Friday, July 27, 2012

Chicken Butchering (Which I Never Wrote About)

Writing about chicken butchering has been a mix of forgetting to do it, putting it off, and not wanting to think about it. Plain and simple. Or not. In short, July 2nd (the big day) was the most horribly awesome day. Yes, you really can have both of those adjectives put together.

I had 114 chickens to butcher in one day, had 6 hours to do it before customers began coming, and only had four helpers (only one of those four had an idea of what to do). Sounds like a recipe for fun, eh?

The day was long, and we had problems galore. The scalder kept on sputtering out without my knowing it, which then made the chickens next to impossible to pluck. I had to spend most of my time jumping around, trying to do everything at once and helping those who needed help. Time flew by too fast... Now that I look back though, if it hadn't been for the scalder, we could have gotten done pretty fast. But since those problems occurred, we ended having to have customers wait for their birds which I hated to have to do. On the flip side though, the chickens were all a really good weight (average of 4.5 lbs. with quite a few 5-6 pounders in there!), and I got a really good bleed out on all of them. Last year's biggest problem was that the dispatcher wasn't slitting the chicken's jugular well enough and the birds still had a lot of blood inside them. While at Polyface Farms, Daniel Salatin taught me how he dispatches his birds and the technique worked great! I had always heard (and done) that you just slit one side of the throat without hitting the windpipe; this works tolerably well, but the birds drain pretty slowly. Daniel recommended doing two slits on either side of the throat, and being very careful not to hit the windpipe. Much, much faster! We had a perfect bleed out on all the birds, and they looked great. 

In the past, we've bought our freezer bags from the same place that we rent the processing equipment, but this year we found to our dismay that we had to find a different supplier. After a few days of panic I managed to find a local farm that would sell me some of their bags. The cost? Fifty dollars for 100 bags. Ouch.

The clock eventually crept up to 5PM and we still had a little over 50 chickens to process. The five of us just couldn't do this; not at the rate the scalder was failing us at least! I went inside for some ibuprofen and tried to figure out what to do... We needed to give the equipment back the next day, and I didn't think my helpers would want to come back again to do this still more. What should I do?!?! I went outside and stopped short: Out there I found my own family members (who have always said that would NEVER help me butcher, for understandable reasons) pitching in, and everyone who had a cell phone was on it and calling in reinforcements. I wanted to cry. These were my birds that I have worked on for the last 8 weeks, they were my responsibility, and this was my botched job of the day running out of time like this. And yet, these people so selflessly came to help me butcher these birds, and now they were calling in help for my sake. Shucks, I couldn't even pay these sweet people. 

After a few moments to regain my composure, I jumped back in. Help was on the way and we now had two people at every station (save the dispatching which was left solely to me). Chicken catchers, scalders, pluckers, eviscerators, Quality control checkers, baggers, weighers, and people to greet and help customers. There was one moment that really hit me like a 2x4, and that was when the help had arrived, and there was a group of customers picking up their birds. I realized that you can't farm alone. It's virtually impossible. I may have cared for these birds from day #1, but now I needed a community of people around me to process these birds, and to buy them. Knife in hand, blood all over my arms, I stood still. And watched... I had a community of people surrounding me this day, and it was awesome. 

The clock continued to tick, and the scalder ran out of propane as we neared the end. That maddening moment when you're so close, but you're so far... A dinner was quickly consumed in shifts and we all wearily picked up our jobs again. It was 8PM when we finally finished our work... It had taken us 10 hours to get those birds done and we were all so tired that we were loopy. By the time my dad and I finished cleaning the equipment up it was 9:30PM. And I still needed to do the milking chores...

All I wanted to do the next day was sleep. And sleep, and sleep. Alas, that was the day that Metty kidded, so I once again spent the daylight hours outside. But as I sat outside with the newly born goat kids, I thought about the previous day. It was so horrible that I never want to do broilers again. And yet, it was so wonderful to meet all the new customers and see their excitement over my clean meat that it's hard to not say I'll do it again. I made virtually no profit; I put out roughly $900 to do this, and got back roughly $500 by the end of the day. Things cost more than I was expecting, unexpected problems arose, grain prices had skyrocketed, and my prices were too low. Live and learn, I guess. But I made a lot of new friends who will hopefully remain loyal customers, and let me tell you: I have never slept so good in my life as I did that night. ;)

If I am ever crazy enough to raise broilers again, I will definitely raise my prices (I did $2.80 per lb. for organic chicken and you read the results above!) and I will take them to my local processor. It's worth it to me to pay the extra and have the pros do it in a timely fashion. I'm always so harried and frenzied every year during butchering that I don't feel like I've taken the time to really talk with my customers. Next time (again, if there IS a next time), I will have customers come the day after processing, and I want to be calm and collected so we can visit with each other and strengthen the farmer/customer bond. It's worth it to me.

So there you have it folks: Chicken butchering was a horribly awesome day.


Head Farm Steward said...

Everything depends on a good scald.

As many times as we have processed chickens I'm amazed how often we forget some key component or other.

It can be a real chore.

We make a slit on each side. Curved tip of the knife on the bird's left ear and just push the knife forward cutting as you go, then same cut on the right. Most of the blood pressure is on the bird's left side so your hand should get covered on that first cut.

It takes practice to get coordinated. I think you did great for your first try. You'll do better. Don't get discouraged.

Goat Song said...

This was actually my third year to do the processing here. ;) And besides the scalder problems, I think it was actually the best year yet. We've just never done over 100 birds before so that was a learning curve...

That's interesting about the most blood pressure being on the left side; now that I think about it, I did notice that. The left side is a little challenging for me to do since I'm left handed, but I was going pretty fast by the end of the day!

Anonymous said...

Stuff goes wrong no matter how well prepared a person is. If your scalder had been working ok, something else would have likely not's called Murphy's Law.
"you can't farm alone". A profound truth.

Anonymous said...

And I just learned an important thing about "dispatching" from both of you - thanks GS and HFS!

Head Farm Steward said...

3rd Oops.

Well. You'll get better anyway.

Mary Ann said...

We have a Mennonite poultry processing facility fairly near here who will do small amounts of birds, standard size only.... and it's WELL worth the 2.50 it takes for each bird. I don't blame you at all for farming it out... you've raised the birds and you know what's in them, it doesn't mean you have to do it all yourself.

Anonymous said...

It took my husband and I all day to do eight birds so don't feel to bad. We were not very good at it at all.
Heather in PA