Saturday, 24 July 2010

Meaties - The Final Chapter

After 3 years of having layer hens I made my first foray into meat birds this year. Disregarding all of the negative things I have heard and read about the Cornish Rock X, I ordered 30 of them for May delivery. Now, when I order from McClelland Feed Store, they order from Frey’s Hatchery in Southern Ontario. There are two choices for a meat bird: Frey’s hybrid meat bird, and the Cornish X.

The negatives I mentioned will turn up if you Google 'Cornish X': They grow so fast that they are prone to leg problems, they are subject to “flip over” or sudden heart failure, they die easily during hot, humid weather, they aren’t active enough, they eat too much, they won’t join the Chicken Marketing Board... okay, I made up the last one.

A friend of mine raised the Frey’s hybrid meat birds, and told me he wasn’t impressed. None of the above happened to his chickens, he just didn’t think the resulting birds tasted as good as supermarket chicken, and they cost more. He elected not to repeat the experience this year.

So Cornish X it was. They sent me 32, and I lost two chicks during the first two weeks. Par for the course, and they occurred a week apart, so no sign of illness. And in nine weeks (yes, nine weeks!) I had 30 very large chickens.

We have eaten two, one on the barbecue and one roasted in the oven, and both were superb. The first, a hen, had a fair bit of fat to be trimmed before cooking. The second was a cockerel and the dark meat was especially good. The oysters were the size of their namesake shellfish, the biggest I have ever seen.

Just for fun I took a picture of the chickens next to the box that held 30 of them 9 weeks ago.

Nine weeks ago this box held 30 of these behemoths!
Here’s the cost breakdown:

30 Chicks + 1 sack starter feed, 3 sacks grower feed $99.00
Delivery $16.50
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
Feeders and waterer $60.00
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
2 sacks grower feed $25.90
Shavings (5 bales) $29.00
Processing $110.74
Total cost $444.74
Cost per bird $14.82

I had chick waterers and feeders, but I bought two feeders and a waterer when they got bigger. These costs are reflected in the list; arguably I could have amortized that cost over several years.

They really will go outside and forage a bit 
Some notes, in no particular order.

• Thanks to a great local feed store that has good connections at the feed mill and is not afraid to experiment, I was able to use GMO free (no corn, no soy), vegetable protein only feed at no extra cost.
• All feed sacks were 25 kg or 55 lbs.
• I didn’t get the run constructed until the birds were 5 weeks old. I think if I had it ready earlier, more of the chickens would have used it. As it was, after a little chicken whispering, about half of them used the run every day to forage and snap at mosquitoes. And sit.
• For the last three weeks, they consumed two sacks of feed per week.
• I only sent 28 birds for processing. Two weeks earlier I took two hens to a friend’s and learned to butcher a chicken, and gave her one for her trouble. The one I brought home weighed 6 pounds, dressed, at seven weeks.
• I did have one hen that developed a bad leg. That was the reason I decided to butcher two at seven weeks.
• My scale was broken when I had the chickens processed, so I don’t have total weight. I doubt very much that any are smaller than the six pounder; the one that had the bad leg was definitely smaller. The cockerels look to be eight pounds or so. When i get the scale fixed I might weigh some.
• I ordered straight-run, day-old chicks, which was cheapest.
• I stressed a lot during a two-week heat spell during which the meaties were panting a lot and in some distress. They came through it just fine though. I gave them fresh, cold water as often as possible.
• Here’s a fun fact: during the last week and a half, the cockerels started learning to crow. It started as more of a goose honk, and ended up something like honkle-donkle-doooo. I could just imagine them thinking, another couple of weeks and I’ll get it. Little did they know.
• Norm Hughes at Rose Valley Farms loaned me eight chicken cages for free so I could haul the chickens to Northern Quality Meats. If you are ever heading east from Sault Ste Marie on the Trans-Canada highway, stop at Rydall Mill Road and buy some of Norm and Judy’s amber maple syrup. Tell him I sent you.

Would I consider Cornish X chickens again for meat? You bet!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Hey, hay!

Twice in my life I have discovered what I believed to be the World's Largest Air Freshener.

On the first occasion, I was living in Southern Ontario and didn't have a car, having suffered a bit of a financial setback. Determined to have a Christmas tree, I brought home a fair sized one on the city bus. I was up the stairs and past the open-mouthed driver before he could tell me I couldn't bring it on the bus.  London never had such a sweet-smelling vehicle in their fleet as they did that day.

 But there is nothing so fragrant, so sweet and heady -- and so large -- as a stack of fresh alfalfa hay.

Normally there is a distinct advantage to being a hobby farmer rather than a real farmer, which is that some things can be done on a best-effort kind of basis. If your livelihood is not at stake, you can make some decisions on a whim. If the south pasture doesn't get fenced, well, I just won't rotate the goats over there this year. Whatever.

Also, the weather does not quite rule your life the way it does for a real farmer. If a hail storm ruins the corn, we'll make do with roadside stand corn instead of our own.

At haying time, however, we're all in the same boat: when the hay is ready, the hay is ready.

Now, I have discovered a kind of hay-based corollary to Murphy's Law, which states: The hay will always be ready at 9 p.m., with rain due in a couple of hours. So suppose some hobby farmer, in some place -- Tarbutt Township for instance -- has had a long day. It's the middle of the week, and he's tired, and gearing down for an early bedtime. He starts watching a movie -- maybe "9", the animated post-apocalyptic flick.

The phone rings. And of course, it's the farmer up the line, saying the hay is ready. It's after nine o'clock, there is about an hour and a quarter of daylight left, and it will take four trips with the utility trailer to bring home the hay, which then has to be stacked, load by load, in the barn.

Oh... and rain is coming.

He could wait, let the farmer bring the hay in and store it in the mow, then go and buy it and have him get it back out, but that extra handling puts the price up. At fifty cents a bale extra, it adds up. A hundred bales of hay goes from $250 to $300, for the same hay, because it has been handled twice.

So off goes the movie, and off goes our hobby farmer to get the first load.

At midnight the hay is stacked and he is ready for a cold beer, a shower, and a not-so-early night. But as he pauses at the door of the barn, he takes a deep breath.

Mmmmmmm......  sweet, heady hay. The single greatest summer smell on the farm. Everything about it says sun-warmed fields and contented livestock. Suddenly my barn, which used to smell like 30 Cornish X chickens, savors of summer at it's height. Truly, the World's Biggest Air Freshener.

By the way, the first 30 minutes of "9" is really good.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Meaties Part 2

I had heard about the problems sometimes associated with Cornish X chickens, mostly tied to their phenomenal growth rate and associated weight gain. So it was sad, but not shocking, when one of my 30 Cornish developed a leg problem at 7 weeks.

Now, these chickens have an appointment at Northern Quality Meats in a week and a half. But I am raising a year's worth of chicken myself for several reasons, one of which is to ensure my food is humanely raised, so I wasn't about to let this poor hen suffer. So I called Sigrid, my friend, kindred spirit and general animal management mentor, and asked her if she would teach me to clean a chicken if I brought it over. She said sure, so I brought two chickens over, so I could follow along with my own bird - we learn best by doing after all - and left her the second one for her trouble.

Unfortunately, since both of us were up to our elbows in chicken, I don't have a photo record. I will detail what I have learned another time. But what I have been leading up to - and what you tuned in to find out - is, how did the damn thing taste?

As you can see below, we rubbed the skin with seasoned salt and roasted the bird on the barbecue on a stand that is made for what we used to call "beer-butt" chicken because we stood the chicken on a beer can. The stand, however, does the beer can one better by catching all of the lovely drippings in the bottom. If you drop some cubed potato or chunks of onion in there while the chicken cooks (that's onion in the picture), you will be left with something mouthwatering indeed.
The chicken was delicious. It was moist. It was rich. To be sure, there was no shortage of fat, even after trimming lots off before cooking. But the breasts were as moist as dark meat, and the dark meat was to die for. The wings were meaty. I can't say much about the oysters, because Genevieve scooped both of them.

Today for lunch, there was the moistest chicken salad ever. And then tonight, best of all, fresh chicken soup. Remember those drippings that got caught in the stand on the barbecue? Into the soup they went.
Oh. My. Good. God. 

Oh, and this seven week-old hen weighed 6 pounds even. That's dressed, not live weight. And there are much bigger birds to come.

For those who are interested, I will post a breakdown of final costs and yield per bird once they go to be processed.

That's it for now. I am off to write my first chicken review:

Monday, 12 July 2010


So 7 weeks or so ago I received my shipment of 30 Cornish X chickens. As with layer chicks, they arrived in the usual cardboard box, not much bigger than a shoebox.

Like layer chicks, they were something like a living marshmallow peep. And when I got them home I dipped each little beak in the waterer and then placed them gently in the wood shavings.

There the similarity pretty much ends.

Oh, they have two legs, two eys, and a beak all right. But they are chickens in the same way that a Hummer is a family sedan.

When I bought the chickens, I had two choices for a straight meat bird (ignoring dual-purpose options): something called a hybrid broiler, or Cornish Rock X. I read all kinds of warnings about the Cornish X - they are subject to "flip over" (sudden heart failure), they develop leg problems from growing too fast, they are boring... But Frey's hatchery, the one my local feed store orders from, has only Cornish X and a hybrid meat bird, in terms of pure meat birds. And a friend raised 25 of the hybrid birds last year and wasn't impressed.

After much deliberation I ordered the Cornish X, 30 of them, and hoped for the best.

After 7 weeks, and 10 bags of feed, they were starting to look like small turkeys. And I understand what some people mean about them being boring. They are not fulfilling like a nice layer hen. I have had a handful of layer breeds, and they all scratch around in the yard and cluck contentedly, streak after flying bugs... but the meaties were more like big white pillows with thick legs.


To be sure, the first day I let them out into their new run, they sat and stared at the door. After an hour, three or four stuck their heads out and nibbled at a blade of grass. But after a few days, I had a dozen or so that reliably went straight out and did their best to forage.

They don't scratch up the ground like other chickens, they waddle from spot to spot, plopping down after a minute or two. They eat the grass around them, stand up, and then waddle, waddle plop! in other spot. They are at least getting some forage, the odd insect, and some exercise. They also keep the pen cleaner by leaving some of the manure outside, and fertilize the ground.

In the late evening I sometimes go out and sit beside the run, and they come over to me out of curiosity. And then, they start to act like real chickens, foraging in the grass, and making contented chicken sounds. And I enjoy them, I really do. I think if I had had the run ready when they were younger, they would be more active. And I can test that theory next year, now that I have everything built.

 Tonight while I sat watching them, a hen and a cockerel walked down to the far end of the run and discovered a small blackberry bush. They ate the budding berries and then tucked into the foliage, gobbling it down with obvious delight. The hen also snapped at some small moths that flew by, and the cockerel muscled up to the chicken wire when my dog got close to the hen.
They ARE chickens after all.

Tomorrow: the first taste of my Cornish X meaties!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


As a City Boy turned Country Lad I am often struck by the things that I always thought were just abstract or figures of speech, but that turn out to be rooted in the realities of farm life. For example, there are all the expressions that come from the world of poultry. Just off the top of my head: rule the roost, mother hen, mad as a wet hen, cock of the walk, hen-pecked, all your eggs in one basket... actually, I need to do a separate post on that soon.

Then there are goats. I always thought it was coincidence that we called both our young'uns and theirs kids. Turns out it's because human children act so much like - well, kids.

Putting the adult goats away at night is always easy. You grab a couple of flakes of nice alfalfa hay, scoop a cup of dairy ration, and head into the pasture. Jack (my wether and pet) sees the food and leans against you for a treat. You dodge him and head into the barn, Jack follows you, the others follow Jack. Put the hay in the hay rack, dump the ration in the trough, shut the door and leave.

But now there are kids. And they really are kids. And everyone knows that the one thing kids universally hate is to be told it's time for bed.

Tonight the routine disintegrated. I grabbed a couple of flakes of hay, scooped some ration, walked into the pasture. All the goats, kids in the rear, rushed out to meet me. So far so good. Jack leaned in for a scratch behind the ear and a handful of ration. Great.

I started toward the barn, and the adults followed me. The kids took off in the opposite direction and hid under the creep in the pasture. I tossed the ration into the trough and raised the lid on the hay rack. Little Millie, appearing from nowhere, leapt into the hay rack and flopped down on her belly before I could drop the hay. I reached in and scooped Millie out, wriggling and kicking, and put her on the floor.

Putting the hay in the rack, I went outside to look for the twins, Ricky and Lucy. Nowhere in sight. I walked around to the back of the barn just in time to see two sets of tiny hooves vanish around the next corner. I chased around after them and Lucy ran into the barn door. Ricky ran and hid under the creep. I could tell that he was hiding, because his face was under the creep. Never mind that his bum was sticking out in mid-air.

I scooped him up under my arm and carried him to the barn. Millie ran out. Ricky started to fuss, so Mary came out of the barn to see what I might be doing to her baby. I reassured her and carried Ricky in the door, and miraculously, Millie followed. Wait -- Millie, Ricky, Lucy... all in the barn. Unfortunately Mary was now out and had gone back to grazing, as the dairy ration was gone.

I asked her please to come into the barn. She did, but it took awhile. She sort of waddled-ambled-sidled into the barn. To be fair, she gave birth two weeks ago, to twins no less, and I don't expect her to move at lightning speed or anything. But she took so long, that by the time she got there everyone else had come back out, so she turned around and joined them.


So I went back to the stable and got more dairy ration and started over. Everyone went in; Ricky ran out. I chased him around the barn and he ran in. I shut the door. Whew.

Kids. Four legs or two, they hate to go to bed.

Oh, by the way, putting these goats away should especially easy, since I have a Border Collie. But that too is another story, for another day.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Mama Skunk

Coyotes have been howling in the early morning lately, so when I saw that something had been digging in the paddock where I have buried chickens that have died over the past two years, I suspected that coyotes were the culprits.

In retrospect, the holes did seem kind of small for something a coyote would make. And with all the rabbits and other rodents around, not to mention the live chickens on the property, why would they be after carrion at the height of summer?


Last night I got home from work, checked on the meaties, and then started out to the chicken coop. Strangely, the layer hens were standing around baak b’GAAAKing like crazy. I say “strangely” because these days they are generally finished laying by mid-afternoon.

Then, sauntering by the front of the stable, past the chicken coop, came Mama Skunk with three small babies traipsing along behind her. The chickens gave them wide berth and continued to sound the alarm. The skunks, ignoring human and poultry alike, went off through the long grass at the side of the yard.

Now I don’t mind skunks per se, but I have dogs. All my dogs have had run-ins with skunks, and you would think that one incident would discourage them from attempting a rematch. After all, my Black Lab who once bit the electric fence wouldn’t go in the goat pasture for a year. But no, they seem to run headlong toward disaster, confident that THIS time they will even the score.

When I saw Mama Skunk backing under the chicken coop with her front legs – I almost said “arms” full of dried grass for a comfy bed, I mailed boards across the most obvious access to the underside of the coop. I waited until she was out on her rounds for the evening. Actually she was about twenty feet away from me, robbing another chicken grave. Between furtive glances over my shoulder (“Why hello Mama Skunk. What am I doing? Er, uh…”) I nailed boards across the most obvious access points.

I had an old live trap and I baited it and set it. All night I kept thinking I didn’t really want to catch the critter, since this would present additional challenges. Luckily the trap was still set in the morning and I disarmed it. On my way to work, I saw Mama Skunk a half mile up the road, headed for the neighbor’s pasture.

I hope she’s scouting out new digs, not just doing the grocery shopping. I don’t want to try relocating a spraying skunk, I don’t want her around the dogs (and eggs), and I don’t want to orphan her babies.

Why are skunks so damn beautiful?

Hopefully she’s on her way somewhere else.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Remembrance of things past

Time for an update on some of the things I was kicking around when I launched this blog...

I now have 6 goats, for the time being, anyway. To explain: I originally planned to purchase a wether and two does; Mary, Jack and Jenny. I picked them out the day the photo of me holding Mary was taken May 2nd, 2008 -- the day I picked out the ones I wanted. It turned out that Jenny had an extra teat, which happens sometimes, and potentially complicates milking. So, after reading some chilling accounts of how you can slice off the extra appendage with a razor blade, Sigrid decided instead to ship Jenny to marker, and I took Jack's twin Jill instead.

So: the starting "herd" was Jack, Jill, and Mary.

Jill was a very nice doe, and unfortunately died this past November. Last summer, though, she gave me a beautiful grey and white buckling named Fillmore. Meanwhile Mary had twins, a boy and a girl, Norman and Jubilee. I named her Jubilee because she was our first, the very first kid I saw.

This year, Jubilee kidded first, and gave birth to Millie. She is black and curly like her sire (his name is Pepe) with a white blaze on her forehead.

Not to be outdone, Mary twinned again, producing Ricky and Lucy. Lucy is the most beautiful honey brown color, and Ricky has a head identical to Mary's. Mary, Jack, Jubilee; Millie, Ricky, Lucy. Six goats. For now.

Sunday, 4 July 2010


Well, after a couple of false starts, I am rebooting my blog.
I started it with the thought of documenting all my trials, newbie mistakes, and small victories as I started keeping goats. Unfortunately my schedule, combined with terrible Internet access (remember dial-up?!?) conspired to keep me from it.

Now is the time to start sharing some things I have learned about various types of livestock, along with my trials, small victories, and newbie mistakes as I continue to make them. :)

Hope you'll stay tuned.