Dateline: 17 August 2006
”I don’t want to grow up to be
a helpless man.”
a helpless man.”
That’s what my 11-year-old son, James, said to me last Monday as we were processing our eight-week-old pastured chickens together. I had just complimented him for being such a good helper and he responded by repeating back to me something I’ve told my three boys many times in the past—”You don’t want to grow up to be helpless men.”
Well, I doubt James is going to be a helpless man because he is such an active boy with so many healthy interests and an excellent work ethic. Last Monday was a perfect example of what I mean.
I had set up the equipment to process our chickens in the backyard on Saturday. The plan was to do them all on Monday. But I was
chomping champing at the bit. I processed 18 of the birds on Sunday afternoon by myself while Marlene and the kids were away. That left 42 birds for Monday morning.
But, come Monday, my oldest son had to work his regular job at the lumberyard and Robert went to help a local farmer with his hay. That left James and Marlene and me to take care of the birds.
Marlene does not kill, bleed, and scald chickens and, though she can do it, she is not all that skilled at gutting either. So she manned (womanned?) the vacuum sealer in the house, and worked at making us a peach pie, and did some cleaning, and she came running when we needed her help with something.
Here are some photos of my son the chicken butcherer at work, along with some commentary......
James and I worked together to round up chickens at the Chicken Tractor which was way out on the lawn between the road and the garden. We put a bunch of them into our modified-for-poultry-transport garden cart and pulled the load right up to stage #1 of the process—the killing cones.
The cart in the picture is my homemade Whizbang Garden Gart. What an incredibly useful homestead tool that is!
Here is James lifting a future chicken dinner out of the Whizbang cart.
This photo shows James fitting the bird into the killing cone. The two cones I use are suspended over a wheelbarrow filled with dried grass clippings to absorb blood. Sawdust absorbs better but we did not have any.
I made the cones out of recycled galvanized ductwork. The pattern for these cones can be found on page 48 of the book, Anyone Can Build A Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker.
If you handle the chicken properly it will go right into the cone without a lot of fuss. Here, in some detail, is the way we do it:
First, set the chicken on the ground (or on the top of your makeshift garden cart poultry transporter when you make one). Let it stand freely. There is no need to struggle with it. Put your left hand in front of the bird’s chest and the other near its back end. The bird will try to walk forward to get away from you but you simply block its way with your hand in front of its chest. Then it will try to back away or jump up but you simply use your right hand just above the back end of the bird as needed to block it’s movement. It will go back and forth a few times before it realizes that you have corralled it. But you aren’t alarming it by grabbing it, you are merely blocking its movements. After a few seconds, the bird will accept the fact that it can go nowhere and it will calmly stand still. When this happens, you have graduated to the level of “chicken whisperer.”
Then, with your one hand still lightly blocking its front chest, move your other hand under the bird from behind, palm down. Direct your index finger between the bird’s two legs. Grasp its left leg between your thumb and index finger. Then reach over and grasp the right leg firmly with your index and middle finger. With the legs thus secured, lift the animal slowly and tip it ever so slightly against your hand that is against its chest. If you do this gently, the bird will cooperate without even flapping its wings. But it may flap a bit and that is no problem as long as you continue to maintain your hold. Walk the bird to the cones and tip it , head first, into the cone.
If you let go of the bird’s legs after you’ve deposited it in the cone, it will use its legs and feet to struggle and try to get out. If it gets out of the cone (and sometimes they do) you’ll have to chase the upset fugitive all over the place and that is counterproductive. So, to avoid that scenario, hang on to the bird’s feet with one hand after you have deposited it in the cone. With your other hand, loop a length of stretchy bungee cord around the feet, pull it taunt around the frame of the cone stand, and hook it in place. This completely immobilizes the bird.
It isn’t pretty but the picture below shows the reality of killing chickens. You hold the chicken’s head by its comb with one hand and use a sharp knife to slice into each side of the neck, severing the main arteries. You know when you’ve cut the artery because the blood will flow fast and sometimes squirt. Then you let the bird’s heart pump the blood out of its body. The birds will occasionally squawk and thrash about but most of the time they are calm as the lifeblood flows out of them.
A carefully placed slice will do the job but James tends to overdo it. That is understandable and okay because it just makes the head easier to pull off after plucking.
I would not have dreamed of doing this sort of thing when I was 11 years old, and your average modern boy would not do something like this. But, thankfully, my son is not an average modern boy. He has no problem with this part of the process. In fact, he was chatting with the birds and contentedly singing songs from Vacation Bible School while slitting the throats.
After the birds were dead, James clipped them into the auto dunker on my Homemade Chicken Scalder.
James needs only to watch as the dunker does the work of repeatedly lowering and lifting the birds into and out of the hot scald water. The water is heated by a propane burner and automatically maintains the optimum temperature range.
James knows the birds are sufficiently scalded when the wing feathers pull out with no resistance. It takes only a few dunks. Then he unclips the birds and brings them to the plucker.
We yelled to Marlene to come help with the plucking while I took this next picture. That’s a homemade Whizbang Chicken Plucker Fact is, it’s the original Whizbang. Maybe someday we will put it in the Whizbang Museum.
Whatever the case, plucking chickens by hand is a drag but plucking them in a Whizbang is downright FUN!!!
Before I snapped the following photo, I said to James, “Hold the chickens up and look excited.” Now that’s excitement for you!
The excitement was almost more than I could bear. So I said, “James, try to look more serious.” Now this is serious!
After plucking, James hammed it up for the picture below. He is about to attack the carcass.
The sink is an old enameled cast iron (very heavy) one that sat for years outside my parent’s barn. We brought it home, cleaned it up, and use it primarily for poultry processing. But I hope to hook the sink up permanently behind the house for using in the summer months as an outside sink. It would be very handy. The water supply comes from a garden hose. I have some 2” PVC pipe wedged up under the drain and leading 10 feet away.
While gutting the birds together, James worked on the right drain board and I worked on the left. These were the best moments of our processing day because we were close enough to carry on some more casual conversation.
James told me about the trapper’s cabin he hopes to build. He wondered about the war in Iraq and why we were fighting there (sometimes I wonder that too). At one point he said, “Wouldn’t it be neat if the President homeschooled his kids?”
I said yes, that it sure would be a good example. And then I suggested that it would also be neat if the President raised some pastured poultry in chicken tractors on the front lawn of the White House. Well that led to some more conversation. And so it went.
I must say that I had a wonderful time processing chickens with my son James last Monday. Although he is only 11, he worked like a man. Not a helpless man, but like a capable man who knew exactly what he was doing. It was a special day and he is a special boy and I thank God for allowing me to be his father.
Oh, there is one more photo. After processing all those birds, it was time to clean up and put the chicken tractors away. Robert and James hooked their field car onto one tractor and towed it over to the weeds on the edge of our property. It is mostly out of sight there. The tractor has temporary transport wheels on the back end—it is setting on two mini skate boards.
I have written several more essays related to the subject of poultry and small-scale poultry processing. here are links: