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Chickens from Swillington Farm: an update

Posted by on Thursday 17 January 2013 in cooking | 1 comment

(Hi, happy new year, hope you’re all well. I’ve really got out of this blogging lark, haven’t I? :) )

Swillington Farm, the awesome organic farm near Leeds, has linked to my very old post about their chickens in their most recent newsletter and I thought it was possibly time for an update.

We’ve had a monthly meat box (like a veg box but, you know, meat) most months since Swillington Farm began delivering them in June 2011. While the contents of each box is different each month depending on availability at the farm, we always get a chicken from them and they’re always huge. We had a couple last autumn that dwarfed that first one we got – each breast alone was nearly 1lb (454g) in weight! I always joint the birds because we prefer to have the meat stretched across the month rather than in one big feast. That “14 meals from one chicken” is the rule, not the exception:

Added to veg/pulses, the breasts each give us four portions of some yummy main meal – usually some sort of curry or risotto, or something like enchiladas = 8 meals

The legs we usually roast whole – though sometimes when they’re very big (like last autumn), I have to joint them into thighs & drumsticks because they’re too big for me to eat in one sitting. Let’s be conservative though and just say = 2 meals

The wings we usually stock up to have a couple at a time but they are considerably bigger than standard take-away “hot wings” so would be fine one wing per person with salad etc for a light lunch. Again though, let’s be conservative and say 2 wings = 1 meal

The skin and liver still usually go to the animals but I roast the carcass and make stock, and use the stock and the meaty bits from the carcass/neck to make soup. I’ve made chicken, carrot and ginger soup for the last few months because it’s my favourite winter warmer. Our homemade soups are usually a minimum of five portions – some for now, some for the freezer. So the carcass & meaty bits = 5 meals.

… so that’s about 16 portions, with some of the frankly massive birds giving us even more. Gosh!

Obviously we are adding plenty of veggies/pulses/grains to all of the above – but each of them is still very “chickeny”. Anyone who knows us in person will know we’re not sparrow-like eaters: we eat big portions – too much really. We could easily stretch it further still if we weren’t such food-obsessed gluttons.

Swillington Farm birds are more expensive than supermarket birds but they really do go far. Organic, humanely raised, properly free-range meat is never going to be the most frugal option but for us, it’s one of those situations where we’re happy to pay extra to suit our other principles. Until we can grow our own meat birds, we’ll stick to Swillington.

(Just to be clear: this is just me gushing, not a paid for post by any means!)

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Swirly ear warmer

Posted by on Thursday 29 November 2012 in crochet & knitting, making | 0 comments

No more cold ears while dog walking for me – I made myself an ear warmer band from an abandoned half-finished beanie this afternoon.

I’ve got an ear-flapped woolly hat for really cold days but this is small enough to fit in my pocket (for days when I’m not sure if I need it) and under my hood (for when it’s raining).

I wrote a little more waffle about it on my personal stuff-and-nonsense blog – it looks brown over there, yellowy over here, it really is an odd sludge colour but if my ears are warm, I don’t care ;)

Have you made yourself anything to keep the chill at bay this winter?

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Things I’d change about my chicken coop/run set-up

Posted by on Friday 26 October 2012 in chickens | 8 comments

This is probably more a pensive “avoid this next time” post than an actual to-do list, though I am going to try to come up with solutions in case I actually get enough energy to act.

The “lips” of the frame around the body of the coop and nest box

Our coop (which we bought flat-packed) is built around frames, if that makes sense, which means we have a 3cm lip around the bottom of the coop’s floor. If it was flat, without the raised lip, I could simply sweep the woodshavings off the edge into a bucket, but because of how its built, I have to shovel everything out instead. I think it would be easier to clean if I could sweep them straight out.

The problem is exacerbated in the nest boxes because not only has the lip being built up further, I don’t have space in which to maneouvre a shovel or brush. I line the nest boxes with newspaper before adding straw to make them easier to clean out but again, I think it would be easier to get properly clean if there wasn’t the lip.

Possible solutions
For the last couple of winters, I’ve been talking about fitting a fake floor in the main body of the coop, which would rest on the lip and have a layer of insulation under neither. I still might do this: I doubt it would be that much work and would have other benefits too (see below).

The nest boxes are a tougher problem to solve since there isn’t enough head room to add a fake floor. Not sure how I could solve that one.

Grooved flooring

The “frames” are covered with tongue-and-groove type wood, rather than flat single pieces of wood. It looks nice but the grooves in the floor collect a lot of dust and again, are a bit of a pain to clean out.

Possible solution
If I was fitting a fake floor as mentioned above, I’d use something smooth for the top/actual floor so it would be groove-free. If I don’t fit a fake floor, I could just fit a sheet of heavy-duty plastic over it instead.

Coop is really a bit big for the chickens we have/want

When we got our girls, we wanted flexibility so went for a slightly bigger coop than we thought we’d need. This coop officially can house about twelve birds, but I think ten would be pushing it. We don’t have enough room in the run for that many though, so our max is about eight, though we’re choosing to keep it at six for now. Having extra room in the coop isn’t a bad thing most of the time, and because it’s raised off the ground, it’s not taking up floor space (and is providing good shelter), but in winter, I think they’d benefit from it being a bit easier to keep cosy.

Possible solutions
The suspended floor would reduce the size a tiny bit. I could also add a fake ceiling underneath the peak of the coop (although still ensuring there is adequate ventilation). I think it’s fine for six though: if we were going to keep less than six, I think it might just be easier to replace the whole thing.

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And when I got there, the nest box was bare

Posted by on Tuesday 23 October 2012 in chickens | 4 comments

For the first time since getting our first birds two-and-a-half years ago, there weren’t any eggs in the nest box today. Even when the temperature was minus-stupid degrees C a couple of winters ago, they kept on laying – not all every day, but at least one or two – but I think the combination of their age, the shortening days and possibly imminent moults has caught up with them. There was no sign of eggs being laid then pecked/eaten but we’ll have to see what tomorrow brings – or doesn’t bring.

The day hasn’t been completely egg-less though – I found one of the new girl’s little pullet eggs in the main body of the coop. The new girls seem to have the layout of their home a little backwards – they’ve been perching on the edges of the nestboxes and the one that is laying has been doing so in the sleepy bit of the coop. I’m sure they’ll figure it out sooner or later.

In related news, I swept a whole bunch of fallen leaves into the run this afternoon. They’ll breakdown pretty quickly but in the meantime, I think six little ladies will have fun digging through them.

Do your chickens lay every day or do they have days off too?

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Ickle egg

Posted by on Wednesday 17 October 2012 in chickens | 0 comments

We had our first egg from the new chickens yesterday – not bad for day two!

I’ve paired it up with one of today’s lays. As you can see, it’s smaller than the eggs we normally get – a pullet egg rather than a fully grown up hen’s one – but otherwise it’s perfect. It was laid in the main section of the coop rather than a nest box – there wasn’t another one there this morning but I’ll check again shortly, in case she’s not an early layer yet.

The new trio are settling in well. There are still some pecking order disputes to settle – snap at combs and pulling on neck or bum feathers – but it doesn’t seem too vicious when I’m down there, and there is no visible evidence of blood being drawn (from the combs) or feathers pulled out. I will keep an eye on them, of course, and I’ve added extra feeding/drinking stations so there is less contention around those places.

They’re getting used to me as well as their coop mates. They’re getting more comfortable with me holding them, and stroking them, and they’ve started following the older girls’ lead of eating seeds out of my hands. (It took our original girls about a week to get brave enough to do that.)

My big goal for the moment is getting them all to go to bed inside the coop, of their own accord. The older ones slept outside for most of the summer as they have done in previous years so they’ve needed some reminding of it too but they seem to be getting the hang of it again, and leading the new girls in too. Up until now, I’ve been having to lift them off the outside perches and place them inside (if they’re already snoozy), or push them in through the pop hole before dusk if they’re more awake. With the colder nights drawing in, I’d much prefer them to do that themselves – hopefully it’ll only take a couple more days of training.

Once that’s sorted, they have to get used to the furry members of the household – they keep freezing when they see Lily-dog in the garden at the moment but she very much wants to make friends!

Do you have any chicken “settling in” tips to share? Any early egg anecdotes?

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New chickens!

Posted by on Monday 15 October 2012 in chickens | 1 comment

We finally restocked the platoon at Fort Chicken yesterday.

We’d been meaning to get some more feathered friends for a couple of months. After we lost three of our girls to a mink (we think) attack in June, we’d wanted to wait a little bit to check the new fortifications were satisfaction and then I wanted to wait until we’d get point-of-lay “spring chickens” (which would have been available from mid-August-ish onwards). Since then though, we’ve just been dithering. Anyway, we finally got ourselves together last week – only to find the farmer on holiday. Thankfully he was back at his post over the weekend though, and we drove out to pick up our new girls yesterday morning.

We get them, like all our others, from Edward Boothman in Silsden. We’ve had a few different types – hybrids and pure breeds – from him but our favourites have been the boring ISA Browns, a bog-standard little red hen (apparently) made by crossing Rhode Island Reds & Rhode Island Whites. They’ve got pretty dull plumage and they lay samey brown eggs but they’ve been consistently reliable and friendly – amusingly inquisitive but also docile enough that they don’t get their vents in a twist if I need to pick them up. For most things in life, we prefer the practical to pretty option – and they meet that criteria for us.

Another thing in their favour – once we decided to restock with them, there was no other dithering about breed or colour/markings. “Three ISA Browns, please”, we said and two minutes later, we were driving away with them in the car. For indecisive people like us, this is a huge boon! ;) Two of the new girls look quite alike but the third has considerably less white in her neck feathers, so she’s the first to get a name: “Little Redneck”. I imagine the other two will follow in the ways of our original four ISAs – named after the coloured rings on their legs (as soon as I find my ring stash!).

When we’ve got new birds in the past, we’ve done so in the late afternoon/early evening so just put them straight into the coop when they’re all – old and new – a bit sleepy. This time though, since we got them in the morning, I had to put a bit more work into introducing them. I popped the new girls into our little portable run which I placed inside the big normal run, so they could meet each other through wire first. The old girls got rather noisy so after half an hour or so of listening to their bwarking, I kicked them out into the garden and let the new ones look around the rest of the run/coop by themselves. (Picture of bwarking in action. I now know the chicken equivalent of Daily Mail-style “bloomin’ immigrants!” rants! ;) )

Eventually, a couple of hours later, I called the old ones back into the run and with some weeds and seeds to bond over, let them all meet properly. There was some pecking order disputes (more flap than anything else), some more noise and a committee meeting called for the long standing residents of Fort Chicken on one of the perches (below) but nothing too worrying so I left them to it for the rest of the afternoon, before popping them all into the coop together before sunset.

They’d all been up for a few hours before I went down this morning but everything seemed to be still fine – Little Redneck was perched out of the way, stumpy tail held a little low, but she was happy to peck around my feet with the others when I started throwing corn around. When the older ones started to get a bit grumpy again, I stroked them – to make them submissive – while reminding them that I’m the top chicken around here, bwark! I also stroked one of the misc new ones and Little Redneck too – their still new “all growed up” feathers are super, super soft!

I’m hoping we start to see some eggs from them soon – because the older ones will be due to moult/are slowing down anyway, and also because I don’t want it to get cold before they start producing. I also hope they like their new home :)

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Is it weird to keep a well-stocked larder?

Posted by on Wednesday 10 October 2012 in meta | 9 comments

Karen (hi Karen!) commented on my last post (Winter IS coming) saying her main winter prep concern now is stocking up their larder. She lives somewhere rural and they regularly get snowed in so having a well-stocked food store is critical.

I often feel a little silly keeping a packed larder here though. While estate agents might claim the woodland and numerous fields of cows close by make our area “semi-rural”, it really isn’t. There are two decent-size supermarkets within less than five minutes walking distance and while our road is rarely cleared of snow, the nearby main road is kept gritted so we can still get about (even on public transport) quite easily. And yet… Last time I was unpacking a big shop, I remarked to John how it soothes me to know the cupboard is full of beans, and tomatoes, and pasta, and whatnot. It’s not like I’m anxious all the time when it’s empty, I just feel better knowing that stuff is there.

Around this time last year I wrote a list of our store cupboard “essentials” and I think that list is still the same now, with the addition of extra tinned fish and pickled/in oil roasted peppers. Like many things on the list, those items aren’t “so we don’t die” essential but would allow us to maintain a relatively varied diet in a strange situation (which would help keep our immune systems perky) or means that we will use up the stores in our normal rotation. I don’t know how we’d be manage if the fit really hit the shan but I think we have more than enough to last through a normal-abnormal situation, if you know what I mean, be it related to the weather, illness or a financial hiccup.

But, for me here with my supermarkets and main road & mains gas, it still does feel silly to keep a pantry full of (almost entirely) shop-bought items. It feels like I’ve been reading too many of my post-apocalyptic books again, or I’m paranoid, or I’m expressing some mental unrest issue through hoarding behaviour. It felt silly admitting to John that I had, no matter how small amount, felt anxious about the more-empty-than-usual cupboard and it feels even sillier admitting it here, even though I know from the post last year that many of you keep stores too. The photo is not our larder, I wish it was – I can understand “putting up” your own, that makes sense – but buying stuff from a supermarket to store it “just in case”…? I know about crop failures and “just in time” logistics so the rational part of me knows how fragile our food chain is but still, it feels robust enough to make me feel silly for keeping a store at home.

But for all of human history up to, what? 20? 30? years ago, keeping a well-stocked pantry was the norm so it also seems silly to think it seems silly. ;) It’s very odd.

Does anyone else know what I mean or is this me being strange again? Have you had funny reactions when people find out you keep stores or do you feel a bit weird about admitting it? Should I start a “pantry-keepers anonymous” group? ;) Or, on the other hand, do you think it is actually silly to keep a stock of food at home when you live in an urban/supermarket-adjacent area? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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