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“While visions of dismemberment danced in their heads…”

October 21, 2010 4 comments

I spent an hour or so thinking about this in the middle of the night last night, how, how, how! In just over 3 weeks we plan on butchering 2 of the pigs. With the chickens it was easy enough to get the logistics done as one guy with no experience can kill and process a chicken pretty easily. Pigs are bigger, much BIGGER. Here is my list of things to get done:

1: Determine how the pigs get stunned/killed. Unfortunately the gun laws require a safety course and month-plus waiting time to get a license to buy a gun or ammunition and I’ve been too busy so the “easy” option of shooting the pig myself is out. Other options are using a sledgehammer to the head, but this is more risky and less humane. Also, we could find someone who lives nearby to do it but we haven’t gotten any commitments yet. Why couldn’t more of my friends be avid hunters?

2: Figure out where the kill is done. Once stunned you should hoist the pig and slice the vessels in the neck/chest to bleed it out. This should be done within minutes of the stunning while the heart is still beating. To hoist the animal I need to get a gambrel and affix it to an overhead beam of some sort. This could be by the kids’ swingset, the barn, the garage or the pumphouse. Indoors might be better if the weather is not cooperating, but in any way the pigs will need to be moved to the location alive which means we will need to coax it into the dog kennel so it can be moved out, or just tied and push/pull/dragged in place.

3: I’ve watched a butchering video (God bless YouTube) and it looks like skinning is the way to go, much easier than dipping/scalding the pig to get the hair off. I don’t plan on eating the skin anyways, so why go to all the trouble of getting it hair-free? Probably the skinning would be done in the same place as the killing and bleeding on a big plastic folding table… sure.. that sounds like a plan.

4: After hanging out overnight and gutted I figure the carcass will be moved into the kitchen to be cut into ribs and roasts and whatnot. It’ll be nice to have the sinks and clean counter space handy even if it does seem out of place to have a 100+ lb piece of meat in the middle of the room.

5: I hate black pig. The pink ones are friendly, when I feed them they are happy to let me pat their back and sides while they munch away and I can take their measurements (length and circumference) to calculate their weight. Black pig runs away and will try to go to the other side of the pink ones from me, or just stay away until I leave. This is going to make getting her in position to be porkchops a little more difficult. I might need to put some rope slipknots on the ground around the food and then try to snare her while she eats. Also, there was the whole debacle when Elijah was in the pen helping me fix their waterer and black pig bit him in the ass and yanked his pants down around his ankles. This was hilarious to see him pantsed by a pig until he started crying because he did actually get pinched by the bite.

So there you have it, planning and thinking and plotting the demise of 2 pigs. I am sure that next year will be so much easier but for now this is a lot to think about.

One thing is for sure, those pigs had better be tasty.

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I, Butcher

September 22, 2010 5 comments

Over the last 2 weekends we have gone from 13 meat chickens to 7 meat chickens and 6 chunks of meat.  This was a really interesting experience, the culmination of the whole “let’s be more hands on with our food”.  It is easy to do when you are pulling a carrot out of the ground or slicing a zucchini free from the vine, but making that transition from living thing to food is not as easy when it can look you in the eye.

imageGetting ready to butcher the chickens was as much of a production as the butchering itself.  On Saturday I had to build a killing cone out of sheet metal and get the area prepped.  The cone was built using dimensions I found online and was fairly easy.  I cut a trapezoid out of some ducting metal and then cut 3 large tabs from one end and 3 slots into the other side.  I rolled it together, fit the tabs into the slots and then bent the tabs over and hammered them flat.  This ensures the cone won’t pull apart, and while it would have been easier to just rivet the ends together I didn’t have a rivet gun handy.  I then hammered over the top edge where the ends overlap to keep them together and wrapped a seam of duct tape inside and out to make the joint free from any sharp edges – I wouldn’t want a chicken to get cut in the cone because I had been lazy.  To finish it off I hammered a hole near the top to put a hooked nail through so I could hang it in the pumphouse off a metal loop I had installed on the wall.

DSC_0357The other thing to get ready was the butchering area.  The pumphouse has easy access to water (although very cold) and electricity and has a cement floor so it was the best place to set up camp.  I had noticed an old sink in the garage holding up a shelf and after moving some things around an old enameled cast iron sink was found to painfully move across the field.  Someone had fitted iron pipe together to make a 2-legged stand and screwed this to the garage wall so this had to be moved as well.  After getting the sink in I considered fitting a drain underneath as there was a hole in the wall right under the sink, but I settled on just placing a large bucket under the sink that I could dump outside.  I ran a hose from the pump up behind the sink and we were halfway to a working butcher area.  I also needed a cutting station so I moved an old desk from the quonset to use as a table, but I didn’t like it as a cutting surface.  I racked my brain and remembered the pair of “modern” glass and metal computer desks we had never unpacked when we moved here.  I went into the garage to raid the boxes and came out with a (probably) 2 foot by 3 foot glass sheet that could serve as an easy to clean and durable cutting surface.

DSC_0356Early Sunday morning I went out to the chicken coop with my scale and bucket and picked out 2 of the biggest chickens wandering the yard, each was about 6 pounds.  I put them into a wire dog kennel for the day with access to water, but no food, as butchering is easier if the crop (a food storage sack in the neck) isn’t full, and their intestines would be less full of wastes that could make things messy if I missed a cut.  The day went on as normal and after getting the kids to sleep Erron and I were able to go out and get to work.  We brought out a big pot of ~140-150oF water for scalding and a hot plate to keep it warm, a couple of newly sharpened knives and some pots for “bits”.

imageErron served as the reader while I did the majority of the cutting.  We set up my laptop with a well photo-documented butchering tutorial on one side and she would tell me where and what to cut next.  She was also there to take pictures for your enjoyment.  To start you put the chicken head-first down into the cone and make sure the head is poking out, the cone will keep them from thrashing too much and promote bleeding to get the meat well drained.

Once you pull out the head you make 2 deep cuts into the neck just under the head to sever the arteries.  Since the head is still attached the brain will tell the heart to keep pumping, unlike chopping the head off, and will bleed the chicken more thoroughly.  I had made the cuts on the first chickens a bit low and had to saw through the feathers to get a deep cut, but the next week I had realized my mistake and got spurting arterial blood much more easily.

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Once the chicken is dead (and be prepared for death throes despite the cone), you can take them out and give them a dunk in the hot bath.  Swirl them around a bit to get water under the feathers as this relaxes the muscles holding the feathers making them easier to pluck.  You can try pulling on a feather or two to see if they come free to know when is a good time to pull them out.  Out of the 6 chickens so far I over-scalded one and the skin ripped to reveal partially cooked breast meat underneath, this one was cut into pieces instead of freezing whole.

imageWithout a mechanical plucker, or any plucking experience, it took us maybe half an hour to get a nice clean chicken.  We improved over time and I made a cheap drill-powered plucker for the second butcher day, but even then we did the final once-over in the kitchen to get the last remaining feathers.  After you have a clean and dead bird you cut off the head and feet, we kept the feet in a pot for making chicken stock, but you could make a cool rear-view mirror dangly-thing if you wanted I suppose.  The first real delicate step is to get the crop detached.  You slit the neck skin and skin the neck, then pull the esophagus and trachea away from the neck until the big crop-sack pulls free.  Everything is stuck to everything else by membranes so a snip or rip here and there is necessary to get stuff free, the same goes for when pulling out the guts.  After the crop is free you cut the neck muscles at the base and twist the neck around to remove it, this we kept for stock, separate from the feet that needed an extra cleaning.

To start at the bottom end you make a slit on the back of the tail to remove an oil gland that the chickens use to preen their feathers and then flip the chicken over to make the delicate cut into the belly.  I say delicate because the intestines must not be cut or else you will foul the meat with partially digested food, chicken poop, and bacteria.  You could probably salvage the meat, but I’d rather just keep it clean.  You make a small cut into the belly and then use your fingers to rip it wider while pulling the guts and their membranes free from the abdominal wall.  Once the hole is big enough you take the plunge and reach in as high as you can.

You gently curl your fingers and grasp all the innards and then pull out while taking the time to rip free any membranes that are attached.  You get most everything except for the lungs out in one or two pulls, just make sure to leave the intestines attached to the cloaca (chicken asshole).  Now you can slice down either side of the gut and across the bottom so the intestines are completely free from the carcass.  The liver, heart and gizzard can be kept for stock, but the gizzard needs to be sliced open and washed to get the gravel and grain out.  The lungs are nestled into the ribcage and by slipping a fingernail between the lungs and ribs you get an opening to slide your fingers under them and pull them free one by one.

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DSC_0369Once it is gutted we gave them a rinse by running some water through them and then brought them inside for “detailing”.  We found a pair of tweezers is handy for the last couple feathers that just won’t come out.

Once clean, we patted the birds dry and weighed them to find out what all our hard work had rewarded us with.  The first two birds were about 4 pounds each, and a week later the next 4 birds were about 5 to 5.5 pounds each.  They need to spend a day in the fridge to age the meat so it can tenderize a bit as they are in rigor mortis at this point and the legs are locked in place, but after a day the go soft and pliable like a store-bought bird.

Well, there you have it, from baby chicks to 1-2 meals per bird in only 7 or 8 weeks.  The second round was a lot easier than the first once I knew what I was doing and I am looking forward to the next 2 weekends of butchering the remaining birds so I don’t have to put up with them making such a mess of the coop anymore.  Those egg layers are just so clean compared to the meat chickens that eat so much, drink so much, and poop so much.

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One final picture, I was making a joke at the time with this first chicken liver, but I did in fact eat a raw chunk the next week when we had cut one up to feed to Dash.  It had a taste and consistency similar to sushi, who knew?

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Pigeon vs Terrier

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

imagePigeons.  They eat garbage and crap on things, people call them flying rats.  In the country they don’t eat garbage, they eat their natural diet of grains, but they still crap on everything.  We have a family of pigeons living in the quonset and a family of pigeons living in the garage.  I don’t really care too much about the garage ones as they nest in the rafters and their crap doesn’t land on anything that I can see.  In the quonset they are a bit of a menace.  They crap on a little plastic picnic table and a patio chair, they crap on a desk that I had used to hold a few bags of chicken feed and they appear to have ripped one bag open, eaten some of the feed and then make crap-feed cement on top of the desk.  Lovely…

So the other night while putting the animals to bed I am trying to get the lights on in the coop and go to inspect the cord as it runs from the quonset.  Dash and I go in, I flip on the one lightbulb to illuminate the basketball court sized area and a couple of the pigeons start to flap around.  They go back and forth from one end to the next and when one tries to perch on the back wall where it is quite dim it fails and flap-falls to the ground.  Dash, somewhat spurred by my dislike of the pigeons, jumps on it and gives it a shake.  A couple shakes later that pigeon is no longer a crap factory, just another piece of garbage for me to clean up.  The next night Dash and I managed to get 2 more, and last night we got (possibly) the last one.  The quonset might now be pigeon free, meaning the crap pile at the entryway may no longer continue to grow, this make me happy.  Last night the pigeon Dash killed was dragged out into the night while I was unloading the car so I didn’t get a chance to dispose of it.  This morning, when I let Dash out/in he came back a bit muddy.  Later, when I made my way out there was the head of the pigeon on the front steps, and later still a rather muddy pigeon body appeared by my car for me to dump in the trash.

I think he is trying to give me a message: Dash really hates pigeons.

The Home Stretch

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment

This one month, post-a-day blogging challenge only has a few days to go, and likewise my summer “vacation” ends in a week.  Next Tuesday classes will begin and life will go back to more of a routine.  I put the finishing touches on my syllabus today and tomorrow it will go out to the printers.  I have a few meetings this week and next Tuesday will be the first time I leave the house before 8 AM in over 4 months. 

We have done a lot around the farm this summer, we have managed to go on several fun trips: people got married, kids had birthdays, mountains got climbed and lakes got swammified, but still I would love for the summer to never end.  Hell, I’d take the snow and staying home.  I am very lucky that I have a job that gives me a lot of flexibility time-wise.  Only about a quarter of my work week is “gotta be there right now” time and the rest can be pushed back or forward to fit around life.

I didn’t really have this plan in mind going through school, becoming a teacher and having a big family, but am I ever glad this is where life has taken me.

The Dog Catcher

August 31, 2010 4 comments

Just thought I’d take the time to quickly share a training session from Dash this morning.

Get it!
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Say Hello To My Little Friend

August 29, 2010 1 comment

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I think it is inevitable that when you live in the country you are going to have mice.  We are directly surrounded by hundreds of acres of wheat fields so I am sure there are more mice out there than I can guess.  Hundreds?  For sure.  Thousands?  Maybe…  I just checked the “Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management” and they state that when food is plentiful you can get 15 mice per acre.  That said we would have about 240 mice in the seed-rich Fall season.  I know they are out there, I know we are really intruding on their natural habitat, but I don’t like them in my house.

 

Last night while Erron and I were sitting around the TV room we saw either one mouse run by 3 times, or 3 mice run by one by one.  I hope it was just one making repeat visits.  Because they are still doing fire renovations there are gaps in the baseboards by the radiator and this seems to be a good place for them/it to come and go.  I have also seen one slip through the side door in a gap so small that I probably couldn’t fit a pencil through it.  They are tenacious little bastards, I’ll give them that.

 

Dash is a great dog, and his mouse hunting skills are improving every day, but he can’t catch what he isn’t around to see, so I decided to throw a couple live traps into the living room here against the walls and also to drop a mouse block under 3 of the radiators.  One by the front door, one in the kitchen and one in the TV room.  They are a blue cube shaped “food” laced imagewith a blood thinner and bittering agent.  Apparently the mice don’t taste this certain bitter chemical but if the kids did manage to check it out they would not be able to eat enough because of the taste to do any damage.  What the blood thinner does to mice is to prevent them from clotting when they get a little injury, like having to squeeze through a tight spot.  They end up dying from an internal bleed, what a great way to go.  I placed a few in the basement last year and sure enough we got about 6 or 7 dead ones in the next couple weeks.  It really is just the Fall that they are troublesome as they are trying to stockpile for the winter.  Once it is cold they aren’t sneaking in anymore.

 

In the house I haven’t seen much of any mouse damage to our food, most everything is in plastic bins or cans, so it is more of a nuisance than a “we need to get rid of them!” issue.  If anything, I have had them rifle through my car more than disturb anything in the house.  The live traps were actually purchased to get the ones that were sneaking into my car as any time I left a food wrapper, or even some food in the car I would find nibble marks in the morning.  I used the catches I would get from the traps to train Dash to hunt and kill the mice.  The first day I got 3 mice from the car.  I let them out one by one and Dash was more startled than anything.  He only got 1, but it was a good start.  I tried to get him all excited and crazy by letting him sniff the trap and saying, “Get it Dash!  Get it!  Get the mouse!”  Even the one he did get he didn’t really know what to do with it as he would grab it then let it go.  Fast forward a few months and he has become a killing machine.  One day I emptied the grain bag from the food bin in the pumphouse (a 50lb bag of grain for the pigs that sits in a garbage bin).  There was a bit of spilled grain in the bottom and the next morning when I went to feed the pigs there were 6 mice at the bottom of the bin.  The mice were climbing in to get the food but the sides were too slick and too high for them to get out.  One by one I scooped up the mice and tossed them onto the grass for Dash to catch and kill, he got 5/6 of them.  Since then I have left that bin exactly the way it was and have managed to get one or two mice every couple of days.  One day I didn’t have the scoop so I just took the bin out and tipped it while getting Dash excited.  He dove into the mostly tipped-over bin and grabbed it before the edge hit the ground.  We keep the chicken food in a big metal garbage can and a few times we have forgotten to put the lid back on and I’ve found a mouse in it in the morning.  The bin is big enough, and our Jack Russell Terrier is small enough, that I just drop him in and let him catch it right there.  It is a bit satisfying to hear the crunch of dog-jaw on mouse-skull and then see him drop a twitching mouse to the ground.

So far Dash has managed to catch 3 mice in the house, one gopher in the yard, and probably 15 kills from trapped mice outside, plus one near miss in the kitchen.  I saw a mouse scurry by in the kitchen under the radiator, I called Dash over and he did a sideways diving slide under the chair to try and bite the thing and just barely missed it.  He is quite a good dog to have around and is keeping up his part of the bargain. 

 

imageWhat bargain?  Last September when we first noticed the mice we considered a farm cat (I’m allergic to cats) and last minute I thought maybe there were dogs bred to catch vermin.  A little Googling and we came up with J.R.’s as vermin-catchers and we found a breeder on Kijiji an hour away selling puppies.  A few hours later we were home with a little bundle of fur and hopes that one day he would guard us from the mouse army.

 

I almost forgot to mention, not only is Dash a working dog, but he has a lot of other things going for him.  He is cute, he is good company when walking across the fields after dark, he does tricks, the kids adore him, he warns us when people come to the door, he has taught the kids responsibility for having a pet and he helps clean up some of the food the kids drop on the floor.

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I like having a dog.

Big In Japan

August 28, 2010 1 comment

petra chickFive weeks ago we got our cute, fuzzy little baby chicks.  As jumbo sized eggs are 75 grams I would estimate that this is the maximum size of these just-hatched chicks that we brought home.  We knew they were supposed to grow quickly, the hatchery had a little table that showed how much food they should eat each week and how big they would be, an essential tool for a farm that has thousands of chickens and needs to plan ahead.  Of course we aren’t a commercial chicken farm force feeding chickens to gain maximum weight every week, so the 6-8 week timeframe for getting an edible bird is probably not going to happen for us.

 

After the cute stage comes the damn ugly stage.  These chicks lose the bright yellow feathers and the half naked chicken skin with spikes of new feathers  isn’t a pretty sight.  Besides being ugly they are pushy and a lot more smelly than our nice laying hens (they are eating 4x more food per day, so making a lot more crap with it).  They have gotten past the ugly stage now, their white feathers are mostly in except for the tail and spots on the belly.  They are starting to develop their combs and waddles too, but we still call them the baby chicks.

photo(3)It is a bit odd calling these things babies, but they’re barely over a month old, so what to do?  Petra and I have been calling them the broilers, since that is the weight we will be raising them to, about 6-8 pounds ideally.  Today when we got home from the circus the broilers were out in the yard, more adventurous than I have seen them, and they were even mingling a bit with the layers which happily peck about the yard looking for bugs.  I managed to get this picture of 2 of them side by side, it was a bit amazing to see how much they’ve changed into chickens from chicks.  They still look a bit babyish as their necks are shorter than an adult and they have barely any tail, but they are already pretty thick around the middle and they have bigger feet than the layers that are probably over a year old.  Petra and I tried to weigh a couple of them to check the difference.  A good question right now might be, “How do you weigh a crazed chicken that won’t stand still?”  Our answer is to put it head down into a tall and narrow 1L pail that used to hold potato salad and balance that on the kitchen scale.  They mostly fit in, and once they are head down with their wings pinned against their sides they don’t make much effort to get out.  After weighing a couple chicks they are looking to be around 1600 g while the layers are only 1400 g.  Yep, the baby chicks are already heavier than the big chickens who are giving us our daily eggs.  They have gotten over 20 X bigger in 5 weeks, or to put it another way, if you chopped one in half that would be the combined weight of all 13 baby chicks the day we brought them home – just a little crazy.

 

I looked into it and the dressed (butchered) weight of a chicken is about 75% the live weight.  This means our chickens would give us some 1200 g of meat and bones, or, if you are used to buying chicken by the pound, 2 lbs 10 oz.  This is bigger than most grocery store rotisserie chickens if you want to make the comparison – in just 5 weeks! 

 

Looks like I will have to start planning out and building my killing cone pretty soon for our home butchering extravaganza.  I can’t wait until we can have our first full 0-mile supper.

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