Every year, when I mention to people that I’m going to be butchering chickens over some spring weekend, people seem to get very intrigued with this process and ask a lot of questions. I can never tell if it’s that people just cannot understand why someone would voluntarily go through something like this, when you can get poultry at the Kroger down the road, or if it’s because they are genuinely interested in learning more about it. Either way, it’s inspired me to document the process so that people can get a better feel for what happens on this annual day, that we refer to as the Jochim Estate Plucker Festival, A.K.A., the Chicken Caper.
The chickens are bought in a quantity of 100, from a farming catalog. They are shipped through the post office (yes, the post office will handle farm animals!). It’s ok, it’s Green County. Usually when Tom Jochim is picking up the chickens, there is someone inevitably in the post office trying to mail their mule or pig to their cousin in Kentucky.
The chicks, only a few days old when they arrive, are kept inside (in the garage) until they are about 2 weeks old. During this time, all the kids stop by to see the “cute” chicks while they are still “cute” and fuzzy. The turn into ugly chickens pretty quickly. After a couple weeks, the Great Chicken Migration is performed, and the chicks are transferred to their coup, where they will live their 6 glorious weeks of life.
On Caper day, we usually have about a dozen volunteers, and everyone knows their role. The chickens are sent through a process in which the end result is a clean and well packaged bird. Here is a “bird’s eye view” of the disassembly line:
Here’s how it goes:
First, several chickens are transferred from the coup to the “containment area.”
The butcher block is right next to the containment area. This may seem a little cruel, as the chickens can hear their fellow fowl’s fate but cannot actually see it. The head is severed from the body.
Once the head has been separated from the body, you have to drain the blood. We use milk cartons with the bottom cut out.
Once the blood has drained (and the legs and wings quit twitching), you have to soak the bird in hot water to loosen the feathers. The water should be about 135 to 140 degrees. Soak the bird for 30-45 seconds, until the wing or tail feather pull out fairly easily.
Now here’s the fun part, and the part that makes the process so much easier than how your grandparents used to do it. We have a chicken plucking machine. It has a cylinder that rotates rapidly. On that cylinder, there are several rubber fingers. These fingers are strong enough to knock the feathers off the bird without causing any real damage or bruising. But you do have to be most careful with the extremities, particularly the wings. We usually break a few in the process. It takes some practice to get a feel for it. There are also several conditions that can affect the efficiency of the machine. Last year was rough. The feathers were not coming off easily, and after bruising several birds we had to concede that we would still have to do some plucking by hand at the next station. This year we got lucky. The birds were a week younger than last year, and the feathers came off easily.
Once the chicken comes off the machine, the bird is hung to get any remaining feathers off that can be pulled by hand. The bird is then rinsed, and taken on to the next station.
Next, the feet are cut off.
And then, the birds are cleaned. By cleaned, I do not mean get a bath. This is where the internal organs are extracted. The parts that people like to eat, the livers and gizzards (none for me thanks!) are separated, and all the guts are dropped in buckets. This table requires precision and skill, so we employ a full time knife sharpener, and a surgeon. That’s Dr. Charles McKeen in his scrubs.
Next, a final cleaning inside and out, and any remaining fine feathers are plucked off.
And then off they go to the inside of the house, for quality control inspection and packaging. They are packaged in 2-gallon Ziploc bags, and put on ice in coolers of the volunteers.
When the work is done, all the “remains” are buried in Tom’s garden. They make for some tasty tomatoes next year (hold the salmonella!)
So, that’s it. It’s a hard days work, but we try to have some fun. Couple years ago someone brought some home grown “Chicken Killin’ IPA", this year someone found a festive bittle of wine. @garyvee only gives the wine an 88 on corkd.com, but I thought it was great.
Question and Answer:
Do we save any money on chicken this way? Not really. Total price after feed and all comes to about $5.00+ per bird. But, we know where it came from, and we know it was fresh. Alicia and I get a dozen, and that lasts us a year. We go through one a month, and it feeds the family 2-3 times over. Usually crock pot the bird and have roasted chicken, potatoes, etc., then use the leftovers for burritos, fajitas, etc.
How big do they get? Bigger than your average store bought, they usually average about 5.0 - 5.5 lbs. We had one that was almost 8 pounds one year, looked more like a turkey! The smallest one was this year, 1 lb 10oz. It was picked on by its peers and really lucky it lived as long as it did.
How long does it take to butcher 100 chickens? About 9 hours. Figure about .5 - .75 man hour per bird, we usually process about 15-20 per hour depending on how well the feathers are coming off. You have to change the soaking water about every 25 birds, which halts the system for 30 minutes and we take about a half hour break for lunch.
Do you eat chicken for lunch on Caper Day? NO! Salami, cheese, crackers, fruit, homemade bread, etc.
Chicken Murderer! The birds will kill over and die in a couple more weeks anyway if we don’t butcher them. They are genetically engineered birds, designed to grow rapidly for meat, and their hearts cannot handle their fast growth rate. They will literally have heart attacks if left alive. So we are actually doing them a favor. And… if we get some tasty fajitas in doing so, it’s a winning situation for all!