Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Notes From The Country

Raising Chicks 101 and a disclaimer.

The disclaimer is I am not a real farmer. I am a city girl at heart. I thought I could embrace true farm living because at one point that was my compelling dream. I envisioned raising organic beef, chickens, making cheese from my own goats' milk. Part of that dream pretty much went out the window when I saw a cow being shot and strung up outside my breakfast window across the pasture at my neighbors early one morning shortly after moving here. I didn't eat a steak for about a month after that. Then my body screamed for real iron. I decided to leave the raising of the non - vegetarian side of my diet to more seasoned, hardy farmers. I am grateful for them. I will, however, go through the work of raising and keeping chickens, for now, because I completely embrace my farm fresh eggs. I have loved every part of the process for more than 15 years- from buying day old chicks and caring for them, to the first quarter - sized egg they lay, to the variable egg shell colors, to the bright yellow yolks, to the fresh taste they impart to any egg dish to baking with them. My favorite simple summer morning includes going down to the chicken house and feeding the chickens with grain, scratch, and leftover appropriate food scraps. I collect eggs, thanking them as I leave, stop to pick some herbs and whatever fresh vegetables are ready in the garden. Then I make either an omelet, a scramble, or baked eggs...I'll share with you one of my favorite recipes later. Simple fresh food heaven. Homegrown and homemade.

As for raising chicks, well I'm sure there are 101 ways to accomplish this. This is the process I've become successful at through the years here. First things first. The nursery. Makes sense right? Just like babies, kittens, puppies, etc. they need everything ready for their arrival to make their transition less shocking. In this case, a metal horse feeder (yes I do have one hanging around, and no I'm not ready to talk about it), pine shavings, prepared chick starter feed, fresh water, and a heat lamp. I read a good deal about all these items, but discovered over time there is no one right way. Medicated or non medicated or mixed feed - I've tried them all and didn't really notice a difference in their health as they grew. As far as the heat lamp - yes they definitely need the warmth, but forget the thermometer, just observe them. If they are too cold they will huddle together right under, if they are too hot, they will  be at the far end of their container spread out. Animals are pretty instinctive. You just have to adjust for them.

Once you're ready for them, get your chicks. Mail order can become pretty complicated if you're only getting a few or want a certain breed - and I would caution not to buy 25 at once, which is often the minimum when ordering. They are tiny and adorable at first, but grow amazingly fast. They'll need space, food, and care, and cleaning. Three chickens not so much work...25, you might have to consider it a full time job and set up a roadside stand to sell your excess eggs. (I have had times where I've had 5 dozen eggs in the fridge.) I've done well buying chicks at our local ranch feed stores. You have one of those, no? This go around I did get a little crazy and bought a dozen. I've learned over time that I want them all the same age. When you introduce new chicks or smaller birds to established chickens, you might get to see another part of nature I've unwillingly observed over my years in the country. Animals are not always inherently kind to each other. Just sayin.
From day old to about two weeks old chicks basically eat, drink, and sleep.

Fyi...chickens do have to tilt their heads back when they drink water. They don't swallow as we do. They need a little assistance from gravity and let it trickle down their throats. And no, chickens won't drown in the rain. Don't get me started on turkeys though...

 They're quite amusing to observe. Every 10 minutes or so, in the middle of whatever they're doing, or wherever they are, they'll drop off...
   little narcoleptics

It's most fun when you're holding them. Give them five minutes and they'll drift  off to dreamland in your hands. So vulnerable. I often think about the little lives, the little heartbeats that are dependent on me.
The thing that trips me up every time, and makes me repeatedly wonder why I keep acquiring animals of any kind, whether farm animals or the indoor lovelies, is when they develop a sickness or disease. It destroys me. And over the years I've cried too many times to count over my chickens, roosters, ducks, goats, horse, you name it I've cried over it. This little Ameraucana chick as well as three others developed spraddle leg disease and curled toes. Basically, their little legs spread out to the side and they can't walk. And their toes curl up and they can't walk. If they can't walk they can't eat or drink and they die. This has only happened once over the years. (As people were advising me ring it's neck! and throw it in the pot, I called a vet and had her come and put my chicken to sleep. Don't laugh at me. I told you I'm not a real farmer.) So with this batch I saw the first chick struggling and in two days she was gone. Subsequently, I noticed two more starting to struggle.

Of course, being the internet lover I have become, I researched my little problem. Turns out, others in the world have encountered this problem and developed methods to cure and save these little lives, their future egg layers, and shared this valuable information with the rest of us. So during "Boston" week while others were sharing their internet knowledge to deliver maximum damage, I was using my browsing knowledge to save the lives of two chicks worth 3.50 each. Sometimes the contrasts in life are almost too emotionally overwhelming I can't rationally sort it out in my head.

I tried a few different methods, and finally arrived at the one that worked. Pipe cleaner splints. Stop laughing....I made little splints out of bent pipe cleaners and taped them to individual toes. This was for the curled toes. For the spraddle legs, I taped their legs so that they could walk but their legs wouldn't spread out to the sides. Now keep in mind chicks grow like weeds, which means they grow really fast, so while with this method they were able to walk somewhat, they grew so fast, that, with the help of my daughter, we had to carefully cut the tape off their toes and legs and replace it every day. By the end of the fourth day, the splints and tape gave their little bones enough growth support that they were able to walk perfectly! I had to do this to one more chick this week so three for three - success.

Moving on....let me introduce you. This is a Golden laced Wynadotte. The little chick above will look like this, below, when fully grown.

This scrawny little one is a New Hampshire Red and will look like this, below.

This little one is a Delaware, and will grow into this beauty.

Here is one of my Ameraucana chicks, which started out as this amazingly perfect little thing. And...

will grow into this

...which will produce perfect blue/green tinted eggs like this. Tell me that's not a miracle. I dare you. When my Dad would come to visit he didn't trust my brown and blue eggs. He wanted white. I had to tell him every time it was just the color of the shell, what was inside was the same....hmmm. There's always a lesson to be gleaned from nature.

Lastly, this little striped Barred Rock wonder will morph into  

...this. All the above chickens aside from the Ameraucanas will lay brown eggs. The white layers were absent the week I wanted to start my flock.

For now though, they are all healthy and growing at about 4 weeks old and are showing their true colors. (Do you realize how many of our sayings have originated from the farm?? I've discovered that since experimenting with the country life and have been amazed!) They have moved to their new permanent quarters in the chicken house. When I moved them two by two from the garage down to the chicken house, they put up a squawking, flapping fight, and as it happened, it was a calm, gorgeous, summer-like late afternoon, and halfway down, I stopped with each pair. As I became still they did as well. It was as if they felt the sun on their feathers for the first time and they were in awe. That's what I like to think anyway.

Here's what I will look forward to...of course these little chicks won't start laying until August or so, but they will lay for ...well my last flock produced for a good five years. That's what happens when you keep them out of the pot...and keep predators away. Don't get me started on that subject right now!

The following recipe is courtesy of Ina Garten aka Barefoot Contessa and her cookbook "Barefoot in Paris"

Herbed - Baked Eggs
serves 4

1/2 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp minced fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp minced fresh rosemary leaves
2 tbls minced fresh parsley
2 tbls freshly grated Parmesan cheese
12 extra large eggs
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tbls unsalted butter
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Toasted French Bread or brioche, for serving

Preheat broiler for 5 minutes and place the oven rack 6 inches below the heat.

Combine the garlic, thyme, rosemary, parsley, and Parmesan cheese and set aside. Carefully crack 3 eggs into each of 4 small bowls (you won't be baking with these) without breaking the yolks. (It's very important to have all the eggs ready to go before you start cooking.)

Place four individual gratin dishes on a baking sheet. Place 1 tbls of cream and 1/2 tbls of butter in each dish and place under the broiler for about 3 minutes, until hot and bubbly. Quickly, but carefully, pour 3 eggs into each gratin dish and sprinkle evenly with the herb mixture, then sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Place back under broiler for 5 to 6 minutes, until the whites of the eggs are almost cooked. (Rotate the baking sheet once if they aren't cooking evenly.) The eggs will continue to cook after you take them out of the oven. Allow to set for 60 seconds and serve hot with toasted bread.

Note: The above picture has mushrooms in it because I had some extra so I put them in. Yum.

p.s. I forgot one important part of my chick raising process. Naming the chicks. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between them as they grow, but we try anyway. Yet more proof I'm not a real farmer. You're never suppose to name your food. This is different though. Broilers and fryers they're not. In my "barnyard" they are useful, productive, fun, interesting fowl that, at least around here, live a long and happy life as individuals. ;)

pps. Happy May Day. It's snowing today. Again. It is May, no? Yup. About 12 inches so far. Maybe this will be the last...

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