Thursday, 19 January 2017

Raising chickens for the table- Tablebird project

We regularly get asked what birds are best for various purposes, but one in particular is for the table. And to be honest I think every smallholder would love to find the ‘ultimate bird’; one that not only supplies a sufficient number of eggs per year (or week), but that carried sufficient body weight (and growth rate) suitable for the table.I'm just not sure such a bird exists.

In recent years we have primarily processed excess roosters for the freezer; a sub sequence of breeding and hatching.

Indian Game for table
Indian Game Hens
-Indian Games are a smaller framed bird (even the large size that we breed) their mass is predominantly muscle and therefore they have a greater meat yield.
The slower growing breed are better suited to free ranging, this does produce a darker (sometimes yellowing) and tasty flesh, though this may not appeal to all. Their docile nature does mean roosters can live together. Average age 7-8months/ 2-2.8kg dressed.

Light Sussex rooster
-Light Sussex (standard) are a larger framed bird, though not as ‘meaty’ and once of size tend not to gain a lot more weight, or do so in their latter years (not so great for eating purposes)
Sussex roos for freezer
The paler meat and light feathers/skin etc. are generally more appeasing to the general consumer. Some males may live together if reared together from hatching, however the breed are known for aggressive male behaviour, so this generally only lasts until working age/when crowing begins (which maybe as young as 10-12 weeks).  Average age 3-6 months (depending on behaviour)/ 1.0-1.8kg dressed.

However in recent years these have been few and far between.
As between maintaining our own stock; due to losses, replacements coming of age, equipment failure (I needed to replace the incubator) amongst other issues. 
Sourced Heritage style tablebirds-  purchased August 2015
bought as part of a group (they're not all ours in the picture)
In mid-2015 we even sourced some ‘heritage style table birds’ from a hatchery and purchased and flew them up as part of a group- only to be disappointed with the results. [And we were not the only ones who didn't see the anticipated results]. As they were slower growing and smaller than the pure IG and Sussex we reared around the same time.

So it’s safe to say it's been a while since we had home grown chicken on the menu… So this year we may have gone a little overboard!

Chicks are generally something people associate with spring, but chicken eggs will actually be fertile at any time of year (given the hens are laying and rooster in working). So here with the tropical condition we generally incubate during autumn and winter; with cut off generally being mid-November, to avoid raising young birds through the wet season.

This year we broke that rule, not only did we not incubate in autumn (due to going overseas) we did incubate upon our return and continued to do so into early December; as the Indian Games were laying. And as these birds only lay for short periods of time throughout the year (for a month in every 3 or 4) you incubate when you can.

We purchased our original Indian Game stock with the intention of crossing them with the Sussex (and laying flock we already had). As the concept was to produce a meatier bird, with a larger frame that laid reasonably well… the smallholders ultimate bird. To date this idea has never eventuated, though we have not dedicated time or resources to attempting to breed and rear them either. This year however we decided to make the best of an unfortunate situation- lost an Indian Game rooster in the early part of the laying season. So we decided to place the Sussex rooster in one tractor with half the Indian Game girls and try.

So we incubated both pure Indian Games and Indian Game cross Sussex (ended up purchasing a second incubator so we knew which hatchlings were which)… though to be honest now they are old it is obvious anyway.

Along with our experimental hatchlings we came across the opportunity to purchase some ‘Ross’ parent flock chicks. These arrived via transport on the 19th December.
Ross’ are a hybrid, selectively bred for commercial poultry production… so what you buy from the shops. They are generally referred to as ‘broilers’ developed for maximum growth and meat yield. There are other hybrids developed by other suppliers, often hear them referred to as ‘Ross-Cobbs’, these are actually two different birds but both are commonly used, and are very similar in appearance.

We have reared ‘broilers’ before, they were an early addition to our smallholding.  early on in our
Broilers August 2012
smallholding. However not only did I find they were more susceptible to illnesses, but found they lacked a number of general chicken behaviours and were not particularly compatible with a free range environment; as they gain weight and mass quite dramatically over a short period of time they are larger than birds we generally move out of the brooder box and outside, but they were not yet fully feather and therefore more susceptible to the weather. As they grew older their mass meant moving became slow and cumbersome, and we had to remove feeders to stop them sitting in their own mess and eating.
We had postponed D-day for one flock for 2 weeks(due to other commitments), meaning these birds were approximately 3 months old by time of slaughter. During which time the birds became so large and movement so restricted culling became necessary due to their lack of quality of life.
Commercially ‘broilers’ reach market weight and therefore slaughter by 40 days, so less than 7 weeks.
new broilers roaming
We have accidentally reared one to over 6 months of age. She was sent to us from a hatchery as a ‘Light Sussex’.  We even had a few eggs from her, eventually she pasted in her sleep curled up in her spot.

So if I am honest I still have reservations about trailing broilers again. Being the parent stock they are also supposed to produce a fair egg yield, so you would hope they would have a greater life expectancy. [Guess only time will tell on that one]
However the rational being that whether we purchase and rear them, or whether we purchase free range chicken from the stores (which we have been for some time); they will be ‘broilers’, so we may as well feed and rear them- this way we know how they have been treated and how much free ranging, exercise, daylight they have had, what treatments or chemicals (if any).

Experimental flock- Indian Game x Sussex

To date we have sold a few of the younger/smaller female crosses. We will not need as many as we hatched; so not only will that pay for a few bags of feed, but it maintains their living conditions in the longer term. At the moment they are housed in tractors that rotate around the garden, allowing for grazing, and are free ranged rotation-ally, to ensure the other birds do not eat all their food.
Now 6-9 weeks of age, these are older than 
commercially reared ‘indoor’ birds.


2 broilers (centre), IG hen (right) of same age, 2 IG's (left) twice age

The Ross’ have been transitioned to their outdoor shed and have undertaken their 'holding period' where we gradually allow them greater free ranging time until they are eventually fully free ranged- ensuring they know where 'home' is. 
We are not sure whether this may change with age, or whether it is a result of free ranging them with another breed, so far they are expelling all my reservations from our previous experience. They are relishing the free ranging conditions; scratching, foraging and running around, displaying 'normal' chicken behaviours. 
They have been indoors longer than we would have likes, as although only one month old (and still quite sparsely feathered) these birds are already en-par (size wise)with their Indian Game cohabitants, who are twice their age and far too large to remain indoors. We have only  prevented free ranging/transitioning earlier due to the torrential rain of the previous fortnight.  During which the crosses had to return to their transitional housing for fear of losing the flock to the wet. [This is why I try not to incubate so late, though this wet was a little earlier than the last few years] Thankfully this week’s drier (though exceptionally humid) conditions have allowed for everything (and everyone) to dry out a little.   

 So from no chicken to potentially a years supply… Should be interesting to compare their progress and their outcome. We will keep you up to date on the tablebird project.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Meaty few weeks

Well it’s definitely been a meat focused and at times an emotional few weeks! The end of the year and all its festivities are fast approaching, and here has been no different. And it is safe to say we will be entering the New Year with a stocked freezer. So much so we purchased a new chest freezer, as we did not trust the (very) old one in the shed with our produce.
I have posted numerous times about our animals and their purpose; discussing them in both live and meat context. From which I have received feedback as many struggle with the idea of discussing piglets with pork… and at this time of year ham.
I guess smallholding forces you to accept and face the responsibility of being a meat eater. And we chose to care and nurture our animals whilst they are will us, offering them the best life we can. And in turn produce the best quality and sustainable food for our family table.
We have been raising livestock now for ourselves for over 5 years and admit that the decision to process one of our own still remains a weight, and I suppose the day it becomes matter of fact is probably the day we should stop. However the last few weeks have been pretty emotional, even for us.
Two weeks ago Sage delivered her most recent and largest litter to date. Arriving just before D-day for our porkers; the ‘three amigos’ (two for a butcher and one for ourselves).
Unfortunately she did deliver one still born and the runt didn’t look promising either. Whilst piglet losses are often discussed as common in commercial setting (hence why they use sow stalls). This is something we have had very little experience with. [Berkshires tend to have smaller litters of larger piglets and as the sows are not that large an animal we have not had issues with losses from being rolled on or smothered.]
The following morning (D-day) resulted in a strange scenario: Having brought food down for our porker, in aim of keeping things ‘normal’ and as stress free as possible. I proceeded to feed the other pigs, only to find the runt outside and alone in the dirt. Quickly fishing him out of the pen I discovered he was still breathing; just.
So through the process of dispatching and preparing our porker for the freezer I continued (in vain) to warm and attempt to bottle feed the runt; in the hope that feeding him would allow me to return him to his mother… Yes I am aware of the irony.
Despite the fact we rear our pigs to sustain our meat consumption, losing an animal is always difficult. The decision to dispatch can be hard, but you reconcile yourself with the knowledge that you did the best for them whilst they were with you and that, that was their purpose. It’s never easy, but it is the reason we rear the livestock to begin with; without that purpose they wouldn’t exist. Losing something leaves you wondering if there was more you could have done. Since we had lost another, potentially smothered we are unsure. So our largest litter has resulted in our largest losses… the reality of smallholding.

Our next emotional roller-coaster came this weekend. We visited a wonderful local Lowline producer to investigate our next beefy purchase.
A subject I will discuss in greater depth in future posts. 

However we were only able to discuss this as we would ‘have an opening’. In that we had booked a local mobile butcher to process our steer, Bart.
The decision to let someone else process him may seem strange, given we have successfully completed two cows previously ourselves (with help). And there were a few factors that cumulated in this decision. The most prominent of which being; cows being significantly larger than pigs require more planning and organisation logistically, along with equipment and more hands are also useful. Coordinating those things had meant we had already ‘put off’ the task multiple times. Personally having reared him from a four day old poddy calf and having him with us for 3 ½ years the task seemed over whelming. That and we felt an obligation to do him justice, so paying a professional seemed appropriate.
So Saturday was a sombre day; all went well (as best as they can anyway). So we currently have a mobile cold room parked in our garden. Where he will hang for a fortnight prior to the butcher returning to process. (Update to follow)

If you are interested in the butchering side of either pigs or cattle I have covered these in the past (though am sure I will post again). But please note some may consider these posts graphic.

On a more upbeat note Sunday we took delivery of our new beefy’s as well as some new meat chicks which we intend to trial. So I guess you could say it all starts again, so more from those to come.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

What a 'buzz'y week!

There has been a real 'buzz' of activity here over the last few weeks (it must be spring). And a large part of that activity could be attributed to this year’s addition of our bee hive; as they fruit trees and veggies have flourished.
Other than selecting a position for our hive (preparing and providing some much required TLC to the previously loved hive and then purchasing our ‘brood’ from a local honey supplier the bees have pretty much been left to their own devices for the past six months.

I had (on occasion) made an attempt to 'check in'; in other words, suited up I took a look at their progress in the hive... which did result in my being stung! Note to self: running tights do not make appropriate apiarist attire! Although to be fair in general they have been mostly placid. The hive is situated at the furthest point of the house yard, close to the pig pen. This allows for ease of maintenance (mowing, trimming grass etc). and the bees are situated near trees and water. 
We are no bee experts and are still learning ourselves, so here are a few basics we have had to learn (and may make this post easier to read) 

 [if you are a seasoned apiarist and disagree with any of this, please feel free to correct me.]

Apiarist is a beekeeper; an apiary refers to the location of hives.
A hive refers to the structure or nest occupied by a colony of bees. So hive is the housing and a colony refers to the bees who occupy it as a group, including their ranks/functions.
Hives may take a number of forms from wild or native hives (so ones wild colonies construct themselves) to artificial hives that house domesticated bees. 

With domesticated bees, the internal structure consists of beeswax cells called honeycomb. These maybe artificial or formed within frames with or without a foundation.
The honeycomb is used by bees to store food sources (honey and pollen) and their “brood” (their eggs and larvae).  The methods used to host the bees and therefore harvest the honey really does depend upon the type of hive used.

Probably the most common (or commercially used in Australia) is the Langstroth. This is the setup we have used as the hives and parts were easy to source and to 'get started'.- They are the white stacked style of boxes you have seen and recognised as beehives
The Langstroth hive is a modular system consisting of boxes filled with frames. To begin with he supplied a local honey producer with a box filled with ‘prepped’ frames.
These frames have wire that permeates through them which can be heated to melt/attach a wax foundation upon which the bees will (hopefully) build and fill their honeycomb. In this instance we are hoping for the contents to be a strong “brood” (larvae). Once this box contained a quantity of honeycomb, larvae and young bees the supplier then contacted us to retrieve our box.
This then formed our “nucleus”- brood, young bees and importantly our own queen. This nucleus would allow us to form our own colony.
 The advantage of the Langstroth hive is that it is modular and the form and parts are common and easily sourced. So as with sourcing our “nucleus” they are easy to transfer or “split”.  

However these are not the only types of hives. Many prefer the 'top bar', the benefits include; Lighter to work with and ease of use- by switching the set up from a vertical plane to horizontal the honey then becomes front of the hive and brood/nest at the back. This arrangement should be less disruptive to the bees and therefore many claim they do not require smoke or bee suits to inspect.
Making this type of hive increasingly popular with backyard bee keepers/producers, as it is accessible to all ages and physical ability levels- Langstorth boxes get rather heavy when full, so this horizontal format reduces/eliminates the need to lift.
This method is also commonly homemade, with a number of instructions/ plans etc available online (with a little research), therefore this may be the most cost effective for the beginner, starting out.
Any also prefer this method as it is deemed 'more natural'; the bees construct their own honeycomb structure, also allowing for the honey comb to be utilised. This does however mean that improperly formed combs can break off and a greater level of attention and potential intervention is required. Some also experience issues with ventilation and heat retention over winters (not too much of an issue in the tropics).
Another increasingly popular hive here in Australia is the 'Flow hive'. This is a newcomer to the market being developed by an Australian family, who became one of the world most successful crowdfunding campaigns.  Launching their patented idea on Indiegogo in February 2015. This product is adaptable to other hive setups (particularly the Langstroth) and for the lowest box is primarily the same. But the honey box comprises of two moulded sections creating a honey comb form. These are then moved (using a key) to split the form, draining the honey content.
The idea being there is less disruption to the colony when extracting honey, less equipment and time required, and (according to their website, and the prompt to develop this method) fewer bee injuries/ squashed during the process. I personally cannot comment on this as I don't know of anyone who has one, or seen one in action (though I am curious).       
Downside is the initial purchase is more pricey; although this should be offset by the need for equipment and time for extracting honey- hot knives, honey extractor/spinner, filtering equipment etc.  

The colony, all members of a honey bee colony start as eggs and undergo complete “metamorphosis”, passing through the larvae (legless ‘gr

ubs’ that feed on honey, pollen and nectar to pupal (bee young), before becoming adults that  perform specialist tasks.

Queens are the only members of a colony able to lay fertilised eggs.
Workers bees are the largest population within a colony and are entirely female, but they are unable to produce fertilized eggs. If there is no queen they may lay ‘unfertilized eggs’, which become male drones.
Workers forage for pollen tend to all other bees and  larvae, ventilate the hive and defend the nest. The average life span of worker bees is approximately six weeks.
Drones are male and have only one task: to fertilize new queens.
Swarms are a natural part of colony behaviour, and are generally the result of overcrowding within the existing hive and/or the presence of multiple queens. In which case the older queens will leave with approximately half of the hive’s worker bees, leaving the new queen in the hive with the rest of the workers.  Whilst swarming is a natural cycle for bees, in  domesticated bees most bee keepers attempt to prevent this occurring through “splitting” hives.  
One of the most misunderstood things I found out from keeping bees, is that whilst swarming honey bees are generally at their most docile; as they do not have young or a nest to defend and as such, their incentive to sting is reduced. Although they will still attack if provoked, as they still have a queen to defend.
In the open a ‘swarm’ maybe encouraged into an artificial hive; as they are actively seeking a new home. This is a cost effective means to obtaining a colony given you know what you are doing. Often mistaken for ‘swarms’ are wild hives that may have been constructed in hollow trees, building cavities etc. These are far more difficult (if not impossible) to remove and may require pest management to assist.

So that’s the basics as I understand it. So over the past six months our ‘nucleus’ has been allowed to develop into its own colony within the two box (high) hive. Sometimes I have heard these ‘boxes’ or layers referred to as ‘super’. Once there was evidence of the “brood” (formation, larvae etc.) in half of the frames of the second box we placed a third on top; separated by a “queen excluder”.
This should allow for our colony to continue to grow, whilst the plastic barrier allows the rest of the colony to enter the upper most box, but no the queen. This is what is referred to as a “honey super”. Therefore the colony can build honeycomb and honey, but there should not be any fertilised eggs (as the queen is unable to get in there). This allows the queen and larvae to feed from and inhabit the lower box/es, leaving us harvest from the highest box; safe in the knowledge that we are not harming the young or the queen, and therefore the future of our colony/hive.  
So to our first harvest!
The top box, or honey super now had four ‘full’ frames of “capped honeycomb” also known as "capped frames" and two partials. “Capped” refers to the bees covering the comb with wax once the cell is full. Therefore you want to harvest the capped frames. Now I doubted myself (given this was my first harvest) as some of the frames were not filled to the edges and some were thicker than others.

This is where I wish I had had another set of hands with me to take photos- I had had the best of intentions in that respect, however this does become a sticky process. So between not wanting to aggravate the colony more than necessary and not wishing to sticky my phone, am afraid I can only try again next time… And in all honestly why I contemplated not writing this post.

In all honesty the bees were rather accommodating (may have had something to do with me being more appropriately dressed- lesson learned). So I swiftly transferred the four full frames into an unused box- for easier transport.
Then using a ‘hot knife’, following the frame as a guide. I opened the capped honey comb into a food grade container, placing each frame immediately into the extractor/spinner.
I read a post that suggested capping one side at a time, so the honey wasn’t spun back on itself. I am not convinced this had any affect, but it did mean the frame wasn’t oozing as much when I uncapped the second side (given I had spun some of the honey out already.

After quite some effort and spinning I did repeat the knife process a few times and eventually use a needle scraper to open some of the lower cells that the knife hadn’t reached. And spun some more.

Once satisfied with my efforts, and if I am honest I wasn’t sure there was that much in the bottom of the extractor… and there was some still in the cells. I guess I left I shouldn’t be greedy and leave some for the bees.
I returned the frames to the top box; leaving the honeycomb formation (and some honey) on them, ready for refilling.

We then released the honey into food grade containers before filtering. Now you can purchase honey vats with filters and taps. To transfer into and then bottle. As We hadn’t quite got that far (and this is only for ourselves) We filtered the honey through paint strainer into a purpose bought stainless steel bucket. This was then siphoned into jars. This is considered raw, filtered honey. This actually produced around 6kg!

The honeycomb residue and honey mess collected in the food grade container during ‘uncapping’ we transferred to an oven dish (via a sieve- removing the largest particles) and heated until melted. This we removed, allowed to cool- separating the wax, as it floats to the top and sets and most of the other undesirable particles. Once lifted off and removed we then strained it as before, providing another kilo +. Only we used this honey to attempt Meade (honey wine), as it is 'heat treated' and often thought to be less suitable for consuming raw. General advise seems to be best for cooking... So will let you know how that goes in 6-12 months.