Back in August, we picked up 32 day-old chicks at the local feed store. 15 of them went to our friends at the Toadstool, and we kept 17. For 9 weeks, we have kept their coop clean, fed them high-quality organic chick "grower", and ensured that they always had fresh air and a generous supply of clean water to drink. They had freedom to wander outside, and a heat lamp to keep them warm at night.
White Plymouth Rocks at 9 weeks.
Today was Chicken Killing day at the Knitty Gritty Homestead. Now, to clarify, I was a very sensitive and picky eater as a child/teenager. One of my sisters, who shall remain unnamed, used to cluck quietly when we had chicken for dinner, and I would inevitably cry and push my plate away. I didn't want to think of the meat on my plate as an animal.
As an adult, my thinking has changed. With increased exposure of conditions in factory farms through books like "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and movies like "The Future of Food", "Food Inc.", "Fast Food Nation", etc., I decided I want to have more of a hand in how my food is raised. The image of "clean, healthy, organic" food that we get from those who market it is usually an illusion, and mass-produced animals are generally treated inhumanely.
For this reason, I have gotten over my squeamishness when it comes to meat. I was surprised to find that it wasn't all that hard to kill our chickens today. Of course, we weren't doing the killing ourselves; we called in the professionals! Ward and his staff are local guys who do most of the chicken processing in our area. They are quick, clean, and professional. They processed about 30 chickens in less than an hour.
Ward can carry 5 chickens in each hand!
I only managed one per hand.
First, the chickens were carried to the processing truck, and suspended by their feet. As strange as it sounds, this seemed to calm them; there was no squawking or flapping going on. .
One of Ward's men used an electrified knife to first electrocute the chicken, then pierce a hole in its neck; within seconds, the chickens were dead. They were then doused in boiling water to clean them and loosen their feathers.
The plucker is an amazing invention; it is a drum that rotates quickly, with rubber "fingers" on the inside that pluck chickens at astounding rates. It's that big contraption you see in the left of the above photo. Imagine what our pioneering foremothers would have thought of it! I've plucked a goose by hand and it is hard and messy work.
Ward uses pliers to remove any remaining feathers, then the rest of the processing is completed: removing the head and feet, and washing and gutting the chicken. Ward was impressed with how healthy our chickens looked, commenting on their beautiful skin. Chickens that are fed corn tend to be very yellow. If you intend to raise your own meat chickens, it is worth it to invest in the more costly, but better quality organic feed. We figured that if we were going to the work of raising our own meat, we should feed them the best food possible.
How did I feel? Did I have even a twinge of sadness/regret? I'll be honest. I do love my laying hens. They range freely, and behave as chickens should: roosting up high at night, giving themselves dust baths to keep themselves cool and free of ticks, and laying their eggs in cozy little nest boxes.
Meat birds, on the other hand, have been bred to gain weight quickly. They eat (and therefore poop) almost constantly, and spend much of their time sitting on the ground. Yes, I know this is because they are too heavy to fly up to roost. You'll notice in one photo, the chicken's breasts were bare of feathers. This is because they sit around most of the time.
In the worst case scenario (i.e. factory farms) meat chickens are force-fed to the point that they have heart attacks, or their legs break under the unnatural weight of their breast, or they walk backwards because if they walk forwards they fall onto their breast. These are horror stories, and being aware of them, we took the precaution of killing our birds earlier than normal. If we'd gone another 4 weeks, we may have gotten much larger chickens, but at the cost of their health. So our chickens range between 5-8 pounds, processed. I don't mean to turn anyone off their gigantic Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, but before you say "Ewww!" to this post, think about what it really costs to eat the biggest bird in the grocery store. Consider seeking out a local farmer who raises animals with respect. Here in the Valley, a local source of free-range turkeys, chickens, and pigs is Tickle Island Farm.
I whispered my gratitude to the chickens in their last moments, aware that in order for me to feed meat to my family, I must take the lives of other living things. I felt peaceful knowing that they'd been gently and humanely raised, enjoyed fresh air, warmth, sunlight, and the freedom to move around as they wished, and that, in the end, they were killed quickly and humanely.