Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Chicken Play Gym

(with death and mayhem at the end of the post)

I love my birds. This is probably not new news. The fact that I sometimes eat them in no way diminishes that love. In fact, it may enhance it.

Witness the chicken play gym:

This is also an Ikea hack - I used part of the old gate (it was double wide door from the old dog yard, but I only used a single wide gate when the fence was dismantled, moved, and rebuilt for chickens instead of dogs). I added two Gorm shelves for fun, and two plastic plant pots to lift the whole thing up off the ground a little. There's also a 2x4 bracing the Gorm shelves at the base to give some stability. Will it last the whole year? Who knows. For now, they seem to like it.

It even got the Old Lady Stamp of Approval from Pet!

I think if you have to be a chicken it probably does not stink to be one here. Unless you come with "MEAT BIRD" or "SURPLUS ROOSTER" stamped on your head, in which case you'll have a really great life and then it will end in a blaze of glory on the edge of my blade. But unless or until that happens, life is good...

I'll even let you peck my toes if you want. For now. If you turn out to be a hen, you'll get away with the toe thing for a few years until you go out of lay (stop laying eggs). If you're an errant rooster, maybe not so much. Time will tell if I let you stay or not.

We processed birds this weekend. The next images are from processing. I am not going to shy away from blood, but I am also not going to glorify it. If you're squeamy, stop here and run from the room. There is one picture involving blood. If you're curious, stick around. It's only a couple of shots, and not any of actually cleaning. I cannot, as of today, clean a bird and take pictures of myself at the same time. I am working on it, and as soon as I develop that second set of hands, you'll be the first to know. We set up in the backyard pretty early. Later than I wanted this time, but still early for a Saturday.

(From left to right: chill tank, plucking and evisceration tables, holding tank, plucker, electricity on a dolly, scalder)

It's really easy to set up here. When we had the electrical upgraded we asked the contractor to put in two outside outlets - one for winter to run cords for the bird's water heaters, and a second to run the plucker and scalder. Smartest thing ever. Second smartest - we moved the umbrella over to the cleaning and final plucking area so we wouldn't drop in the sun. And third - we recently had frost-free faucets installed, and asked our friend Walter if he could put one out there for hot water as well as cold.

That cuts the scalder heating time significantly! The equipment is from Featherman. I treated myself a few years ago to a Featherman Set-Up Special that included the plucker, scalder, kill cones (some people call them restraining cones, but since I put birds in them to kill them that seems slightly disingenuous) with stand. There was also a catch basin for blood, and a dunker, neither of which we ever used. We sold the dunker at a tag sale, and I have no clue where the basin went. I prefer my orange Homer bucket from Home Depot.
The birds are caged up the day before slaughter, generally about 18 hours before I think I'll be ready. In my perfect world I would have proper confinement coops for them that would restrict their ability to get up and over each other. They're not cheap, but they're awesome. For now we use old rabbit cages.

I don't want to stress them with prolonged confinement, but I also don't want their crops full of food. It's harder to clean them, and makes it more likely that there could be contamination of the carcass with crop contents or fecal matter. I do catch the meat birds during the day. They are slow by the time we process, and it's easier for me to get them when the sun is out - it also means I can get closer to that 18 hour point.

This batch included three old Buckeyes; one rooster and two hens. This is called a cull, when birds that are no longer laying or are just not useful to my long-term plans are pulled from the laying flock and slaughtered. I do not waste them. Although they're three years old, they still cook up - it just takes longer. I slow cook them generally for a whole day, until the meat falls off of the bones. The meat is intensely flavorful, and the texture is not something most modern mouths are used to - perfect fricassee though!

The rooster went first. Because he's used to being at liberty with the laying flock, and because he's a full-grown rooster with all the chicken-y testosterone that entails, he was alarming everyone else and generally stressing out the meat birds waiting to be killed. Not fun for anyone. Generally freaking out and head stomping your cage mates is just not a good idea.

He started my day off with a bang by taking a huge chomp out of my hand when I tried to get him into the cone. In the end, I always win, but I am not above tolerating the birds trying. In fact, I figure I deserve every brutal peck, violent wing flap, or big scratch that I get on slaughter day. I have it coming, so I take it on the chin.

This whole process is about paying a price - I pay a price for consumption of animal protein. It costs me money and time to rear them, and it costs me some physical discomfort on slaughter day, and it costs me mentally every time I use that knife. Responsible living should be a little uncomfortable at times. But it feels better in my heart and in my head to know that I paid the price for this. I know exactly how they lived and exactly how they died. I know they had ventilation, exercise, sunshine and safe, healthy food - and gallons upon gallons of fresh, clean water. They haven't been stuffed with hormones or drugs, and they get a fan in their house when the temperatures go up. Their bedding is cleaned every week to few days, depending on how badly they stink. Buying meat in a store has become very uncomfortable for me. Buying poultry in a store can make me downright weepy - and no, I am not kidding! Having to buy turkey because I don't have space to grow it is an ethical and moral dilemma. If I could farm all of my own meat, I would. For now, processing my own chicken for food is the biggest dent I can make in my quest for responsible consumption of animal protein.

At the end of the day everything is scrubbed to within an inch of our lives, dried, and put away for next time. The birds are put on ice (literally). Some are cut into pieces, ala grocery store. Some are frozen whole. The livers, hearts, necks and lungs are sometimes saved for Yoshi although sometimes we eat them ourselves (that is to say we may eat hearts, livers and necks... I don't eat lungs!)

Yoshi spends the day inside, and when we bring him out for potty after slaughtering is over he makes a beeline, dragging us along, to the spot where the killing cones were set up. Then he sniffs in a meandering line from the cones to the spots where the scalder, plucker, tables and chill tank were. Then he stares meaningfully up at me, whines, and begs. I relent and give him some delicious bit I've saved out for him.

Now his interest in the live chickens is high. Very high. Draggin'-Daddy-along-Momma-please-give-me-a-WHOLE-chicken-NOW high. This usually passes in a few days. We all hope so, or it's going to be a long life for Yoshi. Live chickens are pretty important around here, just as important as the dead ones!


RubyC said...

I remember these days as a child when my parents would set up for killing chickens. Although daddy was able to wring their necks easily as a man, it looked hard to this child. They dunked them in scalding water and then the plucking began. That is what us kids helped do. Mother did the final plucking and then came cutting and storage. Funny how some memories are always there. I also remember getting those clucking boxes at the post office full of little chicks. Thought it was neat to drive home in the back of the truck with those clucking little chicks.

Thanks for a trip down memory lane.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, just can't get around raising, loving, then killing... Using them up until they're old? If you have a mindset to kill something you love, what's next; your dog, your cat? Hey let's not waste that horse meat either! Sticking them upside down and slowly bleeding them to death? You're one heartless wench...

mary jo said...

this was interesting to read. I have often thought I would love to raise chickens but it just isn't practical for me at this time. and I am not sure the town would allow me to. it funny that some people get so worked up about pictures of killing how do they think the chicken and beef get to our grocery stores. I would rather see and eat happy chickens than to buy some of the awful looking meat I see at the grocer.
my dog eats a raw diet and would love to come to your house. she eats mainly chicken. as long as it is raw the bones don't hurt her. she is very healthy and her teeth are beautiful and no bad breath like some dogs get from bagged dog food.