Category Archives: Sustainable Living

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!

Undies from an old T-shirt

Undies from an old T-shirt

I mentioned in a post recently, the dire state of my undies. They are an embarrassment. If I’m having a massage or risking being seen in my underwear, I have to put on a pair that’s too uncomfortable for daily use (hence they reason they are still in public-worthy condition). However, I don’t want to go out and buy new ones, for reasons outlined here.

It turns out, however, that you can make them from old T-shirts! I don’t know why it took me so long to work this out. Check out this great tutorial, and this one. Well I stocked up on old T-shirts from the op shop, grabbed my bag of elastic (also collected from the op shop), and while I was on holidays at the beach recently, I got to it. First problem – it turns out people only give elastic to the op shop when they have pieces that are too short to be useful. Bummer (so to speak). I really couldn’t go, aesthetically, with one leg of one elastic and one of another type. Yuck. If I’m going to make my own undies they have to be at least moderately stylish. I searched and searched the internet until I found out how to sew elastic-less undies, and set about making a test pair.

The secret to elastic-less undies, btw, is to cut from stretchy fabric a band for each leg and for the waist, 5cm wide and about 5cm shorter in length than the circumference of the leg/waist.  Use these bands instead of elastic.

Second problem – my sewing machine is yet another of those items that still feels very new to me (I bought it new 15 years ago), and is on its last legs. I’ve had it serviced several times, but it’s just missing too many stitches, the zigzag doesn’t work any more – it gives me grief. Now for a big batch of undies, I’m intending to hunt down a friend with an overlocker, and go round for a good stitch-up. But before I do that I want to have cut out a whole pile of undies so I can do several in one go. And before I do that, I wanted to make a test pair – I’d be really spewing if I sewed seven pairs of undies and found out they were uncomfortable. I couldn’t even massage enough goodness out of my machine for a test pair, but I didn’t want to waste the opportunity down at the beach to cut out the entire pile. So – I did what women probably always did, many years ago, and sewed them entirely by hand. Actually it wasn’t too bad – took two, maybe three hours. And the advantage was that I could stitch them in a way that they would stretch nicely around the leg and waist band (on my machine either the thread ends up too tight and cuts into my skin, or else it stretches the fabric badly and makes it buckle).

So, I’m wearing them right now, as I type and guess what? The are gorgeously comfortable. No wedgie. No too-tight leg. And not only that, but I’m rapt with how they look!

Now.. to find an overlocker…

PS – my plan for my sewing machine is to replace it with a seriously old one, the kind that was made back when they were built to last.

How to really grow food in your backyard

For more than twenty years, I have grown food.  For the first ten years I had limited success, and was pretty baffled as to how an ordinary backyard could really produce enough food to feed a family.  Over a three year period, however, I made changes to what I was doing, and found I could produce 80% of my family’s vegies and roughly half the fruit from a normal suburban block.  Here, I share with you what I learnt, in the hope that it can help you feed your family from your garden too.

I’ve written everything I know about growing food here.

How to make felt ugg boots

For many winters I lived in a pair of ugg boots I made.  They are, frankly, ugly.  But they have really come into their own as the most stunningly warm footwear I’ve ever worn.  They are comfortable, lightweight, and just about perfect.  I’m thrilled to be able to report that homemade footwear really can be practical.  If you’d like to give it a go, here’s what to do.

(By the way, I’d never felted before, so made heaps of mistakes, but was determined to start with the boots I wanted, rather than practise on a scarf… so forgive me if I’ve broken any felting laws or norms.)

How to make felt ugg boots 1

The first step is to make a template out of a couple of plastic placemats, which I stuck together with gaffa tape.  The template needs to be about 30% bigger than the finished ugg boots, to allow for shrinkage.  Here I’m doing both boots in one go, and will cut them apart later.

I’ve also got some bubblewrap.  You can see I’ve drawn around the template and left an outline on the bubblewrap showing where the template will go.  Basically what happens is I lay fleece down on the bubblewrap, filling an area slightly larger than the template, then put the template on top, fold the fleece over the edges, and put more fleece on top.  Then it gets rolled up in the bubblewrap ready for felting.

I wanted my boots to be black, so the outter layer is black alpaca fleece which a friend gave me.  Then I put down a nice thick layer of sheep fleece, also from a friend.  The sheep’s wool is particularly strong so good for footwear.  The alpaca by itself probably wouldn’t be strong enough.  Then for ultra-warmth and softness, I made the inner layer angora fur from my rabbit.  I used up the fur I had sitting around that had been stained by wee, or had knots it in, or was too short for spinning.  So the layers had to go like this: bubblewrap, outter black layer, middle sheep layer, inner angora layer, template, inner angora layer, middle sheep layer, outter black layer.  I wanted thick boots so I used a lot of fleece.

I made a mistake here.  I should have carded the alpaca fleece (fluffed it up and teased it out with special brushes called carders).  Because I didn’t card the fleece, it sat in clomps, and it didn’t felt especially well, as you will see later.

How to make felt ugg boots 2

In the above photo you can see I’ve laid out the first layer of black, the sheep layer, and have started adding the angora layer.

How to make felt ugg boots 3

Now all three of the first layers are down, I’ve added the template and folded over the angora fleece, and am adding the next angora layer.

How to make felt ugg boots 4

Now all the fleece is arranged around the template, and it’s reading for felting.  You’ll see in the top of the photo a piece of black netting.  I lay this on top and tuck the edges under.  This keeps the fleece in place while I’m working.

How to make felt ugg boots 5

Here’s the netting-wrapped fleece, ready to felt.  I drizzled this with dishwashing detergent, then poured cups of very hot water over it, and rolled up the bubblewrap, fleece, netting and all.  The detergent helps it felt better.  The hot water helps it shrink.  Generally hot, wet, soapy and lots of friction are the keys to felting well.

Once the bubblewrap was rolled up, I massaged the roll with my hands for a little while, helping the water and detergent spread evenly through the ugg boots, and starting the felting process.  Then I unrolled it and with my hands I massaged the edges, working the fleece towards the middle so as to avoid having a flap at the edge.  When it was starting to cool off, I unwrapped it and it looked like this:

How to make felt ugg boots 6

I was amazed by how all that volume of fleece just disappeared.  You can see the black coverage isn’t perfect afterall – the sheep’s wool is showing through in many places.  At this point, I added more hot water, rewrapped it, rolled, massaged and generally kept doing more of the same.  After about an hour or so, the fleece had definitely shrunk, and in fact was starting to warp the template.  When that happens, it’s time to remove the template.

I cut straight through the middle so that I had two separate boots, and removed the template.  Then I turned the boots inside out.  This is what they looked like with one boot turned through, the other one still with the template inside:

How to make felt ugg boots 7

At this stage the boots were still enormous, far too big for my foot.  I dipped them in a pot of very very hot soapy water, and when it had just cooled enough, I put them onto my feet.  I put a stocking over the top, and started massaging my feet, to encourage the boots to shrink into my very own foot shape.  With every dipping, they shrank noticeably, but it took many dippings to get them down to the size I wanted. The stocking helps the fleece to attach to itself, and not get rubbed into the wrong position by your hand.  Here’s the boots on my feet, without the stockings:

How to make felt ugg boots 8

As you can see, there were a couple of holes, and some of the bits of alpaca refused to felt themselves onto the boots.

How to make felt ugg boots 9

To fix this, I used a needle and thread to sew some of those bits of errant alpaca into place, and to sew some extra fleece over the holes.  Then I continued felting.  The stitching wasn’t really obvious by the time the boots were done.

I wore them for a little while, then decided they should be a size smaller, so did another couple of rounds of hot pot dipping and massaging.  I wanted to get them as tight as possible while still being easy to slip on and off.

I also wanted to make a sole for them. I laid out a super-thick rectangle of sheep fleece, and felted that, then cut the soles out of this thick felt fabric:

How to make felt ugg boots 10

I sewed the sole to the bottom of each boot.  I figured when it wore out, I’d make a new sole, which would be relatively quick compared to making a new boot, so I promised myself to do this repair before the boot itself started wearing a hole in the bottom.

The boots are incredibly comfortable, soft and warm.  The only drawback is that at our house, we had to go outside to go to the fridge, the toilet, the bathroom, to feed the animals etc.  And if I stepped in a tiny puddle of water, my boots got wet, so did my socks, and it took them ages to dry.  I ended up rubbing silicone rubber into the soles, and that worked excellently.  A little bit of water no longer caused a problem, and the grip on the shoes was much better.

I’m pretty chuffed to have made shoes that have really got me through several winters, without buying anything except the tube of silicon.  I love that my toes were kept warm by my own bunny’s angora fur (which is seven times warmer than wool), and that they were made by simple tools and technology.  If you have access to some fleece, it’s well worth the effort.

Homemade Candles

Homemade Candles

I made these candles on our rocket stove. I’m so pleased with them. I love the soft lumpy forms, and every time I burn one I remember sitting out by the fire, feeding it with sticks, and the lovely calm feeling I had while I was dipping them into the wax.

I found on the nature strip, ages ago, a humungous fat candle – the kind that is impossible to burn down because it’s just too damned large. Obviously someone had give up. I’ve been melting it down in a frypan I got from the op shop, and using it to make my candles. When it runs out I’ll try and collect candles and bits of wax from op shops to keep up my supply.

Here’s how I make them:

I do it on a day when we’re cooking on the rocket stove, using twigs from around our garden, making use of bits of heat that would otherwise be wasted.

I melt wax in the fry pan, and then pour it into a tin. I’ve got a nice tall tin that used to have pineapple juice in it, but you can make candles from a regular tin too – they’ll just be short little things.

I take string I got from the 2 dollar shop – white cotton twine or whatever it is – and dip it repeatedly into the wax. Gradually it becomes fatter, and I stop when the candles are the right thickness for our candleholders.

Every now and then I need to put the tin on the rocket stove to re-melt the wax, and I need to melt a bit more in the frypan to top up the tin.

That’s it. It’s meditative and fun.

Here’s my candlemaking box, with all the “tools” I use – pretty simple really:

Homemade Candles 2

An angora rabbit for sustainable textiles

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-2.png
Image 1: A picture of a gray-furred angora rabbit resting between a wooden paling fence and a tree trunk, with the vibrant green leaves and red flowers of a nasturtium plant in front.

Want to read the story of how I kept an angora rabbit who turned weeds into shoes and clothing that are incredibly soft and seven times warmer than wool? I wanted to understand if textiles really could be sustainable, and that took me on a long journey of weaving, spinning, knitting and being bitten and cuddled by a rabbit disguised as a fluffball. I’ve written about it here.



How to make a greenhouse tunnel to grow vegies during winter

Last autumn, I made myself a set of three greenhouse plastic row covers for my garden beds:

After trialling them this winter, I’ve decided they are definitely worth the hassle for a vegie garden in Melbourne.  I don’t think greenhouses are essential – with careful planning you can have vegies to eat all year round in Melbourne.  See my sidebar for how to really produce food in your backyard.  If, like me, you have a fairly limited space for your vegies, then the greenhouse covers can help get a crop in and out of a bed quicker.  I’m also hoping they’ll mean we get to eat summer vegies a little sooner, but that’s yet to be proven!

To make these greenhouses, I bought some “builder’s film” plastic from Bunnings.  I think it cost about $40 for a roll large enough to do three tunnels plus the cover for my greenhouse shelves which you can see in the background.

I used plumbing pipe to create the hoops, and thin steel stakes 1m high to hold up the plumbing pipe.  The reason the stakes are thin is so that the hoops will fit over them.  Originally I pushed six stakes into my garden beds, put three hoops over the top of them, and then draped the cover over that.  However, because my soil is so soft and fluffy, it wasn’t firm enough to hold the stakes.  So I bought some little u-shaped pipe-holder brackets (sorry, I don’t know the proper name for them!) and nailed them onto the sides of my garden beds.  Now the stakes slide neatly into them and remain properly upright.  The stakes I originally bought from Bunnings (metal with plastic casing) started to break, and I discovered that “metal” actually meant “very very thin and flimsy metal tubing, no stronger than the plastic”.  So don’t buy your stakes from Bunnings!  I took them back and replaced them with steel reinforcement stakes that I got from a building supply shop.

The builder’s film I cut to size, and then sewed with a wide zigzag stitch on my sewing machine.  I also sewed on a long plastic zip (don’t use a metal one – it’ll rust in the weather and you won’t be able to do it up), and then cut the plastic to create an opening where the zip is.  Then I sewed some strips of fabric to the corners and middle of the  bottoms of the greenhouse.  These hang down to the ground, and I place bricks on them.  If you don’t have raised beds, you can simply weigh down your greenhouse plastic with rocks.

As well as the faster growing crops, I’ve found the greenhouses very handy in terms of pest management.  Our local possum has not bothered our vegies, when the chooks break into the garden, they don’t get in, and the cabbage moths haven’t either.  So far this spring we’ve had a surprising lack of snails in these beds too – usually I need to be hunting for snails every night to stay on top of them.  So they are definitely a winner for me.  The drawbacks are that I must water manually, even if it’s been raining, and the garden doesn’t look as nice!  Actually that’s quite a big drawback, because I love walking around my beautiful garden and admiring all the food.  Now I walk around a plastic graveyard.  Yuck.  I fantasise about having a lovely glass structure over the entire vegie garden, which is somehow effortlessly dismantled over summer.  If anyone knows how to do this, please do share!

In the meantime, for serious food growers, I reckon the greenhouse is a great addition.  But if you just want to get started and grow some food, I think it’s low priority.

The best and cheapest humanure composting toilet

My friend Kat has framed a note I wrote to her before we met. ‘Hi, my name is Asphyxia, and I am wondering if I could come over to help you empty your composting toilet?’

Ok, I guess it is a rather unusual introduction. I had had three different composting toilet systems at my house and was appalled by all of them. I heard on the grapevine that this woman, Kat, had a good one, and wanted to know the details. Kat taught me the secrets to a stress-free composting toilet. This system has been amazing! It cost a grand total of $50 to set up (unlike previous systems which I had forked out thousands for) and never malfunctioned in almost a decade of use.

I’m sold. Want to know how to run a cheap and simple composting toilet system? I’ve put the details on this page here.

Cook a meal with just a handful of twigs, using a rocket stove!

I made a rocket stove!

Thanks to YouTube I was able to learn about the fabulousness of rocket stoves.

What’s special about a rocket stove is that you can cook using an astonishingly small amount of fuel – not that many twigs are needed to boil water, for example. The reasons I wanted one are a) to reduce the use of gas and make use of the vast amount of wood hanging round on the property, and b) to cook outside in summer and not heat up the house.

The basic idea is that you have an L-shaped bit of stovepipe (or chamber) that’s about 10cm in diameter, and you put the fire in the foot of the L, and sit the pot on the top of the L. You need to make a little platform in the middle of the foot of the L so that the twigs can sit on it and there’s space underneath for the air to flow in, providing plenty of oxygen for a good flame. The stove pipe also needs to be insulated, preferably with something that will hold the heat nicely. I watched a few videos, but in the end the simplest one was this: How to Make a 16 Brick Rocket Stove. I had plenty of bricks lying around. The only bit that foiled me was that in order to make the foot of the L the right size, I need to have a half-thickness brick. No go. And I had no chance of cutting one. In the end I solved this by placing a few tiles I found in the bottom.

This stove took me about an hour to make, including finding the drawers to sit it on and shifting them into a nice shady spot opposite our front door, and tracking down the slab of marble which I laid on top in the hope that the drawers won’t catch on fire, and tempting the redback spiders out of the holes in the bricks. If you only count the time to actually make the stove, well that’d be about 10 minutes. I put a big white tile behind the stove in the hope of protecting the fence, put in some paper and twigs, sat our pot on top, lit the stove and snapped this pic.

The white tile became black. The pot became black. The drawers were covered in ash. BUT IT WORKED! I couldn’t believe that something so utterly simple could actually work so well. It got up a nice big flame quite quickly, was pretty easy to keep going, and after a few hours the bricks and ash were so hot I could boil water on it super-quick with only a low flame. We filled that huge pot with stock and boiled it all day.

An angora rabbit for sustainable textiles

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-2.png
Image 1: A picture of a gray-furred angora rabbit resting between a wooden paling fence and a tree trunk, with the vibrant green leaves and red flowers of a nasturtium plant in front.

Want to read the story of how I kept an angora rabbit who turned weeds into shoes and clothing that are incredibly soft and seven times warmer than wool? I wanted to understand if textiles really could be sustainable, and that took me on a long journey of weaving, spinning, knitting and being bitten and cuddled by a rabbit disguised as a fluffball. I’ve written about it here.