35: The Chicken Birthday

Written July 29, 2013.

This Friday is a momentous day at our house.  It’s my 35th birthday and Chicken Day.

Eight weeks ago, 110 peeping balls of fluff arrived at our place, 60 meat bird chicks and 50 laying hen chicks.  When I ordered that many, I probably was in a bit over my head: no experience raising that quantity of chickens, no experience raising meat birds.  I knew I’d be fine, though, because just 15 miles away I had the seasoned resources of Mike, my brother, and his wife, Tricia.

Back In June I excitedly wrote about the day the chicks arrived. I now count the day as one of my favorites.

When I pulled in the driveway with my load of chicks and excited kids, lots of helpers were ready and waiting.  Mike and his family came out to help, along with my sister, Karen.  Later in the day my sister, Sue, and her kids came out to see the chicks, too. Mike helped get our little chicks off to a good start, putting up tin around their little pen, adjusting the heat lamps, and mixing molasses in their water to give them a little boost.

As my niece, Katie, helped dip each chick’s beak in water to give them a first drink, I snapped some pictures of baby chicks cuddled by kids.  With a flock of kids, a few adults, and 110 chicks all squeezed into the small pen for the occasion, we were teeming with life and activity.

If I could go back in time, I would take more pictures of that day.  The only pictures I have of Mike from that day are his hands helping my daughter hold a chick.  It’s a reminder to me to take pictures not just of the kids in the family, but the adults, too.

Mike reaching out his hands to help my excited daughter hold a broiler chick.

Mike reaching out his hands to help my excited daughter hold a broiler chick.

One morning a few weeks after our chicks arrived, my two-year-old helped me with the morning chores.  We fed the chicks and then moved on to the sheep.  Instead of my usual “on to the next thing” mode, we stood there for a while that morning just hanging out in the barn.  I leaned on the fence while my daughter stood in the feed trough to peek over the fence and watch the sheep getting a drink.

We stood there, quiet and peaceful, until my daughter was done watching.  That was one of those moments where I stood still long enough to feel overwhelmingly grateful…grateful to have a sweet little girl who made me stop and appreciate what I have.

Later that morning while I was upstairs doing laundry, I got a call from my mom telling me there’d been an accident with Mike’s helicopter.

In the weeks that followed, I continued making treks out to the chicken house to take care of the chicks.  Some days, my eyes got too blurry to scoop the chicken feed.  Every single time I go there, I think of my brother.  I see the work of his hands on the pen.  And all the time in my mind, when I look at those chickens,  I do what I think Mike would do.  Through his years of education, years of farming, he did so many things the right way.  He took care of animals the same way he took care of people.

And so, every morning in the last eight weeks I headed out to the chicken house to feed and water the chicks.  Now that they’re bigger, I’m out there three times a day.  In the chicken world, broilers (chickens grown for meat) are what Mike described as race cars.  Their growth is fast, reaching full size in just 6-8 weeks.  Like a high performance vehicle, meat birds need optimal conditions for a peak performance.

I’ve been working hard on my race car birds: feed, clean water, dry bedding, access to outside.  In eight weeks, we only lost one broiler, very early on.  I’ll call that a success for a first timer.  As they grow, I keep wishing Mike could see my chickens.  The kid in me wants my big brother to see them and be proud.

Eight weeks later, my daughter feeds the now full-grown broiler chickens.

Eight weeks later, my daughter feeds the now full-grown broiler chickens.

My broilers hit the finish line on Friday, Chicken Day (and my birthday).  We’ll load them up and make the short drive to Utica to have them butchered.  And soon after, I’ll have a year’s worth of chicken in my freezer for my family.

I grew up on a farm with beef cattle and pigs, but I never really involved myself in any of the farming.  This summer, then, is my first time raising meat for my family.  I have to say, there’s a certain amount of pride in raising food to feed your family.

I also have a very real and genuine appreciation for the effort and care involved in raising an animal for food.  It’s easy to give very little thought to picking up a package of skinless, boneless chicken breasts at the grocery store.  As a package of frozen food from the store, the image of a chicken on a farm seems awfully distant and disconnected.

This year, though, “farm to table” is very clear to me.  I know that every single time I pull a whole chicken out of the freezer to cook for my family, I’ll think about how I raised that chicken this summer.  I’ll know just where that chicken spent it’s days, and I’ll know just how much effort it took to raise that little fluff ball into a big meaty bird.  I took care of them, so they could feed us.

And while raising a few chickens isn’t anything momentous in and of itself, in the bigger picture it’s just a part of how I want to live.  I want my kids to grow up in the country where they know where food comes from, they know how to work, and they know how to appreciate the simple joys of life.

So on my 35th birthday, I’ll celebrate the accomplishment of raising my first set of meat birds, and celebrate getting to live a life full of blessings.  I’ll celebrate getting the chance to spend time with my brother this year, and learn some of his farming wisdom.

While I certainly intend to live to about 100 like my grandmas, the reality that my brother’s entire life was only nine years longer than my current age is a real reminder of the preciousness of every day.  I don’t know what exactly it is that I’m supposed to do in life, and I don’t know if what I do is “enough.” I do know, though, that I’m thankful to be alive and 35.

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