Our second batch of chicks is now just over 3 weeks old. That means they are old enough to get out of the brooder and onto some lush green grass! There are 100 chicks in this batch, so we decided to separate them into 2 flocks to make them easier to work with.
Dave moved them about 20 at a time, loading them into a dog crate and wheeling them over to the portable shelters that were awaiting them. Usually we try to start the chicks as close to the brooder as possible, just to make this move easier on us. We had to start them on the opposite side of the yard this time, because the laying hens had already been on the grass closest to the coop when they moved out earlier this spring.
If we ever need to put chickens where chickens have already been, we prefer to let the ground rest as long as possible. Chicken manure is very ‘hot,’ or heavy in Nitrogen, and can burn the soil if too much is deposited. This practice will also wreak havoc on any kind of parasite or pathogen that could be left behind when the birds move. We haven’t had to deal with any parasite or pathogen problem and we do our best to keep it that way. Our model has the chicken shelter move at least once a day to give the birds fresh grass and bugs to eat and to get them away from their own manure.
Saturday was our very first harvest of the season! Just over 8 weeks ago we received the peeps and in that short time they grew so that each carcass weighed 5 to 7.75 lbs when it was dressed out! The day was relatively uneventful, but took a bit longer than we had thought it should have. We are attributing that to the learning curve with the new vacuum sealer. It also takes a little while to get into a groove during a first butchering of the year. We almost always have help on butchering day, our friend Laura has been helping out for 3 seasons now and took all the following photos. Troy, one of Dave’s coworkers, also got in on the excitement.
Dave is always up early on a harvest morning. He moves the birds near our work area if they aren’t already close enough, starts heating water for the scalder and makes a round to do morning chores for the rest of the animals on the farm (right now that’s baby chickens, turkeys, laying hens and pigs.) When the rest of the crew is ready to go, Dave kills the first bird and we all get busy! When dead, the chicken gets dunked into hot water, this is called scalding. The temperature Dave likes is about 150 degrees. The water has to be just right. Too cold and it won’t loosen the feathers enough, too hot and it will actually start to cook the meat. When it’s just right, dunking the bird into the hot water will open the pores in the skin so that a firm tug will easily pull the feathers off. After scalding, the chicken goes into the plucker, a plastic tub with a rotating bottom and rubber fingers that grab the feathers as the bird spins.
Once the bird is featherless and squeaky clean, it heads to my department. When I get the bird it’s naked, but still has a head and feet. Most of our customers prefer that these are gone when they pick up their chickens, but you can buy them just like that in the right Asian market. So I take off the head and feet and get rid of all the innards. This is the station Laura generally helps with. When we are done with them, they look just how you’d buy a whole chicken at the store. We put them into cold water to start cooling off, then comes packaging.
Troy helped us out with packaging and weighing the birds before they went into the fridge to finish cooling. It was a bit of a challenge to find out the optimum way position everything for a good, quick seal. When Troy had to leave, Laura took over this job and made a short list of all the tips and tricks that she learned. Hopefully, this will save us time for the next harvest.
One thing we’ve learned in our time processing chickens is that they need some time to ‘rest’ before they are cooked or frozen. In the same way that any large animal, like a cow or deer, is hung to cure for several days, the meat needs time for all the enzymes to do their business. A whole chicken needs somewhere between 12 and 24 hours to rest, failure to let the meat rest will result in tough meat, NOT good eats!
We processed just under 50 birds in this session and we’ll do 100 more at the beginning of July. Some of the July batch are still available, just drop us a line if you’d like to get on the list.