Weather, Chickens Cooperate for Butchering Day

11/10/2012 7:14 AM
By Robin Follette

It was cold the day we killed the chickens.
Steve finished a few projects he’d been working on outside, while I did some housework and cooking. With those tasks done, we could concentrate on the birds.
I put the dogs in the house. Ava, our English Shepherd, spent a lot of time with “her” birds, and I didn’t know how protective she’d be of them when they squawked as we picked them up or when they were killed. She has epilepsy, and stress and anxiety induce seizures.
Steve found a large, heavy firewood log that hadn’t been split yet. He pounded two large nails into the top, outside edge of the log to serve as the chopping block. The chickens should die instantly, not be wounded. The nails serve as a holder for the bird’s head.
Nine and a half weeks’ worth of time put into raising the chickens ended quickly.
Steve set the chopping block down by the high tunnel. The first chicken squawked and flapped for a few seconds before it relaxed. He carried it to the block, put its head on the outside of the two nails, picked up the ax and with one small swing, cut off the bird’s head. Its wings flapped violently for three or four seconds. When they slowed, he placed the carcass on its back to bleed out.
I handed him one of the two birds I was holding, he killed it, and I handed him the next one. While he killed that one, I retrieved two more chickens from the high tunnel. With five birds ready to be butchered, we headed to the makeshift table.
We don’t eat the heart, liver or gizzard. We don’t know anyone who wants these organs, so we no longer gut the birds. It’s kind of a shame we don’t like them but they don’t go to waste so I don’t feel bad about not using them. More about that later.
The air temperature was 40 degrees and the breeze blew. I dislike butchering in warm weather so the cool day was most welcome.
I cut the bottom half of the legs off at the joint. They’re supposed to be great for chicken stock, but I’m not able to get past the fact that they step in manure. I dropped them into the offal bucket. I cut the skin open from the bottom of the breast to the top and pulled it away from the meat. It takes a bit of strength to move the skin from the legs. I remove the skin before cooking chicken so there’s no point in going to the trouble of plucking the carcasses.
I pushed the bird down the table to Steve. He removed the leg and thigh quarter as one piece, then filleted the breast meat from the bone. That’s it; that bird is done.
The meat goes into a large bowl until I’m done with my portion of the work and move it into the cooler filled with 45-degree well water and a block of ice where it will cool.
We worked through five chickens in a half hour, picking up speed with each bird.
Tammy, a friend of mine, arrived to help us at the end of the fifth bird. We caught five birds, handing them one at a time to Steve. I removed the bottom half of the legs, Tammy cut the skin and pushed it back out of the way, and pushed the carcass down to Steve. We had 10 birds finished.
On the third trip to the chopping block, Steve asked for seven birds, about half of the 15 left.
It took two and a half hours to kill and butcher 25 birds. The roosters were impressively large, weighing between 9.5 to 10.5 pounds each. The hens were 7 to 8 pounds each (live weight). We had more roosters than hens. I hoped for 100 pounds of meat and was very pleased with the end total of 117 pounds.
When the chicks arrived as 3-day-old fluff balls, they were kept in a plastic bin in the house. They had a heat pad for warmth. The moved outside to grass during the day and came in at night. I was eager to get them out of the house. They moved to a chicken tractor, then the high tunnel.
The weather was unstable for part of the time they were in the tunnel, so I had to be careful to open the doors to let the breeze cool the tunnel. There were days warm enough to make it hot inside the tunnel so the birds were outside on grass and in the garden.
In the end, most days were cool and cloudy. I opened the doors on each end for air circulation and to let them out, and they often stayed inside if I gave them food. If I didn’t give them food, they went out to eat but returned to the extra warmth of the tunnel.
The high tunnel made my work very easy. It was nice to not move the tractor twice a day at the end when they were at their biggest and messiest stage.
I let the dogs out when we finished. Ava sniffed around the table where we’d cleaned the birds, and had no interest in going to the high tunnel to see that the birds were gone. She seemed to already know. She didn’t look for them.
Our morning routine involved tending the meat chickens first, then the laying hens and turkeys, then the ducks and bantam chickens. Ava rounded the corner of the shed and raced to the tunnel first each morning. She hasn’t done it since the birds were killed.
We killed chickens a month after we got her as a pup and again last year. As a 2-year-old in her third season of working with meat chickens, she remembered how this works. She’s an excellent asset to our homestead.
The meat was cooled overnight, drained and packed in Food Saver and Ziplock freezer bags. I used quart Ziplocs that are made to prevent freezer burn. A small hand pump sucks the air out of the bag. The Ziploc bags are easier and faster to use than Food Saver bags (which you have to make individually). If they work as well in the freezer at preventing freezer burn I will use Ziploc exclusively next year.
This is the first year in many years (I don’t remember how many) that we didn’t lose any birds to predators. It was by far the easiest, most successful year we’ve had with meat chickens.
Robin Follette and her husband, Steve, operate Seasons Eatings Farm in Talmadge, Maine.

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