Chicken Processing Day Meets Hurricane Irene

The last two days have been pret­ty excit­ing. Yes­ter­day we processed our 75 meat chick­ens, which would have been a daunt­ing enough job with­out the threat of Irene bar­ing down on us.

Fri­day, Mom and I har­vest­ed as many toma­toes from the gar­den as we could in antic­i­pa­tion of the storm and sort­ed them out to store in the garage. We also rushed to stake down and secure the gar­den. Mean­while, Dave set up every­thing nec­es­sary for pro­cess­ing day. Our last pro­cess­ing day went pret­ty well (see here for details), but it took about 16 hours and there were clear­ly improve­ments to be made. Also, this time we were pro­cess­ing 75 birds instead of 36. We want­ed to make sure that we were com­plete­ly pre­pared for so many birds and so we made sure that every­thing was in order before we went to sleep Fri­day night. Very thank­ful­ly, our bravest friend Mar­ka Kiley came out of Boston to help us for the week­end. Sat­ur­day, we all woke up extra ear­ly and Dave and I went out in the dark to catch the chick­ens. We got off to a good start, start­ed the pro­cess­ing at about 6:30 AM and were done by 1 PM. Thanks to Marka’s help, as well as sev­er­al oth­ers, we were able to qual­i­ty con­trol and pack­age the birds as we went, so the sec­ond half of the day went quick­ly and we were com­plete­ly cleaned up by 5. Moth­er nature helped us clean by pro­vid­ing some drench­ing after­noon rains. It was a long day, but sat­is­fy­ing. Pro­cess­ing chick­ens is nev­er fun, but we did the best job we could. We made sure that the chick­ens went to their deaths with min­i­mum dis­com­fort and that their meat was treat­ed with the respect it deserves. All of Dav­e’s work plan­ning and prepar­ing real­ly paid off.

Mean­while, Dav­e’s mom Tam­my had four pots of our toma­toes bub­bling on the stove all day and into the night, work­ing hard to can, freeze and oth­er­wise pre­serve as much of our crop as pos­si­ble. Between her hard work, and my mom’s efforts to secure us some big restau­rant sales, it looks like none of our toma­toes are going to go to waste.

This morn­ing we got 4 inch­es of rain, but luck­i­ly, the hur­ri­cane was tamer than we had feared it would be and, oth­er than a few blown down toma­to trel­lis­es and (pos­si­bly) the loss of our corn crop, it looks like the gar­den is going to be okay. The chick­ens are safe­ly in the refrig­er­a­tor and freez­er (we did­n’t even lose pow­er!) and we can relax — and blog.

Our toma­to boun­ty and Mom’s new vespa
Sort­ing cher­ry tomatoes
Before (tune in tomor­row for After pics)
Art­sy Pic: to remem­ber them by in case they were all blown over
Kill Cones
Our bravest friend Marka
Lyn­da, anoth­er brave friend
Hur­ri­cane Irene

Chicken Processing Day (caution: not suitable for the faint of heart, or for vegetarians)

So it’s been a pret­ty excit­ing and busy week in a lot of ways, but for now I’m just going to focus on what hap­pened in the poul­try world. 

We processed our Cor­nish X chick­ens last Thurs­day (which is a polite way of say­ing that we slaugh­tered and dressed them). These chick­ens have been quite a hand­ful. Despite our best efforts, we’ve lost about a third of them over the last eight weeks. A hand­ful died as chicks, either because they were weak or got smoth­ered. Then, about a week after we put them out­side, we had a very cold and rainy stretch towards the end of May. We think they were weak­ened by the bad weath­er, and that con­tributed to a num­ber of them get­ting sick, most like­ly from a par­a­site called coc­cidia (we noticed bloody stool in their pen). Then, only two days from our sched­uled chick­en pro­cess­ing date, we had an excep­tion­al­ly warm Tues­day and the chick­ens over­heat­ed. We went down to check on them after  lunch to find over a half dozen dead or dying. It was heart-breaking.

These inci­dents aren’t very easy for me or Dave to talk about. We are respon­si­ble for these ani­mals, and when they die there is no deny­ing that it is usu­al­ly almost entire­ly our fault. Most­ly, we make our­selves feel bet­ter by telling each oth­er how we will nev­er make the same mis­takes again — hope­ful­ly this is true. At the same time, we are get­ting bet­ter at cop­ing with the feel­ing of loos­ing one of our ani­mals. There’s a cliche about how liv­ing on a farm brings you clos­er to under­stand­ing and accept­ing death — so far, this is true.

In this case, how­ev­er, there is no deny­ing that it was­n’t just our inex­pe­ri­ence that caused so many of these chick­ens to die. For our first exper­i­ment with meat birds we decid­ed to get all Cor­nish X chicks, one of the most pop­u­lar breeds of meat chick­en. The Cor­nish X is bred to grow fast and large, which in turn makes them less hardy than oth­er birds. Through­out the eight weeks we spent with these chick­ens, we could­n’t help but to feel a lit­tle depressed about how help­less they seemed. Cor­nish Xs have a low­er sur­vival rate than oth­er breeds of chick­en, they suf­fer from leg prob­lems and weak hearts, and due to their weight they are very inac­tive. We have vowed from now on to only buy her­itage breed chick­ens. They might take longer to grow and may nev­er get as big (and they con­tain less white meat, and more dark meat, which is okay with me), but Dave and I have agreed that we want to raise birds with bet­ter instincts. Our new chicks are all Free­dom Rangers and Dark Cor­nish­es.

As we stood and stared and swore at those sev­en dead chick­ens on Tues­day, I felt both guilt and anger. Look at how much food was being wast­ed! These were our biggest chick­ens (which prob­a­bly explains why the heat gave them heart-attacks), they had been gorg­ing them­selves on our expen­sive organ­ic chick­en food for eight weeks! They prob­a­bly totaled 40 lbs of deli­cious organ­ic pas­ture raised chick­en meat, and they were being thrown into the compost!

It was, by far, the worst day we’ve had to date.

By prop­ping up one side of the chick­en trac­tor to facil­i­tate a cross breeze, and run­ning an exten­sion cord out from the house to the pen and set­ting up a fan, we were able to keep the chick­ens cool through the rest of the after­noon and into Wednes­day, which was 95 degrees. Need­less to say, we’re plan­ning on mak­ing some changes to the tractor.

Wednes­day night we went to bed ear­ly. Dave woke up at 3:30 AM to get the scalder going, and then woke me up at 4:30 so I could help him fin­ish set­ting up. The fore­cast Thurs­day said that tem­per­a­tures were sup­posed to be near 100 degrees F, which we were pre­pared for, but we weren’t pre­pared for the thun­der­storms that con­sis­tent­ly rolled through all day. Luck­i­ly, we had a tent for the farm­ers mar­ket that pro­vid­ed just enough shel­ter for the five of us (Dave, me, my mom and two friends) to stay most­ly dry.

Dave cut up two traf­fic cones and built a stand for them, so we could safe­ty hold the chick­ens upside-down while they bled out. To pluck the birds, we bor­rowed the scalder and the pick­er from anoth­er farm in town. The scalder fills with water and holds it at con­sis­tent­ly 147 degrees F, which is hot enough to loosen the feath­ers on the bird with­out cook­ing it. When we test­ed it out on Tues­day, the scalder took an unbe­liev­ably long time to heat up, so Dave built an insu­lat­ing wood­en box to fit around it to help it reach and hold its tem­per­a­ture.  The pick­er is a cylin­dri­cal spin­ning machine that is filled with lit­tle rub­ber fin­gers. When the scald­ed bird is placed inside, the rub­ber fin­gers pick off all its feath­ers. The pick­er is attached to a hose so the feath­ers can all be washed out the back as the bird spins. The next step, the evis­cer­at­ing, was done by hand.

Both Mom and I have done a cou­ple pro­cess­ing days with Pete and Jen’s Back­yard Birds in Con­cord, Dave and I have been doing a lot of read­ing and I’ve dealt with my fair share of chick­ens and knives work­ing in the food indus­try, so I felt con­fi­dent that we could process these birds safe­ty and clean­ly. We made sure to keep all our sur­faces hosed down and san­i­tized, and we got the dressed chick­ens iced as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. Pro­cess­ing chick­ens is time-con­sum­ing and sticky work, but it was reward­ing to know that we were final­ly pro­duc­ing our own meat.

Which brings me to my next point: when the chick­ens died need­less­ly because of a mis­take that I made I felt awful, but when we killed them our­selves them on Thurs­day I felt noth­ing but con­fi­dence in the fact that we were doing the right thing. Yes, it’s hard to slit a chick­ens throat, and yes, it can be kind of dis­gust­ing to gut it, but we had raised these chick­ens as humane­ly as pos­si­ble, and we killed them as humane­ly as well, and if I’m going to be eat­ing meat I feel as if this is some­thing that I should know about and experience.

With that in mind:

CAUTION: some of these pic­tures are vio­lent and there is also some blood.


Check­ing the tem­per­a­ture on the scald­ing box. We bor­rowed the box and the pluck­er from a farmer cou­ple we know in town. Thank god, it would have been a pret­ty impos­si­ble task with­out them.
The chick­ens we hung upside in the cones and Dave slit their throats and then let them bleed out into the buckets.
Then we scald­ed them for about a minute.
Then they went into the pick­er, which spins the chicken
Next, we cut off their feet and heads and evis­cer­at­ed the birds.  This is done by cut­ting a hole around the chick­en’s vent and extract­ing their diges­tive sys­tem, heart, liv­er and lungs.
Heads and guts

After we were fin­ished we imme­di­ate­ly put the chick­ens into an ice bath to cool them down. Then, we went back over them with pli­ers and a hose to pluck out any stub­born feath­ers and do qual­i­ty con­trol (dou­ble check to make sure all the birds were prop­er­ly gut­ted) before dry­ing them off and bag­ging them up to go into either the refrig­er­a­tor or the freezer.

We’ve grilled three chick­ens to date and they have all been delicious.