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Archive for the ‘butchering’ Category

We recently encountered the opinion of someone named Mary Cuff, in a periodical called Modern Age, dismissing the family smallholding in these words:  “Only the most privileged people can afford to quit their jobs and their urban and suburban lifestyles to become gentleman farmers living off the land.”  We do not know how many people ‘living off the land’ Ms. Cuff is acquainted with, but relative to opinions like this one, we would like to share some numbers:

A chicken is supposed to eat one-quarter pound of feed per day.  I’m not sure whose chicken that would be, or what would be its breed, age, size, and position in life, but we’ll take it as a general rule that a laying hen eats something in the neighborhood of 4 oz. of something every day.  Ours do.  Generously, that means we need a few pounds short of 100 lb. of feed per bird per year — not a small amount.

Our own birds eat fermented or sprouted wheat, in addition to grass, bugs, and a bit of meat or milk for protein.   The grass, bugs, meat and milk are all free products of our land, things we have in abundance and need to feed to something. The wheat we buy, at $5/bu. (roughly 60 lb.).  That’s just over $.08/lb., so we may spend as much as $8/bird/year on feed.

Now, our birds lay at a rate of something like 50%, averaged over the year, or about 180 eggs/bird/year.  180 eggs is 15 dozen eggs — from a bird we pay about $8/year to feed.

That’s 15dozen pastured, cage-free, soy-free, corn-free, GMO-free eggs for just over $.50 per dozen.

The cost of buying the chick and raising it to laying age — about $7 — can be discounted, because when the hen gets too old to lay we’re going to make chicken pie, and feed the bones to the hogs.

Glory be to God for chickens and privileges.

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This is an annual event — three or four families gather to slaughter and preserve five hogs we’ve raised together.  It used to take three days.  Now, after 17 years of doing it, it takes us about ten hours.  The salting, of course, will be quite a bit longer, but the cuts are all done, and the lard is rendered.  The same bad jokes have been told, and new ones introduced into the script; pots of coffee and pans of cinnamon rolls consumed regardless of gory hands; two harvest meals prepared and eaten.  Now Barry can drain the waterline to the barn before the ground freezes too deep.

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Pigs are how a farm stores surplus nutrients, and how non-human-grade nutrients are converted to forms of more value to the farm.  In plain language, farms need pigs to eat the garbage and turn it into bacon and piglets.  For us, this means we need at least one or two pigs all year ’round, and usually we have at least four going.  We feed them out until they get big — sometimes really big — or until we have a new set started — and then we butcher.  Summer and fall, of course, generate the most surplus, dropping off as winter closes in, but never really drying up; there are always whey and buttermilk, rinds and hulls and seeds of things, carrot tops and potato water and so on.  The summer hogs went into freezers — ours and the monastery’s — in September/October.  Four little guys are bunking in the sty in the big barn now.  With the late calves weaning and the consequent cheese and butter making, they are having a hard time keeping up with all the buttermilk and whey.  The garden is still furnishing us with some bean haulms and perennial weeds to add greens to the pigs’ diet, and the poorer-grade hay we toss down to them is acceptable food before they turn it into bedding.

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Poultry serve multiple purposes on our farm, moving over pastures and gardens in (at the moment) four different flocks of from ten to thirty layers and a couple of roosters.  Some of the birds clean up after the grazing animals, but about half of them are pastured in garden areas where we want to apply some high-nitrogen fertilizer, clean up insect pests, scrap out weed seedlings, or flatten a grown-in-place mulch.  In the fall, though, when laying slows down, we cull non-layers so we don’t carry so many birds through the winter.  This isn’t done on the basis of age, at least not solely — some twenty of our birds are in their fifth year and still productive — but according to a physical examination that considers the space between their pelvic bones, the space between the pelvic bones and the keel bone, the color of their feet and legs, and the condition of their vent.

Two fingers or more space between the pelvic bones, four between pelvis and keel, bleached legs (not yellow), and a moist, open vent are what we are looking for, and three out of four of these will usually win that hen a reprieve from the hatchet.  Last week we went over all the birds; seventeen didn’t make the cut.  A very busy morning for three of us, and (for one) an afternoon with a couple of canners.  Only two birds had eggs in them, which we would consider a good score; the older birds we kept seem to be laying at about sixty percent, not bad for November.  We’ve had a lower rate of lay, but much better luck with longevity in our layers since we switched from commercial laying mash to fermented whole grains with no GM or soy; and our mix of whole grains, supplemented three or four times a week with milk or meat scraps, is much cheaper per pound than commercial feed.

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dry-cure beef

It always happens.  We get a perfect forecast for hanging beef, forties daytime, low thirties at night, so we kill and hang a couple of steers with a clear ten days of good weather, and immediately the moderate forecast is supplanted by a heatwave, the temperatures skyrocket into the fifties and we have to drop the sides into the hog-scalding trough and ice them down.  And you can’t hold beef wet that way for long, so we end up cutting and wrapping early.  Not that it spoils the beef to get it in the freezer after only a week of hanging, but it throws our plans off-schedule and supplants whatever we were going to have done in the intervening time.  Thank the Heavens that when the thermometer rose over Thanksgiving weekend we had captive assistants in the form of all our family, every one, and we got the beeves cut, wrapped and in the freezer in record time.  And we had steaks for dinner that night, fabulous with Jessi’s onion-bleu cheese sauce, baked potatoes drowned in butter and sour cream, and fresh greens from the high tunnel.

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Our unofficial survey of keepers of laying hens continues to return the same result: no one’s hens seem to be laying well.  People consistently report that they have not seen fifty percent lay (half as many eggs as hens, daily) in, oh, a long time, yes, it might be two or three years.  Not scientific data with a double blind, but anecdotal evidence at least, supporting our own experience that hens have  been laying unsatisfactorily for quite a while. We suspect GMO’s and soy in the feed, as both have been indicated in low fertility in lab animals.   In the interim we have tried a number of tactics to increase production, including: demolishing our old scrap wood-and-recycled tin shed and replacing it with a dry, clean (relatively), airy and light shed with adequate, not to say ample, space for all our birds; trying new breeds said to be better foragers; feeding more, feeding other, feeding oftener.  We have carried them warm water on cold mornings and set a timer on their light so they had an extra three hours of sunlight in the winter.  None of these tactics has significantly altered the basic outcome, that, while we get a reasonable number of eggs, approaching fifty percent lay, for a few weeks in the early summer, by mid-summer the rate of production has dropped off significantly, and by October it is almost non-existent.

Numbers are not official but a rough estimate says that there are rising sixty hens and about seven roosters sleeping in the hen house every night and showing up for scratch and layer mash at mealtimes.  At 2 oz. of feed per animal per day — half a hen’s ration, with the other half available in the form of grass, clover, bugs, worms, and undigested grain from the pigs’ manure — or about fifty pounds of feed a week, that means we are spending something in the neighborhood of fifteen dollars a week on chicken feed, and all we have to show for it is a couple of dozen eggs.  Free-range eggs at seven-fifty a dozen is too dear a bargain, no matter how good they are.

Consequently, we are on a campaign to overhaul our chicken department, and it’s about time. Who was it said, “The best revenge is revenge”?  Fifteen assorted hens were decommissioned this morning.  Our selection process was simple:  as each hen exited the little chicken door this morning, we examined her for signs which should indicate whether or not she is laying.  These you can look up for yourself, and if you look up more than one source you may even find contradictory advice, as we have in the past, such as that a hen which is laying will be scruffy and have a dry, scaly comb, or, conversely, hens which are presently making eggs are smooth-feathered, glossy, and have red, full, moist combs.   We find this sort of research strangely unhelpful, and will tell you here that while we cannot from our own experience inform you whether either piece of information is true, we can say that we get a fairly high average of eggless birds if we cull for hens with vents small and puckered, not full and moist; pubic bones close together (less than two average fingers’ width); legs bright yellow rather than bleached — but of course this is not helpful with black-legged birds like the Australorps.

It was no trick at all to collect fifteen or so hens of the above description.  We brought them up in the old wooden hen crate and dispatched them with a big cleaver, dunked them in a canner of one-hundred forty-five degree water with a drop of detergent in it, and tossed them in the picker the boys built two years ago, a wonderful machine, not fancy, but saves us about fifteen minutes a bird because they come out almost perfectly clean in about ten seconds and we can gut them and cut their feet off in another five or so

.  We are determined to reduce the flock to a couple dozen of the youngest birds and three roosters.  When this is done we will take a time when they are all out foraging and thoroughly clean the hen house, whitewash it inside, scatter half a bale of cedar shavings on the floor, and cover the windows for the winter with six-mil plastic sheeting.  We will order expensive, GMO- and soy-free chicken feed, and barley for sprouting, and perhaps install a sound system in the hen house and pipe in classical music.   Bach seems appropriate, somehow.

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Sunday, February 24:

Yesterday was the Day of Destiny for the two pigs up at Barry’s.  They were two of the four we got from F., and they hung at two-hundred thirty and two-hundred fifty pounds, split.  The guys got them on hooks in about three hours on Friday afternoon; on Saturday they started around seven o’clock, and with three of the Fallon boys had both hogs cut and wrapped by three o’clock.  The sample sausage that Barry brought in and fried was of surpassing excellence; tonight we will grill pork chops.

The hams and belly from the black hog the boys killed last week have been brining for a week in a black pepper/brown sugar cure.   To hold them at forty degrees we put them out in the cave on the east side of the house where we store pumpkins, winter squash, and potatoes.  Three times the bacons were brought in, massaged, turned in their brine and put back out in the cave.  The hams require a week longer in the cure, and only had to be checked to make sure the brine wasn’t turning ropy, a sign that bacteria have taken hold.  Today we took the bacons from the brine and washed them; later we will set up a fifty-five gallon drum and smoke the belly for seven or eight hours.  Not wanting to wait that long for a taste, though, we cut a few rashers after Mass and fried them up for breakfast; they were delicious.

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