Why All that Stuff is in the Shop

I have this job thing that’s pretty cool and keeps me on my toes…oh, and it pays the bills for our farming habit. I went to work Friday morning and returned home Saturday morning after completing a large, multi-month project. There was no chance to catch up on sleep on Saturday so when Sunday rolled around I was a little cranky.

Sunday was scheduled processing day for 100 broilers. No big deal, just a couple of hours worth of work. We slept in then worked around the farm and house Sunday morning at a leisurely pace then started on the chickens at 1:00. I had big plans to process a couple of roosters and a dozen or so ducks while we were at it.

Well, it shouldn’t have been a big deal. Our scalder broke. More specifically, the solenoid on the gas valve burned out. I could light the pilot light but the burner wouldn’t fire.  I noticed this about the time the 10th bird was in the scalder. Things just weren’t going right. At 20 birds we called an all stop.

So there I was, covered in chicken blood. My kids were waiting anxiously to complete our work so we could go inside, clean up and watch Star Trek. (We always watch Star Trek on Sundays.) My wife was miserable from a head cold but was sticking with it, ready to go inside and call it a day. And the scalder wouldn’t scald.

Fast forward a little bit. Not knowing what the problem was, I decided to try calling Featherman. To my complete astonishment they answered the phone on a Sunday afternoon. They were running a booth at a conference in Kansas. They helped me work the problem to the point that we identified the gas valve as being faulty in some way. Then my father in law stopped by to give me a hand. We found a matching gas valve on an old furnace (amazing what you can find laying around an old farm). With a little scrounging for parts here and there we installed the new valve and fired it up. Sighs of relief all around.

Until it broke. You see, in our elation over finding the part we neglected to account for a change in voltage. The previous valve was 120v. This one (out of a furnace) was 24v. Yeah. We burned up the replacement.

OK. Still tired, still running late, still not daunted. I know there are some brass fittings around here somewhere. Heck with the gas valve. I’ll control the fire manually!

After a total of 3 hours testing, brainstorming and scrounging parts around the farm we were back in business. Too late to do all 100 birds but we got 70 before it got dark. No temperature regulation with this design but it’s working until I get my replacement.

GasValveSo the moral of the story is that some day when you are short on sleep and everyone you care about is waiting on you to conjure up a miracle in time for dinner and Star Trek and customers are on their way to pick up birds you haven’t even killed yet you’ll be glad you haven’t thrown away all that junk that is cluttering the machine shed. I promise. Maybe.

 

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So, I Read a Book…and Now I Know Everything

I have a friend named David. Dave has a great sense of humor. When we first met Dave my wife and I were still living in town 10 years ago. My wife and David’s wife, Jane, took our children to the same home school group. Jane and David are real farmers. At the time David worked for a large farmer and they kept rabbits, chickens and turkeys at their home. I didn’t really know any of this when Julie invited them over for dinner.

Picture in your mind a young, 28 year-old me with a bookshelf full of dog-eared, bookmarked, annotated farming books and zero experience. No chickens of my own. No pigs of my own. No experience butchering. Just a city kid with a dream.

I also need you to understand that the things Julie and I do are very unconventional…backwards even. David and Jane are conventional, modern farmers and are very good at it, not to mention frugal and otherwise like-minded.

Through the evening I keep asking David about this or that referencing a book I had read. COULD you do this with pigs? WOULD this work with goats? How about chickens with this or that? I read about this in a book.

David, who I hadn’t met previously, starts teasing me about all my book learnin’. “So-I-read-a-book…” became referenced constantly. “Wow. Did you learn that from a book?” “What did your book say about that?” “You don’t have a book about this?”

Point taken.

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If you are squeamish and just read my blog casually this is the place to stop. Really. There is a big dose of cold reality just ahead. Meat comes wrapped in leather before it is wrapped in plastic. So if you are finishing now, Dave and I are good friends and we all lived happily ever after. The end.

Stop now.

Last warning.

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Still with me? Hang on. I have some great pictures to accompany this post but my wife suggested I painted a sufficient picture with words.

Fast forward a few months. We were invited to Jane and David’s to learn to butcher rabbits. Oh! My! Gosh! The book didn’t say anything about screaming rabbits! David is an enormous bear of a strong man. He grabbed the rabbit by the hind legs and it starts screaming and struggling to escape. Then he grabs the head with the other hand and breaks the rabbit’s neck. Let me tell you, that takes some muscle and it’s not something I can do even now. I don’t know what I was expecting. You know…you raise rabbits to a certain size then you kill, dress and eat them. You know…like in the book. It’s easy. Clean. Quiet. The book says so!

So then he hangs the bunny up by its back legs using some baling twine in the shed and pulls out his pocket knife to start skinning it by tracing a line around each ankle then cutting toward the pelvis. Then, after finishing the entire process, he turns to my lovely bride and says, “Your turn”.

The worst part of the day was cooking the rabbit. Look, it’s not a chicken. It’s lean meat and it can turn out tough and dry if you don’t know what you are doing (we didn’t). So we had all of this trauma of killing a rabbit we had never met, complete with details that weren’t in the book, and this …eeew…blood clot on the neck… ending in a bad meal nobody wanted to eat.

And that’s how you transition from books to reality.

Several years later David and Jane have moved closer to her parents to work on the family hog confinement floor. We got our first few batches of hogs from them as floor rejects as each were ruptures (they had a hernia that caused a balloon somewhere along their bellies) consequently making them very cheap. Really, it’s a loop of intestine that pushes out of the wall of the stomach. This rupture can be torn open by hogs or by wear on the production floor which doesn’t end well for the pig. Hogs with ruptures sometimes survive to slaughter weight but the processing plants seriously dock the purchase price of a rupture because of the additional care needed to slaughter one. Sometimes the bag on the belly is filled with infection or just dark fluids that taint the meat. Most commonly ruptures are executed and sent to the rendering plant, reporting the data for the benefit of the vertical integration manager as ruptures are largely a genetic thing.

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Remember when I said to stop reading a minute ago? That might apply more here. The piggies and bunnies were magic friends forever. The end.

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I decided it was time to process a hog of my own. David had gotten busy and a few ruptures made it above 250 pounds and invited us to buy one of the ruptures from the hog owner and help with butchering day. Hoo boy! Remember above about the screaming rabbits? Yeah. Times 10. I don’t recommend this for the uninitiated…no matter how much you like bacon.

On a cold morning, David calmly walks one pig down the lane in the confinement house to the exit door where he has set up a temporary pen. Then he grabs a youth-model single-action .22 and puts the pig down, immediately cutting the carotid as the pig begins having a seizure.  The pig bleeds out quickly and we hang it from a singletree, spray away the blood and, in turn, walk out two more pigs for the same procedure. It is important to clean up the blood as it will make the next pig anxious.

David did a final scrub of the pigs then we drove the tractor to the shop where we skinned (easier than scraping) and gutted the pigs. I’m not going to go step by step into the butcher process but I’ll share a few observations. Remember the line in Empire Strikes Back where Han says, “I thought they smelled bad on the outside!”

Yeah. Smell.

The confinement floor the pigs were raised on was having a ventilation fan issue. All three pigs had black spots on their lungs…I assume from the dust and ammonia in the building but it could have been a secondary infection brought on by their ruptures and the accompanying weakened immune system. Who knows. Cutting around the ruptures proved interesting…challenging…frustrating. We had to cut around the ruptures to gut the animals. We couldn’t cut into the rupture without fear of tainting the bacon (mmmm…bacon!) It was a lengthy process of making little cuts and exploring the rupture to find where the problem was so we could cut around it. Geez.

Once the head, skin and innards were separated from the meat and bone we left everything hanging in a cold shed. By this time it was late morning and everybody had work to attend to. We made plans to cut and package the meat the next day.

The next day was a lesson in both anatomy, frugality and hard work. We cut, trimmed and ground our way through three hogs: pork chops, roasts, ham steaks, pork steaks, sausage and they kept most of the leg bones for stewing. It is amazing how lean pork sausage really is. I wonder what they do at the store to make it so fatty. Anyway, some of this I knew from reading…but that’s not the same as doing. In fact, I didn’t know anything. I couldn’t have shot the pig…if I had, it wouldn’t have been a clean kill. It wouldn’t have been a kill at all. The shot doesn’t kill the pig, cutting the carotid does…and fast! It’s all well and good to read the books but if I hadn’t found a mentor I would have been up against a steep learning curve. We continued to work with our friends as time allowed. They even brought their equipment to our house to help us butcher a couple of pigs and a goat for our own freezer. Let me tell you, there is nothing like sausage that’s 50/50 goat and pork.

Pork

Each time got better. Each time we knew and handled more of it on our own. If it hadn’t been for the experience our friends shared we would have had a hard time getting started…either with rabbits or with hogs. Or with a greenhouse. Or with any of a dozen other things they taught or gave us. Find yourself a mentor…even a conventional farmer has a lot to offer you. There is more overlap than we recognize sometimes. The books and blogs don’t have all the answers.

Processing Day: Things We Have Learned

Saturday was beautiful.  We worked at a leisurely pace and wrapped up processing and packing birds in about 3 hours of work time then went to church in the evening.  No big deal.

Sunday was awful.  Awful.  The wind picked up and I felt like I was fighting the scalder all day long.  Just awful.

As a quick review, we really like our Featherman equipment but you have to know its limitations.

The Featherman kill cones are awesome.  We find cleanup is easier if we fill the base with sawdust before we begin but the cones themselves owe me nothing.  The plucker may be the best thing ever.  Compared to the Whizbang we used before, the Featherman plucker is a dream.  Where before the birds would tear, legs would get stuck or the belt would fall off, with this beauty there is no belt, the fingers are very soft and we have never had a leg (or head) fall through.  On top of that I suspect, were one so inclined, the plucker would work on the moon.  Really.

But now the fun part.  I’ll start by saying in the old days we used a pot on a turkey fryer in conjunction with a number of pots warming water on an electric stove.  It was awful.  I was married to the scalder, holding two birds at a time in the water, hoping I was keeping the water at a consistent temperature and trying not to splash water into the burner.  Please understand, your whole processing experience hinges on getting a good scald.  If your scald is poor, your day will be long.  You will pick feathers all the way through to packaging…slowing that process down too.  So we got the Featherman one.  Bigger burner, larger thermal mass, automatic dunker.  Should be awesome right?

Well…it is.  But only under fair conditions.  You can’t expect a miracle.  If you are working outside in a 20 mph wind on a 30 degree morning you should hold off for better weather.  That was reinforced for us yesterday.  The first 10 or 12 birds were great.  From then on it was all downhill.  At 30 we decided to call it and go eat an early lunch as the propane tank had frozen.  The kids and I even fit in some goof-off time.  I fell asleep playing video games with them.  The kids thought it was hilarious.

By 1:00 the air temperature had risen enough that the scalder was back on top of its game…but out of propane.  I changed tanks, heated some water on the stove to kickstart the process and we dove into the work.  We worked at a slow pace as we were tired from processing the day before and finished up 115 birds by 3.

Beyond just understanding the limitations of the equipment, over the years we have made a few adjustments to make things better.  Let me start with the scalder:

  • Work with the weather.  If it’s cold and windy either move indoors or wait until it is not cold and windy.  Similarly, if you want to play baseball at night, turn on bright lights or hold off till daytime.  I don’t know why this is so hard for me to remember.
  • If the birds dress out above 4 pounds each you can only put one bird in each basket.  Smaller birds can double up.  The roto-dunker motor can only do so much lifting.
  • Refill the water frequently.  Keep it full.  Refill with warm water if available to keep the burner from working so hard.
  • There is an overflow location on your scalder.  Plug it.
  • Be sure your scalder is parked level.  Even 1/4″ out of level and you risk the birds falling out.

Other processing tips?

  • Sharp knives.  If your knives are razor sharp you do less cutting or sawing.  Less work means less tired.  Less tired is more good.
  • Keep a bucket of water near kill station to clean your kill knife(-ves).  I now keep a gallon bucket of warm, soapy water on top of the kill station and drop my knife in every kill.  It is just more pleasant to use a knife that isn’t coated in dried blood.
  • Be careful what you sell.  Years ago we offered a group of Asian customers more than we could deliver at a profit.  We offered chicken with feet and head still attached.  They loved it but the bird didn’t fit in a gallon Ziploc bag.  Again, it sold well but was inconvenient for us.  Sometimes customers ask for heads or feet or gizzards.  It would be nice to sell every part of the bird but there are no free lunches.  At some point we have to say no.
  • Don’t use gallon Ziploc bags.
  • Say no.  Yeah, I know.  Look.  Pencil it out.  It may sound like a great idea but every new idea takes more time.  And more energy.  And more packaging.  I have better things to do with my time than split gizzards.  Maybe when the kids are older.
  • If you are going to cut up a bird make sure you are getting paid to do so.  The total of the bird cut into parts should be greater than the price of the bird intact.  If it’s not, either raise your prices or stop wasting your time.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.
  • Give yourself enough time.  We can kill 100 birds in about the same time it takes us to clean up from killing any number of birds.  Clean up takes longer than you expect.  Plan for it.  After we clean up we shower, change and begin packaging the birds.  Again, this can take more time than you expect at a time when you are already tired.
  • Plan to rest.  Chicken processing is intense, hard, heavy work.  I kill, scald and pluck.  That means I pick up each 7 pound bird when I pack it in a crate, load it into a cone, place it in the scalder, move it to the plucker and carry it to foot removal and final picking.  Along the way I pull the head.  Let’ me tell you, I’m sore the next day.  Plan to rest.

Other tips:
We (I) have made (make) a lot of stupid decisions…usually based on emotion.  Fear can keep you in bed.  Carelessness can cause major injury.  Short tempers can damage your relationship with your children…er…co-workers.  Raising chickens can make you swear off raising chickens.  But fear is paralyzing.  Fear is the mind killer.  Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.  Confront your fears.  Chicks will die for no apparent reason.  Chickens may not always die quickly.  A dying chicken will fling poop in your face.  You will cut your finger.  Some customers may complain about your prices.  Freezers full of meat may thaw.  You may lose money.  Your family may say, “I told you so”.  Once those fears are counted and compelled, they can quickly be dispelled.  Don’t be afraid.

Let me know if you have any additional tips for butchering day.  It’s hard work but little changes to the routine can make it better.  It seems to get better for us each year, beyond the kids growing up and becoming more helpful.

Generalizing about Specialization

Specialization has made us all wealthy.  Cell phones, packaged meat, refrigeration…the dreams of kings!  All because of specialization.  Focusing on doing one thing very well and doing it repeatedly means I don’t have to do 50 things poorly.  I focus on doing what I do best and hire other specialists to manage the other things.  For example, I no longer turn wrenches on my own cars.  I hire a specialist.  Also, I am not my children’s dentist but I am my son’s barber.  By separating the duties of a roofer from those of a machinist from those of a cardiologist we end up with better roofing, more precise machining and a better chance of surviving when our lifelong assault on our heart becomes more than it can handle.  We are all better off because of specialists.

Generalization lends security.  What if I can’t get to a dentist?  What if I have to perform CPR on that stranger who wrecked his motorcycle on the road?  What if all the roofing companies are overbooked and nobody is available to put a roof on my house?  That’s when we rely broad knowledge and experience.

Everyone bridges the gap.  No person is 100% dedicated to their field.  The best cardiologist in the world is still a human the rest of the day.  She may also be a mother, a child, a volunteer or a welder by day and a dancer by night (she’s a maniac!)

I have to balance this out as well.  If I did nothing but my primary vocation from sunup to sundown I would make more money but I would be bored…and boring.  Well, more boring.  I really like what I do for a living.  It’s exciting, challenging and stimulating.  It is also air-conditioned and comes with a nice, cushy chair and a desk.  Though I don’t even get a cubicle to protect me from communicable diseases, I do have a desk of my very own. I am not the only specialist in my office.  The office is filled with specialists.  Each of us can create, fix, plan or manage our way to corporate profitability (though some get cubes!).

So far this hasn’t been a current events post about the farm but I’ll swing this back to the farm for you now.  I am a specialist in my career but my career does not define me.  I have traded away decades (yup, plural) of my life and a small fortune in training and books to gain the technical knowledge I possess.  Please understand, I take my job seriously.  I work hard to stay current on changes in technology.  That said, I am not my job.  The job is too small to describe me.  It’s just one thing I do.  I am not a specialist on the farm either.  Our speciality is pastured chicken but we also raise pigs, cows, turkeys, ready-to-lay pullets, mushrooms, garden vegetables, children, make tons and tons of compost, cut and manage our woodlot, and grow acres and acres of grass some of which we store in the barn for future use.  Each of these endeavors requires knowledge, practice, education and experience.  Because we do so many things I can only go so deeply into each one.  Why do I stop at 1200 broilers each year?  Because I am a generalist.  That’s all I can handle given our time constraints…for now anyway.  But the same equipment we use to raise broilers allows us to raise pullets for ourselves and for sale.  In fact, our fencing and chicken tractors can be used for pigs as well.  Not only am I a generalist, I try to utilize multi-purpose, non-specialized equipment.

I can set up, design and maintain your SQL Server database.  I can raise, kill and process chickens, turkeys, rabbits, ducks and pigs.  I am, over time, becoming a gardening and canning fool.  I can shingle a roof with the best of them.  I have flipped burgers, watered plants, mowed grass, designed landscaping, framed houses and traveled the length and breadth of North America (and Puerto Rico) training truck mechanics how to use software.  I have changed tires on everything from cars to semi-trailers to tractors.  I have changed diapers.  But I am not rich.  Were I to give up all this generalist nonsense and focus on my career I might be closer to “rich” but I do feel secure knowing we’ll eat well.

Forgive me if the world is less wealthy because I refuse to specialize.  I’m just having too much fun.  Besides, Heinlien said:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

Processing Day 10/20/12

We will begin processing chickens as soon as we’re finished milking in the morning on 10/20.  If you are interested in seeing how we do this, show up any time after 9.  If you are coming to pick up fresh chicken, whole or cut up, show up any time after 11.  If you don’t come on butcher day the birds will be frozen.

The weather promises to be cold and breezy so we’ll work pretty fast to get done quickly.

Wish us luck.  These are the last birds of the season.  If you miss out, we have a few in inventory.  Otherwise we’ll see you in April or May.

Finally, if you want to come out but don’t know where the farm is, shoot an email to chismheritagefarm@gmx.com and I’ll help you find your way.

Hard Working Children

I have to stop here for just a moment to say how proud I am of my children.  This is the third year we have been processing chickens.  The first year, my then 9 year old son stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.  He immediately learned to eviscerate.  Further, he started teaching adults who came to see what was going on.

Last year, 3 of my children decided they could help pick feathers but none of them really stuck with it.  This year, each of them stuck with it for every stinking bird.  The youngest said, “Dad, we just have to bite the bullet”.  Indeed.

We do not force our kids to participate.  It’s kinda gross and we are taking a life.  If they don’t want to participate we don’t push.  They are all out there voluntarily so we try to find fun things to do together.  For instance, when we kill the last bird we all stop to do the chicken dance.  Good times.

I’m so proud of my kids.

Poultry Processing Reader Questions

Our friend Jesse is just starting his farming adventures and regularly shares his experiences with me in email.  He makes some valuable observations and asks good questions.  Here’s our recent coorespondence concerning poultry processing:

Jesse:

We just finished up our first day of processing.  21 birds, ha.  We are  slow, BUT we didn’t have any problems.  It was actually really smooth.  Took us about 9am to 12 for the evisceration, then a break, then we shrink wrapped.  A lot of learning took place, but the equipment all worked well, and we didn’t hurt each other.  We are tired though.   Well I had to share that with you.  I do need to ask you, do you remove  the kidneys?  We did, but every evisceration video I watch says nothing  about it.  Also do you leave the necks on?  We did, but it looks a bit  unorthodox in the shrink bags.  Thanks again!

I replied:
We leave on the neck.  We leave in the kidneys.  Just make sure to scrape out the lungs.  We used a bent butter knife when we started but found that to be unnecessary.  Now we just run our fingers along the keel till we start feeling ribs.  Then we run one fingernail between each rib down to the spine.  The lung just pops right out.

Glad you started small.  Salatin makes it look so easy.  You’ll find your groove.

Jesse wrote later:

Our days 2 and 3 of processing went really well, so we finished our first batch of 100 and they are beautiful.  We sold some fresh and some frozen, and we hope the quality of those first sold set off a wildfire of new customer referrals.  We’re still trying to find our rhythm working with the featherman equipment.  We did about 40 in 3 hours on Sunday morning.  I killed, scalded and plucked all the birds, then put them in cold water.  Lesley [His lovely bride] started the evisceration, table top, and when I finished all the plucking I joined her.  We feel we’re getting a little faster each time.  Any tips on improving processing speed?  One thing that slows us down is picking the few pin feathers before we start eviscerating, especially on the tail and at the base of the legs.  Also I had the pilot go out twice on the scalder, not sure why, the weather was good.  How long does a normal propane tank last you?  We did have about 3 broken or dislocated wings.
Our birds were on Sunday were nearly all at 4lb or over, with one or two even at 5lb.

I replied:
A 20# propane tank lasts several processing days if I don’t light my fire too early.  I don’t know why the pilot light won’t stay on sometimes.  You can tell by my blog posts I find it frustrating.  I suspect I’ll be indoors next year.

I know you have read this before but I’m going to write it out so I can think it through.  If it’s just Julie and me I pull four birds out of the plucker and put them in a dry stainless steel sink (2 more should be in the scalder with more bleeding out).  These birds are already headless.  One at a time I cut the feet off and cut out the scent gland.  While the bird is in my hand I reach for my plyers and pull out any remaining tail feathers.  Then I check the armpits of the birds and pass the bird to Julie.  I have to finish two birds before the scalder finishes its work.  Then I unload the scalder into the plucker, load the scalder with two birds again, finish the other two in the sink, unload the scalder, turn on the plucker, load the scalder, kill two birds, turn off the plucker, kill two birds, put 2 in the scalder, grab the birds out of the plucker and start again.  WHEW!  It helps if you can make a little triangle of equipment around you but lay it out so dying birds don’t flip their crap on the evisceration table.  Julie cuts the skin at the neck to pull the crop and windpipe then eviscerates the bird, removes the lungs, rinses it out and drops it in the chill tank.  She also maintains the ice in the chill tank.  She can do all that faster than I can type it so she sometimes waits on me after cleaning her work area.  It really helps if you have children who will grab the birds out of the plucker, remove the feet, pluck the feathers and hand the bird to mommy…lol.  I know we can do 80 in an hour but 60 is a lot easier on all of us.  Just the two of us are probably limited to 40-50/hour.  When we have even unskilled adult help we can quickly push to 100 birds.  I just need somebody to keep the kill cones filled so I can focus on keeping the water hot, the scalder full and the plucker cleaned out.

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Re-reading that response I realized I missed his comment about broken wings.  Lots of things can go wrong in the plucker.  We see broken wings, broken legs, broken ribs and torn skin but all of these are fairly rare.  Out of 100 birds Jesse saw three bad wings.  When we have a broken wing we usually salvage the leg quarters, breast meat and tenders for customers then keep the broken wing for ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with the bird, it’s just not up to the standards we want to present to our customers.  Just know that it does happen.

I want to emphasize several things Jesse said.  His first time out of the gate he needed 3 hours to do 21 birds and was tired when he finished.  He needed 10 minutes per bird his first time out.  That’s why I recommend you start small.  This stuff is hard.  His second and third times he needed 3 hours to do 40 birds.  That’s a lot better but still a hard way to make a dollar.  Play with your equipment setup, kill more birds and you’ll figure out a process flow.  Just keep doing it and finding ways to get better.  I still watch Salatin eviscerate.  I have never figured out how he grabs the crop as quickly as he does.  I have shaken his hand.  I don’t think he’s that much stronger than I am.

I would like to know how long it took Jesse to package the birds in the shrink bags each time.  Hopefully Jesse will let us know in comments.  In fact, maybe he’ll do some guest blogging for me now that he’s an old hand at processing.

Good luck with your bird processing.  I hope you, like Jesse, won’t hesitate to ask if you need help either in comments or through email.

Preparing for Chicken Processing

There is a rhythm to work.  Every job has its own groove.  You just have to find it.  Processing chickens is no different.  You have to find your groove.

We moved from square dancing to bebop this year when I upgraded my equipment.  At first we tripped all over ourselves trying to make sense of our Featherman equipment.  It was pretty bad.  Now, it’s no big deal.  As a team, we have divided the workload so each of us is working at a good pace.  With that in mind, I want to address a portion of an email I got from a friend/reader.  I pared down his original question a bit.

…as my first processing day is approaching fast in two weeks, I am assembling some equipment.  I got some knives, heat-seal bags, table-top, scale, etc.  one thing I am still pondering is the chill tank situation.  I am leaning on going with two 110 gallon black stocktank tubs from tractor supply.  They are fairly cheap per gallon compared to some options, $64 for 110 gallons.  I can’t seem to find another freezer or 55 gallon food grade barrels locally.  I was also comparing rope tubs as you mentioned or large rubbermaid trash cans, but I would think the larger 110 gallon tanks would stay cooler longer?  Just looking for your advice.  Also, how long do you chill the birds?  How much ice should I have on hand?  somewhat scared,

If I’m not mistaken, the author has about 100 birds to process and has not processed birds before.  Rather than go with 220 gallons of chill tank in any format to chill all 100 birds at once, I would like to see him spread his processing out over several relaxing days.  I suspect it would take us the better part of 4 hours to sterilize equipment, kill, eviscerate, chill and pack 100 birds then clean up again.  At the end of it we would be tired.  When we first started we got tired after 20 birds.  Our friends at Porter Pond Farm needed 7 hours just to kill and process 130 birds their first try.  Keep in mind, they had help and that 7 hours did not include bagging the birds.

So the best thing you can do is just process a few birds at a time.  Maybe 2 days of 20 birds and one day of 60 birds or 4 days of 10 and one of 50.  Give yourself some time to find the groove.  Just how does Salatin get the crop out so quickly?  It takes time to learn how to do it.  Watch this video over and over.  And over.

We figure you need 10 pounds of ice per 6-10 birds.  We chill the birds until they are cold.  You’ll know when the ice stops melting.  We normally let them rest in the ice water while we compost and clean up.  Then we change clothes and start bagging.  Maybe 90 minutes.  You can save a few bucks by using frozen bottles of water and blocks of ice have more thermal mass but less surface area.

I suspect there are better places to deploy cash than to buy stock tanks to chill birds.  They aren’t a bad idea as they can always be deployed for livestock use but I really doubt you’ll do 100 birds your first day.  If you do, I doubt you’ll be anxious to go back for seconds.  There is a lot of skill involved.  Until you can work efficiently and as a team you’re probably better off doing 20 birds at a time.  20 birds can be chilled in coolers you probably already own.

Here are some other things you need but didn’t list in your email:

  1. You need a Compost Pile.
    With 100 birds to process you need to get four pallets.  Wire them together top and bottom with baling wire so they stand in a square.  Scoop out a bowl in the bottom center of the compost pile then throw in a bale of straw or old hay as a base layer.  Also, see if you can get a couple of trash cans full of sawdust from a sawmill…the finer the better.  Really, a pickup load of sawdust would be better.  Well, a dump truck would be better still but get what you can.  As you process birds, pull a layer of the straw to the sides, dump in your chicken offal, add a layer of sawdust above and cover with fresh straw.  See the link above for more specific detail.
  2. Sharpen your knives.
    Even if your knives are new, sharpen them.  Really sharp.  Crazy sharp.
  3. Gather buckets.
    You will need a bucket for every 20 or so birds you process but we keep one at each station.  One bucket for heads and feet, one for evisceration, one for lungs and some others for feathers and blood later.  You probably already have buckets, just make sure they are empty and ready on butcher day.
  4. Do a dry run.  Heat the water.  Dress one bird out.  Chill it.  Bag it.  Go through the motions all along the way.  Learn what you need to learn.  Find out what you didn’t plan for.

I am sure this list could be larger.  What did I miss?  What are your thoughts?  I may be too far from my first chicken processing experience.  I remember it being very difficult.  I wouldn’t want to do 100 birds out of the gate.

 

Chicken Processing Knives

I got an email from a reader who corresponds with me fairly regularly.  In the email he was sharing what is going on as he starts.  He has a 3 piglets in Premier fence and 101 chicks.  He asked a series of questions including this one:

What tools do you recommend for the dirty work, knives, shears, etc?

We use victorinox knives.  A boning knife for killing, evisceration and foot removal and a 6″ skinner for cut-ups.  As much as I like that victorinox skinner I have an old Dexter knife that is better.  I think Salatin uses a smaller poultry knife for evisceration but we just use the boning knife throughout.  We originally got this from Grady’s post on knives.

You also need a good cleaver.  I said a good cleaver, not a cheap cleaver.  I had a neighbor who gave me a collection of knives and saws.  He was in his ’80’s and his parents had been butchers.  I’ve got some pretty neat stuff.  My cleaver is an antique…and it’s awesome.  If you can’t find an old one, buy a high-carbon steel one.  Don’t skimp here.  You’ll need this when you butcher your pig and quality matters when you’re splitting your hog.

I’m still looking for a good set of game shears.  A friend suggested Cutco but I haven’t really looked yet.  I just use my cleaver.  The friend was helping me clean a rabbit at the time and swears by game shears.