Now’s the time of year when a homesteader’s thoughts turn to wish lists: spring gardening, spring cleaning, and, yes, spring chickens. Late winter is when we take stock of our stock, and decide who needs to be culled, what new breeds to try, and how many eggs to incubate.
My family has always been into chickens. For many years, we shared a shotgun-style chicken coop roughly the size of a mobile home, with lots of nesting boxes and roosts. The coop ended in a windowless brooder house with a massive galvanized heater hanging from the ceiling. It wasn’t unusual for us to raise upwards of 200 meat birds each year, depending on how many cousins wanted a piece of the (chicken) pie.
Raising a large number of birds was fairly easy, given the nearly ideal surroundings of our coop. A shelterbelt of cedar trees ended right outside the coop door. The tall trees’ branches gave ample room for roosting, as well as protection from hawks. A drainage ditch on one side of the shelterbelt provided a ready source of water, and a wheat field on the other side delivered grubs, grasshoppers, and worms. Those birds had plenty of pickings — and grew fast. In about two months, it was harvest time.
It takes an extended family to process 200 birds in two days. I won’t dwell on the sight of my 105-pound grandmother dispatching chickens, except to say that none of the rest of us could keep up with her. To my eyes, all untagged birds are identical, but she knew exactly who was who: “Don’t kill that hen! She’ll be a good layer.”
The best purchase we ever made as a family was a gigantic plucker machine from a nearby turkey ranch. Its large drum was fitted with rubber fingers that rotated on a horizontal axis. A tall, curved shield arched above the back of the drum to keep the feathers from splattering everywhere. As one person heated up buckets of water on a propane stove, the rest of us assumed our positions and waited. Once in action, we made up a butchering assembly line. The birds moved quickly from scald to plucker to gutting station.
With modern pluckers, you simply drop the bird into the drum, but our machine required someone to manipulate the bird, and that person was typically my mother. Scarcely an inch of her body was free of blood or feathers at the end of the day. We wrapped up 200 birds in 48 hours, and our hands smelled of chicken fat for days, but we were satisfied with our work — and our quality family time.
What plans are you cooking up for your flock this year? Tell me all about them at RMartin@Grit.com.