Four months ago, our blue Australorp hen hatched out four delightful little puffballs – our second brood of homegrown chicks. We were so pleased and she proved to be an excellent mother, proud and protective.
It was the middle of spring, the perfect time to enjoy a bunch of new chicks hooning around and we hoped they would help us to grow our flock of laying hens.
Unfortunately, all four turned out to be roosters. Including my favourite, the timid (and rather thick) little white one. He seemed to be bottom of the bunch, and not too agile or skilled at flying. He took to roosting on the floor, until we made lower perches inside and out, about six inches off the ground.
Anyway, after the first one began to crow, nothing could delay the inevitable. We could tell the rest were roosters because of their pointed saddle and neck feathers. They would have to go.
**Fair warning, there is a bit of gore coming up. Some rooster cull pictures, nothing I would lose my lunch over but I can appreciate home butchering isn’t for everyone.**
Last Sunday we killed and butchered two of them. As we are relatively new to the process (my partner has culled plenty of chickens in the past but we have only butchered a small number for eating since moving here), we usually only do one or two at a time. I am the plucking pro, he is the innard wrangler! After much trial and plenty of error, we have settled on a method that works for us.
We rig up a ladder with a “killing cone” at chest height, a traffic cone with the narrow end cut off so the bird’s head can easily fit through. We tie their feet together to make them easier to handle, then I hold them, give them a pat and a kind word, and drop them upside-down into the cone. Sometimes you need to pull their head out of the bottom, if they twist their heads upright – I still marvel at how flexible chickens’ necks are. Then we cut the throat and remove the head with a very sharp knife, and leave the bird to bleed out for about ten minutes. The cone keeps the bird contained and prevents any muscle twitching or wing beating from bruising the meat.
Then we will usually grab a beer each and start plucking. We prefer not to dunk them in hot water as it just makes the feathers stick to your fingers. And wet feathers stink, sort of like burning hair or finger nail filings. Not nice. If the birds are still relatively young and the skin is warm, the feathers come out easily enough without scalding.
This time, we decided to have a go at skinning the birds rather than plucking. Australorps are a dual-purpose “heritage” breed, not one of the relatively new (post-1950s) selectively-bred meat strains, like the chicken meat you buy from the shops. The modern meat strains (eg, Inghams chickens) are table-ready in as little as seven weeks, whereas our Australorps take about six months to mature fully. And the dark feathers and hairs on our birds can make the carcass look unappealing once plucked. In all honesty, I much prefer the clean look of the chickens we skinned to the ones we have plucked previously. I think this is the method we will use from now on.
We watched a youtube video on how to skin a chicken before trying it ourselves! Unhelpfully, the most crucial parts where instruction would’ve helped – the ends – were edited out. Great. Thanks youtube.
The trickiest parts were the beginning of skinning at the neck, with the removal of the crop and windpipe, and cutting around the vent to remove the rest of the innards without rupturing anything potentially filled with poo. Luckily, Ben did an awesome job on the first bird and was much quicker with the second. Meanwhile, I went into the kitchen to start on dinner – homegrown chicken curry!
Every week in our local paper, there are so many ads in the free section for “pet rooster, free range, to good home only”, it is laughable! Odds on, you can bet that the “good home” is going to be a pot or a freezer. Sadly, there are no rooster retirement homes out there for all the spare pricks, and on a farm it’s just bad luck to be born a boy. Most roosters in a home flock are destined for the pot.
But I don’t feel sad for our four boys. They were hatched and raised naturally by a wonderful mother hen. They had a great life in a beautiful quiet home, able to free range safely during the day and enjoy the sun, grass and dirt, with a large clean coop and warm den to roost in at night. When the time came, we ended their lives humanely and it was all over quickly with a minimum of fear and pain. Knowing this, I truly think it makes the meat taste better.
We only got to knock off two of the boys last Sunday, but will hopefully get to do the other two this weekend. It is satisfying to know that each time we are getting faster and more skilled in the process of providing ourselves with “happy” homegrown meat.