Wednesday, April 26, 2017

2017 Meat Birds - By The Numbers

If you dare to be honest when looking in the mirror, you see change.  I'm seeing more grey hair and wrinkles.  I'm not fretting about it.  People change over time. Change is one of the constants in life. Everyday we change.  So do all creatures. Today we'll do a post-mortem analysis of our meat birds like we always do to look at change over their 9 week lifespan.  Less than 10 weeks from this cute little bird:

To this old fellow:

It is truly hard to believe that less than 10 weeks have passed between those two photos.  We look at the numbers to determine if we can adjust anything to make the management of the birds better, more efficient, or more economical.  Even though we've learned a lot over the many times we've done this, it is humbling because we learn things each and every year.  Some things you can control.  Some things are out of your control.  Some things you have to mess up on to discover not to do that again.  I seem to find new and creative ways to mess up every year, but that provides opportunities to learn.

Here's the breakdown:

Date of Receipt:           02/15/2017
Date of Slaughter:      04/22/2017
Days old at Slaughter:               68
Weeks old at Slaughter:          9.7
Number of Birds Slaughtered:  66

Purchased Birds:
We purchased 75 meat birds at a cost of $2.49 per bird with a purchase price of $187.00.  They actually sent us 84 birds, as they usually send a few extra chicks to make up for losses during shipping.

Propane                  $  10.00
Bulbs                        $  14.00
Chicken tractor       $  54.00 (we are amortizing the tractor over 3 years)
Ice                            $    6.00
Ziploc bags              $     6.00
Feed                        $ 351.00  (24 bags of feed)
Total Cost:              $628.00

Losses: We lost 18 birds this year, resulting in a 21.43% mortality rate.  That seems pretty bad, but we lost 13 of those on one evening, 3/29/2017, with heavy rains and wind.

Cost per bird:                       $9.52
Cost per pound:                   $2.12
Feed consumed per bird:    18.56 pounds
Feed cost per bird:               $5.32
Feed cost per pound:           $0.29  ($14.24 divided by 50 pound bag)

Total pounds Cornish Cross carcasses harvested:        $296.20
Average pound per bird (66 birds):                                      4.49 lbs   

In conclusion:

Our cost per bird is higher than in past years, but largely that is due to the $2.49 per chick purchase price.  In the past we were buying 4-H chicks at $0.40 per bird. The purchase price is the largest component in the increased bird cost.  Feed cost is actually down about $3 per 50 pound bag compared to prior years.  The feed consumed per bird is down from last year, but still higher than the 14.89 pounds of feed consumed per bird record in 2013.

One thing that skews the numbers a bit is that about a month ago we lost 13 birds during the rain storm that each weighed a little better than 3 pounds.  The numbers would look better with those birds in the equation.  Obviously, if your birds die, you want them to die young - before they eat a bunch of feed.

As we always say each and every year, at a cost of $9.52 per bird, we can't compete with the chicken sold at the grocery store.  However, it is not the same product.  Our birds were raised and slaughtered differently.  The quality of their short life was markedly different (better) from the factory birds.  No antibiotics, no medicines, no hormones.  They saw sunshine, walked on green grass, and felt the wind on their wings.  I like to think they taste better, too!
It would not do for the consumer to know that the hamburger she is eating came from a steer who spent much of his life standing deep in his own excrement in a feedlot, helping to pollute the local streams. Or that the calf that yielded the veal cutlet on her plate spent its life in a box in which it did not have room to turn around.  -Wendell Berry

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Slowing Down and Taking Time To Observe

We lead such fast-paced lives as does most of 'modern' society.  There are always deadlines to meet, meetings to attend, and the constant stress of work takes its toll on your mind and soul.  We stay so busy that we often miss the beauty of God's creation.  It is right in front of us and in our haste to meet the next obligation, those beautiful things in nature are obscured.

I like to slow down in the evening or on the weekends and observe - really observe things around me that I might otherwise miss.  I captured a few things in photos below of things that jumped out at me.

7 “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; 8 or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. 9 Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? 10 In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind."  Job 12:7-10

This is some Rainbow Swiss Chard. The stems are bright red, dark maroon, hot pink, yellow and white.  As pretty as it is to look at, it is delicious and healthy to eat. I like planting it next to something green like kale for the contrast.  It lights up the garden like a neon sign!

Speaking of chard, while I was picking off some of the bottom leaves that were touching the ground and feeding to the cows, I observed a snail slowly making its way across the leaf.  Sometimes burdens of life may weigh us down, but at least we don't have to carry a big shell on our backs...

Back when I was farming in the early 2000's, I spotted a clump of Louisiana irises growing in the ditch in front of an old home site.  The ditch always had water in it and the irises were as happy as clams living there. The beauty of the flowers caught my eye and I got my shovel and scooped up a shovelful and brought home to plant in the ditch at our house.  Since then they have spread and spread.  The ditch at home is now filled with green foliage most of the year, but in the spring, they bloom with the most gorgeous flowers you've ever seen in your life!

What a beautiful flower!

As I was trellising our tomatoes in the garden using the Florida Weave technique, a dragonfly lit atop a t-post.  You could see right through his wings.  He was poised to take off and fly away quickly, but I caught him with my camera phone as it zoomed in on him.  It reminded me of a helicopter on an offshore helipad.

Finally. a lizard sat lazily sunning himself in a terra cotta pot   His body was green, but his eyes were a brilliant blue.

Each little flow’r that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

- Cecil F. Alexander 1848

Monday, April 24, 2017

Butcher Day - April 22, 2017

At exactly 9 weeks and 3 days old, our crop of Cornish Cross Meat birds were ready for butchering.  On a random sampling at 9 weeks old, their average weight was roughly 6 pounds.  On Friday evening, I lifted the wheels on the chicken tractor and slowly rolled the birds near the butchering site.  It is easy to have them nearby on butcher day so that you don't have to go get birds out in the pasture, and we've found that it is easier to set up all the butchering stations up the night before.

We've done this post in previous years, but perhaps someone new is following that hasn't seen it.  If so, this is for you!  This is the chicken tractor that is serving as the holding area.

Station 1: The Killing Cones

These re-purposed traffic cones serve as the perfect killing cone while the birds bleed out.  The rubber cone holds the birds tight to minimize bruising through any thrashing about.  We position catch basins under each cone to capture blood for the garden.  The chicken is placed, head-first, in the cone and a quick slice to the neck with a sharp knife yields of steady stream of blood and the chicken's heart pumps out all the blood in a couple of minutes.

Station 2: The Scalding Station:

This station is simply a propane powered crawfish boiling pot in which the water is heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you note on the pot, there is a thermometer, and we keep close tabs to ensure that the temperature doesn't deviate from 145 F. Any cooler and the feathers won't come off easily.  Any hotter and you risk cooking the bird.  We don't want to cook it - just scald it.

Station 3: Plucking 

With our nifty Whiz Bang Chicken Plucker (credit Herrick Kimball), we drop the scalded bird into the plucker, turn on the switch and spray the bird with water. With a whir and a spin, feathers begin being picked off the bird by rubber fingers. This device is a time saver!

Station 4: Evisceration Station

The bird, minus its feathers, are placed on a table where the head is pulled off and the feet are cut off.  Then the bird is gutted.  What's left is a perfectly beautiful carcass.

We cut all the gizzards in half and wash them up read good for bagging.  Tricia makes a dish called Gizzards and Rice that sounds awful, but tastes great.

Here are the livers of 66 birds, cleaned up, with the gall bladder carefully removed.  We like to cook chicken livers in butter in a case iron skilleet.

Finally, we cut the hearts in half and coax the congealed blood out of the hearts.  The hearts are washed and bagged.

Station 5: The Cooling Station:

Meat birds are hot birds.  They become even hotter after scalding.  It is important to cool them down.  Once the carcass is gutted and rinsed off, the birds go into cooling tanks while they go through rigor mortis.  We keep them covered by water and ensure that the water stays over all the carcasses as we don't want flies on the meat.

We add ice to the buckets and let them age for several hours.

Later in the afternoon, we cut up all the aged birds in an 8 piece cut up, place in a gallon-sized freezer bag and freeze.  We'll eat on these delicious birds all year long. Later this week, we'll do our annual comparison where we assess the average weight of the birds, how much feed they ate, mortality rate and other key metrics in comparison to prior years.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

When The Water Is Runnin'

In years past, I've posted about picking dewberries out of the ditch right across the street from our house.  Now that that land is being developed, scavenging for food from the ditch is gone now out of the question.  Or is it?  Maybe for berries it is, but there are other edible plants and creatures out there waiting in the ditch!  Things like crawfish!

As a sidenote, about 15 years ago I was farming rice and crawfishing for a living. Those were good times and I may dig up some pictures and post about that at some point, but back to our story. One thing about crawfish is that when rains come and the water is running, the crawfish follow the water.  As a crawfisherman, I would hate to see all the crawfish leave my ponds, go into the ditches and swim away...

For passersby, though, it is like manna from the sky.  All you have to do is go pick it up.  That is exactly what Benjamin and his friends down the road did for several days during recent rains.  They would go out with nets and buckets and scoop up hundreds of pounds of crawfish.  A sack of crawfish is roughly 35 pounds.  One day they caught 5 sacks, the next day 3 sacks, and so on and so on.  They would boil them up and feast on them at each others' houses.  On the final night they came to our house.  Here's some of the catch all washed up and ready for boiling:

With plenty of seasoning added to the water, along with lemons, onions, potatoes, corn on the cob. garlic, and the live crawfish were poured into the water boiling atop a propane burner.  I love the smell of crawfish boiling!

In mere minutes, the crawfish were ready to eat.  Benjamin and all of his crawfishing buddies sat down around a table covered with newspaper and the spicy, hot crawfish were poured on top of the table.  Everyone began peeling and eating.  Those guys can eat some crawfish!  We were thinking that we would have to freeze some, but by the end of the evening, there was not a single crawfish remaining.

The dewberries in the ditch across the street may be gone.  However, after a rain when the water is running right, you can drive down country roads and find an abundance of crawfish to pick up, bring home, and boil.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Stretch Out Your Wings and Fly!

Yesterday I was in a large home improvement store for a meeting and I looked up and saw a male cardinal flying around frantically in the store.  The poor fellow undoubtedly flew in when one of the doors opened and now was hopelessly trapped, flying from aisle to aisle looking for a way out.  That's how I feel when I have to go shopping, too, except I can find my way out through the exit.  I don't know if the cardinal found his way out.

Last Sunday when we drove back into the garage from church, there was a bird in our garage.  With two large overhead doors, you'd think he'd be able to find his way out.  He couldn't.  He was fooled by those darned windows!  He kept flying into one and Benjamin and I went and scooped him up.  He was just fine.

It was a little dove - certainly a cute little guy. Just like the cardinal in the big box store, he was trapped and just needed a little help - help we were glad to give him. We admired him for a bit.  I think he is a mourning dove.  In the mornings or late afternoons, you can hear them with their haunting sounds.  This little dove was in mourning after running into the window in the garage numerous times.  He's okay now, though.  Benjamin took him out of the garage and gave him a gentle toss and he was up, up, and away...

He flew up into the pear tree...  And a partridge mourning dove in a pear tree...  And then he was gone.  Unlike the cardinal trapped in the store, this guy had his freedom.  He stretched out his wings and flew away and never looked back.

It reminded me of Noah and the dove he sent out that never came back.

Genesis 8:8-12 James Version (KJV)

8 Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;

9 But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark.

10 And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark;

11 And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.

12 And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more.

Maybe there's a morale in the story about the cardinal and the mourning dove. There's life to be lived out there - life outside of the big box stores and cramped garages and even arks.  Freedom! Why, there are blue skies, fresh air, and trees adorned with leaves.  Sometimes you need a little help.  Sometimes you just need to stretch your wings out and fly.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

2017 Meat Birds - 9 Weeks Old

Tonight is the final Wednesday night installment of the Magnificent Meat Bird Weigh-in as this Saturday, the birds will be slaughtered.  We'll be setting up the different stations for Butcher Day 2017 on Friday night so that on Saturday morning, we can wake up and get things started.  I'll have to remember to sharpen the knives and purchase ice on Friday.  Friday afternoon they will receive their last meal as we want their digestive tract empty.  It makes butchering a lot cleaner.

Let's see what the scale says tonight.  Like last Wednesday, I picked up two random roosters and the first hen I saw.  Remember we are shooting for a 6 pound bird as that yields a 4 1/2 pound carcass.

Rooster #1

He weighed 6 pounds 12 ounces...  He is well past the weight we were shooting for.

Rooster #2:

He weighed 7 pounds 3 ounces.  I don't think we've ever had birds that broke the seven pound barrier before we butchered them.

The Hen:

While not exactly light, she felt  a good bit smaller when picking her up to place her on the scale.

She weighed 5 pounds 1 ounce.

So the roosters average about 7 pounds and the three birds together average about 6 pounds

Here are the results from Week 9:
*Week 9 2017:  6 pounds
*Week 9 2016:  6 pounds 5 ounces
*Week 9 2015:  5 pounds 1 ounces

To summarize, last week they weighed on average 5 pounds 2 ounces and this week 6 pounds. That means they gained almost a pound over the last week.   They are 5 ounces shy of where they were at this age last year, and about a pound heavier than what the 2015 birds weighed at this age.

They are ready for processing as they have hit our target weight.  Once we've butchered, we'll tally up all the detailed information that we always provide and will compare with previous years.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


I read a couple of interesting things about potatoes tonight.  First, potatoes are not mentioned in the Bible.  No french fries.  No baked potatoes.  Certainly no potato chips.  They say it is because potatoes are a New World thing.  Sir Walter Raleigh is credited with bringing potatoes (and tobacco) back to England with him after returning.  Others say that the Spanish beat him to the punch with both potatoes and tobacco.

We'll have potatoes in less than a month now.  The weather has been perfect for spuds with just the right amount of rain.  I planted potatoes on the high side of the garden and that helps, too.  A few years ago, we caught some untimely rains that caused many of the potatoes to rot in the ground. By the looks of it, we should have a bumper crop.  Benjamin was asking me when they would be ready to dig this evening.  He always likes digging them up.  They are like buried treasure.

We planted five rows in soil heavily amended with rotten leaves and composted chicken litter.  They were mulched with live oak leaves chopped up by the lawnmower.  That serves as a good barrier to keep weed growth down.  It also preserves soil moisture and a haven for earthworms.  Next year it will be part of the soil.

Potatoes are very commonplace and not much to look at, but I think the potato blossom is stunning.  and regal-looking.  Potato plants bloom toward the end of the growing season and that signals me to assemble my potato-digging crew.

It is said that the average American eats 126 pounds of potatoes each year.  That is a lot of potatoes!  It sounds like a lot at least.  I looked at the blog post from the 2016 harvest and read that we dug up 144 pounds of potatoes last year.  We'll weigh them again this year to see if we can beat that record.  This is a new variety of potato we're growing this year, so we'll have to wait to see if the yield is similar to last year.  L√Ęche pas la patate in Cajun French means "Don't drop the potato." I've heard it said to mean "Don't give up easily" or "Don't let go."  We're not going to give up and we won't let go...  At least until all the potatoes are dug up!
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