The skinny on active chickens

By Julia Bayly, Special to the BDN
Posted July 28, 2011, at 4:08 p.m.

There has been a lot in the news lately about the virtues of locally grown and produced food.

Subsistence as a “locavore” is not only good news for regional farmers, it’s also healthful, good for the environment and — if glossy gourmet magazines are to be believed — the hip and trendy way for urban foodies to fill their larders.

I jumped on the eat-locally hay wagon a few years ago with my flock of egg-laying chickens and have enjoyed a bounty of fresh eggs ever since.

So this year, following the example and success of my neighbors Shawn and Jen, I decided to kick things up the food chain a bit and raise a flock of meat chickens.

Frankly, it’s a bit surprising I’m not a vegetarian after the experience.

Just like my little egg gals, the meat chicks arrived at 2 days old as balls of yellow fluff, cute as the dickens and peeping up a storm.

Within a week, most of the resemblance to the egg flock, and much of the cuteness, was long gone.

To get the biggest bang for the buck and best use of time, today’s meat birds have been genetically altered to grow at a somewhat alarming rate. In fact, the variety of homegrown chickens we opted for reach harvestable maturity after 8-12 weeks.

This meant they outgrew the box in the garage rather quickly and left me looking for alternate housing for them.

Up the road at the neighbors’, the meat chickens were moved into a converted shed with a large fenced-in yard. The shed had plenty of room, windows, screens and freshly turned wood chips daily.

Here at Rusty Metal Farm, on the other hand, we had what I came to term the “FEMA temporary trailer chicken coop.”

Several wooden pallets on the ground, an old but perfectly good truck cap and plenty of fresh straw every other day did the trick.

The chickens would go under the cap at night, I could shut its tailgate door, and they were snug and secure until release the next day.

The setup was in the middle of a fenced-in yard, and because I hate the thought of any of my critters getting bored, I constructed several ramps, boxes and stands on which they played.

From that point on, it was a simple matter to keep them fed, watered and clean and to watch them grow — right up until last week, when they had a change of address from the yard to the freezer.

Since this is a family newspaper, I’ll spare the details of the two-day “harvest” during which four of us processed 30 chickens. Suffice it to say at the end of each day I was finding feathers in places no human being should have them. This was due largely to the fact that I was in charge of de-feathering the birds using a mechanical plucker.

That’s right — a mechanical plucker. A Nobel Prize-worthy gizmo operating off an electric motor that can render a bird featherless in a matter of seconds without bruising the meat.

Sadly, the same could not be said for my battered fingers.

Once processed, the finished products were cleaned, bagged and neatly arranged in the freezer, save for the half-dozen that were canned in Mason jars by my sister-in-law.

Organizations such as the Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine ( www.eatmainefoods.org) encourage residents to “shift toward a locally based food system that is economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable and healthy.”

For those who lack the space, time or desire for hands-on local production, the coalition lists the names and locations of growers around the state on its online food map.

And it feels kind of good knowing I am in some small way doing my part, even if it appears I have a lot to learn about chicken husbandry.

This marked the third year Shawn and Jen raised meat birds, and they have it down to a science, as evidenced by the plump, juicy birds they raised.

My birds? While I’m hoping for juicy; they are not so plump. As Jen pointed out, her chickens spent their days waddling outside, plopping down and exerting themselves only to extend their necks to peck at tasty morsels.

Meanwhile, down the road I had Planet Chicken Fitness going on.

Remember all those ramps, boxes and stands? Well, the chickens made full use of them from sunup to sundown.

All day they ran, they jumped, they climbed and chased each other around their yard. Their favorite game was jumping from the top of the truck cap onto its gate, which would bounce up and down several times before they leapt to the ground and did it all over again.

In other words, where Shawn and Jen had a palatial spa for chickens, I’d developed a fitness center. The end result was same type of birds, same ages, same food and equal food consumption, but easily half to double the size difference between the end products.

One group was ready for the freezer and the other for the next Olympics. In the end, it’s all good. I mean, if a bird’s life span is measured in weeks, why not make the most of it?

And if exercise and clean living mean smaller, less juicy and healthy poultry, hey — that’s what gravy and butter are for.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She may be reached by email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/07/28/news/aroostook/the-skinny-on-active-chickens/ printed on July 31, 2014