By Abbey Smith
My 85-year-old grandfather’s hobby is to hatch chickens and quail. An active logger, rancher and farmer all his life, he now keeps himself busy with three different egg incubators in his house. Each spring, I get about two dozen eggs from my mother’s flock, or my cousin Grace’s flock, in Indian Valley. They take the eggs to my grandfather, he hatches them for me in his incubators, and about a month later I have baby chicks waiting for me.
On our family’s ranch in Fort Bidwell, we raise the chicks until they are mature hens and roosters. Then, we keep the hens for egg-laying, and we butcher the roosters for stew chickens. I show my grandfather pictures of the chicks as they grow and comment on how many eggs they are laying, or how delicious the roosters tasted. It connects us. Even if I don’t need to get more chickens each year, (which my husband may argue is the case), and even if it would cost less to buy the chicken meat than to raise it, I will continue to get chicks each year from my grandfather because it bonds us. It is something we do together. I’m not sure how many more hatches we will share, so I treasure each one.
Part of our #lfx local food year is valuing nutrient-dense, self-raised food. We want our children to know how to grow, harvest and process their own food. We want them to have these self-reliant skills should they ever need them, to deeply value where their food comes from, and to understand and appreciate the work it takes to produce good food.
This is not only a flock of backyard chickens. It is also an expression of our Holistic Context, our values and our connections to our family.
How to harvest backyard roosters
It is so much more picturesque to harvest plums, berries or apples from the ranch. I would gladly share photos of my daughter with her little picking gear, up in a tree grabbing big beautiful apples. It is an entirely different scene to share photos of her harvesting a rooster with an axe. Yes, she did. She was proud of herself. We were proud of her. We felt it did not honor the animals to show photos of their death. The following is the process we used to harvest our roosters. They are a great source of meat and bone broth. They aren’t easy to harvest (they have feathers!), but it is rewarding to see a freezer shelf lined with meat that was raised and harvested a matter of feet from the ranch house. It is satisfying knowing how it was raised, and what went into it, in terms of feed and care.
We know the roosters are ready to harvest when they start terrorizing the hens in the flock. This is a sure sign they are mature enough. These roosters were about five months old at the time of harvest.
- Lock up the chickens: We harvest in the morning. The night before, when the chickens roost, lock the roosters in a smaller enclosure, so they are easy to access the next morning. For us, this means closing the inner door of the coop so the roosters cannot get out into the coop pen, and certainly not outside the coop pen where they are used to free-ranging.
- Prepare your harvest work area and establish a clear process, roles and responsibilities: Our daughter and her two friends helped us butcher roosters. Before we started, we explained the process and each person’s job. The girls actually chose to be the ones swinging the axe. They didn’t so much love the plucking phase of the process. If you are plucking your birds, vs. skinning them (it is recommended to pluck them as there is a lot of flavor and nutrients in the skin), make sure your pot of water is boiling before beginning the harvesting process.
- Butchering: My husband’s job was to enter the coop and bring out the bird to be harvested. He carries them by their feet, with their heads hanging upside down. They are motionless this way, and not stressed. The head is placed on a chopping round and the neck stretched by placing the head between two nails in the chopping round. A very sharp axe is brought down swiftly across the stretched neck, and with one chop, the head is severed. We place the carcass into a tub or bin to let the bird stop flopping.
- Plucking: Each rooster is submerged in boiling water and then tied by its feet to a fence. The plucker must work quickly to pull out all the feathers from the carcass. The boiling water bath makes the feathers come out easily. It is still quite a job to get out all the pin feathers and make a nice, clean carcass.
- Gutting: The innards of the bird must be removed. My husband does this with a knife and bucket. He pulls out all the organs and body cavity content of the roosters. We choose to save the gizzards and the hearts. We could also save livers, but we happen to have a lot of beef liver on hand at the moment. The rest of the contents go into a bucket along with the feathers, which is buried on the ranch. Make sure to remove the full digestive tract including the craw so that this does not contaminate the meat.
- Cutting and wrapping: The carcasses are transported to the kitchen for further cleaning. I use my hands to scrape through the body cavity and make sure the lungs are removed as well as any other tissue in the body cavity. Then, using the weight of the carcass, we bend the leg at the joint and cut around it, removing the feet. We make bone broth from the feet (it makes the best broth ever). Then, I wash out the cleaned carcass, remove any feathers that were missed, and either wrap the carcass in freezer paper or vacuum seal it.
We processed nine roosters this year. It took us about four hours from start to finish. It is more fun with friends, so the more people who can join in this activity, the better. Perhaps they will work for meat.
We used to think of roosters as “non-hens,” and thus an unfortunate presence in our flock. After a few years of butchering backyard roosters, we think of them as important additions to our winter supply of home-raised meat. The meat is very lean, and the dark meat can be tough, thus, we prefer a slow cooker or pressure cooker method, or confit for preparing the roosters. Our favorite recipes for rooster are: