One morning about six months ago, I watched a very quiet and personal scene in the chicken barn. One of the hens was ready to lay an egg. The rest of the flock was ranging around the yard, finding bugs and worms. Cosmo, our little rooster, was nearby, but Rose wanted to be with her sister Poppy. The two hens clucked and muttered back and forth with each other for a few moments, then Rose hopped up into the box and Poppy stood watch below, with Cosmo nearby. When Rose showed signs of being ready for the egg Poppy began to make little keening noises at the same time Rose did. Soon Cosmo joined in. It seemed to cheer Rose on, and in a few minutes, the egg came out.
Our hens don't spend much time with their eggs. Rose quickly hopped down, shook herself off, and the trio ran out to join the flock.
The same day I found myself behind a massive truck full of caged chickens. The cages were covered incompletely with heavy tarp, which whipped around in the wind. A vortex of white feathers swirled in the truck's wake. The hens huddled miserably in their wire pens. I didn't count how many rows of cages there were, but I could have and then calculated exactly how many hens were being transported. Maybe they were going to a nice place where they could run around. I doubted it then and I still do.
|My darling rooster Cosmo|
Until this last year I've been vegetarian but I do eat eggs. I can't do that without knowing, either consciously or down inside that something happens to the brothers of all the hens who lay eggs for me.
Whether the hens are experiencing reasonably natural behavior, or in big factory farms in tiny cages, only the hens get to be part of the equation.
From watching my own rooster Cosmo, I knew what brave, admirable and passionate animals these birds can be. They do fight, and they crow. And of course they don't pay the bills by laying eggs.
There is never enough room for them all. Add another rooster to our farm and he'd turn Cosmo into hamburger!
So for a family with chickens, extra roosters are a real issue.
|A happy life for a productive hen|
Some of us buy all female chicks. We know the roosters go somewhere, but we don't worry about it. Others buy straight run - an unsexed mixture of male and female chicks. When it becomes clear who the roosters are, either by feather characteristics or crowing, they either eat the roos or find someone else to do the honors.
Today, I became that someone else. I've known for a while that I wanted to. It seems better for the roos to have normal lives, but short ones, than to be destroyed at birth and go to waste or to be caged, fattened, and killed without ever experiencing normal chicken instincts.
It also seemed better for a rooster to go straight from his home to his demise than to get dragged to an auction, listen to all the unfamiliar animals, smell their stress, spend a day getting schlepped around, waiting to die. That sounded miserable.
So I took a couple of extra roosters from another farmer, and prepared them for cooking.
I will not show pictures. This was my first solo experience with what is euphemistically called "Poultry Processing" - slaughtering chickens. I didn't waste a moment taking pictures or trying to make things pretty. I was 100% focused on doing it well, making their deaths fast, and (honestly) being done before school got out. I had timed things a little too closely.
Leaving the first one in the transport box, I started in. I hung my bird by his feet, with his head in a bucket. Then I used a very sharp, very small knife to cut the big vein on each side of his windpipe. I have never been more glad that the knives of Several Gardens Farm are always sharp. The cut was neither deep, nor was the skin very tough. It was comparable to cutting through a mango.
The chickens bled a lot. I had seen this done before but was unprepared for the metallic smell, or the huge mess one of them made when I let him go too soon and he thrashed around. I tried not to wonder about how conscious they were, instead to make it fast. A friend and I talk about 'suspending empathy' in order to do a hard task well. That's what I did. I had expected to spend more time in prayer during the event. I didn't at all. Too busy. Note to self, next time pray first.
The hardest part of the day was going back for the second rooster. But I had committed myself at that point, so I did.
It was pretty clear when the birds were dead. Their feet cooled down almost as soon as they stopped bleeding. I held them in hot water to loosen the feathers, and plucked them. Physically this was harder and more miserable than killing them. It took longer, gave me more time to be sad, and was hard to do with any grace. Also there were lots of brand new pin feathers, which for some reason was very heartbreaking. But it had to be done. Unfortunately I tore the skin while plucking. I really hated plucking. I liked working alone for the rest of it but I would have liked help with this part.
Then I cut off the head and feet. After that, they started to look like something from the store. It was easier now.
I chilled one bird while cutting open the other. This part was sort of cool. All the body parts were just where they should be. I'm a biologist, and it was a dissection, what can I say? Most of all, I had to be careful not to break the intestines (I did break them on one and had to scrub him when I was done) or the gall bladder. Taking out the inner organs was a calmer time that let me stop shaking, get my focus and say my belated prayer.
After removing the innards, I put the two chickens in a sink full of ice water to get their inner temperatures down as low as possible. Then they went into the fridge to "relax" for 24 hours. They were in rigor mortis and become less tough if they're allowed to come back out of it.
Then I had time to reflect. How did I feel?
- I didn't feel guilty. I don't tend to feel guilty once I've made my mind up to do something. I've made my peace.I didn't expect to, but you never know. Guilt can blindside sometimes.
- I did feel really sad. I wish things didn't have to die. I wish I could ignore it if it has to happen. I think about the other chickens - will they miss these two boys? Sad felt appropriate and I didn't try to block it out.
- I also felt sort of like a criminal. I was afraid a neighbor would see me and turn me in. I found this interesting because most people eat chicken, but you never see the viscera and the blood. Eating a chicken someone else killed = normal. Killing a chicken = j'accuse!
- Oh yeah - the blood. I did not expect to feel so compulsive about cleaning everything that might have touched blood. I went into this concerned about the salmonella in the guts - a real, solid fear. But the blood was sort of a melodramatic reaction I don't usually have.
- I expected to feel gratitude for the roosters, but I would no longer choose that word. Gratitude is for a gift willingly given. When I milk Meggie, and she turns to me and licks my hair as I do it, I'm grateful to her for sharing her bounty. These roosters didn't get a choice. I don't have a word for what I felt toward them in honor of their unwilling sacrifice. But just calling it gratitude is too glib.
- Hungry. I timed it to be done before school got out, but I forgot to fold in time for getting lost on the way to picking them up. So I didn't get to eat. Anyway I didn't think I'd want to. But I did. I have a very hearty appetite.
Two days later, we ate the first of the two roosters. We had our expectations set fairly low. I could see that he was thinner and stringier than a chicken from the store. This makes sense. He spent his days actively seeking food and interacting with other birds, not resting in a cage being fattened up. His life was spent being himself, not being prepared for slaughter.
The whole roast bird was small enough that our family of three ate every bite in one sitting - and we are moderate meat eaters. The meat was juicy and chewier than a purchased chicken. But oh my - the flavor was superb. We ate the bird roasted with salt and lime but without extra flavoring. The meat was rich, herbal, meaty, and packed with intensity. This sounds corny but the meat tasted like a concentrated essence of sunshine and fresh air. It was clean and nutty and somehow innocent.
To his great credit, Noah ate every bite of the bird and sucked the bits of extra meat off the bones. He is a fussy eater but he never wastes meat. When his friends leave part of a drumstick, he gently reminds them that meat is special and should be treated with respect.
I think I will do this again. I expect the mechanics to get easier, and my feelings to reach some kind of steady state. Next time I raise a flock, I will certainly choose straight run and plan to eat the roosters, but I may put my feelers out for people who want their roo's dealt with in the meanwhile.
In a dream world somewhere, every animal can live a long, happy, productive natural life. In the world where we live now, this does not happen but at least we can let them fill their shorter lives with as much meaning and dignity as possible.
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