Monday, May 18, 2015

Oh, the Cuteness!

Is this CUTE, or what?

Every four weeks from the end of February to the beginning of October, we head out to the Post Office to pick up a box of chicks. 

Cute, fluffy chicks.

And, every time I post a picture, someone is sure to make a comment about how very cute they are. I’ve had countless folks ask me how we could possibly eat something so cute. When I invariably reply “we don’t”, they look at me funny.

 I’m pretty sure nobody thinks about the fact that there’s no way that tiny, cute chick could ever fill a fry-pan without a great deal of growth. And, I’m here to tell you, ready-to-eat broilers are NOT cute! But, they are delicious!

For the last two months, I’ve been working on a project to explain just how that CUTENESS becomes that DELICIOUS-NESS in just eight weeks. I weighed and photographed a chick each week from arrival to processing day. The changes were amazing.

**a note here:  The weights are for the first batch of 2015. These chicks stayed in the brooder slightly longer than normal since the weather was so cold. Generally, that means that batch is slightly larger than the rest.  I do not know if I used the same chick for every photo and this was in no way a scientific study. Just my own observations from our operation for informational/educational purposes.**

new arrivals

I admit, those little fuzzy chicks are incredibly cute.  And, it is simply amazing that something so very tiny (they’re slightly bigger than a large marshmallow when they first arrive) can survive the trip from the hatchery in Pennsylvania and adapt so quickly to their new surroundings.

Within moments of their arrival, they are eating and drinking, scratching around and generally acting like…well, chickens. Within days, their fuzz is giving way to feathers. You can almost see them growing right in front of you. 
chick in brooder

But, as they grow, the cute factor fades. Quickly. Since we aren’t in the business of stocking Easter baskets or providing models for storybooks, we want the quick growth that is a sign of health and vigor.  Their efficient conversion of feed to weight gain is NOT a by-product of steroids, hormones or any type of additive. Their growth is simply a result of good breeding (on the part of the hatchery) and good management (on the part of the farmer---mostly the Boss).

servicing pastured broilers

…and good feed (thank you, Valley Feed!)

starter mash is just ground grains and vitamins

For the record, hormones are NOT used in any poultry in the US.  It is against the law.

When the chicks first arrive, they are just itty, bitty balls of fluff.  They’re usually cheeping furiously and eager for a little drink of water and a source of warmth.  Weighing in at a little over ONE ounce each, it seems unlikely that we could consider eating them. An entire chick wouldn’t even make one chicken mcnugget! (and that’s just gross, anyway)

By the time they are just one week old, they’ve changed considerably. Now, the chick weighs nearly 6 ounces. He’s much taller, and his wing and tail feathers are coming in quite well.  This particular chick was not at all impressed with his “fifteen minutes of fame”.

All the chicks do is eat, drink, sleep and poop. (and boy, can they poop!)  This is on a constant repeat cycle.  They are incredibly efficient growth “machines”.

Week two and the feathering out of the wings is nearly complete.  Their feet have gotten enormous (they will have to be to support the broiler’s weight later on) This one weighs nearly one pound already.
At three weeks, any remaining cuteness has all but disappeared.  A little fuzz remains as the rest of the chick’s feathers begin to fill in. You can certainly tell roosters from hens at this stage.  See this guy’s big, red comb? He now weighs nearly two pounds!

Remember, that is just normal, healthy growth. Nothing is forced or unnatural.  Some would argue that breeders should not want the animals to grow so quickly. But, as good stewards, we want the animals to be efficient processors of our limited resources.

We also move the birds out of the brooder at this time.  The brooder gives them constant heat, light and warmth, aiding in their growth.  Once they have feathered out, they have the ability to adapt to the changeable weather in the pasture. Here they have the opportunity to eat grass and scratch in the ground. I will point out that they don’t often expend the effort to scratch or eat grass.  They seem to prefer to park themselves by the feeder and chow down.

**A note about pastured birds.  Pastured chickens are not roaming wild and free across the countryside.  That would be foolhardy and dangerous.  They MUST BE provided with protection and a constant source of fresh feed and water.  Without protection of some sort, the chicks would end up being a tasty meal for any number of predators.**

By four weeks, the birds are weighing in at nearly 3 pounds. They could be processed at this size and age…they would finish out looking like the Cornish game hens you see in the grocery store. (which are indeed relations of the Cornish Giant that we raise) As for “cuteness”, that’s definitely a thing of the past!

The roosters generally grow much more quickly than the hens, although all the chicks are averaging well over FOUR pounds by five weeks of age.

By six weeks, they’re really big.  This is the point when a lot of large scale producers go ahead and process them. 

 They weigh nearly six pounds each and have long, sharp toenails and incredibly strong wings (you don’t want to get flapped or scratched, believe me)

By 7 weeks, the biggest ones are nearly eight pounds.  This guy weighed in at  a little over 7.5#. This sounds enormous, but a fair amount of weight will be lost when processing and getting rid of the feathers, feet, head and internal organs.

The final photo before the broilers are processed. 

Fully feathered and incredibly large, it’s hard to even imagine that this big guy was ever fuzzy and cute.

Here is the final product.

this beautiful broiler weighs a little over 6 pounds

 It will be bagged, chilled and frozen before we take it to the Market for sale.

I purposely did not include processing pictures, as I am certain that some would find them far too graphic. But, the fact is, in order to have animal protein, you must kill animals and prepare the meat.

Since we are a small operation, we process the broilers in our backyard. (Yes, “process” does mean the same as “butcher”) This would not be prudent or in any way efficient for the large producers throughout the country.  In our state alone, nearly one MILLION broilers are processed on a daily basis.  Did you read  this one?

The cycle continues as the next batch is moving from the brooder to the field pen and we will be heading to the Post Office to pick up yet another batch of “cuteness” or potential deliciousness, depending on your perspective.

It is my hope that this post helps you see both.

My vote...DELICIOUS!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Walkabout 5-17

ewe at sunrise

The word for the week was UNEXPECTED.  A little bad, a little all worked out in the end even if it wasn’t part of the plan.

The week got off to an unexpectedly rocky start when FedEx dropped a package OVER the gate.  Now, I’m sure the delivery person was trying to be helpful. But, the “director of farmland security” (I know it was Gus, but cannot prove it) saw that as a possible threat and had to search and destroy the package. The contents were scattered along the driveway and bits of box were everywhere.

Thankfully, despite the mess, the damage was minimal. Since we cannot get Gus to check the “safe senders’ list”, we may need to leave special instructions for the delivery folks in the future.
package after a check by "farm security"

Monday afternoon we had an unexpected thunderstorm that dropped over an inch of rain in less than an hour.  There was some fairly good-sized hail mixed in there and a good deal of wind as the weather pattern changed again. I spent the entire storm worrying over my camera (which I HOPED I left at the barn) and the tomato/pepper plants that were sitting in the trailer (the storm came up hard and fast with no time to get the tractor and move the trailer to the shed). But, my camera was safe and the plants fared well in the storm.

I made a tour of the farm after the storm. There was flooding INSIDE the hoophouses, barn and brooder, and Gus’ dog-cave under the reefer was filled with water.  The super-saturated earth led to some sort of invasion into hoophouse #1 which will call for some sort of intervention in upcoming days.
The hoophouse has been invaded!
something has tunneled in
...and out again
 (and Squeekie made the most of the rat's nest that flooded out into the middle of the barn by eating the baby rats---ewww...but, Yay, Squeekie!)  And, while the lambs were greatly enjoying the tasty treat of fresh rosebush leaves, the Boss would have to repair the fence where the bush had blown over and pulled the wire off the post.   Not a big job, but again…unexpected.  
enjoying FRESH greens

fence job for the Boss

ewes after the storm

EVERYTHING was drenched!

The unexpected reared its head again as the Boss left the farm truck at the top of the lane for a delivery.  Since he was expecting boxes (and boxes) of egg cartons, he couldn’t risk a “farm security check” and there would be far too many parcels to carry easily, he left the truck at the gate, hoping the UPS man would put the boxes in the back. (and he did! YAY, UPS!)  As he walked back, he heard buzzing.  Lots and lots of buzzing.  As he looked around, he discovered a swarm of bees in one of the pine trees. 


Surely you’ve read all the dire stories about bees, how many have died unexpectedly and how they are so very important to food production. There are even campaigns to “Save the Bees”.  So, if there’s a wild swarm, someone should do something to give them a good home, and put them to work pollinating crops and making honey. 

Beekeeping is one of those things I’ve always thought was cool.  Yeah, it would be a great thing to get into…and local honey is a hot item right now. And, here was a swarm on our land!  However, we don’t have the time, inclination or infrastructure to start another big project right now.  But, a swarm of bees really needs a home…so, the Boss put in a call to one of the local beekeepers.

The bee-man was excited about the thought of feral honeybees. The Spring has been kind to the bees and there are flowers everywhere, so it’s been a record year for swarm collection. With all the issues of colony collapse and mites, bees with a good survivability gene are immensely important.  So, he headed over to re-home the swarm and in the process, the Boss and I learned a good deal about bees. It was quite interesting…and, no one got stung!  Even better, the bee-man will soon have honey at the Market!
identifying the swarm

look closely, you can see the bees checking out their new home

loading the new hive for transport
(the bee-man gave the Boss a special suit so he wouldn't get stung)

Bye-bye bees!

With the bees headed to their new home, it was time to get back to the regular stuff of the farm.  We worked on weeding the onions.  All that rain seemed to bring forth a bumper crop of WEEDS.  I spent some time in the greenhouses starting more seeds. 

one greenhouse full of starts

And, the Boss mowed…and mowed. (that could be a full-time job this time of year) The mowing came to an unexpected stand-still when the back tire needed some attention…Thankfully, the tire was just REALLY flat and didn’t need replacement.
that tire is FLAT!

Wet Spring weather always seems to cause problems with the lambs. I’ve been watching this one lamb who looked “punk” for a while now.  Since a sick lamb all too often ends up a dead lamb, I was more than a little worried. After we lost the lamb last week, I did some serious reading and research.

see the "punk" lamb in the middle?

Liver flukes are caused by a parasite carried by snails. (I already knew that) Fluke infestation can kill lambs quite quickly and there are snails EVERYWHERE. (I knew that, too)
Snails are NOT one of my favorite things...
But, there’s also a clostridial disease carried by snails, and I think that is probably what killed the other lamb. (I was more than a little concerned that we were facing that one again) We treated the entire bunch for parasites, as overload and infection seemed to be a very real possibility.  He still seemed off…and he wasn’t eating. (a lamb that won’t eat won’t last long) The Boss and I resigned ourselves to the inevitable. But, when I put them in a new paddock, the sick lamb kicked up his heels and put his head down and started eating his way across the pasture.  Later, he was seen chewing his cud! I couldn’t believe it. Then, he started shouldering his way in at the feeder (like the rest of the hungry horde) Now, that was un-expected in a GOOD way!

hungry horde jockeying for a position in the feeder

healthy lambs grazing

Great germination on the potatoes
With all the moisture, the potatoes seemed to sprout overnight. It looks like the best germination ever.  My best guess would be about 95%.  That’s pretty good!

 And the potato beetles aren’t quite as awful as last week…but, look on the underside of the leaves. 

Do you know what those little orange things are?  Eggs.  Potato beetle eggs.  Nope, the battle is not over.
potato beetle eggs

After torrential rains and gale force winds, it was obvious the weather was changing, so we weren’t at all surprised to find we were under a frost warning one night. We hauled out the frost blankets one more time and covered the squash  and parked the trailer with the covered tomatoes and peppers in the shed.  But, we took a chance and left the strawberries were left to the whims of the weather. The overnight temperatures never got as cold as expected and we escaped any frost damage.

Gus, blowin' in the wind
we are still weeks from strawberry harvest

I REALLY hope we can put this stuff away until Fall!

HOORAY! I really hope that is the last of the cold weather for this season. Because there are signs of summer everywhere...

tomato blossom

The green beans are sprouting!

pepper blossom

The week came to its usual climax and conclusion with Saturday’s Market.  Nothing un-expected happened at the Market (which is a good thing) and we got home, had lunch and even got afternoon chores done before the Heavens opened with yet another unexpected rainstorm.

We did get spiffy new Market baskets
...and those little plants sold un-expectedly well!

Now, for a little down-time on this gloomy, potentially rainy Sunday...

Tomorrow will start another “week of the broiler” here on the hill and I am hoping to get a post written about that this afternoon. We’re also supposed to get a whole bunch of transplanting done…the cukes, tomatoes, okra, summer broccoli and peppers are all supposed to get in the garden this week!

Hope you’re having a Happy Sunday!

sunrise over Mbrook

Thanks for stopping by!  Hope you’ll come and “visit” us again real soon.