We had quite the adventure this weekend….our first annual Chicken Harvest!

Roosters caged and ready for harvest.

Back in early spring, before life got as nutty as it has been, we were asked to host an event to both teach people, as well as have the efficiency of an assembly line of folks, to help harvest around 80 chickens.  We agreed, thinking it would be a great experience for us to host and teach, and because we were interested in the help harvesting our own 40 or so birds.  It also allowed us the benefit of ordering a large batch of meat birds as a group to save with a quantity price and shipping.  So it was arranged, and we were committed.

Now, when most folks think of meat birds, they think of the mutant, over-hybridized, massive broiler type chicks you buy, raise for 6-8 weeks, then butcher.  They are considered the most feed-efficient birds around.  After all, you only feed them for 6-8 weeks.  The flavor, however, is not generally as good as the old-fashioned breeds of chickens, because the way these hybrids grow, they literally want to do nothing but sit by a feeder and eat all day.  After the first few weeks, they aren’t even that interested in free-ranging to supplement their diet with the bugs and greens that add so much flavor to the meat.  About the only way to get the benefits of free-range flavor is to pasture them in frequently moved chicken tractors.

Due to our altitude (over 7600 feet), and the lack of oxygen around here, the hybrids don’t seem to do that well over all.  I have one friend who raised a few, but at 6 weeks, they started petering out, and by 8 weeks, they were dying of heart attacks.  So, we chose instead to raise the old-fashioned, hardier meat-bird.  The flavor is incredible and they don’t just up and die on you, but the down side is that they take 4 months to reach an edible weight, and all that free-ranging plus the additional age creates a slightly tougher meat.  Nonetheless, we think the trade off is worth it, at least while we live here.  We may try the hybrid birds when we live at Red Gate.  We’ll see.

Anyway, back to the harvest event….

We spent Friday eve and Saturday morning setting up all the supplies we had gathered.  We were blessed with a poultry plucker, free of charge, in exchange for making some repairs to it.  S made the repairs, and has decided to build his own now that he knows how it all works.  (Thank goodness!!! I officially hate hand-plucking!)

The calm before the storm…all set up and ready to harvest.

About 18 people showed up to help–most of whom were planning to take home packaged, freezer-ready birds.  We had 2 assembly-line tables (or maybe I should say “dis-assembly-line!”), where each person had a specific job they did to prepare the chicken.

S teaching the different “dis-assembly” stations.

One person was basically in charge of getting the chickens and putting them into the killing cones.  We had 2 killing cones, and one guy and one woman were taught to “stick” the chicken in order to relatively painlessly bleed him out and kill him.  Then, some teenage girls were in charge of dunking the dead and bled chickens into the scald tanks, while another lady oversaw the plucker and then passed the chickens to the appropriate dis-assembly tables.

Scalding the birds.

After the chickens were disassembled and the parts and offal all seperated into designated containers, the remaining carcasses were put into chill tanks.

One of the lines, with S assisting as needed.

After chilling, we had  inspectors that looked them over, removed any left-over pin-feathers or unsightly material, and moved them into processing chill tanks.

Inspector looking the bird over.

Finally, the “owner” of the birds would place the birds on our home-made drying rack, give a final once-over, package their birds as desired, and move them to their final cooler, where they could then be set aside to go home later.

An owner giving her birds the final inspection.

It probably took about an hour to process the first 10 chickens, but then we got on a roll, and processed the remaining 60 or so in the next 2.5 hours.  Nothing to really be proud off compared to experienced processors, but for a bunch of total amateurs, I’d say we did quite well!  As an added precaution, we actually divided birds into individual batches (a batch being one person’s group of chickens).  Between each batch, we asked everyone to take a quick break and re-sterilize all their equipment.  We were surprised to find that one person showed up to volunteer his time sharpening everyone’s knives.  Turns out he was quite the knife-sharpening expert after living in the wilds of Alaska for most of his life, hunting wild game, and learning the fine arts of good knives and sharpening skills!  We took advantage of him and had him sharpen a few of our more difficult knives.

So,we had a great first experience, received some very encouraging feedback, were told how the event thoroughly inspired a few “city folks” to get more involved in their food habits, and generally had a wonderful day of fellowship ending with a freezer full of chicken to feed our family for the next year.  As an added bonus, I pre-sold almost 20 of our birds, which helped pay for all the feed involved in raising them.  Because they are free-range meat birds, folks happily paid $15 for the smaller 2-3 lb (dresed weight) birds we were offering.  Plus, we got to keep most of the offal material to feed Athena.

We look forward to offering many more of these in the future!!