Swamped, and then some

It has been pedal-to-the-metal around here on so many projects that I’m having trouble finding time to write. Many of these are just general housekeeping things that need to happen, rather than stuff to do with growing food or growing our soil.

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The boys and I have been busy with partially burying a hard plastic pond liner at the top of the hill to be our new duck pond, to replace the baby pool that is currently filling that role. The final step will be to bore a perfectly round hole in the bottom near one end, that we will be able to plug with a bathtub stopper. When we need to drain the duck-fouled water (which is usually every other day, if not every day), we will be able to pull the plug, and let loose the fertilizer and irrigation on the hillside. A set of microswales to better direct the water is also on the boys’ drawing board.

The tricky part is boring a round hole in the plastic without cracking it or just making a misshapen hole that a bathtub stopper won’t stop. I’ve got a few ideas. Watch this space.

We’ve been uprooting knapweed (aka Russian Thistle) around the yard a lot, and messing with sprinklers (2 in series) and soaker hoses.

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Another imminent problem is that we have some hens that aren’t laying, and others that are pecking and eating eggs. I’ve added some pillows made of feed sacks and newspapers to some nesting boxes out of which they like to scratch all the bedding, in hopes of preventing initial breakage. Several suspects have been identified, but nobody has been outright convicted except for a pair of aging bantams that I caught red-handed, or, really yellow-beaked, side by side, when I opened the nesting box flap the other day.

The oldest batch of White Chanteclers is probably just hitting their first molt. There are a few others who we know to be laying due to having positively matched egg size, color, and shell texture to specific birds. More of the flock is rather a gray area, though. We need to take turns sitting out to watch the laying activity to gather better data. Did this for a day last week with some useful results, but more is needed, when we can tear ourselves away from other projects.

Phoenix hen
Phoenix hen

 

In other poultry news, the puppy unleashed her inaugural murderous ferocity on one of the young Icelandic roosters. We still have about 3 left. At least it wasn’t one of the pullets.

A thunderstorm that I can only really describe as vicious whipped through the valley yesterday while we were out. We had to dodge downed willow and cottonwood branches, not to mention downed power lines, on our drive. A nearby city was hammered with category-1 hurricane-force winds and I think many there are still without power. We came home to one window screen off, the curtain hanging out the window, a few things blown around the yard, and that was about it. The smaller of my two gray cats went missing, and I’m very upset.

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The biggest project consuming our time is getting the office bathroom up and running. We will have quite a few visitors later this month, and the extra plumbing should be ready just in time. We’re still finishing the drains and the foundation. The boys are harvesting a lot of stray concrete chunks from under the house to incorporate in the footings to finish the floor under the shower and toilet. I am slowly recovering from my cracked sternum/ribs, and Mrs. D. is still the unstoppable Wonder Woman. When we started mixing concrete, she said, “I used to help my dad with this all the time when he was building houses.” She taught me a trick or two about finishing the surface presentably. I have to wonder what skills and experience she’ll pull out of her sleeve next.

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Said wondrous woman headed out with the kids to a class a half-hour away this afternoon, and before she was five minutes down the road, ALL of the warning lights on the dashboard came on, and various systems began to die. She called me as she was getting it turned around, and barely got it off the road not far from our house before it died completely. I jumped on one of my kids’ bicycles, only to find the air in the tires were low. Tried another bike. Same problem. The third had barely enough air that I felt the tires might get me to the ailing van, so I took it.

Battery measured less than 8 volts, and the electrical system was suffering accordingly. I assumed the presence of a short that was draining the battery and short-circuiting the whole electrical system. Called some friends. First one who answered got going in our direction to attempt a jump-start. While waiting, I poked around some more, and before long noticed that the belt connecting the crankshaft to the alternator and AC compressor was shredded like a giant spider. Enderman lurking in the left side of the engine compartment.

Our friend arrived after having gone out of his way to get gas for his own van. We verified that the water pump was not affected by the broken belt, and then charged our battery from his van with jumper cables for a while. This enabled us to start the van and drive it home. Another friend gave me a lift to the auto parts store in town. Having a minivan as one’s sole vehicle on a homestead is a poor idea – a truck would solve a lot of problems and is on the to-be-budgeted-for list.

There’s a second belt that it makes sense to replace along with the one that broke, so I picked them both up. Youtube and my Chilton’s guide offer much encouragement that this will be an easy repair project. Will probably have to remove one wheel to access the bolts to loosen the pulleys, but hopefully that will be the extent of tomorrow morning’s drama, before I return to brainstorming interlocking systems and infrastructure in the office bathroom-to-be.

Also, having picked up a used front-loading washer and dryer for a song the other day, to replace our aging machines, we got around to installing them this morning. Cleaned out a lot of dirt under the old ones that predated our arrival here. Cleaned out and tightened up the dryer vent hose. Decided to forego replacing the dryer for now since the new one is gas and we want to hire someone qualified to extend our gas line for it. Front loading washer works great. All parts, and a stud finder (to minimize cussing), are now on hand to construct a lot of much-needed shelves in the laundry room. Another day, soon.

Inexpensive Poultry Leg Bands

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Leg bands are essential if you plan to breed your birds, or just to keep track of who is who in the coop. They’re good for marking clans, generations, new arrivals… and for separating the sheep from the goats, as it were.

While the spiral leg bands you can get from the feed store work fine, you still have to refit your chicks with larger sizes as they grow. A cheaper option, requiring only nominally more maintenance, is to use colored wire ties, a.k.a. zip ties. They can be had in bulk online at sites like eBay and Amazon. My local Harbor Freight store had some heavy duty ones, and it’s quite possible your local hardware store has some, too.

The only real difference we’ve found is that since the spiral leg bands do have a little room to expand as the bird’s leg grows in girth, you have a little more time in which to change the bands as the birds outgrow them – although they will eventually get painfully tight. The zip ties do not stretch or expand at all, and must be clipped off and replaced with a larger size before the bird outgrows them, to avoid ugly, unnecessary, often-bloody injury to the constricted leg. (I figure if I’m not inspecting my birds often enough to notice that a leg band is getting tight, I’ve got bigger problems.)

We have three different breeds of chicken that we have bred or have plans to breed (White Chanteclers, Icelandics, and Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes), and have found it useful to have a large variety of colors and sizes of zip ties.

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Spiral leg bands run from about $0.15 to $0.25 each.

Amazon currently sells a pack of 500 count 6″ zip ties in eight assorted colors for $9.99, which works out to not quite $0.02 ea.

Even cheaper, on eBay I bought a pack of 500 count 4″ zip ties in five colors for a grand total of under $6.00, including shipping from Hong Kong (didn’t take too long to get here, either, considering the distance – I don’t know how sellers like this do it, but I hope they’re making a profit from the volume if nothing else).

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I also got some of these from Harbor Freight. They’re beefy 8″ ties, and “on sale” at $2 for a pack of a hundred, they’re nothing if not cheap:

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The tool of choice for removing these, and for clipping off the excess length when applying them, is a pair of side cutters, a.k.a. “dykes”, like this:

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Three Rouen Drakes Dispatched

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Our Rouens are about eight weeks old. We intended to butcher them at seven weeks, due to the rapid drop thereafter in the ratio of feed to weight gain, as discussed on page 209 of Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks by Dave Holderread (2nd ed.). Supposedly seven weeks is also a sweet spot in feather development that allows for easier plucking.

We singled out two Rouen ducks to keep for breeding, freed them to run with the layer ducks, and penned up the remaining eight Rouens. The four-month-old drakes ran free with the rest of the layer flock.

We dove headlong into the meat duck endeavor with only minimal research. We also were too busy to butcher them last week, so we figured better a little late than a lot late, and so Wednesday was the day. We figured we’d go through the process with two drakes, and then proceed with the remaining six if all went well.

I dispatched them with a sharpened hatchet, and Mrs. D scalded them in my stainless brew kettle on a propane burner on the back deck. The idea of putting detergent on anything I plan to eat gives me the creepy-crawlies (ingestion of detergent is implicated in declining male fertility rates, among other problems), but everything I read said adding a little dish soap to your scalding water makes plucking waterfowl much easier, so we bit the bullet and aimed a squirt of at-least-scent-and-dye-free dish soap in the scalding water.

Plucking by hand was fiddly and a bit time-consuming, as expected, but with three of us on one bird it went fairly quickly. I weighed the mostly plucked carcasses, and they both came in at 3 lbs. 11 oz. This was considerably less than we had hoped for. Dressed, they weighed just under 3 pounds each. Given that Rouens are a meat breed (second in size only to Pekins, I had read), this was disappointing. So we stopped to re-think, and do a bit more research.

Apparently the time windows for ease of plucking happen just before a molt, when new feathers come in. This happens at different ages with different types of ducks, and I understand the first window can be observed when the bird has gained all of its adolescent feathers at somewhere between six and ten weeks, and before the adult, breed-specific feathering starts to come in. Our four-month-old Rouen drakes already have iridescent green heads, so that is presumably after the pre-molt window we’re looking for.

In an entry entitled Raising Meat Ducks at Purely Poultry, Tyler Danke suggests butchering Rouens at an age when you like the flavor that the meat has developed, and not worrying about plucking every last feather if you are planning to eat them yourself, since a few stray feathers just get roasted off in the oven anyway. He butchers his drakes at 4 months, but mentions that some people prefer to wait 12 or even 18 months for richer flavor.

Murray McMurray Hatchery suggests, “[Rouens] can be dressed at 10-12 weeks or 5-6 months when well feathered and matured.”

As an experiment, and since we have a surplus of drakes, we decided to go ahead and butcher one of the 4-month-olds. His plucked weight was almost 5 pounds, but dressed, he still weighed just under 3 pounds, just like his juniors. He was marginally larger, and his guts were much more developed, particularly the kidneys, but it’s like that whole extra pound was in the innards, and not the meat.

These are free-range ducks, and we don’t expect them to put on weight like factory-farmed birds, but we were expecting a little more meat for the dinner table. Of course, our initial experiment won’t really be complete until we sit down for dinner tomorrow. Mrs. D. has been basting two of the ducks with honey and vinegar, in preparation for roasting.

If you have raised Rouens for meat before, at what age did you butcher your ducks, and how happy were you with the dressed weight and the flavor? Please leave a comment on this post, or send me an email. I’m also soliciting input about this at The Survival Podcast Forum and Backyard Chickens.

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Sharpening knives in preparation for butchering.

The sharperner is a Spyderco Tri-Angle Sharpmaker. Knives are a Shun DM0700 Classic 3-1/2-Inch Paring Knife and its bigger brother, the Shun DM0701 Classic 6 Inch Utility Knife. I primarily used the latter for dressing the ducks.