Or get someone else like me to do it.
We processed the broiler chickens we raised from day old chicks that we got from S & G Poultry this past Saturday. We raise our chickens on the pasture where they can live out their lives in a much more natural, healthy and sanitary environment than factory farmed chickens. They eat a diet of grass, insects, and a non-medicated feed ration that we have to special order to ensure that we aren’t propagating meat loaded with pharmaceuticals, which is what you get from the mass producers. Our chickens live in portable pens we call “chicken tractors” which we move two or three times a day to ensure that they have constant access to fresh pasture to forage. We don’t just let them free range because they would be easy targets for predators. We grow them for 10 weeks because we don’t rely solely on commercial feed, if we did we could shorten the time to 9 or maybe even 8 weeks, but the flavor of a 10 week bird is much better in my opinion. This does mean that the meat is much firmer than young birds and after eating our chickens, the one in the grocery store labeled as “young and tender”, just feel mushy in my mouth.
The day for me started by leaving the fire station at 6:15. When I arrived home, Katie had already fed all of the critters but the rabbit pens still needed moving and the cows need to be moved to their new paddock for the day. As I rushed around completing chores, it started to rain. It was NOT supposed to rain! We had already set up all of the processing equipment in an open area between the house and the barn which is paved. As drops of rain got heavier, Katie and I moved the tables to the pavilion by the house and set up the killing cones in a car port by the barn. The scalding tank and plucker are too heavy to move around, we just left them in place.My goal was to get started at 8:00, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
We depend heavily on volunteers to help us get 100+ chickens processed in time to be picked up by customers who had already placed deposits to reserve their birds. Our first volunteer, John, arrived and I was still running around like a “you know what” with its head cut off. I finally got the scalder filled and now getting it fired up my next task. The scalder heats the water with propane but first I needed to light the pilot light. The factory installed igniter had long ago quit working, so this task requires one to lay on the ground (wet) and with a long lighter, match or taper apply the necessary flame to start the flames of propane. Fortunately, John was able to lend a hand by pushing in the gas control knob while I lit the pilot. Now we had to wait for the water to heat, which takes 45 minutes to an hour. While we were waiting, Tom arrived, and it was looking like the six volunteers that I was hoping for was actually a third as many. I knew already that the day was going to be a long one, but I could feel it getting longer.
Once the water was hot enough, according to the thermometer, we fetched the first batch of chickens from the pasture and brought them to the killing station. The chickens are not hard to catch because they’ve always associated people with food and opening the gate of the tractor brought a swarm of feathers, beaks, and claws. My method of dispatching the chickens is to use a razor-sharp knife to cut their carotid artery and bleed them while they are held securely in an inverted position in a cone. A quick, deliberate cut ensures that the chicken isn’t subjected to any undue stress or pain, unlike the slaughter assembly lines in the factory packing houses. Once all of the involuntary electrical impulses stop firing, I move the chickens to the scalding tank. The purpose here is to loosen the feathers to facilitate quick feather removal. It’s actually one of my least favorite parts of the process because keeping a constant eye on the water temperature is a pain, not to mention the pilot light is prone to be blown out by a gust of wind. The supposed ideal temperature is around 148 deg. Farenheit, but I ended up running the temperature up to 170 because the feathers just weren’t coming loose from the birds and we had to do a fair amount of hand pulling. So, after scalding is the plucking, which fortunately is performed with a plucking machine made by Featherman. It’s a tub with a bunch of rubber fingers on the sides and bottom. The bottom of the tub spins when you turn it on, causing all of the chickens to tumble around against the fingers, stripping their feathers off. Care must be taken not to run them in the plucker too long or there is a risk of breaking wings and legs. From there the process continues with removing the heads, feet and necks. We save the feet and necks for making stock and a few of our customers even enjoy chicken feet themselves as a snack! Eviscerating involves cutting open the body cavity at the bottom of the bird, reaching in with the hand and breaking loose all of the membranes from the cavity wall. The gizzard is the largest organ and once you find it, you grasp the tube on top of it and firmly pull, all of the entrails come out together for the most part. Once they’re out, a cut around the rectum and the bird itself is ready to be washed, inspected and put on ice.
We had some more helpers show up around noon, our friends Debbie and Mark made it after dealing with a son-in-law who is in the hospital. They, like our other helpers, desire to one day have the means to be self-sufficient and raise food for themselves and others. Soon after, my sister came by with my nephews, Cameron 9 and Trey 6. They enthusiastically joined in. The kids were assigned to catch the chickens, and then help with the scalding and plucking. Cameron and my 8 year old wanted to get in on the eviscerating but, I’m not ready to turn them loose with knives so, the figured out that if you just twist it enough, the head would pop off. This gave the grown ups one less task to do.
I wasn’t surprised to find that we weren’t done when customers first started to arrive, we were still killing, plucking, and eviscerating. I was glad to see that no one looked squeamish or grossed out. I believe that it is vitally important for those who do not grow their meat, should have the opportunity to see exactly the manner in which it is raised and killed. The consumer should not have to blindly trust some nameless individual to certify their meat is safe. I was very glad to see that some parents even encouraged their children to watch the whole process of processing. One mom asked if she could take pictures and I said only if she’d share them with me. Thank you Sarah for these awesome photos!