After nearly a week on the farm, today was the day I’d been (nervously) waiting for. 25 handsome roosters needed to be butchered. Normally, hens are raised for meat. But JB and Heather had gotten 40 free heritage (male) chicks with their last hatchery order. So, being low on chicken because of predator attacks, they just had a go at raising roosters to fill customer orders. The roosters had lived a good life in the mobile chicken tractors, always on fresh pasture. But as they matured, they had gotten more aggressive. And so, this morning, these birds had to be butchered.
From bird to meat
Once we caught the roosters, we would put them into the killing funnels. JB made it look so easy. But it’s a little more intimidating when you’ve got the large bird in your hands and have to flip him upside down without getting pecked.
With ease, JB demonstrated how to place a bird into the funnel and pull its head through. He did not cut the head off. Instead, JB carefully reached a knife into the chicken’s throat at a 45-degree angle to slit an artery and let the blood drain out. At this point, the bird (already calm from being upside-down) would relax more and quietly “fall asleep” over the next 30 seconds to a minute as its heart pumps the blood out of its body. It is clear when the chicken becomes lifeless because its legs and neck will give a final strong jerk before relaxing, at which point the eyes will close. At this point, they are ready to be moved to the next stage of processing.
Though I would not say that I was excited to take over this part, I did have a nervous anticipation to learn how to do it for myself. I ended up killing about 8 of the roosters. I was surprised that, aside from trying to catch the roosters and their minimal struggle once upside-down in the cone, the process seemed relatively gentle and calm.
The next two steps were Heather’s territory. Two by two, she dunked the chickens for about 30 seconds into 140-degree water (it had to be just right, or risk making the skin too fragile so that it rips apart in the plucker).
Then she put the birds into the mechanical plucker and sprayed them down as she ran the machine. Withing seconds, the birds were bare! Thank goodness for such a contraption, because plucking by hand could take a good 20-30 minutes per bird, they said. With 25 chickens to process today, that would have dragged things on considerably! Once the machine had worked its magic, only a few feathers around the legs and neck had to be removed by hand.
At this point, Heather took the birds over to where JB and I were working, and put them into a big bin of cold water to chill until we could deal with them.
Cleaning the chickens
A rooster after plucking
The cleaning process took, by far, the longest. And, because there were so many different steps, it took me about three birds until I could proceed without constant questions. JB was very patient! – And so happy to teach all aspects of the process to me! (As an aside: Most people who host WWOOFers are excited about the teaching opportunities. And JB and Heather were no exception. They included me in so much, showed me all the beautiful bits of the property, explained all of their farm challenges and joys, and happily, patiently, showed me processes like cleaning the chickens, growing and harvesting different plants, and preparing prized recipes with some of their produce).
Photo-bombed by Heather
I first had to learn how to remove the head, the feet, the oil gland on top of the tail, the crop, and then how to separate the trachea and esophagus from the neck so it could pull easily out the back of the chicken with the rest of the insides. (Too much information? -You’d better stop reading here then.) These were all easily explained by demonstration.
But the next step was significantly more difficult to learn. Mostly, because it was all explained BLINDLY after JB instructed me to reach my hand inside the cut I made in the back of the chicken. I watched closely at the organs JB so effortlessly pulled out on his demonstration chicken. But when it came my turn, I still had no clue what all was in there when I reached in.
A lifelike “squawk” came from the bird each time I reached my hand in this one. (I had not cut a wide enough opening, so the pressure inside had found a way to release through the bird’s trachea, I guess.)
The sensation of reaching inside a chicken is just about the most unusual thing I’ve ever felt. No, it was not gross or disgusting. Instead, everything inside just felt warm, smooth, and orderly.
… Until I started my attempt to pull things out. In releasing all of the connective tissue securing the organs in, I often ended up breaking the somewhat fragile liver (my favorite part of the chicken – so sad!). Thankfully, this did not affect its edibility. But after several long and messy attempts, I eventually got to the point where I could picture the positioning of things inside the bird and could confidently enough determine when I had removed all the necessary organs.
Only once (at the very last chicken) did I accidentally puncture the wrong thing – the gall bladder. Though nothing in the gall bladder is inedible, it does leave a nasty green stain on the chicken’s flesh that will not wash away if it is exposed for more than a few seconds. Because I was a bit too slow in realizing what I had done, I was not able to wash away all of the green patches on my chicken. But I’m just thankful I never had to deal with a punctured intestine. That would have been unpleasant.
JB brought up an interesting fact while we were cleaning, though. He said that, as disgusting as a punctured intestine is, when one person is working on gutting the bird, he can easily reach for the hose and clean the bird off quite well if that ever would happen. However, in the industrial system, he said that the gutted birds will soak in water that is something like 5% fecal matter. !! As alarming as that sounds, I believe it though. I cannot imagine how industrial machinery could be as careful to avoid such mistakes as puncturing the wrong thing – when even skilled hands slip up occasionally.
What the birds look like once the whole process is done (-this photo from a previous processing day)
Anyway, while we were cleaning out the last of the birds and then washing and sterilizing all of the equipment we used, Heather moved to her inside station of packing the birds for sale. She would rinse and dry them, and then put them in plastic bags. By poking a tiny hole in the bag and dropping it into boiling water for just a few seconds, most of the air was pushed out of the bag. To finish, she dried the bags off, placed farm stickers over the air hole, marked their weight, and then into the refrigerator they went for 24 hours. Tomorrow, they would be moved to the freezer.
Tiring, but deeply satisfying
Tired and soiled from the day’s work, JB and I came inside – appetites quite still intact. But before eating, he weighed and packaged the chicken livers. Then he set aside all of the hearts for grits and hearts the following morning (a processing day tradition of theirs).
Though the work was not all fun, it was deeply rewarding. By practicing over and over again, I got familiar with every step of chicken processing, to the point where I now could confidently take a chicken from the coop to the dinner table, if need be. To be prepared in this way feels invaluable. I do not know whether I will ever be in a position to raise and slaughter my own chickens in the future (I hope so). But regardless, I feel so much more appreciation and respect for the farmers who do raise their chickens in a healthy way and butcher each one with care. Knowing all that went into the chicken’s life -and death- makes every bite of meat off the dinner table so much more special and valuable.
Now, I freely admit that, unfortunately, not every bite of meat I eat comes sourced from farmers like JB and Heather. But to have seen and participated in raising and slaughtering an animal here on their farm in a way that respects God’s design and honors the “chickenness of the chicken,” as Joel Salatin puts it – well, this has given feet to my values in a much more real way than just reading, thinking, or talking about the subject ever could.
If you knew how the meat in your fridge was raised and slaughtered, do you think you would be inspired to value and savor it? Or would you instead find only commodified animal factory meat, cheapened by mass production and irreverently killed without ever knowing the care or stewarding hand of a human? With your food dollars, you decide how you’ll steward the earth and the animals God has placed under our dominion. And even as far-removed from our chunk of the world as it may seem, what we support with our grocery budget comes with consequences. And I believe the just God who designed the chickenness of the chicken (or rooster) will not ignore our choices to greedily abuse and use His creation for our gluttony.
Perhaps, we do not need as much meat as we are accustomed to. Perhaps, we can adapt more conscientious grocery budgets, changing our diet to better reflect our fear of God. And perhaps, making do without what does not follow God’s design in what we eat is something we need to more seriously consider. To bring more and more areas of life into subjection to God’s will and design – is this not the journey of a follower of Jesus?