Archive for May, 2012

Before you grill it, You gotta kill it.

Or get someone else like me to do it.

We processed the broiler chickens we raised from day old chicks that we got from S & G Poultry this past Saturday. We raise our chickens on the pasture where they can live out their lives in a much more natural, healthy and sanitary environment than factory farmed chickens. They eat a diet of grass, insects, and a non-medicated feed ration that we have to special order to ensure that we aren’t propagating meat loaded with pharmaceuticals, which is what you get from the mass producers. Our chickens live in portable pens we call “chicken tractors” which we move two or three times a day to ensure that they have constant access to fresh pasture to forage. We don’t just let them free range because they would be easy targets for predators. We grow them for 10 weeks because we don’t rely solely on commercial feed, if we did we could shorten the time to 9 or maybe even 8 weeks, but the flavor of a 10 week bird is much better in my opinion. This does mean that the meat is much firmer than young birds and after eating our chickens, the one in the grocery store labeled as “young and tender”, just feel mushy in my mouth.

The day for me started by leaving the fire station at 6:15. When I arrived home, Katie had already fed all of the critters but the rabbit pens still needed moving and the cows need to be moved to their new paddock for the day. As I rushed around completing chores, it started to rain. It was NOT supposed to rain! We had already set up all of the processing equipment in an open area between the house and the barn which is paved. As drops of rain got heavier, Katie and I moved the tables to the pavilion by the house and set up the killing cones in a car port by the barn. The scalding tank and plucker are too heavy to move around, we just left them in place.My goal was to get started at 8:00, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.

We depend heavily on volunteers to help us get 100+ chickens processed in time to be picked up by customers who had already placed deposits to reserve their birds. Our first volunteer, John, arrived and I was still running around like a “you know what” with its head cut off. I finally got the scalder filled and now getting it fired up my next task. The scalder heats the water with propane but first I needed to light the pilot light. The factory installed igniter  had long ago quit working, so this task requires one to lay on the ground (wet) and with a long lighter, match or taper apply the necessary  flame to start the flames of propane. Fortunately, John was able to lend a hand by pushing in the gas control knob while I lit the pilot. Now we had to wait for the water to heat, which takes 45 minutes to an hour. While we were waiting, Tom arrived, and it was looking like the six volunteers that I was hoping for was actually a third as many. I knew already that the day was going to be a long one, but I could feel it getting longer.

Once the water was hot enough, according to the thermometer, we fetched the first batch of chickens from the pasture and brought them to the killing station. The chickens are not hard to catch because they’ve always associated people with food and opening the gate of the tractor brought a swarm of feathers, beaks, and claws. My method of dispatching the chickens is to use a razor-sharp knife to cut their carotid artery and bleed them while they are held securely in an inverted position in a cone. A quick, deliberate cut ensures that the chicken isn’t subjected to any undue stress or pain, unlike the slaughter assembly lines in the factory packing houses. Once all of the involuntary electrical impulses stop firing, I move the chickens to the scalding tank. The purpose here is to loosen the feathers to facilitate quick feather removal. It’s actually one of my least favorite parts of the process because keeping a constant eye on the water temperature is a pain, not to mention the pilot light is prone to be blown out by a gust of wind. The supposed ideal temperature is around 148 deg. Farenheit, but I ended up running the temperature up to 170 because the feathers just weren’t coming loose from the birds and we had to do a fair amount of hand pulling. So, after scalding is the plucking, which fortunately is performed with a plucking machine made by Featherman. It’s a tub with a bunch of rubber fingers on the sides and bottom. The bottom of the tub spins when you turn it on, causing all of the chickens to tumble around against the fingers, stripping their feathers off. Care must be taken not to run them in the plucker too long or there is a risk of breaking wings and legs. From there the process continues with removing the heads, feet and necks. We save the feet and necks for making stock and a few of our customers even enjoy chicken feet themselves as a snack! Eviscerating involves cutting open the body cavity at the bottom of the bird, reaching in with the hand and breaking loose all of the membranes from the cavity wall. The gizzard is the largest organ and once you find it, you grasp the tube on top of it and firmly pull, all of the entrails come out together for the most part. Once they’re out, a cut around the rectum and the bird itself is ready to be washed, inspected and put on ice.

We had some more helpers show up around noon, our friends Debbie and Mark made it after  dealing with a son-in-law who is in the hospital. They, like our other helpers, desire to one day have the means to be self-sufficient and raise food for themselves and others. Soon after, my sister came by with my nephews, Cameron 9 and Trey 6. They enthusiastically joined in. The kids were assigned to catch the chickens, and then help with the scalding and plucking. Cameron and my 8 year old wanted to get in on the eviscerating but, I’m not ready to turn them loose with knives so, the figured out that if you just twist it enough, the head would pop off. This gave the grown ups one less task to do.

I wasn’t surprised to find that we weren’t done when customers first started to arrive, we were still killing, plucking, and eviscerating. I was glad to see that no one looked squeamish or grossed out. I believe that it is vitally important for those who do not grow their meat, should have the opportunity to see exactly the manner in which it is raised and killed. The consumer should not have to blindly trust some nameless individual to certify their meat is safe. I was very glad to see that some parents even encouraged their children to watch the whole process of processing. One mom asked if she could take pictures and I said only if she’d share them with me. Thank you Sarah for these awesome photos!

Got a PUStache? The truth about PUS in pasteurized milk – YouTube

How can you argue with this? I was raised on stories of  “a land flowing with MILK and honey.” What if Sunday school classes, in an effort to  be factual changed it to “PUS and honey”? Just doesn’t give that spiritual lift does it?

My one issue with the video is that he only advocates buying raw milk from a certified organic dairy. We will never seek “organic” certification as it’s only a label that says you’re approved to use a certain list of chemicals. Anyone who visits our farm can see that our cows are healthy and produce PUS free milk.

Got a PUStache? The truth about PUS in pasteurized milk – YouTube.

Got Hay?

Hay is something that the uninitiated tend to overlook when they begin their pursuit of farming. Not all hay is created equal. The Market Bulletin are full of ads for “cow” hay, “horse” hay and mulch hay with no mention of what grasses (or weeds) it is composed of. The producer generally calls hay “horse quality” because he limes, fertilizes and sprays the fields for weeds. In our area the hay is a mix of any of the following: bermuda/bahia/fescue/orchard/rye/johnson/crab grass. The “cow hay” has likely not been treated and often times is cut from a pasture that is used for grazing. The horse hay gets rushed to the barn for storage, the cow hay might sit out in the field a day or two before either being put up in a barn/shed or usually with round bales they’ll be covered with a tarp. Mulch hay is hay from several seasons ago that has lost it’s nutritional value. Many producers have mono-culture hay fields that are strictly for the purpose of growing hay. The grass in these fields are usually “improved” hybrids and here in the South, Bermuda is king. These fields are heavily fertilized and sprayed intensively for weeds and pests. Around here, if you want quality chemical free hay then you better buy some more land, a couple of tractors, a disk mower, hay rake, and a baler be it round or square.

 

 

 

Speaking of shapes. Hay bales come in two shapes, round and square. Before the baling machine, after cutting, hay was stacked in the fields to cure and then the farmer would pile this cured hay on a wagon to be hauled by horse/mule/oxen to the barn. With this methods, the hay would continue to cure in the stack. When the age of mechanized agriculture came to stay, the square baler was all that was known.  The baler compressed the hay into a rectangular shape and then wrapped and tied twine around it before dropping it out the back of the machine. Because of its destiny to be compressed into a bale, the hay needs to be fully cured (dried) before baling. Hay is still going to have some moisture content (at least it should) when it’s baled and therefore care must be taken when storing it. If it is stacked too tightly with no available air circulation, the hay will begin to compost which generates heat. The heat can build to the point that the hay auto ignites and the nightmare of a barn fire becomes reality. Square bales generally promote a higher quality hay because of it’s greater surface area and the cut ends are exposed on the sides, allowing the bale to “breathe” and to dissipate moisture while in storage. The big problem with square bales is they require handling to move them. Once they drop out of the back end of the baler, a field hand must pick it up and stack it on something for transport to a barn for storage. The round bale is the answer to this problem. Now 20 times as much hay can be bundled together and with a large spear or fork attachment, the hay can be carried by tractor with little to no need to handle it manually. The problem with the round bale is that because of the reduced surface area, the hay must be cured extensively. All of the cut ends are wrapped up inside of the bale which doesn’t allow for much moisture dissipation. So as with most any thing else, there is some trade in quality for convenience and vice versa. Round bales are great for those on a tight budget and can be a good tool for improving poor pastures. Some people fret over the hay that the animals drop, step on, lay on, poop and pee on. If you pick the area to set the round bale, you will be adding very beneficial organic material to the soil that will promote a healthy layer of humus in the future. If you have an area you want for a future garden, fence it off, add round bale and cows and a year later you’ll have awesome tomatoes!

 

 

 

 

Grass isn’t the only vegetation that can be made into hay, legumes just as well can be made into hay with alfalfa being the most popular. Legumes have a higher nutrient content with protein being the most prevalent. For this reason, you need to treat legume hay as a supplement to your grazing animal’s diet, not as the primary source dry roughage. I usually feed my cows alfalfa with grass hay at a 1:3 ratio. Grazers need just  good ole dry roughage to keep their digestive tract healthy. When we have particularly lush spring grass we have to keep our cows up a few hours eating hay to level out the moisture in their rumen. A common treatment for cows who are in danger of bloat, is to feed them chopped straw which absorbs the excess moisture which threatens to ferment which produces gas that the cow can’t belch out causing extremely uncomfortable swelling and if not noted early, can be life threatening.

 

 

 

So, the next time you drive past a field and see a fellow out on a tractor, mowing/raking /baling hay, you’ve little bit to think about.

A Hare Raising Proposition (Part One).

You want to talk about sustainable meat? For many, those last two words just don’t go together. Now it’s true that there is no sustainable industrial model for raising meat and it is arguable that even pasture raised poultry is not very sustainable. The two major factors in poultry is that most farmers are dependant on a hatchery for each new batch of chickens and to raise them to market weight, they are also dependant on off-farm inputs of grain. We are one of those farms, the demand for chicken is such that we will continue to order day old chicks and buy grain to supplement their pasture diet untill people REALLY care about sustainability. That’s why we also raise rabbit. Rabbits can subsist primarily on veggie/fruit scraps, grass, and weeds. The mother rabbit (the doe) raises the babies for you, they wean at 6-8 weeks and you only have to raise them another six weeks until they reach “fryer” size.

I first got interested in the idea of raising rabbit for meat back when I discovered Joel Salatin and his Polyface farm. I was instantly entranced with his “Salad Bar Beef” but his son Daniel’s pastured rabbit operation really got my wheels turning. After I read his book, You Can Farm, I made the decision to get some rabbits. At the time, we were living in a subdivision, on a half-acre lot that barely had room to grow a few tomatoes. In his book, Joel implores the reader to do something, no matter how little, if he/she truly desires to raise his/her own food.

So, after visiting the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, I chose the American Chincilla. I don’t really know why, I just liked what I read about it and I wanted to raise something other than New Zealands and Californians. I’m just different and I enjoy going against the grain. I found a breeder not too far away and we loaded up the kids to pay him a visit. We spoke with him a while and then we decided that we would get some infrastructure in place and then get a “breeding trio” (a male and two females). I definitely wanted to keep my rabbits on grass so, rather than going with the traditional rabbit cages like you find at Bass Equipment, I found some dog cages on Craigslist and then I put them out on our front lawn. The bars were close enough to keep them in, but allowed them to access the grass. Now we did have a few escapes and we quickly learned that if a rabbit can fit its head through so will the rest of it. We also found out that there is NOTHING a rabbit loves more than dandelions! A note on housing rabbits on grass, if you desire grass-fed rabbit raised on pasture, be prepared to move them every day. Rabbits are very susceptible to coccidiosis , which is why almost every commercial breeder keeps them in suspended cages. You also need to not let them return to a particular patch of ground for one year. It didn’t take too long before we ran out of lawn, so I screwed some metal roofing to the underside of our back deck,  lined the cages with some 1″ mesh and hung the cages up. I hated to keep them confined like that, but at least they were in bigger cages than what most people raise them in. We did keep feeding the grass, weeds, and greens from the garden. Our kids got a kick out of pulling weeds and then feeding them to our rabbits. If there is anything that one does not neglect, that would be to always have hay available to them. They need the dry rough matter to keep their gut healthy. Oh, and water too. Never let a bottle go dry.

Rabbits are really easy to raise and care for, but there was one aspect that I never dreamed would come into play. Breeding. Yep, breeding. You want to talk about frustrating. Who would’ve ever thought breeding  rabbits would be an issue? I scoured the internet, I call the breeder, I checked out books from the library and no matter what I tried, we couldn’t make any babies. It would take us nearly a year and a half before we finally got some babies. So the why, as to the trouble. Rabbits can come into heat a couple of time a month, and I had read that the act of mating can induce a female to come into heat. I understood that it would be a mistake to just leave the male and females together. First of all, it would be near impossible to know when the kits would be born and second, males are known to eat babies. So, I tried putting them together in the evening, in the morning and then morning followed by evening and vice versa. I just couldn’t catch a female in heat. There was one other problem, I later found out that a male rabbit (buck) will go temporarily sterile at temperatures above 80 degrees F. So who’d a thunk it?

Next time I’ll describe transitioning the rabbits to the farm, successful breeding, and maybe we’ll even touch on processing (well that could be a whole post on its own).