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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.