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A Chicken in Every Pot - Adventures in Butchering

Butchering day dawns sunny and breezy.  The weather looks perfect.  But I’m asking myself, “what have we let ourselves in for?!”  Maybe you are like us and have started out on a few acres in the country.  You’ve mastered gardening, you’ve keep chickens for eggs, and perhaps you even have a few ruminants.  Now you’re wondering how hard it could be to raise and butcher your own broiler chickens.  Hopefully hearing about our adventures in broiler raising and butchering will spur you on to try it for yourself.

 chicken

We decided on Freedom Ranger chickens when we started raising chickens for food.  They are active birds that reach their peak weight of 5-6 pounds in 10-11 weeks.  They are imminently suitable for free range, foraging and pasture environments which is how we wanted to raise them.  Our research showed that their meat has more yellow omega 3 fat and less saturated fat than faster growing breeds.

 First we needed to recruit partners since butchering seemed a bit overwhelming for our small family.  Along with our butchering buddies we determined that 30 chickens split between two families would work well.  We had the space to raise them on our farm, we split all associated costs between us, and our friends supplied a greater number of people for butcher day. 

Now we needed a place to raise the chickens.  Our winter sheep paddock (empty since spring) has a three sided shed in it that could be modified.  My husband built door panels that were basic wooden frames with chicken wire and cross braces over them to keep chicks in and predators out.  He encased the chicken wire between wooden laths so it couldn’t be pried off by raccoons.  The barn sits inside a 50’x50’ pasture surrounded by 5 foot wire fencing.  With heat lamps installed this building served well as a brooder for baby chicks, and then a night coop for growing broilers.  The chickens were let out on pasture to forage for bugs and vegetation during the daylight hours then put away safely each evening.

 gathering

Eleven weeks later, butchering day dawns sunny and breezy.  We set up a canopy to create shade.  Our first work station is a board with a hole in the center set on stacked cement blocks at both ends.  A killing cone made of chimney flashing runs through the hole creating a funnel in which to place the live chickens.  Placing them upside down before cutting the jugular calms and quiets them.  This is more humane and also provides more tender meat.  Station two is a large kettle of water heated to 150 degrees over an outdoor camp stove. This is where we scald the dead birds for 30 seconds, plunging them up and down to quickly heat and loosen the feathers. 

plucking

Cording run between two trees like a clothesline gives us a place to hang dead chickens for fast plucking.  A 6 foot folding table where we cut out the oil glands, cut off the heads and feet, tie the vents, and singe the pin feathers from them is the final outdoors station. 

 tying and singeing

Each plucked chicken then arrives indoors at the eviscerating table where the organs are removed, the chicken is washed, and then put in an ice-water bath to cool.  We use large coolers filled with ice water to soak the chickens for a few hours at this point.  Then they are drained of water, patted dry, and put into plastic 2 gallon freezer zip bags.  By holding the full open bag under water up to the zip line all the air is squeezed from it and we zip it up ready to chill.  We put the bagged birds into the refrigerator to rest for 24-48 hours before freezing a few at a time.  This makes the meat more tender and better tasting.  Our freezer is now stuffed with broiler chickens waiting for roasting.  How hard was that?

 eviserating

Interesting question.  On the surface, it wasn’t hard at all.  But the previous narrative is based on the learned experience of several years of raising and butchering broilers with the same friends.  Some untoward things have happened along the way.  Before we modified the barn we tried to protect the growing chicks in a small transfer cage we use for the sheep.  It worked fine once we got them in it each evening but that process usually involved half an hour of running round and round the cage getting just a few chicks in with each pass.  Tiring in our middle age!

Before getting smart and rigging a plucking line, we placed dead chickens on tables and plucked them there.  This results in feathers everywhere, sticking to everything, and really messy chickens!  Plus it took way too long and caused short tempers.

We’ve learned some strange things on our journey:

  • Chicken feet make great battle gear
  • Headless plucked chickens “honk” when you squeeze them
  • Old laying hens can be skinned by inserting the basketball fitting of an air compressor under the skin

 Our first year we only chilled the bagged birds for half a day, then popped them all in the freezer at once.  We woke in the middle of the night to a loud alarm ringing incessantly.  Turns out there is a limit to how much unfrozen meat you can dump in a chest freezer at one time.  Who knew?

freezer

Then there was the year that a terrible black storm appeared on the horizon moving towards us at immense speed.  We were only partially through the process and had a live chicken in the killing cone when the wind and rain hit!  My husband hung on to the chicken’s legs and the cone itself, several of us grabbed the canopy as it was torn from its moorings and lifted off the ground.  Plucked chickens swung boisterously on the clothesline, and we grabbed at the tables and tools to keep them from flying away.  No one was brave enough to grab the kettle or camp stove for fear of burning.  We just turned off the burner and stayed back.  Meanwhile we were also rushing to put live broilers and egg layers back in their coops, get the sheep under cover, and keep patio furniture from blowing over to our neighbors.  It was quite the day, but adventures like these forge strong friendships!

 So go out and find a few friends, set up your growing area, and raise a few broilers of your own.  We hope you have fun on butchering day and thoroughly enjoy the healthful meat you raise.

Lamb Surprise in Scotland

lamb keema 

We went to the wilds of northwestern Scotland, found a South African restaurant, and discovered an Indian dish that is now our favorite thing to make with minced (or ground) lamb.  Who would have thought it?!  We went expecting haggis, oatcakes, and blood sausage.  I’ll share the recipe with you later in this post but, first, let me share how we got there.

A trip to Scotland has been a lifelong dream, so I went with expectations.  Many were met, most were exceeded, and quite a few were turned on their heads.  The food was just one of those upside down things.  Yes, a traditional Scottish breakfast of thick bacon, eggs, baked tomatoes, blood sausage, and baked beans was offered at every B&B we stayed at.  And the seafood was exceptional all along western Scotland as it was fresh-caught daily.  I guess I’d fallen prey, though, to stereotypes of boring UK food.  Had I remembered the colonial history of the country I wouldn’t have been so surprised by the diversity of cuisine we enjoyed. 

 We spent our trip along the western part of Scotland finding lovely international food in even the smallest villages.  Whether eating traditional fish and chips, exquisitely prepared continental dishes, or spicy Thai food our taste buds were tickled.  Since we raise Katahdin Hair Sheep for meat, I’d hoped to expand my knowledge of lamb dishes.  Parts of Scotland abound in sheep.  I knew I wasn’t interested in haggis which is savory pudding made from sheep organs encased in the animal's stomach. 

What a surprise it was to discover Lamb Keema on one of the islands of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.  Keema is a minced lamb dish bursting with unexpected flavors.  It is an Indian dish, said to have originated in Persia, and very popular with South Africans of Indian descent.  It is now a family favorite we make from ground lamb raised here on the farm. 

Coming home from Scotland, I set about trying to replicate the delicious dish we had experienced on our trip.  You don’t even want to know how many different ways there are to make lamb keema.  A casual check of the internet convinced me that I’d need to experiment and come up with my own recipe consulting my taste memories.   Here’s what I finally settled on.  I hope you have a chance to try it and that you enjoy it as much as we have.  You can use minced or ground lamb.

Lamb Keema Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 T. Butter
  • 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 minced garlic cloves
  • Small piece of cinnamon bark
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 6 peppercorns
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, minced
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 3 T. garam masala
  • 1 T. whole coriander
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. tumeric
  • 4 medium tomatoes, chopped and drained well
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 6 ounces frozen peas
  • Naan bread
  • Plain Greek yogurt
  • Fresh cilantro, chopped

Directions

  1. Heat butter in a large pan, add oil.  Sauté everything in the upper left column over low heat until onions are soft. Discard cinnamon bark.  Add all the spices from the right hand column and cook over moderate heat for 1 minute.  Add tomatoes and cook for 10 more minutes.
  2. In a heavy skillet, stir fry lamb until brown.  Add to keema mix; bring to a boil.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Reduce heat and cook 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add peas and continue to simmer for 10 more minutes.
  3. To serve:  heat naan bread and plate it on warm plates.  Top with a bit of Greek yogurt, then the Lamb Keema.  Garnish with fresh cilantro.  An alternate way to serve the keema is as a topping for jacket potatoes.

Kripyā bhojan kā ānnaṅd lijīyai – please enjoy your meal (in Hindi)

Kids In The Sheep Pasture

kids with sheep 

We love raising kids in the pasture, and lambs.  The kids we raise don’t originate from goats.  They come from town.  To see the lambs.

Children average about six and a half hours a day in school.  According to a 2015 Common Sense Media report they spend another 4-6 hours a day in front of screens.  This number continues to rise.  These are all hours spent indoors.  According to the National Institutes of Health, more than four hours per day of screen time can be a risk factor in vitamin D deficiency in children.

So we bring children outside.  Into the sun which creates vitamin D in their skin.  To the pasture where they connect with nature.  Leaving the screens behind.  We introduce them to the sheep.  They hold the lambs.  They hand feed the sheep.  And we teach them a few things about raising sheep.  Lesson One:  don’t step in the brown stuff!  Lesson Two:  continue not to step in the brown stuff! 

We practice walking slowly and quietly among the sheep so we don’t scare the lambs or disturb the ewes.  We watch lambs nursing and talk about how God gave their mamas milk to help the lambs grow.  Kids are fascinated to learn that sheep have four stomachs.  We talk about the part each stomach section plays in turning grass into wool and meat.  Walking through the pasture – avoiding the brown stuff – we watch the lambs bounce and chase around the meadow.  Eyes widen as the lambs surround the children and sweep on past us. 

We walk past the pastures to the big walnut tree where the kids take turns on the tire swing.  We finish up with a hike through the woods.  On our way back we watch the flock eating grass and wonder how they know to follow each other from one area of tasty greens to another.  We get down into the “grass” and discover that it’s not all actually grass.  There is a difference between legumes (clovers and trefoils), forbs (herbaceous broadleaf plants), and grasses (corn, blue grass).  We find examples of each and look at the differences between them.  Sheep need a combination of all three types of forage.  We feed a mineral and salt mix to the sheep who react to it like it was candy.  They need the additional salt and minerals to supplement their pasture diet.  We clean and refill their water buckets before ending the tour.  Sheep need a regular supply of clean, fresh water.

Coming back to the house, we light up the grill for lamb burgers as we talk about the importance of knowing where your food comes from and how it was raised.  We talk about the stress-free life our sheep live.  While eating their lamb burgers the kids talk about what they’ve learned.  We end the day by asking them to tell their families what they’ve learned.

What do you raise that children might find interesting?  We’re always one generation away from not knowing where our food comes from.  Do your part to ensure that another generation understands about raising food and connects with a farm.  Find some city kids and start raising them in your pasture.                                                                                                                             .

Counting Sheep

new lamb

Spring is lambing season here on the farm.  If you’re thinking of exchanging your mower for sheep this year – read Raising Katahdin Hair Sheep - then you need to learn about lambing season.

Katahdins lamb easily and rarely need human interference.  Our babies typically come in the early morning hours and are nursing happily by the time we get out to the barn in the morning.  These sweet lambs were curled up with their mama and sleeping contently when we found them.  That’s how the vast majority of our lambs are born.  Quickly, with no fuss, and with the mamas knowing just what to do during and after the birth. 

However, it’s helpful to be prepared for emergencies.  Keep a kit handy with long latex gloves, Vaseline, old towels, a halter, Nutri-drench, and vanilla extract (more on that later).  We have had to help pull an overly large lamb out of a first-time ewe’s birth canal so its brother could be born.  One sheep had triplets which frightened her so badly that she tried to reject the runt.  A still born lamb had to be removed so that its sister could come out.  One of our mamas was so terrified by her lambs that she almost trampled them trying to escape.  It is important to be nearby during lambing season and to check on the ewes frequently.

The gloves and Vaseline are for when you need to “go in” and straighten out a lamb in the birth canal.  The towels are for when you have to pull on a large lamb’s legs with the mama’s contractions to help it eject.  The halter, Nutri-drench, and vanilla are for those times that the ewe rejects a lamb, or just can’t figure out how to nurse.  We give the lamb an oral shot of Nutri-drench for sustenance, hold the ewe in place with the halter, and teach the lamb how to latch on.   Vanilla is one of those odd yet fortuitous accidents that we discovered with the little triplet that was rejected.  Nothing in the sheep books seemed to work for getting Mama to accept her baby.  Since sheep can tell their lambs by smell, we decided to work by scent.  Rubbing vanilla on the ewe’s nose and on the lamb’s bottom convinced the mama that this was indeed her baby – he smelled just like her!  The same thing worked like a charm for the new mama who was scared of both her babies.  Our vet denies that this can work, but we’re leaving the vanilla in our birthing kit.

 twins

In the fall months you decide how many lambs you want and when you want the lambing season to begin.  Sheep gestate for 145 days (just shy of 5 months) so count backwards to determine when to put your ram in with the ewes.  Since Katahdin sheep are prone to multiple births (twins are usual, and triplets aren’t unknown), a small flock of ewes produces a large crop of lambs.  Check out Lambing 101: Animal Husbandry for Newborns for more details on sheep husbandry. 

Lambing season is our favorite time of year!  Watching the little ones gamboling across the meadow exploring their new environment is a time of intense joy.  Seeing the ewes respond so tenderly to their new lambs is so endearing.  It is amazing how perfectly God created these sweet animals to know what to do when they become mamas. 

Raising Katahdin Hair Sheep

Sheryl CampbellWhat’s a snowbound hobby farmer to do in the dead of winter?  Dream dreams!  Especially lazy dreams of someone or something else doing your work for you come spring.  That’s how we ended up raising Katahdin hair sheep, and giving our belly mower a vacation.

Are you tired of mowing in endless circles?  Then it’s time you dreamed a lazy little dream with us.

Sheep eat grasses and forbs!  Sheep like to mow!  It’s much more emotionally rewarding to do maintenance on animals then on a tractor.  (At least it is to some of us – those who prefer equipment maintenance should read a different article).  But there are all those horror stories of shepherds having to stay up with their sheep all night in lambing season, of sheep purposely seeking out ways to kill or injure themselves, and of animal escape-artists.  So, are there easy sheep created just for lazy farmers?  Of course!  Otherwise we wouldn’t be raising sheep.

Katahdin Hair Sheep originated in Maine in the 1970’s after Michael Piel began experimenting with hair sheep from the Caribbean.  Katahdin’s are hardy and low maintenance.  They are a sturdy breed that thrives even on poor to mid-quality pasture.  Quite docile and easy to handle, they adapt well to rotating pasture systems.  The ewes lamb easily and are good mothers.  Being hair sheep, no shearing is needed.

We became shepherds with nothing more than an electric net fence and charger, Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep, and an abundance of over-confidence.  But we did become shepherds, and most of the sheep survived (except the ones pre-destined for our freezer), and we did eliminate much of the mowing.  Was it an absolute time-savings?  No.  But the trade in work time was about even, and it became much more fun. 

Since we move the portable fencing to create new pasture areas every 1-2 weeks, the sheep don’t try to escape.  They seem to know that greener pastures are soon to come.  Because we walk through and clean up the greater pasture area regularly there aren’t accumulations of detritus that the sheep could use to harm themselves as can happen in fixed pasture enclosures.  We sleep right through the nights during lambing season in our nice, warm beds.  Katahdin’s rarely need intervention during lambing.  Since our sheep usually lamb just before dawn, we help those who are taking longer once it is light out.    Positioning the lambing barn so we can see into it with binoculars from our bedroom window helped. We know when we need to go out and when we can stay inside and let nature take its course.

About that barn, you might want to build one.  Ours is an 8x12 foot three-sided shed that includes an enclosed area for hay storage.  We use red farm gates when we need separate out a portion for lambing.  The barn is surrounded by a 50x50 foot permanent wire fence creating a winter pen. 

Several other things are useful while the sheep are on pasture.  We purchased a small metal Quonset-style hut for pasture shelter.  Flipped on its back it slides easily into each new pasture rotation.  The other pasture item we built came after our vet sarcastically said, “You all make sheep farming seem hard!”  Seems he didn’t cotton to spending an hour chasing lambs and catching them with a flying tackle.  We made our catch pen out of two cattle panels bent in half and held together with zip ties and bungee cords. It moves easily wherever we need it.

Are you tired of all that mowing?  Are you ready to raise sheep instead?  Here is a web site with handy information about Katahdin sheep to get you started:  https://www.katahdins.org/

Dream a little dream with us this winter.

lambs in pasture

lambs in barn

hoop house







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