Monday, September 15, 2014

To Chicken or Not to Chicken, That is the Question

It has been four months since we picked up our box of tiny baby chicks at the post office.  We have tried a lot of new things since moving from the suburbs to a rural landscape.  Some of which were duds and some of which we would continue to do no matter where we lived.  Chickens fall into the latter category.  We love them.

We started with 26 chickens that were mail ordered from Dunlap Hatchery.  I found this company through a backyard chicken book and was really happy with their service and quality of chickens.  Every time we go to the post office, E asks if we are getting chickens.  We are definitely turning our kiddos into farm children.  15 of the chickens were straight run (mixed male/female) White Cornish Cross, used for broilers (chickens you eat, 5 of the chickens were pullet (females only) Barred Plymouth Rocks and 6 of the chickens were pullet Black Astralorps.  The Black Astralorps are especially beautiful with green feathers in their undercoats.  The pullets are all egg layers.

Barred Plymouth Rocks and Black Astralorps
9 weeks after we got the White Cornish Cross chickens, we took them to a nearby Amish farm to be butchered.  Andy was (of course) out of town on the day of the slaughter so I had to catch and cram 15 chickens into cages in the back of my mini van.  I don't think Honda had chicken transport in mind when it designed its' lay-flat seats.

For this unsavory task, I put on crappy clothes incase I got some... ahem, crap on my clothes as well as my Bog boots and work gloves.  I had originally planned to feed the chickens in the morning and quickly grab them as they unsuspectingly gobbled up their food.  Thankfully, my farming resource friend told me not to feed them 12 hours before butchering to help keep their insides cleaner.  So, though they were not distracted with food, the broilers are pretty dumb so I was able to grab up the first 5 very quickly.  The next 5 got a bit smarter and came after a bit of chase.  By now, the egg layers were smart enough to group up in a corner, prepared to attack as a group if necessary.  The last 5 broilers proved a bit tricky, especially because I was putting them in a cage with a tricky lid that I couldn't get closed (yes, at one point, I had a chicken escape and bounce around the car a bit).  The last chicken I had to grab was a larger rooster (the roosters were obvious compared to pullets as they were about a pound heavier) and proved to be my biggest fear when starting this task.  I finally got him in but for a bit wondered if I would have to break its' neck myself just to get the damn thing in the car.  Thankfully, on this occasion I was spared from committing murder.

The Amish family did a fantastic job and had my chickens slaughtered, cleaned and bagged by 4 pm that afternoon.  The total cost for 15 chickens was $29.10.  The very kind father of the family made me take my 90 cents change, though I proclaimed several times it was unnecessary.

We have eaten 2 of the chickens so far and they are delicious.  I am not super particular about buying "farm-raised", "free-range", etc because those terms can be very broad but let me say,  it is really nice eating food that you know how it lived and what it ate.

As far as cost breakdown of these chickens, here is a pretty good estimate of how much each cost by the end:

Price per chicken from Dunlap (plus vaccine)- $2.05
Price of shipping (divided by 26)-$0.61
Feed costs per chicken (this is the hardest thing to track so this is an estimate)-$2
Slaughter fee-$1.74

Total per chicken- $6.40

So, we really aren't saving any money raising them ourselves but it is also not really any more expensive then buying from the store- especially if you look at price of "free-range" chickens which is what they really are.  FYI-I did not put in the costs of equipment or bedding in the per chicken price since theses are start-up costs and will be minimal each year.  If you want to know what kind of equipment you need to start up, check back to our first chicken post.  Bottom Line:  We definitely plan to order more broilers in the spring.

Once the broilers cleared out of the chicken house, the egg layers were able to really stretch out.  They have such a personality compared to the broilers.  They are very active, jumping and "flying" around and are more skittish around people.  One of the biggest surprises after the broilers were slaughtered was how slowly we went through food all the sudden.  The 26 chickens would go though 2 troughs a day; 11 egg layers go through 1 every day or two.

Andy built a perch for sleeping and nesting boxes.  You don't need a nesting box for every bird or they will just sit in them all the time so 1 per every 3 or 4 is enough.  Andy cut the lids of 5 gallon buckets and attached them to a stand for quick, easy and free nesting boxes.

After building the perches, Andy picked up each bird and set them on the perch.

It took a few nights, but finally all of them found a perch.

Andy also built a platform for the waterer to keep the bedding out of the water.  It is scrap wood with chicken wire stretched over top and keeps the water a couple of inches off the ground.  Another option is hanging the waterer from the ceiling.

The chickens love getting out of their house to so some pecking around the property.  At first, only a few birds would come out at a time and we had some issues with Murphy, our dog trying to herd them.  Back to back nights ended up with one chicken short after a nightly head count.  After not finding the missing bird on night one, we called it our first loss, assuming it had wandered off or would be meet death by raccoon over night.  On the second day, head count was down to 9 and I was DETERMINED to find this chicken!  What do you yell when looking for chickens?  Ridiculous things like, "here chicken", "come here lady", "Come, blackie" (we have, at the point had yet to name them and the missing two were the Black Astralorps).  E came to the rescue, looking in some nearby day lilies finding BOTH missing chickens huddled in a corner on top of each other.

Now the chickens are much bolder, sometimes traveling all the way up to the house, other times venturing to the horse pasture or into the barn.

You know when an eagle is flying around because all the sudden you will notice the chickens run/fly back into their house very quickly.

E and F love the chickens and help with feeding them and filling their water tank and take turns terrorizing them trying to pick them up.

E has adopted the runt of the litter and named her "Jello".  One day, E brought Jello all the way to the garden beds where I was working to tell me Murphy was bothering her.  Poor Jello looked helpless, yet resigned in E's arms.

Now Andy and I frequently realize we are calling this silly chicken Jello.

No eggs as of yet but we expect them anytime.  One question I have been asked is why we have all females and if we need a rooster to get eggs.  The only purpose of a rooster is to fertilize eggs; female chickens will lay eggs no matter what (just like human females) but the eggs will only turn into chicks if they are fertilized by a male.  We don't want to deal with hatching our own chicks because we would need more equipment and then you have to worry about vaccinating them yourself (chicks are vaccinated for Marek's disease with is a highly contagious viral disease in chickens).

Even without getting the benefits of the eggs yet, we love having the chickens.  It is so satisfying to see them around the yard and they are very low maintenance.  As far as cost per bird, this is harder to figure out since they don't have a set "end of life" date.  Before calculating feed costs, they would be $3.30 each.  I would estimate another $3 per bird of feeding costs so far so about $6.30 each.  Seems like a lot since they haven't started producing yet, but if you think ahead, during summer months we should get 11 eggs a day and probably 4-5 a day during winter months.  So, similarly to the broilers were probably are just breaking even with our cost verses just buying from the store but I have been told that there is nothing better than fresh farm eggs so I think it will be worth it.

So, back to my original question.  TO CHICKEN!  One day, Andy and I will have moved to a city somewhere and have chickens roaming our rooftop- that's how much we enjoy this little hobby!

**You can get salmonella from handling live chickens so make sure you wash your hands after holding them!

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