Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Harvesting Roosters

Several weeks ago we weren't getting many eggs from our hens. A few of the hens are older, a few were molting, and a few of the pullets weren't quite ready to lay. Eventually we were down to 1-2 eggs a day, if we were lucky. We should have been getting at least a dozen a day.

After doing a little research, I eventually decided the hens were stressed. Most likely because of having too many roosters. And we needed to do something about it. Once I started noticing, I figured we had 7 roosters. Six too many : four Rhode Island Reds, one Leghorn, and one Australorp.

When we first started raising chickens and thinking of the need to be able to harvest them, we bought several pieces of equipment to help us: killing cone, large scalding pot, and de-feathering drum. But with Guv'nor working full time in Waco, there was no time for him to use our equipment.

So, I set my task for the week to deal with the roosters.

I started researching the options and asking around for suggestions on where I could have processing done. It soon became obvious that finding a place to take the roosters to be processed was going to be difficult. It's a very complicated system and regulated by various government agencies, and I won't pretend to completely understand it.

But I did find three potential places within driving distance. The first one I phoned was very organized and specific and offered me an appointment about a month away. I took the appointment but said I needed it done sooner and would cancel if I found an alternative. The second one I only got an answering machine and they never returned my call. So when the third one answered and said in broken English (as best I could understand) that I could bring my roosters today or any day, I was relieved. But also a little skeptical because it seemed too easy. And also a little worried when they said to bring it alive. That was the whole point!

At first I thought I'd be able to manage taking them on my own. But when I considered all the possibilities, I decided to ask my son-in-law, (I'll call him) Hunter, to go with me. After all, he is quite familiar with processing larger animals like deer. So he kindly rearranged his day for me. Such a servant.

The night before we went, Guv'nor helped me move the six roosters into a dog carrier we had and a cage we borrowed from a neighbor. Catching them at night while they're roosting, sleepy and dopey, was easy. We left the cages inside the chicken coop for safety and then Guv'nor put them in the back of the truck for me in the morning. I had learned it was best if they didn't eat for 12-24 hours before processing them. So we didn't have to worry about feed and water inside the cages.

I drove to Hunter's house, and then he drove our truck to the processors. The whole drive took less than two hours. We weren't sure what to expect, but found the place quite easily and were surprised at how busy it was with cars and trucks in the large parking lot. There were several warehouses and barns, and we could see several pens with chickens, turkeys, and ducks. In addition to processing, it was also a farm that raised animals to sell. It was sort of like a meat market, except you could choose out your animal and wait for it to be processed.

The first thing that we noticed when we got out of the truck was the overwhelmingly bad smell. It's hard to describe now but at the time I remember thinking, 'so this is what death smells like'. I had to hold my nose. We asked around and found we needed to back up to the unloading area. The man in charge leaned into the pickup and grabbed one rooster at a time and literally threw it into their own cage. I was so shocked I had to turn away. I couldn't watch as my roosters were being manhandled. I guess he had learned if you didn't move quickly the chickens would fly out. The whole transfer process took about 15 seconds. He told me to write my name on that cage, which gave me a little confidence.

I was told to walk through the building and pay at the window. The area I walked through was clearly the chicken processing area, with cones, steaming water, feather drum, wet floor, and chicken feathers everywhere. The fee was $3 a chicken = $16, and I was a little surprised they took a credit card. We also bought a few large plastic bags later, not knowing we needed some and could have brought our own. 

We were told we could stand in the "waiting area" until our meat was ready. They would call our name. It appeared to be a fairly clean area with stainless steel tables being hosed down with water every few minutes. I started out with my back against the wall, watching with curiosity as the meat was brought in through a side door and men with meat cleavers cut up various types of animals, from chickens to goats. This was before Thanksgiving, so there were several customers who had bought their turkeys.

It wasn't a pretty sight.

I turned away a few times and stared at the wall. I wouldn't describe myself as squeamish, but watching this process was too much for me. Several times Hunter asked if I was okay, and I thought I was. He had seen the look on my face and later said it was draining of color. Finally, he handed me the truck keys and told me to go sit in the car. To which I immediately complied. I think I was in a bit of shock. He said he would wait and watch to make sure we got our chickens.

This is why I asked him to come with me. I was fairly confident I could load, drive, deliver, wait, and drive home. The part I wasn't sure about was that waiting time. I was so thankful he had gone with me. I couldn't have done it without him.

About 20 minutes later, he came to the truck with two large plastic bags of meat, cut in pieces. He put them in the cooler we'd brought and we drove off. I was nervous about warm meat, so we stopped for ice and covered the meat with ice for the ride home. Later I learned it would have been fine, actually better, if we had let the meat cool to room temperature before chilling it.

We stopped for lunch on the way home. My treat. Ironically, I chose Raisin' Cane's chicken fingers. It wasn't until we were eating that it dawned on me. Hunter was surprised I wanted to eat chicken so soon. Somehow there is a huge disconnect between a live chicken and fried chicken fingers.

Once I got back home, I spent a couple of hours cleaning and washing the chicken pieces. I don't think I had ever handled warm raw meat. Quite sobering. I bagged the same pieces together and put it all in the fridge to chill for a day before moving it to the freezer. I weighed the meat and came up with roughly 18 pounds of edible pieces. I wasn't sure what to do with 3 pounds of random bones, skin, and organs so ended up tossing it in my compost bin.

We roasted a few pieces for Thanksgiving but it was very tough. Since then, I've learned the best (and possibly only) way to cook this meat is slowly in a crock pot for 10-12 hours. The meat falls off the bone, but it is still a little chewy. Guv'nor is convinced the meat is tough because the roosters were traumatized at the processors.

We took a few photos at the processors before being told off and shown the NO PHOTOGRAPHS sign posted on the wall. So I'll leave you to your imagination for some of it.


  1. I couldn't have watched either. I'm currently struggling with some of the same issues. My hens aren't laying much, but I only have two breeding roosters. I have three roosters that haven't shown any signs of breeding yet, but I hand raised them and they are very sweet. I am struggling with what I'm going to do with them. When they mature, having five roosters will absolutely be too much. I can't bear to have the slaughtered and I've already learned that I don't like the taste or texture of our home-grown chickens, so I won't be eating them. The first (and last) bunch that we butchered sat in the freezer for about 5 years. I eventually ended up boiling them and feeding them to the dogs.

    1. Well, I think we'll deal with them sooner next time. That way they might be more tender. We are using ours in soups so far.

  2. I think I would have roasted all the pieces and then put it all in a big stock pot and made several gallons of stock.

    1. Well, so far I have been making soup with it. We tried roasting a few pieces and it was very tough. I haven't tried roasting and then slow cooking. That might work.

  3. We tried to eat a rooster once and learned the same lesson. Definitely better for the hens to not have all those boys running around. Were the roosters not attacking one another?

    1. Yes! Not only fighting with each other but not being very kind to all the girls. Eventually the girls were fighting each other! Not good. Things have calmed down now without all those boys.

  4. I have to say, farming/ranching life sounds fascinating...but sometimes gruesome. I'm sure it takes some major getting used to...

    1. Yes. I'm not sure I'm completely ready for some of it myself.