Saturday, August 21, 2010

Murder Most Fowl

We processed our Cornish Cross this week.  They were just over six weeks old. 
At the end, 31 birds survived to die an unnatural death.  Five birds died in the
fifth week, and we don't know why.  We cut back their feed and that seemed
to help, but it could have just as well been the heat.

The processing was made much easier by some great resources on the
web.  Herrick Kimball, famous among backyard raisers for
his whizbang chicken plucker, has a website with step by step
instructions for how to butcher a chicken.  There are also several
youtube videos that we found very useful, especially Joel Salatin
eviscerating a chicken and how they kill chickens at Polyface farm.
For more details we suggest you check them out, we will just cover our
personal experience.

Here is our basic setup.

You see the killing cones in the center back, the scalder to the right, a plucker
to the left, and a makeshift table for evisceration in the foreground. 

Was it difficult killing a chicken?  We cut the left and right carotid arteries while
leaving the trachea intact.  This allows the bird to keep breathing and the heart
to pump blood out of the body longer.  They say that the bird goes unconscious
after 5-10 seconds from blood loss and that all the flopping around after that is
just nerves.  Because of this we were surprised to see the bird's eyes still focusing
and what could be interpreted as struggling to get out of the cone after half a minute.

After the birds were killed and blood drained, they went to the scalder. 

Optimal water temperature is supposed to be between 140-150 Fahrenheit.  Even within
that range the exact temperature could make a big difference in the time it took to scald,
and we got better results closer to 150.  With the temperature at 150, it took us about
a minute and a half to get a good scald.  The drawback of higher temperatures is that
the skin becomes more likely to tear during plucking.

With our setup it was difficult to maintain a steady temperature---the steady-state flame
was small enough that the wind could blow it out and then we would
have to re-light.  We followed Herrick's advice and scalded until the tail and wing
feathers came out with no resistance.  That seemed to work pretty well. 
Testing a tail feather

Next up was the plucker.  We made a table top plucker.  People say great things
about the whizbang tub plucker but it costs about $500 to make.  We put
together the table top plucker for about $120. 

Reading people's how-to descriptions they always say stuff like "we made this for $5 with
stuff we had lying around."  The motor we had lying around.

Here is the plucker in action.

Plucking was definitely the most difficult part.  It took a lot of spatial
reasoning to figure out how to orient the bird over the plucker to get the
feathers on the inside of the legs or under the wings.  If the plucker's "fingers"
hit your fingers, it hurts.  After 15 birds our technique improved, but we
found it faster anyway to just get most of the feathers with the plucker and
do the rest by hand.  Now we really see the attraction of the whizbang plucker.

After the plucker, there are still some feathers left

The bird all cleaned up

The last step was evisceration.  Contrary to what you might expect, this was one
of the easier and, dare I say, enjoyable steps of the process.  It certainly was
educational to see how the organs of a chicken are laid out and there is an interesting
technical skill to learn here.

Chicken organs laid out.  The blade is 4 inches.

At the top you can see the esophagus (to the left) and the trachea.  The
esophagus connects to the crop, which is inflated with air here.  When
the Cornish were alive you could the crops bulging with food standing out from
their breasts.  Below the crop you see the pink lungs, then the heart, liver and
the little green gall bladder peeking out behind the liver.  The red silvery organ
is the gizzard, which is pretty interesting in itself.  The gizzard connects to the
intestines, which finish at the vent there in the bottom left of the picture.

The gizzard
This bird had a bunch of Tallow tree berries in his gizzard
The gizzard all cleaned up. 
Before you eat a gizzard you should peel out this yellow lining, it is very tough and
leathery.  Luckily, we learned this before we cooked them. 

Gizzard with lining removed

Friday, August 13, 2010

Duck Soup

We finished the pond a couple days ago, burying the liner in the ground
around the edges and installing a pump and filter.  The ducks approached
to check it out yesterday, but were a bit suspicious.  Today after a couple
more approaches they took the plunge.  We have found that it is usually
the female ducks that lead the group and are more adventurous.  But today
is was a male who entered first.

It was a new experience for them to be in water so deep they could
completely submerge themselves.  It took a couple of tries for them to learn
how to kick their feet to go under water.

Best of all, the pump is solar powered.  You can see the solar panel mounted
just behind the pond in this picture. 

The pump circulates 300 gallons per hour and uses 47 watts.  During the day
we get enough power from the solar panel to run the pump without draining
the battery.

Judgement at Savaroo

I closed the coop door and went to get a shovel.  When I got back, though, 
the snake was just slipping out through a gap underneath the door.

This gave us some time to discuss what should be done if he returned. 
We considered three options.  First, some variation of catch and release, 
removing the snake to a patch of land a few miles away.  The problem here 
was that we do not have tools of any sort for the task and feared if we tried to 
trap him with boxes or buckets and such it was likely he would escape leaving 
the situation unresolved and our duck eggs still at risk.

The second option, the final solution, steel at the end of sticks, was unsettling.   
Understanding the snake's very real role in reducing the rodent population and 
trying to balance nature and animal husbandry left us feeling uneasy at taking 
the superficially simple and immediate solution.

Our third option would be to accept the snake’s niche in maintaining a lower 
rodent population in exchange for the recompense of a few duck eggs.


During the day we usually let the ducks roam freely.

They have a kiddie pool to play in, and some nice mud puddles to wet their bills. 

Later that afternoon we noticed all the ducks back near the coop quacking. 
Maddie, who has been sitting on the eggs all day, was out in the foyer very
agitated, even jumping into the screen wall in an attempt to escape.

We ran over to check it out.  The snake was back.  He was right
in Maddie's corner on top of the eggs she has been sitting on.

If we hadn't made up our minds yet, seeing the ducks so agitated and 
the snake sitting on top of Maddie's anticipated ducklings led to a 
unanimous verdict.

We locked him in---luckily earlier in the day we had eliminated 
the gap under the door with a 2 x 4---and went to get some gardening 

Fortunately, the coop has a back door as well, adjacent to where the snake
was lying on top of the eggs.  We opened the back door and
with a quick grasp slung the snake out onto the grass.  He was 
apparently startled---or perhaps just had a full tummy---and did not 
react much before the sentence was carried out.  A couple 
whacks with a shovel and a hoe and he was dead.

Ladies and Gentleman of the Jury.  Lest you think we acted rashly in our 
carrying out of this sentence, I present to you exhibit A. 

A crushed egg was found just by the snake's mouth.  He must have been 
in the process of regurgitating it when we disturbed him.

What about the lump we saw in the snake's body?  I give you exhibit B:

Unless this snake has yolk for blood, he had been eating some eggs.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nature's Chain

On a ranch one is always trying to create artificial environments.
Often these environments try to mimic nature and replicate the
beneficial interactions between species present in nature.

In Joel Salatin's pastured poultry operation, for example, he runs the chickens
on pasture a few days after the cows have grazed there.  The cows
graze and mash down the grass to a suitable height for the chickens
to move around in, and the chickens can eat the larvae and flies around
the dried cow dung.

A complete simulation of nature is not viable, however, namely because one
wants to keep out of the system the predators of the livestock.  This is one reason
why the idealized situation of chickens running free is simply not viable here.

One of the most striking things in keeping animals is the power of nature to impinge
upon the system and interfere with carefully designed plans of pens, coops, and fences
to keep her out.

This is all to say, today when I went to feed the ducks I found this in the coop.

A large snake, probably about four feet long.  We think it is a Texas rat snake,
also known as a chicken snake because they are often found in coops.  When I
discovered him, I think he had just eaten a duck egg---you could see an enlarged
lump moving down his body.

The 10 eggs you can see in the corner of this picture are being sat on by one of our
ducks Maddie.  She has been putting in an amazing amount of time sitting on the eggs,
staying in the coop all day long by herself while the other ducks are outside swimming
and roaming around.  By our reckoning the eggs should start hatching in about another
week.  It is very frustrating to be losing them now.

Just yesterday we had seen mice scampering around the coop, attracted by the
food that falls out of the feeder onto the ground.  It is a cycle repeated many times:
feed attracts mice and mice attract snakes.

Well, this post is already a bit long, so the conclusion of the story will have to
wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Pen Fleet

Here you can see our fleet of pastured pens.

All two of them, that is.  We have been moving them with just a regular old dolly,
but this method requires two people---one to pull from the front and the other
to keep the dolly down as it has a tendency to flip up. 

We found a nice trick---by propping open the rear roof door with a piece of
wood, we can encourage the birds to move to the front of the pen away from
the moving rear edge.  They avoid sunlight at all costs.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Solar Experiment

We installed an introductory 60 watt solar panel set today.  The chickens expressed a
desire to be off the grid.  During the low light winter months supplemental light is needed
to maintain the egg laying rate we have grown accustomed to.  About 14 total hours of
light (sun and artificial) are necessary to continue the level of summer egg production. 
Some hen lovers prefer to give them the winter off.  

The four 15 watt panels are attached to a frame of 2 x 4's mounted on
two metal pipes each secured to a 4 x 4 in the ground.  The frame can rotate
on the pipes so we can change the angle of the panel during the course of a year
to maximize sun exposure.

It was already dark when we got it all set up, so we will have to see how it works

An orp and a cross

Here is a shot of an orp and a cornish cross at four weeks.

And from another perspective.

Look at the feet on the cornish cross, they are massive!

How do the cornish cross get so big?  They eat a lot.  Here is today's feeding frenzy


The cornish cross are notoriously lazy.  It has been said that they will die of thirst
ten feet from a waterer because it is too far to walk.

It is true that we have not seen them foraging in the grass that much.  They mostly
sit down in the grass close to the feeder so they can go back to eating when the mood strikes. 

Of course, in this Texas heat, we haven't been moving much either.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Duck Pond Progress

The pond has water!

We finished the digging yesterday.  Or perhaps more accurately got tired of digging. 
Today we tried to build up the walls around the pond to prevent runoff and junk getting
in, and to give it a bit of shape.  Plus the ducks needed an easy access ramp for getting
in and out.

Then we put some sand down to protect the liner.  Probably more sand would
have been better, this is just what we had on hand.  Here you can also see the
duck entrance.

Finally the liner.  We already had to go back to the store twice to return the liner
and get a bigger one.  This 13' x 20' is the biggest home depot had.  Another
reason to stop digging.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The pens

For the Cornish Cross, we are following Joel Salatin's pastured poultry model. 
This involves having the chickens out on grass in small bottomless portable pens
so they can graze yet still have protection from predators.  The pens are moved
onto fresh grass each day.  Joel estimates that the chickens can get 20% of their diet
from grass and bugs.

As we don't have that many birds, and to reduce the risk of catastrophic loss, we made
two smaller pens, each about 4' by 8'.  Here is a picture of the construction.

And a better view of the internal construction.

The base is made of treated 2x4's, and the rest of the frame from 2x4's ripped in half
to reduce weight.  It is held together with screws and waterproof glue.

There are two hinged roof doors.  Initially, one was covered with corrugated galvanized
and the other was just netting like the sides.  In the Texas sun, however, we found that
all the birds crowded into the shade of the galvanized side so later we replaced the
netting with galvanized as well.  

You can see here the netting on the sides has fairly large holes, about 2" by 3".  Later,
thinking about raccoon paws we went back and put poultry netting over the sides.