Ohiofarmgirl's Adventures in The Good Land is largely a fish out of water tale about how I eventually found my footing on a small farm in an Amish town. We are a mostly organic, somewhat self sufficient, sustainable farm in Ohio. There's action and adventure and I'll always tell you the truth about farming.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Meat Mutts and Rooster Day Tips

Gentle Readers, due to the mature content of today's post,  the very young, vegetarians, and folks who don't want to know where their food comes from should look away.  Tomorrow I promise to feature pictures of adorable kittens. But this dance is just for the farm-y people.


If you are new-ish to chickens chances are you have a rooster or two out there terrorizing your hens, causing mayhem, and wearing down your last good nerve. You might be wrestling with whether or not you should try and train the roos to "be nice" or re-home them to some sucker. Well, there is a third option - Rooster Day.

Yep. It's what it sounds like. Some folks call it Freezer Camp but lets call a spade a spade. Its butchering extra roosters.

The Rooster Crew were acting like a gang of thugs and starting to fight each other. While I totally agree that the barnyard flock needs an aggressive, protective rooster... too many are not a good thing. Having too many roos confuses and annoys the hens. They are either afraid of being chased down... or there is a power vacuum while the males try and figure out which hen belongs to which roo... and where territories begin and end.  So, there are practical barnyard management reasons for getting rid of extra roos....aside from the obvious... that chickens are food. To be sure this isn't a solicitation for a meat vs. non-meat discussion so lets just stick to the "how-to's."

For our Rooster Day we ended up keeping Little Pansy, both BlackJack and JackBlack, and dressed the rest (a total of 7).

My new pal, Filippo, from Italia sent me an email asking about butchering chickens. As it was timely I figured I'd share part of  of our conversation... as well as some things we learned from our Meat Mutts.

Many folks ask me about butchering so I have a list of Top Tips for Rooster Day and am thinking of developing an FAQ. Of course, I send everyone over to Harvey Ussery's spectacular The Modern Homestead site for exact processing instructions...with the caution that the language used to describe home butchery is by nature inflammatory. That is, it sounds worse than it is and there is no nice way to say it. So, cowboy up before you go and see the step by step instructions.

We have a pretty good routine worked out for our butcher days. The night before we put the "volunteers" in a separate coop with water but no food. "Starving" the birds overnight makes dressing them cleaner and easier. But of course, you don't want to withhold water. Having them in a separate coop makes them easy to catch.

After morning chores we gather our tools and get out there. We use a hatchet to dispatch the birds. The Big Man is the axe man...and I am on the guts part. No, its not gross. If you've seen any of the CSI shows you've seen much worse. And if you've ever cut up a chicken from the store you can do it. Really.  I know, I know, you're not convinced. But to a person, the folks who give it a try say exactly the same thing:

1. It isn't as bad as you imagine.
2. They feel great after wards....a profound sense of being part of the cycle of life and sense of accomplishment. Being able to feed your family is an amazing experience.
3. They are definitely going to do it again.

You just need to get your confidence up...and your courage.

We make sure we have a clean work surface (a stainless steel topped table), lots of paper towels, very sharp knives, a garden hose, several kitchen trays, a couple bowls, several buckets, and our sense of humor.  We also make sure that the beer fridge downstairs is cleaned out and that its one its coldest setting. And then we march out there and collect our first volunteer.

We've never had a bad experience with the chickens. The work is interesting, it feels like great teamwork, and we know that we are honoring the birds by not wasting anything. We usually have a great day. By the time we get everything cleaned up we're tired, excited, and very satisfied with what we've accomplished.

And the hens are basically standing around high five-ing each other.  Instantly, the hens are more relaxed, and we don't have the 20 minute chase around the barnyard trying to get the Rooster Crew herded into the hen house for the night. And its quiet. And we've got some good eatin' coming our way.  And its quiet. Very quiet. Nice and quiet. So everyone is happy.. except for, of course.. the volunteers.

My Top Tips for Rooster Day:

1. Pray for courage and practice thanksgiving. Trust the way of things.
2. You'll need more water than you think - make sure there is a hose nearby. More than likely you'll never drink from that hose again.
3. If you are plucking, make sure you have the proper water temperature to scald the birds which makes for easier plucking.
4. Use really sharp knives.
5. Make sure you have somewhere to chill the birds ready. You want to get them down to 40* as soon as possible. We have an extra refrigerator that we turn to the coldest setting and let the birds chill for 3 or 4 days before we freeze or cook them. This provides better quality meat.
6. Make sure you have a plan for the feathers and 'leftover bits.' Many people compost them but we have a big burn pile to dispose of every thing so we don't attract varmints.
7. Wash your work clothes in cold water to get rid of any stains.
8. Develop a sense of humor to relieve the tension. Its OK to laugh - sometimes funny things happen.

Some folks are shocked that we are out there cracking up or that we are having a good time. I thought the same thing too...until we did it ourselves. The thing is... funny things DO happen. We have a couple of standard jokes that we can't get over:

* After the "smiley parts" are.. ahem.. removed with the hatchet, we turn to each other and ask, "Is he really gone, or do you think he's faking it?" (We got this from a friend's young son who wanted to make sure the deed was really done. I love that kid.)
* Inevitably you might press on the carcass and sometimes there are.. um.. noises. This is startling. Sometimes there is me screaming and hopping about...followed by us laughing and falling over each other saying,  "He IS faking it."
* And then the hens have to get into the mix and pick some kind of part out of the scrap bucket and run off with it - then there is a chase. A really gross chase which can result in a horrifying tug-of-war.

The funniest story I ever heard about butcher day was about two ladies being taught to dress chickens by a 7 year old Amish boy. He was sorely disappointed in their performance. The day hit its peak with a failed axe chop followed by the intended volunteer rooster, now rather angry, chasing one of the gals around the yard.

Its OK to laugh.

Just like the turkeys, I tend to part up the chickens and then make a lot of stock. The leftover stuff goes to the inside cats. Teddie Grumpkins waited all day for me to finish cooking the stock. She's in there right now eating one of the cooked down necks.

You'll remember our results from the Dinner Chickens.  We were interested in how the "meat mutts" would compare. Most of them were considered "dual purpose" breeds good for laying and for meat.

In short, it tasted like chicken. Of course these birds were much smaller, so unlike the Creepy Meets, it seemed like the portions were more reasonable. Our first supper was buttermilk fried chicken, mashed 'taters and gravy, and honey baked squash -- all from our yard.

As far as breeds go, all of the roos were mutts - crosses of a variety of hens and roosters but they all had strong traits of certain breeds. These were birds that were hatched this spring - so basically, aside from feed, they were free. We think we got our money's worth.

To our surprise, the Buff Orpington (the meanest of the lot) was the most disappointing. Generally they are heralded as one of the great dual purpose birds. But we found it to be all feathers and very little substance. The barred rock got a solid "B+", the RIR crosses got a "B", and amazingly... the light brahma was the winner of the day.  Nice and meaty, easy as pie to pluck, and well proportioned with a goodly amount of fat.  To tell the truth, I was considering sending Little Pansy to the pot, but after seeing how well that young brahma dressed... well, I wouldn't mind having a whole passel of them.  He gets a pass. For now.

So if you haven't run screaming yet or puked on your keyboard.. congrats!  Now gather up your tools and get out there and give it a go. You'll be amazed at how the day unfolds...and you'll be very glad for the peaceful barnyard and the full freezer.

Now where are my noodles....

Folks: Melanie had some great questions. Here are some quick facts on doing larger birds.

LOOK AWAY, TENDER VITTLES!  Consider yourself warned about graphic details.

First, if you have a super big bird, go and check out my buddy, Buster's, incredible how-to for a monster turkey.

Q: Any tips for a larger critter?
A:  Yep. To say it delicately.... expect a larger bird (turkey, duck) to put up more of a fight - both during the post-kill flapping and also trying to catch them.  So technique is important.  For our turkeys we found that we needed to restrain them more than the chickens. My buddy and Farm Master, Bourbon Red, just holds them down on the ground to slit the throat. This works, but we found it was easier for us to hold the bird upside down for a few minutes to calm it, tie the feet, carefully put it into a feed bag (head first) with a hole in it at the bottom, so only the head is showing. Then you can hang it upside down (like many folks do chickens) and slit the throat. The last thing you want is a bad kill. That doesn't honor the bird, the process, or you. 

Q: What about plucking turkeys?
A: We think they are easier than chickens! Easy peasy. Just make sure you have the right water temp. Too hot and you'll blister the skin, too cool and it wont do any good.  I think its 165* but look it up for sure.

Q: I don't think we have a pot big enough to scald them. Just make it skinless??
A: You can skin them - and we do this sometimes. But plucking is pretty easy -  we use one of those extra big, heavy tubs that you can get at the grocery stores during the summer - you know the ones that you can get to put drinks in? Just fill that with hot water. Mine takes 3 big kettles of hot water, then we add more hot water to keep the temperature warm enough. Works great. Some folks use a turkey fryer - which sounds like a great idea to me!

Thanks for the great questions, Melanie!


Anonymous said...

I hope that someday I will live on a farm and have my own chickens, ducks and some other animals. Butchering is a part of farm life and I find your post informative.

My neighbor has rabbits that he butchers and sells. He says that he can do up to 30, one after another. After that he gets nauseous. I guess there is a difference in butchering chickens and bunnies...

Ohiofarmgirl said...

Hey VRT! Yep it's part of life here - but many folks have never even thought about where that chicken sandwich they got from the Dollar Menu came from. For me, its good to know the whole story.

And can be wearing. A guy I know dressed over 100 turkeys, himself, in a DAY. He had a scalder and a plucker but wow.

The funny thing is, I don't think we could do rabbits. We are the crazy cat people and they just seem to be too close. Everyone has their limits and its good to know what yours are, right? But once you find out what you can do - even better.

Unknown said...

Can't beat those Brahmas - one of ours dressed out at 8 pounds. I remember our first one - we were looking over the spare parts during clean up and couldn't figure out these 2 round thingies. I was checking books and websites. Then it hit us - testicles. We laughed and laughed and checking for the boy parts is our joke now.

Melanie said...

This is a great post! We will be doing 3 red bourbon turkeys soon... any tips for a larger critter? We are brand new at this but brave enough to try. What about plucking turkeys? I don't think we have a pot big enough to scald them. Just make it skinless??

Ohiofarmgirl said...

oh golly, Java, I totally burst out laughing! Ha! Yep we had the "what the HECK is this" experience too! We've had some impressive um... "gentlemen parts" - we actually saluted one of the boys. I'm sold on the brahmas.

Hey Melanie! Wow great questions! Give me a sec and I'll do a quick add on for you....please stand by.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your candid account of butchering day. I would have to add, from my experience, that somewhere about halfway through the day, hubby will get a very contemptuous look on his face and will suddenly have had quite enough of plucking duty. I watch for this and promptly switch stations before he melts down! :D Good info, good article!

Ohiofarmgirl said...

Thanks Journey! Wise words indeed.. when we get tired we just finish up and stop. And we are always surprised how tired our arms get!

btw, WONDERFUL hot pepper mustard! I might just give it a try. Looks beautiful!

Mama Mess said...

Oh I so understand getting the giggles. The Paintiff and I have fun on chicken butchering day as well. I like to make the feet dance to Hello my Baby, like the frog in the cartoon. That is after the feet are removed from the body that is.

We cut them into parts and and then pack them in ice in a cooler overnight. That chills them down really nicely and makes for good meat, as we don't have an extra fridge to cool them out in.

We also skin them instead of plucking because I'm on WW and would pick the skin off anyway.

After they have chilled out we package them up an freeze them.

I like to cook the backs down in my pressure cooker and make bbq chicken to can and then I can the broth that the backs cooked in as well.

Ohiofarmgirl said...

great work GW! i totally forgot about the singing frog! ha! we end up skinning most of them. we just find it easier. but, there's nothing like a roasted chicken with crispy skin

and great ideas about the cooler..and canning bbq chicken! why didnt i think of that!? talk about an easy supper...wow!

Mama Mess said...

Oh I know! My daughter loves it! She usually has it all eaten up within a few weeks of me canning it! It isn't as good as fresh made because it's cooked more, but still great in a pinch!

Audley said...

Wow what a great explanation of how to process chickens.

Ohiofarmgirl said...

Thanks Audley! I have to say, your Mr. Darcey is a fine looking roo. Lets hope he doesnt go to the pot!

Thanks for visiting - come on in and set a while.

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