Country Living Series

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A giant experiment

In the past, whenever we wanted to raise some chickens for the freezer, we opted for Cornish Crosses. This hybrid bird is bred to gain weight and size with a speed awesome to behold.

The trouble is, these birds are freaky. Their bodies can't withstand the speed of their weight gain, and if you don't butcher them at about eight weeks, they either dislocate or break legs, or their organs start shutting down.

Plus -- and this is important when it comes to food sustainability -- they can't be bred. Don looked into what kind of "cross" a Cornish Cross is, and let's just say their lineage is complex and precise and not effectively reproducible on a homestead without a lot of dedicated work.

We've butchered "dual-purpose" chickens such as Rhode Island Reds, etc., and frankly the result is disappointing -- too small, not much meat, etc.

So -- what are the alternatives when it comes to meat chickens?

Last year we decided to get serious about this question, and looked into a breed called Jersey Giants.

These are heritage chickens who used to be the industry standard for meat birds until the fast-growing (freaky weird) Cornish Crosses supplanted them. Roosters average thirteen pounds, hens average eleven. They're decent egg-layers, extremely docile (they'd better be, at that size!), cold-hardy, and go broody (although the hens are so large they sometimes break the eggs).

According to the Wikipedia article, "The Jersey Giant was created by John and Thomas Black; with the intent of replacing the turkey, the kind of poultry used primarily for meat at the time."

Altogether they sound like an excellent and sustainable source for chicken meat without the weird freakishness of Cornish Crosses. So earlier this week we ordered fifteen birds -- 10 pullets and 5 straight-run (unsexed) chicks, which hopefully will include some roosters. They're due to arrive in early June. We don't intend to butcher many (if any) at first, but instead will start incubating eggs and establishing a flock before putting anyone in the freezer.

I'm excited about this new poultry venture. If it works out, we may transition solely to Jersey Giants and let our current flock die out from attrition.

If anyone has experience with these critters, I'd be interested in hearing your perspective!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A calf for Raven

I've been watching Raven carefully for her impending birth. Yesterday morning she tried to make a dash for it -- jumping over the fence into the woods -- which isn't unusual for a cow who really wants to be alone to birth her baby. So we closed her into the barn, to her great annoyance.

This morning when I went out to feed, Raven was restless. She wandered all over the barn -- including getting in the way as I was pitchforking hay into the feed bins -- kept stamping her back feet, and was lashing her tail. All classic signs of very early labor.

I checked on her every fifteen or twenty minutes after that. Sure enough, around 10 am, she was in active labor, straining with an arched back.

She frequently laid down and rested for a few moments between contractions.

Notice her preoccupied, inward-facing expression. She's not paying attention to me -- she's paying attention to her body.

As strong contractions hit, she would heave over on her side, groaning and straining.

You can see the little front hooves making an appearance. They came and went a few times.

Finally the tip of the nose and mouth was visible.

With a mighty heave, Raven pushed out the head and forequarters.

Even while still half-born, the little calf was sneezing fluids from its nose and even shaking its head.

One last solid push, and the calf was out.

Within seconds, Raven was on her feet and licking.

I caught a glimpse of the genitals -- another boy! Heavens, that makes four little bull calves so far this spring.

He's a strong little guy, and started struggling to his feet within minutes. (Sorry for the blurry photos, it was kind of dim in the barn.)

The calf is chestnut-brown. For no particular reason I named him Curly.

It didn't take Curly long to figure out which end of mama was which, although of course he got a few false starts.

Raven is an experienced mama, calm and attentive.

Other critters came and went, peeking at the excitement through the feedbox slats and mooing in sympathy.

While Raven took a much-deserved rest, little knock-kneed Curly watches a chicken.

He's a strong nurser, this boy!

One thing's for certain -- after the harsh quasi-blizzard we had two days ago, today couldn't have been more glorious -- sunny and warm. Good birthing weather!

By evening everything was quiet and calm once again.

A quartet of little boys so far. Get ready for rowdiness!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

April showers bring May flowers....

...but what do April blizzards bring?

Twice this month we've woken up to snow.

Not a lot of snow, it's true, but enough to remind us winter hasn't quite lost its grip yet.

I took these photos early in the morning, and when the rest of the family woke up, they couldn't believe their eyes.

Here's our April flowers, looking cold and miserable.

This bluebird doesn't look too pleased either.

The snow melted off by afternoon, and we had a few days of spring. Then yesterday winter came roaring back again in what virtually amounted to a blizzard, with 40 mph winds and heavy wet snow.

Old Major braved the wind and snow to visit the yard, then hurried (as fast as his ancient legs could carry him) back to the woodstove.

It looked like December, not April.

Our brave little patch of daffodils withstood the onslaught.

The snow melted off soon enough, but the day was bitterly cold with howling winds, and periodic showers of sleet or snow would pass through. This photo was taken in late afternoon, with a bleary sun lighting up a distant snow shower.

Then this morning... sunny and calm. Go figure.

The daffodils looked much happier.

So did the beasties. Yesterday they were all huddled under the awning or in the barn. Today they basked in the sunshine. This is Hector and Ninja, who have become great buddies.

And the robins looked perky and ready to nest.

So what do April blizzards bring? Hopefully a warm May!