8.14.2011 Chicken Harvest

Today was the day. It began with a 10 minute downpour while I was out moving chicken tractors. After which, I lit the burner at 7:55am and by 10 am, the water in the scalder was hot, the dog crate was filled with roolets on their way to their freezer appointments, and the skies were clearing. We learned a lot today. And as extra staff appeared throughout the day, we got faster and faster. Chicken processing is best as an assembly line affair and specialists are handy. Once we got a rhythm going, it went something like this:

Karina would drive the van to the coop with dog crate in back. She’d return a few minutes later with 8 cockerels. She hung them in the killing cones and removed their “name tags.”

Michael bled them. Finding the carotid artery is much harder in real life than it seems on the You Tube video. And it takes a while for them to bleed out. Then Michael and a helper, (varied depending on who had a free hand) would hang the chickens in the shackles for their dunking in the scald tank. Michael and said helper would scald the birds, four at a time and send them through the picker. Note to self, the picker works best with three birds in it, though had it been sitting perfectly level, it probably would have done four.

Tammy and I gutted and cleaned. Two most important things here are very sharp knives and getting the esophogus and crop loose enough at the front end so all the entrails will easily slide out the back end. The very first bird I did, I cut myself with a brand new knife. I bled for a long time. Lesson here is people working with sharp knives should not be running their mouths. (It took four bandaids before I got enough compression on the thing to stop the bleeding. Doesn’t hurt a bit, though now I know why the guy in the “how to break down a chicken” video wore a steel glove on his left hand.) We had several volunteers at the gutting table and I tried to give good lessons, but chicken processing is just something that requires repetition. I’m sure we’ll get faster at it the more we do, but I think the best we did was 8 in a single hour (or 4 per hour per person with a good ten minute sit on your butt break at the end.)

Karina would then wash, bag, weigh and transport the finished birds to the freezer.

Other notes to self, one propane tank will keep the scald tank at the right temperature for about 8 hours when ambient air temperature is in the mid 70’s-low 80’s. Having a spare tank on hand is crucial. Having a knife sharpener on hand is crucial, too. The knives dull quickly and once dull, they really slow down processing. You also need a good stiff hand brush for clean up. Be sure to dig your holes before processing begins (we did that.) Goggles/safety glasses are strongly advised for those catching chickens, those at the kill station and for those operating the picker.

Processing takes a lot of water. We had four hoses – One for the scald tank and hooked to a float valve to keep the water level up, one for the picker to flush the feathers out, one to rinse hands and birds over our “chill tank” which we didn’t use as chill tank. Rather it was simply the wash basin to hold the enormous amount of water we used, so we didn’t have to walk in it. Which brings us to site selection: You really need a place with good drainage to do this and muck boots. Wear muck boots. And aprons. The fourth hose was used a little ways off during clean up.

We were done processing and had everything cleaned up by 5:30. Then we had a great dinner of chicken and potatoes from the farm. Feed your workers well.

Now, all the washing up is done. The remaining chickens are locked away for the night and the skies are filled with thunder and lightening. So the day ends as it began, with rain to wash the nastiness clean and turn it into new life.

We’re exhausted.

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