Monday, August 15, 2016

Chicken Processing

In just under 8 weeks our chicks went from cute little balls of fuzz to chickens that aren't especially cute, but are ready to go into our freezer

Bright and early Saturday morning our friends N and C and their kids B1, B2, B3, and B4 came to help process our chickens. C watched B3, B4, River, and Ocean, while N, B1, B2, and Sunshine helped me with the chickens. We've known since the beginning of this chicken adventure that Mr M's current work schedule would prevent him from being available to help, so we're super grateful our friends were willing and able to help out.

It's been super hot and humid for weeks now, so we started at 7:30 am. It was still hot and humid, but it was cooler than it was later in the day, plus we were still under the shade.

Last week I posted this picture and asked what it was. It's not a metal sarlacc, obviously, but it is a chicken plucker.

I remember plucking a chicken (or was it a turkey?) as a kid. And I remember that it only happened once. Every other time we butchered chickens we skinned them because it takes so long to pluck a chicken by hand. I wanted the skin to remain on since chicken cooks better with it on and since we had 27 chickens to pluck, doing it by hand was not an option. Thus the automatic plucker. We bought this one. It doesn't have an attached water hose, but the next cheapest model I found that did have an attached hose cost $200 more. For $200 less I can stand over the plucker with a water hose.

The first couple chickens didn't come out looking pretty- the skin was getting pulled off along with the feathers. After a bit of experimentation, we found that less time in the scalder is better, though too little time will mean some feathers stay on. It really is all about the scald, which I vaguely remember reading somewhere. After doing 25 chickens (more on that number later), I can say that the plucker is totally worth its weight in gold. It was easy to use and after we figured out the scalding time, quickly took the feathers off the chickens. The one complaint I have about the scalder is that the cord feels a bit short. Since you have to have running water nearby, it'd be nice to have the cord connection a little further away from the plucker.

We also ordered a killing cone, which is basically a large metal funnel that you attach to a post or board. You place the chicken upside down in the killing cone and it's supposed to calm them down and put them in a bit of a trance. From there you cut the artery in their neck (we used a scalpel) and they bleed out, and it's supposed to be a less-traumatic way of killing them. This was the part that I'd been worried about, since my dad always took care of killing the chickens before handing them off to us kids to skin and gut. I did plan on doing a couple of the chickens, but we got into our groove and I never got around to it. Next time, though....

The scalder was made up of an outdoor gas cooker with the propane tank from our grill and a 30qt pot with steamer insert.

I covered two folding tables with vinyl tablecloths. The processing table was where we used pruners to cut the head and toenails off and a sharp knife for cutting through the skin of the abdomen.  We used my boning knife from the meat cutting class I took twenty years ago in college- I've somehow managed to hang on to that knife all these years.

The draining table had the PVC draining frame and shrink wrap bags (bought here, instructions for use here. this site also has instructions for making your own plucker, but I didn't have the time, electrical know-how, or desire to go that route, especially since the one I bought was cheaper than the parts I would have needed to build my own, and I didn't have to put it all together).

We also had paper towels for cleaning, a cooler full of ice water, a scale, and buckets (one for guts, one for blood, one for feet).

I will be referring back to this post next spring when we repeat this procedure, so here's how we organized things:

We only had one killing cone, so we ended up just doing one chicken at a time in the plucker after the first couple, and it went super quick, even one at a time.

After a couple chickens, we found our rhythm:
  1. Sunshine brought a chicken over from the coop.
  2. N manned the killing cone
  3. I scalded and plucked, then cut off the heads and feet and started the gutting process (150* for about 20 seconds)
  4. Sunshine and B2 finished the gutting and pulled any stray feathers before putting the carcass in the cooler, which was full of ice water
  5. B1 peeled the feet, though some of them didn't peel very easily. I tried re-scalding later, but that didn't work, so next time we'll have to make sure the feet stay in the pot a smidge longer than the rest of the body. We saved the feet so they can be added to pots of bone broth.
After the carcasses cooled in the ice water, I put them on the pvc frame to drain, and put a shrink bag over them to keep bugs off. Our friends had to leave at that point, so we hauled the meat inside and quickly cleaned up. We had processed 25 chickens in 3 hours, which is much faster than we thought it would be. There's no way Sunshine and I could have moved that fast by ourselves, so we are very grateful for their help.

Some of the chickens didn't drain long enough, so blood/water ended up being packaged with the meat. The pvc frame worked great, but I'm going to re-work it so the birds aren't spaced so far apart and so it holds more birds at one time so they can drain longer. I got the idea for the frame here (scroll down a bit), but mine is rectangular because I was using connectors from our stash and they weren't the proper angle for a decagon or whatever shape the inspiration rack was. I'll share a picture next year after I've re-worked it.

chickens waiting to be shrink-wrapped

Some people use the same scalding pot to shrink-wrap the bags around the carcasses (after thoroughly cleaning it, of course), but since we were cleaning up and going inside, I used my biggest soup pot on the stove. The scalding pot would have been more effective because it's taller, but the soup pot worked.

After shrink wrapping the carcasses, I trimmed the bag ends and weighed each chicken. I put a label with the date and weight over the small slit I cut in the bag to allow the air out during the shrinking process. And then it was time to put them in the freezer.

a full shelf of chicken

We had 25 chickens that ranged from 2 pounds to 3.5 pounds after processing. Two chickens got killed by a snake Wednesday night (I'll share the details in my cost analysis post), so we didn't have the 27 I'd planned for. Super bummer that it happened at all, and so close to butcher day made it even worse :(

We ended up with just under 70 pounds of meat, with the average weight of each chicken being about 2.75 pounds. The weights were lower than I'd hoped, for which was in the 4-5 pound range, but there are several factors that I think contributed to this.

The main one is the heat- it's been super hot and humid and it's taken a toll on everybody, including the poor chickens. We were already planning on doing next year's chickens earlier (processing at the beginning of June, rather than the middle of August) so they'll avoid the worst of the heat, and this reinforces that decision.

Another contributing factor was that I had a hard time figuring out how much to feed them. I was so scared of them growing too fast (I've read the horror stories of Cornish Cross) that I erred on the side of feeding them a bit too little rather than too much.  I didn't find a recommended feed amount chart until two weeks before processing, which is when I realized I'd been under-feeding. Oops. Though I was supplementing their feed with random freezer-burned mystery fruits and veggies from the bottom of the deep freezer (there was a lot more of those than I'd like to admit) and discards from our meals, so it's not like they were starving. And now our freezers are cleaned out and on the empty side. Maybe we'll buy a side of grass fed beef or forested pork to fill up some of that space.

Another problem was that we used round feeders, which I don't think are the best option for making sure all the chickens are getting enough to eat, since the less aggressive chickens consistently got pushed away from the feeder. We'll be using the long, rectangular feeders next time. They don't hold as much feed and they take up more space (which is why I didn't use them this year), but they allow the chickens to spread out and not push the less aggressive ones out.

Here's some things we'll change when we process chickens next year:

  1. More killing cones, though I think we'll get size small instead of more size medium. It took longer than we thought it would for the chickens to go into their trance while upside down, so having several going at once will make the process go quicker.
  2. Heat and water resistant gloves to easily lift the birds out of the hot water. The pot we used has a steamer basket, but we didn't use it because I thought the basket would displace too much water going up and down. In hind sight, I should have tried at least one this way just to make sure. Either way, heat and water resistant gloves would be useful.
  3. A watch with a second hand or stopwatch capability. I was awkwardly holding my phone under my chin and trying to keep an eye on the stopwatch timer while holding a potholder in one hand and a hook in the other while trying to first keep the bird completely submerged, and then quickly pull it out. I didn't drop my phone, but I was not as quick as I would have liked.
  4. Clorox wipes. I don't generally use these, but they would have been helpful for keeping the tables a bit cleaner as we went.
  5. Hose sprayer attachment that has its rubber washer. We have two sprayers, and neither of them have their washers, which renders them useless. I didn't realize this until that morning and didn't have time to go buy replacement washers. Consequently, we had the water running the whole time, making a swamp in the area we tossed the hose to in between uses since the faucet is way too far away to be running to and from all the time.
  6. A bin to catch the feathers from the plucker. This isn't a necessity, and the mess wasn't terrible, but a plastic bin under the feather outlet would keep the mess even more contained. I'll drill holes in the bottom and sides to allow water to drain out while the feathers remain in. We didn't have any bins short enough to use this year.
  7. An outdoor sink. I want a stainless steel sink/counter combo that you hook a hose up to. The counter can be used while processing and with the sink right there you can rinse and clean as you go. We'd still need at least one plastic folding table for draining, but the messiest parts would be done on the metal counter. We'd just have to figure out where to set it up, and where to store it when it's not in use. All this equipment has to be stored somewhere. The lighter stuff can be stored in the rafters above the chicken coop, but the heavier, bigger stuff will have to be stored somewhere else. There's never enough storage space....

I'll be doing at least one more post with the cost analysis of raising our own chickens, so I'm ending this one with this thought: This batch of chickens was a learning experience from start to finish, as I knew it would be. We'll do some things the same, but we'll also be doing some things differently next year.

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