The GRIT and MOTHER EARTH NEWS Community Chicken project came to closure last Sunday when 8 people gathered at my Osage County Kansas farm to kill and clean the commercial broilers we had been raising on range for the past 12 weeks or so. The event brought together a most unlikely group of editors, spouses, advertising sales people, teacher, librarian and medical intern. Most of these folks had never taken a vertebrate animal's life with their bare hands. Most had never felt the slickness of warm offal. Most had never been that up close and personal with the animals whose lives help sustain us.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS Sr. Associate Editor Troy Griepentrog and I took responsibility for raising the birds and supplemented their diet of bugs and clover with an antibiotic-free grower ration, which is part of the Homestead line offered by Hubbard Feeds. We kept the birds enclosed, and safe from predators with electric net fences and chargers supplied by Kencove and Premiere One. Feeders, knives, fowl catchers, waterers, chicks, hatching eggs and a vacuum sealer were all supplied by the various advertisers listed prominently on the Community Chickens website.
Killing any animal with your bare hands, is never easy – at least when you don’t do it every day. When I demonstrated a humane way to nick the birds’ jugular, using killing cones supplied by Featherman to restrain the birds, there was a hush among the group as folks reflected on what it means to take (and honor) a life and accept the animal’s gift of sustenance. When the blood flowed freely, some people turned away. My daughter, Alaina told me later she thought she was going to cry. To paraphrase Joel Salatin, it isn’t good to kill chickens too often, because you run the risk of becoming desensitized and of taking their lives for granted. That definitely was not the situation at the farm on Sunday.
Once their life blood ceased flowing, we dunked the birds in a beautifully constructed, thermostat-controlled, propane-fired scalder provided by the Featherman Equipment Co. We found that several brief dunks (5 – 15 seconds long depending on bird size) (each followed by a test pluck to see how easily we could remove tough flight or tail feathers) helped us get the scalding just right. From the approximately 150-degree water we placed two birds into the Featherman drum plucker for a 30 second ride that removed the feathers easily and virtually completely. The Featherman drum plucker is nothing short of phenomenal.
The next step in the process was to remove the birds’ feet, crops, heads and oil glands, which was followed by opening the abdominal cavity and removing the viscera. Check GRIT Assistant Editor Caleb Regan’s blog for more on that activity. Alaina kept the fresh water flowing throughout the process and gave the birds a final rinse before we placed them in an ice-water bath for rapid cooling. Beautiful broiling chickens were then packaged in plastic and packed in coolers for the rides home.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues Troy Griepentrog, Caleb Regan, Megan Phelps and Steve Sabran for their participation. I’d also like to thank Troy’s wife Sue and Megan’s husband Nate and my daughter Alaina for taking ownership of the process as well. I know I will kill chickens again next year and I hope that it will be in the company of such thoughtful and careful folks. I also hope to have access to the Featherman cones, scalder and plucker – they definitely made the entire process easier.
Photos courtesy Suzanne Griepentrog.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.