Monday, September 19, 2011

Slaughter Day

We sent our two largest broilers to ice camp on Sunday.  We didn't have any spare clean hands to hold a camera once we got started.  So I don't have any footage or even still pictures of the slaughtering process itself.  We're still in the market for someone to hold a camera while our hands are occupied.  But I did take some pictures just before we got under way.  I thought I'd share these and also some of the videos I've turned to for help figuring it out on my own.

Obviously, if this subject is going to upset you, stop reading now.  I think most readers here will be comfortable with this topic, and I think the methods we use are pretty humane.  But this is a post about killing animals for food.  If you're categorically opposed to such things, here's your notice.  

Our setup

A place to work - This is our solar cooking station equipped with a cutting board, knives, latex gloves, and containers to receive various parts of the chickens.  We save or use just about every part of the chicken except the intestines, gall bladder, oil gland and the head.  What doesn't come into the kitchen gets used or buried somewhere in the garden.

Slip knotted cords - these will hold each bird by the feet.  We have sometimes used a killing cone in the past, which takes care of the movement problem.  With the birds hanging freely like this you need two people to stabilize the chicken; one to hold the wings against the body, and another to hold the head as they bleed out.  The wings should be held closed because otherwise the bird can flap so hard that it bruises its own wings.  In a commercial operation the resulting discoloration would make the bird unsalable.  Stabilizing the head ensures that the movements of the bird (either voluntary or involuntary) don't send blood flying everywhere.  Holding the head at an angle away from the cut also speeds the bleeding out, thus hastening death and limiting the suffering of the animal.

Wheelbarrow with mulch - We situate this directly under the cords or the killing cone that holds the bird.  It will collect the blood from the chickens and be used around our fruit trees.  This saves on cleanup and preserves the value of the blood as a fertilizer.  For the number of birds we slaughter at any one time, even a small amount of mulch will suffice to soak up the blood; there just isn't that much of it.

Knives - A well-sharpened boning knife, paring knife and a cleaver.  The boning knife is used both for cutting the chicken's jugular and for the small amount of cutting needed during evisceration.  The paring knife is sometimes not used at all; it's there as a just in case alternative to the boning knife.  The cleaver is useful for decapitation and for cutting through the neck, which I've always had trouble doing with a boning knife.  If you don't have a cleaver, a good strong pair of kitchen shears might work for the neck.  Whichever knife is used for the killing cut needs to be very sharp in order to spare the bird as much suffering as possible, and working with a sharp knife during evisceration always makes things much easier.  We devote time to getting the knives ready the day before slaughter.  But as you'll see in the Joel Salatin video below, there's really very little cutting necessary in the whole process.

Scalding water - A large pot is required.  I use a water bath canning pot.  The water should be roughly 145-150F/63-66C.  I  heat the water above that temperature before hauling it outside, so that it's just right when we've gotten through the first few steps in the slaughtering process.  When slaughtering more than a couple of birds, I leave a kettle simmering inside so that we can top off the pot with hot water, keeping the water at the right temperature for all the birds.  The birds displace a lot of water, so the pot should not be completely full.  When it's chilly outside I set the pot on cardboard so that heat is conducted away a little more slowly.

DIY Chicken plucker - This works well for the very small number of birds we process at any one time.  It probably wouldn't be workable for anyone slaughtering more than a dozen birds at once.  A day ahead of time we make sure to have the batteries for the drill charged up.  When we're processing only one or two birds at a time, we sometimes don't even bother with the plucker as it's quick and easy enough to pluck a bird by hand if you get the scalding right.  We try to pluck the feathers into a garden bed that is ready for lasagna mulching.  Feathers are high in nitrogen and break down quite slowly.  So they'll feed the soil very gradually while adding a bit of structure for soil microorganisms.  Strangely enough, yellow jackets will steal the small feathers, for the protein content I suppose, if you don't cover them with mulch right away.  An older post of mine details the DIY plucker.

By the way, if you like your chicken skinless, you can skip the plucking entirely and just peel the skin off the entire bird.  This isn't a great idea if you plan to roast the bird whole, since the skin keeps the bird from drying out.  But if your birds are destined for other preparation methods, and you don't want the fat from the skin, you can save some time and effort.

Chilling bath - We use a cooler, filled with all the ice we have on hand and water from the garden hose.  This brings the temperature of the eviscerated bird down very quickly, and can hold 4-5 broilers, but really only one turkey at a time.  It's wiped down with a bleach solution before and after use.

Bags, scale, permanent marker, freezer - Once the birds are nicely chilled, I drain them as well as possible, weigh them, bag them up, and write the weight of the bird on the bag.  We let our broilers live a little longer and get a little bigger than many farmers so I use 2-gallon freezer bags, which I'll sanitize and re-use just for our own chickens.  I wouldn't like to count on our larger birds fitting into the 1-gallon bags.  The two birds we slaughtered on Sunday averaged just over 6 pounds (2.7 kg).  I put the giblets from all birds into one container, to be used when it's time to make gravy for the Thanksgiving turkey.  (We grill our turkey so we don't get pan drippings to work with.)  Then the birds and giblets all go off to ice camp. 


I've learned all I know about slaughtering and eviscerating chickens by watching videos and doing it myself.  I've never come across a text description or even still photos that have helped me as much as video has.  Here's a sampling of videos that show the process in detail.  These first two videos don't show the exact method I use, and there's a lot of extra material covered, but they're definitely useful for amateurs and novices who don't have expert help on hand.

Respectful chicken slaughter - Part 1

I think it's an especially good tip to locate the chicken's jugular by feeling for the jaw.  I've never been able to precisely identify where a chicken's ears are, so that point of reference hasn't been useful to me.  The jaw can be easily felt.  You may not make a perfect cut the first time you do it.  When you get it right, you'll know by the steady stream of blood that the cut produces.  Practice makes perfect, though the obvious difficulty is that homesteaders work at such a small scale that getting enough practice on a regular basis isn't easy.  That's why I watch critical parts of these videos a few times over the day before slaughter.  

Respectful chicken slaughter - Part 2

Good tips in this video on how to use legs and other parts of the chicken.

Joel Salatin - chicken evisceration

If you're contemplating your first poultry slaughter yourself, you might want to study other homesteaders' take on the process.  Paula recently posted about her own chicken slaughter.  And Kristeva had a post quite a while back with good pictures.  If these videos and posts don't answer your chicken slaughtering and processing questions, I'd be happy to try despite my meagre experience.  On the other hand, if you have any tips that you'd like to share, please sound off in the comments.


becky3086 said...

I like the Polyface farm one. It is the one I followed when I started butchering again this year. Makes things a lot faster when you know what you are doing.

Mary said...

Thanks for sharing your experience with the "respectful slaughter" of your chickens. We are getting ready to start our rabbit experience and we will be slaughtering them for the meat. Do you happen to know any resources that may help me in this venture? Thanks again the information!

Hilltop Homestead said...

Thank you for sharing this. I have to admit I haven't watched it all yet because... well I am not ready to perform the task yet. I know that at some point we will and for that day I will have to be mentally prepared. When I do I will come back to this post for sure. I love what I raise and would want to do everything as humanly as possible. I don't think the process will ever be more than somber then again I hope I always feel that way when taking a life, even for food.

I was raised when hunting that if you kill it you eat it and that is what I taught my children. Hunting is one thing for me. Harvesting a living creature I raised is another thing.


Christine said...

This looks so very familiar to the way we do things. It's great to have some validation. Our Freedom Rangers were closer to 4lbs this year, as the majority were hens. We leave them in the refrigerator for several days before freezing so that the rigor postmortem passes. I saved the organ meat last year, but haven't thought of a way to use it. Any suggestions? This year, I kept only the feet, which make a terrific stock. They are waiting to be peeled, presently. Thank you Kate, for all that you do.

Kate said...

Becky, yes, that's a good one, though it shows nothing about the slaughter itself. I watch it a few times over before each slaughter day.

Mary, I don't keep rabbits, so I have no personal experience, not even googling for video guidance, to share with you. A farmer I know who raises meat rabbits stuns them with a blow to the head before cutting the throat. He says they go perfectly rigid after being stunned. I've seen this myself when I had to kill a baby rabbit that our cat had caught and was playing with. Seriously rigid. Like a board. But I know that there's a hook of some kind that screws into the wall and that some people use to break a rabbits neck in one quick motion. Sounds horrible to say it that way, but it's pretty humane with little struggling on the animal's part. I think I'll always opt for slaughter methods that cause the animal to bleed to death - one of the principles of both kosher and halal slaughter. You might try asking Wendy at Happily Home about rabbit slaughter. I know she raises meat rabbits.

Genevieve, no rush, no pressure. I'm sure you'll be ready when the moment comes, and you will both instill respect and pass on skills to your children. I've certainly gotten less somber about slaughtering animals, though I don't think it'll ever be something that's casual for me. It helps enormously to know that the animals had a good life up til the day they died. I feel much better about these broilers than about the solitary, disabled turkey I raised last year. It wasn't really possible for me to give her a good life, and that was very hard for me.

Christine, glad to provide some validation. We can all use a bit of that from time to time. I'd love to raise freedom rangers if we were allowed to free range birds in our area. But there are good reasons why I can't do that. They'd destroy not only my garden, but those of my neighbors, and that really wouldn't be cool. I kept our birds just over 24 hours in the fridge before freezing. I like the heart, liver, neck, and gizzard as a base for gravy. I just roast them in a cast iron skillet, deglaze, and go from there. That would be a good start for stock too, though many people leave the liver out of stock preparation because they feel it contributes a "muddy" flavor. Obviously, you can do both gravy and stock by simply saving the giblets until the meat is eaten from a bird or two and then adding them to the bones to make stock. If you process enough chickens in one day you could make chicken liver pate, or just liver and onions. I'm not a huge fan of liver, but one of these days I'm going to give it a go. With an animal as young as a broiler it might be pretty good.

Christine said...

Kate, our freedom rangers lived (after feathering out..2 weeks old) in a movable run, 6x12 schooner type that you've described building, on our front lawn. We had a perimeter net electric fence on a timer to keep digging predators away overnight. I moved them every day and they loved our weeds and grass. We loved not mowing and the great fertilizing they provided. I'd say over 11 weeks, 25 birds used a 450 ft perimeter space, so not a big yard. We've also raised the typical Cornish cross, which were not as interested in eating grass. The rangers have more leg and back meat, compared to the cornish, which had bigger boobs. Both delicious.

trump said...

I failed, i should have been able to save those poor chickens,lol. Richard

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Kate, we do almost exactly what you do. One swift cut, and then bleeding, seems to cause almost no distress or panic.

It's very convenient to have an outdoor burner to keep the water at the right temperature, but it only matters if you're doing a fair number of birds.

The video we found most helpful was one called "Survival Skills with Russ." It's clear and detailed.

Practical Parsimony said...

I don't think I could ever kill or dress a chicken. It is not about the emotion or the gore. I don't know what it is. I could watch without being squeamish. I need a partner in this act. If I could raise hens to slaughter and eat, I might get over it with some help. I could love them and slaughter and eat them. Maybe it is the fear of the unknown. The cone seems better than free-swinging hens, less frightening for them.

Rick said...

Great post Kate. Ice Camp, love it !

Kate said...

Christine, I found the gizzards of our Cornish X's were full of greenery when we slaughtered them. Granted, they had no grain in their last 24 hours, but I doubt they would have eaten that much purely out of desperation had they not been eating some all along. I made sure they had tasty weeds to eat from their first week of life, so maybe that established the habit. Interesting to hear you keep your freedom rangers for 11 weeks, especially so since we're keeping some of these CX's for ten weeks.

Amish stories, ;)

Tamar, thanks for the video recommendation. It's a good one. It's always interesting to see the slightly different ways that people handle the evisceration. Everyone has their technique that works for them. I just don't get enough practice to field test each one and see which works best for me.

Practical Parsimony, fear of the unknown is a big one for so many of us, I think. If I ever gave animal slaughter all that much thought, I suppose I felt that I ought to be able to do it, since I've always been a meat-eater. But I wasn't sure I'd be able to handle it until I tried. Then I was a bit surprised that it really wasn't traumatic. Now we're rather matter-of-fact about it, even though we still feel a respectful gratitude towards the animals. You might be surprised where your projects take you some day.

Rick, thanks!

susan said so said...

a friend recently slaughtered and ate her first happy-raised hen. when i asked her what it tasted like, she said the one thing it didn't taste like was chicken - at least not like any chicken she'd ever eaten, no hormones, steroids, etc.

have you found that your chickens taste different than mass-produced chickens?


Kate said...

Susan, that's a tough question. For the last four years I've only eaten chickens that were raised basically as I now raise them. So my tastebuds have probably been reset for a while. It tastes like chicken to me; that's what chicken tastes like. Probably if I ate supermarket chicken it wouldn't taste like much of anything. I've heard some people complain that that meat is just a vehicle for sauces or seasonings these days, because otherwise it doesn't have any flavor to speak of.

Unknown said...

Just slaughtered a turkey and an old rooster today. We always skin them because it's a lot of work to pluck the birds. Brining the bird makes it easier to keep the bird moist. I also love to crockpot the chicken.

Unknown said...

Love the idea about using the blood in the orchard! We're doing about 40-ish birds this weekend and will be adding this to the routine! Thanks :)

Kate said...

MHB, I'll keep the brining in mind for next time we slaughter old hens. I use that technique routinely with our Thanksgiving turkey, but have never tried it on an old bird.

Quinn, you're welcome. I'm sure your trees will appreciate the addition to your slaughter day routine.