Yesterday was butchering day. We cleared out the last nine Rhode Island Red hens, and the kids had a grand old time helping me.
We color-code our hens, getting a different breed each year, so we can better tell how old the various birds are. These were in their third season of laying, which is past their prime. To be honest, I simply didn't get to butchering them last December (though I should have), and then got too busy this spring. For the last several weeks, they've been in their own pasture pen so I can see just how pathetic their egg production has gotten. The nine of them were seldom producing more than three or four eggs per day, which is pretty lousy.
Helper Girl climbed into the pen and crawled around catching birds. As she grabbed each one, she would hand it through the top to me, and I would hand it to one of her brothers. Once everyone had a full load, we took all nine (holding them securely, upside down, by their feet) over to a dog cage I'd set up by the killing cone. This is the Death Row I've described in previous posts.
One by one, we positioned them upside down in the killing cone, slit their throats, and let them bleed to death. The kids took turns holding the hens' feet, having first changed into their "butchering clothes". (Which are, of course, one stage more ragged than "play clothes". I have certain clothes that are so ragged, the instant I put them on the kids know it must be butchering day.)
As each bird died, I would load a new bird, slit its throat, and have a child hold the hen as it bled to death. I would then take the dead hen to a large pot of scalding water, dunk it several times to loosen the feathers, and then use a mechanical feather plucker to whisk all the feathers off. The plucker is a large drum, drilled and filled with over 100 rubber fingers, belt-driven by an electric motor. This thing is wonderful: it transforms a 5 minute chore into a ten second blip, spitting all the feathers out into a pile on the back end.
With the hen fully plucked, I'd pull off its head and cut off its feet. The hen and the feet went into a clean bucket of water to cool, as I went to get the next hen (which was dead by now). We repeated this process for all nine birds, and then the kids went off to play as I went inside to eviscerate the hens.
These birds are far too old to use for anything but stewing into chicken soup. I freeze each one in its own gallon Ziploc bag, complete with a pair of feet. Once a week, I thaw one and make a large pot of chicken soup. I put that into quart mason jars, and have a week's worth of lunches ready to go. I figure these birds will last me until it's time to start butchering the next batch of burned-out laying hens.