Though I have kept chickens for years, I never expected to eat any of the animals I raised. After they provided many delicious eggs, I would retire my layers to the barnyard. But Barbara Kingsolverís book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle won me over to dining on my own birds. Now, I would recommend others try to raise chickens for their kitchen table. Processing poultry is both humane and economical.
In 2008, I raised and processed two flocks of the Cornish and White Rock cross, also known as Cornish Crosses. They are a fast-growing variety raised in large quantities to supply restaurants and supermarkets with chicken products.
Oddly, itís only because of my life-long affection for these birds that I can kill them at all. If I didnít feel for them, I would simply eat store-bought chicken. I eat meat just a couple times a week Ė but itís important to know that the animal lived well and died humanely. I nurtured them in exchange for their nurturing me.
The first part is the hardest. I hug a hefty white rooster close to my chest to calm him on the way to the killing station. Quickly and smoothly, I turn him over and place him snugly in the cone. My left hand extends downward to gently stretch his neck. Grabbing the knife with my right hand, I neatly swipe off his head. As he bleeds out, I dry my eyes. Thatís a chicken loverís process.
In April 2008, I split an order of Cornish Cross chicks with my friend Jim. One of my 10 chicks died the first day. The other nine started out on my porch in a brooder that kept the temperature correct around the clock. I had intended for them to stay in the brooder until they feathered out Ė at about three weeks or so Ė but I wanted them to get an early taste of green grass and sunshine, so I started relocating them to the floorless A-frame coop on sunny days after they were a week old. Iíd return them to the brooder at night. I read that Cornish Cross birds were not hardy enough for outdoor living, but mine didnít seem to mind.
After just a few days, they had gained enough weight that I could carry only half the flock at once without risking the bottom of the pet carrier breaking. Another couple of days after that, the carrier could only handle three at a time.
Genetically programmed for less than a sixty day life span, my birds began to look elderly as they
approached the eighth week. When I approached with their feed bucket, they waddled at top speed on bowed legs, flapping their short wings for extra acceleration. The roostersí rumps were notably dirty from resting so often in the excavations they had made in the soft garden soil.
By the end of May, the weather had become unseasonably warm Ė even in the shade of our tall hickory trees. The chickens seemed so uncomfortable that I provided box fans in the afternoons. The birds jockeyed for position in the breeze, combs and wattles flapping. Though none of my birds had developed the leg or heart conditions that can come from growing so quickly, they were ready to lay it down by the time we scheduled the slaughter.
Finishing off our combined flock went more quickly than we expected. My husband, Preston, and I arrived at Jimís farm with our flock at eight in the morning. Jim already had two homemade killing cones mounted on trees, a large pot of water heated by a propane burner, and a clothesline between two oak trees, which served as a plucking station. Having worked in a commercial processing plant in his youth, he taught us how to process birds in accordance with standard industry guidelines.
After all of us had an opportunity attempting each of the tasks, the routine we settled into began. Jim beheaded and scalded the birds, and then hung them on the clothesline. His wife, Jayne, and I would pluck Ė by far the most time-consuming stage of the process. A tarp kept under the plucking
station facilitated easy removal of the feathers. Plucked carcasses were then placed in a plastic barrel containing cold water. Then came the evisceration table, where each bird was placed in an ice-packed cooler.
By 11:15 a.m., we had all the birds on ice with minimal waste. A recycled feed bag easily held the combined entrails, feet, heads and feathers. Only three hours had elapsed, and the actual processing time was closer to two hours after accounting for the training.
I hadnít been planning on raising another flock so soon, but by mid-August one of my Rhode Island Red layers was acting broody. Curious as to whether this hen might save me some of the worry and work of raising meat chicks through the brooder stage, I ordered more Cornish Cross chicks. The hen accepted all of the peeping fluffballs, stretching her wings ever wider trying to encompass them all. She taught them to forage in the garden and guarded them from harassment by the other layers. When the chicks reached 7 weeks old, I hosted a second harvest. It went even more smoothly, with each of us knowing what to expect.
Even though I had entered into this for humane reasons, I also kept records detailing the cost of the meat. Using a bathroom scale, I found that one of the rooster carcasses added about 8 pounds to my weight, while a pair of hens added 5 to 6 pounds. Though these arenít certified scales, it seems reasonable to estimate that the nine birds totalled approximately 60 pounds of chicken in my freezer. Purchasing and feeding the chicks had cost $62, resulting in a total cost of about $1 per pound.
One might guess that allowing birds to forage in pasture would reduce the feed bill and increase weight gain. However, research shows that calories used in foraging are not necessarily offset by the extra nutrition. Some enthusiasts report reductions in feed consumption ranging from 10 to 30 percent when on pasture, but researchers Andrew Walker and Sue Gordon, in findings presented at the University of Leeds in 2002, reported expected reduction in feed closer to 5 percent or less. Possessing short guts, poultry would simply fill up before they could obtain sufficient nutrition to survive on grass. In fact, Walker and Gordonís research revealed that the majority of the protein available to pastured chickens consists of worms, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and other critters.
To learn more about raising chickens for meat, read "Raising Chickens for Meat: Do-It-Yourself Pastured Poultry" at Mother Earth News.