Saturday, June 14, 2014

Chicken Pluckin' at it's finest...

Part of our family spent the day yesterday in our (somewhat) first venture in raising and butchering chickens. It's been many years since I, myself, have been involved in the butchering of chickens, and thankful I am for a good memory that I could remember most of how it was done! My children remember their grandma and I butchering, but like my own grandkids did yesterday, they spent those days playing and not involved in the actual process, so the "hands on" was a first for our youngest daughter and the d-n-l  (although the d-n-l and son, as well as the s-n-l, have processed a wild turkey). Our oldest daughter and her husband raise commercial chickens and while at their farm last year I got in on their "fat testing", which in turn led me to start thinking about raising some for our own use.

Hubs and I had discussed the idea in the early part of this year and we determined we wanted to try it, but on a small more than 6-8 birds. I determined there would be no killing field until school was out for summer break and I had more time on my hands, so with that in mind we calculated a date as to when we'd need to begin the process. We also tried to determine whether or not this little venture would even be cost effective, after all, chicken is still reasonably priced in the store...well, the parts of chicken are at least, but trying to be more "food conscious" we believed our birds would have healthier meat being farm raised, so that also went in to our equation.

We still hadn't made a full decision when were given 8 culls from the local hatchery...decision was made!! ;) We figured with free birds we could hardly go wrong on the cost department! Our chicks were indeed meat birds, white cornish cross, and the first thing we noted above all else, was the fact all they do is EAT!! Unlike our layers that run around the pen, catching bugs and picking grass, the older these chicks became the less they moved! I likened them to the old saying of "like hogs at a trough"...they literally laid around the feed pan and done nothing but eat...or drank!! It was full time job just making sure the feed pan and waterer was full at all times. Still, we tried to keep them in a grassy enclosure in order to give them a little bit of variance in their diet, but I can tell you...unless the grass was right under their beak, they didn't bother to roam much to get at it!

Again, to try and keep the meat as healthy as possible, we used non-medicated starter and grower, eventually mixing in a little hen scratch as they grew. Our first "shock" was at the cost of non-medicated feed, which is NOT cheap by no means, which in my book also equates to "not cost effective", but we continued on with that decision. It was not "organic" feed...I don't know that we could have gotten that locally without special order and at the cost of what I've seen online, there was no way I could justify raising million dollar birds! And while I've read a few articles on making your own organic type feed, again, I didn't have the time, the dollars, or the inclination to go to all that trouble! So ours got commercial feed, with whatever kitchen scraps I had to add to their diet.

Butchering day arrived with (thankfully!) lots of sunshine and all our tools were assembled and ready to go. I have to say here that hubs and I weren't expecting the help, but both these girls let us know in advance they would be a part of the helping! Thank you girls!! :)  Like a well oiled machine (with only a few squeaks!), the s-n-l readied the scalding pot, hubs manned the decapitation stump, I started the scalding process, and girls grabbed a bird and began plucking! We ended up with a total of 9 birds, so we decided to process in groups of 3. Since it was my job (and I knew the where-with-all) to do the gutting, I would scald, hand off a bird to each girl, and hubs got the third. Once the main plucking was done, I inspected the birds for any lingering feathers and then began the removing of the entrails.
In the midst of this were a few "teaching" lessons as to how to safely remove the livers, hearts, and gizzards and the grandkids wanted to "view" the guts!! One viewing seemed to satisfy them and they were off and running again! ;) After that, I handed the birds back to the girls,  with the d-n-l removing the feet and the daughter then going over the entire bird for a final feather inspection! Since the daughter claims serious signs of OCD she made a good final feather inspector! ;) After that they went in to a cooler filled with ice and water to rapidly chill and then we started the process all over again with the next three birds. 

Once the final bird went in to the cooler we took a much needed rest on our backs, grilled burgers and brats for supper, and then started our final stage. Throughout this section of the kill, the s-n-l was doing the outside cleaning up, washing pots and tools, emptying and removing the scalder, and then helping the hubs take off the remains. Oh, and I might add here that he also washed my feet for me...he's a good man!! ;) With supper over, we moved inside and began the baggin' and taggin'. I ended up only cutting up three of the birds for parts...mainly because we had some really NICE roasters! I didn't think to weigh the birds, but lets just say they were BIG...and meaty! I was also getting tired, so my thought leaned toward the idea we could bag them whole and if I wanted a fryer I could cut it up later...worked for me! ;)

We had a little trouble with the new food definitely sucks any and all liquid from your bag, making it very difficult to vacuum seal. I was a little disappointed in this, but we finally decided to "dry" the birds as best we could, vacuum seal, and then double heat-seal the bags just to make sure nothing came loose during freezer time. The daughter and I had a sink each, doing one more final inspection and cleaning, then we handed over to the d-n-l for the bagging and sealing. We started this whole process around 2:30 in the afternoon and ended just about 8:30 that night...don't know if that was good or bad, but that's how it turned out for us. Then began the table discussion as to whether this was all worth it or not.

It was mutually agreed that we wouldn't have wanted to do a larger amount of birds, at least not without some type of conveyance to help in the plucking. Said plucker will be our son's department as he's the mechanical builder of the group! It was also determined that whole chickens take up a LOT of freezer space. As to cost of feed...well, that could almost make the whole thing pointless, unless you're willing to buy cheaper feed, or you figure the cost of buying a whole chicken. Obviously you can buy leg quarters cheap, you can also buy skinless chicken breasts by the bag at a fairly decent price and those two things have been the bulk of our chicken eating for the last few years. As to a whole chicken? Those are not cheap...just recently at a Save-A-Lot store I pointed out to the girls a whole chicken was running a little over $7. Mind you, my thought on this is coming from past memories of being able to buy a whole chicken for a buck fifty!! ;) And honestly, I guess $7 is not a bad price for a family meal, because you can usually get more than one meal out of a whole chicken. If I had to roughly guess-timate our costs in all this (without the labor), it would run pretty close to that dollar mark. The advantage is we KNOW what went in to the meat, and the processing of, which we can't honestly say that with a store bought chicken. If you were attempting to do all of this organically, I think the costs are going to be really high. If you're attempting to buy already processed organic birds, then doing it at home, organically raised or otherwise, may well be cheaper....but again, I can't afford to go completely organic, nor justify the costs in doing so, so that doesn't figure in to my cost effectiveness at all.

The real winner in all of this though, was the time spent with family in the doing! You can't put a price tag on the antics and laughter that went into all of this! The deadpan jokes, the dancing chicken carcasses, the itch that needs scratching in the middle of the messiest pair of hands you'll ever see, or the less than perfect feet removals that elicit even more jokes and laughter! The unwillingness of your daughter to "touch the butt feathers", the most definite unwillingness of the s-n-l to hold said chicken as the hubs was wielding the axe!! The ummmm...expletive from the d-n-l when she accidentally cut the bile gland trying to remove it from the liver, or the grandkids many "eeewww's", yet curious questions about the digestive workings of a just can't figure any of that into your costs...those things are just...well...priceless!

Will we attempt this again? Maybe...I think we'll determine the answer to that question once we've taste tested our finished product. The women of this outfit are envisioning golden brown, roasted chicken in the early days of the upcoming fall...the men will determine it by how well those same chickens go with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy. Either way, it seriously was a fun-filled adventure for all parties involved...and if you really want to determine the strength of your family.... just butcher some chickens together! :)


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