Trials of a chicken foreman raising chickens become more than a job.
Fried chicken is my favorite meal in the whole world. If the day ever comes that I find myself awaiting the hangman’s noose, I plan to request my wife’s fried chicken for my final meal. I figure that her fried chicken, mashed potatoes and white flour gravy is probably as close to Heaven as I’ll ever get.
I do not, on the other hand, care for chickens on the hoof. With all due respect to poultry aficionados, I believe chickens are nasty, smelly creatures with the reasoning power of a turnip and the survival instincts of a lemming. I can tell you why the chicken crossed the road. Because a car was coming.
I know all about the disgusting habits of chickens because we raised Leghorns on the farm where I grew up. Each spring, my folks would order three or four dozen chicks from a mail-order hatchery, pick them up in town, and then install them in an electric brooder in an old shack until they were big enough to fend for themselves in the farmyard.
As the family chicken foreman, it was my job to make sure the chicks had plenty of starter feed and fresh water. It was also my responsibility, of course, to change the newspapers lining the floor of the brooder when the pungent aroma of chicken litter became overwhelming. Which was pretty much every time I entered the building.
Like teenagers with gangly limbs and acne, fuzzy yellow chicks cease being cute the minute they start growing feathers and begin pecking at one another to establish a flock hierarchy. As soon as their feathers formed, it was time to move the flock to the chicken house.
The chicken house was a low-ceiling structure with a straw-covered floor and one wall consisting of individual nesting boxes. Outside was a shallow trough containing cracked corn and barley, and a waterer that I kept filled with buckets of water carried from the hydrant.
Long before the word had been coined, these were free-range chickens, unrestrained by fence or pen. Our chickens had the run of the farmyard, the feedlot and the cow pasture behind the house. This gave them full access to grasshoppers, spilled grain and anything they found of interest in the cow pen.
On our farm, the chicken foreman was also in charge of collecting eggs. Although the majority of the chicks we raised were destined to become fryers, a few lucky hens were assigned the permanent job of supplying our family with eggs. But being a layer was not a job without risk. Any hen that failed to produce an egg for several days was likely to find herself on the wrong end of the chopping block. I, chicken foreman, held the power of life or death over the nonperformers.
Sometimes one of the hens would suddenly discover her instinct for reproduction and decide to sit on her eggs. This could complicate my egg-collecting duties. Young hens that weren’t quite sure why they were sitting on their eggs could easily be shooed away from the nest. The same couldn’t always be said for the cranky old biddies that were apt to peck angrily at my hands when I attempted to retrieve their eggs.
The chicken foreman job I most despised was cleaning out the nests. Chickens, unfortunately, have a predilection for fouling their own nest. I would put off the job as long as possible, then, holding my nose with one hand, scrape out each box with a short-handled hoe before relining it with fresh straw.
Each boxful of chicks my folks ordered included young roosters as well as pullets. This was not a problem, since young roosters fried up just as well as the hens. But, invariably, our farmyard would be dominated by one crusty old rooster who lorded it over the hens, the barnyard cats and even our dog. Once he tried to face me down, but as chicken foreman, I wasn’t having any of it.
The same could not be said of my youngest brother, Jeff. One summer, when Jeff was perhaps 4 or 5 years old, our resident rooster decided to have a bit of fun with him. He began waiting in ambush for Jeff each time the little fellow stepped outdoors. No sooner would my brother come outside to play, than the rooster would come running at him, flapping his wings and pecking at Jeff’s legs and feet. This, of course, resulted in much screaming and crying.
His mission of human domination accomplished, the rooster would then crow loudly, presumably to inform his harem that he was still cock of the walk. And then skulk off to hide around the corner of the coop, where he waited for Jeff’s next appearance.
The rooster attacks went on for weeks. As the oldest brother, I found Jeff’s dilemma hilarious. Our mother did not. One Saturday morning, my mother sent me out to catch Mr. Leghorn. She met me at the chopping block with a freshly sharpened axe, and with one fell swoop, the rooster became Sunday’s chicken stew.
The rooster’s reign of terror thus came to an end. But to this day, Jeff will not eat chicken. Not even in revenge.
Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet from Parksville, Missouri, with some not-so-fond memories of chickens down on the farm.
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