My nieces and my sister visited me in early April to drop off our new baby chicks. My niece Ava and her preschool class incubated the eggs from a local farm in Zionsville, IN. These chicks were second-chance chicks for Ava's class. The first set of eggs they incubated never hatched due to a problem with maintaining the temperature of the incubator. Sad for preschoolers, but it gave the instructor a chance to talk about the circle of life with the students, a theme common to farming. My initial motivation for taking the chicks from the preschool class was more for the privilege to be the aunt that's taking care of my nieces chickens. I mean how great would it be to have my nieces visiting in a few months to enjoy omelets and see how the chicks develop over time.
Looking back on it now, maybe I should have been a little more questioning when my sister told me they were Rhode Island Red Chickens. The chickens are black and white and Rhode Island Reds are traditionally rust colored and brownish. We put them in our unfinished basement in a dog kennel with a light to keep them warm. A little doll rod hung inside for them to hang out on. We were so excited the first time they perched! We soon grew tired of cleaning their small home every other day. They grow so quickly! They had pretty much lost all their fluff before we moved them outside to our diy chicken tractor.
Elliot gathered wood that the previous owners had left around the property. He used the wood and some emt tubing, from an old urban high tunnel he had built last season, to make the frame. We covered the structure with chicken wire we had around and twisty ties to fasten. I think the only thing we spent $ on in the beginning were the twisty ties and the wheels. We believe in the philosophy of thrifty farming.
We weren't sure about what to do about the roof. Elliot put a simple tarp on top, but it soon disintegrated once the bad weather set in. Our goal was to have a structure that was easy for one person to move. That was possible with the tarp, but just wasn't going to work for any other durable roof material. We decided to buy a piece of corrugated roofing to attach to the top. It's not quite light enough for one person anymore, but it's not really an issue, since we're usually home or a friendly roommate can help with a move.
The chicken tractor was put inside our electric fence as an extra layer of protection from predators, but mostly to utilize our chickens awesome fertilizing capabilities. Inside the fence is a small mixed fruit tree orchard, with a large field behind for future crops, and a line of berries and grapes along the edge. From our porch swing at the back of the house we can see where the chicken tractor has been. The grass is more green where the tractor has been.
By late October we realized we had a rooster problem. I'm not sure if it was the Bloomington Birdbrains Facebook group or from a friend that I had heard that too many roosters can inhibit egg production. Our hens weren't laying at 8 months. A few months prior I had the opportunity to work with Josh and Laura Beth Engenolf of WE Farm. They raise poultry for their Grass-fed Meat CSA they offer every year. I needed to learn how to process our roosters, so when their Intern Elisia said they were looking for help, I excitedly said yes yes! WE Farm doesn't have the capability to process a lot of chickens on their farms, so they rent out the outdoor CPU (Chicken Processing Unit) at Maple Valley Farm. I just love our farming community and how collaborative we are. Maple Valley charges a reasonable price per bird and in exchange WE Farm gets to use their nice stainless tables, scalder, and plucker, all outdoors, which makes for easy cleanup and a nice day with new friends.
I was surprised that the culling part wasn't as difficult as the evisceration. Later on, Elliot and I realized it's much easier to cull another's chickens than your own that you've raised and gotten to know. We fashioned our own "killing cone" to be similar to Maple Valley Farm. Big enough to hold a large chicken, but a short enough bottom to pull a chicken neck through. It's amazing what a person starts to acquire over the years, we just happened to have some aluminum sheeting around, so we just had to buy some rivets to fasten it together. We decided to attach the cone to the back of our tall hops trellis. We knew we wanted to use the blood for crops and it's just easier to pour it right there into the soil that will feed our hops.
Technically, culling a chicken is a lot easier than evisceration. To cull a chicken, you just need to find the jaw line and cut the arteries on both sides just below (they're upside down at this point) and life leaves them in about a minute. We have a sad moment. Some people don't name their animals, we do somewhat, when a particular animal's behavior gives us a reason to. I'm okay with having feelings for them and feeling sad. I think I would be more worried if I took their life without a little hurt in my heart. We thank them for their gift at our table and move quickly before the early winter night falls.
We have a few friends helping us for our first time. I set up tables next to the garage with tarps on top and our roommate Matt wheeled out our grill for our make-shift scalding pot. We bough a few nice knives from Ace Pawn Shop and used a simple camping cooler with cold water to hold the finished chickens before bagging.
While most farmers will not feed their chickens prior to culling, we decided to let them free range. That decision was at first practical, but it also made it easier to find their crop and cut in out, which is sometimes hard to differentiate from fat if it's not full of seeds.