Saturday, July 5, 2014

Turning the Wheel, or, Let's put the Rooster in the Stew...

Also, "You Always Remember Your First" and "Life isn't Easy"....

NOTE: The following post will contain images of animals being slaughtered and processed for food. If you're disturbed by such, please stop reading now. In fact, as we are farm and garden blog, you might want to reconsider following us, as that will be a fact of life on our posts.

So, that's Little John, our first rooster. He was a good boy, as roosters go. He did his job. Protected the hens. Called them for treats. Let loose with loud gusty crows...regularly, all would know they were his hens, and he would challenge all comers. In short, a rooster.

Like many, before he reached sexual maturity, he was easy to deal with, we could catch him, give him treats, let him range with the girls in the yard, etc.

They all start off cute.

A young rooster and pullet hens before they even started laying. Kids in the run.

He was grumpy that I was holding him, but not terribly aggressive in this pic.

Ranging with the girls, and not even attacking us. Still young.

Everyone needs an old fashion portrait with their rooster.

Very handsome sir. Classic Strawberry Comb on a Golden Laced Wyandotte.

Glorious colors. He shimmered in the sun. The red of his upper wing was always a favorite of mine.

 So, as time and hormones would have it, he grew up. His spurs came in, his attitude followed. It's what Roosters do. However, they don't all attack the people constantly. Little John did more and more. He got to point where he would hit the wire of the coop and run as we passed by. So, why have a rooster?

The reasons to have one are simple. Breeding and Flock Master/Protector.

He was breeding the hens, but, his genetics weren't the best. He was purchased as a chick from a local farm store. Just a standard straight run Golden Lace Wyandotte. His spurs were a bit crooked, and the scales on his legs were misaligned, both signs of genetic issues. Pretty common in the big hatchery runs. Also, as he was a Golden Laced Wyandotte, the breed isn't one we wanted a rooster in after him. They are known for being a bit twitchy and aggressive.

He was a good flock master, in general, as far as the hens were concerned. He called them for treats, was excellent at predator awareness. His loud croaking calls would scatter the hens into cover, etc. However, his aggression with us meant that we couldn't have him free ranging with the girls. Also, we couldn't freely go into the coop/run without separating him. So, towards the end, the hens were spending most of their time in the run, and we weren't able to interact with them. He was causing us concerns, and eating food, but not contributing otherwise. Mostly cons, few pros.

We had been planning it for some time, as we had gotten in six more hens to add to our flock. We knew that Roosters are beneficial for integrating flocks and he was doing a good job at that. However, he had worn down and over bred our two Leghorn hens until they were barebacked and ragged. We kept discussing when we would take him out. Then, one day he pinned one Leghorn down at the sill to the coop door. She was hurt and wouldn't lift to breed. He got more and more frustrated, bit her harder and treaded on her until she was raw and bloody. That was it. We broke it up and separated him, and did some hen first aid.

The bare back was from winter over breeding. You can see the abrasions on her form the treading.

The Rooster gave her a bloody nose. Now, let's not blame him. Instincts and hormones. She normally submits to breeding quite readily.

Step one in first aid was to saturate the wounds with a bit hydrogen peroxide. Clean them up and get the dirt out.

Step two was to give her a nice seal of Blu-Kote. A veterinarian antiseptic. Seals the wounds. Also, the blue covering hides the blood, which the other chickens would peck her to death because of. A fact to keep in mind if you are having some anti-rooster and pro-hen feelings. Chickens are dinosaurs and just are what they are. Better not to mix human emotions in.

So, with that, we pulled the rooster out of the mix, and isolated him in our newly built nursery area, attached to the existing run. We left him there for almost 48 hrs. No food, although he was able to pick through the remains in the litter and get lots of grass and scratch. Only water. Yep, seemed like a death watch kinda thing to do. It was. Best to be honest about it.

Little John in the pen. Leah giving him a final meal of some grass.

If he looks pissed off, well, that is what roosters look like. However, he was. Very. Hit the wire constantly while separated. Can't blame him. He can't help. He was his default setting, once he got to maturity. Hence, the problem.
The Gallows.
 The tripod is our gallows. I hadn't thought of it that way until I put it up. I immediately realized that was indeed what it was. Very symbolic. Very appropriate.You can use cones for slaughtering, or hang them from convenient trees, or sides of barns. This worked best for us. We have a few of these tripods around for trellis, etc. and easy to work around next to our benches. The tub is for catching blood and feathers and gore.

Lining up and getting ready.
 Setting everything out. Pot of scalding water for plucking, heating on the camp stove. Bleach for the surfaces. Baskets to catch feathers in. Bags because we had intended to freeze him.

Sad that I am about to do in my rooster. Only other male on the property. I purposefully used a knife made by my great-grandfather who was born in France. Seemed right.

One unhappy rooster, one unhappy homesteader. Note gloves, long sleeves and safety glasses. Respect the rooster.

A final indignity. 
Hung on the gallows, feeling the rage. Poor guy. It's what happens.
We had wanted to catch him and give him a final holding, send him out peacefully. He wanted none of that. So, we used a piece of ply as a shield, cornered him in the coop and caught. Tied his feet together and hung on the gallows. Goodbye Little John. You were a rooster.

The cutting.
 So, we decided to end it with the quick cut method. Bleeding out has been shown to be the most painless and best way. The traditional chopping block and hatchet severs the spinal column and there is more blood in the meat, etc. A clean slice, and the brain goes to sleep and the blood drains out. However, this was our first. Now, I have slaughtered a number of animals in the past. I raised rabbits, have hunted, with bow and gun, and have had to euthanize farm animals. This was our first poultry and my first time with bird anatomy. In all honesty, I bungled it. I hesitated. I loved him. He was my boy. He bled badly. Finally, I went back at him and took off his head. Yes, they flap. Yes, there is a lot of blood. It's death. If you can't do that, don't have chickens. However, I would recommend the hatchet. Quicker and less anxiety. This is the one thing I have pangs about. Would have liked to send him on efficiently. He won't be my last bird, so more learning is ahead.

Starting the plucking.
 We wanted his feathers for crafting. I have been making jokes for months about his tail as a hat pin.. So, before scalding, we started plucking. It's tough, but doable. There are lots of details about how to kill to get the feathers to relax, etc, but we just plucked hard. We pulled, sorted into baskets, and bagged, until we got what we wanted. Tail, wings, hackles, then dunked into the hot water and hung to pluck.

The messy side of it all.
Very messy.
 We over heated the scald, scorched some of the skin, and ended up damaging it. Practice.

Scorching down pin feathers and the little sensor hairs.
We were both on a learning curve. We did good.
Once we had him headless and undressed, we started the eviscerating. Now, we won't show you a big step by step and how to. Those are out there, and as this was our first bird, we aren't the ones to be teaching. We are just sharing our experience. Maybe on our 100 bird, we will. So, we followed the process, did what needed doing. If you looking for a step by step, go to your searching engine and have fun. There are tons of videos and blogs out there. I will say that mammals are far easier. You essentially just undress them and the body cavities are easier to clean out. Other than that, gutting him was simple and you can learn if quickly.

Dressed out bird. Neck on the side. You can see the damaged skin from scorching. A common mistake.

The only organ picture we took. The source of his roosterness. Very large testes.

Rooster teeth. The stones in his gizzard.
 We took some the opportunity, as we always do, to home school. The whole process was a life lesson, anatomy, biology and a dissection. Each organ we took out and discussed its place in the system that is rooster, and how it functions. We opened the gizzard, and looked at the ground corn and grass inside, and washed it out to find the stones. We have talked about giving the girls quartz crystal grit for that. We have a lot from crystal mining. It would be fascinating to see them once they are worn down.
First things first. Fry up the gizzard and heart. I over cooked them. Very tough. Ate them any way.

We had planned to freeze him, but decided an immediate cooking was best. So we aged the carcass for 12 hours in the fridge and Leah boiled it down for stew the next day.

The rooster was in the stew. He was, in a word delicious.
So, in a surprising coincidence, friends a few miles away, decided it was time to slaughter their 30+ Cornish Rock meat birds just a day or so later. We went to visit to see how they do it, and learn from  more experienced hands. We could have benefited from this before we did in our Rooster, but still the chance was too good to pass up. I won't go into the whole process here. There are lots of better blogs for it, and detailed videos. Suffice it to say that it is a huge bit of work, and messy and needs prep, and space, and a stout heart.

The range shed for the meat birds. It is built of livestock panels and sits on skids, pulled with the small attached tractor. They birds are gently moved every few days onto fresh range.

Ranging Meat Birds in the their movable shed.

The gallows for multiple birds. Slaughtering, bleeding, & plucking is done here.
Leah helping at the processing table. Custom built for it. Sink hooks to a hose and drains off to a field.
This is some of their new layer pullets in a grow out space.
Growing girls and one rooster.
Ellawyn checking out their adult layers in their movable coop.

So, to close, processing animals for food, is by it's very nature, brutal. With attention and care you can mitigate this, but there is no removing the fact. It's not for the faint hearted, and any livestock will, at some point, require culling. It's the nature of things. There are some great blogs on the tough side of chicken keeping and my favorite is all about why..

 You Absolutely Should Not Get Backyard Chickens.

I love that article and tell anyone who expresses interest in poultry to read it first. If you are unable to do the deed, and don't have the space for an "Old Hen Home", or "Randy Rooster Retirement Center" then, perhaps poultry isn't for you. If you do think you can, then the rewards of raising, caring for, and processing and animal you have known is remarkable. We know that some livestock folks can't name the animals they may slaughter. We understand. However, knowing our animals, their personalities, and lives, is part of it. We love them, we name them, we respect them, and ultimately, we respect their life when we take it.

For now, we are deeply enjoying life without a rooster. Ranging our birds is difficult in our mountains already, due to several issues. So they tend to range only on paddocks with protections. It's been a few weeks since we did the deed, and we socialize with our hens far more now. We miss the crows, we miss the presence, we don't miss the aggression.

So, I will wear his tail feathers in my hat with respect and try to show as much pride in them as Little John did. Thanks rooster. You did good.

Happy Hobby Homesteading.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Weaving Bean Catchers

  Weaving "Bean Catchers" for Happy Gardeners & Healthy Green Beans:

Around here we are all about hobby gardening for fun and skills.

Hobby gardening and homesteading doesn't mean we are trying to be totally sustainable or attempting to raise the majority of our own food. What we are doing is enjoying the experience, participating in the learning process, and co-creating a beautiful and healthy space in the time and abilities we have.

This means that we don't grow as much as we can. We grow as much as we can manage. It also means we don't always do things the easiest way, or the most efficient. Sometimes we do something the most fun, expressive, and even lovely way we can.

Bean Catchers are surely one of those.

We hit on the idea when building our traditional bean trellis, out of saplings, down branches, and twine way back in 2009. Here it is, a fine clever green bean trellis. This one was done as a bean tunnel for our then six year old daughter. Look closely and you'll see a small section, woven as a "Dream Catcher" pattern, on the far right end. We were almost done I realized I could weave one there. 

Now, it's not our goal here to precisely teach you how to weave Dream Catchers. In fact, that entire craft has come to symbolize a rather distinctive form of cultural appropriation among the Native American community. We were once directly involved in that community and while we did learn a number of crafts, such as this, during our time among it, we also developed a deep respect for the reality of they indigenous cultures of North America, and not the the idealized mythology that come to be prevalent in some of the dominant culture. So, this brief rant will suffice to express that. To do this simple garden craft, you do need to know the weave pattern used in Dream Catchers. So go online, learn the process, and bring it to your garden for it's decorative style, but please don't assign any contrived Native traditions to it. These are, in fact, just a nice weave of cordage, that looks good and holds up beans. Nothing more.

So, you've learned to do the basic dream catcher pattern. Now, you can create it in other forms.

Once we did the one above, we experimented with a few other bean trellis techniques. We used a straight fence one year, and  the deer created a perfectly straight browse line down it, neatly cropping off all the beans and leaves from 4 ft. down. With much experimentation, we hit on this. A series of tripods, woven on two sides, and between each set, with Bean Catchers. 

2013 Bean Catcher Trellis

So, you need a tripod of strong sturdy logs. I used standing dead wood from our lot. I rarely cut green wood, but yes, there is sometimes a need. You can find much in the way of useful standing dead wood, dried and ready to use. Don't take too much from a particular area as many animals use it. Shown here are 2-4 logs of mostly locust, a very hard, very rot resistant wood. Some are also hickory, similar to locust, but lighter, and will rot in the ground. (Locust can last for decades if not longer!) Also, likely some maple in there, which works just fine for our need here.

In the pics below, you can see the details of lashing the tripods. I am using a particular hitch, which is also a Native American technique, called a tipi hitch. It is used for lashing the tripods of those iconic lodges together. It is very strong and puts the logs in a particular order that holds the tripod firmly. It also creates a tripod that is pitched back and flatter on one side. This allows for a more even spacing for us, with our path system through our beds. You'll note in the pics we are using plastic bailing twine from our straw bales. This is one of the few times we ever use any synthetic materials in our garden. We intentionally use biodegradable twines for almost everything. This is so if we lose material in the garden, it will rot away properly. Additionally, birds and other wildlife will gather fibers of any kind for their nests. You only need to find a bird with plastic line wrapped around it once to make that a firm rule. However, for secure structure, it is best that the line not have a chance of rotting out and failing, so we use the twine. We are very careful to recover it each year.

We learned this hitch from putting up tipis in past years with friends. However, we did refer to the important work on the tipi, The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction, and Use by Reginald & Gladys Laubin. It is a great book that is filled with interesting ideas. Every homestead should have it on their shelves, in honor of this land's first homesteaders. However,  as long as the book is out, and you are using the lashing up to teach a little bit about tipi construction and Native American life, you might as well let your home schooler read under one a bit.

So, you've got your tripod up, and your ready to weave a bean catcher....not quite. In our area, our gardens are a bit exposed, and sometimes windy. Also, the tripods are very large, over six feet tall, and rather heavy. We don't want them falling on anyone or anything. So we stake them.We cut stakes from similar wood as our tripods, only slightly smaller in diameter. I tend to make a half dozen or so a year, adding to our stock of stakes and replacing any that have rotted or have broken. They are about 18-20 inches long and cut and sharpened on one end with a hatchet. They are very useful in the garden for such things, and additionally, you are fully prepared for any vampire attack.

 Most feet of the tripod get a single stake, lashed thoroughly. The center point, downwind side, gets two, set in the ground at angles for extra strength. Our winds are not usually that fierce, but why take chances and worry about it? Take the extra time in your garden spaces, to do jobs well, and you won't have a mess to clean up, or lose a crop in a storm. Hobby gardening doesn't mean sloppy gardening. Quite the opposite in my approach. Not doing too much, means doing what we do, better.

Build your tripods correctly and securely and at the end of the season, you can pull your ground stakes and just fold the tripods up and store them for the next year. You'll certainly need to recheck them, and maybe relash, but it does make it easier. Here we are pulling out the tripods for the 2014 season. You can still see the weaves from the previous year on them. We cut those free and composted the twine. Then we just stood them up, and staked them down.

Once the tripod is up, and secured, we are ready to weave. Once again, I won't show this in detail. You need to go learn the weaving process and practice it. Part of what makes this fun and easy for us is that we have made so many in the past that we can weave fast. About the twine, we use jute, not sisal, not hemp, not cotton. Jute. It lasts a long time, and it is inexpensive. For three full tripods, woven on two sides, with a third space between them, we used about 500 feet of jute. It cost $2.69 on sale at our local farm store. You'll use most of it so buy two rolls, one for your tripods and one for your general garden needs. Jute is great stuff, and it is our favorite fiber for using in the garden.

Now, let me be clear again about this. This isn't the easiest or simplest weave for a bean trellis. There are lots of others out there that work just as good or better. This is very strong and support an abundance of growth. It allows easy access to the mature vegetables. However, most importantly, it is neat, fun, relaxing and attractive. We've never seen anyone else do this, and we hope that this post will spread the fun. If we were growing beans on a commercial level or practicing large scale sustainability, this wouldn't be practical at all, but we aren't. We're hobby gardening. This is fun.

So rather than try to show a bunch of details of how we weave, with confusing pictures, here is a short video of the process. The video is a little shaky as it was filmed by our girl, but it gets the point across.

Once they are up, prep the soil underneath and plant your climbers. While we primarily use them for green beans, they work for any climbing vine. We tend to inter-plant with cucumbers. We also sometimes add a bit of nasturtiums on the ends for snacks and sunflowers for their sheer beauty. Once the beans, or other foliage is up, they are so thick and dense you can sow greens, like lettuce, that benefits from the cool space under. Of course it's nice to get under them as well, so leave a little room for that, or build over a bench, like we did this year.

They really do look great. You can hang ornaments from the center of the webs, or wind chimes off the tripods. It is a garden ornament and structure all in one. The beans certainly love it. Here is one year when the catchers were catching their fair share!

Happy Hobby Homesteading. Go make something beautiful!