Butcher day

After months of feeding, watering and changing areas, my chickens are gone. Well, technically, they’ve gone from outside in the chicken houses to inside my freezer. Butcher day had arrived.

We had first thought we’d butcher them ourselves. After reading up on butchering techniques and realizing we did not know from straight up what we were doing, we checked out other options.

My husband works part time at a job which takes him off the farm a few days a week. One of his co-workers happens to be Amish. They were talking one day, and the Amish farmer and his family offered to butcher our chickens for us. He and my husband settled on a fee, and the date was set.

Arising at 5:30 a.m. on butcher day, my husband backed our cattle trailer up to the chicken houses. We had figured trailering them was the best way to transport 35 chickens. We began to transfer them, one by one, up into the trailer. The chickens were kept in two houses which, at their highest peak, were about 4 feet high, so it was impossible for me to stand up inside.

Crawling in through the door, I grabbed a gunny sack and, scooting on hands and knees, caught each chicken by the leg, hauling them as gently as I could to my waiting husband, who grabbed them on each side, holding their wings in tight to their bodies so they wouldn’t get injured in the transfer. After one night in their fresh grass, it was no longer quite so fresh, so I was literally moving my gunny sack around in chicken dung. Oh, the things I get myself into.

We dropped them off around 6:30 a.m. and were told to come back shortly after lunch. They’d figured it would take them at least that long.

At 11 a.m., my husband received a call. It was taking them longer than they had thought. Those chickens were big!

They had done nothing but eat, drink and poop. Moving them approximately every other day, they always had fresh grass to peck in. With a good portion of food every morning and every evening and along with fresh water three times a day, they had thrived.

One chicken, however, must have broken a leg or wing at one point and was struggling the whole time. I’d always pour a portion of feed close by and the chicken would devour it before the others discovered it was there. Somehow it had always made its way to the water dish and therefore did make it the whole time, but the Amish family decided the meat on that one wasn’t good, so all my efforts for that particular chicken were basically in vain.

We decided to get to the Amish family early, perhaps another pair of hands could pitch in and make the job go a little quicker. Getting there, I realized they were very competent and knew exactly what they were doing. They had a number of cold tubs of water holding the plucked chickens, waiting for the assembly line to catch up.

“What can I do?” I inquired of the pretty Amish mom, who had four little children under the age of 7 playing around the yard. Her aunt was there helping, and she had brought a couple of older girls to help with the children as well as the chickens. It was a family affair.

Shyly, she suggested, “Would you like to finish plucking the pin feathers out?”

I took my place in line while my husband helped to freezer-wrap the ones ready to go. We had borrowed five large coolers from my sister-in-law and purchased bags of ice just before we came back, so the wrapped birds were immediately placed in ice-filled coolers.

We had mentioned at one point to our pastor that we were raising chickens, and he had shown a keen interest in the feet and necks. He is from the Philippines and, from what we gathered, chicken feet are a part of their diet. I didn’t ask too many questions. We have approximately 70 feet in gallon freezer bags sitting in my freezer at this moment. I try not to look at them.

The afternoon was passed in pleasant conversation. The adults would occasionally speak in Pennsylvania Dutch to the children. Watching them interact with each other was fascinating to me. Such life lessons taught here! Everything the children needed, they were learning hands-on.

Finally, the last chicken was wrapped and placed in the cooler. We thanked them for a job well done, said our goodbyes and hauled our produce to friends, dropping them off here and there, keeping 10 chickens for our own consumption.

After the day was done, I realized I could never have done this. The process entailed too much (how do I say this gently?) blood and guts. I shudder thinking about how exactly it was done, but I realize that this is the essence of life — food raised on our own farm to enjoy and to share. It is with much satisfaction that we delivered these birds to each family.

Thankful for my husband’s help and our Amish friend’s expertise, raising chickens, and especially butcher day, was a life experience I will never forget — and will probably try again.

(“God blessed Noah and his sons. He said, ‘Prosper! Reproduce! Fill the Earth! Every living creature: birds, animals, fish, will fall under your spell and be afraid of you. You’re responsible for them. All living creatures are yours for food, just as I gave you the plants, now I give you everything else.’” Genesis 9:1-3, The Message Bible)