The subject of the e-mail was ‘“soon”???’ The e-mail itself went like this: “Your definition of “soon” must be waaaay different from mine. Since Aug 11, virtually every day, I go to “Starving”, to see the new post, and it’s never there. I’m aware that you also write to make a living, but it seems to me that a nice person [emphasis hers] could spare a few free words for a harmless (voyeuristic) old lady.” Helen, my correspondent, added one of those sideways winking smiley faces to make sure I understood that no offense was meant.
Helen, I will offer my apology publicly. I promised a post on Kevin’s new handy-dandy automatic chicken waterer “soon,” some seven weeks ago. In my defense I will point out that, in some contexts, seven weeks can certainly be soon. So, for example, if I were building a rocket to Jupiter, and promised it “soon,” I’m guessing you wouldn’t start looking for it until at least 2016. A blog post, though, is not quite as time-consuming a project, and I think you could have reasonably interpreted “soon” to be a matter of days, or maybe even a week. Seven weeks is clearly unreasonable.
But, you see, shit happens. The handy-dandy automatic chicken waterer was put on hold so Kevin could re-focus his efforts on something completely new: meat chickens.
We’ve thought about meat chickens every year since, it seems, the Eisenhower administration, but always decided against them. For several years, we had turkeys, and were very happy with their contribution to our freezer. We tried ducks as well, and while we were even happier with their contribution to our freezer, we didn’t care much for the pre-freezer stage. Our ducks were charmless, alarmist birds.
We’ve also heard that raising meat chickens isn’t really all that fun. The birds bred for the purpose – Cornish cross, they’re called – are so incredibly fast-growing, and so unnaturally large-breasted, that they don’t really act like birds. They eat and they poop. They don’t generally roost, but they spend a lot of time lying on the ground, conserving energy. Their legs sometimes don’t support them, and they’ve been known to lose the ability to walk altogether.
Although we know people who find the utility of being able to raise a chicken from chick to dinner-weight in six weeks outweighs the eerie blobbiness of the birds, we also know people who find the eerie blobbiness downright disgusting, and will never raise meat chickens again. That made us balk, from the Eisenhower administration until just last month.
What changed our minds was Pat. Pat is the brother of our friend Bob, who regulars might remember as the guy who catches fish. Pat and his wife Jill live in Maine, and do a lot of the things we do, and then some. They grow vegetables, they keep bees, they have laying hens. They also have sheep, and we are trying to come up with something good enough to trade for a lamb (a pig just might do the trick).
And they have meat chickens. Standard, Cornish cross meat chickens. But they don’t treat them like meat chickens. They feed them so they grow slowly, and they encourage them to walk around outside. They also grow them quite large, so they dress out at some ten pounds each. Their legs apparently function quite well, even up to that weight, and Pat says they’re not disgusting at all.
Had it been just me, I’m not sure that would have put me over the edge. But it was enough for Kevin, and he wanted to give the Pat method a go. If I have learned anything in the thirteen years of living with Kevin, it’s that his judgment is often better than mine. So we ordered fifteen birds from Murray McMurray, and they arrived in the last week of August.
When they’re little, they look a lot like other chickens. As they grow, though, the differences become apparent. And the good people at Murray McMurray make sure you notice those differences by including an extra, non-Cornish cross chick in with each order of meat chickens.
(An aside about that practice: It’s nothing but trouble. The regular chick grows more slowly, needs the heat lamp longer, has trouble competing for feed, and will not be ready for slaughter with the other birds. And it’s all but impossible, in my admittedly limited experience, to introduce a solo pullet into a coop full of mature laying hens. So what to do with the poor thing?)
The meat birds have what briefly made news when Idaho Congressman Larry Craig denied allegations of mens’-room shenanigans: a wide stance. Their legs are far apart, no doubt to prevent them from tipping over, which they certainly would if their feet were closer together, as their breasts start growing well before the rest of them.
And they keep growing.
Our birds are now five weeks old, which would be a mere one week from slaughter if we were raising them at maximum speed. Since we’re not, they weigh about three to four pounds each (instead of the four to five they’d weigh otherwise). So far, their legs are holding up, and they can all waddle around. They even run on occasion, if Kevin’s coming to the pen door with food can be said to be an occasion.
We feed them only twice a day, morning and evening, and they are good and ready for their meals by the time we show up with them. They crowd around the feeder in a way that our other chickens never did, and generally exhibit only feeding and resting behaviors. They’re puffy and flabby and eerily bloblike. They’re not very bright.
Kevin, who is better at keeping his eye on the prize than I am, and whose mind’s eye is looking at freezer full of ten-pound birds, is fine with them. I find them a little disgusting. I’m withholding yea-or-nay judgment until we’ve gone through the full cycle, including roasting. Right now, though, I’m not leaning toward yea.