Tag Archives: processing

Thanksgiving Turkeys

The turkeys head off for processing. This is the only time they've been caged.

This morning I gathered up 40 Buff Orpington broiler chickens that have lived on pasture in 2 of our chicken scooters for the last 11 weeks.  It took the Buff Orpingtons almost twice as long to reach market weight as the Cornish X batch we processed 5 weeks ago, and they aren’t as heavy still.  Advantages in their favor:  they ate less feed than the Cornish, ate more grass, were more active, and stayed cleaner.  The Cornish have the double breast that most customers expect and taste great.  We’ll  see how the Buffs taste soon.  I’m interested to see, because to my knowledge I’ve never eaten a chicken that wasn’t a Cornish, White Rock, or a cross thereof.

The turkeys have free ranged all over our property gathering most of their own feed.  We put a little broiler ration and scratch grains in a bin to encourage them to roost in the poultry shed at night (they have to be bribed not to roost in the barn rafters), but other than that little bit of feed they’ve done well at fending for themselves eating grass, acorns, grasshoppers, berries, seeds, and “their” heirloom garden tomatoes.  They’ve swung on our front porch swing and chased the dog.  They’ve discovered that they cannot swim and that they can perch on one of the goats.  Undoubtably a finer life than 99.9% of all American turkeys.

The turkeys were harder to pack off emotionally.  We’ve had them since the 1st of July, and they kinda grow on you.  They’re not real smart, but they do follow you around while you’re doing chores or anything else they find interesting and keep you entertained with their antics.  This year we’ve raised 11 of the heritage breed turkeys to a “light” market weight.  I say “light” market weight because July to November is not quite enough time to grow them out completely.  We’ll see how much they weigh tomorrow afternoon.

You see only 5 turkeys in the picture because the other 6 have received “pardons” this year.  We’ve sold 3 of them and are eating 2 with our families at Thanksgiving, but the other 6 will be breeders for us in the spring.  We kept one tom and two hens of 2 rare heritage breeds – the Black, or Black Spanish, and the Chocolate.  We processed four Bourbon Reds (3 toms and 1 hen) and one Chocolate tom.

We’ll let you know how they are on the table.

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The Cluck Stops Here

The sign greeting customers at SS Enterprises.

Today was our first poultry processing day.  #1 lesson learned?  Eight weeks is not enough time to grow birds out unless you’re raising Cornish X.

Our first processing day was a emotional minefield – excitement, sadness, pride, regret, sorrow, and gratitude all flowed through my system from 6 am while Lindsey and I were loading the broilers until 8 pm when we sat down to our chicken dinner.

Eventually we want to keep the processing on farm.  We believe that’s more sustainable and better for the birds.  Heifer Project International has even built a mobile processing unit that they sold to a university in Kentucky for $1 that we can use if we take a certification course and build the platform and hookups for it.  That may be in our future.  But for now, we’re taking our birds to the processor.

We called and got an appointment at SS Enterprises, a certified organic processor geared towards the small producer.  Our methods are definitely “beyond organic” even though we don’t care about label, so having a processor that cares about the organic process makes a difference to us.

Even though we are not labeled organic by the government, we are definitely Beyond Organic and it's nice to have a processor who believes in organics. And, yes, Kentucky's Secretary of Agriculture is named Richie Farmer.

There are only 2 USDA-approved poultry processors in the state of Kentucky.  SS is in Bowling Green almost 2 hours away.  The other happens to be 8 miles from our farm!  This time we used SS in Bowling Green because I didn’t find out about the other processor until after I’d made the appointment.  We’ll use the other processor for the next batch and compare the service and results to see which one we want to use, but I can tell you the 8-miles-away factor will be tough to beat.

I think the people at SS Enterprises share some of my political views.

However, the owners of SS Enterprises gave it a good shot.  They were extremely friendly and easy to work with.  I felt welcomed and at home from the first minute I drove up.  They introduced me to their staff and the USDA inspector, treated my birds with compassion and care, and walked me through the whole procedure of processing.  And they didn’t laugh at our small birds.

That’s right.  SMALL birds.

Other farmers who are pasturing poultry are mostly doing Cornish X broilers.  As I’ve blogged before, Cornish X have an extremely fast growth rate but that growth rate comes with trade-offs in terms of health issues and how well the birds are able to utilize fresh pasture.  We used White Rocks this time (which are the unlisted part of the Cornish X – it should read Cornish X White Rock).  The Salatins and others finish Cornish X at 6 weeks old and about 4 pounds in weight.  Nature’s Harmony finishes Naked Necks at 12 weeks, so I figured that White Rocks would be somewhere in between and probably closer to the Cornish X because of their role in the cross.   Hence we shot for 8 weeks for this first batch.

I thought wrong.  Our biggest birds dressed out at 1.5 pounds and the batch averaged 1.25 pounds.  Essentially, we have quail.

Lesson:  Right now we can’t hit an 8 week target date.
Adjustment:  Experiment with the cost of raising birds to 12 weeks and with a group of Cornish X.

Both experiments are going on with our second and third batches.  We’ve got a group of 50 Buff Orpingtons that we’ll raise out to 12 weeks and a group of Cornish X (they were the “free bonus chicks”) that we’ll raise to 6-8 weeks.  That should give us some real data from our land and our conditions to evaluate and allow us to make a good decision.  We would like to raise heritage breeds, but they’ve got to be profitable to be sustainable.  Birds that take 12 weeks to get to 4 pounds cost roughly twice as much to produce as birds that reach 4 pounds in 6 weeks.  So to be profitable with heritage birds we’ve got to have customers who are willing to pay more in exchange for the better taste of the older birds.  Any takers?

So, back off of the tangent, at the end of the day we did have 22 chickens cleanly processed and packaged.

Pastured chicken arranged in the freezer for storage.

These are too small to really sell profitably, so they will be for the two of us plus any family or guests who visit.  My father-in-law put it best, “At least you get to eat your mistakes as you learn from them.”  And I can now vouch – pastured poultry tastes WAY better than supermarket chicken.

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New Chicks!

Dawn breaks over Chicken Gizzard Ridge. Viewed from our back door.

The picture above is what I get to see every morning as I start my chores and whatever other tasks I have assigned myself for the day.  On this day, the Liberty post office called and that means only one thing – new chicks have arrived!  I snapped this picture on my way to the brooders to turn on the clamp lights that we use to warm our chicks’ brood chambers.  I turn them on before I head off to the post office so that they’ll be nice and toasty for the chicks by the time we return.

The first batch of 25 White Rock chicks is heading to the processor on Monday.  I know that under ideal conditions we would have new chicks ready for pasture rather than the brooder at this point, but I wanted us to raise one batch of chicks from start to finish before we ordered more so that we could reflect on things (ISA students and personnel should try to refrain from screaming at my use of the r-word) and make any necessary changes before we got another batch started.  We learned a few things during the first batch, especially regarding my design of the chicken scooter, and have revamped things a little for this new group.  Additionally, we’ll be raising 75 chickens in 3 different tractors this time rather than 1 group of 25.

We ordered this batch of chicks from Mt. Healthy hatchery in Cincinnati.  We used McMurray hatchery last time, and the chicks they sent worked well.  We decided to try Mt. Healthy as well because Cincinnati is far closer to us than McMurray is and closer means less stress on the chicks during shipping.  Mt. Healthy doesn’t have the heritage breeds of turkeys, ducks, and geese that we want to raise, so McMurray will still get our business until we can “grow our own,” and they may get our business still with the chickens.  We’ll have to compare once both batches of chicks have been raised.  McMurray may be a tough act to follow, however.  We lost the “free rare exotic” chick that they sent us with our order of Black Australorps and White Rocks, but we haven’t lost ANY of the Black Australorps and the only 2 White Rocks we’ve lost were due to a marauding cat rather than any issue of health and vigor with the chicks.

I ordered 50 Buff Orpington chicks deliberately.  They are supposed to be a good meat breed and very calm and quiet for chickens.  The White Rocks have grown wonderfully, but are quite feisty with each other.  The Buffs are also a very pretty color – see the pictures below.  Mt. Healthy was offering 25 free chicks “hatchery choice” along with our order of 50 chicks, so I took them up on it figuring we had the tractor space and the feed anyway.  The website said that the free chicks would not be Cornish X, but when the box came it definitely said “Cornish” on it and the chicks look a lot more like Cornish X than Dark Cornish so I think they had some extra of those this week.

As I’ve stated in the “Livestocking Plans – Chickens” post, we don’t want to raise Cornish X even though they are the premier meat bird around today in terms of rapid growth, feed conversion ratio, and price.  We don’t feel they are meant for pasture life, and we want a breed that will run around and forage more than Cornish X do.  So initially I was pretty disappointed when I saw the box labeled “Cornish.”  As I thought about it more, though, this will be a good opportunity to take some data and we can compare the Cornish X to another breed on our pastures under our management at the exact same time.  Back to science for me!  My favorite part was when Lindsey said the exact same thing when she came home and saw them.

Both the Buff Orpingtons and the Cornish X chicks had 1 DOA, unfortunately.  The rest of the chicks appear to be settling in well.  Check out the photos below.  As you can see, we went the cheaper route with the bedding this time and utilized the chippings and shreddings from all of the brush that I’ve cleared over the last few weeks – thank you to Phillip and Eldon Beachy for repairing the chipper!  This bedding is coarser than the store-bought wood shavings but should hold more waste per unit because of the higher C to N ratio.  We’ll see!  It is definitely free and local, however.

A group of Cornish Cross chicks. They were the "Free Bonus 25 Chicks."

A cohort of 50 Buff Orpington chicks.

The Buff Orpingtons again. I think these chicks are the best color!

Buff Orpington chicks from their point of view.

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Rabbit Moving Day


The migration formation of the rabbit scooters, each scooter containing 2-5 rabbits.

We got the rabbits put into their scooters for pasturing yesterday.  Almost all of the males went into the tractors grouped by size.  The only exceptions are the males that we are saving for breeding stock.  The females stayed in the hutches for now.  We’ll select breeding stock from them as well, and the remaining rabbits will be sold for food or pets.  Most of the females were separated so that only 1 or 2 is in each pen.  All of the rabbits are maturing and beginning to fight a little bit, so hopefully this will minimize the fighting.

Lindsey makes fun of me for putting the pens into the formation depicted above, but there are good reasons for doing so and all of the animals in movable scooters will be in this type of formation.  Here’s why:
1.  It puts the pens close together without the sides rubbing (means repairs don’t have to happen as often).
2.  The pens are as close as possible to each other while still leaving space to maneuver around them.  This means that you can service each cage efficiently in a small area without tripping over them.
3.  If there is a slope to the land that the pens are on, staggering the scooters like this keeps poopy runoff from inundating the downhill pens during rainstorms.
4.  You can run the pens without leaving “space” between the sides so that all of the pasture gets the nitrogen deposits left by the animals.  If you put the cages in a straight line side-by-side, you have to leave room to walk between them in order to service the cages.  This means there is grass that doesn’t get eaten and pasture that doesn’t get manure.  Soon, you have a striped field.

The bunnies we’re pasturing right now are crosses between Flemish Giant bucks and various does (mostly Californian and New Zealand types).  Here’s the rabbits inside one of the scooters:

The inside of a loaded rabbit scooter. The 2x2s at the bottom run parallel to the way the scooter is pulled so that the grass stands up for the rabbits.

As you can see, the rabbits have plenty of room.  Additionally, since they eat a TON of grass, we’re moving them 3 times per day.  Though that seems like a lot, it’s really only 1 extra trip out to the area because the other animals necessitate trips out to the pasture in the morning and evening.  So I just go out there once more before lunch and move the rabbit scooters one length to fresh grass.  This seems to be worth the trouble, because they reduced their pellet consumption by at least half yesterday and today so far.  I’ll get solid before and after numbers for comparison and share them once they’ve been on pasture for a while longer, but that amounts to a $12 savings per week if that trend continues.

Why pasture rabbits at all?  The USDA already says that “domestic rabbit is the most nutritious meat available” and that rabbit has the highest percentage of protein and the lowest percentages of fat and calories when compared to veal, chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, and pork (USDA Circular 549).  This table comes from that circular:

SPECIES CALORIES PER POUND % PROTEIN % FAT
RABBIT 795 20.8 10.2
CHICKEN 810 20.0 11.0
VEAL 840 19.1 12.0
TURKEY 1190 20.0 20.1
LAMB 1420 15.7 27.7
BEEF 1440 16.3 28.0
PORK 2050 11.9 45.0

So if rabbit is this healthy to begin with, why pasture them?  Well, we believe that the compounds found in fresh green plants add vitamins and minerals (CLAs, carotenes, etc) that simply can’t be created in the meat any other way.  There are lots of studies that have been done on beef and poultry to verify the added health benefits.  I’d be really interested in seeing actual data comparing pastured rabbit to conventional rabbit, but I haven’t seen any such study anywhere.  As a science teacher, I would make the hypothesis that if pasturing beef and poultry increases the nutritional level of the meat, then pasturing rabbits would also increase the nutritional level of the rabbit meat.

There are other producers in Virginia and Tennessee that I know of who offer “pastured” rabbit.  However, they bring the pasture to the rabbit in the form of green-chopped materials.  I feel that this is more labor than moving a few rabbit pens.  Plus, having the rabbit scooters means that the fertility from the rabbit manure is placed directly on the soil without me having to haul it or compost it.  Second, and more importantly for us, the rabbit scooters allow the rabbit to act more like a rabbit, hopping around on the pasture, eating a variety of fresh grasses that change three times per day, and selecting what grasses they eat themselves.  So hopefully this system will work out.  If anyone reading this knows of advantages rabbit hutches have over the scooters (other than reduced labor for the keeper), please contribute a comment and let us know!

Other news from the poultry department (the USDA considers rabbit as “poultry” for regulatory purposes) is that the turkeys are starting to really act like turkeys.  They range far more widely than the chickens or the guinea fowl and eat lots of grass, seed heads, and insects of all kinds.  Watching them try to catch grasshoppers is extremely entertaining.  They are gobbling a lot more often now, and are losing most of the feathers on their heads and necks.

The turkeys are growing quickly and spend the day free-ranging. They explore the farm and "gobble" up lots of grass and insects.

The laying hens are doing a great job making compost for us underneath the rabbit hutches that are still occupied.  They are great labor-savers.  All I do is throw down some wood chips or straw on top of the rabbit manure and the chickens go to town on it, scratching through it looking for grubs, worms, and fly larvae.  In a couple days, I throw down some more carbon and they repeat.  Once it builds up in volume, I’ll haul it off to the gardens.

The broilers are in their last week on pasture. Next week is taste testing!

The broilers are almost ready for processing.  They go on Monday morning at 7:30.  Shhh – they don’t know this.  They are pretty large.  I got a little scale yesterday, so once it quits raining and the birds and rabbits dry off I’m going to go weigh some so we have an idea of how much chicken and rabbit we have in terms of poundage so that we can price things accurately.  I want to make sure we set a price that covers our expenses and pays us a decent wage per hour from the start so that we don’t have to have a price hike too soon and chase away our hard-earned customers.

Have a good day!

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News from the Chicken Dept

Several developments have happened so far this week in the poultry department.

First, the Black Australorp laying hens have discovered the wonderful world of rabbit manure!  We put the chickens near the rabbits deliberately so that we could add carbon (wood chips, straw, whatever) to the rabbit manure and the chicken could scratch through it looking for fly larvae and such, thus making compost for us and eliminating the flies from the rabbit area while getting cheap protein for the laying hens.  Sounds great in theory, right?  What we’ve been lacking so far is chicken cooperation.  All of the poultry has been free-ranging for the last week or so, and the chickens have steadfastly refused to venture underneath the rabbit pens.

Until today!

The laying hens finally discovered all of the goodies hiding in the rabbit manure.

Here the ladies are scratching through the manure and grabbing up all of the fly larvae.

Over in the Meat Chicken Division, we built Chicken Scooter 2.0 and moved the broilers into it to test out the new design and so I could modify Chicken Scooter 1.0 and add the new features.  In the second generation, I made a feeder out of PVC pipe and attached it to the frame.  No more taking the feed trough out in order to move the pen every day!  The major design changes were to the ends of the scooter.  Each end is now fully formed by plywood.  At other farms that use this type of method, the weather tends to come from only one direction.  We’re in a valley with hills on the eastern, western, and northern sides.  That makes our winds swirl around and the wind and rain can come from either east or west, hence the plywood on both sides.  The most convenient new feature though is the door is now right above the feeder on the covered end of the scooter.  For Chicken Scooter 1.0, I wasn’t thinking about efficiency as much as I should have and made a design where I had to crawl into the scooter to grab the food trough on the far end, where I had to put it so it wouldn’t get wet.  While I was doing that, some of the chickens invariably escaped and I would have to round them up and return them to the scooter.  All this work because my brain wasn’t on the first time.  Hopefully, lesson learned.  Here’s some pictures of the newest chicken scooter.  As you can see, the design is still the same size and almost everything is the same, save the ends and the door!

As you can see, the designs are identical except for the ends.

Here is the major change. A door on the same end as the feed trough, and the feed trough screwed to the frame.

Finally, the broilers now have a date with the processor.  Eventually we want to do this step here at the ranch for many reasons (less stress on the birds, no gas used driving them to Bowling Green, $2.85 less expense per bird), but until we figure out all of the legal mumbo jumbo surrounding turning animals into food we are going to have to allow someone else to process our birds.  We chose SS Enterprises (http://aboutssenterprises.com) because they are relatively close to us, are family-owned and operated, and certified organic.  So on August 23rd at 7:30 am, the broilers and I will be pulling into Bowling Green.  Sometime after that, I will be leaving Bowling Green will several ice chests.  Any readers in the area, we will have chicken for sale!

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