It is one thing to watch a cabbage grow from seed to table, another to watch a live animal. I had killed only one chicken prior to deciding to raise 20 meat birds this summer. Nine weeks into the project, I had 18 monstrous chickens and one odd ball Barred Rock Rooster named Einstein. He was the only one that acted like a chicken, pecking, scratching, foraging in the grass for bugs. Apparently chickens are very social animals because Einstein still layed around most of the day, like the Cornish X Rocks.
Since introducing him to the hens, he has learned to lead a more active lifestyle. At first, the hens terrified him. He stayed by the woodpile all day waiting for me to feed him grain. The hens would run over to check out what special treatment I gave him, devoured his food, and tipped over his water. The next day he ventured out to the bush and hid in there until nightfall. By day five he figured out he wasn’t quite as small as he thought. He followed the girls around leaving a 10 foot safety zone. Now, he knows the route and even has a girlfriend. “The Dude and Dud Duo” stand together all day. Americauna (the hen that doesn’t lay her blue eggs) is being courted by Einstein. He’s actually very sweet for a rooster, so far. But, if he starts pecking the hens or showing any aggressive behavior towards me, he will become soup. End of story.
The butchering went very well. Susan, Craig and I processed four birds behind the cabin to experience backyard chicken processing. It took over three hours because we hand plucked. With Susan’s instruction, by bird four I could eviscerate on my own. For me, killing a chicken is not emotionally difficult. It feels like a natural instinct I was born with. I enter some kind of numb, mechanical place where the job has to be done. It is simple. You can’t back out and get upset when you have a chicken by the feet in your left hand and a knife in the right. It’s over so quick and the end result is too tasty and nourishing to pass up.
The worst part, we all agreed, was the smell. To remove the feathers you scald the bird in 145-degree water for less than a minute. Partially cooked skin and manure is not too pleasant. Just another reason to appreciate homegrown chicken that much more.
After the seven-pound birds cooled in cold water, they were moved to the fridge for at least a day before freezing. Craig offered to cook lunch for the three of us a few days later. It took two hours of roasting to cook the whole chicken. He stuffed it with the best stuffing I’ve ever had (sorry Mom). The stuffing was cooked in my chicken stock (made from the gizzards, necks, feet, and garden carrots, leeks, onions, parsley) and contained a wild mushroom a friend gave me called “chicken of the woods.”
I asked Craig, “why did you put chicken in the stuffing?” I was fooled by the mushroom’s chicken-like appearance and texture.
The vegetable: steamed brussel sprouts covered in butter.
Cooked to perfection, yes, this was worth the work. Tender, moist, and full of flavor, I can never buy a conventional chicken again. Good thing my freezer is full of them! I cut up some of the birds to freeze thighs and breasts so I can have smaller portions in the winter. I thought the work ended once the chicken was in the fridge, but no! I made about 10 quarts of chicken soup from all the leftover pieces.
The rest of the birds I brought to Great Barrington where a local farmer has a processing facility. 14 birds took about 20 minutes. The automatic plucker- best invention ever. Dressed weight ended up between eight and nine pounds. They are like small turkeys! I was at the evisceration station gutting chickens for over three hours.
We processed about 80 of his organically fed chickens and they came out to between four and six pounds. This is a little scary, since they were the same age as mine, but I fed non organic Blue Seal Chick N’ Game Bird Crumbles. I went through almost eight 50 pound bags at $17 each. Organic grain costs anywhere from $22-25 per 50 pound bag. If I were selling my chickens, I would have butchered them between 7 and 8 weeks rather than 9 because the lb. or grain to lb. of meat is less efficient after 8 weeks. But, since this is homestead style, I wanted as much meat per bird as possible. It was less about the cost.
Why didn’t I feed them organic grain? Mostly, I was greedy and wanted more meat. These birds are designed to eat what I fed them, and grow much slower on organic feed. I didn’t feed them antibiotics or hormones, either. Organic grain would have cost about $65 more, and we would have ended up with less meat. It was a decision I had to make. Here I am raising conventional birds in a non-conventional setting. They had happy lives roaming free on fresh grass every day. When they got coccidiosis, I treated them because I didn’t want them to suffer and die.
What I am learning is that it’s sometimes not practical to be “organic” as defined by the USDA. Let’s assume I’m not referring to the over usage of drugs in factory farming, but small scale and homestead operations. This is tricky, but here is my current understanding- may it continue to evolve.
When raising livestock, if they get sick I would attempt to treat them so they recover. At the goat farm, we are not certified organic. If a goat gets mastitis (infection of the udder), she will be in pain and suffer if we don’t give her an antibiotic. If we were a certified organic dairy farm, Susan would not be able to treat her goats with antibiotics/pain killers/ fever reducers if they got sick. If she did, she would not be able to use that goat’s milk for one year. She would be forced to sell her sick animal to a non-organic farm or put her down because it can’t even be in the same herd with the ‘organic’ goats.
We do not over medicate because the goats rarely get sick since they are taken good care of and live in spacious clean barns. Like a child, we treat them and usually within a few days they are healthy again. However, we cannot use the milk of a sick goat. There is a milk-withholding period for each drug, varying from three to seven days. This means we don’t add the milk to the bulk tank when she is sick or for several days afterward. We also test the milk for antibiotic residue before adding it back to the rest. I never thought I’d say this, but here I go: Antibiotics, when used sparingly and only in necessary situations, are one of the greatest medical breakthroughs.