Friday, 16 October 2009

Coming Full Circle

A priest for giving 'last rites'

There's a saying about a plate of ham and eggs: a day's work for the chicken, a lifetime commitment for the pig. Well, that's not exactly true if you are a chicken raised for meat.

The day of reckoning has come for the meat cockerels who by their nature grow bigger and quicker than the hens. Particularly since, as they grow bigger, they take advantage of their size to command the best feeding places. Their greedy nature and tendency towards laziness makes them ready for the pot quicker than the others. I'm sure someone could find a morality tale in that.

Four of us dispatched the biggest birds which are hanging now as I write this post. Although 3 of us have our meat hygiene certificates and the fourth is a registered butcher, we are technically in violation of slaughter laws and could not sell our meat. But we are perfectly in our rights to slaughter for our own consumption. And I give the helpers a chicken each for their assistance.

We follow humane guidelines for dispatch and I go out of my way to reduce any stress on the chickens. We do it out of sight of other livestock, I cover their heads to keep them calm on our short walk to the log pile. They are stunned and bled, and hung covered with a clean horse blanket to keep cool and bug-free. And it stops any one or anything being upset by dispatched chickens hanging by their feet from a broomstick in the yard.

I'm sorry if the picture makes you a bit squeamish. The magazine publishers always leave these images out of Country Living and Martha Stewart. But it is part of the rural idyll, like it or not.

I don't like taking a life, even if I know from the outset that's what I'm raising these birds for. Every single bird I carry over to the log pile for 'processing' makes me feel a little sad, and I ask myself all the same questions: Did it have an acceptable life? Enough room to exercise, to dust bathe, to just be a chicken? Is this the most painless, stress-free death I can give it?

I buy these birds as day olds from the same farms that supply chicks to battery (housed) units, so I guess the chicks that come to me will have a better time eating grass and grains and watching the world go by, at least as much as it does in our little village.

I grow them as slowly as possible, so the birds don't grow too big too quickly and go off their legs. We inadvertently did an experiment with this batch. When I fostered the egg-laying chicks under broody hens, I accidentally put 2 meat chicks under Grandma Brown. These chicks have been completely free-range, raised under a good mother hen who takes them for long walks to forage in the clover fields behind the house. These chicks are only half the size of the cosseted chickens. They have exactly the same food and the same access to it. The only difference seems to be the amount of exercise that Grandma Brown insists they take. No laying about with your head in the feed trough kids, let's go catch flies and scratch for worms and seeds. Again with the morality tale. No wonder Aesop got some of his best material from chickens.

So this is the second batch of 'bred for meat' hybrid chicks we've raised, alongside our pretty bantams and 'bred for egg production' hybrids and I've made the following observations:
 1) It's nearly impossible to slow growth well in meat chicks, unless you raise them under a hen

2) Raising them under a hen is by far the most cost-effective in terms of your time and money (free range birds get 25% of their dietary from foraging, which is 25% less food you need to feed them)

3) Raising them under a hen is probably the best quality of life they can get and a most efficient use of natural resources. (I will let you know if the meat tastes better or different) .

4) Although bantams are pretty, nearly half of your birds will turn out to be cockerels and there's little or no return on feeding them up for the pot. They do not convert food into flesh very well and will always be small. At best they can live their lives in the woods with the pheasants, but offer no return to the farmer/smallholder.

From these observations I've come to the following conclusion: the old dual purpose breeds are the way forward, with a few brown layers for extra eggs in winter. Dual purpose breeds like Plymouth Rocks or Sussex lay well and the cockerels are big enough to eat. They forage and convert kitchen scraps into meat, and the hens go broody to do the job of growing next year's chicken crop for you.

I will keep my litle bantams until they die out, but I won't replace them. Instead I think we'll find a good breeding stock of Sussex and start again. It seems sometimes the old ways really are the best ways, and we end up where we started.

While we've had a fortnight's break from shooting, we have been adding to the log pile and a half day's work has resulted in this

It's untidy and there is still more splitting to do before I stack it, but it's comforting to see it there and the promise of warm drying fires to come. There is a romance that goes with firewood, but ask me a half hour into splitting it and I will be more likely to use swear words than poetic imagery.

And it's back to the shooting field tomorrow for Admiral B's day. The dogs will be glad of the work. I'm off to start of dinner for 40 workers and tackle some of the regular chores. With the meat chickens ready for the freezer in a few days, I'm on a deadline to find a second one. It will also have to accommodate 2 lamb carcases soon enough.


Poppy Cottage said...

I was wondering how you got on today with the chickens. Glad you don't need to pluck them by hand!

See you (maybe) tomorrow. J is excited!! Thank you

Terry Scoville said...

Great post Jen!
I think you have given your chickens a wonderful life. The photo of them hanging "feet up" did make me grin I must admit. I commend you for keeping the dispatching out of the public limelight. Much more respectful to all parties.

As for the firewood, yea my sentiments exactly!

Tamar said...

Jen -- Funny, we were just talking about this. Our chickens are just starting to lay, so their day of reckoning is a couple years off. Not looking forward to it, but committed to doing it.

I'm curious about the idea of letting broody hens rear the next batch of chicks. Can you really introduce day-olds into the flock of 2-year-olds? If the hens aren't broody, will the presence of chicks set off their maternal instincts?