Chicken by the Sea: D-Day (post script)

Eleven chooks went onto death row on Tuesday (AKA a stall in the barn – worked great!!) and by early afternoon Wednesday they were all processed! Not bad for us first-timers considering it took us about 4 hours total start to finish – and half of that were for the first three as we got our technique established on the scalding and the plucker we’d borrowed.

Of the 48 (only 2 losses early on by suicidal chicks), 4 we will keep for eggs (2 Delawares and 2 Australorps, they seem the most docile of the bunch and are supposed to lay 200-250 per year which is decent…not to duck level, but still good), 11 are now chilling for eventual freezing (they’re 13 weeks old so I’m letting them rest the full 48 hours, so we still have 33 to butcher, which will be near month end. Heirlooms are slower but we’ve heard are SO worth the wait…so just crossing our fingers our crazy coastal winds won’t start whipping up for another month otherwise we’ll have to bring them to the barn to keep them safe (the DIY tractor is too lightweight for sure) !!

Everything was new to us – from raising meat chickens to killing them to processing them afterwards – and thanks to lots of homework on blogs and other websites, along with a bit of hands-on support on the gutting portion from our next door neighbor (she has a ton of dual purpose chooks but her husband just uses the hatchet for the kill instead of the cone, and they pluck by hand as they only take ’em as they need ’em…so some of the things we had were new to her as well), we were pretty stoked at the results. This first round we butchered 7 Australorps and 4 Delawares (turns out the seller gave us 20 Houdans instead of 20 Delawares….something you can’t assess when you first get them as these two breeds actually look alike as chicks…grrr…).

Above was our basic setup from left to right, minus the kill cone we’d hung on the barn wall which you’ll see in the next photo. Three tables and the plucker were perfect stations – two of the tables I’d actually built this summer with scrap wood from leftover deconstruction projects (yay!), with the other being 2 sawhorses with an old scrap of particleboard. All three covered in old tarps that I’d stapled to the surfaces to keep them from blowing around in our fall weather. I love old tarps, y’all. We are fortunate enough to have this concrete slab at the entry of our barn so we could access not only the chickens inside the first stall, but also the electrical and hose to run things. Oh yeah -and it was a GORGEOUS day – heck of an improvement from the pouring sideways rain of Tuesday!

  • Table One: Scalding (left, with the yellow legs): Our electric canner + candy thermometer. We don’t believe in using fossil fuel machinery on our farm (beyond our Subaru wagon which will eventually be traded in when we can afford to upgrade), so there’s no propane/gas/oil-operated items and this was GREAT! Amen for having our barn’s electrical updated when we moved to the farm last summer! My beloved canner was the perfect size and depth for swishing around the chook, with the candy thermometer attached to the side to keep things between 140-150… and then taking it to the next station.
  • Electric Plucker: Holllllllly cow this was awesome. An artist/farmer friend of Dan’s who lives a mile or so down the road from us was kind enough to loan us his barrel-style plucker and it was so rad. It took a few chooks to get our technique/rhythm down with the scalder (how to best ‘swish’ and how long to do it so the plucker could release the feathers without tearing the skin that can happen with an  over-scalded chook.
  • Table Two: This originally was my ‘just in case table’ but quickly became the finishing touches (manual plucking) and foot-chopping-off table for me as we got our rhythm and had a couple chooks in different stages.  At first we were using a variety of tools to pull leftover feathers that the plucker didn’t get (butter knife, tweezers, fingers) but as soon as we got our aforementioned technique perfected, I was using it to do ‘pre work’ like chopping off the feet and plopping them into a bucket for broth-making. Side note: our dog had NO interest in the feet as the internet had promised. This is a dog who ate a raw pig’s ear with the hair on no problem. Chicken feet were beyond her interest – she carried it around in her mouth with an obligatory look on her face, but we found it next to her bed pretty much untouched an hour later, and so all the rest were allocated for lovely gelatinous stock!
  • Table Three: Evisceration. This is where my husband gutted them all. We moved the bus tub to this table as we realized the giant bin I’d put on the ground was way too big for the small amount of processing we’d be doing. For this first group, we saved the necks for ourselves, keeping a small cooler with ice next to the table for those, and all the organs and guts went to…the chickens still in the tractor! They LOVE them some entrails, let me tell you. It’s gross seeing one running around with the heart of one of their former roommates in it’s beak but at the same time, very awesome Circle-of-Life stuff. After they were all gutted we had a second hose for cleaning out the birds before putting them in the bags and in two ice chests, each labeled by breed so we can compare the taste, and I can label them properly after chilling is done and it’s time to freeze!

For some of the details, the above left was our cone setup, with a tarp stapled to the outside barn wall (it’s white, I don’t want the barn to look like a murder scene after we’re done!), the cone hanging from the handle (this is the DIY kill cone video we followed on how to make it – awesome!), and a bucket below the cone to catch most of the blood as well as the chicken heads (we didn’t have the bravado to use those so they got tossed into a brushy area at the end of the property where the wildlife could use it!).  Below is a closer look at the plucker (and the first chook we put through it which wasn’t perfect since I’d not scalded it long enough…plus with black chickens it is SO much more obvious where a feather is missed…did you know that’s why they raise white chickens for meat commercially? interesting !).  And on the right is what the tarp looked like after 11 were processed. Hosed off and we were good as new.

Lessons Learned…

* The difference between live weight and post-processing is significant! We made the mistake of assuming the 6 lb roosters and hens we decided to cull from the original crowd for our first round at 13 weeks would be around 4 lbs afterwards. WRONG! They were a measly 2 – 2.5 lbs! We knew they were slow growers and our impatience definitely got the best off us. VERY glad we didn’t butcher more!

It’s not nearly as messy and bloody as some of the blogs describe! As long as you have a good ‘production line’ of sorts matched with tarps and containers/buckets, it’s not that bad. We actually got dirtier and grosser when we had to collect the ‘death row’ birds from the chicken tractor out in the garden (hands and knees in poopy grass…).

* I will never pay for ‘chicken processing bags’ or labels again! Total waste of money if you are planning to use a FoodSaver like we did to freeze the whole birds. Next year if we do this again I will buy a larger ice chest and just put the birds in there unbagged to do their 48 hours of rest, then straight into the FoodSaver bags. Along with that, a sharpie on the label section of the FS plastic does just fine for the weight and breed!

* I can kill a chicken if I need to. I didn’t want us to go through this process without taking the knife into my own hands (why raise them for food if you can’t get up the nerve to do the final bit?), so I did it. Yes, I cried. But I’m glad I did it. We also pet them and got them nice and calm before putting them in the cone, as well as covered their eyes before doing the kill and thanking them. No, not for their ‘sacrifice’ as some say (they aren’t exactly choosing this so it ain’t a sacrifice!), but for simply being our dinner. I raised them since they were a day old, and three months and change later, we ended their lives in order to make food for ourselves that was sustainable, healthy, and as local as it gets.

Next up on the docket? Well, we’ll see how they grow over the next few weeks and hopefully by November they’ll all – well, all but 4 – be in the freezer. We’re lucky to have a barn where they can finish up if needed out of the crazy weather if it gets to that point since the tractor isn’t super stable for mega-winter-coastal-winds, but let’s cross our fingers. Once they’re all in the freezer? Let the taste testing begin!!

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