Agh, I am sorry. Life’s been chugging away and I’ve been slack about posting. One really important thing that I’ve needed to write about is our Freedom Ranger project!
The quick and dirty version is that it was a great success and we’re definitely doing it again (probably this fall). But there’s more to it than that.
Choice of Breed: So we went with Freedom Rangers, of course. We started with 26 and ended with 24, which I consider pretty good for a first start. They were decent foragers and definitely packed on the pounds. They grew super fast, and weren’t the most elegant birds, having a sort of hobbling gate that doesn’t inspire much confidence their long term hardiness, but then, we weren’t raising them to be lifelong friends, were we? The Fella wants to try a heavy heritage breed next round. I like the Rangers enough to stick with them, we’re thinking about having a mixed flock.
Choice of Feed: We went with soy free organic feed from Modesto Milling. We had to bulk order it to cut costs. I bought 400 lbs of 20% protein ‘starter/broiler’ feed and 100 lbs of 17% ‘finisher/layer’ crumble. By the time we went to butcher, the birds were 11 weeks old and dressed out around 3.9 to 6.2 lbs, which is huge! For next time, I’m going to do 50/50 or 60/40 starter/finisher. I think that will slow their growth (in a good way – make them less mutant-like), and save us a few pennies on feed. One other issue with feed is that we under-ordered and ended up having to buy organic scratch from the local feed store which cost a fortune! I won’t make that mistake again: if we order too much I can just give the leftovers to my laying hens.
Equipment: The tractor and brooder we built worked great. The Fella, resident handyman, has lots of ideas for improvements. The brooder is SO well-insulated, it needs better ventilation for when we start chicks in warmer months, so we’ll be adding some little screened windows. The axles on the tractor need to be redesigned, as they are putting too much load on the frame of the cage and could eventually snap the wood. He’s got ideas for that I’ll document later on. The PVC pipe feeders were not as awesome as I’d hoped. Although way better than feeders on the ground, the birds would make a huge mess of their food anyway by sort of shoveling it out of the small opening as they ate, resulting in piles of wasted food on the ground. To save significant $$ on feed next time, we’re redesigning the feeders, either as troughs (though I worry about the birds getting up and pooping on them) by adding more feeders to ease congestion and partially covering the opening so it’s harder for them to shovel feed onto the ground. There will be lively debate on this subject between the Fella and I, stay tuned.
Processing: I got lots of crap for this, probably well deserved, but we decided to use a local processor rather than butcher the birds ourselves. So how was that? Well, guiltily, I must admit it was awesome. They charged $2.75 per bird, and it was a bit of an odyssey getting them down there because our little farm truck was just too small for all those cages. But after borrowing my uncle’s big macho man truck, the task went smooth as can be. We rounded up the birds, put them in a few portable cages, drove them to the processor with whom we had an appointment. They took the birds and within two hours had packed our coolers full of ice and individually bagged, chilled, clean chickens. We didn’t have to deal with getting together the equipment for doing it ourselves, and didn’t have to worry about disposing of all that gore and feathers. One surprise: they didn’t remove the heads or feet, which leads me to my next category…
Sales: My sister lined up a bunch of foodie buyers in San Francisco who were happy to pay extra for pasture-raised chicken fed an organic, soy-free diet. We charged $7 per lb. We wanted to get the birds to the customers as fresh as possible, which meant an early morning trek to the processor – about 1 hr each way – followed by an afternoon trek to the City – about 3 hrs each way – to meet with everyone at the local watering hole (that had so kindly allowed us to set up an underground meat market for the night). Because we got the birds back with heads and feet still attached, which I figured was just a little too much reality for my city folk (or at the very least too awkward to carry home on a bike), we raced home from the processor and frantically completed the final steps of butchering, packed them back into clean ice, changed out of our poopy, bloody clothes, and piled into my little car for chicken roadtrip part deux. It was a loooooong day! We also sold a few to family here at the Ranch, and by the end, had made back our cost in feed, and were able to keep nine birds for ourselves.
And Most Importantly, TASTE: I am ashamed to admit that until we roasted our first Ranch-raised chicken, I’d never had chicken that hadn’t come from the grocery store. I know, crazy. But for as horrible and inhumane as mass produced poultry is, it is really hard to find local, humane chicken producers. The cost margins are just so tight when you do it the right way, it turns an affordable staple into a luxury item, so nobody’s lining up to do it. But now that I’ve had the real thing, there’s just no going back. I’m panicking that we only have 3 more birds in the freezer. Ack! How did they get eaten up so fast?! My absolute favorite way to cook them is on the grill after they’ve been marinating in this Armenian style sauce for at least 4 hours:
Cut up one whole chicken into parts
In a bowl, combine the following:
Juice of 3 lemons
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsely
1/8 cut chopped fresh oregano
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large shallot, minced
Salt and pepper as you like (don’t skimp on either, this is a marinade, and will be the only seasoning for the meat)
Coat the chicken liberally in the marinade and refrigerate for several hours – the longer the better!