Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Full Circle

*Warning/Disclaimer: This blogpost contains photos of the chicken-killing process. If you are vegan/vegetarian, extra-sensitive about animals, or just easily grossed out, please stop now! If you still insist on reading on, you are welcome to do so, but consider yourself warned. My intent is not to inflame, but to inform and share about a matter-of-fact event in the lives of many rural people.

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.
The chickens are then soaked in lightly salted ice water for a few hours, before being bagged and frozen.

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.


  1. You are way braver than me......I am too much of a chicken.....pun intended!
    Interesting post. I look forward to sampling one of your chickens.

  2. I did sort of "miss" chicken killing day...we've done it here for the past few years...it certainly is an experience!
    Thanks for hosting my hubby and our chickens. You did a great job on the post.
    xo maureen

  3. I'm an ethical and spiritual vegetarian. That being said, I respect those that raise their own meat to eat. I feel that if you are to eat meat, you should know where it comes from and be able to slaughter the animals yourself, or at least be in the presence of it. Have you ever watched the show The Fabulous Beekman Boys? They had two hogs that they raised for meat and even though it pained them to watch it, they where there when their hogs were "harvested" (I HATED that they used that word, the animals where slaughtered!)

  4. A very respectful and informitive post.I never realy think about all those boned or deboned chicken breasts we see every day in our G.stores.Everything is so available to us.Gives me much"food"for thought.thank you to our feathered friends'


  5. Great post! Having raised chickens before moving North, it was right on the mark. I had to laugh at your description of the plucker. I used to work at a farm supply store and the plucker fingers were always good for a laugh on long, boring afternoons :)

  6. The whole eat meat or not topic seems to be a hot one. I just wrote it about! And how brilliant! A chicken plucker...I hated doing that as a girl. I got feathers everywhere!!

    Stephanie :)

  7. We do the same thing except my Grumpy is the one doing all of the dirty work. He is midway through building his plucker. We have a couple of turkeys ready but...he doesn't want to do anything until the plucker finishes.

    Yes, people do get squeamish but...they also think food magically appears at the grocery store. I like knowing that the chicken I eat was raised in an environment of peace and happiness. The big business chicken farms have given the industry a bad name. I agree, buy from a local farm. Enjoy your chicken. We actually ate one of ours last night. Delicious!

  8. Oh my, that's a busy day. One thing we look forward to when moving again is being able to raise our own meat. Pigs, chicken and maybe goat/sheep. I like lamb, but I like the idea of keeping a few dairy goats around. Speaking of which, you would probably really enjoy Living with Goats (reading it now). I so admire you folks that are willing to share the unglamorous side of being a farmer. There is a lot involved in truly being sustainable!

  9. It's my opinion that if you can't watch an animal being killed, than you shouldn't be able to eat it! I'm sure I would shed a few tears seeing my pig/cow/chicken being slaughtered, but turning a blind eye to the way that animals are treated in industrial farming is not an option. That being said, our family still has a long way to go...we still occasionally run to the G. store to buy chicken when we run out of dinner ideas. It's something I'm working on! Thank you for this post.


  10. What a post! Well-written and informative. I agree with Deedee...we should be able to face the facts when it comes to what we put on our plates.
    It must feel so good to know that your freezer is full and what you eat this winter is your own.

  11. Great Post Steph! I applaud you for taking on a sensitive subject. If everyone took a stand against "ignorant consumption" we, as a population, would use less, waste less and want less. I think we would be better able to find and express our gratitude for what we actually have.

  12. I hate buying meat at the grocery store. We haven't found a local butcher yet. But I have recently (after more than a year of searching) found 2 local, organic, free-range poultry producers. Which thrills me.

    I did not know there was such a thing as a mobile poultry processor. I will have to look in our area.

    I agree people should know where from and how their food gets to their plate regardless of whether it's meat or vegetable. Thank you for this post. I find the process very interesting.

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  14. Great post!
    We have laying hens now but raised meat birds for many years and always found it was far less stressful for the chickens for the slaughter house to come to us.
    When I mentioned having a broody hen hatch out some turkeys next year for Christmas, Thanksgiving ect... my sister thought it was the most revolting thing "eating your pets"....
    My dog is a pet, the turkeys are food. She would rather purchase everything from large big box groceries(one that starts with a W) than have food that was humanely raised, given the best life possible and then killed. Weird.
    Wishing you many yummy roast chicken dinners!

  15. We have laying hens, a couple of jersey cows and now and then raise a steer or hog, but we haven't yet raised meat birds. We are hoping to build a couple of "Chicken Tractors" so that they can get the benefits of free ranging without actually ranging free. Some have told me this would be a waste of time--that these birds are too stupid to find any food on their own anyway.

    Thanks for posting the process. We who are not vegetarian (and I was, for 20 years) need to find sources of safe, quality meat. All the better if we can raise it ourselves and assure humane treatment of the animal and an appreciation of the life taken for our nourishment.

  16. I am so glad you shared this as our family is moving closer to this process.
    Thank you.

  17. Thanks for sharing this post, it is so informative. We are hoping to have a homestead of our own in the (hopefully) near future and this is really interesting to read about. If you are going to eat meat, this is the way to do it!


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