Monday, June 29, 2015

Understanding the different types of meat chickens

OK, there are a variety of chicken breeds out there, and I am not going to go into detail on specific breeds and characteristics of different breeds. But, we do put "types" on the different birds we sell, so I wanted to give a little lesson on what it means to the meat consumer.
Cornish Rock Cross
The most common meat chicken is the Cornish Rock Cross. This is a bird that has spent decades being cross-bred to select for fast growth. They are a hybrid of a White Rock and a Cornish.  The White Rock brings the white feathers and pale skin, the light colored feet.  The Cornish brings the size.

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It's a little more complicated than that. The two strains of birds have to be selected to produce the best of the bigger breeds. We don't breed our own, because we'd have to feed a flock of females and a few roos that consistently give us these big hybrids, and we frankly just don't have time to be chicken geneticists. A common misconception is that these birds are "genetically modified". No, the DNA is not edited in a lab. This is pure hybridization, and it's happened over generations and decades to bring us these big birds.
We've had several customers this year pick up some chicks at their local feed store, to end up with this huge 8-9 lb birds they thought would be egg layers. Some key things to notice, especially if you have mixed birds - by the end of week one, you'll see these chicks outpace the others in growth dramatically. You'll also see that their hip structure is much farther apart. They need to have wider hips and bigger legs to hold up all that weight. As they get older, you'll see their mobility slow and they don't attempt to perch, where smaller, egg laying breeds surely will. These birds get to full butcher weight in 8-10 weeks. They are pure eating machines, and don't have much of a personality, as they focus solely on food. This is what you find in the grocery store, raised by the 10's of thousands in large structures for the poultry industry. We also raise these birds, but after 3 weeks in the brooder, they get to go outside, in our garden or orchard to enjoy sunshine, grass and an occasional rain storm.
Rangers are another hybrid meat bird. Depending on the hatchery, as they all have their own formula, they may have different names: Red Broilers, Black Broilers, Rainbow Rangers, Red Rangers, Pioneers, etc.  Credit is often given to the French for pioneering this more mobile, but large breed of chicken for meat production.   We raise these, too. They say they take 12-14 weeks to get to size, we see more like 16 weeks. They are more mobile, still don't have the tendency to perch, are certainly nicer to look at.
They will grow larger than almost all standard chicken breeds. If raised for meat, they won't make it to maturity to be bred for replacements, but it's an interesting concept for us to consider. We've had mixed luck with these birds, as they do not tend to get to the same size as the Cornish Cross. But we raise them due to sentiment that the fast growing Cornish Cross birds are not "natural". The taste, however, is no different.
Heritage Breeds
 Heritage are just your standard chicken breeds. Not all chicken breeds are alike, from bantams, that are mini-chickens that lay mini-eggs, to your average White Leghorn (the best of the laying breeds) to fancy frizzles and fuzzy-footed birds. We raise Speckled Sussex and Rhode Island Reds on our farm. The extra roosters get to grow to a decent size and then get butchered for meat. The spent hens also get butchered for meat.   Even a giant breed, like the Jersey, can't really compare to a Cornish Rock in size. Some of the roosters can still get to 3 to 4 pounds, tops,  but it takes them 6 months or more to do so. Most hens are 3 pounds or less. Most of the fancy breeds weigh even less, and bantams are hardly worth it at 1 pound give or take a few ounces.  Not very economical for a meat producer to spend half a year waiting on meat products. These guys will perch, they will also become sexually mature, and if you have too many roosters, that can start to cause aggression.
Since they take so long to grow to size, their meat is tougher. Not so great on the barbecue, but they have much more flavor. They make great soup stocks, stews, braises and smokers. They require a longer, slower, moister cooking method, to help break down the meat and make it softer and more enjoyable to chew.  But it's still great meat!
So, what's the point?
The point is that everyone has their own tastes. If you want a good, large, tasty bird, the Cornish Rock is just that. If you still want that big bird, but are concerned about a bird growing SO fast, that it isn't fair to them - the rangers are a nice option.  If you prefer that your birds are natural, can breed true, and live a full life, than the heritage breed might be for you.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Saying Goodbye Never Gets Any Easier

This is Nina. We adopted her from Cayleb's Kindred Senior Rescue in Denver in 2013. They specifically work with senior dogs that shelters have a hard time placing due to medical issues. Some dogs go to forever sanctuary homes to live out their lives in a loving home. Some of them, like Nina, get placed for adoption, have their surgery and get to finish off their lives with a loving family who adopts them as their own.

Nina had mammary cancer, and a tumor on her back. She had surgery to remove it all, and was just fine. She's a German Shepherd, so being away from her family was hard for her. But they could no longer care for her. She came to us in December, 2013.

It was just a few months after we lost Athena, another female German Shepherd that we had. Nina was confused, but attentive. She eventually attached to me, and was my little shadow around the house. She followed me everywhere, always wanted to go for car rides.

 I tried hard to work with her on her herding instincts on the farm, she was often too aggressive with the sheep. It was, though, at times helpful to bring her out to give the sheep an extra nudge to get home, especially when they escaped our yard completely.

But she was a good surrogate mom to our lamb Hattie. She kept her company in the house when she had to sleep inside, and always alerted me if she hopped out of her box during the night.

She came with us on Shannon's first day of Kindergarten, and helped see her off on her first time riding the bus. She would even pull Shannon on a sled down the street on really snowy days.

 She was also a surrogate mom for Hercules, and slept with him in his crate his first night home so that he wouldn't be so sad being away from his mother. She kept him in line and always had the patience to play with him.

She was protective, a family dog through and through. She was the epitome of what they mean when they speak of companion animals. She was my shadow, my pain in the butt, but was always there to help me round up sheep, chickens, turkeys, or just come with me on my daily chores, so that I was never working alone. And she slept every night by my bed. I loved brushing her long coat, or just hugging her and petting her in those rare moments of downtime. She was quirky, as shepherds can be. The yard is strewn with her toys, and she loved to play, but I think her favorite game was "keep away" as she loved to fetch her toys, but didn't quite like to hand them over for a second throw. She loved stuffies, and there are many shredded ones throughout the yard. She also loved to carry around rocks, which was bad for her teeth, but difficult to get her to stop.

Sunday morning, she woke us up with incredible whining. I got out of bed to see what was wrong (thinking the dog door was closed, and she needed to go potty but couldn't). Then I saw a trail of vomited water all the way down the stairs and across the front room.  I went outside, and saw her with an obvious look of discomfort on her face. At that point, I feared the worst - bloat. Bloat in a dog is when their stomach twists, and closes itself off. Whatever is in there continues to process, creating gases that now have no place to escape. Dogs tend to try and drink a lot of water - probably in the hopes to make their tummies feel better. But since the water has no where to go, they vomit it back up. She is so furry, it was hard to see the obvious swelling that is typically on one side of their body. We've been through this with Sergeant. We know there is no time. We rushed her to the vet. 

They took us straight back without even checking us in, and though on first sight they agreed with our assessment, they wanted an x-ray to be sure. X-ray confirmed that her stomach was twisted. The vet said she was in a rapid state of decline and we would need to make a decision right away.  (With Sergeant, who I think was 7 at the time, they told me I had an hour to decide).  So Nina was heading downhill quickly. By the time they brought us back for the x-ray, her breathing was labored, her eyes were bugging out, and she didn't even acknowledge that we were all there. 

Though there were definitely financial considerations here, it was more about how much damage may have already been done (Bloat puts pressure on other internal organs) and her ability to recover from this trauma. The vet said that they could do the surgery, but encouraged our decision to say goodbye. It was not specifically said, but I could tell the implication was that she was in such a bad state that the surgery alone might have taken her life. Everything happened too fast. They put her on a blanket on the floor, and I snuggled up next to her, so that she was not alone. She fell asleep quite peacefully. My arms were wrapped around her. We said goodbye.   Even though she never met Ditka, Grish, Hobbes or Athena - she will be greeted by them wherever it is that dogs go when they leave us. We now have more dogs underground than we have in our home. 

I hate goodbyes. They never get any easier. But I would never forego the love of a dog for the pain of seeing them leave. It just got a little too quiet around here, and a little more lonely.

We love you Nina, we miss you.