For many years, I have wanted chickens. They are silly, totally incredibly dumb, and they make delicious delicious eggs. By the time I actually got serious about wanting chickens, one of our friends’ girlfriends had a few, and they were fairly noisy. This was not a great way to convince Craig that they would be awesome for our yard. You know, because we live in the suburbs and we have neighbors on all sides of us. After years of nagging, I finally got him to grudgingly agree to build a pen and let me get muscovy ducks, because they’re the only poultry that I could find that are essentially silent. But after several months with the ducks, I developed a heck of a rat problem which was exacerbated by the existence of the beautiful in-ground pond that I built. The rats moved in under it, and there was no effective way of getting them out from under the pond. My attempts at flooding their tunnels and allowing Boris to catch and kill them tended to result in success, but I was never able to fully decimate their population. The duck pond was not a viable option for the long term success of my ducks. Also, despite the extreme amount of research that I did, I was woefully underprepared for the sheer volume and gooeyness of the poop that came out of those things. With a slightly guilty conscience, and a heavy heart, I gave the ducks away to an acquaintance up the street. Then the duck pen sat empty for 6 months(without the duck food around, the rats moved out pretty quickly). I finally decided to use a week of vacation that was going to expire to put some effort into de-duckifying the existing pen, and get it retrofitted to chickens. You see, my main stumbling block with getting chickens had always been that I suck at carpentry and it was imperative that Craig and his father build the actual “frame” of the pen, otherwise it was going to collapse and kill whatever poultry that I had living in there. Once the duck pen was built, and then subsequently emptied of the ducks, the hard part was done. All I needed to do was retrofit for chickens and then actually get chickens. The arrangement that I made with Craig regarding the chickens is that we try to avoid getting any noisy chickens, and if we end up with any troublemakers, they either go into the freezer or into someone else’s flock. This keeps our relationship with our neighbors better. Also, once we and the neighbors are getting some eggs, that should help smooth over some of the potentially rough edges.
And so I got down to it. The first trick was excavating and removing the pond. Once I managed that, I arranged for the lady that took the ducks to also come collect the pond, getting it out of my hair! Then it was mostly a case of rock removal, building a roosting loft, and the most expensive part of the entire ordeal, installing corrugated plastic roofing. Because chickens aren’t fans of getting wet. This isn’t a standard chicken coop setup. The chickens will have access to the run 100% of the time. I have (for the time being) repurposed the hinged-roof duckhouse into a nesting box area, although the chickens mostly seem to stand on top of it and poop, so I will be happy to get rid of that and replace it with something that they can’t sit on top of.
The roosting loft is my own invention and time will tell how successful it ends up being, although I have high hopes. I put up some hardiplank siding that I got for free, cut and painted for exterior siding to help provide a little bit of a wind/rain break in the winter. The rest of the frame will be used to support removable walls that will be built soon and then put in place once it starts cooling down in the winter. This allows the chickens the benefit of a fully “open” coop in the warm weather, and also the benefit of an enclosed coop when it is chilly. The bottom of their roosting loft is going to be a simple “poop hammock” which will just be long dowels and some feed sacks that have been sewn together to form a sling. This should keep most of the breeze from cooling their fluffy little bottoms, and collect the manure that they produce while roosting, making coop maintenance a little simpler. Ventilation is very important in chicken coops, especially during the winter. An accumulation of humidity (from chickens breathing and pooping) overnight combined with freezing temperatures can result in frostbite on their combs. The top few inches of the roosting loft will be open (and the whole area is protected from rain by the clear roofing) so they should get plenty of air exchange.
By the time my week of vacation was over, I had the pen totally ready for chickens, with the exception of having a feeder and waterer completed. Tired, a little sore, and feeling victorious, I posted on the chicken forum, and shortly thereafter, got a reply from someone living nearby that is planning to move, and needing to liquidate their 30-something chickens. He had a group of 3 pullets (not yet laying hens) that were mutts(this doesn’t affect egg-laying ability, it just means that they aren’t desirable for someone wanting to breed them). The father is a faverolles (totally silly feather-beard alert!), and then they have 2 different moms. My favorite (but also the noisiest of the group, so she’ll have to go) is half welsummer and the other 2 are half speckled sussex. All 3 chickens are entirely wild. They want nothing to do with me. They weren’t handled as chicks, but they are healthy, and minimally aggressive to each other (which is especially important when you are going to be keeping them in close proximity to each other.) They were 3 months old when he gave them to me, and now are about 4 months old. Chickens usually start laying eggs between 4 and 6 months, so we should start seeing some eggs shortly. I have spent some time hanging out with the girls. I dragged a lawn chair into their run and occasionally go out there, have a cocktail, and either browse the internet or read a book, while talking to them every now and again to get them used to my presence.
The chicken guy has 4 favorite laying hens that are about a year old. He wants to make sure that I get them because the rest of his hens are going to one person and he doesn’t think they’ll be able to give special attention to his favorite girls. 2 of the hens are Speckled Sussex, which are an old timey dual purpose breed, docile, friendly, and really very striking. They are a reddish brown with white speckles all over them, and the speckles are often ringed in iridescent black. The other 2 hens are Dominiques, which is the first chicken breed developed in America. Also a dual purpose chicken, these ladies are barred with very dark and very light grey. I am pumped to have them in my flock. I should probably be getting those ladies in a few weeks. I am wanting to build a permanent nesting box that will allow me to collect eggs from outside of the run built prior to getting them, so expect to see that at some point.
I am going to be painfully honest and tell you that this was a last-minute thing. Tasked with making dinner and a dessert for a birthday celebration in just a couple of days, plus dealing with high temperatures (and the accompanying avoidance of oven usage), I slummed it and used a boxed brownie mix. This was mostly because I wasn’t sure if it was going to turn out edible or attractive, and I couldn’t deal with the emotional defeat that comes with spending extra time making something that doesn’t turn out. So I bought 2 boxed brownie mixes. One to try in the waffle iron, and one to bake in a standard pan should the waffling experiment not turn out. If it is useful to anyone else, I used ghiradelli brownie mix. It had a lot of surface area, so everywhere was just like eating a corner.
I topped it with about half a recipe of my standard chewy caramel and then topped that with toasted cashews (I’d have gone for macadamia nuts, but I couldn’t find them!) It was pretty tasty served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Last year we bought 1/4 cow and split it with another couple. Neither of us had ever purchased a portion of an animal before in this manner, so it was quite a learning experience for us. We both ended up very satisfied with the results though. For me, it was such an interesting way to expose myself to cooking cuts that I have never made before/probably wouldn’t buy in the store. There are few things that force you to stretch your cooking muscles more than a freezer full of stuff that you’re not sure how to cook! Regardless, it was something that we wanted to do again. But after The Great Freezer Failure of 2014, I bought a slightly larger chest freezer (went from 5 cubic feet to 7) and an alarm that goes off if the freezer hits above a specified temperature. Once I got the freezer situation figured out, I got into contact with the farm that we purchased our steer from last year and learned that all of their animals to be slaughtered prior to autumn were spoken for (sad trombone) and we were hoping to have something in the freezer during grilling season! As luck would have it, I was visiting my mother around that time and drove past a sign on the highway (this is actually how I found the beef. I know, right?) advertising “grass fat beef Blacksmith Farms” and the phone number. Feeling a little desperate and maybe craving a steak from a healthy animal, I set to researching the farm. I couldn’t find a great deal of information about them, but everything that I did find was overwhelmingly positive, so I got into contact with them and got breakdown on their method. As is noted in my post last year about the 1/4 cow, buying portions of steers this way usually goes thusly. Hanging weight (this is the weight of the steer after it has been slaughtered, skinned, and all of the internal organs have been removed – this goes to the farm that grew the steer) + Cut & Wrap fee (this is a fee per pound hanging weight that goes to the butcher that processes the meat) = Total. Now, this sounds simple enough, but the hanging weight is not your take-home meat amount. Here, let me give you our breakdown.
Hanging weight (half steer) 413lbs @$3.10/lb + $40 harvest fee = $1320 (this is what goes to the farmer)
Steer is then transferred to the butcher shop, where it spends 14 days dry aging. During this time, it loses a little water weight and the enzymes in the meat begin breaking down some of the proteins, making the meat more tender.
Hanging weight (at time of cutting after water weight loss) 401lbs @ $.80/lb + $20 size charge + tax = $370
Total for steer = $1690
Total weight of meat after cutting – 298lbs
Total cost per pound in the freezer $5.67/lb (Once we split the steer into the parts that we wanted, and subtracted the weight of the soup bones from that, we ended up with a total cost of $6.21/lb)
That is a far cry from the $3.10/lb that goes to the farm, and let me give you my disclaimer. With this farm/steer/butcher, we got very lucky. Last year, the steer that we purchased was smaller, and the butcher was less efficient. I can’t remember the specifics, but we ended up with something like a 60-65% hanging weight/wrapped weight. This year, the steer was huge, and the butcher that they use was very efficient, and we ended up with 75% efficiency. When we picked up the meat, the butcher even noted that this farm seems to have really big cows (and angus tends to be larger on average to begin with) that have good fat distribution (which tends to be more uncommon with grass fed). Additionally, the taste of this beef has been superior to last year’s. When buying and eating any grassfed beef, one expects a certain level of gaminess with it. It’s the nature of the beast. Last year’s steer was on the stronger side as far as gamy flavor goes. This year’s is a lot beefier and has a more toned down level of funk. It was a pleasant surprise. The specifics that I got from the farm is that our animal was a 30 month old angus steer, if that’s helpful to anyone reading this and doing information gathering.
Once again, we had a bit of a drive to get the beef. If we hadn’t hit traffic, it would have been about an hour and 45 minutes. If you live in a larger metropolitan area, you may be well-served to look for meat from further out. My experience has been that there is usually better availability and the prices are lower.
The half cow, in coolers (we had a long drive and it was very hot outside) filled up pretty much the entire back of my little Mazda hatchback. Once we got it home, the other couple came by, and we played the game where we divvy up the cow. First, everything got set out on our counters, and grouped by cut. We got a shockingly large amount of ground beef from this bad boy. 53lbs apiece, so 106lbs total. A third of the steer ended up as ground(which is fine with us, because who doesn’t love burgers, tacos, cottage pie, etc?). After that, we went through and took turns picking out the most “valuable” cuts. There was a little bit of negotiation. Our friends value T-bones pretty highly, and I’d rather have ribeye or sirloin. It worked out really well. Then I once again went through and weighed everything as it got put into the freezer. Having all of the cuts and weights not only made writing this blog post easier on me, but also makes meal planning much more simple. I can reference my spreadsheet to determine what I have, and how much of it I have. Once a cut has been eaten, I simply remove the line from the spreadsheet and the inventory of my freezer stays up-to-date.
It’s been a while since I’ve shared a recipe. And in true Laurel fashion, I have totally forgotten about the specifics of this recipe. But luckily, this recipe is more of “a little of this and a little of that” type. You know, when you combine bacon, cheese, and smoke, it’s hard to go wrong. Seattle has been experiencing a heck of a heat wave this year. I’m already sick of meal planning to avoid putting much heat in the house, and we are only in July. There is still a solid 45 days left of hot weather. Anyway, this is a simple way to reduce overall house-heat, and can be done fully outside if you either have an outdoor burner of some sort or just omit the sausage. I am not entirely sure where the name came from, but the Atomic Buffalo Turd designation seems to refer specifically to jalapeno poppers that are cooked on a grill or in a smoker, stuffed with both cream cheese and a meat product of some kind (many people use lil smokies) and wrapped in bacon, vs breaded and fried.
Atomic Buffalo Turds