Friday, September 11, 2009

Chicken Butchering 101

Well, we were finally able to rope someone in to helping us butcher our chickens. That "someone" was actually a mother and her two teenage sons. They were one of the families that responded to my cry for help on my homeschool list-serve and, ultimately, they were the only ones whose schedule meshed with ours. I now realize that they were sent from heaven to help us do this task.

**A small interruption to let you know that I will not be using their real names or using pictures that have their full identities revealed because I did not ask for their permission to do so.

They drove up yesterday morning in their older model mini-van. The mom, a 56 year old, gray headed, strong-in-a-very-gentle-kind-of-way, woman greeted us first. Her face was completely enveloped in a smile and I instantly relaxed. She was immediately gracious, warm hearted and obviously, completely up for this challenge and I can't tell you how much that reassured me. Her two teenage sons lumbered out of the van next. If I told you that they weren't wearing any shoes, would you imagine some backwoods kids with dirt on their faces and a couple of bad teeth? Nothing could be further from the truth. They were shoeless but they were also tall and lanky and had these beautifully ruddy faces that just seemed to be walking advertisements for health and vigor and free spiritedness and .... Let's just say, I instantly trusted their abilities.

After some introductions and a very brief tour of our place we got down to the business of preparing. First, we gathered all of our supplies, which included: propane burner for heating water, rope for hanging the chickens, makeshift table for gutting and cleaning, knives and miscellaneous other things that I may refer to throughout.

The oldest son (who was 16) got to work rigging up the ropes from which we would hang the chickens, first to kill them, then to pluck them. Then, we had to go about the business of catching our hapless victims. I say "we" but really it was the mom and the oldest boy who did the hard work. We all decided that it made sense to catch George first, as he was the meanest and would probably be best to just get out of the way. Plus, he wouldn't be able to terrorize any of the other chickens while we were trying to catch them. It was that first catch that was the hardest. Getting up your gumption is hard, even for the most seasoned veterans of the butchering clan. But, George was eventually caught. I believe it was a classic "sweep the leg" move that did it.

Once you catch a chicken, you begin to swing it like you would your arms while walking vigorously. (This isn't George, but another rooster. The one of George being caught and swung was too blurry.) They said the swinging makes the chickens dizzy and less able to "fight the power", if you will. Then, we hung him upside down from the foot noose that the boys had rigged. The boys proceeded to catch three more chickens and we hung them upside down, as well.

Here are the boys with George. August was glad to be able to get up close in a way that he had not been able to do since George was a chick. In fact, in the last few weeks, all of us tried to stay as far away from him as possible. The boys said their farewells and then...

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That is my four and a half year old son, killing a chicken. I think that August must have had a need to exert some muscle over that beast. Whatever his reason, he piped up, all on his own, that he wanted to be the one to butcher George. This was totally on his own initiative. Honestly, I hadn't even thought to ask whether he wanted to help with this part. I just assumed that would be way too big of a task and beyond his abilities. Let's just say that this was just one of the many ways that I was schooled through this process.

August wasn't able to completely cut the head off with the loppers but, to his defense, none of us were. They simply weren't sharp enough. We had to finish George off with a knife and then, for the other chickens, we used just the knife. After watching one more kill I decided that I was ready. I was determined to learn how to do every step of this process and this was the most important one.

It was a lot less hard than I thought it would be. Notice that I did not say it was "easier" than I expected. It wasn't an easy task, but it was completely do-able. You simply grab the neck, pull it down a bit, pull back some of the feathers so that you can see what you are doing and begin cutting. When you get in about 1/2 and inch or so, the blood starts flowing. What amazed me the most was how hot the blood was. It was such a vivid marker of the fact that this was a living animal. Most times, before I could finish cutting all the way through, the poor bird would start flapping around desperately. This was where it got messy. I would hold on to the neck, the best that I could, but the furious flapping inevitably sent blood flying. Not quite as bad as a horror flick, but bloody, nevertheless. Then, once the head was all the way off, I would step back and let it bleed out.

Here I am after a few kills, with blood on my hands and knife. The picture doesn't adequately show the evidence as well as I would like but I think that you get the idea. In the background you can see the pot of water for plucking heating up on the burner.

And then, the ugly truth.

After we let the chicken bleed out for awhile, we then took it over to this bucket that was filled with 130-140 degree soapy water. You would simply hold it by its feet and swish it around in the water for a little while. Not long at all really, something like 30 seconds or so. Then, you would pull it up out of the water a bit and test a clump of feathers. If they came off easily, the bird was ready to come out and be hung again for plucking.

Here I am plucking one of the birds. I was amazed at how easily the feathers came off. I had heard and read horror stories of this stage of the process so I was really expecting the worst. The trick was to make sure that every feather was thoroughly soaked. If you had any dry feathers mixed in among the wet ones, it made for a sticky mess. This rarely happened because it was so easy to avoid. Even the wing feathers came out fairly easily. It was the pin feathers that were more of a challenge and, even these, were not that bad.

Here's a headless, naked George. The boys thought this sight was hilarious and they asked our helper to make him dance around on the table. Although you can't see her full face (on purpose) I think you can see a bit of the smile on her face. This was the countenance that she kept for most of the day. Truly remarkable.

This was the hardest part, the gutting. See my position. Not good on the back at all. The table needed to be a bit higher. I was taught how to completely clean out the chicken, which was also, not as hard as I imagined it would be. It was more time consuming than anything.

If you ever wondered what used to be in that hollow cavity of the chicken you brought home from the supermarket, well... here you go: The complete innards of a 20 week old rooster. Aidan, in particular, thought this was the coolest part of the whole day. He was absolutely fascinated by the internal organs and how everything worked. Our amazing helper took the time to painstakenly outline every organ, its purpose in the body and how it was connected to the other systems. Again, Aidan was enthralled.

I have to point something out from the picture above. See that white, kind of kidney shaped organ at the top left of the picture? Well, that is one of two testes. In a younger chicken, it would be the size of about a pinto bean. In our roosters, they were the size of an elongated plum. No wonder they were so full of machismo!

The only other organ that was bigger was the gizzard, which is their stomach. By the way, that was also fascinating to examine. It was this large white-irridescent type color. It was surrounded by very thick muscle which surrounded a very hard white "sack", within which was the gizzard itself. When you cut it open, it was full of the chicken's food and tons of little bitty pebbles. Those rocks, in combination with the incredibly muscular gizzard, are what help the chicken digest their food. Incredible!

Here is a chicken getting its last good rinsing before being put on ice. Something that struck me throughout this whole process was the "lack" of disinfecting practices. Every once in awhile, I would ask whether we needed to use something to make sure our surface was clean or the chicken itself or... you get the picture. I was reassured that all we needed to do was rinse well with water and we would be fine. Our helper went on to tell us that her brother (or husband, I can't remember exactly which one it was) used to work for a commercial chicken farm and that the USDA standards for chickens that are being chilled before packaging allows for them to sit in up to a foot of sludge. "Sludge" could include anything from blood, feathers, poop... you name it, it can be in there. Once I heard that, I was totally reassured that our processing was a hundredfold more sanitary. Furthermore, we were outside, in the sunshine and the fresh air, with fresh water flowing and clean ice waiting for the chickens. I don't know if I will ever be able to buy chicken from the store again. I realized a very important thing upon learning all of this. Although the chicken that you buy at the supermarket is cheaper than one you might buy from a smaller scale farm or local farmer, you can't put enough value on what is lost in terms of quality control and safety.

And here are all 14 roosters, on ice, ready to be put in the freezer after they have cooled for 24 hours.

It was an exhilirating, albeit exhausting, day. Up until the moment our helpers arrived, I was a complete basket case. I was totally overwhelmed at the task before us. I had so many mixed emotions as I approached what had to be done: fear of the unknown (that was an obvious one), apprehension about my abilities, sadness at losing some character from our chicken yard (but this wasn't that strong of an emotion), frustration that John was out of town and that I was the only one left to do this, but also, relief that this would soon be over and I could relax when I went to feed the chickens and clean their coop. All of those feelings and then the actual physical exhaustion I experienced, as well... let's just say that I was spent. I was literally sore by dinner time.

BUT!!!!! I did it and I could do it again. I know every step of the process and fully participated in those steps (except for the catching part, that's going to be tricky...) so I could very well do this again if I needed to. And I just might need to. We had made the executive decision to keep Obrahma because of his mild manner and beauty but, in the chaos of chicken catching yesterday, one other rooster was inadvertently missed. So, we have two roosters left in our yard. We're not exactly sure what two roosters and 36 hens will do to each other. Maybe Obrahma and "Red" will be so hen picked and outnumbered that they will become docile little roosters. More likely, they will get meaner, in order to have their way with as many hens as possilbe. We'll just have to see.

In the meantime, we now wait anxiously for eggs......

****Edited to add:
I forgot to mention that almost all of the above pictures were taken by Aidan. I desperately wanted a pictorial account of this experience but knew that I couldn't do two things at once. I asked Aidan if he would be the official photographer and he excitedly accepted. It turned out to be a great set up because that way that he could be involved without having to literally have his hands in the muck. He said that he really enjoyed taking the pictures and I think that he did a wonderful job.


  1. When will an order of Southern Fried Chicken be on the dinner table ? Do you take reservations ? We are so awed by your new talent. The rooster round-up will now be an annual event for the Grantham family........... 'Atta, Girl.

  2. Well, I am so impressed by the whole dadburn thing, I don't know what to say! First, Aidan did an outstanding job of photographing the event -- what an excellent way to participate and not get bloody. And August.... wanting to clop off the first head? Sheez! In the back of my mind, I kept seeing and hearing that part in the movie "Cold Mountain" when Renee Zellwegger says, "If you need any help, here I am."! I am so sorry John wasn't there but look at it this way --- now you and the boys can show him how it's done.

  3. I gotta be honest with you. Right now I am pretty glad we have only two chickens (one rooster and one hen). I am impressed by your skill, but I don't believe I could do it!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this! (Your blog is obviously working better for me now.)I love Aidan's photos and all of the details you included. Wow! What an experience.

    Did you weigh any of the roosters? George looked thinner than I expected, without his feathers. I am curious to know what he weighed. He was HUGE when he was alive!

    Have you eaten any of them yet? Can't wait to hear how they tasted!

  5. Wow!!!! Holly, I am sooo proud of you and the boys. What great husbands and providers they will make a wife one day. Good job, Holly.
    Now, I need some advice... I think the girls are spent. Would you slaughter a 3-year old hens? Should I? Where should I? Help!!! The problem with urban coops.
    Your blog is inspiring, but I'm not sure I can do it. Do I need special equipment?
    Maybe the vet can just put them down?

  6. holly, you're my shero! don't think i would've been able to do that. aidan's pics were great, too. glad to see you all are doing well. i gotta say it, you are one bad mother plucker ;)