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The ABCs of a Small-time Chicken Farming Operation

Shocking news report: Chicken farming is not glamorous. (And here you thought it was right up there with brushing Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair right before the Oscars.)

I’m always a bit amazed by how disgusted some people get by the prospect of killing animals for food but then have no problem eating the result of that process. Whether consumers get their poultry from small-time chicken farmers like myself, or from the refrigerated cases of a grocery store, animal blood was shed so people can enjoy their chicken soup and arroz con pollo.

Allow me to walk you through the process of a small-time (very small-time) poultry operation. My husband and I raise and butcher between 40 and 60 pasture raised birds at our property in rural Virginia several times a year. We do it because Jake loves farming (we don’t have the acreage for pigs or cattle) and we, like so many these days, like knowing where our meat comes from and how it was raised.

Oh, and don’t worry. This is a G-rated version of the process. I didn’t include any questionable pics — save for one scary looking chicken foot! — in the following slideshow.

Um, enjoy?

  • The Chicks Arrive from the Hatchery 1 of 11
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    It seems funny to me now that we first got into chicken farming when I was eight months pregnant with my first baby. Such timing. 

    Anyway, once the baby chicks arrive, they're kept under heating lamps in the brooder until they're big enough to be moved outside. The number one killer of chicks (aside from predators) is the cold; they need to be kept toasty warm (80-90 degrees) until their feathers sprout. 

  • The Birds are Moved onto Grass 2 of 11
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    Once they're big enough and their feathers have sprouted, the chickens are moved outside onto grass. We confine them to portable tractors that are pulled around the yard several times a day. This way they're protected from predators — pretty much ANYTHING will eat chickens —  and they also have constant access to fresh forage. A chicken's natural diet is grass, clover, and bugs. 

  • The Dreaded Day Arrives 3 of 11
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    Birds raised for meat are butchered anywhere from the time they're 8 to 14 weeks old, depending on the breed. Once we see they're big enough, the birds are transferred from the tractors to cages to be moved closer to the "processing station." This is the antiseptic way of saying "the chickens are going to die now."

  • The Part Where You Want to Cover Your Eyes 4 of 11
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    Birds are deposited head first into the kill cones. Their heads are gently pulled through the bottoms, and their throats are swiftly cut. Killing the birds in this position serves two purposes. Number one, it induces a kind of chicken trance — the birds become ultra calm and dazed when they're upside down, making the process go that much more smoothly. Number two, it allows the blood to flow into a trough below.  

  • Into the Scalder They Go 5 of 11
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    Once the birds have bled out and the heads have been removed, the bodies are dunked into a scalder, a vat of near-boiling water that loosens all the feathers in preparation for plucking. 

  • Next Up, the Featherman 6 of 11
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    Plucking a chicken by hand is so 1953. We invested in a Featherman Pro, a laundry-like machine that spins around super fast to de-feather up 4 to 5 birds at once in about 20 seconds. This here is the cutting edge of poultry farming, friends. 

  • Time to Eviscerate! Cartwheels! 7 of 11
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    Here I am holding a chick ... wait a minute. That's not a chicken. That's June. One month after she was born. Thankfully, I was exempt from disemboweling duties that day ... three cheers for new motherhood.

     

  • Chickens — The Cutting Edge of Nail Fashion 8 of 11
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    I have to admit, every time I see a pic of Lady GaGa's spiky "razor nails," I think of this picture. 

  • Time for a Snack 9 of 11
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    Believe it or not, you DO get hungry while disemboweling birds. It's fairly physical work, and it doesn't take long before you're starving, as distasteful as the job is. We've found that the only thing we feel like eating while processing are donuts and pizza. 

  • It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like Perdue 10 of 11
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    The cleaned and gutted birds are transferred to an ice bath for cooling. 

  • The Birds Are Bagged and Weighed 11 of 11
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    The chickens are then transferred to freezers where they await pick up from customers. And it usually takes a week or so before we're ready to eat chicken. 

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