Last week, we hosted a chicken processing demonstration prior to doing the whole batch. Four of the chickens have been injured in the chicken tractor and are unable to move with each relocation. OK, processing? I hate using that word, it makes me think of prisons and other government machines but, it is the accepted term for killing, eviscerating, and butchering animals. Coming down off the soap box now, but I may climb back up at any given moment.
The air is cold and crisp, the grass crunches under foot, and the four subjects for this day are blissfully unaware of their immediate fate. These four were selected because they’ve either become injured or their legs just didn’t develop well enough to carry their rapid weight gain. Even though I’ve selected a heritage breed, they still have a rapid rate of development that is faster than usual. It takes us about 10 weeks to achieve what is done in 6 with the Cornish X. I shunned the Cornish X (Cross) primarily because they are a completely man made bird and they tend to have a 10-30% mortality rate. I bought 100 Heritage Whites from S&G Poultry which have been developed through selective breeding from old Plymouth Rock stock. We still have an issue with leg injuries and I think one might have had a heart attack as well (some birds’ hearts can’t sustain the demand for rapid growth but not nearly on the scale like what is found with the C X). So I culled these birds and slated them for our demonstration, which is really more of a warm up for next week.
When I placed the birds in the killing cones, it turned out they were so small that they were in danger of falling completely through! What followed was not how I wanted things to go. The first cut was bad, the knife I selected wasn’t nearly sharp enough, so I sent my son David to fetch my hunting knife which has a razor edge but was a little too long for these small birds. I had failed to pull their feed the day before so we then had a lovely amount of excrement flowing down the side of the chicken. David handed me the knife and I quickly ended the poor creature’s misery. Oh did I feel horrible, though I had helped to process 300+ chickens in the past, I had only killed a handful. If I am going to take the life of an animal, then I want it to be as humane and quick as possible. I didn’t fulfill that goal on this poor bird. I turned to my small audience of three and I saw three different expressions, one of concerned curiosity, another of extreme interest, and one of concern that could become horror. “This is NOT how it’s supposed to go,” I explained, “I am so sorry.” I was also sending silent apologies to the now deceased bird, and I said a quick prayer that I wouldn’t screw up the next three. The idea of humanely killing a chicken is to quickly sever the carotid artery without severing the trachea. This way the doesn’t feel the cut of the sharp blade and they simply go to sleep from blood loss. This is in sharp contrast to what most people think of when you talk of killing a chicken. Most folks envision a chopping block and heads being severed from bodies or chickens being held by the head and slung about until their necks break. These methods might have been fine for our great-grand parents when one of the laying hens stopped producing eggs and so her next stop was to be a pot, there was not such this as a broiler AKA meat chicken, before WWII. The women who performed this task were very experienced and they were after one bird for their family, not 100+. That generation was actually more likely to have consumed rabbit than chicken. When it comes to meeting the demand today for healthy meat, we need a more efficient way to humanely slaughter. The killing cone holds the bird securely, which calms them and then their carotid is severed as described earlier.
The rest of the demonstration went smoothly, I opted to donate the carcass of the first bird to the compost pile rather than eat it. I just couldn’t handle all the feces I witnessed running down it’s sides and it didn’t appear to be too healthy.
At this point we felt like we wee as ready as we were going to be for next week. I had to go out of town for a fire department training class. Since Katie would be running the farm single handedly, and I just wanted to see how it would work, we decided to free range the chickens for their last week of growth. I pulled the chicken tractors to the gate to a small paddock, and then removed the front screen. I didn’t take them lng to figure out there was a new opportunity at hand, and they began exploring their new surroundings. It also didn’t take Rex, our Rhode Island Red rooster, long to figure out how to get in the paddock. So I had to shoo him out, since he seemed to enjoy bullying these less than clever meat birds, and then Rex proof the paddock.When I returned home Friday evening, I was thrilled to see that all the birds appeared to have put on another pound and were happily ranging about, foraging and exploring. While I was gone, there had been tornado warnings and I had nightmares of chickens being flung through the air, along with money we had spent and money we hoped to earn.
The next morning, I had Ryan, my oldest, help me set every thing up after getting all the morning chores completed. Some volunteers arrived, ready to take on an experience they’d never had before. Three of our volunteers were teenagers who had been offered up by their parents to help. I was very impressed with how eagerly they joined in, without complaint. One was a foreign exchange student from China, who seemed to be the most enthusiastic about the entire process. Katie’s dad also came to help, I think he had to see for himself that his only daughter could actually process a chicken. Our one hiccup was getting the pilot light of the scalder to light. But we did, and we were soon waiting for 35 gallons of water to reach 145 degrees. While we were waiting, I saw the truck belonging to our friends the Hammonds, of My Dad and Me Family Farm, pull up. I was caught completely off guard, as they had already loaned me all of their processing equipment and I didn’t expect them to come to help. I was grinning as they walked up, “Did you not have anything else to do today?” I asked David as we shook hands. He replied in his typical, semi-self deprecating manner, “Well we just thought you could maybe use a hand.” His father, Daniel, walked up and and we made introductions all around. David is an expert at slaughtering and scalding whereas Daniel is very proficient at eviscerating and is very good at teaching others how to do it. They saved our day.
As the water heated, we wnet out to catch some chickens. I was wondering just how easy this would be since they were free ranging. Well, since their last meal of grain and corn had been two days ago, they came a running to us, obviously hoping for some food. We were able to simply set the cages on the ground and corral them in. There was no need to terrorize them by tackling them and grabbing them by their feet before stuffing them into a crate. Everything went quite smoothly, thanks to Daniel and David, we were done an hour before our first customer was due to arrive, giving us time to do some cleanup. The arrival of customers couldn’t have gone any better, a couple came a little early, and all the others trickled in, giving us plenty of time to converse with each one and then complete our transactions.
When the last bird was pick up, we were wiped out. I really hoped to get some good reviews, so it was with a good deal of concern when the next morning, I check my email and one is titled URGENT! Chicken question. OH NO, I thought. One of our customers had cooked their bird that night and when they cut into the breast meat, there was meat with a bright green color. Green has never been a favorable color for meat. The firs thought that went through my mind was busted gall bladder. The bile is a very brilliant green, and will ruin meat it touches. That didn’t make sense though because this meat was deep wi
thin the breast, near the bone. We were very quality and sanitary conscious, each bird went into a chill tank after processing, and then was packed on ice. There was no way we let any spoil besides, when meat spoils, it’s from the outside in. It turns out that there is a condition called, Deep Pectoral Myopathy. This is basically muscle damage that is caused by the birds flapping its wings excessively. Because they have been bred to grow large amounts of meat, they are too heavy to lift off but because they are out roaming around like chickens are supposed to, they get it in their head they can fly too. Alas, they cannot and they end up tearing muscle tissue. this is completely unpredictable and there is no way for us to determine if any bird has such a condition as the green color only manifests itself after cooking. Here’s a good forum post about it, Green Meat on Bird?? I personally have never witnessed this, and I was very fortunate that the customer lucky enough to find it was so understanding. Sorry for the lack of photos, we’ll try to get some up soon.
Follow up. After speaking with several other farmers, as well as a representative of the hatchery, I’m not concerned about the DPM. We’ve eaten several of our birds and have yet to see any of the lime green that indicate the condition that is only seen in fast growing birds. We have, however gotten quite creative with how to prepare chicken!