Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Chicken is highly regarded as a healthy part of the American diet. It is a good source of protein with low saturated fat. It also contains 8 essential amino acids, and is a good source of vitamins B3, B6 and B7. It is rich in zinc and iron, and also low in sodium. I had to wonder however, how healthy is that store bought chicken really? I dove into the subject, and what I discovered was alarming to say the least.
Poultry manufacturers chemically treat their chickens to reduce the bacterial count before routine inspectors test them. The testing solution used by inspectors neutralized the chemicals used by the farmer, but the use of several new chemicals at high concentrations has resulted in those antibiotics continuing to be active in the testing solution, killing off the offending organisms before the sample reaches the lab. This is resulting in false negatives, and the manufacture’s are getting a clean bill of health when harmful bacteria is present in their birds.
In addition to the faulty testing process I was also concerned about how these mass produced chickens are being raised. They live in very small quarters with little to no light, fresh air, or natural food. They will often peck one another, so their beaks are cut to prevent that. At the time of slaughter (usually around 60 days) many have damaged legs, eyes, and lungs from their cramped living conditions resulting in a high likelihood for contamination and disease. In an attempt to ward off disease the chickens are pumped full of antibiotics, and many are vaccinated.
They are also pumped full of salt water, and fed growth hormones in their feed. The sudden weight gain from the artificial feed they are given makes many of them unable to stand. They are slaughtered in mass numbers, increasing the likelihood that contamination from their living conditions will taint the meat. To clean the dressed chicken before packaging them they are dunked in a chemical solution to kill off germs. So I had to questions again, is store bought chicken really a healthy choice, and why on earth am I feeding this to my growing children?
We decided to raise our own meat chickens, and see to it that they were raised as cleanly as possible, fed as naturally as possible, and slaughtered with high standards. We started with Red Rangers chicks, although there are faster growing chickens that can be purchased for meat purposes. The Cornish Cross are also a great meat bird. We kept the chicks under the heat light in our garage until they were fully feathered, and then they were moved outside to a lawn tractor.
The tractor was wonderful, because we were able to move it around several times a day, ensuring that they had clean ground, and plenty of fresh bugs, worms, and grass to eat. The beauty of the tractor is it allows a free range experience while keeping the chickens dry, and safe from predators. They were also fed garden scraps, flock raiser pellets, and given fresh water daily. We raised the chickens for 14 weeks, and when they were around 7 pounds it was time for the freezer. 24 hours prior to dispatching the chickens we pulled their pellets to eliminated feed in their digestive tracks, and crops.
Dispatching can be done in a number of ways, but we choose the good old fashion chop to the neck. Instead of having headless hens running around the yard we mounted a traffic cone to a tree, and cut off the skinny end to fit a chicken’s head. To use the traffic cone method hold the bird upside down by the legs, pull the neck straight, insert into the traffic cone, and pull their neck out the bottom hole. When upside down the chickens become very calm due to the blood going to their heads. One wack with a sharp axe is all it took. We let them bleed out for about 2 minutes.
Once the chicken had bled out we submerged the entire body to the leg feathers in 170-180 degree water for about 40-50 seconds. While counting we swirl them around to get the hot water into all those feathers. After 40 seconds we tested the feathers to see if they would easily rub off. If we had to tug on them, then we dipped for another 15 seconds, and tested again. If the water is to hot or they are submerged to long it will damage the skin, liquefy the fat, and begin to cook the bird.
When the tail and wing feathers were softened up we moved to the butcher table to remove all feathers. We started with the legs, moved to the belly, and then spun it around to get the back and wings. Once the bulk of the feathers were removed we rubbed our hands all over the chicken to remove any left over feathers. We then dunked the birds in clean water to remove everything unattached, and to reveal any pin feathers that were missed. Once the bird was clean of all feathers and pins it was time to eviscerate it.
We started with the neck by flipping the bird onto it’s back, and making a straight line cut to the chest. Then the membrane was detached from the neck meat, and the neck skin was removed & discarded. The necks can be saved to make soup stock. We reached into the chest cavity, found the crop (little bag in their throat where they begin to digest their feed), and loosened that so it would pull out the other end easily. We removed the neck, and esophagus, and trimmed the access skin and fat from around the neck cavity.
Each chicken was then flipped onto it’s belly, and the oil gland was removed from the top of the tail. This is done by starting at the base of the tail, and scooping upwards to remove all the yellow. This gland is used by the chicken to oil it’s feathers, but if left on will go rancid. The entire tail can also be removed, which will take care of the gland as well.
We then spun the bird around, belly up, and removed the innards. The most important part of gutting a chicken, is to take care not to puncture the gallbladder or intestinal track. If these are punctured then the meat is contaminated. That first cut must be made very carefully. We made the first cut by measuring about 2 fingers width down from the chest bone, and cutting outwards so the knife didn’t go to deep. The first cut was only the layer of skin. We could then see the membrane, and were able to make a small 3-4 inch slit to reveal the inside bag of the chicken. Using our hands we tore the opening wider. We then cut carefully down along the vent of the chicken.
The next step is similar to cleaning a pumpkin, a very warm pumpkin. We inserted our hand along the top, palm down, and scrapped all along the top cavity, sides, and front to release the membrane. In one giant scoop we pulled outwards removing all the guts at once. We then carefully cut the bottom free from the vent, and tail area. This step must be done with care as not to rupture the intestines.
Once all innards were removed we had to reach back in to pull out the lungs. They are a very soft, and hidden up inside the ribs of the chest cavity. The innards were then spread out so we could inspect the overall color and health of the organs. If there are any spots or discoloration on the liver then your bird was sick. In our case all livers were a deep red, and so we kept them to batter, and fry up. Livers are also excellent on the grill. The heart looks like a thumb, and can also be eaten, although we didn’t save the hearts.
For each chicken we made sure to find the little bag that had a greenish color to it. This is the gallbladder, and contains the bile that we did not want on our meat. If this is ruptured then the bird is no longer edible. They were all intact so we discarded them with the rest of the innards. The gizzard is a large hard almost fist sized bag. It looks like a big muscle. That is where the chicken breaks down it’s food by grinding it with sand, and small pebbles. If you cut this open it will reveal what the bird has been eating. In our case it will filled with sand, and grass. The kids found this very interesting. Some people clean out, and fry gizzards as well.
Once the cavity was cleaned out we rinsed each bird off well, including the inner cavity, and placed them in a salted ice bath for 24 hours. This allows the meat to rest, and the salt also draws out any blood left in the meat. After the 24 hour bath we rinsed, patted dry, and bagged each bird. We used heat activated shrink wrap bags that can be purchased at a number of online shops. You save a lot by buying these in bulk, and they will preserve your chickens much better than a ziplock bag that allows air inside.
To seal the birds we placed them feet up, inserted the plastic straw into the chicken cavity, and tightened a zip tie around the portion the bag & straw. Dip each bird completely covering all but their feet into 160 degree water for 5 seconds. Each bird was then removed for 10-15 seconds while the air escaped through the straw. The straw was then removed while the ziptie was pulled tight. All excess bag and zipties were trimmed, and our chickens were ready for the freezer. Each chicken weighed 4-5 pounds full dressed.
The entire process of chick to freezer is incredibly rewarding, and ensures good clean meat for our family. My children helped with caring for the chickens, and we made sure to remind them that these birds were livestock, not pets. When cull day arrived they had no problem with the process, and felt proud of filling the freezer with meat that they helped raise.
Melissa Souza lives on a 1-acre, organically managed homestead property in rural Washington State where she raises backyard chickens and meat rabbits and grows plums, apples, pears, a variety of berries, and all the produce her family needs. She loves to inspire other families to save money, be together, and take steps toward self-reliance no matter where they live. Connect with her on Facebook.
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