Archive for the ‘critters’ Category

The Joy of Riding

Hubby and I are several months into our weekly riding lessons now, and it has been everything I hoped it would be and more. Those of you who aren’t into horses or riding will have to indulge me with this post. Bringing riding into our lives has been a big deal around here.

There’s something about riding that is like meditation. I suppose there are many hobbies or pursuits that leave one with this feeling, but for me nothing comes close to it like riding. No matter how bad your day, no matter how sour your mood, getting up on a horse results in your mind clearing of everything. For one blissful hour I am focussed on my body and my equine partner, working together, with constant back-and-forth communication. It is really an honour to engage in such a conversation with another creature, one who is so strong and powerful and yet willingly submits to carrying me on his back.

My lesson horse is named Boomer and he’s a Quarter Horse. My trainer is working on getting her official Equine Canada certification and Boomer is the horse she is using, so she is schooling him in dressage and jumping. I’m so impressed with him – he looks lovely under saddle whether he is doing a cowboy-ish lope, flying changes in a lovely dressage frame, or hopping over jumps with controlled enthusiasm. I have to confess, Quarter Horses have never been my favourite breed. I’ve always thought of them as the workhorses they are, not as elegant and light movers. But our trainer’s two lesson horses have really won me over. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with her skills in horsemanship – she understands horses on a level few people do, and her skill is reflected in her horses. Her little “cow pony” is turning into a lovely little dressage horse (he recently won Training Level Champion at a local dressage show!), and since Dressage is my favourite equestrian pursuit I am very pleased to have a well-schooled horse on which to practice.

Meanwhile my husband has discovered the magical, meditative powers of riding. He seems to really enjoy the relationship he’s developing with his horse, Partner. My husband is not known for being effusive, so seeing his face light up as he excitedly talks about his lesson is truly amazing. I couldn’t be more thrilled that he is enjoying it so much. Riding with him is a real treat.

My husband on his very first trail ride.

I can’t believe I survived for 10 years without riding in my life. Now that it’s back I am so very grateful. Horses will be in my life from now on, I’m certain!

This was an exciting day: our trainer came to our property and we set out on a trail ride from our own driveway.

I survived the a-Pork-alypse.

I was cutting things rather close, not unusual for me. On Tuesday I had to pick up a few hundred pounds of pork, but first I needed somewhere to put it all. We’d been hoping to buy a used freezer but couldn’t find a big one for sale on the local used networks, and eventually decided that rather than fill the garage with an odd assortment of small ones, we’d cough up the money for a new large one and be done with it. It would arrive at the store on Tuesday, and I was too cheap and stubborn to pay the $100 for delivery. However, it meant I was going to have to get it home and set it up all by myself.

Husband was heading to Seattle on business and I was on my own with two kids. I needed to pick up the pork, but I needed the freezer up and running before I did, and to be honest I wasn’t exactly certain I could do it. I was a wee bit worried I’d end up in a pickle and have to call my dear neighbours to rescue me. However, did I mention I’m stubborn? Fingers crossed, I headed down to the appliance store with Husband’s Ford Expedition (just driving that behemoth makes me feel strong). The 17 cu ft standup freezer actually fit in the truck, so I could scratch Worry #1 off my list. And my son was absolutely delighted:  for the one and only time, he was allowed to ride the short distance home in the passenger seat as there was no room in the back for him.

The next obstacle, Worry #2 (the biggest), was getting it out of the truck and into our garage. I knew that if I was really in a bind I could call on my neighbours for help. But I had a lot to do that day and my stubbornness once again paid off. Backing the truck up to the garage door I was able to pull the freezer out onto the smooth concrete floor, remove the packaging, and set it up. I felt like yelling “I am woman, hear me roar!”. Yeah, I was pretty darned proud of myself. Now, off to the meat guy to pick up our pork.

While I was helping the staff load about a dozen boxes of frozen meat I wondered why I’d asked for the heads. What on earth would I do with them? My dog eats raw food but a whole pigs head is a few meals for her and the thought of it lying outside for her to snack on over a few days was not appealing. Turns out they had sawed them in half and there really wasn’t a huge amount of meat left (the jowls had been removed, as had the tongue, eyes, and brain) so they may just work as dog food after all. But I just couldn’t bear the thought of not using every bit of our pigs. Back at the house I proceeded to unload box after box of chops, roasts, and ribs. This year we got regular-cut chops rather than the thick-cut ones and had them put 2 per package rather than 4. Easier to handle, easier to cook, and no worries about wasting meat (with Husband gone so often there is only so much cooked meat I can eat myself in a couple of days). The roasts were also smaller which is great – I’ve developed a real love for pork roasts and pulled pork and the sizes we have are perfect for a couple of meals. I also got tenderloin this year, which I’ll save for special occasions.

I was feeling pretty relieved as I emptied the last of the main boxes and saw that I would be able to fit it all in, but then I realized there were still two boxes of bones, a box of fat, and two boxes of pig heads and feet. I am determined to render the fat into lard this year (last year we couldn’t fit it into the freezers and it went bad), and managed to find room for that, plus the heads and feet and bones. My years spent as a research scientist in the field of medical science has immunized me against the shock of looking at so much cut-up animal, but I have to admit the half-heads were rather gruesome and looked rather like they belonged in an anatomy lab floating in formaldehyde. However, the newbie farmer and wannabe homesteader in me was proud of the fact that we were reaping every scrap from our harvest, and that we would find a use for it all (even if it is just saving money on the dog’s dinners). So, freezers pretty much stuffed, I closed the garage door and headed out for my next task.

I delivered about 100 lbs of “trim” to our local sausage makers. The trim is what they cut off when making various cuts and roasts, plus we threw in the shoulders and the “picnic” roast cuts. Sausages are one of the few, if not the only, meal that I can make which everybody can and will eat (the sausages contain no filler or artificial ingredients; they are gluten- and dairy-free). The kids love them and it’s a quick easy dinner to thaw a half-dozen and fry them. I enjoy them with spaghetti squash that has been tossed with butter and parmesan cheese. But I digress…

The sausage makers, a husband and wife team who live nearby and run a small smokehouse, were tickled by our custom order. These days everybody wants “lean” and “low fat” so they actually remove the fat from their meat before turning it into sausage. I told them that our family doesn’t buy the notion that animal fats are bad for health, and we wanted our sausages to be made with every scrap of fat that God saw fit to put on our pigs. They winked and secretly agreed with me that it’s the pork fat which gives sausages all their flavour and that they’d be more than happy to use it all. At that moment a toast to Emeril Lagasse seemed in order (“Pork Fat Rules!”).

Our bacon and hams will be ready in a week or two. By then I hope to have rendered the fat into lard (I’m no longer upset that Husband bought a huge propane fuelled heating element and giant pot last year when he got the urge to fry a turkey whole). That should buy me enough room for the bacon and hams. Can’t wait to taste home-grown bacon again! Buying the stuff from the store was a real downer…

So that’s my tale of feminine victory. As I crawled into bed that night I felt it had been a particularly productive day, and that I’d definitely earned my modern homesteader badge!

Our first year of raising meat birds: what we’ve learned

Today I picked up our last batch of chickens from the processor: twenty-four yummy whole chickens have been added to our freezer stash. In looking back on this, our first summer of raising meat birds (or any kind of bird, for that matter), we’ve learned a few things about what we like and don’t like, and gained ideas about what to try next year.

We raised Cornish Rock Giants, which are basically the same type of bird used in mass-production factory farms. Ours actually got to see the outdoors, however. In fact they lived outdoors and enjoyed fresh air, sunshine, tasty grass and bugs. But the truth is they are, as many backyard chicken types will tell you, freaks of nature. They have been intensively bred for maximum meat production in minimum time. We got them as tiny, day-old chicks and by 8 weeks they were ready for harvest. This is good in terms of cost: a shorter duration to harvest means spending less money on feed. But I don’t think it’s very good for the chickens.

As many other people have reported, we noticed that our chickens didn’t seem to want to move around much. I’d often see them take a few clumsy steps as they attempted to balance their rapidly-growing bodies on legs whose bones couldn’t possibly keep up with those demands, only to drop to the ground as if they had just run a marathon. This most recent batch of birds went 9 weeks (because I didn’t make an appointment early enough) and by that time I noticed that some of them appeared to be having difficulty walking and one hen had what looked like a broken wing and perhaps a broken leg, too (she could not walk at all). She was perky and had less then 24 hrs to live so I just brought some feed to her and some water and told her it would all be over soon. I don’t like having injured birds: it may not affect the meat quality but that’s not the kind of farming I want to do. I couldn’t  help but think of the scene in the movie Food Inc. when the chickens were collected for processing and many of them could not walk. I want no part of that kind of “farming”.

I’d also heard that the mortality rate for these birds is high. We did lose 7 of our first batch of 20 chicks, all within the first week of life. I suspect it was a management and inexperience issue because we didn’t lose a single chick in our second batch. However, one of that second batch did die at around 7 weeks, apparently from a heart attack which is common for this breed. This sort of thing kind of makes you ponder the meaning of the word “healthy” – yes our birds were disease-free, but how healthy is an animal that can barely walk?

Another thing we noticed is that raising these birds the usual way (with a chicken tractor) is still really messy, despite the fact that they are outdoors. They eat huge amounts of food and thus generate great quantities of excrement. Despite having their tractor moved every 24 hours, within that time they would manage to coat the ground with waste, which then got all over their feathers on the underside. And my tractor was big compared to the recommended size for that many birds. They didn’t seem crowded in terms of space, but the tractor should probably have been moved twice a day towards the end to keep up with the poop – by that time all of them had wet, dirty undersides. But moving the tractor is a bit of a chore – I could tweak the design a bit to make it easier, but I keep thinking there has got to be a better way. Finally, because of the copious amounts of waste, the area around the tractor smelled pretty bad, and you could smell it wafting on the air all around the farm depending on which way the wind was blowing. Not pleasant.

Overall, we were left feeling like the chicken tractor was really just a step up from confinement operations. When I first looked into raising meat birds I asked people (on BackyardChickens.com, which is THE place to learn about such things) why meat birds weren’t raised like layers – able to strut around a farmyard at their leisure during the day. Some people said there was no point because the things are so poorly designed for mobility that they don’t really bother ranging, even if given the space to do so. We would like to at least give it a try ourselves, as others had a better experience.

The bigger issue is predation. When the birds are small they are perfect prey for raptors, and we have several species of such hunting birds in our neighbourhood. How to keep them safe from overhead ambush is one issue we still have to think about. Normally chicks would be raised with adult hens and roosters, the latter serving as guards for the flock, warning others of approaching marauders and herding the women and children into the brush. Not only do the meat birds not have any experienced chickens around to protect them, but it’s doubtful to me how well they would respond to an alarm scenario anyway. They have had most of the “chicken” bred out of them, perhaps to make them more amenable to a life of confinement. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all just stood around staring stupidly at any rooster trying to warn them of impending predatory doom.

So one of my projects this winter will be to come up with a new management scheme for next year’s meat birds. I’d also like to try a few heritage meat breeds to see if we can find something a little less freakish. Growing them longer will mean increased feed costs, but perhaps that can be mitigated somewhat by allowing them greater access to forage. The chicks themselves are about twice the price of the commercial breeds, too. I don’t mind paying more for good chicken, however, so we’ll just have to do the experiment and see. Most people will tell you that the taste of the commercial breeds makes all the freakishness worth it, and perhaps we’ll find that to be the case (though we still believe there is much room for improvement). This is one of the things I’m really enjoying about our “back to the land” experience: you can read all you want but really you need to go out there and just do it yourself. That’s the only way to determine what works best for you, and as a bonus you learn a lot in the meantime.

One day, a horse.

 

I have loved horses since I was a very young girl. I hung pictures of them in my room, I practiced drawing horses until I could get a decent reproduction on paper, I collected Breyer models, and I dreamed of one day owning a horse of my own. But I lived in the suburbs and, at the tender age of 7, I felt it to be a simple fact that I would not be able to have one until I was an adult, which I equated with turning 19. When I am 19, I promised myself, I will have my own horse. And then sometimes I would start to panic – what if, by the time I’m 19, I don’t want a horse anymore? What a cruel twist of fate that would be! I laugh to remember that, back then, I was certain that I would not recognize myself as a grownup and certain that I may even be a completely different person by then. I wish I could go back in time, visit that little me, and reassure her that, at 43 years old, I am still horse crazy.

When I was 9 years old my mother sent me to a dude ranch camp in the outer rural suburbs. To me it was a world away, an entire vacation trip just to get there. In reality it was only about an hour’s drive, but it was far outside my realm of daily experience. I went for a week, and learned how to ride a horse Western style by going on daily trail rides and being in charge of grooming the horse assigned to me. I was in heaven. I dreamed of “horse camp” all year long, and soon I had convinced my mother to send me for two weeks each year. Looking back I realize it was a lot of money for my mum, but those really were some of the happiest times of my childhood. There was nothing fancy about the riding, just bombing around the trails with friends, but I knew in my heart that riding was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Once I started University life got very busy, especially my social life. But a few years into it a friend called me up one day and said “Hey, I’ve signed up for English riding lessons, wanna come?”. I learned that there was so much more to riding than just going on trails. I learned to jump, and participated in a few little schooling shows, but then I discovered Dressage and I was hooked. It not only appealed to my love of horses but there is a rather large academic component to the sport and that appealed to me as well. I spent the next 8 years training and competing in small, amateur shows. My performance was always mediocre but I had no professional aspirations and I loved every minute of it. I eventually rented a basement suite in the neighbourhood where I rode. I never tired of hearing the clip-clop of horse hooves as people rode down my street on their way to the local riding club. And throughout graduate school I had part-time jobs in the local stables, was an active member and volunteer at the riding club and our local dressage club, and was just completely immersed in the world of horses and the joy of riding.

When I graduated and moved to the US it only took me a few months to settle into my new life before I was out looking for an instructor. I was just getting settled into my new barn, meeting fellow horsey folk, when I met got married and got pregnant. My husband lived in another state so with my pending move and pregnancy I decided to take a wee break from riding.

Kids, cross-continent moves, career decisions, and fluctuating incomes prevented me from seriously looking at riding again. Before I knew it that “break” had turned into ten years. When we moved to this rural area last year I knew one day horses would be in the picture, but it still seemed a long way off. And yet, I’d pass by people riding all the time. There were horses living on our street. Riders pass by the front of our property to access the miles of trails that stretch to the west of our place. And I’d stare with a big, silly grin on my face. Still, I thought, my time hasn’t come.

And then suddenly it did.

Having kids can leave you in a bit of a fog for a while. It’s all about babies and toddlers and preschoolers who have needs that demand so much of your time and attention. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved every stage of my kids’ lives, but it does go by very fast and one day you wake up and realize that you have kids now, not babies, and that you are finally in a place to step back, take a look around, and rediscover yourself. And when I did I realized just how much I’d missed riding, and became determined that somehow I was going to get back into it.

Shortly after this private resolution, Husband and I decided it was time for us to take up a hobby together. I was surprised (and thrilled) when he told me that he’d always wanted to learn how to ride. He is attracted to backcountry horseback riding, and we live in the perfect spot for such activities, being right on the Trans Canada Trail as well as several other “off-road” trails that run for miles. We began looking into it, and this Monday he and I are going for our first lesson with a holistic trainer who works with Natural Horsemanship principles, is multi-disciplinary, and who I believe could possibly take us a long way on this new journey. Because horses really are a journey that can last a lifetime.

Our goal is to become competent riders and horse handlers, to get involved with local trail riding clubs, and to eventually get horses for ourselves. Yes, we’ve decided that there will simply have to be a place for horses here at the ol’ homestead. We’re also hoping the kids might eventually get interested enough to give it a try, though sadly neither of them appears to have inherited the horse-obsession gene from me. I will probably dabble in Dressage, while he may decide to do some cross country jumping. But I’m also thrilled that my husband will be joining me in this journey, and I’m looking forward to riding with him, learning to pack for backcountry riding trips, and sharing the wonderful world of horses with him.

I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am about this new stage in our lives. I feel like, for the first time in my life, I’m in a place where owning a horse could actually be a reality for me. I keep thinking back to that little 7 year old girl I once was, lying in my bedroom at night, promising myself that one day I would have my own horse. It took a whole lot longer than I had originally anticipated, but I’d be happy to let her know that she needn’t have worried about getting old – I still love horses as much as I ever did.

 

Fall on the Farm

Fall is definitely here. It was amazing how quickly it happened. But I’m not complaining. Despite our very short summer I still love autumn. I think it’s my favourite season. Today’s post will tell a disjointed story in pictures, but the overall theme is: here’s what’s going for us these days!

 The chickens are starting to look like…well, like chickens. They have most of their feathers now, but with the evenings getting pretty cool I’m keeping their heat lamp on at night. I’m proud to say we didn’t lose a single chick. I’m wondering if this is because the feed store had them for the first 24 hours and got them past the worst of it. But with 25 birds I’ve got two feeders going now and will have to add another water bucket too so I only have to fill them once a day. These guys eat and drink a lot! I’m moving the tractor pretty much every day, and they have gotten into the spirit now. When I begin to move it they all rush forward to the new clover and grass and dig in. Just like the other chickens, if either the feed or the water gets empty they will crowd around the walls closest to the house and just stare, apparently in the hopes of catching someone’s eye. Guess they aren’t so dumb after all!

The garden is looking neat, if not productive, since I finally got around to mowing the grass. Next year I plan to lay down some sawdust or wood chips to create proper pathways between the beds. While we did get a fair bit of lettuce before it bolted, there wasn’t much else going on this summer, except for the tomatoes! Those five plants have eight neighbours in a row outside the view in this photo, and most of them have done well. We’ve been eating tomatoes every day for weeks now, and my new favourite meal is bacon and eggs with fried tomatoes – so sweet! I know with the weather cooling and the rainy season on its way our tomato days are numbered. Hopefully I can pick all the green ones before that time comes and ripen what I can indoors. It will be incredibly depressing to go back to grocery store tomatoes. I’ve given up on a fall/winter garden in exchange for working on soil building. My raised beds are actually sunken beds with very little topsoil, so my plan this fall is to do some mulching with paper feed bags, compost, dry leaves, cut plants (like mullein, which grows in abundance here and fixes nitrogen) and any other organic matter I can get my hands on. My hope is to have much deeper and richer soil in time for spring planting next year.

We took the tarps off our lumber when the dry season started, but soon they’ll be tarped up again. We’ve had two days of sunshine during which we laid the huge tarps out to dry. Tomorrow we’ll put them back over the lumber. While building the chicken tractor earlier this year I noticed the wood was still a bit wet in the middle, so more drying will be a good thing. We are thinking about using the lumber to build a greenhouse, and some exciting opportunities for a barter are in the works. A local family we know through our homelearning network needs firewood, and we have it in abundance. They are willing to exchange experienced labour (carpentry, no less) so we may use that to get a start on the green house. I’ll keep you posted on that project!

The leaves are starting to turn around here, but we simply don’t get anything close to the spectacular show seen in the eastern parts of our continent. Here you can see a Western Flowering Dogwood, its leaves turning a lovely shade of red. It would probably look much better, however, if the leaves weren’t so dry and dead-looking. Still, I will be collecting the leaf fall for mulching and composting this year, and in that case it really doesn’t matter how pretty they are! In the background of this photo you can see our bushy Sitka Alder tree. A resident Stellar’s Jay has returned, sending out his raucous call every morning. He/she was here last year and it is neat to see the bird has returned. It will be one more way to mark the seasons around here. Oh, and speaking of trees, I identified three new ones on the property in the last couple of weeks. We have a Western White Pine, the only one I’ve found around her so far, an Oregon Ash, and a Smooth Sumac. Being the categorization geek that I am, I maintain an Excel spreadsheet with a list of all the flora and fauna I have identified. There are over ten varieties of tree on my list now, and I’m sure I’ll find a few more in the future.

One surprise harvest that required no work at all in creating it was that of wild blackberries. The Himalayan Blackberry may be considered an “invasive species” but I’m not unhappy that a huge whack of them grew up around our big debris pile this year. After stumbling upon the plentiful berries yesterday while walking around the property, I stuffed myself silly and then, realizing there were still tons more, went back to the house to grab a bowl. I noticed that some large animals must have been trying to get at the berries too, as there were some paths trampled through the long growth around the berry patch. That made my job a bit easier, so I’m happy to share with the local wildlife.With only a few cuts and stabs from the evil spikes I filled up the bowl rather quickly (I sat it on a camping chair for this photo to provide some perspective on size). I’m planning on turning it into a low-sugar jam/spread and canning it (guess who picked up a complete canning kit recently?!). Then I can enjoy a taste of summer with my breakfasts for a while into the cold season. I’m sure even this big bowl will cook down to maybe only one or two jars, but perhaps if I’m lucky I’ll be able to harvest some more before they’re gone. One benefit of having so much property is allowing it to grow in some places. I’ll definitely be encouraging this “invader” in years to come!

The pigs have grown huge over the summer, and will be ready for harvesting in about another month. Which is a good thing because we ran out of bacon!! We’re excited about having lots of bacon, sausage, ribs, and pork roasts soon. I don’t think we really can appreciate how much meat we are going to get from these four critters, but I’m sure there will be more than we need, and I’m hoping next year to offer some pork shares to friends and family. The pigs have really enjoyed their pasture – you can see a bit of the wooded section here. They truly are forest creatures, preferring to spend hot days and even rainy days under the trees, despite the fact that they have a shelter. They didn’t end up doing too much damage to the area, proving that we have a good ratio of pigs to land in this pasture. While we wanted them to clear things out a bit, we didn’t want to denude the land. I’m sure their manure will provide a new bounty of shoots and roots next spring for the next round of pigs.

On another, dreamier note, I decided over the summer to change my plans for the layout of the farm. The northwest corner of our property is the highest point, and has a nice large flat area that is just calling out for a lovely cob house to be built there. I’d originally dismissed the idea because the tall forest on the west side of the property robs the spot of sun relatively early in the day. However, I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. Many a time I’ve gone up there to sit and reflect and admire the view, imagining that one day I’ll be seeing this view from our living room or south-facing deck. These two photos show the view, with a bit of overlap:

The lumber piles on the right are along the west border of the property, and that tall treeline continues on down the hill beyond the debris pile (this photo is facing due south). Husband and I have also decided that horses will be part of our future farm (more on those exciting developments in a subsequent post!) and the spot where the debris pile and scrap logs are sitting is a nice flat area that is just crying out for a barn. We’ll clear a strip about half the width of that photo all the way down to the bottom of the property for a pasture. But I’d like to keep the woods on the east side as they are of a different, and unique, composition (lots of cherry trees, maples, stinging nettles, and pacific bleeding hearts compared to the mostly fir and salal of the west side). The garden will stay where it is, but I’m trying to figure out how not to make it look like a stockade while still keeping out the deer. I could put a perimeter deer fence around the whole place, but I don’t want to shut out the elk who wander through this very field regularly throughout the year, so I’ll have to figure out something. On the left side of the left photo you can see my compost bins, and behind them one of the big maple trees I love. Meanwhile, whenever I need to think, cool off, or just want to take it all in I come and sit up here (on that cinder block) and dream about our plans for the future. I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I realize that we finally got our piece of land. And while it is still a work in progress, I’m very much in love with this place.

Summertime Happenings

It’s hard to believe that summer is almost over. I’ve started doing some major mowing and weed trimming in order to tidy up the property now that the worst of the growing season is over. In the woods the forest of stinging nettles is starting to fall and views are opening up again. I love how the whole look of those woods changes with the seasons. We’ve only been here through two summers now but already it feels like a continuous cycle of changes, with each new season bringing back memories of last year. There hasn’t been much done in terms of projects around the place – money was a bit tight this summer and we focussed on the livestock and garden. Hopefully come fall things will pick up and we can tackle some of the bigger stuff on our wish list – like putting in more fencing.

The pigs are getting huge and we’ll be booking a date for them to head off to “Freezer Camp” soon. Last year we basically randomly picked various cuts of meat and processing types and we learned what we need more and less of. Ground pork features prominently in the adults’ diet, and my son enjoys my homemade sausage patties. Both kids love sausages, and we’ve found a wonderful local sausage maker whose gluten-and-dairy free offerings are perfect for my son’s special diet. We’ll be sending him a huge batch of trimmings from our pigs so he can turn them into a freezer full of sausages for us. We’ll also be getting much more bacon this time around, and now that I’ve learned how to make pulled pork from roasts we’ll keep those in the order as well.

Our home-grown chickens are simply delicious – juicy and meaty and full of good stuff. Today we picked up a new batch of meaties, cute little chicks who will require another freezer in 8 weeks’ time. It was so easy this time around with the brooder and chicken tractor all ready to go. Raising your own meat couldn’t be easier when all is in place. Here’s hoping our experience prevents us from losing as many chicks as we did the first time around (normal for newbies – the little guys get stressed so easily!). We also didn’t bring them into the house this time, being more confident about what they need. They are in the garage for now.

In the garden the tomatoes have been enjoying the heat (finally!) and I harvested my first meal-sized batch of them today. I have a selection of varieties but don’t ask me to name them all! Their ripening has coincided with my pot of basil growing to harvesting size, so all I need is a batch of mozzarella balls and we’ll be enjoying some yummy Calabrese salads over the next few weeks!

Chickenomics

Our chickens were processed this past Thursday and we netted over 81 lbs of meat among our 18 birds. Tomorrow night I’m going to roast one of them and we’re all looking forward to tasting our first home-grown chicken.

In going over the costs involved, I’d say it was definitely worth it. Each chick was $1.87 for a total of $33.66. I’m not counting the birds we lost in the first few days, hoping that with experience we’ll not have so many losses, plus the Hatchery is giving us a coupon for lost chicks (the process of transporting them is very stressful and they are extremely prone to sudden death in the early days if conditions aren’t exactly right). We went through about 5 bags of feed over their 8 weeks, with each bag costing about $10 (the ones that died did so early enough that they didn’t consume a significant amount of feed). The processing fee was $3.95 per bird, with the total after taxes coming to $79.63. Thus, in total, we spent $163.29 which works out to $2/pound.

The cheapest chicken you can buy at our local big box store sells for about $2.50/lb. This is the lowest quality meat that is fit for human consumption, coming from birds who never saw daylight, lived in confinement cages, and ate nothing but the cheapest feed. I don’t consider any animal raised under such conditions to be anywhere close to optimal health, but if they are free of disease they are considered edible by the Powers That Be (personally, I will only feed this meat to my dog). I wouldn’t be surprised if these bargain basement chickens were lame or otherwise rejected by the “prime” chicken producers.

At the local farm where we usually buy whole chicken (not any more, woo hoo!), the animals are free range (and yes, they really do go outside) and their diet is supplemented with fresh plants, bugs, and anything else they can find. The farm has its own store on-site, open 24 hours and run under the honour system (you take your bird, you leave your cheque). That way you can also see the chickens and the nice life they lead. The chickens are delicious, the fat nice and yellow as it is supposed to be, and this is had at the very reasonable price of $3.15/lb. If you go to a farmer’s market, or a retail outlet that sells ethically raised birds, you’ll pay more. In our old neighbourhood, miles and miles away from the nearest farm, I paid over $6/lb for farm-raised, pastured chickens.

The work in raising the meat birds was minimal. As chicks they didn’t go through feed too quickly, but even as adults I set things up so I only needed to tend to them once a day. I’d move the chicken tractor to a fresh patch of clover, and as the chickens dug in to eat the lush leaves and peck at bugs I’d refill their two feeders and two water buckets. In all it took me less than 30 minutes each day to tend to them (mostly because the feed and water is not close to the field). Anybody who has a bit of land could do this for themselves, and I’m quite certain the taste and quality of our meat will make it all worthwhile.

I’m planning to do another batch of 25 before the season is over. Assuming we lose a few I’m hoping to end up with about 40 chickens in the freezer when all is said and done. Since going on the Paleo diet we’re eating a lot more meat, and this means we will be able to enjoy chicken 3x per month throughout the next year. A big roasting bird goes a long way, what with fresh roasted meat, chicken salad, not to mention wonderful soup stock. So definitely a plus for the food budget!

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