Anyone who is contemplating getting into the backyard chicken movement needs to answer this inevitable question: what are you going to do when they stop laying eggs? The precise moment when this needs to be answered is as fixed as the tides; a hen is most productive in the first year of her life and her lay rate declines 20% a year like clockwork. By the time a hen is 3 years old she might be laying 2-3 eggs per week instead of 4-5, by 5 years she is laying one egg per week and is eating just as much feed as she has consumed since year one. Chickens easily live 8 to 10 years. Do you let them live out their lives regardless (lots of people do) or do you consign them to the fate of most chickens for the past 8,000 years: they become food. In our town we’re allowed up to 10 chickens, if I kept non-productive hens alive it would prevent me from getting 10 new ones.
This decision was easy for me, it was never my intention to keep ours past their prime, the greater challenge was finding someone to do the deed because killing and processing a chicken requires more equipment, skill and stamina than I personally possess. So how does a suburban family living outside Boston with two working parents even do this?
It’s a beautiful, crisp New England fall morning. The sun is bright and the colors are peaking. I’m stuck in traffic on Route 128 and my minivan is starting to smell of poo. In the back are 8 chickens inside a tub with a tarp over it. They are very quiet because the tarp keeps them in the dark. Chickens can’t see in the dark and if they can’t see they don’t fuss. I’m heading to a custom butcher and slaughterhouse in Bridgewater MA. I have an 8:00am appointment and I am already late due to lane closures. Might need to air the van out when I get home.
Ironically the abattoir is down the road from Bridgewater Raynham H.S. where our daughters have performed with their dance studio. I pull into a gravel driveway. The air has that unmistakable barnyard tang of hay, manure and livestock. It’s a smell I rather like. I’m sure not dressed as I usually do when I’m in this neck of the woods for a dance performance. I’m glad I wore work boots and an old barn jacket with lots of pockets for wallet, keys etc. This is not the kind of place to bring a handbag. A sign outside of the office says:
Fresh Eggs Sold Here
Knives Sold Here, New and Used
There are customers everywhere, Chinese, Caribbean, eastern European, extended families of grannies, uncles, little kids and teenagers. I hear at least three different languages. The slaughterhouse is a long building with a barn attached, the floors are concrete with drains in every room and the walls are enameled white. There are long hoses on the walls and a trolley system runs overhead. Propane tanks fuel scalding tubs for plucking and torches for singeing hair off hides. The butchers are big guys who can easily pick up a two hundred pound animal dozens of times a day. They move placidly and work slowly, this is dangerous work and they take their time. Fall is their busiest season; the guy who checks in orders answers the office phone and his cell phone at the same time. Farms all over the area need to get their animals processed before the winter sets in. Check-in guy tells me to go talk to the chicken guy, a tall rangy dude in a blue rubber apron down to his knees. He has a friendly face, wears several knives at his waist and says to me:
“How would you like them done?”
“Um, whole please?”
“You want any parts?” If my father was still alive I’d take the hearts, livers and gizzards. Since he’s been gone no one else in the family likes them so I decline.
“Heads and feet?”
“No thank you, can you take those off?” Two of our chickens had crooked toes and it would freak me out a little if I could recognize them. It’s obvious by my expression that I’m new at this so he says kindly,
“Sure they will look just like a supermarket chicken. Just bring them around to the garage door”
He helps me unload the tub from the van, I leave the tarp on and say a silent prayerful goodbye to the hens who have given us so much in the past three years. He says they’ll be done in about an hour. More customers arrive with turkeys, meat chickens and some go to the pens and pick out a live chicken, goose or duck they will have processed right there to take home. Their orders are stacked near mine, the garage door closes and I wander off to look around.
Next to the slaughterhouse is a barn with close to 100 animals that will be processed this weekend. In two pens mixed together are calves, sheep and large goats. Another pen has sheep, lambs and small goats. Two ton beef cattle are together in another pen and pigs are indolently napping in yet another pen. Each animal has been tagged by its owner, the sheep have colors spray painted on their wool and the cattle wear ear tags. All of them are well fed, fat and calm, there is no aggressive behavior and no sense of fear. They look at me as I talk to them. The variety of breeds within this small area is astonishing, there are black, white and brown sheep and rams that have curlicue horns over a foot long. There are goats with horns, goats with no horns, goats with goatees and goats with tufts of spiked hair on their foreheads that make them look like an 80’s new wave band. Some pigs are pink and some are black with white belly bands. The beef cattle are black, brown, brown and white and spotted. I could touch them if I wanted to and let me just say that after seeing them up close: cattle have huge heads. Huge. Near the pens is a stack of wool and cow pelts waiting to be picked up. A cross section slice of oxtail sits on a hay bale being picked at by birds. A butcher marches past smoking and holding a goose upside down by the legs as it will soon be dispatched.
Someone opens a door for fresh air and a crowd gathers to watch the butchers do their work. A lamb is lead in and a back leg is attached to a hoist, the animal rises into the air and in a moment the throat will be cut from ear to ear. Here I walk away because I’m not brave enough to witness the moment of death. Wandering back I see the lamb thrashing in its death throes as the blood drains away into a bucket. It’s over very fast. The butcher removes the wooly skin at the feet and peels the pelt off the body, cupping his hand between the body and the skins while he yanks it off. Then he cuts open the body and removes the organs. What are those big pointy balloon things? Testicles I think. If the customer wants them saved they go into a plastic grocery bag attached onto the same hook as the animal to keep everything together. A reciprocating saw is used to split the carcass in half and then the customer’s cuts are made.
Today pigs are the only animals that make sounds when they die, a kind of almost human scream that is a bit unnerving. I don’t watch the pigs being dispatched, the sound is enough. Pigs are trussed up by both back legs and their hair is scorched with a flame, the singed hair is scrapped off with a knife blade. They’re not skinned. A Chinese lady who seems to be a regular is instructing the butcher on her pork cuts. A plastic grocery bag with an unidentified organ in it is carefully handed to her, someone asks what it is. “Gall bladder, it’s like Viagra for the Chinese.” The butcher turns on the slaughterhouse version of a band saw and I mentally quiz myself on anatomy while the blade effortlessly cuts muscle, bone and sinew. Off comes the head and he places it snout up on a steel table, then he cuts through the body as she instructs and puts the pieces in a cardboard box lined with a plastic bag. He moves slowly and carefully around the blade because there is no guard on it. He expertly slices off two beautiful hams and then cuts the feet from the shanks. I think of my Polish grandmother who dearly loved pigs feet.
Two nice young guys drop off their meat chickens and we get into a discussion about the difference between raising meat birds and layers. They both rave about the delicious chicken they get from their own meat birds. Hm. It takes only 8 weeks to raise a Cornish X meat chicken from a 2 ounce chick to a 6 lb. bird ready to the be processed. We’re planning on replacing these layers with new baby chicks next spring and I make a mental note to talk to John about seeing if we can squeeze in some meat birds next spring while our layers are still in their brooder box in the garage. One of the guys tells me how much he loves venison, he’s a hunter with 300 lbs of venison meat in his freezer. I like hunters; they are people who love the outdoors. They cherish the natural world and truthfully most hunters I’ve met are truly concerned about the state of the environment. They are outside all the time and they see first hand what we’re doing to this planet.
Our chickens are ready. They are in the cooler sitting on ice, the tub is empty save for a few feathers stuck to the sides and a few bloody streaks on the tarp. The chicken guy helps me put the cooler and tub into the van and wishes me a Happy Thanksgiving. I thank him for his fine and honest work. Chicken soup sounds like a good idea for dinner. I feel much more connected to my food now.