Each year we order poultry from McMurray Hatchery in two batches. The first contains our turkeys, new laying hens, and spring meat flock. For the past two years we have been ordering twenty-five of the Dark Cornish breed for our meat flock. We get our spring chicks just about Spring Equinox each year. We then raise the birds to full size and plan to slaughter them when we think they will no longer add much more meat weight. Conventional poultry wisdom says that is about 16 weeks latter which puts us into the middle of July each year. Thus last weekend we had scheduled ourselves to slaughter our meat flock.
This slaughter was our first one where we used all of our own equipment. Last year Jenny and I built our whizbang chicken plucker, and this year we used our new three burner camp stove from our outdoor kitchen to scald the birds. This is a big improvement from driving over to our friends at Ironwood farms the night before and the day of slaughter to borrow the setup they use. It also meant that we got started with setup at 6am from scratch and were ready to start our opening circle honoring the livestock by 7:15!
From our experiences of overcrowding in our chicken flock last year, we used our brand new chicken tractor that Kat and her dad built last months to house our chickens. The first lesson from our day was that getting chickens out of the tractor and into our holding cages can be a pain. Between Kat hurdling them to the door, me grabbing them as they tried to escape and our volunteer helper Jeff putting them in the cage we managed fairly well. Next time however we will be doing it at night when most of the chickens are too sleepy to run.
We did start with two roosters our friend Walter brought over. Walter had gotten some laying chicks from us in the spring. Unfortunately two of them turned out to be roosters which makes them perfect for the stew pot if you really wanted laying hens. We then started on our hens. Though we had 25 hens to slaughter it became clear very quickly that some of the females were below market weight. Last year we thought we had mixed up our two flocks and during the spring we ended up only selecting out about 19 birds thinking the rest were from the summer flock. This year we kept the two flocks very separate (heck the next batch is still in the brooder as of today) so it was clear to us that many of the females just had not grown enough yet to be slaughtered. Next year we will get all males for our meat flock as cheeper faster growers.
The rest of the day went very smoothly. We were blessed with extra help from Walter, Jeff, Alan, Tess, Harriet, and Ana. Our usual division of labor occurred with Kat and I leading the slaughtering, and Jenny and Alan leading the butchering. Jenny said she had one of the best butchering crews yet and only had to show everyone once how to take a plucked chicken and prep it for freezing.
Our new scalder setup worked perfectly with three big pots which we could control individually, thus using less propane and less water. And once again the plucker was the hit of the party.
In total we slaughtered 19 birds in just under four and a half hours. Somewhere in the middle there we also ended up slaughtering two of our rabbits. We have been having a problem with thrush (yeast infection in the rabbits ears) and we felt it was time to draw down our rabbit herd. We will likely slaughter the remainder of our rabbits this fall and spend the winter improving our rabbit systems to better manage a new herd in the spring. This was the third time we have slaughtered rabbits and the second time since getting a small animal guillotine to do just that. In many ways slaughtering rabbits is far easier than chickens - at least technically. Rabbits don't flap after being slaughtered, there are no feathers to deal with, and the skin does really come off 'like a sweater' as the skinning book suggests. But on the other side these are mammals, and as such we have so much more in common with them then chickens. We have taken to giving the heads as an offering to the coyotes as our way of staying connected to the cycles which exist around us.
So at the end of the day, which was really only 1pm or so after clean up and freezing meat, we have 19 more chickens in the freezer, 2 rabbits, and we continue our journey of inter-dependency with ourselves, our tribe, our environment and Gaia.