Hey, Fatheads! Long time since I’ve got to sit in the Big Chair. I asked Tom if I could fill in for awhile because I seem to be buying a book a week for my nook after his reviews and citations, and I wanted to give my PayPal account a rest.
If you’re a regular here, you may remember one of my last guest posts was “The Yankee Farm Report,” where I went on about chickens, cows, and compost. For us it’s all about real food that you not only know where it comes from, but that you’ve also participated in the full cycle.
[ I know Tom and Chareva have their own land and chickens (and now they’ve had goats), but I figured I still had him on the whole farm life scene.
Then they ate a raccoon. On purpose.
Game. Set. Match. Second place again! Cripes. The Wife assures me we won’t be trying that. ]
Anyway, back then I had about 50 chickens that were too big and getting bigger because we’d bought them in September and by the time they were big enough to process (butcher) we were right in the middle of the coldest winter we’d had in decades. We (meaning The Oldest Son, Linda, and I) finally got started processing them in February, and they averaged about 10 lbs. Plus it was still damned cold out,so keeping the water you dip the (already killed) chicken in at the right temperature with a camp stove in a garage was a borderline proposition. But the biggest pain — and I know any of you who’ve ever lived on a farm will back me up on this — was plucking the now soaking wet carcass. After that is when you get the innards out and start making it look like what you see when you go to the store for a whole chicken.
We got four done the first time we tried but it took about that many hours. We did another eight and improved our time a bit, but it still took us about six hours.
We’re doing the math in our heads – twelve birds down, thirty-two to go. At that rate, we should be able to finish by, oh, about Christmas, 2016! That pretty much did it for me. I told The Oldest Son — “we’re building a chicken plucker!”
We still had to process another dozen by hand while I assembled the Whizbang Chicken Plucker from terrific plans in a book by Herrick Kimball that Linda happened to have, but once completed, we really tuned up our technique with the remaining birds. We still weren’t super fast, but it went so much smoother that Linda agreed to trying another batch.
I was going to get another fifty Freedom Rangers — a breed that grows fast, but does well on pasture and without the health issues that make Tyson/Big Chicken’s Cornish Cross so pathetic. Then my buddy Greg — the one with the truck and tractor from my Yankee Farm Report — asked me to get an extra twenty-five for him, so this would be seventy-five. Except when I called to place the order, the nice man on the phone pointed out that with the volume price break, it would cost me two dollars more to buy seventy-five than to get an even hundred. So I figured Linda wouldn’t mind an extra twenty-five birds. I mean, they were FREE, right? Plus, they’re so cute and tiny when you get them.
Of course, right after I ordered, my buddy’s friendly neighbors passed an ordinance prohibiting backyard chickens in their 1,500 citizen metropolis (proving that little burgs can shove their heads just as far up their a**es as big cities). So I had to explain to Linda that there would be a few more chickens on the farm than we’d talked about. But only double.
At any rate, this time things actually went wonderfully. At about a month, the chicks were moved into some old chicken tractors (think portable coop — Tom’s had pictures of his in previous posts) that had been sitting at the farm unused for years (after a bit of patching up). Linda used an ATV to move them once a day. Here’s what chickens look like when they get to eat bugs, scratch in the dirt, get moved to a new patch of fresh pasture every day, and generally get to express their chicken-ness:
These are a black variant of the same Freedom Ranger bird…
Of course, after about three months, it was time to start processing. We’d made some improvements with our first “learning curve” batch, but with this group we really worked out the kinks.
We spent three Saturdays in a row processing, and got better each time as we made adjustments to our layout and process. Once we had the chicken plucker, the bottleneck became dispatching the chickens.
I’d made a home-made kill cone, but we decided to use a couple of traffic cones with the ends cut off. They’re sturdier, easier to mount to the platform we were using, and I just didn’t have time to do any fabricating. Greg helped the first week, a friend that works with The Oldest Son helped the next. They were both there the last week, so we added another cone.
We did twenty the first Saturday, another twenty-five the next, and all fifty remaining on the third Saturday (I know — that’s not 100. We’d had some attrition early).
We got everything (kill cones, scalder, plucker, processing table, coolers with ice) lined up only a few steps away. Here’s how it lays out:
Linda would bring nine chickens at a time from the chicken tractor out in the field. We’d use the kill cones to quickly dispatch them three at a time (we started with four cones, but adjusted back to three):
After the kill, the birds are dunked in the scalder, which for now is a turkey fryer setup (which The Wife has banned me from using at home due to an unfortunate incident years ago!). The temp has to be around 145-150.
(I say “for now” because the scalder and keeping it in the magic temperature range of 145-150 degrees is now the new bottleneck, and the same author has published plans for a Whizbang Chicken Scalder.)The soaking/dipping in hot water for about a minute is what loosens the feathers so they can be plucked. Then they go into the amazing Whizbang Chicken Plucker…
About thirty seconds later, they come out cleaner than if you’d spent five minutes hand-plucking.
Plus you can put up to three in at a time, so you’re replacing fifteen minutes of wet, smelly labor with a flick of the switch. Gotta love technology.
Here’s how it looks in action (that’s Greg “narrating” and taking the video with his phone, and Linda running the plucker. She seemed amused by my answer to Greg’s query as to my total investment in the plucker):
Once that’s done, they go to the processing table, where in about two minutes The Oldest Son can turn a plucked chicken into a clean bird ready to go into the ice bath cooler to chill down prior to bagging.
That’s not Joel Salatin fast yet (I’ve seen a YouTube of Salatin doing a chicken in about 25 seconds, and he was talking the whole time), but with our other helpers at the table working about half to three-quarters of The Oldest Son’s speed, they get them done as fast as Linda and I can work the kill/scald/pluck side of the operation.
All told, we got to the farm to do the the final fifty chickens at about 9:30 am, and had all fifty bagged and in coolers, we’d cleaned and put everything away, and were pulling out of the drive by 3:00.
Five and a half hours of labor on a warm, cloudy summer day with some good friends and we had filled the freezers for us and some family and friends with weeks’ worth of real food. We felt, as one of Tom’s previous posts mused, the Joy of Being Dog-Tied Satisfied, while looking forward to many good meals…
We just received our newest batch of 100 chicks (Linda’s idea!)the first week of August, and they moved into the pasture two weeks ago. That will be the last batch for this year, but by the end of October we’ll have freezers jam-packed with real food for winter; and I think we’ll get serious about seeing if we can make this, if not a full business, at least a paying hobby in 2015.
The Older Brother