The Friday before last marked ten weeks since we’d gotten a straight run batch of fifty Red Ranger broilers, with the goal of raising high-quality meat for our freezer.
A couple of raccoon incursions brought us down to something like 45 or 46. Have YOU tried counting dozens of active birds and felt entirely confident about your result? In truth, the last time I felt completely sure about our count was when we put them out in the retrofitted dog kennel in the barn. I picked up every single one and transferred them individually to a plastic tub for transport, and there were actually fifty-one.
We didn’t lose any to illness–these Red Rangers are super healthy birds. They do what their name implies, and so in addition to the mostly organic and transitional feed they mobbed over morning and night, they also spent a lot of time roaming around the pen, feasting on whatever happened to present itself as a tasty morsel–bugs, weeds–maybe even the occasional small rodent.
In between lugging fifty pound bags of feed and forty pound buckets of water (my shoulders are beginning to resemble a football player’s), they gave us a lot of joy and laughs with their chicken-y antics. Opening the kennel gate in the morning was like watching the opening of a football game, when a team’s players bust through a banner and come charging out onto the field—a river of red feathers and energy. The cockerels would raise their hackles and face off, then go racing off in another direction to do the same with another young rooster. The hens followed me to the far reaches of the pen, expecting me to lead them to some rare and exotic tidbit they’d overlooked.
But after ten weeks (and 2 ½ bags of feed a week!), with half the flock (that is, about twenty-five roosters) raising their voices at dawn in a chorus sounding like party favor noisemakers left overnight in a puddle of spilt vodka lemonade, it was time to put meat in the freezer.
John spent a lot of time thinking about our system, and how we’d set it up for maximum efficiency. We ordered a kit including a drill attachment for de-feathering, a medium “killing cone,” and a small, sharp knife (of course we have plenty of knives, but this turned out to be a really nice tool), set up buckets and tubs to hold blood, feathers, and innards, a table for processing and hangers for plucking, and picked up some ice to chill the processed birds before their ascent to the basement freezer.
We also ordered in a couple of large killing cones, and were glad we did—the “medium,” which looked like a reasonable size, wasn’t large enough for our not-super-large birds, and the “large,” which looked ridiculously big coming out of the box, were a perfect fit to slide the whole bird in snugly and still be able to slip a hand in beneath to coax the head out the bottom. John mounted those side by side on a board attached to the chicken pen fence, with the propane turkey cooker set up adjacently for heating water to scald the birds before plucking. Most all of the supplies we purchased will be useful for years to come, so the investment will pay off over the long run.
The first Saturday, we butchered about twenty-six birds between 7am and 1pm. We were incredibly grateful to have help in the form of a couple of experienced farmer friends–Sean Hyatt (and cousin Callan), who operates a diversified farm near Milbank, and Terry VanDerPol, who grazes beef cattle near Granite Falls. I had only butchered chickens once before, as part of a Dakota Rural Action skill session at Glacial Lakes Permaculture in Estelline, SD. Permaculturist Karl Schmidt was gracious enough to allow a bunch of greenhorns to assist in the processing of part of his flock.
However, being a participant in a group session is not the same as doing a flock yourself, and it had been several years since John had processed birds, too. The help and “skill-refreshers” we got that first day (as well as how far we got in the project) meant that yesterday’s completion went even more smoothly—John and I started at 6:30am and processed the remaining seventeen birds by ourselves in a little less than four hours.
If you’re keeping track of numbers, you’ll see that the number of birds I mentioned ending up with after the raccoons were done and the number we butchered are not the same. That’s not because my count was wrong to begin with; it’s because I read that Red Rangers make decent laying hens, so I moved a couple of the smallest pullets to the laying flock before our first butchering session. The morning of the butchering, I also added to the broiler flock the “surprise” Americana rooster I got in a supposedly straight run of pullets from the farm store this spring. Stiltz was quite the troublemaker, so I wasn’t sad to see him go. But, he won’t be a “company chicken”—I know now why the hatcheries tout the desirability of yellow skin in fowl destined for the table—under all that pretty plumage his was an unappetizing dingy grey.
I was the main “grabber and sticker” that first butchering day, and my eyes kept landing on a pretty, plump pullet with tones of slate blue in her plumage. I avoided taking her to the cones, and that night, I moved her over with the laying flock as well. She didn’t “take” as well as the other two did—the next morning, she was back in the broiler pen. During yesterday’s processing, I left her in the kennel until last, then moved her again, thinking she might not be as likely to hop the fence if the rest of the broilers were gone.
John and I headed out to dinner last night (our first anniversary is today!), and returned just at dark. As I feared, she was nowhere to be found in the henhouse, so we went out with flashlights and found her settled down for the night under a cattle panel leaning against the broiler pen fence. In my party dress and muddy shoes, I fished her out, carried her back into the coop, and set her on the lower roost. This morning, she was back in her old stomping grounds, and I caught her again (fishing net this time), brought her into the coop, and set her right in front of the feeder. I just took a break from writing and went out to check, and you’ll never guess where she is, again. This might be a lengthy training process…
Eventually, I’ll open the gate between the pens and give the hens and their two roosters full range of both spaces, but it’s probably best to give it a week or so until everybody is clear about where they’re supposed to sleep at night.
We toyed briefly with the idea of getting another batch of Red Rangers for fall. After all, it might be nice to process (not to mention haul feed and water) when the weather is cooler. But after looking at available freezer space (not much) and realizing that we probably don’t need to eat a whole chicken every single week of the year (there’s always leftovers and stock!), not to mention the imminent arrival of canning season and all the projects that entails, we’re pretty sure we’re done with meat birds for this year.
Now, I suppose it’s time to head back out and re-re-re-locate that pretty blue-grey pullet.