"Boy! I say, boy, pay attention when I’m talkin’ to ya, boy."
Hopefully, you have enjoyed the recent doom porn on ZeroHedge regarding the decline and fall of the availability and quality of protein.
African Swine Fever is extremely contagious, there is no vaccine, and there is no cure. Once it starts spreading in a certain area, there isn’t much that can be done “other than culling herds and loading carcasses into hazardous waste sites”. Literally, we are talking about an unstoppable global plague that is an existential threat to our food supply.
...they place the company's products in a section with "other alternative proteins".
As y'all probably know, mrs_horseman and I have been producing most if not all of the protein for our family at our little farm for twenty years, and blogging about it on ZeroHedge for ten. Time does fly when you are having fun. While trying to come up with an article topic this past weekend and renovating the chicken house, I was surprised to realize that, although I have published ruminations and rubrics regarding our family milk cow and raising rabbits, I have yet to write an essay about life with chickens. So, without further delay, I present to you, Free Range Love or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Coq.
Chickens are probably the easiest of all protein sources to disintermediate. In traveling the world, a rooster on the roadside or a few caged hens on a bus will often catch my eye. From the high-rise apartments of Dongguan to a dirt yard in the Panamanian rain forest, people raise chickens for eggs, meat, and cockfighting. Our family often marvels at discovering that the behaviors and events that led to English colloquialisms and idioms are the same the world over, no matter the language: cocky, pecking order, don't put all your eggs in one basket, don't count your chickens before they hatch, and running around like a chicken with its head cut off. What differs, however, are the behaviors of the people raising the chickens, from the commercial farmer producing McNuggets and Tendeez by the ton, to the lady in a Parisian flat raising bantam hens in a gilded cage, and everything in between.
In between is where we fall. As I have mentioned before, neither mrs_horseman nor I grew up on a farm, but we did both have horses that were kept elsewhere. I knew that we were always going to have horses, and probably children, but never imagined raising cattle, rabbits, or chickens. Then, in 2008, while watching the financial system come close to collapse, it did not take much imagination for each of us to come to the conclusion that we need to be able to produce some food. She said we should "have" a garden. I said we should "get" some chickens. Blindly, and in a bit of a panic, we proceeded to do both. This article is the sum of our experiences since 2008 with the chickens. I may write the garden article another day.
How, exactly, does one "get" some chickens. As it turns out, it can be quite easy, if the chicken comes first, rather than the egg. In springtime, almost anywhere in America, you can simply drive to a local feed store, such as Tractor Supply Company, and purchase baby chicks for just a few dollars. Alternatively, if you have a specific breed in mind, you can order chicks online from a number of hatcheries. We have had good success with Ideal Poultry in Texas, but you may want to choose someone closer to you.
Ideal Poultry maintains more than fifty-thousand breeders on its company owned farms. Ideal currently hatches and sells and .
I have to admit that I found online shopping for chickens to be very enjoyable. We wanted a dual-purpose heritage breed, initially, and started our first flock with Mottled Houdans, mostly because, to my eye, they were so very interesting looking. We were surprised to learn that day-old chicks are delivered via the United States Postal Service. No kidding. You will get a call from your local post office to come down and pick up a box of baby chickens!
But before you go rush off and buy some chicks at the feed store, or order them online, you should at least ask and answer a few important questions.
- Where, exactly, am I going to keep my chickens? Indoor cage, chicken coop, chicken tractor, daylight free range, 24-hour free range (some foul like guineas are happy to roost in trees).
- What laws or HOA rules do I need to subvert? Roosters are loud, not so much hens. Bantams are smaller and easier to keep in small spaces.
- Do I want eggs, meat, or both? Commercial meat breeds (broilers) quickly get so large that they can barely walk, so free ranging them is really a bad joke. Only hens lay eggs, and they need laying boxes, or else every day is Easter.
- Do I want to breed chickens? This should be obvious, but you need to keep a rooster to fertilize the eggs, if you want them to hatch. You will want a separate nursery just for chicks, like a large horse trough, probably with a simple heat lamp for the first weeks.
It is not nearly as quick and easy to incubate eggs as it is to buy live chicks. However, you may eventually want to get an incubator and figure it out so that you can be truly self sufficient. It is quite wonderful to watch the little things peck through the shell and to hear them cheep,"I'm alive!"
Initially, I imagined that our chickens would need to be kept in a chicken house all of the time, and so the lil_horsemen and I built a very nice chicken tractor that we could move around the property as the chickens fertilized the pasture underneath it. There are hundreds of examples and plans on the internet, but we still think that ours was the best.
It worked well, and lasted for more than ten years. However, we soon discovered that chickens very much prefer to be running free during the daylight hours, eating insects in the garden and fly eggs in the horseshit, and they really only want to be locked up to roost after dark. After addressing a few issues, such as the fact that dogs love to kill chickens (more on this later), we now free range our chickens all day, then, when the sun goes down, they all go back inside their house, on their own, and we send someone out each night to "lock in the chickens". I do have a neighbor that is a bit more handy than me; he engineered an electronic door for his chicken house that closes itself after dark and opens itself in the morning, along with an automatic feeder and water system. I am waiting for him to install vacuum tubes to suck the eggs directly into his kitchen's refrigerator.
We have now converted one of our old rabbit hutches into a large and stationary chicken house. A key feature is that it has a door to divide it in half to separate the chicks while they mature, so we no longer need to keep them in the horse barn. It also has clear shower curtains that deploy to protect the birds from wet and cold wind for the few days of winter we have each year in our part of Texas. The run is large enough that we can keep 20+ birds locked up all day, if we ever need to. We designed the roof so that the laying boxes are in the shade during the summertime and in the sunshine during the wintertime. Without a doubt, the very best laying boxes are made by Kuhl Corporation in New Jersey. I especially prefer their version with the rollout nests and plastic rollout bottoms. They are bombproof, easy to clean, and last forever.
Our coop is open to the south, so that the Sun's IR light can sanitize everything, and yet still protects our birds from the cold wind that usually blows from the north. Tractor Supply Company sells the very expensive, but nice, powder coated metal cage with gate that I placed on the front for the run. I laughed at the warning label.
"No constable! Of course we did not intend to lock our children in the chicken house...while we went out for dinner...and a movie. And I am going to tell you the truth, constable, we may not be entirely certain how they got in there, but, you must agree that they sure do look safe and sound."
Once you have a place to keep your children, I mean chickens, you will need to provide water, food, and a little bit of grit such as crushed oyster shells. The five-gallon plastic waterers are best, if you or your kids are strong enough to carry it full of water from where you fill it. Do not get a galvanized waterer as it will quickly rust.
What are you going to feed your chickens? You may have heard the phrase, "Will work for chicken feed." In addition to our own kitchen's scraps, we have found that, for a few dollars, the dishwasher at our local Mexican food restaurant is more than happy to supply us with a five-gallon bucket of table scraps: meat, rice, beans, vegetables, tortillas, etc. This not only provides the highest quality nutrition for our chickens, but also for our dogs, especially when supplemented with a bit of raw milk from our family dairy cow and all the live insects and worms they can eat in a day. If you need to purchase commercial chicken feed from a store, the crumbles without antibiotics are probably best, and they also sell bags of the crushed oyster shells. The plastic feeders work well.
Veterinary care for chickens is cheap and easy, if you follow these simple principles.
Injured chicken: Chicken dinner
Sick chicken: Chicken dinner
Mean chicken: Chicken dinner
Old chicken: Chicken dinner
Speaking of chicken for dinner, let us talk about that process. I remember reading a University of Arkansas study that indicated a chicken which did not have its head cut off is much more tender. I also learned by hunting and roasting larger birds such as ducks, geese, and pheasant, that it is important to allow the bird to bleed out as much as possible to maximize the quality of the meat. So, unless we are entertaining and educating the young children of foreign dignitaries, we do not cut off their heads and let them run around, or shoot them. I am speaking of the chickens, of course, not the children or their esteemed parents. What do we do?
First, do not feed the chickens the night before killing them. Second, I recommend you have your teenage children source three traffic cones, and then cut off the small end so that the hole is big enough for a chicken's head to fit through it. Hang these killing cones by a cord, upside down, over some sawdust or a plastic bag. Third, insert three chickens into the three cones and pull their heads out the hole. Fourth, take a small pithing knife and stick it into the birds mouth, and up through the roof of its mouth into the birds tiny brain. When you succeed in killing it, the eyes will roll up into its head and the bird will go limp. Fifth, slice the jugular veins and arteries, but not the spine or nerves, then let it bleed out into the sawdust.
ProTip: Do not stick the knife into your own hand.
Sixth, remove the chickens from the killing cones and holding on to their feet, dunk them three times for five seconds into a pot of 148 degree water that you have set on a Coleman stove. Seventh, if you are like me, and have built a Whizbang Chicken Plucker, then take a sharp and heavy meat cleaver and a cutting board and chop off the feet and head before placing the three birds in the Whizbang for 15 to 20 seconds.
If you are plucking by hand, then there is no need to remove the head and feet until after you completely pluck the bird. Practice makes perfect.
Eighth, take your ball-tip scissors and cut the skin around the chicken's vent, without cutting into the intestine, then cut up to the base of the breastbone.
Ninth, reach up into the chicken and pull out all of the guts into a garbage pail lined with a plastic bag. Do not forget the kidneys on the back, the esophagus and trachea running from the neck, or the lungs which can be scraped out with one of these special tools, or your fingernails.
Tenth, stare for a long time at these chicken entrails and try to imagine voices in your head telling you what stocks to buy and sell. This is known as Fundamental Analysis. Eleventh, throw some of the entrails against a wall, make some straight lines on the wall with your blood soaked finger, and try to imagine exactly when to buy and sell the stocks. This is called Technical Analysis. You will want to save the gizzard, heart, and liver for use in some excellent recipes, or at the very least, fry them up for your favorite dog.
Twelfth, take a pinning knife and use it to pull out any remaining feathers, from the bird, not the dog.
Thirteenth, wash the bird with cold fresh water and set to dry at room temperature, away from any flies. Fourteenth, and finally, wrap the chicken in butcher paper for the refrigerator or freezer.
My very favorite recipes for a couple of our relatively scrawny dual-purpose birds, be they hens or cocks, begins with the famous French dish, coq au vin. I highly recommend the recipe from Richard Olney's masterpiece, The French Menu Cookbook.
Of course, you cannot go wrong with Fannie Farmer's recipe for Chicken N Dumplings.
Our house guests are often amazed at how the yolk of a fresh egg stands up nice and firm on the griddle or as the center piece of my savory crepes.
When it comes to my favorite way to enjoy farm fresh eggs, I simply cannot choose between my omelets and mrs_horseman's quiche.
Just about everything you might need to know about raising chickens is in Carla Emery's, The Encyclopedia of Country Living, 40th Anniversary Edition.
However, here are a couple pointers that I do not recall reading about in any book or on the internet. The easiest way to train a dog to not kill chickens is to duct tape the freshly murdered bird in the dog's mouth, or at least tie it to his collar for an entire day. It may take two or three of these training sessions. As the saying goes, "Play stupid games; win stupid prizes."
If you are such a spineless codependent dog owner that you cannot tolerate the sad look on your dog's face, or you have a particularly stubborn puppy, then consider mrs_horseman's Electric Chicken Method, a highlight of the lil_horsemen's childhood, which they would surely bring up in any government-mandated counseling. Simply tie a live chicken to a plastic stake in the center of a two-foot square rubber mat. Connect the chicken to the electric fence unit by wrapping the hotwire around its leg. When the recidivist dog, standing on the ground, inevitably chooses to bite the volunteered chicken on the rubber mat, he completes the electric circuit, which initiates the learning.
What started in 2008 as an arguably irrational worry about the availability of food for our family, has over the years grown into love and appreciation for the higher quality of life that comes with growing, processing, and preparing our own food. In hindsight, raising chickens is easier and more rewarding than we ever imagined. I hope you give it a try.
Peace, prosperity, liberty, and love,