Sunday, October 7, 2012

Guess who we are having for dinner

End-of-life issues have been troubling me lately, specifically, What do you do when a hen stops laying?

A recent egg shortage in Mexico has rekindled our plans to build a chicken coop but there are many details and ramifications that need to be explored.

Our gardener Félix is all excited. He keeps a rotating cavalcade of animals in his own yard, including turkeys, hens, roosters, two dogs and two cats, one of them blind, and at one point two young donkeys both of which one day disappeared overnight. Chicken coop, chickens, eggs, no problema, as long as you guard against foxes and coyotes, he says.

Then again, Félix is a farm boy from a family who slaughtered a cow, two pigs and God knows how many chickens just to feed the crowd at his wedding party.

That's not where Stew and I are at in our agricultural development.

Stew says he's excited, or at least politely pretends to be, though he hasn't spent more than five minutes actually considering the details and responsibilities of chicken husbandry, if there is such an avocation or endeavor. He pointed to his favorite chicken coop design--the smallest and easiest to build--from a selection offered in "Building Chicken Coops for Dummies" and that's the last I heard from him about the topic.

Our, or should I say, my, interest in a chicken coop precedes the recent egg shortage. I hate to support factory-style egg producers, like Bachoco in Mexico, which raise chickens in compartments half the size of a shoe box, then squeeze--metaphorically though it wouldn't surprise me if they did it literally--every egg they can out of each hen. After that it's off to the slaughter house for the birds which are crammed in green plastic containers piled up ten-high on a flatbed truck.

At a traffic intersection sometimes you pull up to one of those trucks and catch the pathetic sight of a frightened bird peeking at you out from behind the plastic bars on the boxes.

It's a sad scene that brings to mind Peggy Lee's mournful tune, "Is that all there is?" You wish you could approach the truck and whisper to her (to the hen, not Peggy, who's long gone to the poultry farm in the sky): "I'm afraid so, Sister Hen, at least for you."

But after than fleeting, moving scene, Stew and I might drive to a restaurant and order Pollo a la milanesa, which is the breast of a chicken pounded a quarter-inch thick, breaded and fried. Then we eat it.

Our squeamishness about the killing of animals doesn't extend to embracing a vegetarian diet, something Stew and I have repeatedly tried and failed at after only three or four days.

Sad truth is we don't mind bumping off Sister Hen, as long as someone does it for us and also plucks, decapitates, disembowels and dismembers her and puts the remains on a Styrofoam tray covered with plastic wrap. It's all a matter of degrees of separation between the deed and our plate.

A couple of years ago, we began buying eggs from Félix who collected them from chickens living in his yard. His chickens presumably led happy, fulfilling lives though really, Who the hell knows what goes through the mind of a hen or what her life aspirations are? But ultimately the eggs were not very good.

They were smallish, thin-shelled and with very fragile yolks, nothing like those mutant creations--in various designer colors no less--that Martha Stewart used to flaunt at the TV camera. The reason for the low quality of eggs from Félix, Stew surmised, was poor diet. Félix chickens just scrap along eating worms and this-and-that, and not that much of it either.

Eggs from our own well fed, fancy-pants hens, living in luxurious digs, would provide us with jumbo eggs, ready for collection in a wicker basket. These sassy, productive layers--the fifty-three percent of the chicken world so to speak--would vote Republican if they could.

I still have to get to the part in the "Dummies" book that explains how to find the eggs--do the hens just leave them around the coop, helter-skelter, or pile them neatly and then carefully sit on them?--but I'm sure we can figure that out with Félix' assistance.

But that's the easy part. It gets difficult when the hens stop laying and just spend their days peck, peck, pecking around like some retired gringo volunteers at not-for-profit organizations in San Miguel, just trying to pass the time.

I imagine these post-menopausal birds would keep producing manure which would still be very good fertilizer. But who ever heard of a coop-turned-nursing home for just cranking out manure? And if you keep bringing in young hens without getting rid of the elders, soon you'd either have to expand the coop or it will start looking like Hong Kong at rush hour.

I'm afraid that death followed by a dignified Chicken Fricassee may be the only solution. Friends have suggested we just give the aged birds to Félix--where would we be without this guy?--whose wife would dispatch and "dress" them for us.

Even then, I'm afraid we might start naming the chickens while they're still clucking, which would make them pretty unappetizing when dead. "Here's Southern Fried Chicken," we'd tell your dinner guests. "She was formerly known as Honey Boo-Boo."

This chicken coop business, I tell you, is going to take some further research.




17 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. The "For Dummies" series has titles for practically everything, from gardening to overhauling car engines. It's insane and evidently very profitable.

      al

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  2. At one point in my life, I would have said, "If Granny could do, so can I." But I then remember my grandmother did many things out of necessity that I have somehow lost by attaining far too much sophistication. Maybe slaughtering chicken would remove some of my own silly veneer.

    Am I volunteering? Maybe. It might be an interesting adventure.

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    1. Thanks for the offer to volunteer, but I don't want to have a half-murdered chicken running around if you screw up. My grandma used to do kill her own chickens too, but I'm not going there.

      al

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  3. Having grown up in a family that did things the Felix way, I never got very attached to any of our chickens. Nasty little critters. Ours were free range(all over the place) with their dropping free range as well. I looked for a whole lot of eggs growing up, the trick is finding the egg shortly after it is laid. After one rotten egg in with a half dozen good ones in the fry pan, one learns to crack each egg into a cup before adding it to the rest. One last thing:Did you ever have the pleasure of cleaning a chicken coop? I charged the local farm wives triple per hour for that chore when I was a lad and they were more than happy to pay...

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    1. I did notice in one of the chicken books extensive warnings about cleaning up chicken poop. Evidently chicken spend a great deal of their time eating and pooping. How much would you charge me?

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    2. I had to laugh at that one. Find one in the hood and check it out, then decide if that is really something you want to shovel out.

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  4. Egg laying is a function of how much sunlight chickens receive. Sort of a photo-tropism pituitary-ovarian response. Once you build the coop, rig an orange extension cord and a lamp; and get the right light wavelength bulbs that mimic the real sunlight. The light only needs to be on from 5am to 8am so if you can add a timer to the cord and light socket, then you literally don't have to get up with the chickens. --Bill Check this out: http://blog.mcmurrayhatchery.com/2010/10/27/why-arent-my-chickens-laying/

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    1. Bill: Fair warning. But being quite a bit more south than the US, I think we get 12 hours a day of light even in the dead of winter. I'll check with, who else?, Felix.

      Al

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  5. I have been looking for a place a bit out of town, with room for fruit trees, a garden, and maybe animals. It's possible that a few chickens are in my future. I look forward to further reports on the subject.

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  6. I noticed an interesting new offering at the market in California yesterday. Eggs labeled "not caged chickens". They cost almost one dollar more per dozen but I imagined happy chickens running around and hiding their eggs au natural. I bought them!

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    1. Hope the eggs were good. The hens certainly sound politically correct!

      al

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  7. I think they lay eggs for about three years. Do you have a large dog to keep the coyotes, weasels, racoons and foxes away?
    How about you save money on the hens and dog food and spend it on high grade chicken feed for Felix's hens. Also something with calcium or something in it to beef up the shells. Felix can give you the eggs and he can have the hens for dinner after they stop laying. Heartless!

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    1. We have three dogs but they all are lazy mutts who sleep inside and probably wouldn't know what to do with face-to-face with a fox or a coyote, though they've caught a couple of rabbits.

      Your idea for buying food for Felix's chickens sounds excellent! I'm going to ask him and see what he says. We already feed his two dogs, which he brings to work every day.

      Thanks.

      Al

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  8. We raised chickens when I was growing up. They aren't difficult to manage at all. And they continue to lay eggs for years, though I don't recall how many. I don't recall we had much (if any) trouble with non-producers. Fate (mostly in the form of raccoons, foxes, etc.) seems to kill off hens fairly rapidly anyway. However, I think being in an egg factory kills them off even faster.

    As for finding the eggs, if you provide a coop with places for them to lay the eggs, then the eggs will be right there. We had a coop with dark egg-laying compartments built into the side of the coop that had a lid we could raise to collect the eggs. Each hen will lay about 1 egg a day.

    Don't expect uniformly large eggs, though. Sometimes you will get very large eggs (some even with double-yolks), and sometimes small ones. Remember, store-bought eggs are graded for size.

    I also tend to agree that Felix's poor egg quality likely relates to diet. Our chickens got mash (a sort of green powder) and a seed mix that looked a lot like wild bird feed, but with more cracked corn. We also kept our birds in a coop/house that had a caged (ceiling too) area outdoors where they spent the day. We closed the door at dusk when they were all inside. If you don't close the door to the henhouse at night, raccoons and other varmints will enter and eat your chickens.

    Good luck! I look forward to reading about your husbandry adventures.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we recently overheard at the hairdresser's someone talking about getting a few chickens.

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  9. I would like to ask you to share some links to other sources concerning this topic just in case you know any of them.

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    1. Hi: Sorry but I don't have any links to offer to online sources. All I know is what I read in the two "For Dummies" books in the photo and over-the-fence advice from people who raise chickens.

      Good luck

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