So, what does one do when roosters crow–yep, it is soup time! As of the middle of last week Paul culled and processed all eight handsome but incredibly annoying boys. We did an obscene amount of research on this to make it as peaceful for the birds as possible. Our plan was to give them a shot of vodka (some apparently like that), hypnotize them, perform cervical dislocation and then make a cut on each side of the neck. Well, it did not quite go that way. Booze was turned down and hypnotizing did not work, even though some swear by it. After fooling around with all these “techniques” for 20 minutes or so, Paul realized that he was causing more stress trying to make things easy on the birds. As it is with many of our projects, it was getting too late and the mosquitoes were out, and starving. Paul calmed the chickens down by holding them and petting them. Then in one quick motion, as described in the “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens”, he broke the neck, hung the bird upside down by the feet and made a cut on each side of the neck to bleed it out. It turned out to be much less traumatic than we had built it up to be, or as difficult as described to us by some.
It is an experience that is very much out of our ordinary lives up until now. However, it is not cruel or horrible. If you are choosing to eat meat, this is the best way to truly appreciate your decision. Paul is very familiar with the process for cleaning fish, having been an avid fisherman during his childhood. However, a warm blooded animal is completely different. The amount of blood let out after cutting the jugular is very minimal, maybe 2 tablespoons. After this, there is no blood in the body of the chicken. The head was very simply removed my hand after letting the body hang for a couple of minutes. From there a decision in made. If you are going to eat the skin, you need a big pot of hot water. One tip gleaned from a video of Joel Salatin plucking chickens at the Puyallup fair, was that after a 30 second or so dunk in near boiling water, the bird should be moved to an ice bath. This seemed to really loosen up the feathers, and made plucking quite an easy task. However, feathers to do get EVERYWHERE. It is helpful to have a towel and a bucket or some other collection vessel nearby to deposit the feathers. A hose nearby is also very helpful, to spray any loose feathers off the outside of the bird.
If you are not going to eat the skin, you simply start taking the skin off. Paul made small cut on the skin around the neck with a knife, and then used his hands to remove the skin from there. Much of it peels off like a wet sock (although the meat is remarkably dry, nothing like that of a store bought chicken). When you get to the wings, things start to get kind of tough to pull, and Paul decided to just cut off the wing tips once he got the skin to that point. There is not much meat there, and going gets tough trying to pull the skin of those points. Once you get the rest of the skin separated down towards the vent, with one last tug, it all comes off. At this point, you should have a totally skinless, wing tipless, chicken, with most likely a bunch of feathers all over it.
At this point, the legs were removed. A quick nick with the knife, around the point where the feathers stop and the scaly leg starts makes easy work removing them. Once removed, they were dropped in a pot of boiling water for a moment, less than a minute, and then dropped in the ice water. The toenails pop off easily after this, and the scales peel off easily, producing a very clean leg. We have heard that once upon a time, housewives would hold a grudge against a butcher that did not include the legs in the sale of a chicken, as if they were being totally ripped off. This is supposedly the secret ingredient in “real” chicken soup. We are anxious to see.
Another tip is to remove the gland at the tip on the “tail”. It produced an oil that the birds use to coat their feathers. Apparently this oil tastes terrible. If left on the bird during cooking, it may ruin the meat. If the bird has been plucked, it is a very obvious lump just before the tip of the tail, that can be easily excised with a knife. If the bird was skinned, it’s easiest to simply remove the whole tail, as there is very little left at that point. A quick motion at the base of the tail with a sharp knife is all that is needed.
From there, the organs are removed. A small incision is made above the vent, only large enough to get hand in the body cavity. A good policy is to remove the bird in question’s food for a day or so, to ensure there is minimal feces during this part of the process. We only did that for the first bird, so there was a bit more poo present during the slaughter of the other seven birds. Either way, if you grip the colon at the outermost part, inside the bird with your thumb and forefinger, you can prevent most of anything that is present from squirting out during this step. With the colon pinched, you cut around the “exit”, so that it is freed, and then pull as gently as possible to remove the gut, gizzard, heart, liver and anything else that will come with it. One thing to be careful of, although it is very hard to see at this point, is the gall bladder, which is attached to the liver. It is very delicate, and can be ruptured easily. We have read that this can greatly diminish the quality of the meat, so it should be avoided. From there, the esophagus can be pulled through the neck, which may require some loosening from the head-side, with a finger. Now all that is left is the lungs, which are stuck to the sides of the rib cage. A scrape with an index finger usually gets them going, and then they can be pulled out.
We saved the livers in a separate container, with the idea that we will make paté in the future. The neck was removed, and bagged separately. The gizzard was cut in half, equatorially, rinsed out, and saved separately with the heart. These will probably be turned in to dog food, as neither one of us know how to prepare these, nor do they seem particularly appetizing (but they are fascinating!). The legs were also bagged separately. All these parts were frozen, for future use.
We roasted the first rooster the oven, as we have done many store bought chickens in the past. However, our rooster made for a very different experience. He was very skinny compared to a supermarket bird. Another thing we noticed right away was the lack of smell. We find that store bought chicken has a very distinctive, and unpleasant smell. Our rooster has a noted lack of smell. Store bought chicken is also typically found in a bag of pink slime. The rooster was completely dry, and lacked any slime. His breast was the size of what most know as chicken tenders and his meat was very delicate–almost like rabbit. Some of the thinner pieces were a bit stringy and chewy (I did not care for that texture) but the drum sticks and thighs were meaty and more familiar. Considering what we have been told about how tough rooster are, we thought this turned out quite well. The others were frozen and will probably be turned into soup. We plan on freezing some of the stock in gallon bags and ice cube trays, to punch up future recipes.
What we learned from this experience:
- Culling a chicken is not brutal or horrifying. It was not nearly as difficult or life-altering as we had built it up to be. It was actually fun, in a most solemn way.
- There is no way to get closer to the source of your food, or gain more respect and appreciation for the animal that it came from.
- WTF do they do to store bought chicken to make it all smelly and slimy? We are definitely thinking twice about eating any factory farmed chicken, organic or not, from here out.
- As backyard chickens become more popular, there will be a corresponding number of old laying hens that people don’t know what to do with. They can always be used to do yard work, but some people may not see the benefit of this vs the cost of feed to keep hens that aren’t laying eggs. We also know a lot of people that aren’t comfortable with the idea of killing an animal they have grown accustomed to (we are not sure we are either; we had planned this from the beginning with the roosters). However, many people say that the best soup comes from old laying hens. There will come a time in many suburban backyards when a decision will have to be made, and we hope that by conveying a positive experience, we can help make the decision to retire your old hen to the soup pot a little easier.
As an aside, last summer we adopted two ducklings. As is usual around the Homestead in the Suburbs, we kept putting off building an official duck enclosure, while keeping them in a fenced in area under the chicken coop at night. What we didn’t realize is that there was an opening in the back of the fencing just big enough to allow a raccoon to get in. One night we were awoken to the ducks quaking, and found a raccoon inside the makeshift duck house, and a couple of its friends waiting for a meal on the fence. They took off as soon as we turned on the lights, but the damage was done. They mortally wounded both of the ducks, but failed to kill them. After several phone calls to an emergency vet clinic, and a lot of back and forth between the two of us, we ended up having them euthanized, for a total cost of $270.
At the time we were against slaughtering our own animals, and didn’t even know how. We still feel like it was the best decision to make at the time, as dealing with two wounded birds in what could only be a lot of pain is not the time to self teach how to properly kill one. However the whole experience has never sat well with us. $270 would buy a hell of a lot of duck or duck eggs at the grocery store. It was shortly after this that we decided it would behoove us to learn how to deal with a situation like this ourselves, in the future. We feel like it makes us more responsible chicken owners knowing how to put an animal out of misery as humanely as possible, if the situation should arise again, though we have taken precautions to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.
One last thought for this unusually long post. Earlier this year, before we bought our Jersey chicks, we considered participating in a chicken CSA, offered through a farm nearby our produce CSA. The program offered varying numbers of birds over several months, with the total cost coming out to around $28-32 per bird, depending on how many you purchased. Their birds are pasture raised, and looked like they had better lives than many people live. We thought about it, and came to the conclusion that it was “too expensive.” At that point we decided to try raising meat birds ourselves. We recently did a cost analysis on our meat flock, and have come to the conclusion that each one of our roosters cost about $22. This includes the initial cost, feed and hay. It does not include all the time spent taking care of them, the space that we have sacrificed in keeping them, general inconvenience or time spent butchering them. When all is said and done, the cost of the CSA seems more than fair. Here is a link to their website.
If we decide to raise meat birds in the future, we have some ideas to help cut the cost. We have had two hens go broody this year. There are companies online offering fertilized eggs for as little as $1 each. It would be very easy to hatch out a dozen or so eggs this way, and would probably make our hens happy too. There is also the benefit of having the mother hen introduce the chicks to the flock. She will put the smack down on anybody that tries to mess with them, thereby making integration potentially faster, and certainly less worrisome.
However, as the saying goes, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. We would never be certain of how many chickens we would end up with, using this method. It is also the smallest portion of the total cost of raising a meat bird ($5 initial cost for our Jersey giant chicks, which is expensive for a chick).
The bottom line is, the cost of food is the deal breaker. Unless we have a piece of land large enough that we can pasture the chickens, we will always need to buy food for them, and it a’int cheap! We just about break even with the eggs, but with meat birds things get more complicated. You are dealing with feed conversion ratios, length of time until harvest, and the fact that the roosters start to get noisy well before they are truly full sized. This is just not very well suited to a suburban lot.
Thanks for reading! Please post any questions or comments you have!