* Disclaimer: This post is not for people who believe that meat animals are magically transformed into neatly wrapped packages that end up in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. If you are a "boneless, skinless chicken breast only" type of person and get grossed out at the thought of your meat having bones and skin, then you don't want to keep reading. You've been warned!
Ahhh, chicken butchering.... Somehow, by performing this act, I feel like I've crossed the line from "organic, eco, green, foodie" person into real-deal "homesteader" territory. Not too many years ago, you would have not caught me dead even considering butchering an animal. No siree, not me. My meat came for the shiny clean grocery store in nice little packages, requiring me only to heat it up. Heck, I didn't even have to touch it - just dump the individually frozen piece of meat from the bag into the pan or baking dish. The thought of cooking a whole chicken, with all the parts intact, left me feeling queasy. Why on earth would I want to be reminded that I was eating an animal that had at one time been a living, breathing creature?
I've come a long way since those years. When I pondered my relationship (or lack of) with meat, I never considered going vegetarian, but completely respect those who do, for their various reasons. However, I did start to examine the implications of eating meat and didn't like what I discovered. Most of us of are far removed from our food sources these days. We have no idea where it comes from, how it was raised, how it ended up on our dinner table. We take meat for granted, rarely stopping to think about how costly it is (financially and emotionally). I began to realize that there is a certain sacredness and spirituality to eating meat - in order for us to live, something else has to die (sound familiar, those of you that are Christ-followers?). All eating requires sacrifice. Now this extends to plant life too, as cutting a head of lettuce from the ground is akin to slitting the throat of an animal, but the imagery is more powerful when you are talking about a breathing, moving animal. I remember hearing my dad, the biology teacher, say more than a few times that "nature is all about sex and violence". Truer words have never been spoken. Even the "gentle" plant world is full of sex and violence. Life (and eating) is violent. Sorry Alicia Silverstone, there is no such thing as "kind diet".
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to continue consuming meat, I needed to make sure I was being a responsible and respectful omnivore. I found this book, "The Compassionate Carnivore" by Catherine Friend to be helpful and entertaining guide. We also came to the decision that we simply could not buy meat from the grocery store anymore. My husband and I began in earnest to seek out meat from animals that had been raised in a manner that we valued - preferably animals that were grass-fed (in the case of beef) and pastured (in the case of chicken and pork), no antibiotics (except when needed for a sick or injured animal), fed chemical free feed, and no hormones. And what we discovered was that while it was fairly easy to locate a source for grass-fed beef (we buy ours from Karin and John, owners of Woodbridge Dairy Farm), finding "happy" chickens was a real challenge!
Up until our big chicken butcher, I had been buying whole chickens at Byron Center Meats, which are labeled under the "local" section. When we pressed them about how the chickens were raised, all we could find out was that the chickens are raised on an Amish farm near Muskegon, MI. I wanted to know more, but figured buying the chicken there (supporting a local farm and a local butcher shop) was better than buying at the grocery store. My quest for happy chickens continued. I came to the conclusion that my husband and I were simply going to have to raise our own meat birds and butcher them ourselves. However, the thought of adding another project to this year totally overwhelmed me. Since May, we have installed a 4,000+ sq ft garden, started a small orchard, fenced in two acres for a cow and 2 goats, bought 3 hogs to raise for meat, raised 12 new chickens to add to our existing flock, bought 2 beehives to maintain.... what else am I forgetting? Oh yeah, a kitchen remodel. Anyway, the point is, we're exhausted and over extended. Adding meat birds to the mix just wasn't going to happen.
So imagine our excitement when our like-minded, wanna-be farmer friends, Dan and Katie, announced that they were going to be raising meat birds this year! I eagerly volunteered us to help out on butchering day, figuring it would be a good chance to see how much work butchering is, so we could decide if we wanted to do it ourselves. Also, we had an adopted laying hen, which the kids named Sweetie, that was getting old ( I think she was at least 5 years old) and not laying well anymore, so it was time to cull her from the flock. She will be turned into soup/stew meat,as I hear that old hens are quite tough.
Sweetie, our old laying hen, waiting her turn
We started early, meeting at 6am on beautiful summer morning. 45 meat birds, a breed called Freedom Rangers, were milling about in the barn, blissfully unaware of their fate. We had about 6-9 people working throughout the day (some people had to come late/leave early). After coffee and chit-chat we started to get down to business. Now, let me be clear. Most of us had no idea what we were doing. Oh, a few of us had butchered animals before and Dan had even butchered a few of the meat birds (one broke a leg and had to be taken care of), but this was mostly uncharted territory for us. With the aid of a few YouTube videos (what can't you learn on YouTube?!?) and my trusty book "The Small-Scale Poultry Flock" by Harvey Ussery at our side (the book includes very precise step-by-step butchering instructions with clear photos), we plunged right in.
Step One: Retrieve chickens. Dan would head to the back room in the barn and grab a few birds at a time to bring to the slaughter area, keeping the other birds out of view of the slaughter. This helped to keep the chickens as stress-free as possible. The birds had been on pasture for much of their lives, but were moved into the barn a few days before slaughter to make retrival easier. Here are the Freedom Ranger birds waiting their turn. I believe the birds were around 10 weeks old and most dressed out at around 3-5 pounds when we finished with them.
Freedom Ranger chickens
Step Two: The slaughter. There are several ways to slaughter a chicken, including the classic "head on the chopping block" method. And yes, a chicken will run around with it's head cut off. Since we were not too keen on witnessing that, Dan opted for the "killing cone" method (I wish they could come up with a better name for it). The chickens are placed head first into an upside down cone. As soon as they are put in the cone, they become very calm and relaxed. Their throats are quickly slit and the chicken is allowed to bleed out for a few minutes. The cone keeps the chicken from flopping about.
Chicken in the killing cone ready to be slaughtered
Step Three: Loosen feathers. All those lovely feathers must come off. Dipping the (dead) chicken in hot, but not boiling, water for about 30-60 seconds makes the feathers pull out easily. We used a turkey fryer filled with water to dunk the birds.
Loosening the feathers in hot water
Step 4: Pluck the feathers. Some people choose to pluck their chickens by hand, but since we were doing 45 birds at one time, my husband decided to get creative and design his very own chicken plucker (he's a handy one! I think I'll keep him). The book "Mini Farming: Self Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre" by Brett L. Markham has a good plucker design, with instructions on how to build it, as well as a parts list. After studying this design and watching several YouTube videos displaying various plucker styles, John built this plucker featured below. I won't go into all the details (because I don't know how he built it - I'll make him do a guest post to explain it), but let's just say it worked great!!!! The white PVC drum spins and has little rubber "fingers" that grab the feathers and fling them to the ground. We were able to remove most the feathers in this manner. There was still some hand plucking to do, but the plucker saved us hours of work.
The "Pluck-O-Matic 3000", as we dubbed it
Step 5: Eviscerate. I won't go into detail about this part. If you want to know more, then get "The Small Scale Poultry Flock" book and study that. Basically, it goes like this - cut off head and neck. Cut off legs at the joint. Remove oil sac from base of tail. Lay chicken on it's back and cut slit into abdomen. Reach into slit with your whole hand and scoop out the entrails. Done.
Step 6: Wash and package. After evisceration, the birds were hosed off outside. Then we whisked them into the house and they were dunked into a sink of cold water with a tiny splash of bleach to kill any bacteria. After another thorough rinse with plain water, they were bagged, weighed and set in the fridge to chill.
It took us about 5 hours to butcher 45 birds. Not bad for a bunch of beginners. Since it was the first time for most of us, there was a definite learning curve. Also, I think the process took longer because we didn't have specific stations or duties. Most of us wanted to try each station a few times, so we could master the skills required. Next time, I suspect we will assign stations to make the whole process run more smoothly.
Surprisingly, it was a very fun day. I would never say that killing animals is fun, but being with like-minded people, working towards a common goal, is fun. At one point, Dan laughed and said something along the lines of, "This is awesome, to see all these other people who are willing to help out and want to be here. It almost makes me feel like I'm normal". And of course I piped up, "You need to read Joel Salatin's book, "Folks, This ain't normal". According to him, we are normal! We want to know where our food comes from. That's normal!"
John and Nate at the butcher table
As payment for our labor, Dan and Katie gave us with a few chickens to take home for our freezer. We were thrilled with this arrangement! I'll work for food any day. After purchasing a few more from them as well, our freezer is stocked with enough chicken to last us at least half a year. My search for "happy" chickens is complete.
John and I have decided that we are going to try raising our own meat birds next summer. Let us know if you want to help butcher. We'll pay you in chicken.