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Goodbye to chickens…Hello to chicken

Parental Warning: The following contains intimations of violence and meat eating.

Sigh. We knew it was going to come to this, right? We all knew that when Aunt Toby and the DH got chicks earlier this year, that some of them were ‘born for the freezer’, right? We got ‘straight run’ (that is, no one took a startlingly intimate look at their rear ends and decided which ones would grow up to lay eggs…and which ones would grow up meant for other things). “Sexed chicks’ cost more – a lot more – because it does take some skill to look deeply, passionately, into the rear end of a chick and be able to make that sort of decision. With ‘straight run’, you don’t know how much of which you will get, but you will get some of each.

We got about 50% roosters, which is pretty good. We weighed all of them earlier this summer and the biggest and with the most development (combs, wattles, condos with sports cars out front), got to take the lottery as to who got courting rights with the hens…and which ones would eventually make the trip to Pepperoni-ville.

We eat meat. We obviously raise our own and buy from others who pasture raise their own. Raising your own really does give you a lot more control over what ends up in your own body and it also gives you control over the quality of life that your animals have. We always took the position that our livestock came first. No matter how tired anyone was; no matter how crabby anyone felt – taking care of the livestock always came first because that is the relationship between caretakers and domesticated animals, the animals who came out of the darkness and allowed themselves to become part of our lives.

For that, we owe them the highest quality of life that we can give them, since we have forever changed them, turned them into creatures of our convenience (which is why sheep now keep their fleeces on rather than shed them, which is what they used to do), and of overwhelming dependence.

Now, the DH and I don’t slaughter and dress our own birds (I hate all the ‘finagle’ words out there for this like ‘process’ – I also hate weeny-whiner weasel words such as ‘harvesting’). A long time ago, we actually tried that. If you don’t know what you are doing, you can cause the bird a lot of anxiety, pain, and upset on the way to becoming something for your freezer. It will also take you a lot longer than it does someone who does know what they are doing and who has the equipment to slaughter, scald, clean, pluck, eviscerate and package. One of the things that got us out of raising meat birds was the fact that we could not find anyone who would do this for us (ok – we are ‘chicken livered’ about this – slaughtering and dressing animals puts you in touch with a part of yourself that perhaps you don’t want to get to know that well).

One of the things that changed that whole scene has been the pasture raised meats movement, which has grown like Topsy over the past five years. We found out about the slaughterhouse we used from a lady from whom we used to buy pasture raised birds – when the DH spoke to the owners, it was obvious that the reason they had time and room for our little batch of roosters was that he has a contract for 10,000 birds a year with a local grower and fills in his schedule with people like us, families who raise birds for local farmers’ markets and so on. If he did not have that contract and income, there would be no slaughterhouse for us. When the DH and I and the Little Siberians raised sheep and goats, the number one barrier to our being able to grow our market was the fact that there was (and as far as I know, still is) no USDA certified slaughterhouse closer than over the border in Pennsylvania. This guy only does poultry(which makes sense as that process takes a certain number of specialized pieces of equipment) but who knows – with the interest in locally grown, perhaps we will again have a good USDA certified slaughterhouse in our area again so that farmers don’t have to haul their livestock 2-3 hours. Another new idea is to have mobile slaughter services which will come to farms; a group of farmers in Connecticut got together, wrote a grant and developed one of those which is used in common, cleaned in common and inspected on a regular basis by the state and federal authorities.

But back to the birds. We took them to the slaughterhouse yesterday. Except for the fact that the DH had a full schedule, he could have occupied himself for a couple of hours and gone back to pick up the already slaughtered, cleaned, cut up and packaged birds (we had half of them done whole and half done as halves), but he went back this morning to pick them up. We had weighed them the night before we took them up, so we knew approximately the total weight of birds that went in. And then we weighed the packages of chicken when we got them home. The dressing percentage was 73% (that is, 27% of the birds in terms of their internal organs, heads, feathers, feet etc. are considered waste), which is much better than for other livestock such as pigs, sheep and so on, where the waste can be as high as 40%. If you want more information about how to slaughter your own chickens, go Home Poultry Processing

This year was an experiment all the way around:
1) We had never raised this breed of bird before. These are Light Brahmas, a ‘dual purpose’ bird, so they can be kept and raised for meat as well as eggs. These birds were 16 weeks when they ‘went down the road’ and the largest one had a live weight of 5 pounds 15 ounces. Broilers that are raised under confinement conditions are sent off for processing at 6-8 weeks. Most are usually a triumph of breeding called a ‘cornish cross’. These birds MUST be slaughtered at 6-8 weeks because they have been bred to grow so big in the chest and at such great rates that if you keep them longer than 8 weeks, their bodies are too large for their legs, the legs start to buckle, they have tremendous difficulty moving at all and start having age-related chronic diseases and problems such as heart attacks. Light Brahmas are a traditional chicken and were a wonder of scrounging for their own food in the pasture, eating bugs, worms, grass and clover as the complement to the grains we give them. They were also actually pretty calm birds in comparison to the Columbian Wyandottes we used to raise, who seemed to take every opportunity to peck at, bite and flap at the Little Siberians, who avoided them like the plague.
2) This was the first time we had ever tried to raise chickens out on pasture, using our moveable pens. This worked better than we ever expected; the birds got fresh air and sunshine, got to eat fresh grass and pasture plants every day(we moved them once a day, every day), scratched up the ground and have been doing a great job fertilizing a pasture that frankly had not been in great shape for a very long time. On the other hand, as someone who has raised chickens under ‘chicken house’ conditions as well, I have to say that there is nothing quite like going out in the rain to move, feed, and water the chickens, only to have to stand out in the rain to do it. In the summer, the temperatures are not cold, but I can’t see doing this in late October, when can be raining and 45 degrees. We will be setting up a dedicated area for the chickens to spend the winter, with nesting boxes and a sun porch, so that we can bring them in by the 2nd or 3rd week in October.
3) Not leaving anything to chance, we got a big bag of ‘pasture plant seed’ – mixed perennial and annual plants for reseeding pastures and every day, when we moved the chickens, we’d scuff up the areas that they had scratched bare, watered the ground well, and threw down some seed. We’ve had plenty of rain this summer, which has helped, but we are looking forward to seeing how putting chickens on the pasture will improve the quality of the pasture over the next couple of years.
4) Plans for next year? Well, if we have any hens that decide to ‘go broody’ late in the winter, then we just might be in the chick raising business. We’re also thinking seriously about finding a hatchery that does Delawares, which up until the invention of Cornish Crosses, were the meat bird of choice, and trialing some Delawares in our pasture alongside the Light Brahmas to see how they do Chez Siberia.
5) The proof of the chicken of course is going to be ‘on the plate’ – so our next experiment will be slow roasting one of the birds this weekend. I’ll report back..after I lick my fingers.

For more details on pastured chickens and how to get more out of your pastured chicken purchase, go to here

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2 Comments

  1. lsaspacey says:

    Thanks, this was very informative, and not grisly at all. Chicken is about the only meat I eat on a regular basis so I have nothing bad to say as long as you treat them right, which it seems you do. I hope they’re tasty.

  2. Toby Wollin says:

    OK..here’s the first Dinner Report: I roasted two halves flat in a pan in the oven at 350 for 1.5 hours, and I basted them well. The meat is a little bit chewier than commercial chicken (they are, after all, twice as old), but the flavor is wonderful – very much like turkey.

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