The great chicken harvest of 2014
It was a bold endeavour, purchasing 54 day old tiny chicks and expecting them to grow to eating size in twelve weeks. It felt bold or at the very least presumptious to expect them to turn into food in such a short time. I had intended for Caleb to help me with the meat bird chores but honestly, I sort of enjoyed the routine of my solitary morning ritual of heading out to the far end of our property with a big bucket of feed and five gallon water buckets to replenish their supply. Though heavy, the chicken tractors were just light enough for me to move by myself. The heaving of them across a new patch of grass every morning was good hard work for this mama. After giving them a new location each morning, I fed them and watered them. Each tractor held 25 birds and in the last four weeks, they sometimes went through five gallons of water in one day. The rate of consumtion for food and water rather blew me away. It was so far above and beyond our upcoming flock of layers. And with the consumption came incredible excrement. They poop more than you can imagine because they are growing so much.
Here are a few lessions learned now that harvest day has come and gone, in case its helpful for anyone…or simply intriguing for those who think this whole thing seems crazy:
- In order to save hatchery shipping costs, we went in with two other families. We ordered 165 chicks together. We estimated the feed we would need and also bought that together and had it delivered by the pallet to our home. Doing these two things together saved at least $200 dollars between our three families.
- The other two families (who had done meat birds before) rationed out their food properly and did not run out of food like I did (read my other post, from before butchering day, here). I on the other hand, was naively amazed how “hungry” they were and just kept feeding them. This meant buying about 800 lbs more feed part way through raising them. Which seemed a big bummer and would really increase my cost per pound of raising them. However, in this particular instance, my ignorance paid tremendous dividends. When our friends drove up with their birds on harvest day, they were totally shocked at the size of our birds. They were literally twice the size.
- A stainless steel table to do all the evisceration on is invaluable. I’d planned on using our plastic folding tables from Costco and then just bleaching them well. But our friend Mike brough a chest high stainless table, probably intended for dressing deer or other game. Because of its height, we didn’t have to bend over for hours. AND it was very easy to sanitze/clean. Which proved excellent.
- Using the rented equipment from our county, which included a stand with stainless kill cones, a blood collecting basin, a dunking rack and scalding tank and a defeathering tub, made a potentionally dismal task into sometime inherently doable. Even for a novice mama with six kids! Once everyone sort of “fell in” to a task, things moved very quickly. We processed the first 50 chickens in about two hours and then took lunch. The second 50 took less than two hours.
- Kids can do more than you think. This is perhaps what most blew me away for the day. Very early on, several children had proved themselves indispensable. Caleb and TJ and two adults caught the chickens and put them upside down into the kill cones.
The most humane way to harvest a chicken is to place it upside down where it quickly gets a head rush and is fairly still. Then with a sharp knife, slitting the neck so the blood can drain out swiftly and fully. Caleb did almost all of that job and he did it very well. He is ten years old. I was surprised and very impressed. Rylee and her friend Elianna rocked the scalding tank and defeatherer. They would take the chickens from the boys and hook them by feet up to the rack and then dunk them until their feathers were loose enough to go into the defeathering tub.
- Evisceration is more of a grown up job. If you botch it, you puncture the bowels and then have a poopy mess inside your chicken. Which is not ideal. Having a tall table to do this work was extrememly valuable. And having many hands on the task was also awesome. It made the work fly by.
- Having a hearty lunch ready and waiting is imperative. We ate big bowls of chili from the crockpot (thanks Nana!) and went right back to work.
- You need more ice than you think! It was a sunny warm day. We used all ten bags of ice we got. Keeping the chickens cold after defeathering before evisceration is important as is keep them cold after they are all done. We soaked them in a salt, ice water brine all day before packaging them for the freezer. We don’t have big coolers but used clean, garbage bag lined stainless metal 32 gallon trash cans. They worked beautifully, just required lots of ice.
- Shade would be helpful. We would have been better off with a white tent over the table where we did the finishing work. It got warm quickly and though the hose water was cold, it still would be better with shade. Next year for sure we’ll have a tent over that table.
- A vacuum sealer, though the bags are spendy, is super nice for storing the birds. A two gallon freezer ziploc would work, we used some. But the vacuum sealed ones, I’m sure, will keep better in the freezer.
All said, it was an amazing day. We worked super hard and with a great crew of people, it really went very fast. It was truly easier than we expected. I was super proud of our kids, they were something else. At the end of the day we netted 250 lbs of chicken in the freezer. We traded a few for work. And cooked a couple right away. But most of them are in the freezer! After all was said and done, we all agreed we’d definitely like to do it again. It was very worth the work. Besides the bit of time feeding them each morning, really it only entailed one long day of work. Which was quite manageable.