From Gene Logsdon (1985)
WIth Update – November 2008
Garden Farm Skills
Every so-called how-to book I’ve read assumes that chickens must be fed milled grains. Malarkey. Little chicks that cannot yet swallow whole grains need milled grains (unless they are following their mothers around the barnyard eating bugs and worms and bits of grass and tiny weed seeds). Hens and broilers do not. They will eat more if fed milled grains, which may mean a few more eggs and certainly more weight in a shorter period of time, but what do you care, in the backyard, if your broilers mature in ten weeks or twelve, or if your hens don’t lay the absolute maximum they might be capable of? You aren’t on the commercial treadmill, working on 14% money, with expenses so high for all that automation that you have to scrape up every possible penny.
This brings up another of my pet peeves: almost all books and articles on raising poultry will admonish you to keep a light on in your henhouse—that your hens will lay more eggs if the amount of light remains fairly constant for 14 hours a day. This practice is total absurdity for the backyard chicken grower. My chickens have never seen an electric light. We have never run out of eggs in eighteen years, never had more than twenty overwinter layers, usually less, and indeed have eggs to sell every month except December.
Since chickens have a wonderful digestive system for grinding grains, you can just feed them whole grains as I do. But if you insist on grinding grain for chickens, you’ll be way ahead if you take your grain to the mill and have it ground there instead of buying commercially ground grain. I hear you saying, well, my grains won’t have all those vitamins and minerals and protein supplements in them, all scientifically mixed to give the chicken a “perfectly balanced” ration. I don’t want to get into an argument about the relative merits of these “perfectly balanced” rations,… but in some feeds there are still various antibiotics and drugs…
If your hens have access to the outside at least a few hours every other day in nice weather, they will balance their own rations quite well with bugs and worms and grass and leaves (and your garden fruits if you aren’t careful). If you can’t let your chickens out for part of the day once in a while (the best way is to turn them out 2 hours before sunset—they won’t stray far and will come back to roost at dark), you can bring them grass clippings, table scraps, and garden surplus and provide them with a salt-mineral block, oyster shells, and water. Along with your grains, and in winter a bit of high-quality clover or alfalfa hay (you can dry the clover right off the lawn), you will have provided as balanced a ration as any you can buy. It may be a sight more balanced, in fact, because your egg yolks will have a rich orange-yellow color, denoting a higher carotene and vitamin C content than those pallid-yolked eggs from the egg factories.
If you are into grinding grains, the ration formulas you can use are myriad. The conventional mixture is invariably about 2/3 corn and 1/3 oats or wheat, or oats and wheat. Barley, wheat, and oats can all take the place of corn, but in larger amounts, because corn provides more energy. You can also mix in a bit of protein supplement. If you have good-quality alfalfa, you can feed that instead of the supplement…
Here’s what I feed my chickens: When there are eighteen chickens in the coop, they get six ears of corn per day, a pound or less of wheat, and four seed heads of sorghum, all grown and harvested on the place. If they don’t clean that up, I reduce the ration a bit. In addition, they get a bit of leafy green alfalfa hay regularly in winter, plus lots of table scraps, garden surplus, scraps from butchering, and a bit of salt-mineral block and oyster shells. They roam the woods for part of the day for about 250 days of the year.
Chicks and young broilers get some ground corn alone, but every year I feed the broilers less ground feed and more whole grain, and they get fat just as well, only a bit slower. Speed of fattening is influenced by genetics, by the way. Some animals get fatter quicker no matter what you feed or don’t feed them.
A Simple Chicken Catcher
To butcher a chicken, first you have to catch it. Unless you take it off the roost at night, this first step in butchering should not be taken for granted. You can chase the chickens around the coop trying to corner one, raising dust and pandemonium, stumbling, perhaps falling among the squawking biddies. Each subsequent attempt at capturing becomes more difficult as the chickens get wilder and warier. Both you and your flock get bruised and hypertensive in the process.
There is a time-honored, easier way. Cut a piece of heavy wire about 4 feet long. No. 9 will do, but heavier stuff is better if you can find it. Bend one end around into a longish loop for a handle and bend the other end into a hook shaped like the one in the drawing. The width of the hook at the closed end should be about the width of your little finger or the approximate width of a chicken leg, opening wider at the mouth of the hook. Then all you do is walk quietly to within striking distance of your unsuspecting feathered friends, hook a leg, and all in one motion, pull the chicken toward you. While keeping tension on the leg with the hook, grab the leg with your free hand. Works like a charm.
Butchering a Chicken
Butchering anything is disagreeable work. But if a person is going to eat meat, he can hardly avoid the work just for that reason and not be a hypocrite. And because chickens are the one animal eminently practical for all homesteads (even the smallest), knowing how to butcher them can be a very handy skill to acquire. Once the technique is learned, the time involved is fairly little. My wife and I can kill, scald, and butcher four chickens in half an hour, if we’re in a hurry.
There are other ways to do it, but I kill chickens by chopping their heads off on a stump. I use a regular axe, not a hatchet, as the heavier tool does the job quickly and more accurately, and the poor animal is dead, as far as anyone knows, instantly, without pain. Nevertheless, it will jump around a lot and bruise the meat after decapitation, so for a few seconds I continue to hold it, with both legs and the wing tips grasped together in my left hand, after delivering the death blow with the ax in my right. If you do not hold the wings, too, they will flap uncontrollably. I stick the chicken, neck down, in a bucket, so the blood does not spray on me. It is necessary in butchering anything to get a good “bleed,” and decapitation does that as well as the more surgical methods of just cutting the veins in the throat.
The next step is to scald the feathers off. Again, there are other ways to remove feathers, but I can assure you that my way is the best way for the homeowner with just a few chickens. Theoretically, the water should not be quite boiling—about 180° to 190°F. is just right. But we let the water come to a boil, then let it sit a bit. Our water is usually a bit too hot, and it cooks the skin a wee bit but this is no problem other than the skin might tear in the defeathering process. A bit of torn skin is no catastrophe either, and eventually you will learn to avoid it. I like to start with the water a bit too hot, so that if we are butchering four or more chickens at once, which we usually do, the water will not be too cool by the time we get to the last one. Better too hot than not hot enough.
Slosh the chicken around in the scalding water for about 20 seconds (less in very hot water, more in not-so-hot water), making sure the water soaks through the feathers to all the skin. Then let the water drain out of the feathers a few seconds and lay your chicken in a pan or bucket or on a sheet of paper while you pluck the feathers. The wing and tail feathers have to be pulled off, sometimes rather forcefully, but the rest of the feathers can practically be rubbed off with the heel of your hand. I generally strip down the thighs first, then pull the wing and tail feathers, then rub down the back, and then the belly and inside of the wings. I do the neck last. With practice you can get 90% of the feathers off in a few seconds. The last 10% takes a bit longer. The hairy pin feathers and the stout feather sheaths that did not come off with the plucking can be scraped with a knife later. My mother used to singe off the hairs that remained after scalding in the time-honored way—over a candle, a kerosene lamp, or with a burning piece of newspaper—which is a good way to set your own hair on fire.
You can scald the lower legs and feet and peel the skin off easily enough. We did so when I was a child, even though there was little meat on the legs. In these days, when we think we are richer, we give the feet to the dog, though this may actually be more economical, since if he is eating chicken feet, he is not eating store-bought dog food.
The plucking finished, the chicken carcass is ready for the actual butchering. Make yourself some kind of work table about waist high and put a pan or bucket under the edge where you will be working. (I use a step of the stairs going up to our outdoor deck.) Set the chicken on its back on a clean piece of paper. A grocery sack is fine; newspaper is not because the print comes off on the chicken skin. Cut off the lower legs first—they are sticking up in your way. Press the heel of the knife blade into the leg joint while bending down the leg with your other hand. The joint will snap open and you can easily cut down between the bones, severing the leg.
Next, turn the chicken around, still on its back, so its neck is over the bucket below. The bulge under the skin at the base of the neck is the crop, and it is full of whatever the chicken had been eating. Cut the skin open over the crop. Be very careful because it is easy to cut into the crop, and then the contents spill messily down the neck. (If that happens, don’t panic. Clean the mess out and pour a little water over it to flush the grain, digestive fluids, or whatever, into the bucket.) I pinch the skin over the crop between my left forefinger and thumb and raise it up (see photo), slicing horizontally and very shallowly through the raised skin. With a slit of an inch or two made, I use my fingers to peel back the rest of the skin and pull the crop out and down, slicing behind it with the knife as I pull crop and windpipe down the neck and into the bucket.
Now turn the chicken around again, on its back still, with the back end facing you. Spread the legs apart with your left hand, and cut crosswise toward the head just under the breast-bone and slightly upward. Do not cut down or even straight in horizontally or you will cut into the intestines nestled inside (see photo). The slit should extend across the chicken from side to side. There will usually be a layer of fat under the skin, and you will have a hard time knowing when you have cut into the interior of the chicken far enough, but not so far as to cut an intestinal lining. If you do cut through an intestine, don’t panic. The mess will clean up.
Next, punch the knife straight downward at one end of the slit you made, holding the knife perfectly vertical, and cut between the entrails and the flesh. With an up and down motion, like using a jigsaw, cut through the skin and fat layer down past the pelvic bone, staying as close to it as you can, down around the anus. As you come around the anus, your knife should come down from its vertical position to almost horizontal as you cut under the anus and the intestine just inside it. Halfway past the anus I stop, go back to the other end of the original slit, and come down in a similar fashion on the other side, passing in under the anus till I meet my first cut. If you have cut correctly, you will not have punctured any intestine.
Now lay the knife down, grasp the chicken across the breast with your hand, and reach your left hand into the interior cavity of the chicken until you feel the oval gizzard—about the size of a large egg. Grip the gizzard and pull out and down. With the gizzard and part of the entrails hanging outside the chicken, reach in again and gently grasp the liver and pull it out, too. Cut the gizzard off and lay it aside. Cut the liver out, being sure to remove the gallbladder (that green gland you see in the middle of the liver), and lay it aside. Now pull the entrails on down into the bucket. The last to go will be the intestines right at the anus, and you may have to loosen these gently so that the whole falls into the bucket cleanly—without a speck of manure getting on the carcass. If the latter does occur, no sweat. Just wash it off.
The heart, lungs, and probably part of the esophagus will still be in the chicken. The heart comes out easily. The lower esophagus, which looks something like the heart, needs a hard pull. The lungs lie over the rib cage and are a bit tricky to remove. Feel the rib cage with your fingers, then slide one finger between two ribs at the deepest groove, under the soft cushiony mass of lung, and the lung will pop loose, at least it will on older chickens. This technique works better if you slide your finger between the ribs from the outside toward the center of the chicken. On younger chickens, the lungs sometimes seem to get lost, and you have to look up in the chicken several times to find them. With practice though, you can remove them quickoy by feel only. The light pink color of the lungs distinguishes them from other vital organs.
I clean everything out of the inside of the chicken. Some folks I know prefer to leave the kidneys in along the back because they like the taste of them. To each his own.
The next step is to turn the chicken over and cut the oil sacs off the tail. About 1 inch forward of the tail, cut in about 1/4 inch and then down toward the tail, pulling on the flap of skin you have cut with your other hand. The idea is to cut under the oil sacs, but the first time (and many other times) you will no doubt cut right into them. You’ll know because the sacs are yellow and exude a yellowish liquid. Tradition says a chicken should not be cooked unless these sacs are removed and as far as I know, everyone follows that tradition.
You still have the gizzard to clean out. It is full of half-digested food. The ideal method is to slice into the edge of the gizzard but not through the inner pouch containing the digesting food. Once you have an opening of about an inch into the gizzard lining that surrounds the pouch, use your fingers to peel the gizzard away from the pouch. Housewives of my mother’s generation prided themselves on their ability to get the pouch out without breaking it. They would say they’d get a new dress for every unbroken pouch. But especially on young fryers, this pouch tears so easily I don’t even try to remove it in one piece—what would I do with a new dress anyway? I simply cut the gizzard open and then, holding it over the waste bucket, peel the pouch off the inner gizzard lining (see photo). Then I wash off the gizzard.
In putting the finishing touches on a butchered chicken, my wife scrapes or picks off any bits of feather missed, and cleans out any particles of windpipe, esophagus, or lung I might have carelessly left inside the chicken. She washes the carcass well inside and out, cuts off the neck to freeze separately, but does not cut up the rest of the chicken before freezing it. In cleaning up the chicken, she is, as old farmers say, very persnickety. There is no untidy speck of anything left on the carcass. For example, on the last joint of the wing, there is a tiny clawlike appendage left over no doubt from the long-ago evolutionary era of pterodactyl flying reptiles. She cuts this tiny claw off. Why? She shrugs. She has no reason. The claw to her is unseemly, that’s all.
Update November 2008: I agree even more with what I wrote here twenty-some years ago, and I hardly ever can say that. Right now I am feeding 16 hens about a quart of whole wheat a day plus table scraps. That’s all. I’ve learned that they eat lots of weed seeds which are richer in nutrients than domestic grains. In winter I will add four ears of corn as whole kernels to that daily feeding plus a handful of very high quality legume hay. ~ Gene