I think that I mentioned in part A that chickens are tasty, right? This is the tasty chickens variety that we are talking about today. Pretty much everything that we learned about raising chickens has come to us via Joel Salatin and our own trial and error. We have also gleaned some important info from Justin Rhodes at Abundant Permaculture, who is a student of Joel’s…
If you have ever watched Food Inc, or Fresh, or the million other Netflix Docs that describe or show current chicken raising conditions, you have probably sworn off chicken for at least a week. Maybe forever. When it comes down to it, I don’t know exactly how chicken is mass produced in Canada, but, generally speaking, there are some significant ecological, ethical, and spiritual concerns any time living beings are mass produced.
What I love most about Joel’s livestock philosophy is that he talks about the “pigness of the pig, the chickenness of the chicken, the cowness of the cow.” Everything that is alive has been created and adapted to be a certain way. Chickens are not just meat. Pigs are not just bacon. Men are not just soldiers. Women are not just child-rearers or sex-objects. And any society that reduces life into these categories is going to have problems.
Back to chickens. Chickens eat bugs. They eat grass. They till soil. They compost. And they are tasty, but I’ve already mentioned that. I don’t have a problem with meat, with raising meat, with eating meat. I have come to realize that built into the fabric of the universe is the truth that in order for there to be life there must be death. Whether it is a plant, or vegetable from the garden, the passing of a season, the giving up of a habit in order to live in freedom, or the sacrifice of one’s life for another. There is life, and death, and life.
But, I do think that prior to becoming meat, an animal should be acknowledged as a life form, as a being that has been given breath. Allowing a chicken to live a chicken’s life before it ends up on the BBQ might seem kind of pointless- “its going to die and become meat no matter how it lives”- but like I said earlier, a society that reduces beings to such a utilitarian purpose is bound to have some problems. How we treat animals has to impact the way that we treat others. For an example from my nursing life: one of the key components of establishing a diagnosis of Conduct Disorder (found in the DSM V) is cruelty to animals. How we treat any life is indicative of how we view all life, including our own. Even, or maybe especially, if that treatment comes through the systems we establish, use, and benefit from.
But enough ranting. We have raised our own broilers for two years now. Here is how it works. We order chicks (Cornish X variety) from a hatchery, the day the chicks hatch from their shells, they are literally mailed to us. A chick lives for the first 24-48 hours on its yolk sac, and doesn’t need any additional food or water. This makes it possible for them to be mailed (gently) for same day delivery. Someday, we would love to be able to hatch our own, to avoid this process, but it really is convenient…
So we pick the chicks up at the post office (50 the first year, 205 the second year), and take them home and put them in a brooder. A brooder is a smallish space (for example a series of cardboard boxes in the spare bedroom) that can be kept nice and warm with heaters/heat lamps while the chicks develop their feathers to take over for all that yellow, marshmallowy down. As they mature and the weather begins to warm up, we move them (usually at 4-5 weeks old) out into our chicken tractors. Our tractors are 12×14 foot cages that provide shelter and safety for our birds while they are on pasture. They can be pulled by hand so we can move them daily, or twice a day as they grow, to fresh grass. We have never lost a broiler to a predator. The first year we fed our birds conventional feed from UFA and Champion feeds, while they lived on as much grass and bugs and grit as they wanted. They grew to be 5-6 lbs birds in about 9 weeks and were too big for our crock pot. Which is a great problem to have. The second year, we went with what you might call a custom feed mix, but got our wires crossed and started them on it much too early. Feed, as it turns out, is quite a science. Chick starter has about 18-20% protein and should be fed for about 4 weeks in order to meet the chick’s nutritional requirements during their rapid growing and feathering out. After that, they are switched to 16% grower feed which allows for more appropriate growth and development. We put our little birds on what was probably about a 16% feed pretty much right away. And we lost a lot of them. And after 11 weeks, the ones that were still alive (about 110/145), averaged about 3 lbs. It was fairly disheartening, but very illuminating. What we eat, and what our food eats, is really important for proper development.
Butchering. I love butcher day. Knowing that our birds have been well cared for makes it a bitter-sweet day. When you see your birds at least twice a day for 11 weeks, you grow pretty fond of them. They are kind of like pets. It would be easy to outsource this part. Less work, less mess, less emotional toll. But we do our own dirty work.
First, we don’t feed our chickens the night before. This makes for a cleaner time processing them… The morning of, we get organized, get the water for the scaulder heating, and start fetching birds. We use killing cones, which are cones I made out of flashing that we place the chickens in, upside down, with their head coming out the bottom. If you’ve ever held a chicken upside down, you know that they might flap for a moment, but then get very docile, almost limp, likely from a blood rush to the head. Once they are hugged snuggly in the cone, it is easy to dispatch the bird, without all the “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” business. Then it’s into the scaulder, which loosens up the feathers and (unless it gets too warm) should not cook your chicken. A few of ours got a little warm near the end this year and so we processed them really quickly and then threw them on the Traeger to finish cooking…
After scaulding it is time for plucking. This is the part that most old timers will gripe about. But not us. This year we bought a beauty of a plucker. It will do up to 5 chickens in about one minute. No feathers left. No pinfeathers. People often run a torch over their plucked birds after plucking to get rid of any stray pin feathers… not us, not with this machine. After plucking, we cool them in tubs while they await gutting or cleaning. First, the heads come off the rest of the way. Then the legs at the knees. We saved some feet this year for broth-making… So we’ll let you how that goes. Then, we loosen the crop and trachea at the head end, open the back end just below the vent, and then scoop everything out, not forgetting the kidneys and lungs which are pretty well attached to the wall of the body cavity. Oh, and the part that I always forget, the scent gland on the tail. A careful swoop with the knife will remove that. Then we rinse and let cool in a tub of ice water… After that all we have to do is bag and freeze and we’ve got birds for he winter! About 9 of us did butchered 130 chickens in three hours this year.
Anyways, the favorite use for the chickens are always Taco Tuesday with shredded chicken. When ambitious, we make our own corn tortillas it is always a delicious fiesta. Sometimes we roast chicken on the traeger, sometimes we cook one slow in the crock pot. We always save the bones for broth. Leftovers recently have found their way into taco soup.