It is not the most pleasant chore, butchering chickens, but a necessary part of life on the farm. The process is not necessarily difficult, but anything involving taking a life becomes burdensome emotionally and physically. Some of you might be interested in understanding what goes into the job of butchering chickens, so here goes…….
We butcher the chickens when they are between seven and eight weeks old, or when they look to dress out between 3-5 pounds. In the weeks prior to this day, these chickens are cared for in the most respectful manner. They are hand fed twice a day, enjoy the sunshine and fresh air and are treated with TLC.
Processing chickens starts the day prior to the actual “deed”. Steve and I meticulously prep the butchering area, the covered deck of the barn. The initial cleaning takes about two hours. The smell of bleach signals my brain that we are about to start a very long week.
We take possession of our birds the day after they have hatched. They are shipped overnight and we pick up our chirping box at the local post office. We typically order in batches of 75. Butchering 75 birds all at once is too difficult when it is just me and Steve so we break it up into a four day event. The day before processing the first batch, we have to separate out the first “volunteers” by ushering them into a different coop where they will not be fed and only given water. It is much more sanitary to butcher when there is no food in the stomach. We try to do a bigger batch the first day while our enthusiasm is higher; we did 50 this past Wednesday and the remaining 25 on Friday.
The morning of processing starts early. Even before we don our waterproof aprons, I turn on my “butchering day playlist”……all country of course. We drive the RTV out to the coop in the field and load up groups of 12. We have a holding area under the live oak tree where they can wander or sleep in the shade. We butcher two at a time. Actually, Steve butchers two at a time because I fear I would be too tentative and injure instead of kill the bird. Steve dispatches them by placing them upside down in stainless steel cones that we have nailed between two posts on the deck. For some reason, being upside down has a calming affect on the birds. He quickly severs their neck arteries, killing them instantly. We have a wheel barrel filled with pine shavings underneath to catch the blood, greatly reducing any splatter. The birds do, however, still have involuntary movement even after they are dead. One of the first chickens on Wednesday had one final act of defiance after death and shit on my shoulder……..nice.
After they have completely bled out (about 5 minutes), I take them by the feet and dunk them several times in a pot of water that is heated to precisely 142 degrees (hot enough to loosen feathers but not hot enough to cook the meat). I then place them in a plucker that Steve built. It is a motorized drum that has rubber fingers which de-feathers most of the bird in about 10-15 seconds. After that I bring the naked bird to the processing table where Steve eviscerates. Beside Steve is a large tub filled with ice water where the chicken will soak after Steve is finished. We move batches of eight to the large chest refrigerator in the farm shop, replacing the tub with fresh water and ice for the next eight. The entire process, from death until placed into the ice water bath takes under ten minutes.
The chickens need to be refrigerated for 24 hours so the meat has a chance to tenderize; if put into the freeze immediately, the meat might be tough. Many others forgo this and put their chickens directly into the freezer. Refrigerating is more work, an extra step, and adds another two days to the process, but we believe it guarantees the best tasting bird.
At the end of the day, the bleach comes out again, but now the smell is welcomed. It means the end of a tough day. It takes about 90 minutes to properly sanitize the work area. All intestinal scraps, feathers and bloodied pine shavings are put into compost and will add valuable nutrition to our fields in the coming years.
The following day, the set up is similar. We bleach all surfaces first and then rinse each bird once again prior to placing them into shrink bags. The bagged bird is dunked into the 180-degree water for a couple of seconds, causing the bag to become airtight around the bird, allowing them to retain optimal freshness for up to a year in the freezer. I adhere the Happy Earth Farm label on each bag; Steve and I then weigh and dry the bagged bird. After, we put the birds into the large chest freezer in the barn shop. Yes, as always, cleaning is the final step on this day as well. Another 90 minutes of sanitizing our workspace.
We go to bed early because the next day we will start all over again with the remaining 25 chickens yet to be processed. And we know the day will once again begin and end with the sound of country music and the smell of bleach.