Sunday, November 18, 2012

Eggs or Fried Chicken—Day 18 of a Town Girl Touched by the Farming Life

            Did you know there is a different between egg-laying hens and meat hens?  Yes, in general, all hens lay eggs.  Yes, if you butcher a hen and cook it, you are eating "chicken."  Even so, the difference touched this family last year in our own backyard (or kitchen). 

            Let's start with what this town girl is doing with chickens in town anyway.  It started a few years ago my mother-in-law gave us fertilized eggs which my mother then hatched in her incubator.  The result was a hodge podge of hens and roosters of mixed breeds.  That did not matter.  My girls enjoyed their new pets, so much so they decided to use them for 4-H projects.  However, since the mixed breeds had a limited ribbon potential and since they had been a hit with the kids, we decided to order pure bred chickens from Murray McMurray.  This first batch of chickens was returned to their original home at my in-laws, and we made plans to share a minimum order of hens with another family.  That is how this town family got another batch of chickens.

            Our method up to this point included the chickens spending a lot of time in our basement with daily trips outside to a make-shift cage.  This was not pleasant for our noses, even with daily cleanings of their area.  That did not matter too much to the girls.  Who would have thought pets that actually gave back to the owner (eggs and/or a food source) could be so much fun?  To keep up the girls' chances at blue ribbons for the chickens at the 4-H Fair, we needed to get a fresh batch of chickens every other year or so.  When we wanted a new batch, we took these to a livestock auction barn about 40 miles from our home and got a good price for them.  Their overall healthy appearance played a big role in the price the girls got, but it also helped that the chickens were very tame from all the handling they got during play time.

            Before the last batch of chickens was grown, my husband built a great chicken house (with a little help from the kids) enclosed with a little yard space on all sides. Chicken wire protected them on all sides, including the top, which was helpful when a hawk discovered our treasured pets.  Now with the new batch, he made some adjustments and ran cords for heat lamps, so the new baby chicks could live outside beginning on day one.  Whew!  All of our noses thanked him.  This chicken pen proved to have another advantage for the girls during play time.  The chicken pen was right next to the swing, the slide, and the sand box with the plastic sand castle.  Yes, the chickens took turns on all of these.  Who would have thought a child could shove a chicken through the doors of a sand castle and have it appear out another opening unharmed?  Unbelievably, it can be done.  When these chickens had fulfilled their 4-H obligation once or twice, they, too, were taken to the auction barn.  About our third time of doing this, the auctioneer began recommending our chickens because he had bought some and was thrilled with both their tameness and egg productivity.

            That brings us to my original question.  When ordering chickens, the descriptions often referred to them something like egg-producers or meat chickens, we eventually settled for the high egg producing Black Australorps since we did not plan on butchering them.  Although the girls were not happy with even the thought of possibly butchering them, all my husband and I could think about was our individual home butchering experiences when growing up (which I talked about some yesterday).  Unfortunately, our chicken plans were foiled when government regulations demanded that every chicken at the auction house be tested for disease before they could be sold, even though they sit in open cages outside for a few minutes before they are sold.  To be expected, the testing process would not be worth the cost to the auction barn, considering their percentage of the sales.  Thus, they no longer allow chickens to be sold at their establishment.  After some discussion, we decided to hire an Amish family to take our chickens from fluffy to ready for the oven.  This is when the difference between egg-laying chickens and meat chickens did not just touch our family but knocked us in the face.  Underneath those bountiful, fluffy feathers stood naked, skinny, anorexic hens.  Actually, they were not really anorexic, but egg layers put all their extra calories (calories not directly needed for survival) into egg production.  Thus, there was not much "flesh" on the birds; in fact, on these high egg producers, there was barely enough meat to scrape off the bones. 

            So, what does that mean for our current chickens?  We are not going to bother butchering them when we need to rotate in new chickens—for a fresh appearance for the 4-H Fair.  Since they will still be good for producing eggs, we hope to sell them to someone wanting eggs.  We will just have to make sure the buyer knows not to expect to get good, fried chicken out of them.

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