Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Life and Times of a R'Eisen Shine Farm Chicken

We thought that it's long overdue to explain more on our methods of raising and slaughtering our chickens. We are so glad that people love the taste as much as we do, and feel great about how we get that flavor with each batch. But that certainly doesn't happen without a lot of thought, care and research!

We base our methodology on Joel Salatin's recommendations. Joel is a farmer and author well known throughout the sustainable and organic food movement. If you've never heard or read any of his work, be sure to check it out! You can see some of what Joel and his associates do here:

Our chicks arrive through the mail, at only a few days old. The last thing a chick does before it hatches is consume the yolk in the egg. This allows the chick to be shipped fully fed and hydrated over a few days without dying. The post office calls our farm on the morning the chicks arrive and we rush over as quick as possible.

Once we get the little peepers home, we move them into a temperature monitored 'brooding pen'. Our version are plastic bins, with wood shavings and heat lamps. We immediately dip each chick's beak into water fortified with electrolytes. This teaches them to drink (sometimes they don't know how) and shows them where the water is located. The electrolytes revitalize our weary travelers and encourage eating. Then they usually head over to get a snack and get warmed up under the lights. We use an non-gmo feed, from Hiland Feeds- which we order in huge quantities with a network of other farmers to keep our costs more manageable. It's a very high quality feed, we blow through about 4,000 lbs of just poultry feed in 2 months.

In the first 2 days with each batch of chicks we check them every few hours, to make sure everyone is eating, drinking and moving around well. Wood shavings are freshly added to the pen each morning, chicks don't do well if they aren't kept dry and clean. We keep them with our rabbits, it's a little quieter there and we can better regulate the temperature. Chicks like it WARM- 90 plus degrees, especially in the first week.

After about a week and a half, the chicks have some feathers and are big enough to move out into the barn. We have a separate pen within our larger chicken pen, where we have lights suspended. We do this to keep our batches of chickens separated by age, and to keep on top of climate control. Week and a half chicks are still pretty sensitive, and often need lamps overnight. At this point, we add larger waterers, and more feeders to the pen. We check on the barn- chickens at least twice daily. Each time we check them, they get fresh water, more feed, and fresh wood shavings. Waterers and feeders are washed often, to prevent build of bacteria.
Once the chickens hit about 3 weeks of age, we move them into the wider chicken pen. Here they have more room to stretch, perch, and look out windows. Again, we increase their feed and water. At this point, unless the weather is really finicky, they don't need lamps. They start to really 'feather out', losing almost all of their baby-down and start to look like miniature full grown birds. They are switched over from a super-high protein feed to a medium high protein chicken grower, so they don't gain weight so quickly that they develop incorrectly. At this point, we introduce grass/clover from the field they will be moving to, and start giving them small quantities of garden waste (lettuces gone by, cabbage leaves etc). They also are given 'grit', small stones to help them digest their food. Chickens don't have teeth, they store grit in their crops to break down larger pieces of grain etc.

At 4ish weeks, once they are fully feathered, the chicks get a ride in the farm pick-up. We load everyone into the back (with the cap over the flat bed) and head out into the pasture. We use PVC moveable chicken pens (chicken tractors), that are staked down with step-in posts. The pens are partially covered by a tarp, to protect them from inclement weather- but have a nice open area for sunning and strutting. We include a much larger waterer, but mostly set their supplemental grain directly on the pasture land within the pen. We find that this encourages them to scratch around and look for pasture treats. Our pasture has clover, alfalfa, grasses, and of course the usual weeds and bugs. Each morning, we move the pens down the field, so the chickens get fresh pasture land. To prevent predator intrusions, we stake the pens down very firmly. We visit the chicks at least twice daily (in the heat it's sometimes 4 times a day!) to give fresh water and the feed. Chickens do require feed to keep them healthy, and get them to market size. Plus, they love it!

Freedom Rangers, the red heritage broiler we raise, take about 10 weeks to really hit a nice 5-6 lbs, but we will take them at about 8 weeks for a smaller but very flavorful bird. We haven't found a better tasting chicken then the Rangers, and we've found them to be very hearty stock. They do dress a bit smaller then the Cornish Cross (huge breasted and 6-8 lbs in 7 weeks), so we raise both.

We process birds weekly, on Fridays. The chickens set to be processed on Friday are not given any extra grain on Thursday afternoon. This helps their bodies clear out and use up the remaining feed, and makes for a much cleaner butchering. Early Friday morning, we set hay in the back of the farm pick up, and make sure the cap is on. We head out to the field, and try to catch the birds with minimal stress. Usually this means that I climb into the pen, catch the chickens and hand them to Kim to put in the truck. Many farms load their chickens into small cages, and let them sit in them overnight. We don't find this to be particularly compassionate, or really necessary. There is enough room in the back of the truck for all of the chickens to relax in the hay, away from the sights/sounds of the butchering as much as possible. Most of the time when I go to grab the next chicken up for processing, the flock is literally asleep in the back of the truck. Some research is starting to show that animals can release stress hormones during butchering, which can affect the taste of the meat. At very least, we think it's more pleasant for everyone involved if the chickens are kept as low stress as possible.

*slightly descriptive of butchering* We believe that the most compassionate way for a chicken to die is through a quick cut to the artery directly underneath the jaw line. The chickens are suspended upside down and lulled into a sleep-like state. Then, with a very, very sharp knife the chicken is dispatched. Once the chicken has bled out thoroughly, we remove the head and proceed to plucking. Contrary to many cartoons, we do not use an axe and tree stump and allow the chickens to run around without heads. This would be effective, but would cause the meat to need much more cleaning and have many more blemishes/bruises once plucked. We will spare you the details of plucking and evisceration. The chickens, once they look very similar to what you buy in the grocery store are put into an ice bath. We add apple cider vinegar to our ice tanks, it has anti-microbial properties and we believe it also could help tenderize the meat.

We believe our chickens are raised with compassion and dignity. If chickens can be happy, our flocks certainly seem to feel that emotion. They are often found snoozing in the sun, content and full. The more ambitious saunter about clucking and eating bugs. We have a great respect for our poultry, and we think it comes through in the taste!!

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