The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Killing chickens: Mystical, not murderous

Pastured chickens

Like many homesteaders who weren't raised to the task, slaughtering our own meat animals was one of the thorniest issues Mark and I faced as newbies.  Despite our trepidation, though, we've found that taking our meat all the way from egg to table ourselves has given us a mystical (Mark's word) connection to our nutrition that we never felt before.

Our first home-killed chickenWhich isn't to say the journey was easy.  The first chickens I helped kill were pre-Mark, and I can't recall if any of them actually got eaten.  Each rooster had a name and they were all too old for the flesh to be easily palatable by the time we finally did the deed.  The whole event was traumatizing, akin to my childhood experience of naming the calves we were going to sell for meat.

A couple of years later, I had met Mark and we were considering raising broilers for the first time.  Some friends kindly agreed to let us come "help" them slaughter their chickens in exchange for a tutorial, and even though we learned a lot from gutting the birds, the three throats I managed to slit felt like three too many.

When the time finally came to kill our own birds, Mark and I made a deal --- he would kill the chickens (the really hard part emotionally) and I would do everything else.  We got the first bird in the kill bucket, Mark thanked it for the meat it was going to provide, and then he slit its throat.  By the time the feathers were off, I was able to consider the pink thing in front of me to be food worth processing, not an animal I'd murdered in cold blood.

You can tell the emotional level of a task by the behavior of our pets, and chicken-killing is no exception.  During our first few slaughtering days, Lucy danced around excitedly and had to be tied up, an indication that Mark's and my stomachs were tense from the ordeal.  Lately, though, Lucy acts like a lady, even (mostly) leaving the entrails bucket alone when I go inside to put a newly-cleaned chicken into the fridge.  Chicken-killing day isn't our favorite part of the week, but it's no longer dreaded, and I no longer have to wait several days until the butchering images leave my mind before I can partake of the meat.

chickenSpeaking of that meat --- it seems to taste better for having been produced with our own four hands.  Adding meat animals to our homestead has turned our land from a garden that we tend to as outsiders into an ecosystem that we're part of.  Mark sums it up this way: "If you kill the chickens you eat, you're part of the food chain."

I don't know if there's a way to fast-forward through the more difficult parts of learning to slaughter your own meat animals (short of being raised among people who consider the task no big deal).  But I would recommend that carnivorous homesteaders learn to butcher their own meat sooner rather than later.  I try to steer clear of the spiritual world whenever possible, but I have to admit that Mark's right --- killing chickens, in the right mindset, is a mystical experience.

Our newest waterer, the EZ Miser, is bigger, cleaner, and even easier.

This post is part of our "I wish I'd known" lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Good article. It sounds just like my husband and I. We thank the birds for what they provide and hubby does the killing (we have cones for both chickens and turkeys, which are even harder to kill for us). He built his own chicken plucker and then I take over after that. We do have to be in the right frame of mind to perform this and you are correct, it can be mystical.

Thanks for explaining it for some of the rest of us also.

Comment by Susan Thu Aug 22 14:56:18 2013

My wife and I have family members who acquire much of their food from hunting and fishing, and others who raise their own animals (chickens included). Because of this we've had some firsthand exposure of what is involved in getting meat to the table.

I think the modern-day commoditization of meat has allowed people to completely separate the food from its origins and remain ignorant of the reality of what it takes to get meat from a living, breathing animal. The current "bacon craze" is one illustration of this type of thinking. This has also allowed the current system of industrial-scale factory farming to develop, with all of its cruelty and inhumanity.

In my opinion, everyone who chooses to eat meat should have some firsthand exposure to the entirety of the process -- raising and/or hunting, killing, and processing -- to keep the "mystical" relationship to the animals in mind.

My wife and I choose to abstain from meat for these reasons, but for those who do eat meat, I applaud those who are willing to understand the entire process firsthand.

Comment by Executioner Thu Aug 22 15:45:15 2013

I've butchered a couple of sheep and goats with help, but still am a newby. I'm taking a poultry harvesting class this Saturday, and am excited.

I've grown up with animals and have eaten more than a few that I had named (though they went off to a butcher in between.)

One of the most important things I've learned from my father, who has the most experience on the farm and hunting, though they don't regularly butcher anything.

"Don't hesitate." Be organized, have sharp equipment, and once you commit, don't hesitate - that isn't humane or right.

Comment by Charity Thu Aug 22 16:16:29 2013

I think you've articulated quite well what many of us feel when we raise meat animals.

One additional thing I've found is that we now really hate to waste any of the animal. In the past, we'd throw away chicken frames, bones, necks, offal, even leftovers, and only the "prime" parts would be eaten. Now, having gone to the effort to raise and slaughter our own ducks, chickens, rabbits and pigs, we really want to make the most of every part we can.

Besides, home-made stock makes any dish better!

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Fri Aug 23 02:00:14 2013
What breeds are those chunky chickens you are harvesting? Are they the males of your straight run layers? How old are they?
Comment by Elizabeth Fri Aug 23 09:57:27 2013

Although slaughter day has both physical and mental challenges for our family, it gives us all great pride to be able to provide meat for our family. Our Daughter (5 years old) always proudly states this is the "chicken we raised" when we have chicken for dinner. For me I like taking responsibility for raising our own meat, much the way that I like growing as much of our fruits and vegetables as possible. It provides not only a physical closeness to the food that we raise and grow but a spiritual closeness as well. Love this post, thank you.

Comment by Henry Fri Aug 23 11:06:20 2013
My very first experience slaughtering a chicken was actually an old rooster I got free on Craig's List, as I wasn't sure I could muscle through killing my chickens with names at first. I remember too much anxiety, taking deep breaths and long pauses as I worked. Thankfully that calming inner peace that comes with the connection to your food--the same feelings you and the commenters describe--has grown more and more with each chicken I've slaughtered over the last year (and with the growing of so much of our own veggies now, too). Now I go about my chicken business with quiet respect for what I'm doing. And I've graduated from making only chicken stock with thebirds to actually cooking edible chicken meat, too, which seems like a feat.
Comment by jen g Sat Aug 24 11:25:45 2013

I appreciate all the thoughtful comments on this post!

Elizabeth --- Most of my homegrown broilers don't look like the one pictured in this post. That was one of our early experiments with Dark Cornish, which do produce a more storebought-appearing carcass, but which turned out to be heavy eaters. Now our broilers are the same as our layer flock (currently a mixture of Rhode Island Red, Cuckoo Marans, and Black Australorps, with new varieties joining the gene pool for next year's broilers), and they're much leggier. We eat both the males and females at 12 weeks, when they are small but not yet tough. You can read more about our broilers here.

Comment by anna Sat Aug 24 11:42:24 2013

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