Monday, August 18, 2014

Taking Chickens from Backyard to Freezer

I did it.

For weeks I've been proclaiming the need to put some of my old laying hens in the freezer and remove them from dining at the backyard buffet since they were no longer contributing to the household groceries. Somehow, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

I'm sure no one who has known me long would be surprised.

I'd raised most of the birds from day-old chicks, shipped overnight from a hatchery in West Virginia. I've carried them corn and laying pellets. Fed them scraps. Laughed at their skill in stripping the Thanksgiving turkey's carcass.

Then there's the fact that I'm a known animal lover and despite my stated desire to hunt deer, I've never gone hunting as I didn't grow up in a hunting family.

My grandparents lived on a farm, but if there was anything to be killed I was protected from the front line. Heck, my parents kept meat rabbits when I was a child, but I never had any interaction with that process either, even in my own backyard. So when it comes to rendering an animal lifeless and converting it into something to eat, I was pretty much without a clue beyond reading and YouTube.

But after Saturday, when I purchased six more pullets and a pair of Guinea fowl to add to my flock, I no longer could delay the inevitable. There was not really enough room for eight more birds in my small hen house.

So Sunday night I closed the whole flock into the coop with the intention of eliminating the old gals who weren't contributing. I had narrowed it down to only four hens possibly laying off and on and even had looked at pictures of how to tell a laying hen's vent from a liar hen's vent (the area where the egg comes out, which is not technically their butt). I planned to remove eight hens from the flock, one 3-year-old Rhode Island Red, and seven 2-year-old birds none of whom have produced regular eggs since last fall.

I had a very elaborate plan for zip-ties on their feet, a bullet to the back of the brain, a hatchet for head removal, and then skinning them and saving only the choice cuts of meat. I spent my morning coffee time watching videos of chickens being slaughtered and dressed. I had read blogs, including an entertaining one that I found when I was trying to determine how long I would need to wait between death and dressing.

Even that one, however, didn't tell me how exhausting it was going to be to carry it out all on my own, how much blood a flopping chicken could fling on me from head to toe, or how hard the wet feathers would be to get off the meat before I put it in the freezer. Despite all my research, it still turned into a learning process.

My first problem came in the form of the zip ties. I only had seven. Having evaluated the oldest bird a week or so ago, I knew she had little to no meat and couldn't be eating much. I decided to give her a free pass, even though she's probably laid her last egg long ago. She was one of my first hens, but even at that is nameless as I never wanted to attach that much sentimentality to them.

Wading into a hen house full of unhappy birds is not an ideal way to start the day. The newest pullets were quickly ejected as I'd trimmed their flight feathers Saturday, while the older ones were trimmed before gaining freedom. My Bantam rooster had the tip cut from his two-inch spur and I would have cut the whole thing, but it was surprisingly tough. The older birds got a cursory inspection and the white and barred Rocks and surviving Brahma were released while the others were trussed up for slaughter.

Soon I had a pile of gold and black birds trying to figure out how to move without the ability to use their legs. I toted three of them to a stump behind the man cave and moved on to step two -- execution.

Having their legs tied didn't mean there was no movement after they were shot, even though the bullet through the brain stem meant their heads were flopping and not really engaged in their bodies' activities. I expected that, however, as I've had to kill a few that were diseased or injured. I had to shoot a rooster once who had been hit by a car and paralyzed for days and once he was shot, his body began jerking so that reaction from the birds wasn't too surprising. I was surprised at how long they flapped their wings, how much blood they could throw, and how tired I got holding them. Once they got still, I detached their heads with a hatched and put them bottom up in a bucket to drain.

About the time I managed to have all seven hens bottom up, rain, which I had not expected, began to fall. That necessitated my move to indoor butchering, which actually worked out better. Instead of using an outdoor table, I completed my task in the wash pit of my kennel after disinfecting the sink.

While skinning a chicken is undoubtedly easier than plucking one, and cutting away only the meat I'll use meant I never had to deal with pulling out the birds' insides, it was still tough work. Skin doesn't peel away as it seemed to in the videos. Feet had to be removed -- a pair of pruning shears works great. Feathers wind up everywhere, even if you aren't trying to pull them.

I finally got the birds done, washed and bagged shortly after noon. About 10 pounds of choice meat went into the freezer for dumplings and chicken stew this winter.

Afterwards, in addition to exhausted, I felt accomplished. I had taken on something I never previously imagined doing and carried it out without losing my breakfast -- although I did have a salad for lunch when I was done. I had raised them, they had been well cared for, and I killed them as humanely as I could so that they could fulfill their purpose. I know I can do it without depending on someone else to help me out. It was empowering.

Now I think I'm ready for meat rabbits and maybe I really can kill a deer after all.


  1. When I was a young mother we raised 150 chickens with my parents. They were fattened by six weeks so it was time to "kill" I was spared that job and the plucking but I cut and gutted all 150 chickens since my mother had just broken her arm. I learned a ton and YES I also felt impowered. We got really silly when we wrapped the meat. Packages with the breasts were always double "DD" My oldest children were three and four and they still remember the experience. We had the BEST chicken soup all winter :)

    1. I'm glad I finally cleared the mental hurdle and did it. Seven was plenty, thank you. I cannot imagine 150. Of course, I didn't have quite all the right tools -- a pair of bone cutting scissors would be really handy. I hate that I wasted as much as I did, but I had lost the opportunity to have an older generation help me with the job and show me how it was done. Looking forward to dumplings and chicken stew.

  2. That's so much better than store bought anyday! I grew up around it although I've never tried to tackle it myself. Great job! I'm actually making chicken and dumplings myself tomorrow. I wanted to say about ordering your chickens through the mail. I used to deliver mail and chickens were a normal thing to deliver. A car pulled out in front of me and when I locked the brakes up this poor rooster went rolling across the floor of my minivan (rural carrier my own vehicle). I was worried to death I had killed the poor fellow.

    1. I don't think I want to cook any of it for a few more days. I had to pick my chicks up at the post office as the rural carrier wouldn't deliver them. Ordered 15 and didn't realize until I was dividing the ready to be released chicks with a friend that there were 16. I had 12 of them, although that number had dwindled to nine. Only the two white rocks remain. And their fate is iffy based on what I saw during exam time. But I do know that they were never caged or fed steroids or antibiotics, so tasty and healthy should be the bywords.

  3. Well done! And welcome to my world, Angela! Sometime I'll tell you of my experience during the annual fall chicken harvest! And the reason I was terrified of chickens right into my adult years . . .

    1. I've had chickens off and on since I was a child, but never put any in the freezer until now. Never been afraid of them either, although Ethan would have had good cause as I can remember him being flogged by a game hen and chased by a barred rooster at someone else's home. I'd love to hear your story.