Thursday, 13 October 2011

Souped-up chickens for chicken soup

I'll get to the chickens in a minute, but first a lambing update. Ewe 2844 gave birth to a single ewe last Thursday -

It was as big as the week-old twins and so earned the unfortunate name 'Megalamb'. This does allow me to make Transformers jokes like "Hey, we could name the next ram lamb 'Optimus Prime Cuts'!"  I mean, that's funny, right? Mike just stares blankly at me.

According to my diary, yesterday was the end of lambing and the start of my good night's sleep. The sheep didn't get the memo, and there were two ewes still to lamb: L845 and L817.

At sunrise this morning, I found L817 cleaning a newly laid ram lamb -

Shortly followed by its twin, a little ewe lamb.

They are so gooey when they're born

I had to help a bit as the ewe lamb was trying to come out all four feet at the same time. Once the baby's nose and front feet were readjusted, she slid out like water from a hose. I went back to drinking my cup of coffee and left mum to clean up. Just one more ewe to lamb - hurry up L845!

Matilda is doing very well, if her milk belly is any indication. She's looks like she's going to make it now, so she's been given her sheep bling, the ear tags with my flock number and her unique number. Matilda is Ewe 0008. Typically, I wasn't paying attention when I was tagging and I put hers in upside down and the weight has pulled her ears downward. Now she's pot-bellied and lop-eared.

But this is supposed to be about meat chickens, half of which went into the chiller today. 12 down, 14 to go. Mike wouldn't let me kill 13, as he thought it was unlucky. I couldn't think of anything less lucky than being killed so I'm not sure about his logic.

Anyway, a post by Kate at Living the Frugal Life made me think about chickens' place in a mixed farm. Here we have two kinds of meat chickens: fast-growing hybrids and Buff Orpington cockerels. We buy in the hybrids as day-old chicks twice a year, and the Buffs are a by-product of hatching replacement hens.

We calculated that the hybrids eat nearly a kilo of pellet per day per bird, at a cost of £1 per week each. They metabolise the food effectively and grow quickly. Hybrids produce lots of breast meat. We killed the cockerels today, averaging around 9 lbs of meat each. Essentially the hybrid is a chicken crop which we feed processed, high protein food, and harvest at 14 weeks.

A big hybrid meat chicken. Their brothers went to KFC.

The buff cockerels are completely free-range, and make good use of it. They consume wheat which is grown on the estate, at about one quarter of the rate the hybrids consume pellet. Buffs scavenge and eat table scraps, windfall fruits, insects and wild food; they are more adventurous eaters than the hybrids. A buff cockerel puts on meat in his legs and he won't be killed before at least 28 weeks old, though can be left longer. These cockerels only kill out about 4 lbs each.

A selection of our free range poultry - the Buffs are, well, the buff-coloured ones

With the cost of pellet food doubled in the past 12 months, each hybrid cost us £10 to produce, £5 more than last year. In fact, Farming Today ran a programme on a similar topic, claiming that it will be difficult to buy organic chickens because the cost of the food to raise them has meant tiny profit margins, putting growers out of business.

A hybrid would be no use as part of an integrated mixed farm. It won't turn over soil, eat pests, or grow big on food it finds for itself. When a farmer's wife kept a few chickens outside the back door, she wouldn't have wanted the hybrid. A dual purpose would mean a regular supply of eggs and the occasional roast chicken.This may be why chicken was once a special meat for the holiday table.

There is no such thing as cheap meat. It seems you have two choices: grow slow at low cost or grow fast like a crop on expensive inputs. The slow bird isn't going to ensure a vast supply, not like people consume chicken nowadays. But a good dual-purpose bird still has its place on the farm eating pest insects, spreading manure by scratching, and fertilising as it goes with its own nitrogen-rich droppings.

We eat a hybrid chicken a week, and it makes three meals plus stock. But, we save the buff cockerel roasts for special occasions.


Maria said...

For an ignoramus like me that was very informative - i'm wowed at the difference in weight-at-killing between the two breeds. I'm also thinking that between your chickens and all the venison etc... you hunt, I'm guessing you don't buy meat from the supermarket much, or never?

megan said...

I totally get your humor, and would have at least smirked at that one.

I participated in my first pig slaughter and butchering this past weekend. Loved it. Well - the thrashing bit after the kill, not so much, but if you have something to eviscerate, I am on it. I have you to thank for this, at least in part. Photos of beautiful innards and butchery are on my flickr page - email me if you want the link. Not like you don't have enough innards going around.

Anonymous said...

Jen from M&T says:

Maria - We don't buy any supermarket meat, though we do buy half a pig from Peggy my butchery teacher. We even manage to trade venison and partridge for fish from seafaring friends. We eat too much meat because it's so available.

Megan - I'm so thrilled that you got involved with the pig butchery and we encouraged it, even in a small way. You are welcome here anytime we are slaughtering or butchering, which, let's be real, is about once a week. Congrats and please email me the flickr link!

megan said...

oooh - I'd forgotten you were studying butchery. So in love with butchery, myself. Will email you the link.

Kate said...

"There is no such thing as cheap meat."

Funny, I was thinking just this very thing today. Actually I said that meat is too cheap, meaning the supermarket price is artificially and misleadingly low. Because we now keep hens and have raised a few meat birds, I really do see each and every bit of the birds as too valuable to waste. When we cook something that has just chicken stock or schmaltz in it, I feel like we're eating meat. It's all part of the animal, all good.

I'm curious though about your comment on hybrids not being good on a mixed farm. Do you mean Cornish crosses and the like? Those big, inactive meat blobs that seem to do nothing but shit where they (occasionally) stand after 6-7 weeks of age? Or are you referring to something else? We have sex link hens, which I guess could be considered hybrids. They till for us and are reasonably active. They're so lightweight that they're not as strong as some of the dual-purpose breeds, but they contribute some work nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Jen at M&T says:

Kate - Have enjoyed reading your findings on chicken keeping. The researcher in me loves quantifying and calculating.

We have hybrid layers, the sex-links, and they're brilliant scavengers and egg layers. It's meat hybrids, the white blobs, that don't fill the role of scratching and cconverting scraps.

Oddly, each batch of meat hybrids we've had have their own personality. This batch has been much more active, and even move around and scratch a bit. The last batch were so lazy I had to carry each one to roost when it got dark. Every night.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Count me among the meat-bird geeks. I can't help but do the math, and the math tells me you get 7 kilos of feed for 1 pound. That comes to (at today's exchange rate) almost exactly a ten cents per pound. We're paying over twice that for feed (about $12. for a 50-lb bag).

We've done ducks (never again!) and turkeys (super-easy) for meat, and it's not an inexpensive proposition. A turkey will eat at least 85 pounds of feed (about $20), and the poult itself costs $13. Then there's the cost of fencing and housing, but that's not much. What runs up the price is the raccoons that eat the turkey feed. We're figuring about $45. per bird, all in, and they should kill out at 12-20 pounds.

Maybe we'll try the meat chickens next year.

Unrelatedly, if you put Ewe 0008's tag in upside down, does she become Ewe 8000?