Note: I will be describing, without pictures, the methods I use to butcher in this post. Come back later if you don’t want to know!
The chicken tractor. You can see the blue tow-rope I have attached to the front. There’s a PVC pipe “runner” slipped on the back frame so I can drag it it fairly easily. These blokes poop a LOT so I move it twice a day. I set the rope around my waist and walk backward slowly. They’re now old enough (smart enough) to just follow me.
This is the Food Bong. PVC pipe, funnel, duct tape, 30* elbow at end. It helps, as lifting the tractor up to slide the full food trough one-handed is tricky (especially if they’re hungry). I bring it out with their food; it’s not a permanent fixture. We widened one hole big enough to stick it through the chicken wire.
So: On April 7th, 26 day-old fluffball White Mountain Broiler (CornishX) chicks awaited me at the post office. I spent $42.50 for a straight-run (nonsexed) shipment of 25 birds, plus $8 in shipping. I had had brooder equipment (lights, box, towels, bottles, feeders) from previous chicks so I did not need to purchase anything new, *but* I did get medicated drops from my feed store to put in their water. I purchase 20% protein broiler-type feed from a feed store that mixes their own; it is not organic, but I would buy some if it were. Each 50-lb. bag costs $15. As a point of comparison, 50-lb bags of comparable feed (20% protein) at the farm stores around town, from another Michigan-based feed company, is $11.50. The feed store I go to is 20 miles east, a direction I never drive, so I get four bags at a time. At the time of final butchering, they will have eaten most of 12 bags, plus lots of table scraps and home-made meals of eggs, ground-up eggshells, oatmeal, and milk. I ration their consumption. Always letting the food bowl go empty for an hour or two, I feed them twice a day. I make sure they have enough food to last through the night, but I always ensure they have plenty of water.
The birds moved into the tractor when they were four weeks old. At four weeks they’ve got quite a few feathers. Our very cold spring though made me regret getting them so early. We ended up putting two lamps in there and turning at least one lamp on for a few nights afterward. The tractor cost us just under $100, including the tarp. I did have to buy a bigger waterer and feed trough for them; the waterer was $22 and the feed trough $12. “Incidentals” in cost were the Food Bong Tom made for them and the PVC runner that aids in moving the tractor over the grass.
Mortality, intentional and otherwise: These guys are not the hardiest of poultry. I lost one chick at two days, another at two weeks, a third of apparent fright at going outside for the first time at three weeks. I lost two birds inexplicably at Weeks 5 and 7. I am guessing these last two had heart/circulatory issues: their combs turned bluish purple and their breath was labored before they expired. Three others are not dead but are permanent Infirmary patients: they were not growing as fast and have always had problems with their legs. I have them on regular (egg-layer) feed so as not to beef them up; they are easily only half the size as the others, and probably will never walk well.
Harvest day, May 24th: They are just over 6 weeks old at this point. It helps to isolate those destined for the freezer and remove their food for 12 hours before butchering. This aids greatly in Poop Avoidance, but it’s not completely necessary if you know chicken anatomy. I get out my biggest canning pots and get lots of water boiling. I place the Killing Cone on the tree: my cone is actually a squared-off milk jug, neck and bottom removed, hung upside-down 24″ from the ground above a garden trug. I have my fish fillet knife sharpened and I also have a pair of metal snips handy. I have a galvanized tub (suitable for at least 3 cases of beer) ready with a hose nearby; I also have a large cooler half filled with water and some ice. A cutting board is on the table.
Selecting the biggest bird, I tuck him gently under my arm and talk to him. (I talk gently the whole time, mostly to calm myself I think.) I bring him to the killing cone and hold him by his feet upside down: the blood going to his head calms him somewhat; he is still agitated and tries to flap a bit. I hold him like this for about two minutes to make him woozy. I slide him into the cone, feet facing me, tail/head against the tree; I might need to pull his head through the bottom of the cone if he doesn’t just slide it in. The jug fits him fairly snugly so he is unable to flap his wings. I continue to hold his feet. I try to do what I need to do next quickly, but there is no avoiding the fact that I am going to cause him pain. I sever his carotid artery with the fillet knife; placing the knife on the ground I then grasp his head with the knife hand and still hold the feet with the other. I hold his head to keep him from shaking and panicking. Death takes about two minutes, more or less; there is always a last burst of motion as the neurons continue to fire and the life force makes its final stand. I leave the bird in there to drip some more. There really is not much blood: maybe half a cup.
I remove the bird, thanking him again for his sacrifice, to the ground. I widen the slit I have made to expose the crop; I then slit the skin all the way around, and sever some tendons on the neck below the crop. (I never seem to be able to go all the way through the neck with the knife, thus I use the metal snips.) Into the trug goes the head and then off to the table go me, the headless bird, and the trug. I set the bird on the ground and spray him with a hose, trying to loosen the matted poop on his breast. I go inside and retrieve the boiling water and a thermometer. Pouring the water into the galvanized tub, I add water from the hose to make it about 170*. I also squirt a dash of dishwashing detergent in there. Grabbing the bird by the feet, I swish him in the water. I am wearing clean gardening gloves: ones with rough fingers, dipped cotton gloves. These are great for plucking feathers. I begin to pluck with one hand while I hold and swish the still-submerged bird with the other. I put the feathers into the trug. It’s easiest to get the feathers on the legs and body first, the wings and tail last. I still might need a pliers to pull the tail feathers out. The detergent in the water helps you get to all the feathers, but it’s still a pretty dirty job, and that water is quite hot. It takes me a good half an hour to pluck the bird completely clean.
After he’s plucked, I remove the feet. Using the fillet knife, I bend the foot forward then sever the tendons at the knee. I remove all of his scaly skin at the end of the drumstick too. I hose him off and place him in the cooler, and then go on to Bird #2. I repeat the above steps until I have five birds in the cooler. Tom has brought me a big glass of water and a small glass of wine. He’s on deadline or he’d be helping more.
Gloves off now, I remove the first bird and place him on the cutting board. The table is on a slight hill, so the tail is on the downside, breast up, partially overhanging the feather-filled trug. I make a small incision through the skin just below the diaphragm/rib cage. I continue the slit until I can see the muscle at the diaphragm; it is at this point that I make a deeper cut to go all the way through the muscle and the membrane that holds the guts in. I then place both hands’ index and middle fingers in this cut and pull in opposite directions, widening the hole so I can slide the fingers of one hand under the ribcage. I loosen the innards all around the ribcage with that hand, pulling the liver then heart down in a clump with the rest. I reach way up and pinch to cut the trachea. I take the knife again and I slice through the skin and membrane only toward the cloaca/anus and then behind it: my aim here is to make a hole large enough where I can remove the innards in one sweep, including, with one cut, the anus and its attached intestine. Into the bucket they go. I do need to go back in and remove the lungs and, in this fellow, the testicles, which are mounted under the back pretty high near the lungs.
The innards are quite colorful. They are also mercifully cool after their trip in the cooler. Yes, waste not want not and all that: I have no time today to separate edible parts from nasty bits. I would love to recycle the parts but all I have time for after five birds is to put the blood, feathers and soft tissue into the compost in layers of hot grass, and bury the bony feet and heads. Microbes are the happy recipients of the bounty there.
With each evisceration I bring the body in for Tom to prep for the freezer. He weighs each bird and then marks on each bag droll witticisms like “Met Maker 5/24/08; 5lbs4oz” or “Offed On 5/24/08 6lbs6oz Big Boy!” Tom has the easier job I think, don’t you?
My math says that I will end up with 21 birds in the freezer that vary from 4lbs11oz to over 8lbs. Including unknown incidentals (gas, electricity, Tom’s food bong) and discounting things I already owned (fillet knife, pots, hose, cooler) my math says this first batch, including the tractor, was about $400. This comes down to $2.72 a pound. Next batch? No tractor, no waterer/feeder, same inputs: $1.93 a pound. Less early death? Less cost. With time, then, the cost will go down.
Trouble is, I am not expecting the same parameters next time. This is my last trip with these blobby meat birds. Their mortality rate is entirely too high for the money we small flockholders spend on them. Morally, maybe I could handle it if my name was Frank Perdue, but I’m El: every unexpected death was a hard knock to my conscience. Not a hard enough knock though to keep me from chicken ranching, though. Next up in the tractor? Heavy breeds of roosters (Orpington, RIR, Australorp, etc.), which will take about 16 weeks to finish out. Wish me luck.