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I am glad I had some time off for Labor Day, but the horrendously sad fire at Brazil’s national museum (which destroyed the irreplaceable treasures of that enormous nation) and the continued dumpster fire of incompetence and corruption in Washington sort of make me feel like I shouldn’t write about a happy subject.  Therefore, I am going to link to a very profound article in The Atlantic by Annie Lowrey…about the business and economics of small chicken farms!

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When I say small…I mean “small business”: these are the nightmarish factory farms you read about with tens (or hundreds of?) thousands of chickens stuffed into tiny spaces.  Although the factory farms are locally owned by individual farmers with small staffs they receive the chicks from enormous international poultry companies and sell them back ready for market.  These chicken contractors receive subsidies meant for small farmers, but they are really appendages of huge monopolistic food cartels which are generally the only buyer the chicken rancher can count on.   The small farmer assumes the financial (and legal) risk for running a dangerously skinflint and ethically dubious operation.  He is constrained at every turn by binding contracts, extensive rules, and the threat that the giant business will not buy from him or will otherwise dump him.  Then he sells at slim, slim margins to a single customer (single payer systems can seriously curtail prices, as any WalMart supplier could tell you).

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You can read the article to get all of the details, but the picture which emerges is of a world where huge corporate cartels collude to fix prices for their buyers and then likewise collude to make sure their suppliers take all of the risks.     The article also presents a counter-statement from the monolithic food cartels.  Needless to say, the big corporations do not present themselves as terrifying monopolies which are fixing prices and asphyxiating all competitors as they torture and pollute. Yet the mealymouthed platitudes of their corporate mouthpieces do not much convince the reader that the poultry titans (Purdue, Tysons, et al.)  are anything other than rent-seeking cartels operating beyond the law.  The article also suggests that this situation is quickly becoming the norm beyond chickens…in every other walk of economic life.

The take-away from this troubling story of America’s chattel chicken farmers is the same take-away from a deep dive into almost any large industry: this nation’s big businesses are completely out of control.  We need the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt to come back and lop off some heads and cut some of these fat strutting capons into quarters.

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On Tuesday we wrote about the Red junglefowl, the wild ancestor of the domestic chicken.  To progress further with this Stendhalian color theme, here is a human-made chicken, crafted by means of artificial selection over the centuries—the Ayam Cemani—the back chickens of Java.  These amazing birds are all black.  I mean they are really black…so exceedingly black they make Kerry James Marshall weep with aesthetic envy.

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Not only do Ayam Cemani chickens have black feathers, black faces, black beaks, and black wattles, their very organs are black.  Even their bones are as black as India ink.  It would be downright disconcerting… if they didn’t wear it so stylishly.

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The birds’ black color is a sort of reverse of albinism—the Ayam Cemani chickens have a surfeit of pigment.  This is genetic condition is known as fibromelanosis.   For generations and generations farmers have selected it until they have produced this rooster who looks like he stepped into the barnyard from the event horizon of a black hole.

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Yet the Ayam Cemani is not completely black…they have red blood and they lay cream colored eggs (although they are unreliable sitters, so without fashionistas looking after the survival of the breed, they might vanish real fast).  Speaking of which, why did the Javans collectively make such a crazy striking animal?  The internet says that the chickens are used for ceremonial purposes and for meals, but it looks like an amazing work of intergenerational conceptual art to me.  If you want you can get some for yourself, but unless you are headed to Java, they are rare and cost thousands of dollars in the United States (if you can find a seller).  It looks like it might be money well spent though.  These are stunning roosters.  Let’s hope the year of the fire rooster is as stylish as they are (but maybe not quite so dark).

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Silver Laced Wyandotte Hen

Silver Laced Wyandotte Hen

Wyandottes are a classic American breed of chicken which first appeared in Wisconsin in the years following the Civil War.  They are known for their winter hardy nature (thanks to short rose combs), their brown eggs, and their showy feathers.  They are a dual purpose breed farmed both for meat and eggs.

Endearing Silver Laced Wyandotte chicks

Endearing Silver Laced Wyandotte chicks

Wyandottes are supposed to be a docile breed, but things don’t always go as planned.  My parents obtained a straight batch of silver lace Wyandotte chickens via post, in order to restock their farm with chickens (“straight batch” means that the gender of the chicks was not determined by a trained chicken sexer—a highly experienced but deeply unlucky professional who determines whether chicks are male or female by, um, squeezing them).   Because of the luck of the draw my parents obtained a surfeit of male chicken, which, in the course of adolescence, turned into roosters and set out to fight each other for absolute dominance.  For a while, the farmyard became a miniature reenactment of ‘Highlander” with desperate roosters fighting to the death everywhere.  In the meantime the inexperienced adolescent Wyandottes became the favorite prey for foxes, owls, hawks, and weasels which infiltrated the poultry yard from the surrounding forests and grabbed the distracted fowl.

A magnificent (but probably angry) Silver Laced Wyandotte Rooster

A magnificent (but probably angry) Silver Laced Wyandotte Rooster

The Wyandottes had beautiful plumage, but by the time a single rooster emerged as the sole male survivor of their insane battle rayale, the flock was sadly attenuated.  Worse yet, the rooster (whom my parents whimsically named “Rooster Cogburn” after the movie character) had been rendered insane by PTSD and dark memories of dueling.  It was only a short while until Rooster Cogburn brutally slashed my mother (either to protect his hens, or, more likely, because he was unable to differentiate other living things from rival roosters). This in turn aggrieved my father who grabbed a pair of electric shears and snipped the rooster’s fighting spurs.  Rooster Cogburn vanished shortly afterwards, presumably a victim of the many creatures with glowing eyes who live in the woods.

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I would have to say that Wyandotte chickens are very pretty (and good at egg laying) but they are not always the ideal chickens for southeastern Ohio.  My parents switched over to buff Orpington chickens (large delicious-looking yellow-orange chickens from Southeastern London) which are bigger, prettier, and have a gentler temprament, and the state of affairs in the poultry yard has greatly improved.

A Buff Orpington Chicken

A Buff Orpington Chicken

Willinhausener Gänselliesel (Adolf Lins, oil on canvas)

Willinhausener Gänselliesel (Adolf Lins, oil on canvas)

Most painters find a particular subject and they stick with it their whole life.  The themes which dominate an artist’s oeuvre can be all sorts of things: doomed warriors, Christ’s love, dark beauty, prime numbers, death-in-life, imperious aristocrats,monstrous pride, melancholy flowers, unruly goddesses…you name it.  In the case of Adolf Lins the great subject to which he devoted his life work was…well, it was domestic poultry.  Lins was truly great at painting ducks, geese, and chickens.  He demonstrates that maybe not every artist has to concentrate on the ineluctable nature of time or the chasm between desire and reality.  His poultry paintings are still well loved (although he is not the subject of long biographies like many of his peers).

Gänse am Weiher (Adolf Lins, oil on canvas)

Gänse am Weiher (Adolf Lins, oil on canvas)

Lins studied at the Academy of Arts in Kassel.  He later followed some fellow artists to Düsseldorf where it seems he fell in love with the gentle agrarian rhythms of the fertile farms by the Rhine.  He lived from 1856 to 1927–and though Germany changed again and again in that time, he kept his eyes on the modest glory of the local ponds and fields.

Enten am Flußufer (Adolf Lins)

Enten am Flußufer (Adolf Lins)

Lins had a talent for painting verdant Rhine foliage and glittering pools. He was also proficient at painting apple-cheeked farm children and lissome goose-girls, but his real skills and interests lay in the depiction of the individual fowl which are the focal points of his paintings.  Each bird has its own personality and is busied with its own pursuits.  Cantankerous geese squawk and bicker about flock politics (while other disinterested geese preen themselves or nap).  Mallards in a forest pool gather around a white domestic duck with a lambent yellow bill.  Two roosters fluff out their feathers and lower their heads as they prepare to battle to the death for possession of the flock behind them. Lins’ works may not concern the massive ebb and flow of historical or philosophical concerns in the human world, but he deftly captures the very real struggles and delights of the lives of domesticated farm birds.  The feathers and mud and beaks seem real–and so does the liveliness of flock life a century ago.  Any contemporary poultry farmer can instantly recognize what is going on in a Lins painting and share a quiet smile with small stock owners across the gulf of time.

Imminent Battle (Adolf Lins)

Imminent Battle (Adolf Lins)

 

It has been a long time since we had any posts related to turkeys!  Now that it’s November again, it is definitely time to revisit those magnificent birds.  A good place to start is by examining different varieties of domestic turkeys.  Since there are many different breeds, I’ll make this the first half of a two-part post.

Broad-Breasted White Turkeys on a turkey farm

The majority of turkeys available at the supermarket are Broad Breasted White turkeys, a non-standardized commercial strain noted for quickly putting on weight.  The white feathers also serve a practical purpose by making it difficult for market-goers to spot an imperfectly plucked turkey.  These large birds are raised in factory farms and their diminished existence means that they do not attain the cunning which broader life experience brings to free-range fowl.  Nevertheless, they are not nearly as dim as they are made out to be by popular myth.

Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys

The turkeys we raised on the farm when I was a child were Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys which are also a non-standardized breed noted for quick weight gain.  Neither the Broad-Breasted Bronze nor the Broad-Breasted White turkeys are capable of reproduction without the aid of artificial insemination.  My family obtained our turkeys as little poults through the mail and the birds’ later inability to have offspring was rather pathetic.  Additionally our pet turkeys tended to develop health complications due to their immense and ungainly size.  Other breeds of turkeys from the past did not have these issues.  They were kept by homeowners and farmers as small rafters (that’s the proper term for a group of turkeys) or as individuals.  Since turkeys are formidable hunters capable of eating a vast quantity of insects, the birds, like other domestic fowl, served as pest control before commercial poisons became inexpensive.  Abraham Lincoln had a pet turkey “Tom” who tended to the white house lawn.

The American Poultry Association recognizes eight breeds of domestic turkeys.  These breeds were variously popular in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries but became largely moribund during the late twentieth century with the rise of the Broad-Breasted white.  Most varieties nearly went extinct– however a recent fad for heritage turkeys during the holidays (and a growing trend for backyard poultry) has created a niche market for these historical turkeys.

Here is the first half of a gallery of turkey breeds:

Royal Palm Turkeys

The Royal Palm was not a meat bird but was bred for selected ornamental characteristics.  The toms are usually less aggressive than other male turkeys and the females are said to make solicitous and conscientious mothers.

A "Rafter" of Slate Turkeys

The American Turkey Association first recognized the Slate turkey in 1874.  The turkey can range from pale gray (known as lavender) to a dark charcoal color.

A Narragansett Turkey Tom

To quote the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, “Narragansett color pattern contains black, gray, tan, and white. Its pattern is similar to that of the Bronze, with steel gray or dull black replacing the coppery bronze…. Narragansett turkeys have traditionally been known for their calm disposition, good maternal abilities, early maturation, egg production, and excellent meat quality.”

The White Holland Turkey

The White Holland turkey was the most popular table turkey during the early twentieth century largely because the pale pin feathers made the dressed carcass look neater.  The White Holland turkey had a smaller body than the Large Breasted White Turkey but its head was more colorful, its beard was black and its legs were longer.  This breed has primarily disappeared due to being bred into the Large Breasted White Turkey population.

That’s enough Turkey Breeds for one day, but don’t worry I will finish the second portion of this list before turkey day gets here!

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