Butchering Day

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It was a Little House on the Prairie kind of day around here yesterday. I even donned an apron. Between bean picking and chicken butchering, we felt like quite the homesteaders.

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Cody invited his friend Matt, who arrived with a hatchet, to come and “help.” They re-strung my clothes line up on the hill next to the chicken pen and made tiny nooses out of hot pink string on which to hang the birds after they lost their heads.

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Meanwhile, I set-up our butchering station far, far away from the action. I asked Cody to put up our canopy over the table. That turned out to be a good idea because it rained most of the afternoon. This is what I guessed I would need to clean chickens, having never done it before:

  • gallon and quart sized Zip-loc bags
  • dish towels and rags
  • a candy thermometer to test the temperature of the scalding pots
  • a couple of large pots
  • gloves
  • a bucket of cold water
  • a water hose
  • assorted knives

This is what one actually needs to butcher chickens:

  • very, very, very sharp knives

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We started out using a propane-fueled burner to heat the scalding water. It was quickly apparent that we were almost out of propane so I fired-up the grill with our homemade charcoal and placed the other metal pot there to heat. The grill heated the water quicker and was virtually free, so we will go with that method next time.

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The preparations for be-heading took a little longer than I expected. While I was waiting, I froze two quarts of beautiful beans I picked from our garden yesterday morning. See the lovely purple ones? I was sorely disappointed to find that they turn a normal green when blanched. Oh, well.

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Back outside, a steady stream of headless, bloodless chickens were making their way down the hill. My mom showed up right around this time (out of curiosity or concern, I’m not too sure). I figured this was a memorable day and asked her to snap a couple of pictures of me.

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Michael Ryan showed up pretty well in this one (I’m getting huge, by the way). Twenty-seven weeks is about the maximum for chicken butchering. Any bigger and I don’t think I would have had the stamina or emotional stability to handle all this. Also, having my belly squished up against a table for several hours was quite uncomfortable. Notice the pile behind me there.

My 83-year-old neighbor thought we were having a fish fry and came over to visit. She didn’t seem too disappointed in the lack of hushpuppies and promptly picked-up a bird and started plucking. About an hour later I finally talked her into going home with chicken blood on her white slip-on tennis shoes. She said it had been 64 years since she had butchered a chicken but did it quicker than any of us. We were very thankful for the instruction.

Here are some things that we learned during our first attempt at being chicken farmers:

  • Order the genetically modified chicks and hope the fresh air and sunshine cancels out any adverse affects of their mutations. These buggers were too skinny and ate too much.
  • If the water is too hot or if you leave the chicken in it more than about 30 seconds, the skin comes off with the feathers and you’ll have a slightly pre-cooked bird.
  • It is almost impossible not to puncture an internal organ of some kind while getting the guts out. Just squirt it off really good with the water hose.
  • Chickens stink real bad. I had all intentions of doing most of the work after they were killed, but found that my pregnancy-induced hound dog nose just couldn’t handle the gutting process.
  • June is not the most opportune time to stand outside all afternoon in a swarm of chicken-loving flies.
  • The old-fashioned concept of skipping out to the chicken coop on Sunday morning to snatch a hen for dinner isn’t a bad one. 15 at once was a little much.

We ended up with 15 whole chickens in the freezer about 3 1/2 hours after the first swing of the ax. Not too bad. Really, the experience was almost exactly what I expected it to be. Not too sad, but also not too fun. It’ll take me a day or two to eat grocery store chicken again. Probably a month to get up the courage to cook one of ours.

So, here’s the big question. Will we be doing this again? Absolutely. We learned a whole lot on this first go-around. I am sure that our next attempt will be much more productive and much less expensive (I’m going to guess each bird weighed close to 2 pounds and cost us about $30. That’s not economical, I don’t care how organic or humane their time on earth). We will be going with Cornish Crosses or Cornish Rocks next time, not these puny White Leghorns. Supposedly, they mature in only eight short weeks. We will also wait until the weather is very warm before ordering our chicks so that they can stay outside and not require so much TLC during the first few weeks. We’re also brainstorming ideas on how to reduce the cost of feeding them (being more intentional about collecting kitchen scraps, planting corn/sunflowers/ squash specifically for the chickens, trying sprouted barley fodder).

Overall, the McNuggets provided us with a really great learning experience and a little good food.

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