The Great Chicken Caper

 

Happy chickens on their last "good day."

Happy chickens on their last “good day.”

For the past year or so, my poor husband and I have been operating about 4 miles behind the power curve.  With life events flying at us from every angle we’ve spent much of our time scrambling to regroup, and every plan we make seems to end up on the back burner.

After eight months of being homeless in Albuquerque, the farm was calling me and I spent my days hatching plans in order to keep my sanity.

Once we were released from the bondage of Mr. Boeing, and finally made our way north, there were a few more months of winter weather before spring finally burst forth, allowing us the hope of physical manifestation of all the ideas that had been circulating in our heads for so long.

While we had a pact that no livestock would be brought to the farm until we were living there full time, we did agree that perhaps we could handle a “batch” of chickens for meat.  After all, with the right breed, you can take a chicken from hatch to the freezer in about eight weeks.  The problem was finding an eight week stretch when we knew we’d be at the farm.

Doesn’t sound like a very tall order, but when at the farm, we were living in a nine and a half foot pickup camper, showering in a shed and needing to make the hundred mile trek back to the lake house periodically to do laundry and restock our food supply.

We hit the ground running in early April, as soon as the snow was off the pasture.  First order of business was getting up a deer-proof garden fence, designing some raised beds, and getting the seeds in the ground.

Then came the equipment shed and the shower.  After that it was replacing all the trees in the orchard that had been killed the previous winter by a hungry herd of rodents that chewed the bark in a circle around the trunk, essentially “girdling” (and thus killing) the tree.

A giant Jack Pine on the road into our land had died, and it needed to be cut down, the limbs chipped and the trunk turned into firewood.  Ditto for an old Fir tree that had fallen on the fence by the compost pile.

Every week we had the chicken conversation and every week there was something else demanding attention.  When July rolled in with hot weather and a another very long list of projects, I decided we needed to let go of the idea of trying to raise a batch of chickens.  There was just too much to do and we were on the road what seemed like every other day gathering materials or going back and forth to the lake.  We’d spent a week in June hand-digging a three foot deep footing for our thirty by forty foot barn, and the metal building kit had just been dumped in front of the newly-poured slab.  Assembling the building was going to be a monumental task, and I finally had to admit that there are only two of us and there are only so many hours in any given day.

But Grant doggedly held on to the idea of the chickens.  Every time I said, “It’s just too much.  I don’t think we should do the chickens this year—I think we need to just let it go and wait until next year,” he’d shoot back with, “No, you need to do your chickens.”

Sigh.  What could I say?  My husband is so romantic!  He knew I wanted chickens, and by golly I was going to get them!  So I got online and with great trepidation, put in an order for twenty-five day-old chicks to be delivered to the Troy, Montana post office.

The chickens I ordered are called “Cornish Cross,” a freakish hybrid that has long since lost the ability to breed on its own.  They have been developed for the maximum amount of breast meat and have to be butchered before ten weeks of age, or else they start falling over from being extremely “front heavy.”  Although it seemed almost immoral to propagate such a Frankensteinish bird, I had to concede that this is the breed found in most grocery stores today.  At least our chickens would be raised humanely, and allowed to be chickens during their short life, instead of merely a cog in the factory farming model prevalent in our society.

It wasn’t a day later that once again, all plans changed and it became apparent I needed to head for Missouri to help Lisa and Matt with their latest move, this time to Florida.  The project was going to take the better part of a month.  So I told Grant, “We’ve got to cancel the chickens.  I’m not going to be here to help, and heaven knows you’ve got your hands full!”

I knew the answer before he opened his mouth—I’ve seen the set of my husband’s jaw when he’s made up his mind and there’s no changing it—the chicken project was still a go.  As it turned out, the baby chicks were supposed to show up the day after I left for Missouri.

The day before chicken day we woke at 3 a.m. at the farm and drove to Spokane for me to catch an early flight to Denver where I’d go on to Springfield.  Grant and Tucky returned to the farm and spent the day working on the new barn.  Around supper time, they left for Montana, knowing the chicks would be showing up at the post office the next day, hungry and thirsty after their trek from the hatchery in Ohio.

About the time they made it to Sandpoint Idaho, we’d been notified by our Washington neighbors that a freak storm had swept through northeastern Washington leaving a path of devastation in its wake.  Massive trees were down all over the county, the power was out and many people had suffered great property damage.  Our neighbor told us two hundred-foot trees were down across our road taking the power line to the ground.  Knowing our truck and camper was parked between two giant Jack Pines, Grant decided he’d best turn around to survey the damage.

Miraculously, although one of the trees was literally lying across the back steps of the camper, there was no damage to our little home or any of our buildings.  We lost about thirty trees in the storm, and a lot of the perimeter fence was damaged, but other than that, we were luckier than most.

The next morning I got a call from the postmaster in Troy informing me he had a box for us from Ohio that was chirping.  I immediately called Grant, who was sitting in the truck in the post office parking lot, waiting for the office to open.  I conveyed the message that the postmaster told him if he’d knock on the door, the man would hand over the chicks.

During the course of the next few weeks, Grant, Tucky and the chickens were, by necessity, inseparable.  If he needed to go to the farm to work on something, the chicks went into the back seat of the truck and spent a few days at the farm with him.  He told me after experimenting that they seemed to like country music the best, and it was the only thing that would give him a few minutes of peace on the two hour drive.

By the time I returned from Florida, the chicks were a month old, halfway through their short lives, and looking pretty rough.  They’d shed their baby down, but the adult feathers were taking their time coming in.  Since they were at the lake and had become more difficult to move around with their increased size, we decided to leave them at the lake.

We put them in a cage in the back yard.  Grant fitted the enclosure with a set of wheels, so we could lift the front and shuffle it around every day.  This enabled the birds to have a fresh batch of “salad greens” on which to feast.

After a couple of weeks tractoring the chickens around the back yard, we ran out of new forage, so decided to move them to the far side of the front lawn.  I’m sure the people in the million dollar houses around us were turning up their noses a bit, but fortunately they kept any derogatory chicken comments to themselves!

On the shuffle from the back yard to the front yard, one of the chickens got trapped under the lower bar of the cage.  By the time we got him extracted it became apparent he was injured in some way.  While the other chickens were happily clucking and pecking around the new grass, this guy plopped down and just lay there, panting.  I told Grant I didn’t think he’d make it through the night, and although it was almost bed time for us, we decided we’d better just put him out of his misery and make him the first to go into the freezer.

Grant had been accumulating chicken processing equipment for several weeks, and fortunately for us (unfortunately for the chickens) the new super duper state of the art chicken plucker had been delivered by UPS just days before.  He set up the turkey fryer with a bucket of water on top and hauled out the new chicken picker.  I booted up the computer and frantically searched for YouTube videos on how to gut a chicken.

Our friends and neighbors down the road had vocalized an interest in seeing the picker in action so a quick call brought re-enforcements who would provide moral support, if not great knowledge and wisdom regarding chicken processing.

I was proud of my husband.  With a flashlight between his teeth, he quickly and efficiently dispatched the chicken with little fanfare.  After a quick dipping in the steaming bucket of water on the turkey fryer, the carcass went into the picker and he turned it on as we all held our breath.

The thing started spinning at a high rate of speed and the carcass was a blur as it bounced around inside the drum.  White feathers flew everywhere.  After about thirty seconds, our friend said he thought it was done, but Grant let it go another thirty seconds, just to make sure.  As promised, the chicken came out of the plucker clean as a whistle.

I told my husband I would happily gut the chicken, but needed him to take off the head first, since that chicken had been looking at me not ten minutes before.  Our friends took that as a cue to beat feet for home.  Having known us for a while, I’m sure they’ve seen how these things go.

Inside, I set up the computer on the counter and had to back up the YouTube video several times before I successfully extracted the guts and various other parts from the chicken.  At six and a half weeks of age he weighed about three and a half pounds.

The rest of the chickens had their eight week birthday yesterday.  We’ve made a commitment that any animal on our farm would have only one bad day, and that day was yesterday for the remaining twenty-two birds.

We set up on the patio, with a lovely view of the lake and I have to say that by the time we put the twenty-second bird in the final shrink wrap bag, although not experts by any means, we were at least a little smarter chicken farmers.

Here’s how the numbers worked out:

Twenty-five day old chicks with UPS delivery:  $87.00

Eight weeks of chicken feed:  $213.00

State of the art chicken plucker:  $700.00

Knowing that we are one step closer to food independence:  Priceless

A hundred pounds of meat in the freezer!

A hundred pounds of meat in the freezer!

 

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