Processing Roosters

This is a cautionary tale.

On a homesteading blog that Joshua and I both read, a reader recently asked how to get started with various “green” and “getting back to the land” type ventures. The blog author suggested starting slowly so as not to get overwhelmed. Joshua and I agreed that that’s not really our method. We like to just jump on in when the time is right, picking things up as they come along. Joshua wanted to garden, so last year he started a 1000 square foot garden and planted everything he wanted to, ignoring advice to “start small”. I wanted pigs, so I read everything I could and then got two pigs. Yes, I educated myself, but I didn’t visit any other farms, get a mentor, ponder the situation for a couple of years first, or anything like that. No pickles in the house? Time to learn how to make pickles. Pants ripped? Time to learn how to sew. We just take things as they come and pick up skills and activities whenever it seems right to jump on in. We moved to The Wallow from the suburbs just over a year ago, and we’ve jumped head-first into pigs, chickens, gardening, canning, dehydrating, heating with wood, replacing paper products with cloth, composting, woodworking, homemade cleaning products, and a gazillion other projects that were new to us not that long ago. And all of this has run pretty smoothly.

Then Saturday night happened.

I’ve been obsessively checking Craig’s List, because I’m keeping an eye out for sheep and pigs for sale, and I saw someone giving away 10 roosters for free. We’ve often joked about how people give away perfectly good meat (when times get tough, those potbellied pigs are at the top of my list!), and here was someone giving away roosters. We’re getting chickens to raise for meat this spring, so killing and processing chickens was already somewhere in the future to-do list. We’d already had a full day of working around the house and planned to relax in front of a movie for our Saturday night… but there was this ad… and we have this philosophy of not going slowly… and so apparently this was going to be the night we learned how to process chickens.

I’d read a thing or two about processing chickens online. I’d read a couple of different methods for slaughter. I’d heard that plucking is a bitch. Joshua’s quartered a chicken for dinner before. Um, that’s not going to be enough. We crash-coursed by watching some YouTube videos. Welcome to the future of homesteading. We went to pick up the roosters, both extremely excited and both a bit on edge.

On the drive there and back, we mentally went over everything we’d need to assemble to get this show on the road. Once we got home, the proud owners of 10 roosters, we had to get started. We had to process the roosters right away, because we don’t have anywhere to keep 10 roosters.

Here’s the initial setup. The two cardboard boxes in the middle are the live roosters. Two coolers full of ice water to the left to put the dead roosters in. A table with a bucket to hold blood. The propane stove to the right with a big pot for dipping the birds in hot water prior to plucking. A big trash can to pluck the feathers into. Joshua’s about to hang a noose to hang the birds upside down for the slaughtering.

Here’s one box of the birds:

Joshua strung up the first chicken:

We both had to take a moment before he killed the first one. It’s a heady and weighty moment. I’ve heard advice for chicken slaughter to chop off the head or wring the neck, but Joshua’s reading suggested that slicing the throat is best for a good bleed. While the chicken almost immediately passes out, the heart continues to beat, helping to get the blood out, whereas it stops right away if you chop off the head.

As soon as it bled out (less than a minute) I dipped it in the simmering water and then started plucking:

While the first chicken went smoothly, the second one had a lot of twitching, which meant Joshua, me, and everything else nearby was splattered with blood. We ended up dropping the noose down into the trash can, so any twitching could happen in there and contain the blood. The table moved over to house a chopping block, since Joshua cut the heads off prior to me dipping them in the water.

Joshua also rigged a cover made from a plastic jug to hold the wings in which reduced flapping. There are better setups, but we were kind of making this part up as we went along. Some people have more sophisticated sleeves for the bird to fit into. Some people do this in their yards instead of their barn, so they care less about the splatter.

In any case, we charged through all ten birds. The routine became smoother as we went along. Hang up a bird, slit the throat, chop off the head, dip in water, pluck, then toss in the ice water.

It sounds relatively simple when written in a list like that. It wasn’t, though. Not at all. When we were done, Joshua said he felt traumatized. It took me a little longer, but an hour after we were done, I was hit with an emotional drop that left me curled up in the shower sick to my stomach.

Here’s a little more description on that list.

Hang up a bird: The roosters were docile in the box, but once you get a grip on its feet, it starts to put up a fuss. Once upside down, it completely calms down within a few seconds, but those few seconds still take some concentration, because you’re holding onto a bird that’s flapping furiously trying to right itself.

Slit the throat, chop off the head: This is a skill, that Joshua would have to explain since he did all the slicing. But in the meantime, an animal is dying, and while it might become routine in some sense once you’ve done it a lot, there is simply nothing routine about it the first ten times.

Right before the first one, Joshua said, “I’ve never killed anything but small animals before.”

I said, “Have you ever killed a small animal?”

“You know, just bugs and mice.”

“Have you ever killed a mouse?”

“No.”

Right. So, neither of us had ever killed anything but bugs before. We were nearby for Hampie and Yorkie getting killed and saw them bleed out, but this had a whole different feel, I’m sure even more so for Joshua.

Dip in water, pluck: There’s no way to state this properly in words, but let me assure you that boiling chicken feathers is one of the most disgusting smells in the entire universe. I’ve smelled all manner of shit, vomit, and death before, but I don’t think anything compares to the boiling dead feathered chicken smell. Oh. My. God. Then the plucking is a nasty, nasty, painstaking process. At first it seems like the feathers are going to slide right off, but then there are the stragglers that you’re picking by hand. The shafts of the feathers are dark in the light skin, and if you press near the base of the follicle after the feather comes out, this dark puss-like stuff comes out. It’s like zit-picking except dead and all surrounded by the worst smell in the world.

It took us three hours to kill and pluck the ten roosters.

While plucking the first one, my back started to hurt. I changed up my positioning, but given my back lately, it should have kept hurting. I realized later that it had completely stopped. I believe the curled-up-sick experience I had an hour after we quit was me coming down off an adrenaline high. Once we got started, we just kind of barreled through, making scrunched up disgusted faces the whole time. Once it was over, we were in quite a state.

We decided to leave cutting up the birds until the next day. They were in coolers and really needed to be finished processing, plus Joshua was leaving on a business trip today, so they really had to get done the next day, even though we’d have been happy to take a chicken break.

Ten dead chickens. Time to get them finished. Here we go.

Joshua’s usually the one who quarters our chickens for grilling, so he got the knife-wielding part of this job, too. He’d cut the neck off and twist the crop out, then do some cutting around the butt to open up the inner cavity (while trying to avoid nicking anything nasty!) He recoils at the idea of intestines, but that doesn’t bother me so much, so I got the job of sticking my hand up into the chicken to pull out all the guts:

Everything – intestines, gizzard, heart, liver, etc – comes out in a big bundle once you find the right place to pull, and I kind of enjoyed poking around in there to identify all the organs. Joshua couldn’t believe that I didn’t mind touching it all.

Then Joshua separated it all. Legs/thighs and breasts for freezing, Necks, backs, legs, and wings for chicken stock. They sell a special tool to help you get the lungs out of the ribs, but we found that a grapefruit spoon worked really well.

Here’s the pile of meat for our freezer:

Plus everything going into the stock:

I wrapped up the freezer parts and labeled them. Labeling is crucial when you’re tossing stuff into a chest freezer, but it’s even more important when you can’t imaging eating chicken for quite awhile to come.

While Joshua was making the stock, I actually had to leave the house. The smell of dead boiling chicken was kind of haunting me from the night before, and the stock smell was completely overwhelming.

All told, we got 12 quarts of stock, 20 legs/thighs, and a little less than 3 pounds of breasts. Joshua was not happy with the amount of meat on the breasts. We went through a lot of trouble here, and these birds were not all that big.

The whole ordeal was about 24 hours from “OMG we own 10 roosters” to the sound of the canned jars of stock popping closed.

I’m seriously considering skinning the next chickens we kill instead of plucking. The skin of a grilled chicken is mighty yummy, but the equation looks a bit differently after how disgusting it was to deal with the feathers and skin. Next time we will do everything outside in the open. Even cutting up the cold, dead chickens was way too gross for inside the house. Joshua had to bleach the entire kitchen when we were done.

Yes, we will be doing this again, although ideally with bigger birds. This experience was a bit harrowing but also felt valuable. Next time I’ll be doing the slaughter because I have yet to kill anything bigger than a bug.

I will I not be jumping head-first into anymore big, new, homesteading projects anytime soon, though. This one took a bit out of me, and I need a break. Next weekend, I think I’ll take that relaxing movie instead!

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