Free-ranging chickens is a wonderful idea. But there’s something every farmer knows: There’s a big difference between wonderful and practical. In my experience, poultry in general, die very easily.
Back in Missouri, when my family had turkeys, it was almost as if those dumb birds were suicidal. Their ability to find creative ways of dying was impressive. We free-ranged our poultry there, and, aside from the turkeys, they didn’t do too badly. However, it was necessary to lock them up in a chicken house at night that was impenetrable to predators. We also had to teach our dog not to kill the poultry.
In our area of rural Texas, free-ranging seems almost impossible. In the past, my sister-in-law tried to free-range her layers during the day. Hawks and stray dogs put a stop to that. The hawks around us are merciless. Her layers now stay full-time in a chicken house attached to a pen that is covered with chicken wire all the way around it.
When we decided to raise some broilers, I wanted them to be on grass, so they could eat some insects and vegetation. However, they needed protection from the elements and predators. That’s why we decided to use a chicken tractor to raise our meat birds instead of free-ranging.
Aside from what they could forage, we also fed our chickens kitchen scraps and lots of chicken feed. Actual meat bird feed is quite expensive, so I also bought some cheaper bags of corn and chicken scratch. We fed and watered them multiple times a day. Our chickens ate like pigs.
When it was time to butcher, I was blessed to have my in-laws and parents come help. My in-laws have years of experience with about everything farm-related. I won’t say how many years, because they might not like that.
My father-in-law, “Opa,” taught us how to butcher and dress the chickens. Disclaimer: I’m going to go into detail, so if you are easily grossed out, don’t read on.
We processed about four birds at a time. Jake, my older son, caught the chickens. Someone else held them by their feet until it was their turn. We had a stump ready that was right next to some bushes. I would take one bird, pin its wings back, and hold on tightly to its legs as I set the chicken’s neck and head onto the stump. Opa would quickly chop off its head with a machete. He then threw the head onto the grass and out of the way as I crammed the chicken into the bushes and hung on tightly while it fluttered like crazy. Having a bush is important. It makes it so the chicken is splattering blood into the bush, instead of all over you and everything around you. Sometimes the chickens flapped and moved so violently that I couldn’t hang onto the wings. But it’s not long before they stop flapping and are only twitching. Then I gave the chicken to someone else to dip into scalding hot water.
We used a turkey fryer filled with hot water to scald each chicken. After its bath, the headless chicken goes into the plucker. A plucker looks sort of like an open washing machine tub with rubber fingers in it. The “fingers” pluck most the feathers off as the tub spins. Scott, my husband, did this part, which included keeping a water hose on the tub during the procedure.
Once we had about four chickens headless, dead, and mostly featherless (yes, in that order), we took them to a table we had set up outside. Here, we used very sharp knives to cut off their legs and take out the “innards.” We kept the gizzards and livers, because Opa wanted to save them (to fry and eat later). I’m not gonna lie. Taking out the guts is gross and smells awful.
Now, everything I just described, I found, is actually the easy and fast part of butchering. It took us much longer once we got all the birds inside the house and had to clean, defeather, cut up, and bag the chicken. Yes, the plucker takes off most the feathers, but there’s still quite a few to get off, and it’s slow-going.
Some of the birds we froze whole. However, I wanted a lot of them cut up, because, like most people, I use pieces when I cook. Chicken breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and wings went into vacuum sealed bags and then into my freezer.
The whole process took maybe 4 or 5 hours for 37 chickens, which isn’t too bad.
Cost? Well, I kept track of everything, and the chickens ending up costing $9.75 each. This is more than chicken cost from your major grocery chains but less than buying organic, “free-range” chickens from the health food store. How or if those pricey chickens are actually free-ranged is still a mystery.