Sunday, April 29, 2012

To Forage or Not to Forage?

I’m no stranger to chickens. Twenty-one years ago my family moved from a residential area of Richmond to 8.5 acres in South Langley. In short order, we had a dozen adorable chicks. Those first chicks were Barred Rocks but my mother didn’t stop there. She just kept adding to the flock. Barred Rocks rubbed shoulders with Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, Buff Orpingtons and Araucanas.

Even though these breeds vary greatly in appearance and temperament, they all had one thing in common: character. They’d scratch and peck, chase bugs around the yard and generally act like life was one great party. These birds were efficient foragers and loved rustling up their own grub. I loved watching them and, during my childhood, spent many happy hours observing all the barnyard drama.

Alas, my chickens are boring. Watching them for more than a few minutes is kind of like watching paint dry or grass grow. Like I said before, they eat, they sleep, they poop. Once in a while, one will stretch, which is kind of cute. Every day, I pick them some fresh greens to help them develop their foraging skills.  The other day there was a live worm on the root of the dandelion I picked. I thought “Oh, great! Some extra protein!” and tossed it in. The chickens looked at the worm. They cocked their little heads, scrutinized it intensely and then wandered over to eat out of their feeder. That worm will live to tunnel another day (I put it back outside when it became apparent that the chickens weren’t interested) because my birds are more interested in an easy meal.

To be fair, these birds aren’t designed to be foragers. They’re programmed to laze around and pack on the pounds. Pasture-raised dual-purpose birds (used for both meat and eggs) and laying hens can get up to 70% of their daily calorie intake from foraging. Our birds are Cobb700s, a variety of Cornish-cross, which, according to the website, promises the highest meat yield, best breast meat yield and unbeatable efficiency and cost (more on Cornish-cross vs dual-purpose birds in another post). In short, they’re eating machines, turning all that grain into edible flesh in only eight weeks. My books tell me to expect only about 20% of their calorie intake to come from foraging. If there’s an easier meal, these guys will take it.

My mom currently has some chicks in her kitchen (don’t ask) that are about the same age and if I toss something into their pen they’re on it like sharks, tearing greens apart with their sharp little claws and devouring whatever they can fit down their gullets. The contrast is startling and seeing it makes me realize that I’m going to have to get a few laying hens if I want to enjoy the birds funny, quirky personalities. Layers are probably a good plan, since getting attached to the animals you intend to eat is never a good idea! 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

One Week Down!

We’ve made it through the first week and the chicks are thriving in their snazzy new brooder! They’re currently living in a 4ft x 4ft x 2ft wooden box, a step up from their original, rather puny home. They’re growing like crazy, although two are a bit smaller than the rest. I didn’t realize it was possible for such tiny creatures to eat so much. Food is truly the centre of their universe.  They’re still cute and fluffy but their wings are starting to feather out and I can’t wait until they’re ugly. For some reason I’ll feel better about planning to eat them if they aren’t so cute…

I’ve noticed that over the last few days the chicks have become much more nervous. They’re quick to startle and much slower to recover. The first couple of days my dog, Cairo, could stick his head in the box and all the chicks would come running over to check the invader out. If I put my hand in the brooder, they’d all crowd around and try to figure out if it’s edible.

But around day four or five, they turned into, well, chickens. Today, Cairo poked his head over the top of the brooder and the chicks totally lost it and had the avian version of a panic attack. When I reach in to refill their food dishes they scatter.

I know that dogs go through fear periods when they’re young so they can learn what’s safe and what isn’t.  That’s why lots of positive, early experiences are so important for dogs (keyword being POSITIVE). Perhaps chickens go through the same thing? Maybe I need to spend more time getting my chicks accustomed to the things they’ll see when they move out into their pasture pen, so that they aren’t thrown for a loop by their new environment. I want my birds fat, healthy and happy and all the books warn that stressing the birds out can lead to slower weight gain and even death.

That being said, lots of people raise pastured poultry in large groups and there’s no way they spend hours fussing over the birds and introducing them slowly to new things. I imagine the chicks just adjust to a new normal when they head out to the pasture pens. I guess time will tell – only two weeks until they move outside!

Tina's dog, Brandi, says hi to the two-day-old babies.

Monday, April 23, 2012

But I thought you were an animal lover?

I hear some variation of that question pretty much every time I tell people about my plans for the chickens currently camped out in Tina’s family’s shed.

The answer is always the same: I do love animals. In fact, I prefer them to people most of the time.

Although it seems counterintuitive, my love for animals is the driving force behind my desire to raise and kill my own meat birds. As I mentioned in my first post, I stopped eating meat for a number of years once I learned how the cows, pigs and chickens I was eating were raised. The abuses that factory farmed animals suffer are too numerous and horrific to detail here and in any case, the information is readily available for those who care to look. If you’re interested, check out the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

I have no moral objections to eating animals but it just doesn’t seem right to me that we can spend so much time and money saving dogs and cats and horses and other “cute” animals and then turn a blind eye when it comes to the suffering of the creatures we choose to eat. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose. “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals” by Hal Herzog is a great book that looks at this very issue: the ethics surrounding the relationship between humans and animals.

The actual process of killing the birds is one that Tina and I have discussed at length. I don't know if I'm capable of slaughtering them myself, at least not at this stage. Maybe after we raise a few batches it will be easier but right now I'm really struggling with the thought of being the one to do the deed. We have a few weeks before we have to make the decision once and for all, so more on this topic later.

In the meantime, here's one of the chicks camped out near the food:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Special Delivery...

They’re here! We have 22 little balls of yellow fluff thanks to the wonderful Dave Reid of Thomas Reid Farms, an organic chicken farm here in Langley, BC (Click here for a list of stores that carry their chicken). Dave ordered our chicks and their food for us and has provided us with tons of advice - he's even going to stop by and check out our set up to make sure we're not doing anything horrifically wrong. What a guy!

Since our chicks are newly hatched, they need a brooder to keep them nice and cozy just like their mother would. The materials you make your brooder out of are limited only by your creativity – people use everything from large cardboard boxes to plastic kiddie pools to fancy, custom made brooders. My partner in crime, Tina, and I wanted to go the kiddie pool route (easy to clean, no assembly, etc) but it turns out we’re about a month too early and kiddie pools are nowhere to be found. Instead, we’re using a 2 foot by 4 foot wooden planter box covered over with wire to keep the rats out. The chicks will be living in the well-insulated shed where we store our horses’ hay, so we’re not worried about any larger predators at the moment. All my reading highlights the importance of providing adequate ventilation while simultaneously protecting the chicks from drafts, so hopefully the shed and planter box do the trick. It’s a pretty ramshackle contraption but if it keeps them warm until they’re feathered out and ready to move into their pasture pen then I’m happy!
According to Dave and all the chicken books I've been poring over, we need to keep the temperature stable at about 90 degrees for the first week or so. To heat the brooder, we’re using a very high tech system: two heat lamps with 250 watt bulbs suspended above the box on a chain. Fancy, right? Each lamp is set at a different height, so the chicks can regulate their temperature. If they all cluster together, it means they're too cold and if they avoid the lamps, then they're too hot. So far, our chicks seem pretty content. You can purchase special thermostatically controlled heaters but we decided to go the simple route for our first tiny batch of chickens.
To make sure they have a constant source of food and water, we have a 1 gallon waterer, which barely fits under the wire covering the top of the brooder, and a long feeder with more than enough feeding space for each bird. They’re eating organic food and we’re going to provide them with plenty of greens so they can get used to foraging right away.

They seem to be settling in well - lots of eating, drinking, sleeping and pooping!

So happy our chicks have arrived!

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Hatching" the Plan

I know, I know, it’s a really cheesy title but I just couldn’t resist.

Back in 2005 a friend’s mother brought home a DVD about how animals are raised for human consumption and pestered me until I agreed to watch it. I thought I had a pretty solid understanding of what goes on in your typical feedlot or laying hen operation but boy, was I ever wrong.

I didn’t eat meat again for five years.

Fast forward to 2012 and here I am planning to raise chickens for meat. Sounds kind of crazy but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Although I started eating meat again in the summer of 2010 (I only eat poultry, not red meat.), the lack of transparency surrounding the meat industry continued to bother me. In general, North Americans are very disconnected from their food sources and most of us have no idea what the life of a typical food animal is like. But I do know and, like Maya Angelou said, when you know better you do better. And what better way to guarantee that the bird on my table had a happy life and a merciful death than to do it myself?

So one night, after drinking a couple of beer while sitting around a campfire, a friend and I had a light bulb moment – let’s raise our own chickens! Like many other alcohol-fueled plans, there were a few holes in our brilliant idea but we decided to push on. We did a bunch of research and decided on a small-scale trial to see how things go. Our twenty newly hatched chicks will arrive on April 19 and through this blog I hope to share our experiences - from the practical side of raising your own birds to what if feels like to care for your future dinner to some of the sticky moral questions that surround our food choices. I hope you'll join us on our journey!