Ghostwood Farm

Butchering day.
January 23, 2012, 9:48 pm
Filed under: Chickens, Farming

(Note: The following contains graphic descriptions, but no photos. I promise that my next post won’t be about killing!)

I usually buy chickens “straight run,” which means that they are unsexed at the hatchery. The ratio of males to females is random. Hens, of course, produce eggs. Roosters are good for a few things. They keep one from sleeping in, for instance. They protect the flock by watching for danger. They are immensely entertaining (remind me to tell you the story of when I mixed the old flock with the new flock). They fertilize eggs, if one wishes to incubate eggs to raise chicks. They can be very beautiful birds, too.

However, they eat a lot, which gets expensive. If the ratio of roosters to hens is too high, the hens get mated too frequently. This can leave the hens’ backs scratched raw and the back of their heads plucked bare. This can be a problem in the hot summer sun (sunburn) and the cold winters–feathers are excellent insulation. I like to keep about eight hens per rooster. The extra roosters are raised for meat.

About two weeks ago, well before eggs started appearing, the roosters reached sexual maturity. I’d hear a squawk and look outside to see a rooster on a hen’s back, holding the skin on the back of her head with his bill. After a few seconds, he jumps down, she shakes herself and fluffs her feathers, and they part ways. Since my ratio had been about 3 hens per rooster, some of the boys had to go.

Slaughtering takes planning. It’s a day-long process. I have to separate the birds from their food, because a bird that has just eaten makes an incredible mess when it comes time to remove the innards. So I close the doorway between the coops (the food is on one side, while most of them sleep on the other). Usually the chickens don’t even notice, since they’ve already roosted for the night.

I try to get started early on butchering day. The chickens are up early, and they want food and water. The faster I get through the process, the sooner the others can eat and drink. This week, I decided on seven roosters. I chose to keep at least one rooster of each breed I have, so I wound up with one Buff Orpington, one Rhode Island Red, and five silver-laced Wyandottes. My surviving roosters are two buff orps, two wyandottes, one barred rock, one mystery chicken (I think he’s a rare penciled wyandotte), an Ameracauna (“Easter egger,” that lay blue or green eggs), and the Kingfish, the black giant (or possibly black australorp) who was the survivor from the last batch.

I catch them one at a time and, carrying them upside down by their feet (which calms them), I take them to a large poplar stump. The top of the stump slopes to the left, and at the edge there are two nails driven into it, about 1 1/4″ apart. The chicken’s head is placed gently between these nails, I pull on its legs to keep the neck taut, and I cut off the head quickly with a very sharp, very heavy Ka-Bar machete.

When it stops flapping (which can take 1-2 minutes), I set it down and get the next one. Again, the faster I get through them, the sooner everyone else gets to go about their business.

The next step is to scald them. This loosens the feathers to make them easier to pluck. I have a couple of propane burners (turkey fryers) that I use for this. First I dunk the carcass in a bucket of warm water. This removes dirt, etc. from the bird (remember, they dust bathe frequently and their feathers hold a large amount of dirt). By washing them first, my scalding water stays cleaner and has to be changed less frequently.

The scalding pot is held at about 150 degrees. The carcass is dunked into the hot water, swirled around and shaken. This gets the hot water up against the skin as much as possible. At 150, I leave the bird in the water maybe 30 seconds. I pull the bird out and yank on some feathers. If they come out easily, I move on to the next step; if not, I dunk for another 15 seconds. 150 degrees is a bit hotter than most experts recommend, and scalding for a few seconds too long can cause the skin to start to cook. That means the risk of the skin pulling off with the feathers. But if one does it right, the feathers pretty much wipe off.

When plucking, I get the belly, legs and back first, just the big bits, handsful of feathers at a time. The wings are next. The large flight feathers can be difficult to pluck, if the scald wasn’t long or hot enough. The wing pits and between the leg and the body are last, along with the tiny, hard-to-pluck feathers just above the feet. Younger chickens can be difficult to pluck because they still have pinfeathers (feathers that are not fully developed). In a black-feathered chicken, this can cause some aesthetic issues, because some of those feathers are impossible to get out of the skin. It can leave you with black streaks on a nice white-skinned bird. The Wyandottes and the buff Orpingtons clean up nicely; the Rhode Islands and the black chickens are a pain.

Feet come off next, then the neck. I save all the necks, sans skin, for soup. Then the birds are drawn. I cut just below the cloaca (urogenital opening), then make a shallow cut all the way around it, careful not to cut the intestine. Once that skin is separated, I reach inside the opening, feeling for the gizzard. The gizzard is circular, about 2 1/2″ in diameter and maybe 3/4″ thick, and easily found. I pull it out, and with it come the intestines. Next the hand goes back in for the liver and heart.

The lungs of a chicken are set into the ribs along the spine and can be difficult to get out. I have a horrendous-looking tool for this job (called, accurately enough, a lung scraper), because doing it with one’s fingers can cause all manner of nicks and cuts due to the sharpness of the ribs and spine. After the lungs are out, a few cleanup cuts to get rid of viscera and other tissue around the neck and rear holes, a rinse in cold water, and it’s ready to freeze.

When I’ve finished with the carcasses, I cut the large chunks of vein from the hearts and clean the gizzards. Gizzards, or muscular stomachs, are how chickens “chew.” They swallow grit (small stones), which reside in the gizzard. They swallow their food whole, and it is ground in the gizzard, using this grit. I grew up eating fried hearts and gizzards and I love them. Gizzards sound disgusting but they’re easy to clean. I make a cut into the thin side, basically butterflying it to open it up. The gizzard has a tough lining that peels out of the muscle, bringing with it grit, hay, grass, whatever is in there, all in one chunk. Voila, cleaned gizzard. Again, a rinse and it’s ready to freeze–I freeze the hearts and gizzards together.

I take all of the offal (heads and guts) out into the woods, where I dump it far from the chickens. The local critters have it all gone by morning (except the gizzard linings, strangely enough–those don’t get eaten!). The feathers are all dumped in a different pile. I’m sure that all of the songbirds in Lawrence and Monroe counties will have my chicken feathers in their nests this spring.

The chickens have to rest for 3-4 days before eating them. The first time I killed chickens, I fried one up that night, and the dark meat was rubbery, inedible. I was mortified. I thought, here I’ve killed all of these birds, and they aren’t fit to eat. I was nearly in tears. I did some looking, though, and the trick is to rest them, which allows the muscle fibers to relax (at least, that’s my understanding). Freezing works, too. I have a big four pounder in the garage fridge, resting to be fried this weekend.

Because, as much as I dislike this process, as messy as it is, and as exhausting (both physically and emotionally), it’s all about getting food the real way, for me and for my family, for my friends and for my customers. And you know what? My chicken tastes amazing. I’m very proud of how I treat these birds, but it wouldn’t be worth it if they didn’t provide great eats. And they do.

I thank each of one of them.

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Where was that lung tool?!?

Comment by Vicky

I had it out there with us, but I didn’t have a good technique with it until last time. We’ll have it next time, I promise!

Comment by ghostwoodfarm

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