Coopers

Our backyard chicken trial was such a success that we welcomed eight new laying hens into our flock this spring. We brought them home as baby chicks, but they are now fully grown ladies with gorgeous coloring and feather patterns. Proudly introducing:

The good news is that we are already getting 6-7 eggs per day from these ladies, which we didn’t expect until October. Lots of double yolks as well, even from the little baby ping-pong sized eggs they laid at first.

The bad news is that even if we sold their eggs for $50 / dozen it would take a few years to pay off their new coop. Clearly chickens are a rewarding but not lucrative business venture!

First Clark and Maggie built a brooder, so the chicks would have a safe and warm place to live in our garage when they were young and vulnerable.

We picked up the chicks from Alaska Mill Feed & Garden Center on April 13th, and Maggie held them in her lap the entire drive home. We had the heater on full blast and Maggie nearly melted, but we didn’t want to put any of our vulnerable little birds at risk. They were the cutest, chirpiest things ever… and they fit perfectly in our Easter baskets!

When they got a little bigger (which happened shockingly fast) we let them explore the backyard. We also introduced them to Tess, which went great! She is not your typical Labrador!

Eventually we let the chicks out into the run with our three older hens during the day, but our old coop was too small to house all the birds at night. Designing and building our new coop was a summer-long project! It started with Sam and Clark building a retaining wall, and then Maggie and Clark did most of the work on the coop. My dad pitched in when he was here this summer, and now the hens are happily moved into their mansion. It is insulated and even has electrical outlets so we can plug in their water bowl and light this winter.

We still need to add a few finishing touches, but the hens don’t seem to mind. They do a great job of using the egg boxes, so our eggs are always nice and clean. We wonder if we will continue to get 6-7 eggs daily throughout the winter?

Full disclosure: two of our chicks never moved into the mansion. We actually brought home ten birds: eight layers and two Cornish Cross meat birds. The kids named these two Supper and Dinner (totally morbid, not my idea) and Supper turned out to be a rooster! By June they were starting to look a little miserable on their own two feet, and obviously we couldn’t have a rooster waking up the entire neighborhood every morning… so it was time for butchering. Past time.

I grew up on an acreage with chickens and detested butchering day, with the bloody wooden stump, swinging hatchet, headless birds scrambling about, and the awful smell of singed feathers. The only part I enjoyed was dissecting the gizzard, peeling it open with almost as much anticipation as a Christmas gift, sifting through the mealy feed and looking for what strange, undigested treasures the chickens had devoured and could now be rescued.

Fortunately Clark’s mom was here in June when it was time to butcher. She remembered her childhood days on the farm with vivid clarity and coached us through every detail. As always, Clark was a good teacher and made it clear that we would be as quick and humane as possible. The kids helped with every step of the process, erasing any possibility that they will go through childhood believing chickens magically sprout on a Costco rotisserie rack.

It turns out we should have butchered the birds at least a week earlier, because they were the size of miniature turkeys. I’m proud to say we still didn’t waste a single bit: Grandma got the gizzards, and I made stock with the carcasses. Even the feet!

To get through this day I pulled up a passage from Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite authors.

“I know this is a controversial point, but in our family we’d decided if we meant to eat anything, meat included, we’d be more responsible tenants of our food chain if we could participate in the steps that bring it to the table. We already knew a lot of dying went into our living: the animals, the plants in our garden, the beetles we pull off our bean vines and crunch underfoot, the weeds we rip from the potato hills. Plants have the karmic advantage of creating their own food out of pure air and sunlight, whereas animals, lacking green chlorophyll in our skin, must eat some formerly living things every single day. You can leave the killing to others and pretend it never happened, or you can look it in the eye and know it. I would never presume to make that call for anyone else, but for ourselves we’d settled on a strategy of giving our food a good life until it was good on the table.”

Barbara Kingsolver; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I’ve never been able to look the killing in the eye, and that won’t change anytime soon whether we are talking about chickens or salmon or bunnies or moose. But the kids both did. This makes me partly proud and partly sad, for reasons I can’t fully process.

I hope Supper and Dinner enjoyed their good (albeit short) lives, seeing plenty of sunshine pecking around the run all day.

Maggie is adamant that she will someday live on a farm with horses and chickens and dogs and lots of room for all to roam, so it’s good she can look the killing in the eye with compassion. Whatever she decides, she’ll do it right.

This girl is one part chicken whisperer, one part chicken slayer, and most of all ready to sell those eggs!

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