clucking protectively, gathering her flock of multi-colored chicks. These chickens were good mothers and perpetuated the flock, in spite of the iguanas and other predators that snatched some of the chicks. Though people would feed these chickens handfuls of corn thrown in the dirt, much of what the chickens ate was foraged.

When my host mother wanted to cook chicken for dinner, she would send my host brother or sister outside to catch one of the hens or roosters that wandered around outside the house. Lili or Pelon would chase the flock until they caught one, then carry it by its feet into the kitchen, where Heidi had a pot of hot water on the stove. Heidi would hold the chicken close to her body, head down, and pull on the chicken’s head until she broke its neck. She then dipped the chicken in the boiling water and sent it back outside with Lili or Pelon to pluck the feathers. Then Heidi would cook the chicken and serve it for dinner. It was the ultimate in fresh, free range meat, and had so much more flavor than anything I’ve bought in a store or restaurant in this country.

Costa Rica cemented my transition from vegetarian to omnivore. Andy, too, eats meat now after many years as a vegetarian. We like to eat meat, though we do try to eat mostly meat from animals that were raised in a humane and sustainable way. We like animals, and we want them to be happy before we eat them. We also believe happy animals with a varied diet produce tastier and healthier meat. We like free range meat, and we want it to be a part of the wedding dinner. So we decided to raise our own chickens.

Cornish Cross chickens are the most commonly used meat hybrid. I’ve eaten these birds, and they taste good. We’ve seen these fat white birds grow quickly to slaughter size. There is an obvious advantage to a bird you only have to feed for six or eight weeks instead of 10 to 12. But we’re turned off by these chickens for several reasons. They seem over-bred to us, to the point of sacrificing some beneficial traits. They don’t seem to forage well, and some crosses have trouble even standing and walking because they grow too fast for their legs to keep up. We wonder if flavor could be better in a bird that eats a more varied diet and wasn’t bred primarily to grow fast. This isn’t to say that raising Cornish Cross birds is a bad choice, but we decided to look for an alternative.

In doing some research on Cornish Cross birds, I found the following excerpt from an article published in “Grit!,” the newsletter of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) and included in APPPA’S compilation: “Raising Poultry on Pasture: Ten Years of Success.” The article was written by Harvey and Ellen Ussery and can be found at http://www.TheModernHomestead.US.

“The Cornish Cross’s greatest virtue is also its greatest vice: its phenomenal rate of growth. That growth is constantly outstripping all its bodily systems—its internal organs and nervous system as well as its skeletal structure. The inevitable results include not only the well-known leg problems and tendency to heart failure—the digestive system clearly lags behind as well…The Cornish Cross—like the huge supermarket strawberry whose growth has been forced by over-fertilization and irrigation—is lower in flavor than a bird that has had a more natural growth curve…I would be happy to put one of my ‘barnyard chickens’ (slaughtered at about 12 weeks) up against any pastured Cornish broiler in the land in a taste test: they unquestionably have more flavor. And, if flavor is a measure of nutritional value—as I believe in natural, unprocessed food it is—then again we should be asking, ‘What is wrong with this picture?’”

Looking for an alternative, we found positive reviews of Freedom Ranger chickens as meat birds. Another few clicks with the mouse and we had ordered 50 from J.M. Hatchery in Pennsylvania. They’ll be shipped as day old chicks on June 30, and we should receive them two days later. We’ll keep them in the garage for a few weeks under a heat lamp, and then we’ll put them in a moveable chicken tractor so we can rotate them around the field near our garden. This way they’ll always have fresh grass and bugs to feed on.

Freedom Ranger meat bird

We’ve made an appointment to have them slaughtered September 18 at West Gardiner Beef. Then we’ll keep them on ice until we roast at least 25 of them for the wedding. The rest we’ll probably stick in our freezer and/or sell to friends.

We look forward to watching these birds grow outdoors with plenty of food, water, shade and sun. We also look forward to eating the juicy, tender, flavorful meat. Let’s just hope our structure is sturdy enough to keep out the predators!