Category Archives: Chickens

Traditional & Heritage Chicken

This week we began selling “Traditional” (Cornish Cross) chickens. For the past two years we have only raised and sold Heritage “Poulet Rouge” chickens, so it was with a great deal of thought and consideration we decided to begin raising traditional birds.

Traditional Cornish Cross chickens are the standard white bird which the chicken industry has raised since the 1940’s when they were developed. We veered away from this bird for years in large part due to our understanding of how these birds are raised in the modern industrial poultry complexes. Up to 75,000 birds packed into a house where they never see the light of day and never get to live the life of a chicken – we didn’t want any part of it, so we focused instead on old-world breeds of chicken. However, after much soul-searching, and feedback from our customers and restaurants we made the decision this Winter to begin raising Cornish Cross chickens as well. I want to explain the decision process and in doing so describe the histories and differences between these two chickens.

THE HERITAGE CHICKEN

Heritage Poulet Rouge Chicken

Prior to the 1940’s all chickens were grown on small to medium farms like ours. The chicken business was in large part a local endeavor, and the birds which were produced were hearty farm breeds, such as Delaware and Rhode Island Reds – those which could lay eggs decently but also made a great meal. In fact, John Tyson started his early career as a farm-to-farm purchasing agent traveling around negotiating chicken contracts with small farms. Back then chickens were mostly a secondary or supplemental line of income for farmers.

These farm birds were strong and active and fit well in a farm setting. Their slow growth allowed them to develop rich and complex flavor and their active farm life oxygenated and built muscle texture. They were the birds old-timers speak of when they say, “chickens just don’t taste the same as they did when I was a kid.” And they don’t!

THE TRADITIONAL CHICKEN

Traditional Cornish Cross Chicken

In the late 1930’s and 1940’s breeders discovered the 4-way cross; a particular set of four heritage breeds “crossed” as grandparents, to produce a hybrid set of parents, then “crossed” as parents to produce the (f2) Cornish Cross. This chicken was a marvel in that it grew 2-3 times faster than the typical heritage breeds and had a greater proportion of its body dedicated to white breast meat – the cut more Americans preferred. In addition, this bird was LAZY, absolutely content to lay around and only get up to eat and drink. as such, they burned fewer calories and didn’t develop muscle texture resulting in a very tender bird.

Fast forward 75 years and this bird is now churned out by the billions (that’s not a typo) each year in the United States. Nine billion to be exact, and the vast majority of them are controlled by just four massive companies. The whole system is ugly; the treatment of the workers and the treatment of the growers, the verticalization and contractual control…not to mention the treatment of the chickens. One of our biggest issues was that these birds were no longer raised on farms, but rather in automated, climate-controlled industrial buildings. No grass. No sun. No bugs. No dirt, no life for a chicken. We wanted better.

As we began raising our heritage Poulet Rouge birds we found ourselves selling into more and more restaurants. The sort of open, experimental and highly talented chefs we work with were able to transform our birds into some amazing dishes. In doing so they were able to work around some of the challenges heritage chickens bring, namely their denser muscle texture. Trough slower cooking techniques, or sous vide, or whatever the heck kinda magic Matt McAllister does at FT33, they were able to capture the richer flavors of our heritage chickens and create stunning plates.

Still, one by one our chefs began telling us they needed the Cornish as well, for faster cooking applications; grilling, frying, stir-frying, etc. Additionally, the larger breast of the Cornish lends itself to stuffing, tenderizing and so on. Where the bird lacks in depth of flavor, it wins in tenderness and culinary flexibility. And, it’s simply what people are used to, a fact that does not go unnoticed to a discerning chef.

We had similar feedback from retail customers; folks cooking our heritage drumsticks, and wings, or breasts too quickly and finding them tough. They wanted something they could throw on the backyard grill or drop in a deep fryer.

Therefore, we decided to raise Cornish in addition to our heritage birds. However, we were not going to give up our ideals of how to properly raise a quality chicken; on pasture with lower densities, access to fresh air, sunlight, grass and insects, and soil in which to scratch around. We still feed them non-GMO, all natural feed and we move them daily around the pasture so they constantly have new forage and don’t have to bed down in their own manure. I once heard a farmer say, “We want every day of our animal’s lives to be the best they can possibly be… except the last.” Unfortunately the last day is unavoidable, but all the others should be utter chicken bliss!

Happy, stress-free, healthy chickens simply produce a better product for our family and our customers. Like a home-grown tomato – the quality speaks for itself.

Traditional Cornish Chickens on Pasture at Cartermere Farms

So, as an overly simplified summary:

Heritage Chicken is full of deep, rich flavor with a golden fat that some describe as self-basting. They have more dark meat with highly developed legs and thighs. They lend themselves to slow cooking applications and are unparalleled as slow roasted whole birds. They are excellent sous vide or in soups or any other culinary application which allows the muscle texture to be slowly broken down. Think of a beef brisket – terrible grilled as steaks, but has no equal when slowly smoked – it just needs the time to reach its full potential.

Traditional chickens are plump and tender and offer close to 18% of their weight in breast meat. A more mellow flavor and whiter fat, but typically very moist and supple. They can be cooked very quickly and won’t tighten up, so they are more flexible from a culinary perspective.  Additionally, since these birds grow to weight faster they are cheaper to raise for the farm and therefore they are less expensive for the consumer.

 

 

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Our Favorite Slow Roasted Chicken

We often get asked how we cook our chicken and this is one of our favorite recipes by far – slow roasted whole chicken. It takes a few steps, but most of the prep is not active, but simply time waiting for things to be ready. Patience is the key to exceptional chicken, both raising them and cooking them.

BRINE:

  • 1 Gal Water
  • ½ Cup Kosher Salt
  • ¼ cup Sugar (Molasses is nice as well)
  • Few tablespoons of preferred Spices (we like “Herb du Provence”, but Italian is nice as well)
  • Tablespoon of whole peppercorns

Bring to a quick simmer to dissolve the salt & sugar, let cool to room temp and toss in the defrosted bird (we defrost over a couple of days prior in the frig). Leave in the frig for 24 hrs.

BAKE:

Dry the bird with a paper towel and then rub it down with olive oil. Sprinkle with more spices, some cracked pepper and a small amount of salt (it will have plenty of salt from the brine). We also fill the cavity with split lemon/lime and fresh rosemary if we have any on hand.

Bake low & slow covered for 3 hours at 225-230. After 2 hrs take the bird out and drain off all renderings into a sauce pan. Put the bird back in the oven and finished baking for approximately 1 hour uncovered. Keep an eye out for proper browning.

GLAZE:

Simmer the renderings on the stove top to reduce liquid and begin to thicken. Strain the liquid clean and return to pan (to be clear, it’s the liquid you want to keep). Add ¼ cup of honey and continue to simmer a bit, thickening it further. Finished with a knob of butter whisked in and use to glaze the finished bird.

AMAZING!!!

The best feed for the best food

When we started Cartermere Farms we knew from the very beginning we wanted to produce the absolute highest quality we possibly could. During first few months of raising chickens we bought standard commodity feeds but soon realized they were not in keeping with our vision of an organic farm. After some of our more discerning customers began to ask us about the ingredients in our feeds, we set out on a mission to better understand animal nutrition, and organic feeding.

Almost all livestock feeds in the United States are genetically modified. If the feed contains corn there is an 88% probability it contains GMO’s, If it contains Soy there is a 97% likelihood is contains GMO’s. These two grains alone represent the main protein additives in almost all livestock feeds. In addition to the GMO’s, one can be certain these feeds contain grains grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, 30% of which test positive for chemical residue post-harvest.  If all that isn’t enough organic kryptonite, the “controlled atmosphere fumigation” in storage probably guarantees the raw materials have been exposed to enough poison to ensure nothing will ever healthily grow in it… or from it. As such, it is generally impossible to raise organic eggs or animals on commodity feeds.

So, we set out on a mission to find a truly organic feed for our chickens, and a challenging mission it was. There are feeds out there which purport to be organic, but they are actually batch-milled in large commodity mills which run non-organic materials through their equipment daily. There are actually very few mills which have a genuine commitment to true organic feed.

After extensive research and interviews we settled with Hügelland Feeds out of Llano, TX. They are an independently run family mill, which never allows non-organic materials into their facility, strictly avoids the use of soy, and runs independent non-GMO verification tests on all raw materials as they are delivered to the mill. They personally know the farmers who grow their grains, and they are never fumigated. They procure natural additives from as far away as Greece to ensure they are mixing the very best. Hügelland also has a contracted nutritionist which we can bounce ideas off of and even adapt our feed mixes in balance with the current conditions of our pastures.

Zane Deckmann, along with his wife Anne Deckmann, own and operate Hügelland Feeds

Zane Deckmann of Hugelland and Nelson Carter of Cartermere Farms at the mill in Llano, Tx. Zane, along with his wife Anne, own and operate Hügelland Feeds

“Hügelland”, which is German for “Hill Country”, has a web address of “www.nongmofeed.com” – that says it all!

 

When we switched to Hügelland we noticed a significant improvement in the quality of our eggs, as well as increased laying rates in our hens. Today we also exclusively use Hügelland Feeds for our heritage meat chickens and we also supplement our ewes with a custom ration to ensure they have the optimal nutrition to breed and lamb well (our lambs who are destined for processing are grass fed).

Hopper auger full of raw milo ready for crimping and transport up to the main mixer.

Hopper auger full of raw milo ready for crimping and transport up to the main mixer.

It stands to reason, if we are going to produce the best food for our families, friends and customers, we must feed the best feeds we possibly can. As the old computer programming adage goes, “trash in, trash out”. How can we expect to produce the best in our animals if we are not feeding them the best? Cartermere spends about 30% more to use top quality feeds. Since our feeds are not fumigated we have to feed them faster/freshener to ensure they are not spoiled by insects, whose larva is inherently present due to the lack of pesticides in the cultivation of the raw grains. All these aspects create challenges for a farm, but we believe it is the right thing to do, even at a cost to the bottom line. We believe the end product; be it an egg, a chicken or well-nurtured lamb, will be exceedingly better for the extra effort.

 

Hugelland feed sacks ready for fillling

Hugelland feed sacks ready for fillling

Helping Shaun Stand on His Own Two Feet

As farms grow they typically do not have the luxury of time to spend on individual animals with various aliments, challenges, etc. In fact, efficient farms foster those things that grow and survive well in their particular environment, whether it be a specific animal breed, crop or plant variety. We certainly endeavor to be a very efficient farm, but our hearts also creep up on us and we find ourselves from time to time nursing animals back to health (with little or no financial argument to do so). Our sister, Jennifer, has often brought back sickly bottle lambs from the brink of death, or pulled a calf during birth minutes before all hope was lost. Such was the case with a little chick who recently came to the farm with a horrible case of splayed leg.

Splayed leg is a condition where a chick’s muscle structure does not hold it legs straight and they end up either stuck in the spits left-and-right or front-and-back. The chick normally cannot walk in this condition and in a commercial setting would almost certainly be killed by the other chicks or would die of starvation and/or dehydration. However, there is an easy fix.

We recently moved a group of 100 chicks into our brooder, and buried at the bottom of the pile was “Shaun” (my kiddos named him a few days later ;-). Shaun could not walk was facing a very short life. The following article describes how we helped Shaun learn how to walk…

Baby chicks normally get their feet under them within minutes of hatching and are up and walking in less than an hour. Chicks with splayed legs don’t have the muscle strength in either one or both legs to properly walk. If you catch it early enough (first 2-3 days of life) the condition can be corrected.

"Shaun", a 2-day-old chick unable to walk with a condition called splayed or sprawled legs.

“Shaun”, a 2-day-old chick unable to walk with a condition called splayed or sprawled legs.

In the past I have used one of my daughter’s small hair bands to create a sort of soft leg shackle to hold the legs in place. This is made by simply taping the center of the hair band to create a small semi-rigid tether with a loop on either end. You can see an example here.

While this approach does work well, it is a little difficult to apply and it is not always rigid enough for really bad cases. Legs that are sprawled left-and-right can be pulled back together with a soft brace, but legs split front-and-back need something firm to keep the legs aligned up under the bird. For Shaun, I decided to make something a bit more rigid, reusable and easily applied and removed.

Materials required to build a simple but functional splayed leg brace of chicks.

Materials required to build a simple but functional splayed leg brace for chicks.

This is the final brace I made from a Lego and two hair clips.

This is the completed brace I made from an old Lego, two tiny hair clips and a tube of super glue. The whole thing is about 1.5″ wide.

I used a small Lego, two tiny claw clips from my daughter’s hair drawer and a tube of super glue. I carefully glued the clips to the Lego and then applied a few additional coats of glue just to make sure it was all held together well. The final result was quite clean and very easy for just one person to use. Not only is it functional, but it can be stored and used for years.

Once I had the brace built I let it adequately dry and then placed it on the Shaun. I then put the chick in a small box lined with a clean paper towel, a rolled up washcloth (dry), and a jar lid of food; all under a warm desk lamp. For the first few days I took Shaun our periodically and tried to encourage him to take a drink while sitting on his “new legs”. By day three I was able to move his water into his box and he could hop over, stand up and drink on his own initiative. It is now day 8 and he is almost jumping out of his temporary cardboard box house.

The little claw hair clips are perfect for holding the chick’s legs for the first week or so of life. It was loose around the ankles on day one and a little snug on day 7-8 (but not too binding). I guess it could be used for close to two weeks if necessary, but the legs should not take that long to correct anyway.

Here is "Shaun" the chick with his brace on. He quickly figured out how to move around once it was installed.

Here is “Shaun” with his brace on. He quickly figured out how to move around once it was installed. Noticed the curled foot on his bad side – it corrected itself once he started using his leg properly.

I kept the brace on for three days without taking it off. By day three his bad foot had opened up and he was able to hop around on his own accord and drink and eat as he pleased. (you can see his right foot curled up in the picture).

After day three I started taking the brace off to see the progress. While it looked more promising each day, he still needed a little more time to strengthen up. In the past this process has normally taken only 2-4 days, but Shaun had a really bad case.

The final thing I will do is increase the size of his box a bit and add a couple of other chicks (from the same hatching) in with him to re-acclimate him to the “real world” and let him learn to keep up with the others. It might be a bit too much to just throw him in with 100 other chickens and expect him to integrate immediately; after all, he’s spent his entire life in a box!

Below is a video of Shaun when we first took his brace off and he was able to walk successfully on his own. He’s now running all over the place.

Managing Barn Cats

When we do tours of the farm I am always surprised how often the topic of barn cats comes up. Even though they seem to be a secondary aspect to a farm which primarily produces food, people seem to recognize the necessity and challenges of keeping cats around a farm.

Above (left-right): "Jonathan & Jonathan" (we can't tell them apart), "Booger" (for an unfortunate natural marking on his nose), and "Kelly" the black tortoise shell. Our daughter, Liliana, names all the animals on the farm. You' would have to ask here how these names were derived.

Above (left-right): “Jonathan & Jonathan” (we can’t tell them apart), “Booger” (for an unfortunate natural marking on his nose), and “Kelly” the black tortoise shell. Our daughter, Liliana, names all the animals on the farm. You’d have to ask her how these names were derived.

First, let me begin with the “Why”. Why even keep cats on a farm? Our father has preached on this topic since we were kids. There is a sort of cosmic equilibrium between cats, snakes and mice/rats. If that equilibrium gets out of balance horrible outcomes will ensue. If you have a farm you certainly have grains and vegetables around which attract mice/rats (m/r). The m/r in turn attract snakes. Snakes are good, and even welcome on our farm, up and until the point where our children are naming the copperheads. So, we bring in the cats to reduce the m/r and thus reduce the snakes.

It all seems straight forward until you get one of these populations out of balance. We have looked up in the rafters of our barns in the past and literally seen 100’s of mice at night. We have over-reacted and found ourselves looking up in the rafters a few months later and seeing dozens and dozens of cats. I honestly cannot say that an over population of cats is any less sanitary than an over population of m/r.  I also speak from experience when I say a poorly managed population of cats can spiral out of control just about as fast as a population of m/r.

So, we have learned to live with cats…, and m/r…, and even snakes in small controlled populations. If all is in balance we have very few issues with m/r and we might find one snake per year in one of our barns, maybe even just one every couple of years.

This brings us to how we manage barn cats. We have tried to adopt stray or feral cats on numerous occasions. Our county even has a $10 barn cat adoption program. 100% of the barn cat “adoptions” we have tried ran away within days of release. As noble an idea as it is, we no longer do it. We simply don’t have the time to invest just to watch our investment run off into the woods never to be seen again. What has worked for us very well is to find weaned kittens (any variety will do) and bring them to the farm young. We keep them in a large crate for one week (in the barn) with water, food and litter, and a box with an old towel. We then move all those components to a location where we want them to stay and allow them begin exploring and making the farm their home.

At around 5-6 months of age we round up the cats and take them all to get fixed – hence the population control. Our county has a low-cost neuter/spay program for $35/cat. We pay an extra $5/cat for a pain medicine shot not only because it helps the cat cope, but equally it keeps the cat groggy, less stressed and easier to handle on the way home. We do not purchase cones of shame, no-lick sprays, monogrammed cat sweaters or catnip-stuffed mice toys – avoid the up-sells. Back to the farm and back to the large crate for a week with all the former items for some time to heal and not chase things around. After that they’re good to go – official barn cats!

If you don’t fix the cats they will breed like rabbits (I’m not too sure that saying shouldn’t have been “breed like cats”). Here’s what will happen; the females will find an obscure place to have their litter. Her kittens will be wild due to their lack of imprinting with people and it will be very difficult to catch them to get them fixed, and the cycle will start all over. The males will mostly run off looking for other females, except for the “new” males who will all of a sudden show up looking for your females. The remaining males will darn near kill each other competing over their territory. All that goes away if they are fixed. Calm, easy-going mousers with no drive to kill each other or run off somewhere.

We feed our cats only once a day and not too much. Fat, lazy cats are no use to us, they belong in window sills in the city. While we don’t expect them to live on m/r alone, we do expect them to work for their keep. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “if a man will not work he shall not eat.” We believe this verse should also apply to cats.

Jonathan and Booger enjoying their morning grub.

Jonathan and Booger enjoying their morning grub.

We keep a lot of chickens on the place and here is what we have discovered about combining cats and chickens. Cats should first be introduced to mature chickens, preferably a large, possessive rooster with a flock of hens. This fella will do more for training a barn cat about respecting chickens then you ever could. We have never had a barn cat mess with a mature chicken. Having said that, we do not let our cats near chicks, as they will make short work of them. Most chicken breeds around 6 weeks old (with some protection) seem to be fine – our cats rarely even give them a moment’s attention. We do employee electric net fences quite a bit in our operation so that is also a factor.

We are also careful to keep cats out of seedings and plant starts as well, as those will quickly become litter boxes and sunning beds. We once had a couple cats play for some hours in a germination chamber and destroyed half a season of tomato and pepper starts.

So, for better or worse cats are something we believe belongs on a farm. While they do not directly produce anything profitable, they are a key management tool in helping to keep some balance in the life of the farm …and our 6-year-old daughter loves them; probably more than they want to be loved most of the time.

If you have any thoughts or tips regarding barn cats we would live to hear about them. Just share your comment below or email us.

A Case for “Closed” Genetics in Yard Birds

From the onset of our layer operation we planned to implement a concept that Polyface Farms had employed with the genetics of their forage-based rabbits; line breeding, or “closed” genetics.

The concept is rather simple and straight forward… begin with a specific population of animals and do not allow any outside genetics to enter that population. The objective is to produce over multiple generations a farm-specific breed which is hearty, highly productive and carries particular strengths against the bacteria, parasites, diseases, climate and predation of the micro-environment that makes up our farm. It is an expensive experiment in that one has to allow nature to do her culling in order to find where those strengths lie within the population.

For our egg production we began with 225 birds (200 hens and 25 roosters). We purchased seven heritage breeds of chicken. We were looking for specific traits to impart within the flock, namely heat tolerance (after all our farm is in North Texas) and laying rates. We wanted breeds capable of producing 300 eggs a year. We chose: Rhode Island Red, Speckled Sussex, Black & Gold Sex Link, Buff Orphington, White Leghorn and Black Australorp. These represented the first generation of our egg layers, after which we closed the door to any new outside genetics.

cartermerefarms_motorcycle.chicken

Hunter Carter with one of his “girls”.

Over the first 18 months we experienced the expected higher losses, losing close to 50% of our flock. Some of the loss was attributed to our learning curve and management practices. We have always had small backyard flocks, but there are plenty of new dynamics with a larger flock. We also lost some to predators, but this is also part of the process… one bird leaves the coop looking up while another leaves looking down. The hawks take advantage of this weakness. For the record, we do attempt to protect our flock from every predator we can, but nevertheless, this natural loss does serve to refine the flock and naturally reduces a population through attrition of weaknesses.

 

 

We are now on our third generation of birds. Our hatch rates are up to 85% and in our latest generation we have had a mortality rate of 0%. Albeit, the birds are only 2 weeks old, but they are proving to be hearty in every way. They were running within just a few days, sparring, flying and roosting on our lower nesting box roosts within a week. They have a vigor, strength and pep we have not seen in any of our previous generations.

In order to keep up with egg demand we have now consolidated all of our laying birds into a larger operation. This new operation is in essence a farm within our farm owned by Hunter Carter, affectionately dubbed “Hunter’s Huevos“. This operation will be able to grow up to 600 birds and supply Cartermere with 35-40 dozen eggs per day. The only genetic factor yet to be seen is our laying rates. We are currently at 57%, however this is not too bad for the heat of our summer months, and we currently have a number of pullets still beginning to lay so rates continue to tick up each day.

Through this process, in 10 years we hope to have a fairly standardized “mutt” layer which is a heavy producer and extremely hearty for our farm. We’ll provide an update in a couple of years on our progress.

On the Farm with the Chefs

Yesterday we were privileged to have a group of chefs and cooks out to the farm from CBD Provisions and the Joule Hotel Banquets. Everyone got their hands a little dirty with a number of chores.

After taking a short tour of the farm, we harvested mixed summer squash, zucchini and pickling cucumbers.

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Wyndom, a cook at CBD Provisions, showing off one of the coq au vin roosters prior to processing.

Everyone took part in our weekly chicken processing as well. From kill, to scalder and de-feathering, evisceration and washing. This activity was important for both the farm as well as the chefs and cooks, because Cartermere is currently supplying CBD Provisions with aged roosters for a special “coq au vin” dish. It’s important for the kitchen to know how the birds are prepared at the farm, as well for us at the farm to understand if there are any aspects in our processing that impact the end result at the restaurant.

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Executive Chef Matt Ford at the helm preparing lunch.

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CBD Provisions team prepping for lunch.

After the work was completed the chefs and cooks did what they do best. Everyone came together and prepared a wonderful lunch. We had grilled Cartermere grass-fed lamb, mixed potatoes and onions, sauteed summer squash and a spectacular cucumber and heirloom tomato salad.

We also open a few Cartermere Farms’ pickle jars to get the chef’s opinions on this year’s “vintage”, and finished the day with a round of homemade limoncello which we make here at the farm for friends and family.

All and all, a great day at the farm! This is why we love the restaurants with whom we work.

Thank you guys for coming out and experiencing what we do. It was a pleasure to get to know you all better.