Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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First Rooster "Processed"

This past Saturday morning I was pleasantly surprised to have our daughter, Freya, come up to me and suggested that this weekend would be a good time to butcher the roosters and that she would like to help. I had decided a while ago that I would like to try my hand at processing our own birds. At first this notion was greeted with a low-grade horror and disbelief from members of the family. It's quite one thing to raise the birds and have them hauled off to a slaughterhouse only to return as neatly packaged chickens as if from the grocery store. It is quite another to have it done right here at home with no opportunity for us to deceive ourselves that the bird on the plate wasn't actually one of those that we had been feeding and petting out in the coop.

Having had a while for the concept to sink in, the family eventually got used to the idea that I wanted to slaughter them myself. The common phrase became, "Just don't do it while I'm around!" For these reasons it was surprising to me when our daughter decided that she wanted to participate directly. We had a busy day ahead of us so we decided to undertake the task on Sunday.

After lunch on Sunday we started gathering the supplies that we would need. I reviewed some chicken butchering instructions on the web and we set up a table out back with everything we would need. I constructed a "killing cone" out of sheet metal and attached it to a stake that I placed in a discrete location among our pine trees out of sight of both our house and our neighbor's. We put some water on the stove to be used for scalding and I headed out to select a rooster.

Our surplus roosters have been making a real nuisance of themselves for a while. Of course they are only doing what comes naturally, but their behavior has made it increasingly clear that we needed to cull the flock down to the proper male to female ratio. Our breed of chickens is normally happy with a proportion of 1 rooster for every 8 hens. Since our current population is 7 roosters for 13 hens this has led to lots of fighting, chasing and commotion as the roosters have competed for too few females.

The biggest problem of late has been the fact that the roosters are harassing the hens mercilessly. The roosters tend to hang around the exit of the hen house squabbling amongst themselves and waiting for a female to come along. Whenever a hen emerges from the building she is immediately pursued by all of the roosters and very roughly bred by most of them until she can escape back to the relative safety of the coop. Not having any hands, the roosters tend to grasp the feathers of the hen's head in their beaks to keep her still during the procedure. This generally results in feathers being yanked out and all of our hens are partially bald from the excessive and unwanted advances of so many males. During my daily visits to the coop, the sight of the long-suffering little hens reminds me that I need to do something to give them some relief.

I retrieved a rooster and we found that I had to make some adjustments to the killing cone due to the large size of the birds. When it was finally ready, I tried to persuade Freya that she probably shouldn't watch the actual killing. I had never done this before and was worried that it would be excessively unpleasant and upsetting, especially due to my inexperience. She insisted on watching and told me that I shouldn't "sell her short" by assuming that she couldn't handle it.

I went ahead with the deed and it went surprisingly smoothly and with very little distress for the bird or us. The killing cone did its job by holding the rooster securely and preventing any of the legendary commotion of "a chicken with it's head chopped off". The method that I used was to simply place the rooster upside-down in the cone with it's neck sticking out of the bottom. After one quick cut it was all over quickly.

We carried the bird back to the processing table and checked the temperature of the scalding bath. Aidan arrived at that point and seemed to handle the sight of the dead rooster more with curiosity than anything else. I noted to myself that all of this was much easier to handle emotionally as soon as the rooster was dead. I put Aidan to work by having him watch the timer for me as I scalded the bird to loosen the feathers for plucking. After that was completed, we immersed it in ice water to quickly cool it back down again.

I was concerned about how difficult the plucking would be having heard a number of people indicate that it was laborious. Freya and I sat down at the table and began plucking only to find that it was quite easy to do. It was somehow amazing to see that the bird emerging from beneath the feathers already looked just like one from the grocery store. I had originally planned to make a homemade chicken plucking device to assist in the job, but for this first bird it just seemed quicker and easier to pluck it by hand. Most likely that little project will wait until some point in the future when I have more birds to handle.

By the time the rooster was completely plucked, I admit that I was getting a little tired of the task. The rest of the process of cleaning the bird and preparing it for the freezer proved to be pretty simple. In seemingly no time, the children and I were admiring the final result and Freya said that she couldn't wait to show Janet how well we did.

I did learn one lesson that is apparent from the picture. Due to my inexperience, I removed too much of the skin from the upper breast as I was removing the rooster's crop. It's a minor defect and one I'm not likely to repeat now that I know better. I felt proud of myself for figuring out how to do my own butchering and especially proud of Freya for being so strong and helpful in the face of an unpleasant task.

A day later I find myself reflecting on the contributions of the chickens much in the same way that I did when I carried the first egg away from the coop. I feel greatly impressed by the very significant contribution to our table and livelihood that these birds are able to make. It is humbling somehow to realize that eventually every one of those birds and potentially thousands of their progeny will meet the same fate as the first, but not without first providing us with many thousands of eggs along the way.

While their contributions are less than voluntary, I feel they are worthy of considerable respect just the same. Looking at it that way, all of the resources and effort we have expended to build them a comfortable and healthy place to live seem much less like folly and much more like something that they heartily deserve in return for all that they provide to us.


Front Door For The Coop

One focus for this past weekend was finishing up the exterior of the chicken coop in preparation for installation of the sheet metal siding. The last item to be completed was the installation of a front door. This door opens into the central utility room between the two coops.

Among the things that we brought with us from our old house when we moved onto the farm was our old front door. The reason we did such an odd thing is that the door is a solid oak raised-panel door that I made using my woodworking tools in our garage. After putting all of that work into it, I wasn't willing to part with it. It spent most of the last year leaning up against the living room wall waiting for me to find time to install it.

Having finally installed the oak door in its rightful place, the door that came on the farmhouse was now free to be recycled into the chicken coop project. Once I had it mounted, I decided that it needed an awning roof to protect it from the rain.

The biggest trouble now is the fact that the new door has confused a couple of the roosters. Although they have been going in and out of the new chicken door (in the photograph on the end of the building) for some reason they have decided that they would rather wait for somebody to come along and open the big fancy front door.

Last night I was surprised to find them out after dark sitting on the ground in front of the door. The coyotes have recently become extremely noisy during their nightly hunts in the woods to the south of our farm. Had they noticed those roosters, they certainly would have made an easy and tasty meal. Luckily their farmer (aka "chicken doorman") came along in time to let them in!


Trudging Onward

When faced with a task that I am dreading or one that has become tiresome, I use a couple of strategies to keep myself from giving up. One of them is to just keep trudging onward. I just put my head down, focus on the things directly in front of me and just keep moving one step at a time.

The chicken coop construction project has become one of those kind of tasks. It has certainly taken more time and effort than I imagined when I started. It is finally getting to the point that it is taking shape and it is easy to imagine how nice it will be when finished. I just wish it were done already!

The list of things that I have yet to do is long indeed. Instead of becoming overwhelmed, I'm just focusing in the next step and ignoring the rest. As such, I took a couple of days off this week and completed two small mouthfuls of the great big pie. The first was the construction of chicken doors for the birds to get in and out of the coop. I built one on each end.

I had originally planned on building eight doors, but my neighbor thankfully reminded me of the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!) principle and I reduced the number to one per coop. The reason for the large number of doors in my first plan was because I intend to "pasture" the chickens by dividing their outdoor space into separate yards and controlling their access to give the ground time to recover. Now I am on to a simpler plan which will involve them exiting the coop into a "lane" similar to those used for cattle and I will set up a series of simple outdoor gates into the pastures. More on this later.

The second task that I completed was the closing and paneling of the soffits. It proved to be difficult because of the need to work over my head for much of the time. Now that it is finally done, the upper edge of the walls are now ready for installation of the metal siding. This will greatly cut down the cold air flow from outside and further reduce the noise of the roosters crowing in the early morning hours.

All of this struggle that I am going through to keep myself moving forward on the coop project reminds me of how I deal with the same problem when making a piece of complicated furniture (woodworking is another of my hobbies). It is very easy to give up on a project when faced with an intimidating task or just after I've discovered a mistake.

A philosophical approach that has really become key to allow me to keep moving forward is to adopt the attitude that making a table, or building a coop is a "past time" rather than a "task" to be completed. By focusing on the activity as something to enjoy rather than only looking at the final goal of the finished product, I find that I am much less likely to lose spirit and give up.

So now it's time to step away from the computer and go back to my coop building "hobby" and try to enjoy the next activity for today...the installation of the front door.
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