The Pluckmaster 5000 v1.0.0.3.1.4b

When raising poultry as a food source, and not just for eggs, the day comes sooner or later when you need to process them. If you have a large enough flock or are processing a large number it may be feasible to send them off to a licensed processor who can do them for as little as $2 a bird (possibly cheaper). Or if you have friends or family who you’ve spent the year slowly buying into your debt with eggs, and the time has come for them to pay off said debt, you can have a work day and put them to the task. Nothing brings a family together like chicken entrails.

Dispatching the birds has been discussed elsewhere, and I’ve talked about how we processed some ducks and frankly it sucked. Plucking duck sucks. But luckily we live in a golden age of technology to help us. There are companies out there that sell plucking devices, from large barrels you can toss the dead bird into (after a boiling water dip), to table top pluckers, to small ones you put into a drill. And they are priced accordingly. And in this age of ‘find everything and the porn version on the internet’ you can find the plans for those devices on the Web. Thankfully, this is not the porn version.

This particular entry I’m going to go through my build of the drill plucker, which should be perfectly sized for a small homesteader who wishes to pluck a few birds. I base this design of a few I found online, google ‘homemade plucker drill’ if you don’t like what I’m saying.

The idea behind it is simple, you have a spinning drum with soft yet gripping rubber fingers. The bird, having been dipped in hot water, has feathers that will come out easily, and so the rubber fingers will grab the feathers far easier than yours and pluck them without you spending your entire morning doing so. And often times do a far better job getting pin feathers and those small annoying ones that cause you to question why you don’t just skin the frelling buggers.

The design varies online, but I used two 4 inch PVC caps joined with a carriage bolt. Since I used what I had laying around, they didn’t match (one is rounded the other is flat) but that isn’t the end of the world. I started by drilling a hole in the middle of each of the caps large enough for the carriage bolt to pass through. How far you want the plucker to extend away from your drill is your preference, but it will come in to play later on.  There is an 8 inch bolt in this with washer and lock washer on the flat side, if memory serves. I bolted it together to get a feel for the size and then with a sharpie marked out 16 holes on the plucker, rows of 2, alternating. Basically each cap had a set of holes about a half inch in from either the left or the right. So that’s 4 rows of holes, A B A B. So if I looked at the cap from the end the A holes were at the main compass points, and then the B holes were just 45 degrees off of them. You can see the marks better in the photo, cause words are hard. The holes are then drilled with a small bit

Holes marked, 4 rows, 2 rows per cap, offset by 45 degrees
Holes marked, 4 rows, 2 rows per cap, offset by 45 degrees
better shot of the marked holes
Sharpie is easy to remove from PVC when you mess up where a hole goes

With the holes drilled, I went back and made them a bit larger, 3/8” I think. I really need to write this stuff down… The hole was just big enough to feed the finger but small enough that it didn’t fall back through it into the inside easily.

Holes drilled
Holes drilled

The ends are taken apart and it’s time to make the fingers. My dad has a weakness for those crappy rubber bungees, you know the ones, the black solid rubber ones with the metal hooks. The ones you see on the side of every major highway in the country. He goes back and picks them up, tries to reuse them. “It’s still good”. Well, they aren’t always, except in this case. I snagged a few of his collection to cut the fingers out of. They are an ideal choice as they are soft and flexible, and easy to find if you need make replacements.  You can get them from your local home center, or perhaps find them on the side of the road on the way to your local home center. I cut 5 inch pieces out of the rubber.

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Then on my 5 inch pieces I made marks with a white charcoal pencil. Yea it sounds fancy, chalk will work too, cause pencil just wasn’t showing up. One of those silver sharpies could do the job too. I made marks at a half inch from each end and then a center line.  Why does that line go all the way across the width of the piece?  cause you’ll need a lot of these things and it was easier to mark the ends on two, bunch them all up and use a ruler to draw some lines across them all at once.  Me smart.

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Using a razor knife I cut half of that end line and the center line, making an L shaped pieces

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The fingers are the inserted into the holes in the caps, it doesn’t seem to matter which way the bottom of the L goes, as it’s just there to keep the finger from flying out

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The caps are bolted back together and it is inserted into the drill for a test run. Please be aware that once you tighten that chuck down on the carriage bolt you will flatten those threads, so you won’t be completely disassembling this unit again, at least not easily. So make sure your carriage bolt is long enough to give you the room to separate those caps and replace any fingers that might wear out or break.

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And of course a test run. Being a damned fool, I stuck my hand against this. This is no pillow fight, this bugger stings.

 

 

Addendeum 10/25/15

Pluckmaster 5000 was fired up this weekend and was only about 20% successful.  I’m not sure if the drill wasn’t spinning it fast enough, if the rubber fingers needed to be soaking wet to grab better, or if they were just too soft.  The feathers they did grab did go a flying.  So some proper fingers are on order, i just need a willing victim to test it on…

Very general updated updater update

Sorry for the silence, been super busy here on the homestead.  Between projects, vacation, projects, projects, and other projects, there just hasn’t been time to sit down and properly write up a blog entries.  So here’s a rather quick once over.

I’m much better about smaller updates at the facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/thehandyhomestead?ref=hl

 

Projects:  since last i left you, i was in a made rush to get some projects finished before heading off for a few weeks vacation.  On that list was some chairs and a trestle table with breadboard top.  After vacation there was a cancer charity build-a-thon with my pals at thewoodwhisperer and most recently another chair for a fund raiser.  Currently up is the shop firewood rack.  And around the homestead we’re in the process of harvesting apples and pears, cutting up firewood, and doing a little earth moving while it’s dry.

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Walnut Glastonbury chair, butt pins come out so the unit folds relatively flat.

 

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2 white oak glastonbury chairs (also fold flat) and a trestle table with breadboard table top.

 

 

Ducktastic

ducktastic
Hey, Tommaso got a new axe, let’s go check it out.

This entry will be about harvesting birds for meat, so if you’re squeamish you might as well just leave now, cause it just isn’t going to get any prettier from here out.
When raising birds for any purpose, it’s good to know when they’ll start producing what you’re raising them for so you can time your purchases accordingly.
For eggs, Chickens won’t start laying until they are 4 to 6 months of age. Ducks, around 5 to 6 months. Both require 14 hours of light, though the ducks are a little less picky about it. You can augment natural light in the fall and winter months with a light on a timer, but this can be a bit stressful on the girls and if you aren’t checking often the eggs can freeze and crack in the cold bleak depths of winter. So if you order chicks in late spring there is a fair chance you won’t see any eggs till the following year. My personal preference is to get them late winter, usually the end of February or early March, so they are out of the brooder and in general population by Mother’s day. This should get me eggs from the new girls as early as Fourth of July.
For meat, the two main birds in this discussion take a pretty wide split. Ducks, for the most part, are ready to eat at 7 weeks. This is often referred to as the ‘succulent young duck’ window, as they have just reached maximum size and are considered at ‘peak’ tastiness. But, there is a window for harvesting ducks for meat, and you have to watch the calendar and be aware of it, you’ll want to harvest them at 7, 12 ½, or 18 weeks of age. Well, you don’t *have* to do at these times, it’s just the most ideal as that is a window of opportunity when their pin feathers (immature feathers full of fluid) are growing. They just tend to increase your plucking time quite a bit, as well as frustration levels.
For chickens, the road splits again, as they are usually categorized into three areas – Meat(broiler), Egg, and Dual Purpose (hybrid). There are meat birds, like the Cornish, that have been specifically bred to grow fast. They can be ready to harvest in as little as 45 days (6.5 weeks). Some Homesteaders consider these birds to be “unnatural” and won’t raise them. The wounded Fatso mentioned in a previous post is of this breed and is quite a sight to behold. They are certainly not a breed to get if you simply want to enjoy having a flock. Other “broiler” breeds are usually ready in about 8 weeks.
The other branch in this road is your standard chicken, such as the term can be applied. All chickens come from the same single species of foul from the Pacific Rim, so they’re all the result of selective breeding. That aside, your dual purpose breed chicken will be ready for meat harvesting as early as 4 months and some will still be ‘peak’ up till 8 months. Since this is roughly the same time as they start laying eggs, it’s this homesteader’s opinion to simply weed out the extra cockerels for the table and leave the ladies to lay eggs. Just be sure to leave at least one rooster behind to produce the next crop. If you are looking for a steady meat source without stuffing your freezer to the brim, you could keep a rotating crop of birds coming in of both broiler and/or standard breeds, figuring out a schedule of incubating and harvesting that works best with your time and budget. And, of course, scale up those numbers if you want to sell any excess off (both eggs and meat) to pay for feed for the poultry, the kids should pull their weight around the homestead. You can eat your egg layers when they stop laying, though at that age they are usually rather tough and usually are best in the soup pot.
All that said, this past weekend I realized that my ducks were 12 weeks old and it was time to thin the flock a little. So 6 of the Pekins were harvested and I’ll spend the remainder here discussing that process.


The Execution of it

There are several methods for dispatching birds, some more effective than others. One is to tuck the bird under your arm, grab the head, and twist, snapping the neck. I’ve never been fond of this method, if not done properly it seems to be cruel and inefficient. Perhaps it is simply a method that is perfected over time and practice. It is not really something anyone wants to practice with me.

190b-larks-head-knot
The lark’s head knot

The tried and true method over millennia is the stump and hatchet. I’ve found that with a loop of twine, and a screw in the side of a large hunk of wood, a single person can dispatch birds relatively easily. I use a knot I learned in scouts called a Lark’s head, its super simple – take a loop and fold it onto itself.

I put one of these over the birds head, high up the neck, put the other end on the screw and then with one hand hold the legs and stretch the bird out and use the hatchet with the other hand. Then using another loop and the same knot on the feet, I can hang the bird up to drain. This is not the cleanest method, as the bird will still flop and flap (involuntary muscle reactions) and blood will get everywhere. And some people like to save the blood, for whatever reason.
The third method is the CONE OF DEATH. It’s basically an inverted cone that the bird’s head sticks through the bottom of and then you just slit its main arteries and the blood can drain out with the bird being immobilized. This is an ideal method for a few reasons; firstly the bird is alive when upside down, which puts it into a sleep like state. If you’ve ever had to pick up a chicken by its feet, it is like you found the “off” switch. Secondly, since it’s in a cone and contained, there will be little to no flopping and flapping, which can freak out the other birds (and people), damage the meat, and get blood everywhere. And finally, it makes the collection of the blood much easier, if you really need/want to collect it.
We’ll be trying the cone the next time we harvest here (soon as we make one), but whatever method you use be sure to do it right. The last thing you want is to miss with the hatchet and have a partially wounded chicken, or twist the neck wrong and now have a paralyzed bird crying out in pain.

Cone of Death, now available in multiple sizes
Cone of Death, now available in multiple sizes

 

Butchering

The birds dispatched I hauled them over to my dad’s place and we set to work. Six full sized Pekin ducks is not a quick job.

headless
duck, duck, duck, duck…. crap we forgot the goose…

I hunched over a trash barrel and began to dry pluck the down feathers; these are the small feathers than cover the majority of the body. They pull out rather easily and if you have odd friends like me, save the feathers for them so they can make a pillow or a coat, or maybe tar and feather someone, I don’t know, I don’t ask.

plucking
They’re down feathers but you have to pull up. It’s confusing

Part of the prep work was to set up our turkey fryer with water in it and get it up to not quite a boil. The plucked duck was then dunked in the water for 15 seconds. This cooks the skin just a little bit and helps to get the rest of the feathers to come out. For ducks and geese, sometimes a little dish soap in the water will help to get past that layer of waterproofing oil the bird uses to float. Then comes the fun part. The long, tedious, fun part. Plucking of each individual remaining feather out of the skin.

dunk2
Who doesn’t love a dip in the Jacuzzi?
plucking5
Then a massage afterwards?

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You can see in some of the photos what looks like long hairs sticking out; those are new feathers starting to grow. You can pluck each of those out (we use needle nose pliers) or you can just take a torch and burn them off (hence the scorch marks).

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With the skin finally clean, the neck is removed at the shoulders. You can do this before the major plucking part since the skin is peeled off the neck anyhow. At the bottom of the bird a shallow cut is made in the abdomen to allow nimble fingers to get up into the cavity and pull out the guts. This process is often referred to as “drawing” the bird.

guts2
You might feel a slight pressure…
guts
Heres the problem, you’ve got no guts…

 

Now there are plenty of old school peeps out there that will eat every bit of this bird but the quack, we aren’t those people, so those bits go into the compost pile. The only parts we save are the liver, for pate (being careful not to pierce the pancreas), the heart, and the gizzard. The heart and gizzard are saved for gravies. Note on the gizzards, if the birds have eaten, you can actually cut open the gizzard and collect the food in it to reuse. It is just a stomach so it hasn’t even been processed by the body yet. I’m not in that desperate of a need for chicken feed, so I just put it in the bucket. With all the internals now external, the birds are given a good hose down and taken indoors to be cleaned a bit more and packaged and frozen.

gizzard
The gizzard, not to be confused with Eddie Izzard.

For chickens, it is recommended to soak them for a few hours in salt water before freezing. Same with turkeys. But this is not recommended for ducks as it will pull some of the flavor out.
In total it took us about 3 hours to do 6 ducks. For reference sake, a chicken usually takes about 20 minutes (double if you don’t hot water dunk it). A goose is usually several hours, but having now done a duck properly I think the goose might take much less time. There are several ‘aids’ out there for plucking, some are just drill attachments to pull feathers out, some are large spinning barrels you drop the bird in (with water being added) and the tumbling plucks the bird. If you are going to be doing any quantity on a regular basis it might be worth the time and money to invest in one.

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we’ve all been there….

Bandaid or Hatchet

Paging Doctor Cluck, white courtesy phone…

I grew up on my parent’s farm.  We didn’t come from a long line of farmers, or really consider ourselves farmers.  At some point in his life, my dad decided he wanted to learn to farm and so he did.  He and mom had a house they renovated and some acres and regular jobs.  Along I come, the bundle of awesomeness, and they upgrade a bit.  They find a larger farm and dad is farming something like 300 acres (mostly state land through some sort of leasing agreement).  Both parents are working regular jobs, and renovating this shell of a farmhouse, not to mention raising me and eventually my sister.  I mention this for two reasons, firstly as a bit of an explanation to some of the folks who ask why I’m always working on stuff, the work ethic, the constant need to be busy.  It’s just in the blood, or as I like to say ‘I blame my parents’.

The main reason I bring this up is that we had some animals on the farm.  We never really considered ourselves farmers, I think because we didn’t come from farming backgrounds and because my parents had non farming careers.  Gentleman farmer is the term, I believe.  Anyhow, so we raised or boarded a variety of animals:  chickens, turkeys, springer spaniels, horses, meat cows, my sister…  And I can recall the occasional visit by the vet.  He’d pull up his weird pickup truck with all the doors and cabinets on the back and in his waist high boots be checking on the animals.  I never really took his contribution to the farm to be that significant until more recently in my life.  This was mostly because I was so young, and we never really had major issues with any of the animals, at least that I can recall.  We got out of farming by the time I was a teenager, so perhaps those memories are lost to time and “college”

Long story not so short, here on the homestead, I’ve had some issues of late.  A visiting dog mauled two chickens, and one of the younger ones has taken to having a bum leg.  So I wanted to take this blog post and talk just a little about some of the joys of being an Emergency Poultry Medical Tech, or as I’m classifying chicken medical treatment: ‘Bandage or Hatchet’.

What value do you place on a creature under your care? Especially if it is destined to end up on your table?  How much time, effort, or money do you invest for a few more weeks of life before its due date is reached?  It’s one thing if the animal is a beloved pet or it has a lifetime of production, be it milk, eggs, wool, etc etc.

Case #1:   Fatso.  Cornish Cross is a fast growing meat bird breed.  They are specifically bred to go from egg to freezer in just a few months.  Most of those chicken breasts to see in the supermarket are Cornish birds.  A year or so ago, I picked up a few chicks for the novelty of giving them a try.  Only a few survived, some got picked off by predators, some just disappeared, but Fatso survived and maintained.  Seemed an unfair reward to eat her after making that far.  Plus she is amusing, if the other birds are nimble butterflies then Fatso is a tank, lumbering and imposing.  But when she gets up to speed, you best get out of her way.  Plus the thought of keeping as breeding stock outweighed her meal value.

When the visiting dog attacked her, I was luckily not far away, and able to intervene quickly.  A lot of feathers were torn out, and it looked like her only main injury was that her vent was prolapsed.  That receded/inverted after a few minutes.  There were some scratches, but she was placed in isolation, given some electrolytes and a place to rest.  It wasn’t till a day or so later it was noticed that she wasn’t moving that much.  And when she did move, she heavily favored one leg.  So leg or hip injury.  She was kept in isolation for a few more days and then reintroduced.  I was unsure about putting her back in general population but it actually seemed to encourage her to move more, that struggle for food.  It has been a few weeks, and while her walking is getting better, those injuries do take time to heal.

Case 2:  Jennifer.  Generic White chicken.  Jennifer seems just as good a name as any, she seems to like it, but she won’t wear the name tag.  She was mauled by the same dog, but on a different day.  Said dog is no longer allowed on the homestead, and I had a very serious conversation with the owner.  This mauling was significantly worse, feather were tore out all around the neck and shoulder, and around the tail.  Most of the skin from the back of the neck was gone, and there was a slice in the shoulder several inches long.  In that slice I was able to see grass sticking out, this indicated to me that the crop (a sack for holding food) had been pierced.  I surveyed the injuries and took numerous photos so I could consult with a vet friend of mine who deals with farm animals.  Jen was placed in isolation with all she could need and given some time to rest and recover.  The prognosis was not good; recovery from such wounds and punctures was a long and difficult one.  Those questions I asked above? Those ran through my head.  Do I put her out of her misery? Is she actually in pain or is that just my human projection?

Three times I walked out to the isolation area with my hatchet; three times I prepared myself to end this life that was my responsibility to safeguard.  I would not call this a deeply soul searching moment, but one can take it as a bit of a blow to see an animal that you are a steward over, that looks to you for shelter, food, and safety and that you have failed in some regard.

So I left her to recover for a few days in isolation, and one morning when I went in to check on her… well, she escaped.  She escaped and rejoined the flock, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with any kind of private treatment.  As far she was concerned, she just had a hip new haircut.  And now, a few weeks later she seems to have made a full recovery, to the amazement of myself and my vet friend.

Case 3:  The Wee one.  I ordered a bunch of chicks this winter, arriving near the end of February and raised indoors till early may.  They have been moved out and integrated with the main flock quite well and I’m happy with how well they are getting along.  One day a few weeks back I found one of them sitting in the dirt, I presumed just enjoying the warm day.  But it didn’t skitter off when I walked up to it.  I discovered it to be paralyzed, its legs seeming lifeless.  I put it in isolation and began some research online.  There are cases where some birds can get diseases that will causes this, though most are inoculated early on from it, or aren’t susceptible from it till much later in life.  I suspected botulism from a piece of rotten food, but that usually passes in a few days.  I did read that sometimes, young birds can slip a tendon, and upon inspection and comparing the bird’s two legs, it felt like something along those lines.  On the good leg the leg muscle gently tapers down to the ankle, but the other leg it ends rather abruptly.  This makes me think the tendon tore and rolled up, rendering the leg totally useless.

So, a gimpy bird, what to do?  It’s able to move a little bit, using one leg and its wings for locomotion.  But what kind of life is that?

The joys of growing your own food, raising livestock, knowing they are treated with respect and love is coupled with the heavy sadness of having to make some unkind decisions.

Chicken Aerial Defense Web Deployment

run

This is my coop and run.  Don’t judge, it was built for nearly nothing but time.  It houses a variety of poultry, and usually only does so in the winter and at night as the kids get to free range during the day.  It is split in two parts, a small bit that goes off the back of the coop (including below the coop) and the Annex, which is the larger area predominately pictured.  The Annex was added on later and is occasionally used to isolate birds that are injured or are with young.  Usually i will close off the Annex in the warmer months to allow grass to grow so there is something for the kids to eat if i have to keep them in the run for a few days.  But i digress.

One of the biggest troubles a poultry owner will have is predators, and aerial ones are the toughest.  You can deter ground based ones, or live trap them, or put up fences to dissuade them, but aerial ones are a bit tougher to deal with.  Some, like hawks, are protected by law so your options are a bit more limited.  And while the kids are out free ranging they are more exposed, but i’ll cover that a bit later.  While they are in the run, they need some cover to keep the locals from swooping in for the free buffet.

When i first built the run and Annex i ran those cross pieces and put some of that cheap plastic tree netting over it.  It worked fine.  Chicken wire did as well, except for when your hat would catch in the low hanging bits of it.  The problem would come when winter would sweep through and we’d get one of those nice wet, heavy snows, and the netting would become a solid, heavy sheet of snow.  It wouldn’t break, but it would stretch, and sometimes those wooden crosspieces would break (or the screws would).  There’d be squawking, screeching, netting and wood frozen to the ground, a real mess.  Then there would be complaints filed anonymously (presumably by the chickens, the ducks aren’t really the complaining type), piles of chicken poop left strategically where i walk, dirty looks, hushed whispers.  It was just ugly.

So this year I thought i’d try something a bit different.  It’s a technique i saw when i had worked in the Caribbean, used to keep seagulls out of picnic areas.  Along one edge of the Annex (test area) i put a coated inch and quarter deck screw in every 12 or so inches.  Along the opposite edge i did the same, adding one additional screw.  Then starting at one end of one edge, i ran some bright green braided fishing line, Bravefishermen Super Strong Pe Braided Fishing Line 60lb (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00MYN0G1E/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o03_s01?ie=UTF8&psc=1), from one screw, across the run, to the opposing screw and then back to the next one.  I’d pull the line a little snug, but not too tight, as it isn’t necessary, and every few screws i’d wrap it around the screw a few times to keep it from slacking a bit too much.  The spool was 300 meters and was just barely enough to do the full Annex.  The offset of screws at the other end forces the lines to open up and cover more of an area.  And while birds have a great sense of eyesight, the green should help to deter any that might want to divebomb in for a snack.  And i’d like to see snow pile up on this.   And if any of these lines break, it’ll be super easy to fix.

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Outside of the Run:  There are many methods for helping keep the kids safe when free ranging, the most effective is a person, but who wants to be a chicken shepherd?  Some large farms train dogs, but here at Handy Homestead i use two approaches with mixed success.  The first is cover, so long as the birds have places to hide, they won’t be quite as vulnerable.  The roosters will keep an eye out and when they sound the alarm a bit of cover can really save their nuggets.  The second is other poultry, in my case, geese.  Geese are jerks, annoying and loud.  But they are large, mean, and very protective.  I have seen them chase off some predators simply by employing their natural ‘jerkness’.  Guinea fowl can help too, but man are they annoying.

 

-Tommaso