Posts Tagged ‘self-sufficiency’

Chickens for meat


The picture above is courtesy of the wonderful blog site the Self Sufficient Home Acre, about which I will say more later in this post.
There are a number of reasons to grow and process some meat chickens at home, but one reason stands out for me: the conditions under which commercial broilers are raised and butchered are appalling. My home-grown meat birds are healthy eating because of the way that I feed them, but even if they weren’t, I can provide a better life and a better death than happens on a commercial basis.

The question of what type of chicken to raise is an important one. The chickens that are seen everywhere from chain grocery stores to fancy butcher shops are all Cornish crosses. They are extremely fast growing, being ready for harvest in about eight weeks, and have the extremely broad breast that appeals to American consumers. The meat is soft and doesn’t take much chewing. I don’t like them, personally, because they are so fast-growing that all they do is lie on their heavy breasts and eat. They don’t act like real chickens. Also, the meat doesn’t have time to develop deep flavor, and these birds do very poorly at high altitudes like my home area. On the other hand, the males of most laying breeds make a scrawny-looking eating chicken and they start crowing long before they are big enough to eat, a serious problem in my urban area. My personal preference is for Pioneer hybrids, which are relatively large and fast growing but look and act like real chickens. They are pretty to see, and reach edible size in 3-4 months. I butcher the males as soon as I hear crowing, and let the females grow on a bit. I have kept some for laying hens and they are pretty good layers.

The  picture above illustrates something very important to understand about body morphology.  This particular picture is of commercial versus heritage turkeys, but the chickens are quite similar to this. The rounded bird on the right resembles the Cornish Cross which is used commercially, and the long bodied light-breasted bird on the left resembles the Pioneers and heritage breeds. American consumers are used to looking at a fairly spherical bird, and can find the natural configuration of a chicken startling. Some also find the meat a little tougher. I find it utterly delicious in flavor, the way chicken is supposed to taste, and don’t mind using my teeth a little bit. I often choose moist cooking methods such as braising to increase tenderness, but also grill these birds and am very happy with the results. And I really like it that these chickens can run around, forage, and flap up to the perch in normal fashion.

I came across a self-sufficiency blog that has wonderful material about home meat production, The Self Sufficient Home Acre. The author has a great post about the process of butchering chickens, and another about mindset and preparation for butchering. The photos are graphic, so don’t go there out of casual interest. But if you can imagine that a meat animal could be regarded respectfully and even reverently, then you may want to consider raising some of your own and taking responsibility for how it is treated and harvested, and this blog can help.

I also strongly recommend the book Mini Farming by Brett Markham. He has an excellent discussion of meat chickens and a great set of instructions for butchering. My set-up is based on his. His book is also a wonderful source of information about serious vegetable gardening and home-business laying flocks.

I feed the chicks a starter mix that’s 20% protein until they’re about 10 weeks old. They get grit right from the beginning, and at age three weeks when they have had time to eat some grit, I start giving them greens from the garden finely chopped, starting with small amounts and increasing over time. After the ten-week point I change their ration to the flaxseed-spiked layer pellet that my hens get, continue greens, and add additional protein with goat milk, table scraps, eggs that weren’t used up in a timely way, or whatever is handy. My goal is to produce maximum omega-3s without using too much flaxseed, which can give an off taste.

I have only one more thing to add, and that is that I incorporate every by-product of butchering back into the growth cycle. To me, that is part of taking the animal’s life seriously.  Each year I choose a spot where I want to grow trees or berries later, choosing a fenced-off area that my dogs can’t get to, and dig a series of deep holes in a large circle six feet or more across. After each butchering, the feathers, entrails, etc. are buried and covered with a couple of feet of soil. Then I set a straw bale or something similar on top to keep the fence-leaping coyotes out. Early the following spring I plant my chosen fruit tree or berry bush in the middle of the circle. They thrive. Five years after growing my first batch of meat chickens, the plum tree planted in that circle yields bushels of plums.

Ultimately, the proof is in the eating:

Independence Day

I am not a locavore. I love Italian olive oil and cheese, Belgian chocolate, South American coffee, Spanish ham, Alaskan salmon,and wine from all over the place. I am not an extremist about anything, and I think that cutting oneself off from the rest of the world makes less than no sense at all.
That said, it’s a lovely feeling to be able to produce a lot of what you need yourself, with the imports as luxury add-ons for variety. I value the concept of food independence and intelligent localism, and Independence Day weekend is a great time to take stock of how we’re doing at meeting our own needs, and celebrate with a local feast.
My current inventory looks pretty good. I’ve grown vegetables for years, but in my new location I’ve greatly expanded my vegetable garden and added laying hens and a dairy goat. I’m raising a batch of chicks for meat, and I have good local sources of grass-fed beef and humanely raised pork. So far this year, the only vegetables I’ve bought were potatoes and avocados, and not many of them. I can get flour from upstate New Mexico and southern Colorado. Not bad for a desert.
So, my 4th of July will start with a brunch of “yard salad,”homemade bread or cornbread, and eggs from our hens. Dinner is likely to include a grass-fed steak, more salad, and homemade egg pasta made from Sangre de Christo flour and backyard eggs. Midafternoon, we might snack on goat cheese from Magnolia, our “yard goat.” We’ll drink my own homebrewed mead, and drink a toast to our beautiful country and our own joy at being part of it.
This year I’ll ask my readers to consider having a local Independence Day feast, or as close to it as works for you. There are farmers’ markets this weekend, and some time to plan, so please leave a comment about how you plan to celebrate our local abundance.

Books Worth Reading: The Resilient Gardener

There are a lot of gardening books out there, and a lot of books on urban/suburban homesteading and on self-sufficiency. Many of them draw heavily from one another or from older books rather than from actual experience, but every now and then I come across a gardening book that I’m eager to share with others. Carol Deppe’s new book, The Resilient Gardener, is clearly based on years (decades?) of personal hands-on experience and is a must-read for anyone interested in the issue of personal food security. It is not a general gardening how-to book. Ms. Deppe discusses the best ways to improve your own food security by producing your own staple crops, and what makes a staple suitable for home food production with no unusual harvesting, threshing, or milling equipment. This isn’t one of the obnoxious-survivalist manifestos about how to be a country and a law unto yourself. It’s a sensible discussion of how ordinary people can direct their efforts to make themselves better equipped to endure the hiccups that life throws at us, whether environmental or health-related. As I read it, I found myself thinking about the spreading problems in my native Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Nearby cities like Baton Rouge weren’t hard hit by the storm. But Baton Rouge would nearly double in size in a week as evacuees poured in, grocery stores there would be nearly emptied of staple foods and anything fresh, streets would be filled with excess traffic and often impassable, and water and sewer systems would be strained. People with prudent habits were better equipped to help themselves and others through a difficult time.
No book about someone else’s needs and choices will ever be completely applicable to your own situation. Ms. Deppe includes a section on her own nutritional needs and decisions that can best be considered idiosyncratic. But then, as a doctor I believe that everyone’s needs are to a degree idiosyncratic, i.e. unique to themselves. Some basics apply to nearly everyone, but there’s a lot of individual variation. Her choices may have no applicability to you or me. They are, however, an encouragement to think carefully about our own needs and start doing more of what works for us.
I have no desire to be completely food-independent, even if such a thing were possible. But I do get great pleasure from contemplating the winter squash, potatoes, and sweet potatoes that came out of my own soil and will help feed me through the winter, and on winter evenings by the stove I’ll be studying Ms. Deppe’s ideas and planning how to be a more prudent member of my community next year.

Thanks Giving


What a deeply joyful Thanksgiving I was privileged to have: here in New Mexico we had both a new president and a good long soaking rain, and in the high desert it’s a little hard to say which is more exciting. The garden is still providing some lettuce, arugula, herbs, and carrots, but I have more time to reflect on what I’m doing. This has led to thinking about what, exactly, my urban homestead means. It certainly doesn’t mean self-sufficiency. That won’t happen until I can grow coffee and olive oil. It doesn’t mean grimly making do. It’s a happy celebration of what one small piece of city dirt can produce. I have a medical practice and a number of hobbies, but growing my own food in the most space-intensive way possible is a lot of fun, and I have a website and blog to let other people know that, if they want to provide for themselves a little more, they don’t need to quit their job and move to the country. I don’t even think that’s the best way to start. Start where you are, with what you have. People with no land at all can bake sourdough bread and brew beer, and those are indoor “yeast gardens.” People with a balcony can grow herbs in pots. People with a tiny yard can utilize it. In the quest for local food, we can have the most local food of all, and if we have more garden space at other points in our lives, we’ll know more about how to use it if we’ve practiced in small ways. Please go to my website,, for more about urban gardening, and look at my blog entries on other pages for details about the many small pleasures that crop up along the way.

Most of my winter posts will be about canning, preserving, and using what was made during the summer. That’s also a way of remembering the abundant season and being grateful for what I received. So, here’s a fond look backward at

the colors of summer.   august-08-029