Ghostwood Farm

Accidents will happen.
February 7, 2013, 10:16 pm
Filed under: Chickens, Farming, Wildlife | Tags: , , ,

When I was in North Dakota (1999-2001), my summers were spent at Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge. Lake Alice is a truly amazing place. It lies just north of Devil’s Lake, a relatively famous walleye lake and a very interesting place in its own right. But Lake Alice is in a completely different class.

Lake Alice is (was?) a very large hemi-marsh. This means that it is approximately 50% open water, 50% emergent vegetation (largely cattail and bulrush).  In addition to huge numbers of breeding ducks,  Lake Alice also supports hemispherically-important breeding colonies of such colonial waterbirds as Franklin’s gulls, eared grebes, Forster’s and black terns, and black-crowned night-herons. Part of my job was to map these waterbird colonies. This involved canoeing and/or wading around the periphery of each colony with a GPS unit while being attacked, pecked, mobbed, and, shit upon.

It was GREAT.

I cannot say I loved every moment of it, but close. They were long days, some hot, some cold, all wet and smelly. North Dakota winds are something that must be experienced to be believed, even in summer. It was a beautiful place and an amazing experience that not many people, even people in my line of work, get to have.

However, there was death everywhere. Ducks were dying of botulism, which naturally occurs in the anaerobic conditions at the bottom of  marshes in the prairies. Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water. The water at the bottom is basically free of oxygen. Botulism thrives in these conditions. It gets into snails, which get eaten by ducks. One botulismed snail won’t kill a duck, but the toxin bioaccumulates in the duck’s body. Eventually, it makes them very sick. Frequently this manifests as “limberneck,” a lack of control of the head, which results in the bird drowning before it dies of the poison. Then, the flies come. The maggots, like the snails, are unaffected by botulism, but they accumulate the toxin. Other ducks eat the maggots, die, breed more maggots. It’s a vicious cycle that is amazingly destructive in hot years with low water, and kills at least some ducks every year.

The ducks,  in the final throes, would sit on the dikes. Most of the time, their nares (“nostrils”) would be full of leeches. On more than one occasion, I pulled leeches out of the nares of ducks and they would perk up, suddenly able to breathe. On other occasions, I wrung the necks of ducks that were suffering and clearly not going to recover. It was pretty horrible.

I understand that the French called Lake Alice “Lac au Mort.”

So, on one occasion, I was in a colony of Franklin’s gulls and Forster’s terns. It was late in the summer, probably the end of July. These two species tend to nest together in large colonies. The young birds were learning to fly, careening around the place. There was one juvenile bird that was swimming alongside the canoe. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t fly, until I realized he only had one wing. In place of the other, there was a healed wound with a chunk of bone sticking out of it. It had been eaten, probably, by a turtle or a northern pike. I let it go–it would freeze to death in a few months, but it was otherwise healthy and I couldn’t bring myself to kill it.

I do not believe I will ever forget one particular image: Hanging in the “fork” of a cattail, where the new growth was emerging, was a juvenile gull. It was dead and had been for a while. It had simply tried to land and hit the cattail with the bend in its wing, gotten stuck, and hung there until it died. Accidents will happen.

I have told this story countless times in my professional life to illustrate two things: that accidents are a serious cause of mortality among wildlife, and that nature is not all beauty. Nature is beautiful, awe-inspiringly so…but she’s a cold bitch too, and she’ll kill you as soon as look at you, usually in a horrible way. “Red in tooth and claw,” indeed.

I was reminded of this bird on Friday. I pulled into the driveway after having been in Memphis all week (more on that soon). I looked back to the chickens and saw what looked like a bird in trouble. I jumped out and ran back there, and what I saw was horrifying: Buzz Butch, the Sebright bantam rooster, was dead. He was hanging by baling twine over the wall of the greenhouse. Apparently, his feet had gotten tangled in the twine, which got caught on the greenhouse bench, and he went over the edge. He appears to have flapped and flapped until the stress or exhaustion killed him. It must have been terrible. Accidents will happen.

His loss was an important educational moment for me. There is no more baling twine loose in the barn or the greenhouse or near the coops. It won’t happen again. It’s too bad that Buzz Butch had to pay the price for me to learn it. Rest in peace, Buzz Butch. I’m sorry.

Buzz Butch.

Buzz Butch.

Chicken Diversity, I.
March 9, 2012, 3:58 pm
Filed under: Chickens, Farming

You probably know this, but most (maybe all?) of the commercially-produced chicken in the US is one hybrid: the Cornish x rock cross. They gain weight extremely quickly and are very heavy in breast meat. Even many pastured and “free range” producers use this hybrid for meat production because it is the most efficient at turning feed into chicken. They truly are a miracle of breeding: They can reach a dressed weight of 3-4 lb. in only 6-8 weeks. The trade-off for this high feed efficiency is that they literally grow TOO fast: they often develop leg problems if they are kept, well, alive, for  too long. Also, as hybrids, they do not breed true if bred–to get them, a Cornish must be bred with a rock.

So what?

Well, just like in nature, diversity in our food supply is important. The genes that code for different colors, shapes, combs, wattles and the like can be linked to those that provide hardiness to cold or heat, resistance to disease and parasites, and other traits that are important to survival. A reduction in the genetic diversity of our food supply is future trouble of this highest order. And a large number of breeds of livestock are endangered, some of them critically. This is true in cattle, sheep, goats, hogs…and of course in chickens.

In addition to girding the food supply against future challenges, the so-called “heritage breeds” behave more like chickens. They grow more slowly, but they are capable of finding much of their own food. They mate naturally (and often!). They have less breast meat, but what they have is intensely flavorful. The constant movement and varied food makes for a very tasty chicken. However, their slower growth rate makes them more expensive, because they eat more before they reach butchering weight.

This is a long way to say that I wanted to introduce you more fully to some of the breeds we have here at Ghostwood. I’ll start with the roosters in this post, and move on to hens and egg production in part II.

The Kingfish.

The Kingfish, Head Honcho, Stud Bull--my oldest rooster, a Black Australorp.

This fella is the King of the Roost, the head rooster. He’s the only one I kept of my first roosters, as he was the biggest and meanest. He is a Black Australorp, and no longer the biggest, but far and away the meanest. The Australorp is a breed developed in Australia from English Orpington stock. They were bred primarily for egg production. They have a single comb, which make them somewhat susceptible to frostbite, as the comb can get quite large (as you can see here).

My Murray McMurray catalog assures me that they are quiet and gentle. HA! This fella has spurs nearly an inch long and knows how to use them–he has pierced the skin on my wife’s shins through jeans with them. If he hears another rooster mating with a hen, he goes running and beats the other rooster about the head and face. He is feared by roosters and followed constantly by hens. So it goes.

As an aside, even though he regularly attacks my wife, he gets to live. I WANT him to be mean. I WANT him to protect his hens. If an opossum gets in the coop, or if a raccoon wanders by during the day when they’re out, this bird will give it a run for its money. That is the primary reason I keep roosters–that is how they earn their keep.

Barred Plymouth Rock

Barred Plymouth rock rooster, low man on the proverbial pole.

This bird, sitting on the compost pile, is a Barred Plymouth Rock rooster. He’s just as big as most of the roosters and bigger than some, but seems to be pretty mild. As you may have guessed by the name, the Plymouth Rock is an American breed, and among one of the most popular breeds in the country. They are an excellent “dual-purpose” bird, which means that they are good for meat and eggs. This breed (though not in this color) is one of the parents of the “Cornish x rock” meat bird I discussed early in this post.

I haven’t noticed a great deal of breed fidelity among most females–they don’t seem to be too particular in which roosters they hang out with–but the barred rock hens tend to stick around the barred rock rooster.

We had a barred rock in our first flock of roosters who was particularly obnoxious (though he, too, was low in the pecking order). Melissa took such a dislike to him that he earned the name “Brat,” which stood for “Barred rock asshat turdface.” He became a roaster. These birds are a bit difficult to clean, but not as bad as the black australorps. It is fiendishly difficult to get all the black feathers off their white skin.

Buff Orpington Rooster

A Buff Orpington rooster. Pretty, eh? The hen in the background is a Black Star.

These are among my favorites of the breeds we raise: Buff Orpingtons. I have two roosters and a hen. They are pretty easy-going, so far. They have white skin, which makes them very easy to clean. I was excited to get them in my last batch of mystery chickens. I have only one hen, though. We’ll see how well she produces. These roosters are bigger than the Black Australorp in the first photo, but much milder. I am not sure if that is because they are younger, or because the breed is naturally more mild. I’m guessing Option A. Both of these guys seemed to have suffered a little frostbite on their combs this winter. That is one of the hazards of single-combed breeds, something with which the next two breeds (below) do not have to deal.

Silver-laced Wyandotte

This is a silver-laced wyandotte. Gorgeous, isn't he?

The silver-laced wyandotte was the most numerous rooster in my last batch of chicks. They grew a bit slower than the others, but they grew to a good size and were easy to clean. Also, they have a rose comb, and so are less susceptible to frostbite than the birds with the large single combs. This is definitely a breed I would get again. They were among the first birds to begin hanging out with the older birds. I try not to anthropomorphize, but it’s hard not to see that as “accepting.”

Mystery...wyandotte? Rose comb, similar pattern to the silver-laced...but green legs. Aracauna blood in there?

I don’t know what this bird is. I have two. They appear very much like a Wyandotte, but I cannot find any pictures on the web of any Wyandottes with this coloration. They have the green legs of an Aracauna/Americauna, but no cheek tufts. They’re mild-mannered and have grown to the same size and shape of the Wyandotte. If I knew what they were, I’d get them again. As it is, we’ll see how true they breed when I start raising my own replacement stock, I guess!

Stay tuned for Part II, in which I discuss the hens we have. Hopefully it won’t take me as long to post as this one did.

Baby, it’s COLD outside.
February 12, 2012, 12:20 pm
Filed under: Chickens, Farming, Veggies

I am working on a post regarding the diversity of chicken breeds that we have on the farm, which I will hopefully have posted in the next day or two. I just wanted to post an update on the weather:

It is COLD.

I was starting to get nervous. It has been raining all winter, and warm. The snow we have now, barely a dusting, is the first of the year that has stuck around for more than a few hours. I ordered and received my seeds for the coming season about two weeks ago. With the weather warm and the ground muddy, I was starting to feel pinched for time, like I should be considering planting the spinach, lettuce, and peas. Now, with the ground frozen hard and the temperature not forecast to warm up to freezing for a few days, I feel a bit relieved.

I DO have time, I DO.

I remain concerned about this spring, though. Last spring was so wet that I couldn’t plant or till properly until well into April. Our clayey soil does not drain well, so water stays and stays. It’s a blessing in the heat of the summer, but a curse in the spring. And so far, this spring is shaping up to be as wet as last.

As for the chickens, they deal with the cold very well. Their coop is warm at night, or at least warmer than outside. It’s ventilated but very well walled off from wind, and 50 birds keep it warmer than one might think. I get a bit worried about some of the single-combed roosters, because frostbite is a concern for them. In general, though, they eat more feed and forage less for themselves when it’s cold and snowy…so I prefer it to be a bit warmer!

Water is another issue. Yesterday the temperature reached only the mid-20s. Their water was frozen solid when I let them out in the morning. They managed to keep it open during the day, but my rain barrel’s spigot is also frozen, so I must bring them a five gallon bucket of water in the morning. I have a heated waterer, but it leaks faster than they drink it, and anyway it’s only three gallons–they drink about 4 gallons a day.

This morning, I took them a five gallon bucket of hot water and put it on the fount base, which was crusted with yesterday’s ice. They immediately run to the water when they get out in the mornings. The birds that are lower on the pecking order (yes, pecking orders really do exist) run outside and eat snow. Apparently, making eggs is thirsty work.

Finally, as I fed the birds this morning, I heard a hen in the barn, behind the hay. I look back there daily for eggs–with the loose hay it seems an obvious nesting place–and have never seen any. Today, apparently I looked closer than usual, and under some styrofoam, in what can only be described as more of a tunnel than a nest, I found 34 egg-cicles. I don’t know how old they are, but they were frozen solid, many of them cracked. That’s $8.50 worth! This is the wonder of free-range chickens: They lay wherever they want, and it’s up to me to find them.

Tonight, I will boil those 34 eggs and feed them back to the chickens. They love eggs. I try not to think about it.

Foggy chicken breakdown.
January 26, 2012, 2:38 pm
Filed under: Chickens, Farming

Or, “My chickens grow fat on the crusts of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

I’m home with a sick kid today. It’s a beautiful morning and I love how the different chickens look in the fog. Of course, the fog makes the pictures a bit fuzzy…

Foggy chicken breakdown, part 1

So, I just thought I’d throw some chicken photos up here.

Buff orpington rooster.

Buff orpington rooster. Isn't he something?

For the photos, I baited them in with table scraps–sandwich crusts, apple cores, an old hamburger bun, carrot peels–for the photographs. I throw the stuff out, then cluck like a chicken and they come running (I’m very convincing). If you’re wondering, I’m behind the fence, not them: The fence surrounds the back yard to keep the dogs in. The chickens are fence-free right now. I just lock them up at night.

A silver-laced Wyandotte rooster.

You don’t have to worry about any of the roosters in the photos. I think they’re all safe for at least a year!

We have two bantam chickens. For those of you not familiar with boxing terms(!), a bantam is a miniature chicken. Ours are golden sebrights. They are the only chickens we have that have names, since they’re the only ones that aren’t big enough to bother eating one day. They’re pretty, and they kind of keep to themselves. Luckily, they’re fast, because the bigger birds pick on them a great deal. They fly well, too, and tend to roost in the highest places in the coop (like on top of the fluorescent light fixture).

Buzz Butch.

They’re a bit smaller than pigeons, I guess. Very entertaining.

I tried to get a picture of the dogs inside the fence, watching the chickens just outside the fence, but I missed it. It’s a pretty entertaining juxtaposition, particularly when you can see just how badly the dogs want at the chickens. The chickens? They don’t seem to care about the dogs at all. I imagine that would change, if the dogs got out!

Butchering day.
January 23, 2012, 9:48 pm
Filed under: Chickens, Farming

(Note: The following contains graphic descriptions, but no photos. I promise that my next post won’t be about killing!)

I usually buy chickens “straight run,” which means that they are unsexed at the hatchery. The ratio of males to females is random. Hens, of course, produce eggs. Roosters are good for a few things. They keep one from sleeping in, for instance. They protect the flock by watching for danger. They are immensely entertaining (remind me to tell you the story of when I mixed the old flock with the new flock). They fertilize eggs, if one wishes to incubate eggs to raise chicks. They can be very beautiful birds, too.

However, they eat a lot, which gets expensive. If the ratio of roosters to hens is too high, the hens get mated too frequently. This can leave the hens’ backs scratched raw and the back of their heads plucked bare. This can be a problem in the hot summer sun (sunburn) and the cold winters–feathers are excellent insulation. I like to keep about eight hens per rooster. The extra roosters are raised for meat.

About two weeks ago, well before eggs started appearing, the roosters reached sexual maturity. I’d hear a squawk and look outside to see a rooster on a hen’s back, holding the skin on the back of her head with his bill. After a few seconds, he jumps down, she shakes herself and fluffs her feathers, and they part ways. Since my ratio had been about 3 hens per rooster, some of the boys had to go.

Slaughtering takes planning. It’s a day-long process. I have to separate the birds from their food, because a bird that has just eaten makes an incredible mess when it comes time to remove the innards. So I close the doorway between the coops (the food is on one side, while most of them sleep on the other). Usually the chickens don’t even notice, since they’ve already roosted for the night.

I try to get started early on butchering day. The chickens are up early, and they want food and water. The faster I get through the process, the sooner the others can eat and drink. This week, I decided on seven roosters. I chose to keep at least one rooster of each breed I have, so I wound up with one Buff Orpington, one Rhode Island Red, and five silver-laced Wyandottes. My surviving roosters are two buff orps, two wyandottes, one barred rock, one mystery chicken (I think he’s a rare penciled wyandotte), an Ameracauna (“Easter egger,” that lay blue or green eggs), and the Kingfish, the black giant (or possibly black australorp) who was the survivor from the last batch.

I catch them one at a time and, carrying them upside down by their feet (which calms them), I take them to a large poplar stump. The top of the stump slopes to the left, and at the edge there are two nails driven into it, about 1 1/4″ apart. The chicken’s head is placed gently between these nails, I pull on its legs to keep the neck taut, and I cut off the head quickly with a very sharp, very heavy Ka-Bar machete.

When it stops flapping (which can take 1-2 minutes), I set it down and get the next one. Again, the faster I get through them, the sooner everyone else gets to go about their business.

The next step is to scald them. This loosens the feathers to make them easier to pluck. I have a couple of propane burners (turkey fryers) that I use for this. First I dunk the carcass in a bucket of warm water. This removes dirt, etc. from the bird (remember, they dust bathe frequently and their feathers hold a large amount of dirt). By washing them first, my scalding water stays cleaner and has to be changed less frequently.

The scalding pot is held at about 150 degrees. The carcass is dunked into the hot water, swirled around and shaken. This gets the hot water up against the skin as much as possible. At 150, I leave the bird in the water maybe 30 seconds. I pull the bird out and yank on some feathers. If they come out easily, I move on to the next step; if not, I dunk for another 15 seconds. 150 degrees is a bit hotter than most experts recommend, and scalding for a few seconds too long can cause the skin to start to cook. That means the risk of the skin pulling off with the feathers. But if one does it right, the feathers pretty much wipe off.

When plucking, I get the belly, legs and back first, just the big bits, handsful of feathers at a time. The wings are next. The large flight feathers can be difficult to pluck, if the scald wasn’t long or hot enough. The wing pits and between the leg and the body are last, along with the tiny, hard-to-pluck feathers just above the feet. Younger chickens can be difficult to pluck because they still have pinfeathers (feathers that are not fully developed). In a black-feathered chicken, this can cause some aesthetic issues, because some of those feathers are impossible to get out of the skin. It can leave you with black streaks on a nice white-skinned bird. The Wyandottes and the buff Orpingtons clean up nicely; the Rhode Islands and the black chickens are a pain.

Feet come off next, then the neck. I save all the necks, sans skin, for soup. Then the birds are drawn. I cut just below the cloaca (urogenital opening), then make a shallow cut all the way around it, careful not to cut the intestine. Once that skin is separated, I reach inside the opening, feeling for the gizzard. The gizzard is circular, about 2 1/2″ in diameter and maybe 3/4″ thick, and easily found. I pull it out, and with it come the intestines. Next the hand goes back in for the liver and heart.

The lungs of a chicken are set into the ribs along the spine and can be difficult to get out. I have a horrendous-looking tool for this job (called, accurately enough, a lung scraper), because doing it with one’s fingers can cause all manner of nicks and cuts due to the sharpness of the ribs and spine. After the lungs are out, a few cleanup cuts to get rid of viscera and other tissue around the neck and rear holes, a rinse in cold water, and it’s ready to freeze.

When I’ve finished with the carcasses, I cut the large chunks of vein from the hearts and clean the gizzards. Gizzards, or muscular stomachs, are how chickens “chew.” They swallow grit (small stones), which reside in the gizzard. They swallow their food whole, and it is ground in the gizzard, using this grit. I grew up eating fried hearts and gizzards and I love them. Gizzards sound disgusting but they’re easy to clean. I make a cut into the thin side, basically butterflying it to open it up. The gizzard has a tough lining that peels out of the muscle, bringing with it grit, hay, grass, whatever is in there, all in one chunk. Voila, cleaned gizzard. Again, a rinse and it’s ready to freeze–I freeze the hearts and gizzards together.

I take all of the offal (heads and guts) out into the woods, where I dump it far from the chickens. The local critters have it all gone by morning (except the gizzard linings, strangely enough–those don’t get eaten!). The feathers are all dumped in a different pile. I’m sure that all of the songbirds in Lawrence and Monroe counties will have my chicken feathers in their nests this spring.

The chickens have to rest for 3-4 days before eating them. The first time I killed chickens, I fried one up that night, and the dark meat was rubbery, inedible. I was mortified. I thought, here I’ve killed all of these birds, and they aren’t fit to eat. I was nearly in tears. I did some looking, though, and the trick is to rest them, which allows the muscle fibers to relax (at least, that’s my understanding). Freezing works, too. I have a big four pounder in the garage fridge, resting to be fried this weekend.

Because, as much as I dislike this process, as messy as it is, and as exhausting (both physically and emotionally), it’s all about getting food the real way, for me and for my family, for my friends and for my customers. And you know what? My chicken tastes amazing. I’m very proud of how I treat these birds, but it wouldn’t be worth it if they didn’t provide great eats. And they do.

I thank each of one of them.