Better Sleep in the Morning

We slaughtered our first six chickens today. There are six in the fridge plus a bag of pieces for stock in the freezer. But first the housekeeping updates.

Bees: They are slacking. There is a little progress in the leftmost hive, nothing at all in any of the others. I’ll be skipping next week’s check. Then in two weeks I think it’s time to take the hives apart and get a solid assessment of when to pull the honey.

Sawmill: I give up. I’ve poured tens of hours into it ever since I tried to adjust it for a slightly longer band, and I just can’t get it cutting right. It’s an SMG (Scierie Mobile Gilbert) made in Quebec City. I’m going to call tomorrow and see about getting it back to the factory for service and to get some improvements retrofitted. The PITA is getting across the border. It has to go truck freight, and that means customs agents and paperwork. Alternatively I can drive it. Despite the determination of the current administration to turn the US into Iran, if a guy from [town of 700], New Hampshire shows up at [town of 1000], Quebec taking his sawmill in for service, he’ll still get waved across the border. The same for [town of 1000]. Vermont on the way home. Unfortunately, it’s 5 hours in each direction, and I’d have to come back in a week to get it.

I also have to hope that SMG has hired someone who speaks English. When I bought in 2003, I dealt directly with M. Gilbert, the owner. His English is about as good as my French. Unfortunately, he thinks he speaks English. I know how bad my French is. And we’re dealing with words I don’t know in English. I think a ‘serre bouille’ is a ‘log dog’ but the dictionary to confirm that doesn’t exist.

And now for the real news.

Why are they in my crate??? We went out at dusk last night and grabbed what we thought were the first six boys and stuck them into Bjarki’s crate to settle their affairs. We thought this was two ‘rat bastards’ and four Alan Alda types that we were snatching from their girlfriends. There are six rat bastards in the flock, but after we got two of them, the rest laid low, so we grabbed what we could find. We gave them water and planned that they would clean out their intestines over night.

The Butcher In the morning, we discovered that they had of course dumped their water. We moved tham into the shade, gave them more water, covered the cage and started setting up. By the time we were ready to go, the water was knocked over again.

Butcher Block I went with the traditional decapitate, scald, pluck, gut, treatment. The hatchet was dull, and I was inexperienced. The first and the last did not get the clean dispatch I wanted. I’m sorry. We looked around to see if we could find an ax or something better, without luck.

Plucking Scalding and plucking went rather well. Next time we’ll use a bigger pot for scalding, both to fit the birds and for more thermal inertia. Plucking was actually rather easy, and took less than 5 minutes per bird. Nonetheless, for next year I want the 30 second machine.

Gutting them took a bit longer, which did get better with practice. Lisa had found a tip to use a Felko pruner instead of shears. Fortunately we’d already spent the big bucks to get Felko pruners to prune with. It was a major win.

We used the directions from Modern Homesteading, which worked very well. There were, however, a couple issues. First, separating the crop from the breast meat. Not really happening. For most of them, no problem, but one of our lads had managed to get ahold of some grass this morning. It ended up all over everything despite his being the last I did.

Gizzards Next, the gizzard. I’ve dealt with dozens of purchased whole chickens in the last 35 years. The gizzards in these were three times the size I’ve ever seen, and chock full of gravel which I’ve also never actually seen. We cut them open and rinsed them out before freezing the giblets etc. for stock.

Fasting overnight cleaned out the intestines above the gizzard. There was still plenty of poop below. I usually managed to let it get only on the newspaper. For the rest, we rinsed and Bjarki is doing fine despite ingesting pounds of the stuff.

Icelandic chickens are a race, not a breed: they have the same kind of variation that say Irish people do, rather than looking all alike like New Hampshire chickens. In particular, even at four months, there’s about a third of them where neither Lisa nor I can tell a boy from a girl. We think we guessed wrong once. I rather like butch women, but if you want to be a long lived hen at Mack Hill Farm, it pays to be really really femme.

Even with a plucker and a scalder, we still need to drastically speed up the gutting if we’re ever going to actually make money at this. Practice and a sharp knife will help, but the whole process needs to be two person minutes/chicken. I know they sell them live down in Chinatown in Boston. I’m not sure that would work with anglos. Perhaps killed and plucked the customer does his own gutting?

Finally, the six 4-month old chickens averaged roughly 2 lbs, 2 oz dressed. That’s a couple ounces lower than a same size grocery store bird because we pulled the giblets and froze them separately. It’s still lower than the 3 lb-ish broiler fryers down to Hannaford, but I think it’s comparable to the fryers my grandmother cooked up 45 years ago. Lisa will be writing about that for “One Local Summer” tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Better Sleep in the Morning”

  1. After just coming off our own chicken processing weekend, I’m glad to offer some of our tips. Three of us slaughtered and dressed 26 birds in around five hours (lunch was an additional leisurely hour… what can I say except we’re foodies and we had some good eats. 😉

    Killing cones make a huge difference. The birds are calmed by hanging upside down, and you can easily slit their throats with a sharp knife (very sharp is key here, you want it to be clean and quick so they bleed out fully). Then, we dip the birds in the hot (145-150?) water (we use a canning pot set on top of an outdoor propane cooker), and hang them up by a leg so that plucking is easier. We’ve found that hanging them at a comfortable working height is easier of the body, and you can spin the chicken around to get all the feathers. We used to use the ax method (but with ducks) and it was terrible because someone had to hold the bird during the reflex state. Ugh.

    Start with the wings and tail feathers, these are the most difficult to get out, the others fly off by the handful. It’s helpful to have some plastic bins set up beneath both the killing station and the plucking station to catch the blood and feathers. We piggyback so while we’re cleaning up a pair, we put another pair into the cones and bleed them out.

    After the birds are slaughtered, we put them in another large plastic tub filled with ice water. Opening up a bird that’s still warm is really unpleasant. After all the killing is over, we tidy up and take a break for lunch, letting the birds cool off.

    After lunch, we process them, two or three at a time. I usually cut off the feet, heads, cut out the oil gland, and loosen the crop and windpipe before passing them along (I haven’t mastered doing the gutting yet, even though this is our fifth time raising chickens). You’re right… the crop is very well attached. It’s actually attached to the skin, but if you can get a finger underneath it, you can pull it off quite well… I’ve never had one tear.

    It also sounds like you didn’t fast them for long enough. Our chickens got their last meal on Thursday afternoon for a Saturday morning slaughter, but our friend gave his their last meal on Thursday morning. At least 24 hours is key. It’s helpful to work on a surface that you can spray down and swab with a dilute bleach solution to keep the poop from getting on the birds.

    It’s amazing to hear how small your Icelandics are… our Cornish X’s averaged 4.6 lbs, and our friends were 5.3, all were 9 weeks old.

    Hopefully the next time will be much smoother for you!

  2. Thanks for the advice. I agree we didn’t fast them long enough. We will do 36 hours the next time.
    I think there are two sources for the small size. Icelandics are medium birds, not bantams, but not the big Leghorns or New Hampshires either. Secondly, these are pastured. Those guys had a live weight of over 3 lbs, and we’d given them less than 5 lbs of feed to get there and had put in roughly zero effort on them since May. And they cleaned up our lily beetles.
    I’m coming to the conclusion that while we have great backyard chickens, and will never buy chicken after next July, this is not the breed to raise to sell for meat.


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