Two Years Off-Grid: Chickens
By Jack Fernard
Having learned our lesson with “The Dangers of a Straight Run,” we decided to avoid the whole eight rooster scenario again and ordered ten hens — five Australorp and five Plymouth Rock. At a little over a year, we have half of our flock left (predators love chicken!).
But despite the reduced numbers, I’m happy to say we are enjoying lots of eggs — enough to share with four other families. That being said, here are a few things I hadn’t read about and really wished I had known.
It seemed like forever before we got our first egg. The event was monumental with the whole family gathered around the kitchen counter as we cracked it open. There was a moment of silence as the contents sloshed around the bowl, followed by, “That’s fairly repulsive.” The memory of it still gives me the shivers!
FYI, it takes a little while for the hen’s plumbing to really get going. We had meat spots, we had discolored yolks, we had shell deformities of every kind imaginable. Yuck!!
One particular morning, I let the girls out to find two eggs on the floor of the coop without hardened shells. Apparently, hopping down off of the roost was too stimulating and their eggs popped on impact. For the first few weeks it looked like eating home grown eggs wasn’t really going to happen. And then, the girls finally got the hang of it and started laying the tasty eggs we’ve come to love.
I’ve read there is a ratio of bird to nesting boxes and I’m certain that the experts have a real science to things. Unfortunately, my hens don’t do science. There are three nesting boxes for the five birds… and still there are problems.
Everybody wants to lay their egg in the same box, whichever box it may be for the day. This works until two girls want to lay an egg at the same time. Commence the ruckus!
Confident in our abilities to raise chickens, we decided to give meat birds a try. Eight Cornish X’s and seven Rangers found their way into my newly built chicken tractor.
To be honest, I’m not sure the Cornish X breed can actually be called a “chicken.” Ours didn’t seem to scratch or peck. They never tried to fly. Actually, I can’t think of a single thing that resembled chicken behavior.
And these birds are LAZY! Towards the fifth week mark, it was pretty common for me to find them to by laying on the ground with their heads in the feeder. More like pigs with feathers if you ask me. Also, the Cornish X’s were not the healthiest birds. I lost two to, what I assumed were, heart attacks.
The Rangers behaved much more like chickens. They would peck and scratch a little, hopping around in a flurry of flaps pretty much like you would expect a chicken to behave. But they never got as big as the Cornish X’s despite the extra three weeks of growing time.
The Rangers did appear to be the heartier of the two breeds. Though, I did loose one bird to “malabsorption syndrome.” The poor little chick never grew and after a few weeks, it started looking like food to the bigger birds.
Harvesting the birds wasn’t as bad as I expected. It’s not my idea of a good time, but with the right tools, the birds are dispatched fairly quickly. I chose to skin mine as plucking looked to be more time than I could afford.
Both of the breeds produced a fair amount of meat and I was quite happy with the yield. After letting them sit in the fridge for 72 hours, I promptly froze them. All was looking well until I actually cooked one.
For whatever reason, the meat was tough. Both the Cornish X and the Ranger were tough to chew. I tried slow baking and low in the crock-pot for 5 and 6 hours. Yet the meat was always the same toughness. Not sure what I did wrong, but that wasn’t the result we were hoping for.
I’ve read many times that chickens are a low maintenance animal. And in many respects that’s true. You provide them food and water and they pretty much take care of the rest.
What I hadn’t read was how much they get into things. They will scratch and peck at anything. And if your birds are free-range like ours, then nothing is sacred. I did not anticipate the amount of chicken-proofing I would have to do… and still continue to do.
Also, despite the flock having free access to the yard, I’ve seen more ticks this year than I have in the past. I’d like to think that they’re making a dent in the tick population, but I don’t have any evidence to support that.
Chickens are fun. It is beyond entertaining the way they’ll run from clear across the yard when they see you — hopeful that you’ll have a snack. And it doesn’t matter whether they know you or not. Chicken logic states that “If it walks on two legs, then it must have something to eat,” — just ask the delivery man.
The eggs they give us are the real deal. No antibiotics or steroids in our birds. Just a high grade feed, the occasional toad and a whole lot of bugs. It is truly rewarding for me to know this!
So to those who are considering a backyard bird, I say this: “Buying eggs at the store is definitely more convenient, but caring for a small flock of birds is both responsible and rewarding… for all of your family.”
Photos property of Jack Fernard.
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