Wednesday, May 2, 2012
It's that time of year again - chicks have been ordered and are arriving any time now. I know lots of you are old hands at raising chicks, but new readers stop in, so this post may be a refresher, or a good list to have on hand.
My Chick List is as follows:
Boiled eggs for an extra nutritional boost.
Number 1 grit.
Carbo Vegatabilis homeopathic just in case there are shipping problems.
Wash and sanitize feeders and waterers, and make sure they work!
Inspect heat lamps, have extra on hand.
I make sure the brooder is well bedded, well-rested, and all my supplies are in place, so when the chicks arrive at the post office I am ready for them.
If you're new to raising baby poultry, you're going to be mama, so it's up to you to make sure your brooding area is clean, warm, draft-free, and predator proof.
In addition, heat lamps are a somewhat dangerous way to provide heat, necessary, but caution needs to be exercised. Many barn and garage fires have resulted from poorly installed heat lamps. The most dangerous, I think, are the clamp on type. Sockets for heat lamps can be installed in chick hovers, or you can make sure your lamps are hung securely so there is no chance the hot bulbs can come in touch with the bedding.
Chicks need 90F degree temperatures the first week, and turkey poults need 95F degree temperatures the first week, so any attempt to treat them the same results in too high of temperatures for the chicks and too low for the turkeys. And ducks fall in somewhere in between those temperatures.
Let the chicks and their behavior be your guide instead of a thermometer. If the chicks are huddled under the lights, they are too cold, if they are huddled away from the lights, the heat is too intense. If they are running about or taking naps you probably have everything just right. Make adjustments as needed - raise or lower lights, add lights, or turn off a light, check for drafts.
My rule of thumb is if the chick dies within 72 hours of hatching, it is the hatchery or weak chicks fault, after that I figure it's my fault and I do my trouble-shooting to ascertain the problem so I can make corrections. The goal is low mortality - if you have high mortality - figure it out and don't blame the chicks.
Raising your own poultry is a rewarding experience and gets easier the more you do it - Happy Chick Raising!
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
from Spiral Garden
New babies are always exciting! We have had calves born here on the farm (Wags and Mimi) and calves we've brought here and fostered onto Lucy (Honey and Poppy). We've never raised calves ourselves though, Lucy has always helped. You can read lots about our journey with a house cow and calves throughout the co-op blog and here.
Today a new little guy arrived - Red. He's being raised for the freezer and is a by-product of the dairy industry. I'm trying to foster him onto Lucy alongside Mimi (who is a big girl at over 4 months now), but Lucy's not exactly keen on calves which aren't her own! So meanwhile I am also bottle-feeding him.
Bottle feeding a calf with calf formula is something I remember doing as a child. Also trying to convince them to drink from a bucket by letting the calves suck our fingers. It was lots of fun, even though newborn calves are quite pushy and can easily bump a child over!
I'll post more about our new baby as the journey progresses.
Meanwhile, read about calf-raising here. And if you have experience with raising calves, or other baby animals, please share!
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Well, dear readers, I haven't been as active in writing about my homesteading experiences as I have been in the past. This is largely due to the fact that I am pregnant, and most of the time struggling to keep my eyes open and nausea at bay! Most often I've been curled up under the blankets catching up on movies I've wanted to see over the last few years but have been too preoccupied with other projects.
In preparation for the new addition to our family, I've sold off all of my extra chickens. I had been selling their fertile hatching eggs on e-bay (which is a great way to make some extra money from home, by the way if you have a rooster) because I would like to focus on just our family needs. I find that when I have too much going on and try to make a little extra money for myself, the effort that I spend in doing so ultimately means that I have less time to spend on things that would save me money in the long run, such as making my own laundry detergent or growing food or even building a fire in the wood stove. Like they say, time is a precious commodity.
On my personal blog, I wrote recently about our first experience in raising our own pig for meat and lard. If this is something you've been considering, you might find this an interesting read, and if you are a veteran in raising pigs, I'd love to hear your feedback on your experience.
I've also got three runner ducklings in the brooder, and am hoping that they will help me keep the slugs and snails under better control this year.
I'm finishing up my master gardener course, and have learned a lot. I hope to apply all that I have learned this year and will keep you updated on the progress and new varieties that I am attempting to grow. I have a lot of vegetables growing in the house already, and it should be quite the productive season!
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
From Spiral Garden
Also posted on Home Grown
It's been over a year since we first got a house cow, and we've learned a lot along the way. Here are some of the most common questions people ask us, and our replies. We are rather unconventional in the way we manage our home dairy, and I encourage cow owners to seek out information most suitable to their animal before following our example.
How do you tame a cow from a commercial dairy?
This was harder than I expected. Lucy was very frightened and stressed about being away from her herd. At first we had to use fences and ropes to get her to co-operate because it was important that a) we fully milked her at least once a day and b) the calf we also brought home (not hers) got milk. After the initial rough days, Lucy would lead on a halter (the show type with a small chain under the chin). From there we brushed her, spoke kindly to her and got her used to a routine - dry food with minerals and molasses, same time of day, same people around, same calls and commands... Within months Lucy would come when called and take herself into the milking shed at least some of the time. She didn't kick or otherwise carry on for us.
Where do you get the foster calves from?
Our foster calves are calves from a nearby dairy which are excess to their needs. In commercial dairies, male calves are often killed at birth, or they are raised to sell for veal. Some female calves are not kept as replacement heifers because they might be the wrong bloodline or colour, or they aren't a strong animal. If a dairy runs about 200 cows who each 'work' for several years, and each cow has a calf per annum (the usual way in commercial dairying), and half these calves are female - the dairy can't use 100 replacement heifers each year. And so there are often perfectly lovely little heifer calves available for a low cost in dairying regions. And that is how we got Honey and Poppy! We use the term 'foster calf' to describe a calf raised on its own mother for a couple of weeks, who then comes to our farm to drink milk from Lucy until weaning age.
Do you really milk by hand?
Yes! I got a quick lesson from a friend who hand-milks, and a few tips from others who have milked by hand in the past, and within a couple of days had mastered the art! I find milking by hand is relaxing for the cow and I, and it ensures that no damage is done to the udder or teats during milking. Also, milking machinery isn't cheap!
Does owning a cow take a lot of time?
When I'm milking, or monitoring foster calves closely, the cows take me about an hour to an hour and a half each day. That is to feed, water, clean, milk, check the animals over, move them to other paddocks, and so on. To some, that may seem like a lot of time, but it is my exercise and 'hobby', and provides our family with milk. When I am not milking or required for so much hands-on work, I only need to check the cattle and their water once each day.
What do you do with the excess milk?
Excess milk has usually gone to foster calves at our place - I only milked out what we could use, and trusted the calves to take care of the rest! Currently, we don't have any calves on Lucy so with excess milk I make yoghurt, kefir, custard, soft cheese and so on. I also give milk to our animals sometimes, who seem to like it and digest it well.
Doesn't milk have to be pastuerised to make it safe?
After reading information from the Weston Price Foundation and Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions, we decided that the benefits of raw milk outweigh any small risk of contamination, for us. Also, because we control the health and hygiene of our cow and home-dairy facilities, we are confident that the raw milk we're drinking is a quality product.
How do you treat health problems in your herd?
We have been blessed to not have many health problems to date in our herd. We follow the advice of Pat Coleby who has excellent resources for farmers regarding minerals and nutritional supplements. We believe that this prevention is worth the investment of time and money. For buffalo fly, worms and ticks, all common pests in our area, we have tried Neem oil, and a specific mix of essential oils as well as supplementing their diet with specific minerals including diatomaceous earth. For behavioural issues we have used homeopathy and herbal treatments. We are not totally against conventional treatments and will use them if the health or comfort of our animals are at stake.
I hope this interests those of you curious about having a house cow, or looking into having your own cow sometime. I highly recommend the following resources:
Weston A Price
Sally Fallon- Nourishing Traditions
Keeping a Family Cow Forums
Natural Cattle Care by Pat Coleby
The Healthy House Cow by Patricia van den Berg
The Home Creamery by Kathy Farrell-Kingsly
Monday, June 14, 2010
It has been a challenging year here in the Pacific Northwest weather-wise, for gardeners and farmers. I wrote several weeks ago about my gardening challenges during the rainiest spring (since 1888) on record. This week I will share some of the challenges the rainy weather has had on our other livestock.
While our cattle have enjoyed the cool, damp weather and the pastures have flourished, our meat chicken flock has been in a holding pattern waiting for more moderate weather.
Ideally, we brood our chickens for about 3 weeks and then move them outside to their floorless pasture shelter for the remainder of their grow out time. This year the challenge was finding a window of 3 days or so for them to make the transition. It didn't happen. During the month of May and now into June our location never had more than about 20 hours without rain. I learned a long time ago not to be afraid to break the "rules." I could have stuck to my guns and pastured those birds from 3 weeks, but it wouldn't have been prudent to do so. On one hand we want them to have access to fresh pasture, but the flip side of this too, is that we also don't want them to be miserable, and consuming food just to keep warm. So we waited and we brought greens to the chickens, and patiently waited for spate of sunny days.
Finally, a stretch of dry weather was forecast, so yesterday we caught the broilers and pullets and moved them outside to their pen. The easiest low stress way (for them and us) is to just use a piece of plywood to block a few in the corner of the brooder at a time. Any scrap will do, this one happens to be my hanging plant shelf, and is about 2' x 8'.
Moving to greener pastures.
To move the birds a short distance and to make the move easier on everyone, we use what we call the CHICKSHAW. Basically a wheelbarrow with a lid of some sort. My husband had fashioned quite an elaborate Chickshaw out of an old wheel barrow, complete with a hinged lid, but it has seen better days. So we just improvised, and used a scrap piece of hardware cloth for a makeshift lid on our stable cleaning wheelbarrow.
Arriving at their new home.
Ideally, I would have liked to have the birds on pasture sooner, but we have to play the cards we are dealt. There are always pros and cons to everything and on the positive side, while the birds were in, we were able to add to the compost pile with the extra manure and bedding.
Signing on to raise our own food, sometimes means changing direction and following a different route.
Friday, June 11, 2010
From Spiral Garden
We have 20 acres of grass which supplies most of the food required, year-round, for our 2 horses, house cow and calves. It doesn’t snow here, and frosts are mild only browning off the lowest sections of grass. The grasses grown here are tropical varieties on which cattle do well, but horses do not always do so well. We supplement the horses with minerals and have a mineral lick available for all of the grazing animals to access as they need it. One of our horses is a bit fat, the other has been affected by the high levels of oxalates in local pasture and doesn’t do so well here. With supplements we hope he can improve condition. It is interesting that they metabolise the same feed differently, like humans I guess.
When I’m keeping any of the animals in a small paddock, for whatever reason, such as training the horses or keeping a close eye on the house cow or calves, I feed them other plants to prevent over-grazing of that space as well as offer variety. In the larger paddocks there are many shrubs and a wider variety of grasses to choose from.
In addition to the grazing animals we have a few ducks, a few dozen chickens, and several guinea pigs.
Some of the plants I feed the animals include:
Choko Vines and Fruit
Sweet Potato Vines
Pigeon Pea branches - leaves and pods
And ‘trimmings’ from the garden. I normally remove the outer leaves from celery, comfrey, spinaches, cabbages and lettuces. I feed them corn stalks once I’ve taken the cobs for us (and feed them the outer husks of cobs), I throw in any excess herbs – parsley is a favourite, and add some land cress, nasturtium, dandelion and other suitable 'weeds', and kang kong as well. We call this a “salad” and mix it up in big buckets for the animals – choosing what is best for each one. They search through, tasting everything and eating their favourite foods first (just like children) and nibbling on new flavours or discarding bits they dislike after that. Sometimes we will harvest different grasses as well, which grow only in certain areas but I know are okay for stock.
We also feed kitchen scraps to the chickens, ducks and guinea pigs – each has their own bucket as they prefer and tolerate different foods.
I would like to grow more grains, and harvest more hay, as these are feed items I buy in for the animals, especially the chickens.
I wish we could provide more homegrown food for our cats. They eat mice who dare to venture in or near the house, but otherwise rely on bought food. We don’t eat very much meat ourselves, but I imagine if we were eating more chickens, ducks and beef there would be leftovers for the cats to eat.
Are your animals eating homegrown food? Tell me more…
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
the directions for a stand from Fias Co. Farm, which is also where we get our animal health products like the herbal wormer we use. I love Molly's site-she is very thorough in her explanations of how and why she does what she does with her goats. The stand works wonderfully, and has already served another purpose as I sheared our Border Cheviot sheep, Chrysanthemum yesterday. It is lightweight and sealed with oil. I wipe down with the same soapy solution I clean the milking dishes with each milking, and dry it to avoid any growth issues.
All of this is not to push Fias Co. farm's site (though I do love them!) or to brag or just chat about how I spend my weeknights, but rather to talk about how many resources (including this blog :) ) are available to the simply, frugally, green minded individual out there that makes it easier for them to live the way they do. The internet has made it so easy to find others who have been through the same trenches we have been or are in. It is easy to order or follow the insight of the first site hits google brings up, but I find that there is great value in taking time to look at all your options and seek what fits you best. I respect the opinion of the fine farm family we bought Ginger from, and I agree they have an issue with the stand they use. I also know our situation and what we can make work. I took time (though I was on a deadline) and figured out what would fit our budget and time. That wouldn't have worked, though, without the help of our friends, either. I am not a craftsman when it comes to wood working, but by combining talents (every Thursday night, at that) we are able to achieve more, and work towards our goals for more self-sufficiency and frugality. And it was fun. I think too often we see work rather than opportunities for gathering. I actually enjoy working-I know it sounds crazy to some, but the feeling of accomplishing something is far more gratifying than the click of a button in ordering it from some distant company. All in the homesteader's day to day, and I wouldn't change any of it.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
I posted about meat chickens earlier, but now the chicks are here, so I thought it would be a good time to go over what I wrote about earlier, and add a few pictures so you could see the process so far.
Ideally all chickens would be raised by their mothers, learning how and what to eat and drink under the watchful eye of Mother Hen. Hatched in a safe, secretive nest, and then wisely taught how to avoid predators. But alas, many chickens start their life in a false incubated "nest." Whether at home or at a hatchery, when we decide to take matters in our own hands and become the hen, we need to nurse the chicks along and provide what the hen naturally would. When chicks are hatched they need warmth, water, and food. Safe surroundings are a given.
Many chicks are purchased from hatcheries and sent via mail. They can survive up to 3 days on the yolk that is ingested just before they are hatched. This time frame gives the hatcheries a window to get the chicks to you. The longer the window is pushed means the longer chicks are without a safe, warm place and something to eat and drink. If you can, try to purchase from a local hatchery to shorten the time the chicks are in a cardboard box, seeing the country via airplane or truck.
Before the chicks arrive, have their brooding area ready.
a) Chick feed and grit.
b) Clean bedding.
c) Heat lamps working, plus extra bulbs.
d) Waterers clean and working order.
e) Feeders clean.
f) Newspaper or cardboard for first few days of feeding.
Gravity flow bell waterers can be hung on a toggle to raise and lower to adjust to the chicks growth. Doing this helps keep the water cleaner but still in reach of the chicks. They won't use this for the first week or so, but chickens are wary creatures and if they are used to seeing this scary red monster, it won't be such a shock. As each day progresses I move their small waterers closer to the hanging one, and gradually provide less of the small type.
Watch and listen more. If they are huddled closely that means they need more heat, add a heat lamp perhaps. If they are scattered away from the light, that means they are too warm. You want to see a loose group, dotted all around under lights.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
There is plenty of food safety issues that have been in the news lately, so I won't go into all that, but I do want to share how we handle food safety on our farmstead and in our kitchen. My husband has a compromised immune system so good habits are important.
We raise most of our food, and maintain our own watershed, so we are the "they" that has to keep things safe for ourselves. We consume raw dairy products, drink spring water, eat foodstuffs prepared with raw eggs, and graze in the garden freely. All are things that are frowned upon in modern day society. And, unfortunately modern day industrial food practices can be unsafe, even with all the laws and procedures that must be followed. First, everyone has to be on board, when productivity is the only factor, quality may go down. After all, if the milk is contaminated, it can be pasteurized right? Well, I suppose, if you want a simple answer to a complicated question. The milker will never see the person who drinks the milk, and neither will the farmer. But on a smallholding, the farmer and consumer are one and the same.
On our farm we follow rules I learned as child and I am passing on to my child, and anyone who works with us. It begins at the beginning, of course. A hen's goal in life is to lay an egg that will hatch into chick, for that to happen, she needs clean surroundings, and a clean place to lay her gift. If left to her own devices, she would seek out the safest, cleanest place she could for her nest. If I confine her for her safety, or for my convenience, I must provide her with good food, clean feeders and waterers and a clean nest box to lay her eggs in.
It would do me no good to deny the hen these simple things, because ultimately I need to keep my own "chick" safe. Gathering eggs can be fun or drudgery and it can be dangerous if the nest boxes aren't kept clean. When I gather eggs, I am gathering eggs, I don't stop and pick a salad for dinner on the way back to the house. I put the eggs away, wash up and then go back out and pick greens. Mostly it is just a little thinking, and a lot of hand washing on my part. But, after awhile it becomes habit. The same with milking, when I go to milk, I do not stop and pet the barn cats or let them in the milk bucket, I do my milk chores and get the milk to the house to process it as soon as I'm done milking. Stall cleaning, and general barn chores are a different ball of wax.
We follow the same principles in the barn. Pitchforks for the hay are only used for hay or spreading clean bedding. Never for mucking out stalls. Think of these pitchforks as the utensils for the stock, they must be kept clean. We always have them stored in a bale of straw or hay, never on the ground. Parasites can be spread by using a manure fork for a hay fork.
The same goes for our wheelbarrows. We have separate wheelbarrows for mucking and wheelbarrows that are just used for bringing in vegetables from the garden. The uses are not interchangeable.
Since we do use composted animal manure/bedding for our fertilizer program, we follow the same guidelines while spreading compost.
Our compost is aged at least a year, and if spread by hand we use our manure forks and wheelbarrows. Spreading fresh manure is usually not recommended, but if you do use it, plan for at least 90 days from application to harvest of edible crops.
Most of all, keeping things clean in the first place is the easiest. But if you want to wash your vegetables, food grade hydrogen peroxide is easy to use. In some areas you can purchase a 3% solution or if not, you can mix it yourself. I purchase 35% food grade hydrogen peroxide from Azure Standard and keep it on hand, mostly for washing salad greens. To make a 3% solution from 35% hydrogen peroxide, mix 1 ounce of hydrogen peroxide to 11 ounces of water. Use 1/4 cup of this dilution to a sink full of water to wash your vegetables in.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
On our Century farmstead we consider the livestock we share our lives with, an important part of our team. Keeping livestock small and large can be expensive. So began the journey and research to find crops that would allow us to be frugal, and at the same time deliver the same care in growing feed for our animals that we put forth in our own food growing endeavors. When we first started trying to grow more of our own food, we started out trying to duplicate what was in the store, and realized quickly that growing vegetables too far from their natural season, used too many resources. A move to seasonal growing and eating has become second nature to us. Root crops that require medium fertility and with minimum storage requirements fit the bill. Roots used to be looked down on as peasant fare, with a fresh green salad every day being the goal, for eaters and year-round gardeners as well. For us they have been an inexpensive way to lessen our dependency on outside sources.
I'm sure my grandfather had no inkling that I would be consulting his treasured book, The Home and Farm Cyclopedia, ca. 1890.
Nor that I would be sitting at the very same kitchen table he built for his family as soon as he arrived from Germany in 1880. These links to my past are very important to me, since his passing preceded my birth by 54 years. We are different he and I, he an immigrant having to live in a new country and learn the language, me trying to navigate and learn what has been lost.
What I found in modern books on feeding livestock were brief references to roots, but most stated that on a large scale, the growing of root crops for livestock was not economical because of labor or specialized machinery requirements. The modern concensus was that it took more pounds of roots than corn or other popular grains to put on a pound of gain. So don't bother... .
So a I set my time machine to post WW II, and found roots getting a little more mention, but petroleum farming was just gaining ground, and roots were being pushed aside somewhat in favor of grain crops that were able to uptake the heavy nitrogen fertilizers that were a by-product of the petroleum industry. It sounds so simple, no more recalcitrant horses, no manure mucking and hauling, just buy the tractor, and implements. You can go to the co-op and buy fertilizer in a bag, and apply and the crops will grow like mad. That tractor doesn't kick and bite, the fertilizer doesn't have much of an odor and the results are so consistent. It would take years before anyone noticed that maybe this wasn't the bandwagon to get on.
Going even farther back to my grandfather's favorite tome, I found what I was looking for - suggestions for root crops in conjunction with grains and legumes. It seems so simple, roots can be grown in rotation after heavy feeding crops, because of their lower fertility requirements. While not the highest for fattening (that is corn), we aren't interested in slow food, too fast. We raise grass finished beef, so no need for grains there. What we were looking for was a winter supplement for our house cow and our laying hens. Roots have filled in the gaps in that regard.
While I realize I am writing from a farm perspective, I believe that even an urban garden with a few hens or rabbits would greatly benefit from a bed or two of roots. One of the unseen or written about benefits is to our children. By growing this feed, our child has seen first hand that all food need not come from the store - you can grow many things yourself. What I have had to re-learn will be second nature to my daughter - she has planted carrots for her horse and seen that project through from seed to steed and back to the garden in the way of composted horse manure to feed her garden. She sees the cycle and it's advantages. And for me, I can feel satisfied in the knowledge that she too, is linked in a tangible way to ancestors she has only seen in photos.
It may seem early to be thinking of roots in February, but the roots we are harvesting weekly now, were planted in late May, and we will harvest the last of them just before we began the cycle again. Most of my winter garden is started at the same time as my summer garden, with the exceptions being warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers that I will be starting soon. So now is the time to begin planning space for your winter crops that require some time to mature.
Early summer garden, shelling peas on the way out, and parsnips just starting to gain some ground. It will be many months before these "snips" see the light of day and become roasted roots for us, house cow fodder, and the surprise use - dog treats. Sure beats a Nylabone any day.
We were looking for roots that would suit multiple species, namely us, the family cow, and the laying hens. All of the root crops we chose would work well for sheep, goats and rabbits too. The roots that we settled on were carrots, beets, parsnips, and rutabagas. We had grown mangels (fodder beets) before, but found that they were large and because a large portion of the root grows above ground, they did not meet our criteria for easy storage. In our zone 7 garden, we are able to hill soil over our root crops and leave them in situ. It is the perfect storage system, the roots remain alive until the time of harvest. Fresh food all winter is an enjoyable thing. We harvest weekly as needed from fall to spring. Even farther north, I know of gardeners using entire bales of straw to protect the roots from freezing. They remove the bales and harvest as needed too.
While the roots won't replace all the grain for your stock, they can play a bigger part of their winter diet, giving variety and giving you more control in what you are feeding your animals. The only references I have seen concerning problems is for feeding beets and mangels to rams and wethers. Some believe mangels and sugar beets can cause calculi in the kidneys and bladder.
For our milk cow, I chop the roots to avoid choking, and mix with her grain. She seems to enjoy her breakfast treats. The chickens just get to peck away and they relish their winter roots.
Here are the varieties we have settled on:
Carrots - Red Cored Chantenay, grows well in heavy soil, stores well, and gets sweeter with cold weather.
Parsnip - Harris Model or Andover - both grow and store well, I don't see much difference in taste or growing habits.
Beets - Lutz/Winterkeeper - can grow large if thinned to 4", exceptionally sweet and stores well.
A note for self-suffiency: if you choose open-pollinated varieties (OP), you can save your own seed, allowing you to get one step closer to independence from industrial food production.
Growing and harvesting roots has made us feel closer to our goal of self-reliance. And we find as we eat more of these types of in-season vegetables ourselves, we rely less on labor and energy intensive food preservation methods. While I'm not giving up my canning and freezing, I find that I'm storing less food that way, and actually providing more variety in our meals.
Friday, February 6, 2009
For a multitude of reasons meat chickens are a popular type of livestock to raise. They are small, don't take up a lot of space, and in 2 to 3 months you have meat in your freezer or to can, that you were in charge of from day one. You control the type of feed, how the birds are handled and finally processed. Those are the trademarks of a responsible meat eater. If you process them at home and compost the offal, you can make your meat raising endeavors even more integrated into your personal foodshed in a permaculture manner.
We used to raise pastured poultry for sale ala Polyface, but decided that shipping grains in from far points did not suit our personal vision for our farm. We now just raise birds for ourselves, and a few extra for barter. We still raise the Cornish X, which is the bird that gets so much attention for being dumb, too fast of grow out, ugly, and the list could go on... . I will detail how we raise our birds and offer some different approaches for integration into a urban garden setting.
I do agree the birds are ugly from about week 4 or 5, but that isn't their fault, and it certainly may make for an easier transition to the freezer for first time growers. The rest is myth, I enjoy them and the fertilizer they provide for the pasture while they are alive and we certainly enjoy them at the dinner table.
Through trial and error on our farm, we discovered that almost all the problems encountered with this heavy meat breed (and actually our layers too) stemmed from the feed and minerals. Once we got those details worked out, we have had clear sailing since. We use Fertrell's Poultry Nutribalancer, and have our feed mixed with Fertrell's recipe, which is available on their website. The recipe is for a ton, but when we first started we purchased the raw ingredients and made our own feed in 50# batches. This is very doable for the homestead chicken flock. By using this Nutribalancer you're really adding good minerals to your chicken manure for your garden or pasture. Besides the minerals the biggest difference we noticed was that whole grains, ground for mash were better for the birds than the industrial pelleted or crumble feeds so widely available. Check out the section in Nourishing Traditions on breakfast cereal for humans. To make the pellets, the grains are cooked into a sludge and extruded at high heat. Plus, you really can't tell what ingredients are in those pellets, as long as the protein content is what is stated on the label, the feed companies are obeying the law. Even the poor maligned meat chicken should have a diet close to what his ancestors probably ate, especially if we are going to eat him.
A down side of meat birds, compared to a lighter, longer finishing breed is that they really need a high protein feed to grow. And we grew some of the dark Cornish for customers, but it took more grain, and time for less meat. I know the ideology sounds better to have a ranging bird, but if that bird eats more grain and you end up with less meat, you are responsible for more fertilizers, tilling, and petroleum use in the long run, and I think everyone agrees that is not a good thing. Even if the grains are organically raised, most organic farms are using shipped in fertilizers and soil amendments, and they are still making the same pass over that grain field with some kind of equipment. But my intention of this post is to maybe help a chicken eater become a chicken husbandman.
We receive our chickens in the mail. They are sold in lots of 25, that is for hatch run, males and females. These cuties are about 2 days old. We pick them up the next morning after they are hatched. Chicks are available at local feed stores, but they normally feed antibiotics as a prophylactic measure. We prefer our birds never recieve antibiotics. If you get them from the hatchery and provide clean conditions and don't stress them, antibiotics are unnecessary. We make sure all things are in order before chick arrival: brooder lights working, waterers filled, feed and grit available. The requirements are the same as for pullets.
We want to pasture our birds, so we time their arrival for when the grass is lush and succulent, and the weather is fairly nice, but not full blown summer. Our chicks arrive the last week in April, and depending on weather, are moved outside to a movable field pen at 3 - 4 weeks of age. However, if the weather is inclement, we wait. This puts us at a processing date at the end of June, just before we begin haymaking, and gardening in earnest. This way, our chicken chores are done for the year, before we really get busy, and we have capitalized on the young, palatable grass for that beautiful, golden schmaltz!
Always training, we have a waterer available like the one the chickens will have in their outside pen. This relieves stress, for us and the chickens at moving time. These Plasson plastic bell waterers are wonderful - gravity flow, easy cleaning, adjustable height as the chicks grow, and have lasted us for a long time.
At first the chicks are not too adventuresome, and we use the small waterers, and as they get older we begin placing the small waterers closer to the hanging waterer, and before they know it, they are BIG chicks, drinking from the BIG waterer.
We brood our chicks in a small greenhouse/brooder with a dirt floor, but the greenhouse is not necessary it is just how our operation evolved. We deep bed, and clean out after the season. Allowing rest for the next year. As you can see, grass grows in the off season giving the chicks a look at real forage from day one. At the brooding stage, we gradually wean them off lights, and this is where the greenhouse structure really helps. Most days, in the spring, it is warm enough to turn the lights off. And by week 2-3 they don't need the lights at night either, unless it is unusually cold. By having the lights off at night they get some rest from the feed too, to prepare them for their life on pasture.
Ready to move to the field pen, at four weeks they are quite large and fully feathered.
I move these birds at least once if not twice a day, once they are on pasture. This gives them fresh grass that hasn't seen a chicken for a year, (very important for parasite control) and it spreads their nutrient rich manure on the pasture in usable amounts.
My routine is pull out trough feeders, place wheeled dolly under the pen at the back, and move the pen forward one length. This takes about a minute. I close the lid and go do some other chore. If they see me hanging around, they won't graze, they will wait for me to feed them. In about 30 minutes I return and fill their feeders, and water bucket, and I'm done. It is same in the evening, if I move the pen, except I don't withhold the feed, because usually I have other more pressing chores to do.
For the broilers, I like the pen. These chickens are very young, and need aerial and ground predator protection. Crows, ravens, raptors, cats, dogs, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, and cougars are all things we have had to deal with. This works best for us. Providing shelter from the elements, and fresh grass.
Electrified poultry netting also works in conjunction with a shelter, but while making less chores, it gives the birds less option for fresh grass. By less chores I mean you only have to monitor the feed and water, and can allow the chickens to move about. But moving the fence requires quite a bit of time, and more than one fence section, which can get expensive. And it requires some way to electrify the fence to keep (some) ground predators at bay. Electric fence will not stop aerial predation. And most people don't move the fence often enough. By day 3, the grass and forbs will be picked over, and you will have 3 days of manure in one spot instead on 1 day of manure. This sets the soil equilibrium out of balance, but it hard to detect until after you have done it, and then it takes several years to correct.
An acquaintance raises a batch of meat birds in her greenhouse in the winter, to replenish her growing beds for the next growing season.
Another option we have used is a smaller pen, say 4' x 8', made to fit over a garden bed. This is a great way to build new ground. Lay down your mulch material, lasagna style, place the pen bedded with straw or leaves, and put in the chickens, bed each day to tie down the nutrient rich manure, and move after 3 or 4 days. At that time, lay down more newspapers or ??? and move the chicken pen ahead. It may take several people to move the pen, because it has to be lifted up and carried ahead, while the chickens walk to their fresh new spot. The next year you will have garden beds you won't believe! I actually think this would work great in a community garden set-up, plenty of hands to help, and once you have the chickens, taking care of 50 is not much different than 25. Enriched compost additives and some tasty "home" grown birds. Not unlike the city market gardens of Peter Henderson's day.
One thing I think should be changed is allowing birds like this in the city. They make no noise, and if you are tying down your nutrients (manure) with enough carbon, there should not be any odor at all. If there is, add carbon - straw, leaves, what ever you have available.
And as an aside to that, if you have a tall fence, do it anyway. These chickens will be gone before your neighbors are any wiser... and maybe a fresh chicken will insure their silence.
As a final note, raising your own meat birds won't be cheaper than the supermarket chicken that is readily available. But if you factor in your feed and bedding purchases as "fertilizer" for your garden needs, and the satisfaction of being less dependent on the industrial food system, it is a win - win.