Tag Archives: Cornish broilers

The ICU (Intensive Chicken Unit)

Our daughter the nurse lies on the couch, it’s her day off and she’s visiting, reading tour books of France, and pondering her future.  Travel, moving in with her boyfriend, horseback riding lessons.  She is exhausted.  No kids for her, she says.  And I am understanding.  It’s me who wants babies, but baby chicks will do.  Chicks grow so fast and are so cute.

IMG_NEW

The Bearded One is with me on this.  I want to go through the cycles, the birth and life and death.

I rest my almost fifty-seven-year-old feet on the foot massager next to my rocker.  I’m reading a pile of chicken magazines from 2009.  The Bearded One’s folks bought us a Backyard Poultry subscription.  All of a sudden they are full of gold.

I tell my daughter the story of Leah, our 2-year-old Rhode Island Red hen who survived raccoon wounds to her head and neck two weeks ago.  She spent one day in the cat carrier here in our small, dark, warm living room —

Leah in hospital 002

— the ICU (Intensive Chicken Unit), we laugh — and almost two weeks in the hoophouse and backyard away from Stevie and Maybelline who were prone to peck her scabs.  On Saturday morning, the day of the big wind storm, she insisted on returning to the flock.

“She stood by the gate and looked at me,” I say.  “She was going back up there, whether I took her or not.”

“AMA,” says the nurse.  “Leaving Against Medical Advice.”

IMG_NEW

We listen to the Bearded One on the other side of the door hammering the last strips of hardware cloth onto the surface of the new deck.

IMG_NEW

The post-Halloween storm blew all the leaves out of the trees and everything is covered in inches of cedar needles.

Zucchini and cedar needles 006

I’m researching dual-purpose chicken farming — raising chickens that are both good layers and fryers, like Rhode Island Reds, and eating the meat as well as the eggs.  No more helpless, hyper-bred Cornish, which were literally sitting ducks for the weasels this year.

“We’ll get a rooster!” I say. “The new neighbors have one, so it’s okay with them.  We’ll actually hatch baby chicks and we’ll harvest the young roosters and the weak layers.”

“More of a real farm life,” she says, looking up from a map of France and reaching for her tea cup on the rug beside the couch.

IMG_NEW

“I guess so,” I say.  I like the sound of that.  Feels good.  “We’ll get a big scalding pot and a make a killing cone.”  We’ve done this so many times at the neighbors with the rented equipment and big flocks of Cornish as well as turkeys.  We’re at ease with the killing and butchering.  I know we can handle one or two birds at a time.

“Would you have eaten Leah if she’d died?”

It’s a good question, I say.  No.  But just because of the psychology.  She’s named for one of His Majesty’s ex-girlfriends, one who has actually come out and visited the farmlet.  I won’t attach to the next chickens like pets.  I believe I can do this.

“What is this in my tea?” the nurse says suddenly.  “Oh, look, I see it.  It tastes like a tree.  It’s a piece of cedar needle.”

IMG_NEW

We’re both laughing when the Bearded One blows in.  “Hello,” I shiver and say to him, as he crosses the living room toward the front door, “Could we have a fire tonight?”  I ham it up a bit.  I rub my arms and huddle into my scarf.  “It will be in the low 40s,” I say.  “And it’s soooo dark and wet.”

“You don’t need to sell me,” he says, and warms me with his smile.  “You had me at hello.”

IMG_NEW

Always On My Mind

IMG_NEW

The goats bask in the lower pasture, the sun gleaming off their silvery new fleece, and I think — Pearl looks dead.  I turn away from the window and see Ruby flat-out on the wood floor as only an old Golden Retriever can be, and wait, and wait, and wait, to finally see her breathe.

Ruby on floor 003

I wait for Garfield to come in at night.  I hear a cackle up the hill and I race to the window, saying, “Did you hear that?”  Surely the weasels are back for the ten layers they left untouched a little over a week ago, when they killed our 58 Cornish meat chicks.  I’m thinking about critters dying a lot.

“How many animals have died here?” I ask the Bearded One when he walks into the kitchen and starts to say something.

He stops, and I can see his face soften as he decides to indulge my need to process.  Again.  “Since we moved here in 2007 and started this farmlet,” I say, “and not counting rats, moles, birds and bunnies, which are legion thanks to Garfield.”

IMG_NEW

“One dog,” says the Bearded One.  Jake, our 8-year-old Golden Retriever, three-and-a-half years ago.  I found him on the morning of November 17 here in the kitchen, over where the chest freezer is now.  Dead, in his bed with his sister Ruby looking on.

“One cat,” I say.  Tex, a 10-year-old, other-cat-aggressive Maine Coon we adopted, went missing in mid-July after living here almost a year.  He couldn’t climb very well.  He was huge.  We got Garfield the next month on Craigslist.  He climbs like a squirrel.

IMG_NEW

The chest freezer is now empty of last year’s chicken harvest, and it doesn’t look like it will be refilled any time soon.

IMG_NEW

If and when we do it again, we’ll fortify a new kind of enclosure with 1/2″ fencing or hardware cloth, but that’s expensive and down the road.  Right now, we’ll eat a lot less chicken, which is okay.  We ate a lot of it last year.  We went grocery shopping yesterday and I couldn’t bring myself to buy any of that chicken.

“A raccoon got Blackie.”  The Bearded One gets a cookie from the cookie box.

I have to think carefully to recall the names of the other two banty hens that we lost.  These are all laying hens, so we keep them for years and they get names.  “Dusty and Marilyn,” I finally remember.  “Eagles took them.”  I remember crying about Blackie, but not for Dusty or Marilyn.  Maybe because Blackie was the first.

“Then there were the 55 Cornish chickens we raised last year,” I say, “but we harvested them up the road.”

The Bearded One and I have offered each other various thoughts regarding the weasels.  In nature, everything eats and is eaten, we say.

IMG_NEW

Cornish meat birds are purposely bred to grow fast and big and we accept that as a good thing as long as they have plenty of room and sunlight and fresh air.  The weasels haven’t gone up the road to our neighbor’s yet.  All our layers are alive.  Still, I need something more.  Some symbolic closure.  Anything will do.

“I’ve got an idea…” says the Bearded One.

“Does it have to do with animals dying?” I ask, suspicious that he might be trying to change the subject.  I’m not finished with all this just yet.  I wish I was.

“Maybe it’ll help you shut this down in your head,” he says, and smiles.  “Maybe we can mark the meat bird grave with the avocado trees.”

Two brown avocado pits the size of golf balls sprout in jam jars in the window sill by the empty freezer.  One has a sprout a foot high, another about four inches, both split open with roots and stems.  “They’ll grow, but never make fruit,” I say.  “It’s perfect.”

I feel the closure I need, draining the water into the sink, whisking the tiny trees outside and up the hill, as I gently remove the toothpicks and press the huge seeds into the mass grave.

Goodbye Meatbirds.

IMG_NEW

Weasel Wipeout

The dead Cornish chick lies wedged at the bottom of the gate, the bite on its neck as deep and bloody as the cut I was planning to make in just five weeks.  Weasels only want the blood.

Weasel Massacre 002

Three more dead chicks lay against the  fencing to my right, forty more are scattered here and there, a hillside of horror.

Weasel Massacre 003

It’s late Saturday morning.  I let 57 healthy 2-1/2 week old chicks out of their overnight coops several hours ago.  And then the Bearded One returned from his morning walk and found me here in the kitchen frying our next-to-last chicken from last year.  “Oh my darling, you know that meat birds are not pets,” the Bearded One says, catching and holding my eyes with his.  And then, “Because weasels got ’em all.”

IMG_NEW

Blood drains from my face and then my whole head as I register the massacre.  I must make meaning of this, but I’m racing up the hill.  My soul is already searching, but the event is still happening.  I can’t make meaning on the fly, though I keep trying.

We find four survivors huddled in the far corner of the pen, and a fifth shows up later, while I silently dig the mass grave and the Bearded One gathers the little corpses in a wheelbarrow.

“We didn’t keep them safe,” I say.  The Bearded One parks the loaded wheelbarrow near the three-foot deep pit and says, “Sorry, Meat Birds.”

IMG_NEW

“Let’s count them as we go,” I say.  I’m surprised and comforted by the simple ceremony, how the enormity builds until I cry.  One…TwoThree…FourFiveSix….Fifteen….Twenty-ThreeTwenty-Four Twenty-Five…Thirty-Six…Thirty-SevenThirty-Eight…Forty-OneForty-TwoForty-Three…and finally, Fifty-Two.  We fill the grave in and resolve to do better.

The Bearded One calls Momma Goose and Brooklyn Man, our neighbors and poultry mentors.  We ordered the Cornish chicks with them last month.  They have 59 identical birds in their non-weasel-proof coop.  Brooklyn Man is horrified.  Another neighbor got wiped out precisely this way a few weeks ago.  He says that they’ve never lost any birds to weasels.  He knows that weasels can not only climb and dig and get through a one-inch hole, but they can also cross the road to his place.  His chicks are doomed.

IMG_NEW

So we make plans to move his chicks to our aviary that evening.  We’ll do the work and split the birds with him.  The aviary isn’t Fort Knox, but it’s dig-proof (cement trench all the way around), there’s doubled chicken wire on super tall walls, plus goats patrol the perimeter.  Our layers have been safe in there for almost two years.

Cornish fryers and grown layers would fight if they were housed together.  So for now, the layers will be fine shut out of the aviary until we harvest the meat birds on August 2.

As he backs out the tractor and trailer to move Brooklyn Man’s chicks, in broad daylight, the Bearded One sees one of the supposedly nocturnal weasels loping across the tractor trail — long and dark and about the size of a stretched-out squirrel.  We see them on the road once in a while.

It’s the hottest weekend of the summer so far, up to 90F, and sweat drips into my glasses as I move Brooklyn Man’s feeders and waterers into the aviary.  The Bearded One catches dozens of chicks and then hauls them to our place.

IMG_NEW

The transfer takes a couple of hours and we are exhausted when it’s all over.  “I’ve reached full kaput,” says the Bearded One.  The house is an inferno, and before I go to bed, I look outside and ask the wounded Barred Owl I removed from the aviary last week to please eat the weasels.

Sunday is blissfully uneventful.  Only Maybelline and Kimber, two of our bossiest layers, are out of sorts, furious about not having access to the aviary and their old nest boxes.  They pace the aviary perimeter while the meat birds mock them, dust bathing and stretching their drumsticks in the sunray.

Meat birds in aviary 001

All is relatively well for two nights and half of Monday.

And then the Bearded One hurries back to the kitchen after just finishing lunch — “Six or seven meat chicks are dead,” he says. “Weasels again.  I think it just happened.  I heard a loud squawk.  I left Ruby up top guarding the place.”

We move fast, I’m in the lead, and I see a dead chick by the aviary door, a deja vu of Saturday at the meat bird pen on the other side of the property.  There are five more dead, but all the rest are still alive.

IMG_NEW

“You caught them in the act,” I say, and the Bearded One agrees.  He gathers the bodies.  “They’re still warm and loose,” he says.

I look up and around.  “You know the weasels are watching us,” I say.

“There’s no safe place on this property,” he says, “except inside the house.”

“I’m entering the anger stage,” I say.

IMG_NEW

We decide that we have to move the chicks back to Brooklyn Man’s.  At least they’ll make it through the afternoon.  The weasels haven’t discovered his place yet.  They’ll be back here the minute we leave.

I babysit the chicks while the Bearded One calls Brooklyn Man at work, and then we spend the afternoon catching and transporting 58 chicks back to the hopefully weasel-free zone.

At least for now.  Any place is safer than here.  We quarantine the aviary to clean it up for the layers, all of which we now wonder if we’ll lose.  That’s how weasels are.

IMG_NEW

A Corny Joke

More than anything in his entire life our neighbor, third-grader Hansel wants to remember how the joke goes.  It’s about a corn field, and here he is standing next to our corn, pumpkin, and bean garden with a rapt audience — his first-grade sister Gretel, 4-year-old brother Batman, his mom, the Bearded One, and me.

I’ve just pointed out, in an educational first-week-of-school voice, that each corn stalk has just two ears of corn, and only two, just like humans.  “Oh!” Hansel’s eyes lit up like a Jack-o-lantern.  “Secrets…uh….”

Gretel smiles and claps her hands to her mouth.  She remembers the joke, but graciously defers since Hansel clearly thought of it first.  And he is big enough to clobber her.

Hansel tries again.  “When you are in a corn field…”  He flaps his hands.  The opening question of the joke isn’t coming together in his mind.  We wait.  Even Batman stops examining the biggest pumpkin in the patch to listen and hopefully laugh.

It’s hard to say which is growing faster, the 3 kids, the pumpkins —

— or the 2-week-old fryer chicks —

— that we just visited and where the Bearded One impressed Hansel with the power of a good joke.  Someone remarked how clean the chick’s tushes were compared to the last batch, and the Bearded One said, “They have little toilet paper rolls over in that corner,” which sent all the children and their good-natured, home-schooling mother into hysterics.

Now if only Hansel could remember how to start the corn joke.

Gretel leans over and whispers to Hansel…while we adults chat casually about letting the young meat chicks out of the brooder, but not until we sprinkle lots of Diatomaceous Earth over the chicken yard to handle parasites from the last birds’ poop.

And then we notice Hansel is bursting with the joke.

“Why shouldn’t you tell secrets in a corn field?” he says, grinning.  Gretel giggles in anticipation.

“Why not?” says Batman.

“Because the corn has ears!”  Hansel delivers the punch line beautifully, we all laugh heartily, and I swear Hansel grows another inch before our eyes.

Even though Batman isn’t completely convinced this is funny, he smiles, and then leads the way back up to the house to the promised fruit chips.

It’s Hansel’s idea to see the freezer full of harvested chickens.  He’s not sure they are okay to eat.  Heck — he came over and played with these guys while they were tiny chicks.

We show them the biggest one, which weighs almost 9 pounds.  He agrees that they look okay to eat, and their mom accepts a medium-sized one to take home.

The Bearded One hands out baggies of strawberry and peach fruit chips.  Hansel says, “Who likes peach best, raise your hand.”

Batman and Gretel like the strawberry best, so Hansel stands there with his hand raised.  They are so ready for school to start, I think.

We all troop out the back door and as they are leaving, I ask when their classes will be starting.

“Soon,” the mom says.  “We’re going to be studying the Middle Ages and the Egyptians.”

Hansel says, “I love history.”

“Me, too,” I say.  “Especially the Egyptians.”

“I hope we can go to the King Tut exhibit in Seattle,” the mom says, “if we can afford the tickets.”

“Oh, yes, you must go,” I say.

And then the Bearded One says, “The Egyptians?”

He is going to tell a joke, I can tell.  The kids can, too.  They stop moving.  They almost stop breathing.

“The Egyptians were great,” he says with a huge grin.  “They even invented…toilet paper.”

Remembering how we had just discussed the chicks and toilet paper, a riot of laughter breaks out. Hansel lifts his eyes to the heavens and says, “OH THANK YOU EGYPTIANS!” Gretel, who attended cheerleading camp this summer, jumps high and sings out, “YAY EGYPTIANS!”  Batman races around his mother who claps happily.

Here at the start of third grade, Hansel has noticed something important.  Few things are more powerful than being funny.

Meat Bird Harvest

I can hear it breathe — the yellow beak is wide open.  I coo, smooth the glossy white wings, and hold the plump breast to my chest until it calms, which happens surprisingly fast. I ignore the ever-present dried poop that clings to each fluffy tush. “Good chicken,” I say — no names, no separate identities — and place it, long yellow toes first, gently into the trailer.

It takes both of us to catch all 26 grown Cornish Rock chickens, the Bearded One herding them with a broom and me snatching them, even though it’s late afternoon and they’ve been fasting all day. Momma Goose called and said let’s do it this evening. It’s cool, her husband wants to help and he has to work tomorrow. We were ready for this possibility, since they were getting the rental equipment today.

One of the last chickens poops on me as I carry it to the trailer. Poor thing, it’s so scared.

“You’ll feel better if you change,” says the Bearded One as he closes the wire top of the trailer and climbs into the tractor seat.

I agree, although these are my cutest pants, dang. I walk down the hill scolding myself for my shallow vanity in the face of impending death. I focus once again on the life and death power I have over these animals.

“Goats,” I stop and say to Sage, Pearl, and LaLa. “You laying chickens over there,” I call out toward the aviary. “You animals are not leaving. This is good-bye to the meat birds only.” They all are quiet and listening.

And then I drive the truck with the rest of the supplies — plastic wrap, Pam cooking spray, firewood, leather gloves, rubber gloves, ziplock baggies, the big white knife and two paring knives — down the road to Momma Goose’s farm.

I see their green open pasture, the busy house with feral kittens and small dogs and many objects d’art up on the left, the row of poultry houses and pens on the right, and two enormous old-growth stumps in a fire pit at the very back of the property.

Beyond the last pen but still thirty feet from the fire I see the Bearded One, our chicken trailer, and Momma Goose’s husband, Brooklyn Man. He’s from Brooklyn, New York and told Momma Goose when they met that he didn’t “do” dogs, as in live with them.  Now they have four in the house. He’s a big man with a big laugh and a big heart.

Momma Goose herself waves to me from her bright red Adirondack chair perched on the hill below the house.  “Hey!” she calls out and points with her cigarette.  “Just drive right on down!”

Jonah, their Twenty-Something son, unloads the rental equipment and listens to the radio of his small pick-up truck.  Led Zeppelin. The only other music I remember from the day was Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and that was halfway through the job when I was jogging from the butchering table with a finished bird, rinsed and ready for the cold water chest.  I sang along.

I park the truck, and as I approach I hear Brooklyn Man marveling at the size and health of our chickens.  We used expensive feed. They plan to shift to it. “The feathers are thick and shiny,” he says.  “They’re HUGE,” says Momma Goose, who’s got an apron on like I do. “They’ll be four to six pounds dressed.”

Each bird cost us about $10 to raise, counting the initial cost and eleven 50-pound sacks of feed.

Momma Goose says that it was either the food we bought or our large pen or both, but we done good. I feel proud, but the chickens are thirsty, I can tell. Their mouths are all open.  Time to get to work.

The Bearded One and I watched two YouTube videos the night before of a very cute, very gentle and respectful Amish country farmer demonstrating his company Featherman’s three machines — killing cones, scalder, and plucker. The set costs around $6,500 retail, so small farmers just rent it from counties for $20 per day.

Jonah attaches a propane tank to the square metal scalder and the Bearded One and Brooklyn Man fill it with water through a garden hose attached to their home’s hot water heater. Much faster. I unload firewood from the truck and haul it to the pit in order to burn the intestines, heads, feet, and feathers. Then I spray Pam over every inch of the killing cones — metal megaphones on a turnstile — to make cleanup of the blood easier.

The Bearded One attaches another hose to the plucker, which is a big whirling tub with rubber fingers. Momma Goose fills two coolers with icy water and sets up the tables for butchering and wrapping. At the end, everything has to be super clean.

Five stations ready. Set.

I fetch the first bird, and it honks and flaps wildly. I hold it close until it calms, whisper my gratitude for its sacrifice, then carry it to the cone.  Head first, down it goes, its head sticking out the bottom, its yellow feet sticking up.  It is surprisingly quiet. Not all of them will be. There are 8 cones and Momma Goose and I fill them all.

Jonah pulls the first head down as far as it can go, cuts the throat and artery and dark red blood begins to drain. The bird’s mouth stays open as it dies, which takes a few minutes, although its eyes cloud in seconds.  The Bearded One watches carefully because he is to dispatch all the rest of the birds. One of the great advantages of doing this with a group of friends is that you don’t have to do every job yourself.

When there is no more movement or blood draining, I take that first bird out by its legs and dunk it in the 150 degree water of the scalder.  Swish, swish, back and forth, feathers begin to loosen, but unbelievably the poop on the derriere remains. The bird is heavy to handle after this point.

Too long in the scalder and the skin can tear or even cook some of the flesh. Too short a time and the feathers stay in.  The test is whether the feathers under the wing pull out easily or not. Two 10-second dunks usually does it.

Then to the plucker, where the dead chicken starts to look like a gag rubber chicken. The poopy feathers finally come out and flow out the bottom of the plucker into a bucket for the fire.

I carry the first plucked bird to the butchering table.  With a big sharp knife, I find the leg/foot joint and cut off the feet.  Then I cut off the head, keeping the neck.  Now it looks like a store-bought bird except for gutting, which I do with a smaller knife. I cut a semi-circle at the rear end, then cut below the anus as Jonah gently shows me.  I reach into the warm carcass and pull out the innards, saving aside the smooth dark liver and nut of a heart for stock.  Jonah approves my work, I rinse the cavity and skin of blood with the nearby hose, and then carry the bird to the ice water where it must completely cool before I wrap it with plastic.

The five of us process 24 birds in just under an hour and a half. It is constant movement. We leave two back to see how big they get in the next two weeks, when we’ll harvest them with Momma Goose’s birds on August 25.

We help clean up (a large chore…) and are home with a cooler full of chickens by 8:30pm when it’s getting dark.  I carry buckets of birds into the freezer while the Bearded One parks the tractor and puts the lone two live meat birds back in their coop.

“We did it,” I say, as we both strip and head for a hot shower, hoping to wash off at least one layer of exhaustion.

“I’ve never raised and processed meat birds with anyone else,” the Bearded One says and smiles.

“I’m still processing.”

“Me, too.”

All Chook Up

It is 9pm and just barely light, bedtime for the 26 meat birds.  The Bearded One goes up to their pen and ushers them into the coop for the night with a broom.  Even from the comfort of my computer chair with a cup of tea and Garfield in my lap — I have morning chicken duty — I hear them squawk and honk and complain.  They do not just go to bed in a neat row on a roost like the layers even when it’s dark.

After the Bearded One corals them all into the coop and closes the top, he rakes the peat moss to cover the copious chicken poop.  I sip my tea and pat my cat and read about my Australian friend’s efforts to fertilize her crummy silty soil with chook poo, which is Australian for chicken poop.

“What are the contents of chook poo?” I asked the Bearded One this afternoon when I started my research.

“Sweetie, poop is a base element,” he replied.  We’ve been making chook poo jokes ever since.  What else can you do?

It was stinking badly enough yesterday that we both got a whiff of it out on the road, so we added 6 more bales of peat moss today to make our deep litter method of poop management work with this many chickens.

The hauling mechanism. Six bales of peat moss at $12/each.

A thin layer of peat moss has worked well with our layers, but there are only 10 of them, five are banties, and they run around the whole pasture pooping all day.  The meat birds sit a lot, they don’t scratch around much at all, and it’s hard to keep all their poop buried in the composting peat moss.

The meat birds help disperse the bales.

Twenty-six Cornish Rock broilers each produce 2 pounds of poop a week.  They’re 7 weeks old now, and the plan is to harvest them on August 25 with our neighbor Momma Goose.  Three-and-a-half weeks to go.  That’s 182 more pounds of poop between now and then.  At least it composts well.  Then the smell disappears completely.

Chook poo does make excellent fertilizer, but it’s too “hot” with nitrogen (1.8%), phosphate (1.5%), and potash (0.8%) to put directly on a garden without letting it compost with hay and dead plants for at least a month.  But with our cool summer this year, the composting takes longer.  It’s been cloudy all week.

“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” the Bearded One sang to me this afternoon when I complained about the forever cold weather, “Only poop when she’s away.”

Gardening has been a trial this year.  It’s a combination of worn-out soil (it takes only a couple of years to leech) and no heat.  The whole country is burning up but we’re still running the space heater in the kitchen.  The Bearded One wears a heavy flannel shirt to split wood.  The corn is barely knee-high the first week of August.  The beans are scarce and wimpy.  What’s the point?

The struggling corn, pumpkin and bean garden.

The broccoli and cabbage are lush and delicious.

So are the berries, onions and potatoes.  Note to self:  Stick to vegetables that grow well in a cool climate.

The potato, cabbage, broccoli and onion garden. Raspberries, boysenberries and marionberries against the back fence.

He cleans his boots with the hose and a brush, but they still reek, so he leaves them in the enclosed entry porch aka the cat condo overnight.  The meat birds are tucked in for the evening once again.

Finally, he comes in the front door.  I come downstairs to get more tea.

“They were scattered all over the freaking place,” he says, “the usual thugs flapping to a hiding place behind the coop.”  I smile and kiss him.  “Poor sweet baby,” I say.

He opens the fridge and reaches for a Coke, which is beside the Tupperware which still holds the precious rubber egg that I can’t quite bring myself to throw away yet.  He ignores the egg and pops open a can of his favorite nectar of the gods.

He drinks deeply and says, “I’m all chook up.”

Moving Day

I’m standing in the middle of the brooder with 29 shrieking Cornish Broiler chicks.  The Bearded One stands outside the brooder with an open cat carrier.  The 3-week-old chicks have outgrown the brooder and it’s time to move them up the hill to their new pen and its 2 new coops.

I release each chick into the cat carrier and the Bearded One guards the door as panicked chicks try furiously to escape.  We’ll do this for 5 chicks at a time, six trips in all, carrying the carrier out of the hut, down the deck stairs, past the gardens and through the gate, up the hill, turning left at the barn and then left again into the meat bird pen.  We’ve already made this circuit umpteen times, in preparation.  I’m not exhausted and irritated yet, but I can feel it coming on.  That hill will get you eventually.

“Where’s Garfield?” asks the Bearded One.

Lurking under the stairs.  Waiting for us to depart with the first load of chicks, hoping that we leave the hut door open so he can visit the remaining birds.

I climb out of the brooder and notice the thick layer of chicken poop on the bottom of my boots, which is now all over the deck and stairs as I tromp after the cat.  The Bearded One does many things, but picking up a cat is rarely one of them.

“You little killer you,” I say as I pick up my kitty, breathe in his fur and ask him for the power to be sweet to the Bearded One who I’m starting to growl at, and deposit him into the house.  The cat, that is.

There have been so many preparations for this event, so many meticulous efforts to make it work, that I’m wearing down.  The Bearded One is all about carefully thought-out procedures; I want to just jump in and figure it out as I go.  He fusses over the sealing ring on the new waterer forever.  I fetch olive oil to coat the ring so the waterer will shut down when it’s supposed to.  Another trip down and back up the hill.

He fiddles with the feeders and the best available trash can to move to the coop to hold the sacks of feed.  If he says, “Not quite yet,” one more time, I just might go postal.

I’m back in the brooder, which smells heavily of ammonia after 3 weeks of accumulated poop from 32 original chicks.  Three have died since they arrived at 2 days old on June 14 — no signs of illness.  “We can’t interpret much from the bodies,” was the Bearded One’s response when I insisted he look at each dead chick as I discovered it.  I was saddened.  He surmised the dead chicks flew into the side of the brooder and broke their necks.  From watching them, that’s probably right.

Several chicks are clearly roosters.  They’re bigger, are all leg and thigh, and run and flap at each other to thump chests.  All of these meat bird chicks are as big as some of our year-old banties.  I snatch one and right away feel its warm, plump, pebbly poultry skin.  It weighs about as much as two oranges.  Its head is still covered with yellow fuzz, but the rest of him is mottled with scruffy white feathers and raw, pimply pink skin.  He looks like the adolescent that he is.

We keep increasing the number of chicks per load — from 5 to 7 to 8 to 9 = 29.  One from the last load races back out and falls down into the brooder, but no harm is done.  I insist on carrying the first load up, but my injured hamstring (from the day I used extremely poor judgment and raced the hen Leah up the hill trying to close the upper pasture gate before she followed me in with the whole flock following her) starts hurting and the Bearded One carries the other 3 loads.

Finally they are all in the two new coops running around in the peat moss and huddling under the 100 watt ceramic bulbs.

One of the Bearded One’s preparations was to run an electric cord from the barn, through 2-inch PVC conduit 8 feet in the air (away from the goats’ playful and curious horns) across to the meat bird coops to power these bulbs since we’re still in the low 40s at night.

After lunch on this already long day, the Bearded One cleans the hut — 3 wheelbarrow loads — of wood-pellet litter and hay to the compost…

…and I transplant 3-week-old corn plants and pumpkin plants from the hoop house into the former strawberry garden.

I watch as he carefully cleans my boots with the hose and my heart softens.

“Are we best friends?” I ask him as we head out on a walk together after everything’s done.

“You are my true companion,” he says and reaches for my hand.

What Does Chirp Mean?

“There’s a dead one right there.”  The Bearded One jokes as he points to a sprawled-out, week-old Cornish Broiler chick, its head beak-down in the pine litter.  Another chick plows into the dead chick, who wakes instantly and staggers to the waterer.

“Nope, I say.  “Still 32.”  In these past six days we’ve seen countless resurrections.  We’ve also been warned that we’d lose some.  So far all are still happily alive.

Our nurse twenty-something daughter giggles as she cuddles a fluffy yellow chick in her palms, letting the long legs hang down. “This is so relaxing,” she says. The three of us have just finished dinner and are now out in the hut huddled around the brooder.

One week old chicks

“Just another 10 second nap,” says the Bearded One.  The chicks have probably tripled in size since they arrived last Thursday morning.

They were two days old, and the biggest were the size of tennis balls.  Identical fluffy yellow balls. One had been pecked a bit, but was totally viable. They’d been shipped, and they felt it.  They drank and ate and napped as fast as their little essences could cycle through their life’s activities.  Alive!  So much to do.

Over the weekend, we filled their feed tray several times a day and changed the small quart waterers to a single big one.  A couple of chicks had wet poop stuck to their butts, which they were pecking at, so I wiped them with a warm paper towel and rubbed on a little Neosporin where it was pink and sore.  Which Momma Goose told me to do.

“Your sister asked me a good question,” I say.  “If all the chicks were born on June 12, was there a different mother for each egg?”

The nurse coos at the fluff ball in her hands as I jabber egg facts:  a hen can have just one egg a day; fertilized eggs incubate for 21 days, but the start date need not be the laying date if the egg is kept cool but not refrigerated for up to 10 days.  It takes a few days to fill your incubator, or for a hen to collect a clutch before she starts sitting. “Probably since these chicks came from a hatchery, they have different mothers,” I conclude.

“Hansel and Gretel have got to see this,” she says, referring to our neighbor kids.

“I already invited them over,” I say.  “Batman is still recovering from his tonsillectomy, but they’ll come over as soon as possible.”

“Do they know they’re meat birds?” she asks.

“Yes, I told them we would top them in a couple of months when they were fully grown adult chickens.  I told them that these are not pets.  They seemed to understand completely, although I think their mom is right to protect them from the actual killing.  Hansel just turned 8.  He’s very tall for his age, so it’s easy to think he’s older than he actually is.”

The Bearded One is in and out of the hut, now, setting up the raccoon trap again, loading it with vanilla wafers and almonds.

Word is out in the forest that fryers are on the premises.  We already caught one raccoon prowling around the hut.  We released it 3 miles away in the forest.

Our friendly crow — dropper of the chicken wishbone in the goats’ water — has been pacing the backyard like a chicken and flying in low over the farmlet several times a day to deliver sinews and cartilage and worms into the water troughs.  I’ve watched it.  We also found the smallest egg ever in one of the nests.

Lettuce and strawberries from the hoop house, and the day’s eggs, including the mystery teeney tiny egg.

I think it’s a crow’s egg, but the Bearded One says no way.  He’s probably right, but I still wonder.

As our daughter leaves the next morning, she marvels at how all the animals are used to her now.  Ruby the dog; the 42 combined fryers and layers; and the three goats, who she says look positively groomed since shedding nearly all their fleece naturally.

Three little goats who have lost their fleece…

That is — by rubbing it off on the horse fencing.

“All except Garfield,” she says.  The cat peers at her from the deck.

“He’s holding his breath until you leave,” says the Bearded One.  We laugh and wave good-bye.

Two hours later, Hansel, Gretel and Batman, along with their mom, knock on the door.  Batman’s voice is scratchy, but he says he’s feeling better and wants to see the chicks.

The Bearded One hands a chick to Gretel and she freezes, holding it so carefully.  He teaches Hansel to pretend that he’s after one chick, then to switch at the last second and snatch an unsuspecting one nearby.

“Ha!” says Hansel, but then the chick poops in his hand.  He handles it maturely and sets the chick back down carefully.  His siblings are wide-eyed.

“What does chirp mean?” asks Gretel, smiling at me.  “Like, what are they saying?”

“Life is good,” I say.  Then I run inside and get the tiny egg for Batman.  It fits perfectly in the palm of his 4-year-old hand.  “Is this the kind of egg you can eat?” he asks his mom, his voice soft and scratchy.

“Oh, yes.  You can have that one for lunch if you want.”

“YUM.  YUM.”  Batman exalts.  “Let’s go home.”

Hentelligence

“Get a pencil,” our neighbor Momma Goose says.  “Write this down.”  We’re on the phone, and I rush to the kitchen table and my paper piles — including garden plans, stacks of last year’s seed packets, and the name of a generator man our new pressure tank installer heavily advised me to write down.

One of the reasons Momma Goose called was to ask for our old metal water pressure tank.  She teaches a welding class where they turn the tanks into smokers, and we’re saving it for her.  Since our old chiropractor neighbor Doc Singer died a few years ago, Momma Goose is the smartest person on the road, no question.  A skilled country woman.  Hentelligence incarnate.

“Okay,” I say and write down the names of two poultry hatcheries I’m to google later on.  We’re going in on a meat bird order with her and two other families.  Our 30 chicks will arrive in June, and we’ll start buying feed by the ton, apparently, also split by the other families.  “Cornish broilers,” she says.  “They’ll be ‘straight run’ — boys and girls, not sexed.  It’s cheaper.”  I write down everything she says, then head up to the barn to tell the Bearded One all I’ve learned.

He’s working on a new chicken roost “ladder” for the coop — his third design.  The first one was too short, the second too tall and wide.  The current problems are pecking the Styrofoam off the wall, and poop falling on the wall.  The new roost will be tall and a foot skinnier (giving us more room to check for eggs…) except for the top rung where the chickens sleep, which will span almost the entire length of the coop, but still be a foot and a half from the wall.

The Bearded One is making the new roost out of young trees he cut down after the goats stripped off lots of the bark for a quick snack.

He laid the trees across two saw horses and enlisted the goat’s help in stripping the bark completely.  They do a brilliant job.

I admire all the work and then break the news.  “We can’t put the meat chicks in the aviary with the hens,” I say.  “They’ll fight and peck each other.  We need another pen and a nighttime sleeping structure.”

I continue to talk but the Bearded One, I can see, is thinking, planning, scanning the farmlet for possible sites.  I am talking about how much chicken we eat — one a week — and we have a freezer now.  We will raise these birds for meat, neither naming nor taming them since we will be harvesting them after just 6-8 weeks.  We will do this processing ourselves with Momma Goose’s guidance.  We’ll put 25 birds in the freezer, then do it again in September or October, and have a year’s supply.  This is my plan.  There’s so much to learn, and I know zip.

We watch as our young hens explore the laying nests, lining up on the perch like women at intermission when all five boxes are occupied.  They take turns.  They shuffle the straw around.  They hollow out a space and then sit for a while.  Then they do it again.  There have been 14 eggs laid since Feb 6.

The Bearded One brought in Stevie’s first egg this week.  He had removed it right after she left a nest, so he knew it was hers.  It was small and had a smear of blood on it.  We both felt the poignancy, the design, the intelligence and beauty.

Suddenly, there’s a ruckus in the aviary.  Dusty has been in the favored corner box long enough, it seems, and Blackie has just about had it.  They talk.  I rush in to see if Dusty laid her first egg.  I lift the nest box lid slowly.  No.  Blackie must have interrupted.  The mysteries of Eggology.  Maybe the young hens are a little baffled, too, I think, and return to the house and my lists and notes and seed studies.

An hour later the Bearded One sticks his head in the back door and holds out what we take to be Dusty’s first egg.  It is perfect — tan and smooth and clean.  I whoop and we both smile big. The Bearded One’s boots aren’t clean, he says, so I get up to take the egg.

“Oh,” he adds as he hands the egg to me, “if you get the chance, will you write ‘hose swivel’ on the Ace list?”

“Okay.”  I can write it down, add the note to my growing nest of knowledge, and then — well, just sit on it.