Look at all the smiling faces and gleaming white aprons on our happy crew of chicken processors. At the time of this photo, some of us (only Joe, really) are under the misconception that a team of novice chicken butchers can process three hundred chickens in a single day! When some of us (everyone besides Joe) would laugh at this expectation, Joe would remind us that he read somewhere that a good team of five could process one chicken every twenty-two seconds. Ha! Nine amateurs do not equal five people that know what they are doing no matter how many YouTube videos Joe watches. Needless to say, it took us two very long days but the deed has finally been done. Anyone want to buy some chicken? And, believe it or not, there were smiles until the very end, but the aprons will never gleam again like they did in this photo.
These meat birds were raised by Joe and have been living outside in the fresh air and on new grass every day so they can graze and fertilize the fields, and are only fed non-genetically modified food. The tarp over the coop provides shade and keeps them from the rain, and the feed and water hang from the ceiling so it stays clean and the entire coop can be scooted to new pasture. This type of chicken grows fast and has large breast muscles so they have the big meaty look of chicken we have all become accustomed to.
These birds are heavy bodied and prefer not to fly. They were easy to place in the back of the truck to drive slowly across the field to our work station, where they patiently waited under the shade of a trees. Unlike most chickens destined for the table, these guys never knew the trauma of being crammed in cages and carted down the highway on the back of a truck to a place with unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells.
Unlike our last chicken processing day when we set up under the shade of a tree, this time we escaped the sun by working under a roof. Having electricity was great for powering our fans, lights, radio, plucking and scalding machine, and freezers. We are now a high tech operation! The killing cones were attached to a tree and the chickens were placed in them upside down so that the arteries in their necks could be cut and the blood could drain out. I still find it hard to watch them die no matter how quickly it happens, and I have yet to take a turn at the killing station. Maybe someday I'll get brave enough to take a turn. The chickens remain in the cones for two minutes to make sure the blood is out of the meat.
Joe rented a scalder and plucker, which really made the whole process easier. In the photo above you can see how four headless chickens are clamped by their ankles to a dipper rod. Leigh dipped them in the scalding water for five seconds, then pulled them out before repeating the dip and lift six times.
Once the feathers were loosened by the scalder, the dipping rod swings over so the birds can be placed in the barrel of the plucker.
I was very skeptical that the plucker would work, but boy, was I wrong! This thing worked great. It's sort of gruesome to watch, but the chickens are bounced around inside the barrel as the bottom spins and the rubber stubs on the sides and bottom take all the feathers off.
Strong jets of water spray while the drum is spinning so the birds get cleaned and all the feathers get washed out a shoot in the bottom. We just forked them into a barrel to take to the compost. So easy!
The clean plucked birds then went to the evisceration table, which was where four of us, including me, removed the feet, oil gland, guts, and neck. I still can't do all that in twenty-two seconds, but I am proud to say that I can rip the guts out of a chicken nearly as fast as someone else can scrape out the lungs and cut off the neck. I never thought I would get to brag about it though!
After a rinse they went into an ice bath for several hours. Ice was one of the biggest expenses of the process. We bought every large bag the neighborhood general store had.
Before being vacuumed sealed, weighed, and labeled, they spent a few minutes draining on this handy draining rack that Joe built using PVC pipe.
I kept the gizzards, hearts, livers, necks, and even some feet. Joe wasn't prepared to include these in the body of the chickens like you get from the grocery, but I couldn't bare to compost them so I bagged them up. Three hundred chickens makes a lot of bags of giblets! I didn't keep all six hundred feet because of peer pressure. Apparently I was getting a reputation as being a hoarder of chicken parts, so I caved when we got tired during the night and let the feet and some gizzards go to the the compost. I hope I don't regret that later. Can a person ever have too many organs?
When I think back to the day when we butchered those first roosters in my back yard, when we were so hesitant with every step, and so unsure of all the grossness, I can't believe that was only a year ago. Now Joe has a full fledged chicken farm and we just created enough food to feed numerous families of people. I'm sort of amazed at our progress. If next year we can butcher a chicken in twenty-two seconds I might not even be surprised.