Raising a Turkey for Thanksgiving

YOU GUYS. We did it. I still can’t believe it, but we did. We brought home a little fluff ball in June that became the star of Thanksgiving dinner last Thursday.PSX_20151201_171049

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It was both easier and harder than I expected. Rest assured, it was
absolutely more expensive. Between the cost of the chicks ($10-$12 a pop), the grandiose shelter they just had to have but refused to use, and the exorbitant amount of feed they went through… Well, I think you get the picture.Red Bourbon

Raising them to maturity came with its fair share of headaches, too. In the end, only 1 of the 5 Red Bourbon Heritage chicks and the 1 Broad Breasted Bronze we purchased survived. The heritage breeds are generally known for being more fragile than the BB varieties, but many a night was spent cuddling Fat Amy back to life because he couldn’t figure out how to simply step out of the rain into the heated shelter. There’s something to be said for the “dumbing down” that happens though selective breeding.

It was really interesting to see the differences raising a heritage and a BBB along side one another. The Bourbon was definitely more “wild,” and retained much more of her natural instincts. They were both full of personality, but we couldn’t help but favor the BBB. I’m certain it was because he was a Tom. Fat Amy’d gobble at everything – a passing car, the lawn mower, a C-130 flying overhead, Fat Amyan unexpected breeze… you name it. He was single-mindedly obsessed with trying to attack the dog, despite repeatedly having walked away with fewer feathers than he started with, and would even start wars with her through the back door. (Baby Jesus bless that dog’s patience. She will ascend to sainthood. I’m certain of it.) He would side-eye everyone and everything, and was constantly strutting for his lady. With all that bravado, it was impossible not to love-hate him. Bourbon

While we would prefer heritage breeds for a number of reasons, next year we will be sticking to BBBs. Flighty Heritage breeds are not conducive to neighborhood living. Trust me on this. We’ll have to save that for a time when we’re a real farm and not a house with a yard in a residential area.

The Bourbon came out to 16.8 lbs live weight, 13 lbs dressed, which is pretty standard for a heritage hen. She went to freezer camp for another day. On that note, the neighbor kids have started asking about her. Who wants to tell them?

For those of you who follow our Facebook page, you saw that Fat Amy topped the scales at 44.5 lbs, and dressed out to an epic 36 lbs. Which amounts to entirely too much turkey, if you’re wondering. We had to special order an XXL roasting pan, which he only just fit in. He barely fit in the oven and took 7 hours to cook, when it was all said and done.

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After God only knows how many cheers around the table in his honor, the happiest Thanksgiving turkey that ever was fed the happiest urban farmers that ever were, their friends and their family.

Framily

Turkey Leg

And then there were leftovers. And more leftovers. And more leftovers…

Turkey sandwiches, turkey tacos, turkey salads, turkey scrambled eggs, turkey soup, as well as 3 turkey pot pies and 4 trays of turkey enchiladas for the freezer. So if you invite me to a potluck any time soon, you know what you’re getting.

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(Pssst tell me your favorite leftover turkey dish in the comments)

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Do I Need to be Worried About Bird Flu in my Backyard Chickens?

There is no short answer for the question buzzing across social media and various forums regarding bird flu and how it could impact our backyard flocks. Ultimately, the best tool in preventing avian flu from reaching your flock is knowledge. Understand that avian influenza (AI) is spread both directly, by chickens having contact with infected feces; or indirectly, through air-borne particles. There are different strands of AI. The strand that is currently going around (H5N2) is not considered contagious to humans. For additional information about the bird flu, symptoms and how it is spread, please see these comprehensive resources from the CDCUSDA, WHO, USGS National Wildlife Health and North Carolina State. That being said…

Why is it that Bird Flu is ravaging factory farms while leaving backyard birds mostly untouched?

Everyone is talking about it: WSJ, NPRRuters, CNN, FOX, and others, but most reports are centric to fiscal impact, supply shortage and general fear-mongering. This conversation, instead, needs to be centered around what is fueling this problem. Wild birds have contagious diseases. This is not new, nor is it something we’re ever likely to eradicate. However, what we can control is the environment we raise captive poultry in. Conditions in chicken farming establishments are abhorrent. Gross overcrowding fosters the rapid spread of deadly disease through weak, malnourished poultry. Thankfully, these are not the same conditions found in your backyard.

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Conventionally farmed chickens are forced to wallow in their own feces, lack the ability to dust bath to clean themselves and are denied easy access to fresh food or clean water. I will spare you additional details, but if you’re still curious about factory farm conditions for poultry, you can click here for a short video.

The rapid spread of avian flu among factory farmed poultry is alarming, especially considering the widespread “bio-security” protocols that are in place, supposedly to prevent this type of contamination by “shielding” chickens from any external, or natural exposure. Let’s hope that this outbreak sheds light on the many issues with our country’s conventional poultry farming practices. Just don’t hold your breath, because this isn’t the first time in our life time or even this decade that bird flu has ravaged through the chicken industry.

For many of us, this is a primary reason we started keeping our own chickens, to have more control over the conditions our eggs come from. So, let’s use this time to thoughtfully educate about and enjoy the benefits of keeping backyard chickens in the face of the bird flu outbreak.

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What you can do to help keep your backyard flock healthy:

1. Clean your coop and run regularly, especially if your chickens are confined or semi-confined. Be sure to use gloves and a shovel when working with manure.

2. Provide fresh, clean water for your chickens. For the time being, do not use water from a pond to fill your poultry’s water. Pond water can be contaminated by wild avian.

3. Administer a healthy diet. Just like in humans, a healthy diet helps boost the body’s immune system. Along with their regular feed, chickens need access to fresh greens, like grass or any array of green kitchen or garden scraps, such as spinach, kale, collards, romaine, cabbage, parsley, etc.

4. Do not introduce new birds. Any avian can carry Avian Flu, particularly waterfowl. Now is not the time to introduce any new outside birds to your flock or habitat, unless it is from a trusted breeder. Even then, please exercise caution and discuss any questions and concerns you have with the breeder before bringing new poultry home.

5. Avoid Flock Swaps, fairs and other gatherings where you or your birds will come in contact with other avian. While there is not a lot of concern about avian virus infecting humans right now, you could easily bring home contaminates to your flock.

6. Avoid contact with wild birds. Every backyard set up is different, so there isn’t one clear cut solution for limiting wild birds’ access to your flock. Spend some time in your chicken yard observing. Are wild birds accessing to your flock’s food and water? Is there a way to limit that exposure? Are excess food containers stored properly to protect contamination from rodents? Have you consider netting over top of the habitat to keep wild birds out?

7. Wash your hands. Before and after interacting with your flock. Always.

8. Relax and enjoy. Really. If you’re maintaining high standards of care, just continue monitoring your flock’s health with a watchful eye, as you always do, and don’t worry too much about it.

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Feather Sexing Chicks

New Babies on the Farm

In the last two years on the farm, we have gone through our fair share of chickens. There are several contributing factors to this, but the main one is Roosters. We keep a limited number of hens because of restrictions set forth by the Homeowner’s Association, which is a somewhat sensitive and complicated relationship. For the sake of maintaining some assemblance of being neighbourly, admits our flagrant disregard for the “rules,” we are cautious to not keep any roosters. The problem with this is that when we go to pick out a new chick, I inevitably select a wee baby rooster. I fall madly in love with it as it grows; more so than I ever seem to do with the pullets. I ignore or deny all together the early signs that my she might be a he. Maybe she’s just masculine, I think. Perhaps her more exuberant coloring is a byproduct of immaculate breeding, and those aren’t saddle feathers coming in – it’s just a bad hair day.

Until it happens, one day she crows. And even though I had known deep down, I still feel a little pang in my heart. The Handy Man immediately posts him on Craigslist; the description always includes the sentiments, “He is extraordinarily sweet and we would keep him if we were able.” I make the Handy Man sift through each response, before we decide on a home that sounds the nicest – or sometimes the person who responds with the best grasp of the written English language (don’t even pretend like you don’t do that too). Then off he goes, to be a man somewhere where he can belt his little rooster-heart out and have a harem of lady-friends.

I recently spent some time with a few reputable breeders learning to feather sex and wanted to share with you some good guidelines for when you go to pick out chicks. This is not 100% foolproof and does not work for every breed, but it does give you better than average odds of selecting a pullet and not having to go through the heart break of getting rid of your Roo.

This is best done between one and three days of hatch.

When you pick up the chick, gently stretch out its little wing. You will see two rows of feathering – the coverts and the primary wing feather. In a male, the primary wings grow slower than a female, therefore when you examine the wing, the coverts and the primary feathers are approximately the same length. In a female, the primary wings grow faster. This means, when you examine the wing, you should see two distinct rows of wing feathers. The coverts will be shorter, and the primary longer.

Using this method, I was able to sex these three chicks when I picked them up. I’m confident that all three will be girls.

Euskal Oiloa - Marraduna Basque Hens

Euskal Oiloa – Marraduna Basque Hens

Once the chick has breeched the week mark, this method is no longer applicable. The male’s primary feather growth rate catches up and begins to surpass that of the females’. Although there are many early indicators and countless theories on growth and development at these stages, “feather sexing” at this point is really just a guessing game – I like to think of it as gambling with yourself in a hand that Mother Nature always wins. Most experienced breeders say that often they can’t even tell. So obviously this means that I think I will be the exception; the one person that can! And since we recently acquired a few chicks that are too old to reliably feather sex, I will be wagering myself a bet.

Here, on these three week old Wheaten Marans, you can see the vast developemental difference between the two chicks. The first has primary feathers that are notably longer, and has prominante tail feather development alread. I’m putting $10 on “Rooster” for this one. His counter part will be a pullet.

Boy

Boy

Girl

Girl

Here, you can see simular feather differentiation on these two week old Chilean Araucanas. Though, they are “rumpless,” so there is no tail feather development in either.

Boy

Boy

Girl

Girl

Although this is my official declaration, I secretly hope I’m wrong because I want to keep them both. Look at that single cheek tuft on the little “boy”! It’s like when you see a child with one glimmering dimple flash you a smile. Ever so slightly lopsided from the asymmetry, and absolutely perfect. Clearly, I am falling in love. Which confirms this particular hypothesis. Surely this will be a Roo. And surely, I will still feel that little pang.

Only time will tell for sure, however, understanding developmental differences can help you determin earlier on the gender of your chicks. Hopefully these guidlines will help you select chicks of your prefered gender, before you get them home and start to fall in love.