Raising backyard chickens for meat

Raising chickens for meat

Nov 13, 2011 by Asphyxia

Raising chickens for meat 1

Yesterday my chickens arrived! They are a special meat breed of bird which apparently fatten quickly and make delicious eating. I was vegetarian for 20 years, but in the last couple of years I’ve started to eat meat again for health reasons. I’ve never had anything against people eating meat, though I’ve always thought it would be most ethical to raise the animals yourself, and probably kill them too. Since I started eating meat, I’ve been trying to gird myself to actually live according to my principles, and raise my own meat.

There are other reasons why I believe it’s good to raise our own meat. The meat industry can be pretty cruel. I only eat meat from local farms where I’m pretty satisfied that they raise their animals well and kill them humanely. But even so, surely I can give them a better life in a suburban backyard than when they are raised on a commercial scale. Afterall, our home-produced eggs are so much better than the most expensive organic free range eggs we can buy. Like the eggs, I’d expect the meat to be more nutritious – though who can really know. Also I am concerned about the amount of wastage that occurs. Despite repeated requests, I’ve never been able to obtain chicken heads or feet for soup. What happens to them all? Are they chucked out? Recently, watching a fisherman fillet a fish, and waste all but the very best bits of it, I realised that it’s probably the same in the meat industry. We are in the habit of eating the muscle meat but not the organs (though they are very good for us), and in our society it’s rare to make stock from bones these days.

I also want to really understand how much food I can produce in my backyard. I already produce 80% of my family’s fruit and vegies. Could I produce a good portion of our meat onsite too? I’d like to find out.

I am probably in for quite a journey, emotionally. The chicks that arrived yesterday are adorable. They are so cute I’ve already sat for ages, watching and watching them. To think that one day I’m going to kill them, with my bare hands, is quite astonishing. Somehow I’m going to have to gird my loins, toughen my heart and do it. I’m curious to see how I emerge on the other side of this.

Raising chickens for meat 2

In case you would like to consider raising your own chickens for the table, here’s the practicalities.

I bought the chickens from a hatchery in Queensland, Australia: Peak Poultry Supplies. They cost $2 per day old chick, plus $30 for shipping (up to 100 birds in a carton). I would have liked to buy them locally, but despite researching for two years I’ve been unable to find a farmer in Victoria who will sell me meat chicks. If you know of any avenues for me to research with this, please tell me! I’m still looking, for my next batch.

I bought starter crumble for their food, though I’m hoping once they are a little older I can mostly feed them worms, insects and greens from my garden. Ultimately I would like to make my own food for them from day one, but I haven’t found enough information to do this yet. I also bought a small feeder and waterer. I picked these up from a stock feed shop, where they were a fraction of the price they go for in pet shops. In an op shop I found an adjustable lamp, and I bought a 60 watt globe from the hardware.

For now I’m keeping them in a cardboard box. I lined the bottom with several layers of newspaper and a bag of well rotted sawdust I had lying around. When the sawdust has run out, I’ll put dirt on the bottom. I’ll compost all the litter when it’s too dirty for the chickens to use any more. As they grow, I’ll move them to my rabbit cage, which is bigger, and then I hope to put them in with my egg-laying chooks.

I’ve put the lamp quite low over their box, and in the coming weeks I’ll gradually raise it. If the chicks are too cold, they’ll huddle tightly together under the lamp. If they’re too hot they’ll fan out away from it. I’ll use their behaviour to tell me how high to put the lamp.

All up it’s costing me $6.40 per bird, though if I do this again it will be much cheaper since I’ll already have the lamp, waterer, feeder etc, and maybe by then I’ll be able to make my own food too.

With meat breeds of birds, because they fatten so fast, when they get to a certain age (weight), their legs may be too weak to hold them up, and they could break. In the industry they are slaughtered just before this happens – its cruel to have a chook live with broken legs. Thus the birds need to be slaughtered promptly at 6-8 weeks of age. My friend Roderick, who is joining me on this mission, and will show me how to kill the birds, tells me that home-reared chooks are much healthier and less prone to this problem – hence you can wait longer before slaughtering.

Other people I’ve mentioned this to say I should get a breed of birds that aren’t specifically for meat, so that I don’t participate in this cruelty. However, regular chickens can take 4 months to be fat enough for the table, which means you need to feed them a LOT more grain, a serious negative, both financially and for the environment. Because of my touring, I’ve decided to go with meat breeds so I can do it as a quick project. However, I’m hoping Roderick is right, because then I can start slaughtering at 6 weeks, doing two birds at a time (one for the table, one for the freezer), and really spread the killings over a longer period. That way we aren’t clogging up our freezer, and we can plan on eating, say, a bird a week.

If the birds are healthy, maybe we can even raise a breeding pair to egg laying age, get some fertile eggs, and then I can raise my next batch without needing to order from Queensland. Fingers crossed. Though I’m not very optimistic about this plan – I think a rooster crowing at 5am might do permanent damage to our relationship with our neighbours.

 

 

Chickens for meat update

Nov 28, 2011 by Asphyxia

Here’s my chicks when they were two weeks old:

Chickens for meat update 2 Chickens for meat update

I took these photos just after I moved them out of the cardboard box, and into the wire framed rabbit cage. They had suddenly grown fatter overnight and looked like they could hardly stand up. While in the first week they scratched at the dirt and did nice chicken behaviours, suddenly it seemed they couldn’t even stand on one leg to scratch. Their walk turned into an awkward waddle. I thought they’d need a bigger cage to make sure they got exercise and learnt to manouver their fat bodies around.

Unfortunately though, I think I moved them to the wire cage too soon. Being larger, it is also colder, even with blankets draped over it. They huddled together so tightly that two of the chickens got injured and died – trampled to death? I quickly moved the chicks to a wooden box instead, a bit larger than their original cardboard box. Since then, no more deaths, thank god. But I noticed that they tended to sit all day. If they were eating, they’d be eating sitting down. They’d only waddle the minimum distance they had to and collapse onto their bellies. I decided it was time for them to go outside.

Chickens for meat update 3

For their first trip to the great outdoors, I put down a mini fence that is normally garden bed edging, and made sure I gave them a spot with both sun and shade. They were absolutely thrilled. Instead of sitting down, they all got to it, pecking around, exploring, testing out the plants and generally fossicking around.

After a few days of this, I was lifting them into the box to carry them back to the bathroom, when they suddenly worked out how to flutter their way out of the box. Clearly I was using a box that was too shallow. They were so happy, freeranging, that I let them go free for a few hours.

Chickens for meat update 4

Today, they are three weeks old, I’ve let them go free in the garden all day, and guess what? They are doing all the things chickens should: standing on one leg to scratch, fluttering from one place to another, dust bathing, and pecking at everything… hooray! They seem very healthy. I think they were so bored in their cardboard box that they had nothing to stand up for.

For now they are hanging out in the box overnight, and I’ll free range them in the garden during the day when I’m home.

They eat so much food I’m in shock. They whipped through my 5kg bag of starter crumble in the first ten days. The amount they eat increases every day. I’ve now worked out how to make my own food for them. It’s more expensive and more work than starter crumble, but I’m sure it’s far, far more nutritious.

Homemade starter crumble recipe:

4 cups grain, coarsely ground – I use a mix of wheat, corn, barley, oat grain – whatever I’ve bought cheaply in bulk.
1/4 cup flax seeds – I don’t grind these as they go rancid quickly, and they are small enough for the chicks to peck whole.
1/4 cup seaweed – I collect my own from the beach, dry it in the sun for a few days, and grind it to a coarse powder. This provides minerals.
3 tsp salt – since I had washed the salt off my seaweed. If using unwashed seaweed, maybe just 2 tsp? Use unrefined salt to provide minerals.
2 tbsp cod liver oil – to provide vitamins A and D, and for general good health. I bought a big bottle of animal grade oil from a feed shop.
2 tbsp fat – I use the tallow that we scrape off the top of stock when we cook it.
1 tbsp molasses – provides vitamins.
1 cup protein – eggs, fish, meat….

Mix everything together and feed to the chicks.

Apart from the protein, I only had to buy the cod liver oil and flax seeds specially. These are both optional – I include them because I want the chooks to have optimum nutrition, and hence to provide very nutritious meat for me to eat. I buy grains and salt cheaply in bulk for my family, so it’s no drama to feed some of our supply to the chooks. The protein, however, has been a bit more challenging, since I want to get it for free. I got some fish carcasses from the market, ground up the meatier bits in my food processor, and then dried them in my dehydrator. The result crumbled into fine “pellets” that mixed well with the rest of the feed. When that ran out, I fed them scrambled eggs fried up with greens from the garden. The fish shop will have more free fish for me tomorrow, but in the meantime I’m not sure what to do for protein. I’ve got a bucket of snails that I picked off the garden last night – maybe I can crush them? There’s also worms in my worm farm – maybe I can pick out a handful for the chooks?

So far, at 3 weeks, the chicks have eaten their way through a 5kg bag of starter crumble, and 5 batches of the above homemade recipe. Yikes! I can see why eating a lot of meat is not good for the environment – they go through SO MUCH grain!

 

 

Meat Chickens update

Dec 12, 2011 by Asphyxia

Meat Chickens update

Here’s my meat chickens at 3 and a half weeks of age…

 

 

Chickens for meat update

Dec 24, 2011 by Asphyxia

You might want to skip this post if you are vegetarian or squeamish. I did it – slaughtered my very first chicken for meat. I’m not going to go into all the how-to details here – leave a comment if u want to know more, and I’ll email you.

The main thing for me has been the emotional journey. Could I really raise a flock of adorably cute chicks, fall in love with them, spend hours watching their antics while tending to them several times a day, and then somehow kill them and still enjoy eating the meat? I desperately wanted the answer to be yes, because it’s a way to make sure the animals I eat have the best possible life.

I chose two of the biggest roosters, but not the biggest healthiest one because I’m still hoping there’s a chance I can raise my own chicks from eggs. I spared the little ‘doomed’ chicken that follows me around. I sequestered them in a small cage overnight, so they’d miss dinner and breaky (cleaner to slaughter if their guts and crop are empty). I felt a bit mean, but Paula pointed out that the hunger was the least of their problems.

Roderick came over to show me what to do. I was all business and determination – I refused to allow sentimentality to get in the way. Roderick did the first one, pulling its neck. But when I tried that, mine didn’t die. I tried a couple more times but no go. Roderick held him on the chopping block for me, and I cleavered off its head – fast, calm and decisive.

Blood went EVERYWHERE – very gory. But somehow I remained steely-nerved. I stayed detached right through plucking and butchering, both of which were easier than I’d expected. Once the chickens were processed, they looked just like the ones you see in the shops, and weighed 1.1kg (size 11), which is small, but pretty amazing I think, for a chook that was only reared for 6 weeks. Also, with my no waste policy, I kept a bag with giblets and feet, which I’ll use in stock. We plucked the feathers into a pot of soapy water – they are now zipped into a pillowcase, ready to be turned into a coat for winter.

Roderick told me the livers would be good fried with herbs. After he left, I was still in such sturdy shape emotionally, that I decided to eat the livers for lunch! Paula fried them for me in butter, garlic, and herbs (all home produced) and they tasted STUNNING. I remembered eating a chicken liver salad in France, which tasted like this, but when I tried to reproduce it at home with liver frpm the market, it tasted awful. Now I know the secret! I’ve got plenty more chicken liver delights coming up. I wonder if thr meat will be as amazing, too? The chickens are in the freezer now. We’ll try one in a week or so.

So, it seems I CAN do it, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am. I think it helps that I’ve been practising killing things. First I watched a rabbit slaughter in Italy, 2 yeas ago. I felt ill afterwards – nauseous and horrified. The next day I watched s chicken slaughter. I was much better prepared, but it still made me feel pretty queasy. Fast forward to this year: I went yabby fishing and cooked up my catch. I couldn’t enjoy eating them though – all I could see on my mind as I chewed was the image of them archig away from the boiling water, and clutching my tongs. Yikes. A few months later, I killed 3 fish. It might not sound like a big deal, but to me, fish are as alive as chickens, and I really had to steel myself to do it. But I did, and ate the fish on the same day. I managed to enjoy the meals, and mentally was able to separate the kill from the food. Now, it seems the practise has stood me in good stead.

I did head upstairs for a big lie down after I’d eaten the livers. And at the end of the day, when I was feeding my 12 remaining chickens, there really did seem to be fewer in my flock – I felt a real pang of sadness, and a sense that my babies were incomplete: an urge to go searching for them.

I’m deeply grateful to Roderick for showing me what to do. This journey has been years in the making, as I’ve worked up to this point. He made it possible, and it feels like a major milestone. I reckon I’m confident now to go it solo next time. Just gotta buy a cleaver and sharpen it by next Thursday.

Chickens for meat update 5

 

 

Chickens for meat sum up

Jan 17, 2012 by Asphyxia

I’ve just about completed my chickens for meat journey. All the birds but two are slaughtered, and they’ll be dispatched this week. I had to give up my breeding hopes, because one of the chooks got sick with Mycoplasma Synoviae. It’s a bacteria like a cold, which causes lameness and is highly contagious. It’s very common in commercial flocks, and it seems likely that my chooks inherited it from their parents, and will then come down with the illness when they are under stress. Since my chooks are considerably overweight, that counts as stress, and makes them vulnerable to the infection. Once the chook comes down with Mycoplasma Synoviae, we have to kill them and we can’t eat them. (We could go the vet route, antibiotics etc, but I’m not prepared to do that.) In my mind, all that work in raising the chook, and its life, and the cost of its feed, have all been wasted. I decided that rather than risking my other chooks coming down with it, I would despatch them quickly to avoid possible wastage.

So… last week was a very full on week, starting with emergency dispatch and composting of the sick chook, and then slaughtering two the next morning, and two the morning after that. It felt like we didn’t get a break from the emotions that go with killing, and the exhaustion that goes with being steely, so it was a pretty heavy week. I see now that slaughtering two chooks a week is very do-able. Slaughtering five makes it feel like I’m living in a kill-fest. This week we decided to do two today and two on Thursday, so that we’ll have a day’s break in between. Hopefully that’ll feel easier.

It takes 40 minutes to kill and process each bird. Paula and I work together for an hour and forty minutes, including some preparation and cleaning up time. It doesn’t sound like much out of our day, but I really do feel exhausted afterwards and seem to need my nap. And I think it’s better not to do anything else major for the rest of the day if possible. Maybe I’ll get tougher eventually but that seems to be the right balance for me to manage it.

The weights of the birds ranged between 1.1kg (at six weeks) to 2.6 (the very biggest bird, slaughtered at nine weeks). We had a 2.3kg bird, but the rest were under 2kg. The final birds we did in week ten were 1.7 and 1.9kgs. If we’d done them at eight weeks I reckon they would have weighed about 1.2 – they were the smallest. Feeding them for two weeks to gain about 500g is not very efficient, I think.

So, now it’s just about over, would I do it again? Definitely, yes. It gives me a true appreciation for the meat that I eat. I feel like eating a bit less of it now (very appropriate because I think I was eating too much), and what I do eat feels very precious. The homegrown chooks taste unbelievably good. Much, much better than the best biodynamic chicken we can buy. I know my chooks have a really good life, that they are well loved and pampered, have a stimulating existence full of foraging and a big variety of fresh greens to peck at. I think it would be hard to reproduce that on a commercial scale.

Next time, I think I’ll do slightly fewer birds, maybe twelve, rather than sixteen. I think I’ll dispatch them all between six and eight weeks, as they didn’t really gain that much weight beyond eight weeks, and were much harder to kill after eight weeks as their bones became a lot tougher. Also beyond eight weeks I’m feeding them in order to maintain their body weight, which is not an efficient use of feed. That will mean killing four birds a week for three weeks. I think it’ll be challenging emotionally but doable.

When they were babies, maintaining their feed and water was quite a big job, as was catching them to return them to their box at night. I think next time I’ll buy a 20kg sack of starter crumble, and then when that’s run out, I’ll switch to my stockfeed shop recipe. Also, we now have a fenced off run, which we didn’t have before. Next time, once the chooks are 2-3 weeks old, I’d like to move them out to the fenced run, ideally into a small insulated house with a lightbulb I can switch on as need. That way I can grow food in the run in advance, and I can hopefully round them up back into their house when it’s cold, rather than having to catch each one individually. I’ve since discovered that using a broom to round up chooks works really well. I wonder if they’ll be that easily rounded up as little babies, with the broom method? I would also buy a larger waterer – by 2 weeks it needed refilling three times a day!

Estimated cost of raising my chooks:
2 bottles of cod liver oil $18 each (I have most of the second bottle left ready for next time).
1 bucket of molasses $20 (I have only used one tenth of the bucket).
4 batches of my 26kg stockfeed recipe $40ish per batch
5kg bag of starter crumble $7
Roughly 10kg of homemade feed, labour intensive! $10ish?
The chooks themselves: $30 for shipping, $2 per bird (I bought 16 for me, but I also paid for Roderick’s birds and his share of the shipping).
Feeder $7
Waterer $7

I estimate that to raise one chook to eating age of approx 7-8 weeks, it takes around 5kg of grain, 1.5kg of protein, and a corresponding proportion of vitamins and minerals (via seaweed, cod liver oil, molasses).
All up, not counting Roderick’s birds, but including the entire shipping, it comes to roughly $300. With three deaths, I’ve ended up with 13 birds, which rounds out to $23 per bird. Belmores, the butcher near us, sells organic whole chickens for $30 for 1.5kgs. However, I believe my meat is FAR more nutritious than any commercial meat, in part thanks to the cod liver oil, molasses, and seaweed that I have fed them, as well as the wider range of herbs and greens they’ve had access to. The supplements have been the expensive components of their diet. If I just bought starter crumble and then grower crumble, it would have been MUCH cheaper, so if economy was your motivation for raising your own meat, then you could definitely do it that way.

Next time I reckon I could do it a fair bit cheaper. I would dry and grind seaweed in advance so I didn’t need to buy it. I wouldn’t have to buy molasses, I’d only have to buy one bottle of cod liver oil, maybe none if I dispatch sooner. I also have a contact for buying grain in bulk, so if I bought it all well in advance at the bulk price, instead of from the feed store, I’d get that cheaper.

I’m going to have a break from chicken raising for a while, and will probably raise another batch next spring. If you’d like in on the venture, let me know, and I can talk with you before I order. Sharing the cost of shipping will make it cheaper. And I’m happy to show you how to dispatch if you want to raise your own chickens and learn enroute. (Obviously this only applies to those of you in Melbourne!)

Anyone who wants to learn how to kill a chook can look here, though I ended up with a bit of a simpler set up.

 

 

Chickens for meat – plans for next year

Jan 25, 2012 by Asphyxia

Chickens for meat - plans for next year

I did this page in my journal to remind me what to do when next year rocks around and I raise another batch of chickens for meat.

I’ve been thinking and thinking about how I can streamline the process and the budget, now that I’ve got a bit of experience.  Raising the chicks was a lot of work, and the main thing that was a pain was catching every one of 17 chickens by hand, and carrying them into their box in the laundry, when I needed to bring them in.  I’d let them out for an hour or two when it was sunny, and then suddenly a cold wind would spring up.  They were only half-feathered at this stage and couldn’t really cope with the cold weather.  So frantically we’d try to round them all up, one at a time.  Training them to come for food seemed impossible.  Then ten minutes later the sun would be out again, and I’d want to let them back into the yard, because they really didn’t seem happy cooped up in their box.  You can see how it ended up being a lot of work.

I think next time I need to have a smaller fenced in yard specially for my little chickens, where they are protected from the big egg laying chickens.  And I need to set it up so that the chickens can access their home themselves, from the yard.  That way I can have their food and water in there at all times, and they should quickly learn to go in there as required.  Now I know how handy the broom is, I think with a set up like that, I could just about sweep the chickens through the door with the broom!

Their home would need to be very well insulated, so that the light bulb keeps them sufficiently warm.  I’m thinking a low, insulated wooden box, preferably lined with some kind of thermal mass such as bricks on the floor, to hold their heat.  The box would have two rooms – a small one for when they are tiny babies, and a bigger one for when they outgrow the little room and don’t need as much heat.  I would then use the smaller room to sequester the chickens the night before dispatch (so they don’t eat, and hence are cleaner to butcher).

The roof would open up, an insulated lid, so that I can easily change the water and food.  There should be a joist with hooks so that I can hang the waterer and feeder – hopefully their food and water will stay cleaner that way.  And ideally, the roof could be locked in a slightly open position, so that on hot nights they have good ventilation.

I did a page in my journal about my plans for next year.  I’m not sure if I will actually make this ideal chook house – I will probably find a way to do it though, because I plan for many years of chook raising now that I know I can do it.

Chickens for meat - plans for next year 2

 

 

Chickens for Meat Update

Jun 1, 2012 by Asphyxia

Well, I’ve slaughtered five chickens now.  I wouldn’t say I’m a pro though.  I’m doing it every Thursday morning.  The first Thursday, as I’ve mentioned, I was steely as anything.  But once it was all over I allowed myself to feel a bit weak and emotional.  That was fine.  But I noticed that as the next Thursday rolled around, I was still feeling weak and emotional.  The thought of doing it again was just hideous.  In fact I felt quite nauseous thinking about it.  Still I knew I had to go through with it, no matter what.  After all that build up, actually doing it turned out to be less painful than the thinking about it beforehands.  I vowed that in future, I won’t dwell on it.  It’s not making it nicer for the chickens, my feeling miserable about their deaths.

So, this last Thursday, I didn’t think about it at all, beyond the basics of what I had to do to prepare.  Still, I found myself getting somewhat antsy in the lead up to the chop.  Afterwards I felt exhausted.  I couldn’t rest – I had a big day of preserving and gardening jobs that simply had to happen.  Next week I’ll do everything I can to make it a day off once my chickens are slaughtered.

I can’t tell you, though, what immense satisfaction it was to eat the first one.  It tasted delicious, simply exquisite.  We stuffed it and roasted it, then had roast chicken pickings in the fridge for days – many delicious meals from that chook.  We saved all the bones and Paula has cooked it into a stock, which I hope to start on tomorrow.  It was a glorious feeling of abundance, having that whole chook in the fridge, and it feels even more abundant to know that our freezer is slowly filling up with chickens.

I have had to simplify their food though.  I simply couldn’t source and process enough free protein to keep up with what my chooks eat.  Here’s my new, easier, but still highly nutritious recipe, from ingredients bought at the stockfeed store:

20kg sack of mixed grains (I get wheat, oats, milo, and corn)

5kg bag of meat meal or fish meal

1kg bag of seaweed

10 tablespoons of molasses (I bought a large bucket and am slowly working through it)

150ml cod liver oil (I bought a large bottle).

When I get home, I mix it all up, and keep it in a drum for the chickens.  I’ve bought 3 batches of the above so far, along with some other smaller homemade batches of my previous recipe.  I’ve got nine chooks left, and they are eight weeks old.  Five have been slaughtered so far.  I must point out that the above recipe does not constitute the cheapest way to feed chickens.  I’ve lost track, somewhat, of the costs involved in feeding them, but it’s been expensive, to say the least.  I could definitely do it more economically, but a high priority for me is to make my meat ultra-nutritious, and I’d rather pay more for that.

 

 

A new batch of chicks

May 14, 2012 by Asphyxia

A new batch of chicks 2

A new batch of chicks

We’ve received more chickens!  They came on a bus from QLD, though I’m optimistic I now know where to get them in Vic, which I hope to do next Spring.  This time I’ve got 15 little chicks, and am sharing them with two neighbours: Suni and Lis.  We’ll get 5 chickens each, assuming none of them die.  And if a few do die, we’ll share up the meat by weight.  Yes, these are for the table.  My last lot of chickens were SO DELICIOUS I’m committed to doing this for the long term.  I had these babies for a few days, and now they’ve gone to stay with Lis for a few weeks, until they are big enough for the garden, then they are coming back to my place to eat all the greens I’ve planted for them.

 

 

Chickens for meat – the latest batch

Aug 2, 2012 by Asphyxia

If you are vegetarian or squeamish, please skip this post.  It’s about the chickens I raise for the table.

This batch of chickens was shared with my neighbours Lis and Sunny.  The three of us contributed to their care, shared the costs, and then got together on slaughter day to process the meat.  It was so much better doing it with a group than going it alone.  When things happen like the globe blows and a new one is needed urgently, there was generally one of us available to deal with the problem.

Here’s the chicks as sweet little babies when they arrived.

Chickens for meat - the latest batch

They came from Peak Poultry Supplies and cost $2 each, plus $30 shipping.  They came down from Queensland on a bus, chirping wildly.  Next time I hope to buy them from Korumburra Hatchery which is much more local.  We shared this shipment with my friend Roderick, so Lis, Sunny and I only paid $5 each for our share of shipping.

Chickens for meat - the latest batch 2

We housed them in a wooden box in Lis’ lounge room, with a lamp over the top, a small waterer and a small feeder.  We fed them an organic grower mix which is suitable for meat birds.  Meat breeds grow very fast, are slaughtered at 8-10 weeks, and need to eat high protein food in order to meet their growth requirements.  Each bird eats about 6kg of food during its lifetime.  The feed comes in 20kg bags costing about $30 each.  If you go the non-organic route, feed can be cheaper.

Poor Lis found them a bit too stinky for the lounge room, even when we changed the litter every day.  We have several layers of newspaper in the bottom of the box, and we topped them with some very absorbent rice hulls that Sunni had on hand, until they ran out, and then we went with only newspaper.  Roderick bought sawdust from a stockfeed store which has had the dust removed.  He found it absorbent and only had to change the litter once a week, though he topped it up most days, I gather.  It’s not wise to use regular sawdust as litter because the dust can damage the lungs of the chickens.  Next time we’ll put the box in the shed to spare Lis the smell!

Once the chick’s outgrew their tiny home (about two weeks old), they moved to this crate in Lis’ shed:

Chickens for meat - the latest batch 3

The litter had to be changed daily, and at the same time the food and water needed to be topped up.  The photo shows the chickens at about 4 weeks, just before they moved to my place.  They really needed to come to me a little sooner – by three and a half weeks they were just too big to be in this box all day, so Lis and Suni took them for a few outtings in Lis’ garden.  Unfortunately I was away at this time, hence the delay in moving them to me.

When they finally moved to my place, we brought the crate too, and set it up in a fenced run I had created for the chickens.  I planted it out several weeks before with “clucker tucker” seed, and it was nice and green by the time my chickens needed it.  Suni’s husband Marcel had helped me make a door in the crate, which meant the chicks could come and go as they pleased.  They’d head outside into their run to peck at greens and scratch in the dirt, but when it got too cold or wet they’d head back inside to eat.  By the last week, the chickens were so fat that the food and water had to live outside.  Each night I’d close the door, to protect them from foxes.

You can see the fenced run here.  This photo was actually taken a few weeks earlier, when the chickens visited me briefly while Lis went away:

Chickens for meat - the latest batch 5

The 16 chickens actually flattened and demolished the greenery within a few days.  After that I chucked in weeds and herbs for them to nibble on, and added some leaves as litter.  Roderick adds free council mulch to his run and finds it very effective in preventing it from becoming a poo-bath.  Those chickens really do poo as much as they eat!  Luckily I had four fenced runs ready to go, so once a week I moved them on to a new run.

Finally they were eight weeks old and it was D-Day.  Here they are, nice and fat, just before we processed them:

Chickens for meat - the latest batch 6

We did ten chickens the first day, and the smallest six the following week.  The first week Suni’s dad came to give us a hand, and we also had help from Paula’s brother Mark who was staying with us at the time.  The huge communal event really helped to take my mind off the sadness of ending their lives – we had to work so fast and hard to process each bird that there wasn’t time to dwell on the ending.  Since it doesn’t make a different to the bird whether I dwell on it or not, I think it’s better not to.  For the bird the most important thing is a good life and then a very swift efficient death, which is what they got with the cleaver.

The second week it was just Suni, Lis and me doing the killing, while Paula assisted us in the kitchen.  I wasn’t sure how we’d go, because at nine weeks the birds are big and have strong necks, which make it difficult with the cleaver.  But the three of us turned out to be a tight team.  One person held the bird.  One person chopped with the cleaver, and the other person then pushed down hard on the cleaver to finish the job, and then helped hold the bird to stop it from flapping while the blood drained out.  I was relieved to know we could do it without help from Suni’s dad, or any men with big strong arms.

By the end we were all exhausted.  Suni even had to have a nap, which is unheard of for her!  But one this is for certain, when you’ve killed with someone, it’s very bonding.  Even though chicken slaughter couldn’t possibly be described as an pleasant way to spend the day, I have to admit that it was very satisfying to work so hard with my neighbours, with such a lovely community feeling, and to end up with a freezer-full of meat.  Even better, in my mind, is the fact that Suni likes the white meat while Paula and I prefer the red meat, so we divided up our share of the chickens by weight, and each got the kind of meat we like.

Suni and Lis didn’t want the feathers, so I saved them all for my down jacket.

All costs added up, it came to $16 per bird, which is very good considering that to purchase an organic chicken of comparable size costs $30-$35.  Mind you, it’s a lot of work.  As Suni said: “I’ve never worked so hard for a meal in my life!”  But I think that reflects the true cost of the food, and it’s the only ethical way to eat meat if we are going to do so.

(By the way, I was vegetarian for 20 years, and I started eating meat for health reasons.  I now need to choose between being perpetually ill, or eating other creatures.  Sadly, I would rather kill and eat other creatures than be sick all the time.  I have always believed that if one eats meat, one should learn to raise and kill it oneself.  Hence my own backyard chicken-raising venture.)

 

 

Homemade down jacket

Aug 11, 2012 by Asphyxia

I’ve had a growing bag of washed feathers from my chickens, and I decided to make them into a down jacket.  I love wearing a down jacket, and I often borrow Paula’s jacket, but I find it has a yucky, plasticy feeling to it, and an associated plasticy smell which I hate.  I decided my jacket would have to be all natural materials so that it would breathe and smell right.

My friend Jenine suggested japara as the fabric, since that’s what doonas are made from – the weave is very fine so the feathers don’t poke through.  Unfortunately I could only find white japara at my local fabric store, so I bought that and some black dye.  As you’ll see from the photos, the “black” dye wasn’t very black at all, but actually a rather pretty mulberry colour.  C’est la vie.  I’m quite happy with the colour, though the dye job came out a bit splotchy and looks decidedly handmade.  I’m not too fussed about that, since for me the jacket is to wear around the house, like a dressing gown, so that I don’t need to turn on the heater, and can be snugly warm while doing art, washing the dishes and getting my jobs done.

In order to make it easy to get the jobs done, I ended up making the sleeves quite short, and having a long woollen cuff that would roll up.  This reduces the bulk around my wrists and makes dishwashing and art easy tasks to undertake while wearing this jacket.

Homemade down jacket 1

You can see the finished jacket here.  Paula forbids me from leaving the house in this jacket, and I have to agree that it’s not the most stylish thing ever, especially when teamed with my homemade ugg boots, which they usually are.  (I’m wearing them in this photo.)  However, the jacket wins a lot of points for being very warm.  It isn’t as warm as my doona, despite being significantly heavier, so it’s not perfect, but it really is keeping the chill off my winter.

Homemade down jacket 2

To make this, I used the pattern from an old jacket that fit me perfectly.  I should have added a bit more ease since the down forces the fabric to bulk out.  I sewed the lining to the outter fabric (both japara), and then added all the horizontal seams, so that I had a series of pockets ready to fill with feathers.

When plucking the feathers, we plucked them straight into a bowl of warm water.  I then rinsed them in the sieve in the kitchen sink, and stuffed them into a pilowcase which I hung on the line to dry. I sewed them into the pillowcase for security, and saved them up until I had about 5 pillowcases-worth.  By that time they’d developed a bit of a smell, so I soaked them overnight in white vinegar and water.  Then I washed the “pillows” in the machine on hot wash three or four times until they were fluffy and had no trace of the weird smell.  Next I unpicked the seam, removed the damp feathers, and sorted them.  I found that by squeezing in my palm I could quickly identify any wing feathers which were too stalky for a jacket, and I set those feathers aside.

What was left got stuffed into the pockets of my down jacket.  The first batch I worked with when dry, and they made a hideous mess of the house, despite my most careful efforts.  The second batch I stuffed while still damp and that definitely made them easier to control.  I then sewed up the jacket and dried it thoroughly.

Finally time for a test wear: and it’s WARM!  Very snug!  I don’t feel hot in this.  I just feel like my body is at its own temperature, which feels just right.  But it’s a bit heavy.  I think I stuffed too many feathers in some of the pockets.  But I’m a bit nervous about the mess involved in trying to extract them, so not sure if I’ll make it a priority to renovate!