How Many Meals Can You Get From One Chicken?

Several customers have requested help figuring out how to use a whole chicken without feeding part of it to the dog.  This is more of an issue for singles and empty-nesters than for parents of hungry teens.  I would like this to be a regular feature but I’ll get started simply.  Forgive me if I go too fast.  Feel free to ask for more detail in the comments.

We try to get three meals out of a chicken for the six people in our house.  Most commonly we thaw the chicken well, mix melted butter, garlic, salt and pepper, give the chicken a good coating of the mixture inside and out, place most of a quartered onion in the vent hole and the remainder in the flap at the neck.  We place the bird in a cake pan with the breast up and bake at 350 for about 15 minutes per pound.  As the bird bakes, the breast will brown.  My youngest son likes flaky skin but you can get carried away.  When it’s brown enough for your taste, cover the breast with a tent of aluminum foil until it is finished.  We usually fight over the leg quarters with the evening meal.  The girls eat a bit of the breast too.

After supper we cut off the remaining breast meat for use in another meal and place the carcass in a stewpot with half an onion, a few carrots, a bit of celery and a splash of vinegar.  We usually let this stew for at least 24 hours helping drain the bones of all minerals (see Susan Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions.)  Then we separate the broth from the meat and bones.  We sometimes stop here and just can the broth which you can use for anything.  More often we add the meat back in, add a freshly chopped half of onion, a few carrots and a few stalks of celery along with a few spices.  We allow this to boil for around 30 minutes while we make noodles.

You’re not done with those chicken bones!  When they are finished boiling they will be soft and crumbly rather than brittle.  Soft bones are no longer a choking hazard for the dog or pigs, the cat will love them or they will compost quickly.  You can still find uses for them even when you’re finished eating…there is no waste.

By doing this we can feed six people at least three times, usually with a bit of leftover chicken soup for the pigs.  This kind of use makes a $15.00 chicken easy to swallow.  If you picked the bones clean at the first meal (as sometimes happens) you should still be able to make a good broth out of the carcass.  If nothing else, you can use the broth to make the best mashed potatoes you have ever eaten.

Now, I think we’re doing a good job being frugal with the bird but my sister can do even better.  She’ll be publishing a series here on how to really stretch a chicken.  I’m looking forward to it…even if I’m not a big fan of mayonnaise.

600 Birds Later…

We processed our 600th bird with our Featherman equipment.  We did 56 birds in a little under an hour with just two adults early Sunday morning.  I was kill/scald/pluck/head and feet removal…as usual.  My wife hung them on the shackles and eviscerated, inspected and placed in the pink chill water.  Our kids woke up and joined us when there were a few birds left.  I was happy to see this pace though we haven’t broken any records.  In Pastured Poultry Profits, Salatin says he did 150 birds in 2.5 hours with his wife and young son helping.  I think that’s doable, we just aren’t quite there yet.

We need about an hour to scrub and sterilize the work area.  We need an hour to process 60 birds.  We need an hour to clean up and compost.  Then we need about 2.5 hours per 60 birds to package them because I had so many cut-ups.  Yikes!

The packaging process is the worst.  It’s a big chunk of the reason I need $3 per pound tending toward raising the price.  Darby reminded me, “You may as well do nothing for nothing as something for nothing”.  Something has to change on the packaging front.  Something has to change.  A label printer would save a few seconds and a bit of frustration.  Working to get a good scald would save a bit of time cleaning up birds before packaging.  Otherwise, it just takes time to cut and bag them.

I stand by the Featherman review I published earlier.  The kill cones are great.  The scalder does a good job but I have found the burner to be a bit fiddly.  The roto-dunker needs work as my fingers are cut from sharp edges on the dunker and the motor isn’t powerful enough.  The plucker does a fine job on the birds and the shackles are awesome.  Porter Pond Farm offers independent verification of the issues I am having with our processing equipment.

Raising chickens is easy…even with Cornish Cross.  We lose less than 2% of the birds to natural death.  The percentage goes up just a little bit when you include accidental death from pre-teen feet and very rare accidents when moving the chicken tractors.  Killing and eviscerating isn’t too bad.  It’s manageable work.  Packaging the birds in shrink bags is rough as cutting up and packaging parts eats away at the day.

I’m happy to report three 90 degree days later the compost pile is mostly containing the odor.  I put in equal parts sawdust and chicken offal along with a bale of straw on top of it all.  You can smell bad management.  My management must not be too bad…but that means it can be better.

Grandma and the Goats

My grandmother never kept goats.  She cooked.  She reluctantly kept a small garden.  She was never exactly a farmer.  My uncle explained to me that she and grandpa had an agreement:  she kept the house and he didn’t wash dishes and in return, he ran the farm and she didn’t milk cows.

Well.  Things change.  Here is my grandma the Sunday before Memorial Day holding a goat.

I’m sure grandma fed a goat last spring but I could only find a picture of my great-aunt Marion feeding Pixie.

I think that’s nice.


See that hat on my son?  It was in my car when my car was stolen last summer.  I loved that hat.  Sigh…

No Whey!

My wife and sister made cheese today.  Sis took the whey home after canning it.  I thought I would show it to you.  Looks like lemonade, doesn’t it?

I wasn’t involved in the process but it looked pretty straightforward.  This is similar to what they did, though they added 1/4 cup of vinegar to 2 gallons of milk to help it curd more.  They made both mozzarella and ricotta.

Anybody out there making cheese?  Soft cheese or hard?

Rabbit Jailbreak

The rabbits got out this morning.  Again.

We have two hare pens.  They found a way out of one of them.  I couldn’t catch them so I put on my Elmer Fudd voice and went hunting wabbits.

5 fewer rabbits on the grass and 5 more in the freezer.  Little stinkers.  I’ll have to review the design of hare pen #2 because this is the third day they escaped.

How about a little backstory?  My sister is visiting.  We woke her up this morning with gunshots at 6:00.  She rolled her eyes and went back to bed.  Apparently there had been a conversation the night before about the frequency of gunshots in the city vs. out here…

Another 100 Down

Today is chicken butchering day.  If you’re our customer you already know that…lol.

We had some operator issues with our Featherman scalder today.  I started with a propane tank I knew was not full, expecting it to run out.  It ran out…but I forgot to expect it.  Consequently, we were late getting started and slow going.  After the first 30 birds we thought we should go ahead and feed the kids breakfast.  We started again hoping to push through in record time and as always happens…we failed.  My pilot light went out in the scalder and I was paying no attention.  It took forever to get that water up to temp again.  Along the way we hand-plucked a ton of birds.  No fun.

So we did 100 birds in 3 hours including clean-up.  They aren’t packaged yet so I’m off to do that.  I also have to expand my compost pile.

I also want to note that this is the third time my hands have been shredded by the Featherman roto-dunker.  The baskets have sharp edges and twice today I cut my fingers as I was loading birds.  Every time I have to stop, clean the wound and put on a band-aid.  It’s another mark against the roto-dunker.  Be careful, kids.

OK.  Gotta go.  Can’t be lazy today!

What do you Feed your Layers?

A friend said, “Chris, my wife wants to know what you feed those birds.  She doesn’t want to eat any eggs other than yours.”

That’s always nice to hear.

We grind the Fertrell rations on the farm.  In short it’s corn, oats and roasted soybean mixed with aragonite and Fertrell Poultry Nutri-Balancer.   Fertrell Poultry Nutri-balancer is mostly soft-rock phosphate and includes kelp, vitamins and probiotics.  Our layers get the layer ration free-choice along with whole kernel corn and oats.  They also get oyster shell free choice (makes the egg shell harder).  Finally, they get a new patch of pasture every third day so there are always fresh greens and bugs available to them.

This all changes in the winter.  We winter the birds (and rabbits) in our greenhouse on deep bedding offering them the same feed along with several flakes up to a bale of hay daily.  The deep bedding provides most of their protein requirements, prevents odors, generates warmth and makes great fertilizer for our gardens.  The hay gives them a source of greens and seeds in winter and helps build up the bedding further.

That’s the plan anyway.  Who knows what will really happen.  Might be even better once I get the other greenhouse built.

Sweet Pea’s Twins

Sweet Pea had her kids today.   The darker one is male, the lighter is female…the opposite coloration Olive gave us.  No names until later.  Don’t want to become attached and get bad news.  You know, we have fought and fought to keep sick animals alive and it almost always ends in tears.  Last year it was a goat we named Shivers.  Poor Shivers.  I made her a sweater then buried her in it.  Nope.  No names yet.

I came home from work and my breathless son ran up to the house to tell me what was going on.  “Sweet Pea is having kids!  There’s a big problem!  The back feet are coming out first!”  Then he was off.

It was a problem.  She labored a long time with the darker one coming out breech.  Wife assisted with both as Sweet Pea was tuckered out when the second came around.

“Dad!  The second one came out!  There was a weird bag then the bag popped and we saw a head!”

What did your kids learn in school today?

Feeding the Pigs

I was asked recently how I feed the pigs…or what I feed the pigs in since round pig feeders are not exactly cheap.  It isn’t a question I had given much thought to as we just solved the problem and moved on.  Our primary motivation is keeping the soil healthy.  After that we work to keep the animals healthy.  Within those constraints we work to find the best combination of durable, local, inexpensive/free and suitable.

If you give your pigs free access to eat throughout the day they will, unsurprisingly, gain weight faster and put on more fat.  If you feed them twice per day they tend to be leaner.  Many, if not most, farmers provide enough feed to last several days and go do other things.  We keep our pigs near our chickens and feed them when we open and close the hen house each day.  We give them roughly 3% of their bodyweight each day of the Fertrell grower ration as well as a little garden waste, some apple drops, acorns or whatever else is handy.  Really, we want them all to be satisfied and have a little feed left in the trough for a snack later.  This would be unrealistic if we were raising more than a few pigs as 4,000 pounds of pork need to eat 120 pounds of feed each day and I doubt my dainty wife is going to lug feed out to the pasture in that volume.

I took some slab oak lumber from my sawmill to the tablesaw and built a durable feed trough.  It works well for 8 small pigs or 4 larger pigs but, again, forces us to put eyes on our pigs twice daily.

We water them with a nipple on a garden hose.  It’s not exactly ideal having  three lengths of garden hose stretched across the pasture but it certainly has a light footprint and is easy to install.  It was also fairly cheap.  There is some concern about the pigs having access to cool water so, on hot days, we disconnect the hose and spray the hogs or their wallow to cool off the water again.  Honestly, I haven’t noticed that the pigs care.

The nipple is on a 3/4″ galvanized pipe.  Actually, it’s 2 pipes and2 elbows.  I use hose clamps to keep the pipe on an old, broken t-post with an elbow pointing over the perimeter fence.  The hose clamps allow us to raise the nipple as the pigs grow.  It’s pretty easy to move when we move the pigs.

Check your hog water several times daily in case the nipple clogs, the hose gets pinched, someone disconnects the water, etc.

Also, be sure to move the hose before you take the mower out to clip the thistle.  I really thought it was 10 feet over!  What a day Saturday was.

Dear Diary…

Dear Diary…er…blog…thingy,

What a weekend.  I’m not even sure what happened on Saturday.  I took some allergy medicine on Friday that knocked me out.  Somehow in my antihistamine-induced stupor I hatched a plan for a new chicken house design.  Besides running over a garden hose with the mower (I blame the medicine), nothing else stands out until we went to a graduation party for Jane and David’s son on Saturday.

Our friend Jane makes the best BBQ pulled pork and didn’t disappoint.  We need to get that recipe.  Once again I showed the kids what cupcake eating contests are all about then we had to skip out early to get to church.

After church we made a few stops looking for a matress pad.  I prefer a firm matress but the wife needs a little more give.  We came home empty-handed after seeing the prices.  We made the regular Saturday stops to Farm and Home for a new chicken drinker, the library (permaculture book came in!), the gas station, pizza place (I know) and WalMart to get a new tarp for the new layer house.  I’m pretty jazzed to try the new chicken house design.  Stay tuned for updates.

Once home we tucked in the pigs, layers, goats, chicks, pullets, rabbits and children then stayed up late watching Downton Abbey.

The show is gripping but I’m amazed how many problems the writers could resolve if the characters had any firm basis for their morality.  Churches are just buildings in the show.  The only moral compass the characters seem to possess is a concern of what others might think…if they found out.  At the same time, nobody is really ashamed.  There’s no forgiveness.  There’s little in the way of love expressed between the main characters.  So many problems could be solved if one sister would just tell the other she’s sorry and they had a good cry together.  We stayed up even later to open up about where we, as a couple, are.  It seems that we had a few issues to resolve that I, unsurprisingly, was completely unaware of.  Mostly that we spend so much time working that she feels disconnected.  We are behind on dishes and laundry but, worse than that, we’re behind on emotional intimacy.  I can’t tell you the last time I’ve seen the clock after midnight but we stayed up, said we were sorry and had a good cry together.

The alarm goes off at 5:00 every morning…even if we stayed up late the night before.  We had planned to butcher 60 chickens (one whole tractor) on Sunday.  We’re trying to break up the processing to avoid the marathon weekend we tried last time.  We loaded up the trailer with 7 transport boxes, looked at the birds in the 5 chicken tractors and picked the one that looked like it had the largest birds.  Since we had a spare box we went ahead and loaded up another 10 birds, selecting the largest from the remaining four tractors.  It is important to load the chickens early so their digestive tract is empty…the birds are cleaner during processing.  Then we moved the chicken tractors and fed and watered the chickens.

We got the transport boxes in position at home and continued with our morning chores: take hay to the goats, feed the pigs, take oyster shell and feed to the layers and let them out of their houses, make sure everybody has water.  Dad stopped by planning to unload one wagon of hay.  I took 3 of the kids with me to help.  The youngest two took a handkerchief and some apples for a picnic in the barn.  They sat on the straw bales with their hankee spread out eating their formal meal.  It was really cute.  My oldest could just (I mean JUST) throw an alfalfa bale.  Dad’s bales are mostly grass and are considerably lighter than my alfalfa bales so he could help much more.  Dad unloaded onto the hay elevator, my son and I carried and stacked the bales.  When the first wagon was finished (50 bales) we were just warmed up so we went ahead and unloaded all three wagons (150 bales).  My son was flagging near the end and, I have to admit, I was wearing down too.

It was now 9:30 and we hadn’t begun to process our birds.  We got things organized and began scrubbing and sanitizing all surfaces.  The wife went to town for ice while we finished up the cleaning.  While we were discussing who was going to do what job dad showed up to help.  Dad makes a huge positive impact on our day not only by working but by making little jokes to keep the kids involved.  We did the first 40 birds in about an hour, took a break for lunch then wrapped up the rest in about 45 minutes.  I timed my kill/scald/pluck process and found that it takes 1 minute of my time per bird doing two birds at a time in the roto-dunker.  I think I’ll kick the scalder temperature up a bit to speed that up by a few seconds.  Then there’s another long cleanup and composting process while we wait for the birds to chill out.  Then we worked about another hour bagging and labeling the birds before popping them in the freezer.

This is a volunteer army...

To round out my to-do list I needed to restock the empty chicken tractor in the pasture.  We have 300+ 17 day old chicks in the brooders.  Though no chicks have died, I need to make a blog post about the problems we have had with the outdoor brooders this spring.  My dad, my oldest son and I packed 120 chicks in four boxes on to the truck.  Then everybody went inside to put on swimwear and we headed off to the pond.  Dad and I delivered the broilers to the chicken tractor.  120 in an 8×10 is fine when they are small and is far better for them than being in the brooder if the weather cooperates.  There was a 40% chance of rain, not a cloud in the sky so we thought we were good to go.  Dad headed off in the truck while I walked over to the pond.  Clear, sunny, hot afternoon.  Not a cloud in the sky.  No sooner than I arrived at the pond (150 yards from the chickens) the skies opened up.  A storm suddenly appeared out of the SW.  I may have been knee-deep in the pond when it was time to go home.  Kids rode their bikes quickly, wife and I walked.

We got soaked.  Soaked.  The kids were huddled inside fearing the wind and storm when we got home.  The oldest son was working to close up the greenhouse, close the sandbox and otherwise batton down the hatches…then the hail hit.  Then the hail got larger.  I would guess we got 2″ of rain in 20 minutes…then it kept raining.  Sometimes from the East, sometimes from the west.  The roof blew off of a hare pen, the clothes on the clothesline pulled in the wind taking the swing set the line was tied to for a tumble.

Ma popped a chicken in the oven for dinner and we headed to town to talk with a young farmer on Skype.  We kept him on the phone far too long discussing what we had tried, what we enjoyed and what was most profitable.  It was nice to just sit for an hour and talk.

Mom and Dad came by for supper and we surprised the kids with ice cream with chocolate and carmel topping.  The kids helped so much throughout the day we thought they deserved a treat.  Our 11 year old son had done a man’s work that day.  He really stepped it up and was tired.  Everybody was tired.

Bedtime came just in the nick of time but I fell asleep thinking of how much we had accomplished…dreading how much still needs to be done.  Garden to put in, cows to fence out, need to find someone to sharpen my bandsaw blades, need to order a load of sawdust, need to fix the bobcat….I could fill the page.  I can only do what I can do.

Hopefully our customers appreciate the work we do.  I know they like our chicken but I wonder if they really understand what it takes to bring that chicken to market.