Saturday, October 24, 2015

Things I learned on the farm

Image result for straight run chickens

# Chickens are OK after all.

Let me say right now that I do not like chickens. It has to do with my relationship with them as a child...they were ubiquitous. I did not like eating eggs, so there was no attraction. I did not like eating their meat, either, which is linked to the fact that we butchered our own and the smell just got to me. But we made money with the critters, but I came to believe any meaningful farming enterprise had to include them (Ag Ec 6 truth).

The cycle began in the early spring of each year. We purchased 50 straight run chicks from Hutchinson’s Feed Store. Straight run means there were a mixture of males and females, which made them less expensive. As you might expect, females (pullets) were more desirable, so we probably got more males, (cockerels) than one might like. But that was ok because we would hustle them off to market in six to eight weeks for some quick money.

There were three chicken houses on the farm when Ray and Dorothy bought it. Two were small, probably 8 x 10 and the third was much larger, maybe 10 x 20. The three coops were adjacent to each other, in fact, one smaller one was connected to the largest one. The single house, we used as a brooder.

The brooder house had electricity so a heat lamp or two could be suspended from the low ceiling. There were quart jar waterers that consisted of a special lid screwed on so that when inverted it gave a nice source for thirsty chicks. There were several feeders that consisted of little galvanized troughs with guards covering them so the birds could not walk in them. It was a chicken nursery.

If chicks survived the cold nights and predators (cats, rats, racoon) they grew quickly and could be moved to a range shelter. Pullets were identified and put with the layers already in production while the cockerels were either sent to market as broilers or were saved for caponization destined for a 4-H project and ultimately for dinner tables at Thanksgiving or Christmas. We always had capon for those two holidays until we quit raising neutered birds. I have to admit capon breast meat tasted super good.

I learned what caponization meant from 4-H since each June the County Agricultural Agent would come to the farm, set up his operating table and extract the two tiny testicles located inside the body just under and behind the folded wing. It got to the place where we would first watch, then perform the operation. These birds grew large and produced great meat. They did not crow nor did they look like a rooster. They were Capons.

The pullets matured into laying hens first laying tiny eggs soon followed by large a day, every day...well, until they went through a molt or resting phase after about a year. When they began to molt we called them clucks because they became mean and nasty until they began to produce again.

Our layer setup was rudimentary...with makeshift laying boxes fashioned out of the managers in the former horse side of the barn. They were dark...and deep. So, when you gathered eggs you could not see what was in the nest...eggs, chicken setting on eggs or other. It was not uncommon for a layer to be on the nest and a nice chicken would allow you to slip your hand under her to pull the eggs out one at a time. Other birds, clucks, might peck your hand. Did I say I disliked chickens?

But we managed to process eggs by washing and weighing when necessary and taking them to market; fifty cents a dozen to Mother’s friends. We got to keep the money. And at Thanksgiving, we butchered capons and sold them.  I will spare you the butchering process, but it too was a reason I disliked our flock of Rhode Island Reds.

Chicken tastes better to me today. The smell of wet feathers has faded from my memory and I do like eggs today...hard boiled (deviled is best) and Aleene’s special scramble.

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