When we moved to the country with dreams of self-sufficiency, chickens were the obvious place to start raising fauna and not just flora. In an attempt to not overdo it, our rule has been “one new species a year” — and that’s a limit, not a goal. Year one was just getting used to the place; year two was chickens; year three was a child (not a new species, to be fair) and this year has been turkeys. We’ve felt a little more confident in our poultry husbandry every year and have gone from chickens confined in a coop to a chicken tractor to free ranging. Another big step we took this year was to butcher our own. While butchering is another step in self-sufficiency, it was also borne from too-long trips to the meat locker and a decision we made this year to get straight-run chicks from a local breeder.
Our first and second years getting chickens, we ordered the from Murray McMurray Hatchery. The first year was the “Meat and Egg Combo,” which was 15 Cornish Crosses (meat birds) and ten layers. The second year was 25 Cornish Crosses. Both years we brought them to local meat lockers, but by “local” I mean meat lockers that were 45-to 60-minutes away. We were happy with our experiences at both meat lockers, but it was a little bit of a pain to load up the birds, drive 45 minutes, drop off the birds, come back home, and then go back later in the day to pick them up. (Another great reason to make your living off the land in the country is to avoid the daily commuting grind.)
This year, our chicken procurement took a little bit of a different path. We’d heard about a farmer near us that bred Ameraucana chicks — the kind that lay green and blue eggs — and so got in touch with him in hopes of getting a few, maybe half a dozen. He hatches chicks for Easter church services every year and when we went to go pick them up on Easter, we went home with all 28 he’d hatched! But remember — when you order from the hatchery and you want layers, you simply specify “females only.” Our Easter chicks were “straight run” — both males and females. We’ve never had plans to breed chickens and we definitely didn’t want roosters around, so we knew that raising a non-standard type of meat bird meant that we had no idea when these chickens would be big enough to butcher. Since we couldn’t make reservations at the meat locker in advance, we committed to butchering our own.
We took our first try at butchering a couple of weeks ago. We decided we’d start with three roosters and educated ourselves mostly with books and online sources. Two great sources we found were from the Deliberate Agrarian and Hobby Farms.com. We actually brought the computer outside with us and checked it frequently as we went. Messy, but it helped. The whole experience went okay although it took a little while. We found out that gutting a bird is satisfying, plucking a bird is monotonous, and actually killing the bird is the hardest part. We were able to kill the chickens quickly and we didn’t make any major mistakes with the butchering — that we realized — until it came time to eat the birds.
We were pretty proud of our chickens. We’d raised them, butchered them, and dressed them and so we planned to take them to a family gathering that day for a little grilled chicken. While our family was very polite and told us it was delicious, Mike and I thought the chicken was terribly rubbery and not nearly as good as the Cornish Cross birds we’d had the past couple of years. Was it because they ranged more than the Crosses? Was it just a bad breed for meat? But then a little thought niggled at the back of my mind and I checked it out when we got home: chickens need to be chilled before they’re frozen or cooked or they’ll be tough, something about the muscle metabolizing the remaining blood in the chicken’s system. Lesson learned!
We butchered four more today and got a little faster, though a DIY chicken plucker project may be in our future. As very-amateur chicken raisers, it was difficult for us to tell which chickens were females and which were males, at least until they reached adolescence and all the roosters started practicing fighting each other. Lots of posturing, but no actual injuries. Then we began to tell them apart from their tail feathers. Females’ tail feathers tend to be rounded and in a more horizontal position while males’ tail feathers tend to be pointed and in a more vertical position — but that’s not a rule and it depends on the breed. I was gutting the last chicken of the day and everything was coming out but the testicles. Usually they’re pretty apparent — a nice pair separate from everything else that we’re pulling out of the bird. But I wasn’t finding any in this Black Australorp and so I told Mike, “uh oh, I think we butchered a hen.” I think I finally found one testicle but honestly, I’m not sure. In any case, we still have some experience to be gained in this whole venture.
We know we’ve got about three more roosters from our Easter flock to butcher and then at least one from our laying flock who’s a bit of a bully. And after that, we have eighteen Red Rangers — males and females — that are growing up quickly and that we’ll butcher before the apple season begins. We’re so curious to compare meat qualities among Cornish Crosses, the mixed/heritage breeds we’ve butchered so far this year, and the Rangers.
It’s fun to do for now. Well, let me revise that statement: killing the chickens isn’t fun; that part’s hard. But preparing them to eat is fun. And it’s satisfying to have a chicken on the table that we’ve known and raised from one day after birth. I see the chickens as “gateway animals” to butchering larger animals and especially my favorite (to eat), a pig. Some day . . .soon, I hope.