Saturday, December 3, 2011

harvesting the meat chickens

We processed our meat chickens this last week, the jumbo Cornish Cross meat birds are ready to harvest around 8-10 weeks old, and ours were about 9 weeks old.  If you don't harvest them soon enough their quality of life deteriorates rapidly.  All of our birds still looked healthy, but we knew they were at that point of being ready.  This was our first time ever doing anything like this, it was kind of a dreaded thing and we procrastinated until the end.  Somehow sweeping my floors and cleaning the house became more important than anything, I found myself for two days worried about it and knowing we had to do it.

Setting up our work station was step 1, Jarin set up a wonderful work area for us.  He equipped it with a cone, a hanging rack, a large kettle to scald in, work surfaces, a large bucket for rinsing and cooling, and lots of knives, chisels, bags and buckets.  We also wanted to have good music to listen to while we worked.

Being new to this whole thing we were probably slow compared to the old pros.  It took us about a half hour or a little more per bird from start to finish, so 8 birds took us roughly 4 1/2 hours.  The first day it rained sideways the entire time, it was cold and wet work, with the temperatures hovering around freezing.  It almost felt appropriate, as we mumbled words like barbaric, should we become vegetarian if this is what we will do for meat.   In the end we described it as humbling, and felt it was honorable work to feed our family.  However in the midst of it as we prayed over each bird and thanked it for it's life, we felt our own mortality, and also felt primal.  We talked about how this was normal for thousands of years, people knew where their food came from, and experienced life and death.

Once we got over the heartsick feeling of taking a life, and the actual processing of working the chickens started, I did better.  We turned up the music and worked steadily... scalding, plucking feathers, eviscerating (removing the innards), rinsing, drying and bagging.  The plucking took the longest and I didn't want any pin feathers so I tried to be meticulous.  We equally shared jobs, except the first part when they were put in the cone.  The time from them being in their pen to crossing the rainbow bridge into chicken heaven took only seconds.  We made sure the whole station was hidden from all the animals view, and that it was swift.

I think the best way to learn to eviscerate a chicken is to just get in there and do it, you'll figure it out trust me.  Just make it look like a store bought chicken and get all the innards out, I saved the necks and livers to add to home-made dog food.  One of the most important things in the whole process is cold running water, we were washing down everything continually.  We were dressed in total rain gear from the beginning because of the rain and cold, we soon realized this was appropriate attire even when it wasn't raining. 

 A home-made cone, fashioned from a metal funnel we had.  It probably should have been bigger, but it worked, a sharp chisel and mallet were used.  Why did we do it that way?  Well my husband being a wood-worker simply thought the cleanest, swiftest way was a sharp blade hit hard with a mallet.
In the end we have 30 chickens in the freezer, well 28, because 2 are in the refrigerator for a family meal on Monday night.  27 were the Cornish Cross, and 3 were young roosters hatched out in the early summer.  The young roosters were harder for me to do than all the meat birds, simply because I had watched and admired them and their beautiful plumage and they were part of the chicken family.  They were very different, more lean and muscular, tougher skin and yet they felt very good quality.  Not that the meat birds didn't look healthy, they were big and plump, and the breasts were large, they were more soft.  We are cooking a young rooster and meat chicken on Monday, and will taste test the difference.  I also wanted to cook a couple that had never been frozen first. 

It's a good feeling to have done it, and have it behind us, and know that we're going into winter with a freezer full of wonderful home-grown chicken meat.  We decided we could do this twice a year, even though it was hard, we like knowing where our food comes from, and that they had a nice quality of life while alive.  They got to lay in the sun, and eat bugs and grubs, dig in the dirt and eat grass and weeds.  They were given love and care in the end, and our family is richer because of them.   I still haven't weighed any of the birds, and am planning to, I'll include the average weight here when I do.  Also we planned to keep track of feed and costs, however between both my husband and I buying feed, me keeping receipts and him throwing his away, there's was no way to get an accurate cost.  Next Spring we plan to keep meticulous records so we can know the cost of raising them.


sierra said...

I'd like to encourage you to raise heritage breed chickens for meat! The Dark Cornish is a gorgeous bird, and is half of the original hybrid pair Cornish crosses are derived from (They have a nice, broad breast, big drummies and decent thighs). They're insanely good foragers, have efficient grain to weight conversion, and the flavour of the meat is out of this WORLD compared to a plain Cornish cross! We raised Barred Rocks for meat but will be trialing Dark Cornishes next season. The only downside is a longer growing season, but it makes the meat much healthier.

Congrats on your first slaughter--it sure feels terrible though, doesn't it? I only pluck--I can't do the gutting or the killing (and I doubt I'll ever be able to kill the little dearies; that's my boyfriend's job).

Jewel said...

Sierra, I have been thinking our next batch we might try a heritage breed, especially if they're better at foraging. Thanks for your recommendation of the Dark Cornish, and your comments.

PS. I couldn't bring myself to say slaughter or butcher it sounded so awful (even though technically that's what we did). I just preferred saying processing and harvesting.

bluetick said...

Jewel we also just processed our first batch of chickens. I also dreaded it for days but finally just picked a day and got to it. Once all was said and done it was not so bad at all. I cooked the first one last week and it was refreshing to know exactly what was in them. I butchered chickens with my dad when I was a kid and it all came quickly back to me.

They say the first was is the hardest and all the rest will be a breeze.