Monday, July 27, 2009

Done In

I have some grim news to report. I slaughtered my laying hens this past week. It wasn't the best day of my life, and it sure wasn't the best day of the hens' lives either. I had no qualms about carrying out the deed when it came to the moment of truth. In fact, I felt worse about depriving the girls of food the day before I slaughtered them than I did about killing them. And I felt doubly evil for tempting them out of their coop with food when they became overly cautious.

I wish the entire process had gone more smoothly, but I really did the best I could without having any prior experience, and no one on hand to guide me. I did almost everything entirely by myself. I appreciated Howling Duck Ranch's recent photo documentary on slaughtering a rooster. (Caution: that link is pretty graphic.) The pictures were sufficiently detailed so that I had some idea what to expect, and I had read other accounts of chicken "processing" before. Because I was working by myself, I didn't get any photos. I just wanted the less than cheery chore over and done with as quickly as possible. I will however post soonish about the homemade chicken plucker that my husband helped me finish up just a day or two before the girls met their demise.

The girls each dressed out at less than 2.5 pounds. Surprising how small a laying hen is. I tried making coq au vin with one of them, but the results were less than inspiring. I made broth from the other two and canned it. It was excellent broth.

As you might expect, I had my reasons for slaughtering my first batch of layers. They hadn't been laying all that well recently. There were days when I got no eggs at all, and too many others with just one egg between the three hens. A consistent two eggs per day would be one thing, but less than that is what I would call retirement living for the hens, and that's something I promised myself I would not do. The lack of eggs can't even be blamed on hot summer weather, since up to the point they were slaughtered we'd been having an eerily cool July. The clincher though was an offer of free two-year-old White Marans layers. These girls are the same age my first layers were when I got them. Some Marans lines have feathered legs, as do three of our new girls. But they are not heavily feathered, so it's not very noticeable.

White Marans hens, which actually have some very light buff coloration.

The neat thing about all the Marans varieties is that they lay very dark colored eggs. White Marans, as you might expect, lay lighter colored eggs than their darker kindred. But have a look at these, our first few Marans eggs compared to the last of our Red Star eggs.

Leftmost is a very pale egg from a Red Star hen showing the bleaching associated with age and summer weather. The two darker eggs are from Marans hens, probably also showing lighter than normal due to stress of relocation.

The farmer who passed these layers on to me said that the White Marans will lay a 6 or a 7 on this egg color chart in the springtime, but any sort of stress lightens the color. Given that they'd just been moved, and that it got rather hot the first few days they were here, these eggs should be at the lighter end of the range that the new girls will lay. Springtime coloration will be something to see.

So we're now up to five layers. They are not nearly as well socialized as our Red Stars were. They were pretty freaked out by the move, and they are extremely timid about me being near their pen and coop. Apparently they weren't given treats at their previous home nearly as often as we're accustomed to doing, if ever. The first time I gave them some bread, they had no idea what it was, didn't go bonkers for it, and had to (very cautiously) decide what they thought of it. So far they've shown very little interest in the fresh greens I've offered them, though they are picking at the grass. The first few eggs they laid, developed while they were on whatever diet their previous owner gave them, had extremely pale yolks compared to what we normally get. Frankly, they looked like store-bought eggs. I'm hoping they begin to appreciate the bolted lettuce, dandelion leaves, and purslane I offer them, because it's the plants that make the flavor, color, and nutrition of the eggs. Well, that and the bugs. Some of them have figured out my offers of Japanese beetles, but they really don't seem to associate people with anything positive just yet. I'm working on that.

We expect that our five new girls will keep us in plenty of eggs, with a dozen here and there to share or barter, once they're over the trauma of the move and new environs. Unlike the Red Star hens we started with, the new girls are not beak trimmed, which I'm happy about. Aside from it being a cruel and unnecessary practice, the new girls will be more accomplished at pecking and foraging for treats in the dirt.


DiElla said...

Although I don't envy you your job of slaughtering I sure am jealous of the new girls. We live in the heart of the city and we have two crazy labs so I don't think we'll be getting chickens anytime soon. Oh well!

Anonymous said...

A very difficult task I am sure. We chose to take our old hens to a local processor, and had them processed for us for $2.75 per bird. Like yours, they dressed out in the 2.5 lb range. Clearly, all their energy was going into egg production! I too made stock, and it is some of the best stock I ever tasted. I did try some of the meat, what little their was, which was beyond tough.

Dan was less comfortable with the whole process than I was, and didn't even want me to post about it, so I did not. But I have 10 quarts of fabulous chicken stock pressure canned and waiting for a good soup day.

timekeepr said...

We raised some broilers this spring and took them to a custom processor. $1.75/bird. Another $0.75 to vacuum pack. They were about 10lbs each. Never again, those poor things could hardly walk. They are just bred for quick (8 weeks) growing. We need to find a more natural meat bird next for year.

We just got some laying chicks, mix straight run so, we will have to take the roosters to the processor.

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And it's also here:

And it's also here, with some discussion that you may enjoy (or, maybe not):



Anonymous said...

Hello Frugal Gal!

Glad my butchering post was of assistance. I remember my first attempt at butchering well; it was bloody awful (pardon the pun). Learning to do it properly from a master was invaluable.

As for your newbie free rangers, they should get the hang of it. Especially since they don't have their beaks trimmed. Do you have other hens/chickens that they can run with to 'learn the ropes'? I did this with some 'rescue' hens that I got from a battery farm. I put them in with some old timer free range chickens so they could learn how to be chickens.



Kate said...

DiElla, I just saw an interesting article on quails at Mother Earth News. If chickens are out of the question, perhaps you could keep quail. They're quieter, need less space, start laying at an earlier age, and convert feed to eggs more efficiently than chickens. I was intrigued by the possibilities myself.

Ali, I got about 6 quarts of slightly weak stock from two of the hens. (My fault - I added too much water and few aromatics.) The meat I tried was indeed quite tough. But I feel some satisfaction in being able to write "homegrown chicken stock" on the label.

timekeepr, perhaps you should look into the heritage breeds for a more natural meat bird, or one that's considered "multipurpose."

Peak, I will look into your links as time allows. Your lack of a public blogger profile is not encouraging however.

HDR, yes, I was wishing I had some of the in-the-flesh guidance you had, so to speak. Our new girls don't exactly free range, but are kept in rotational grazing, and thus moved daily. (Poke around the archives if you want pictures and details.) And since these are the only chooks I've got at the moment, they're just going to have to figure out the drill for themselves. They aren't the brightest creatures around, but they are catching on slowly. Thanks again!

gardengrl said...

I would love to be able to have laying hens, if for nothing else, the fresh eggs and fertilizer. But, I live within town limits, and there is an ordinance that farm animals are not allowed within said limits.

I envy you.

Kate said...

gardengrl, local ordinances can be changed by a small but determined group of people. If you can find a few like-minded neighbors, you could probably do it. Bon chance!