In a bid to A) learn more about where my food comes from and B) determine whether or not I’ll have the guts to kill, process, and eat ducks that we’re going to be getting; I signed up for a poultry processing class. A few weeks ago, a friend mentioned to me that she was going to “winter classes,” which are the WSU Extension’s “Country Living Expo and Cattlemen’s Winter School”. They took place at a rural highschool about 45 minutes from our house. I signed up for a few classes, but I was really there for the poultry processing class. I love eating duck, and I’d love to have duck that I know has had a good life, healthy food, and great living conditions, in addition to a minimally traumatic and respectful death. The problem is, I wasn’t sure whether or not I had it in me to handle the process, or whether it would just be to grisly for me. This class seemed to be the answer to my questions. If you are squeamish at all, please, don’t read much further. I don’t generally put a page break in my posts to reduce the amount of clicking necessary, but I’ll put it in this one for readers who don’t want to see what goes into meat production.
When we arrived, they had a little pen with llamas and alpacas. They were ridiculously cute.
We headed into sign-in, where we got a nametag with our class schedule, a swag bag, an info booklet with a map of the school, and other various bits of literature. Sign-in was also where they were holding a “trade show,” which was essentially just people trying to sell yarn, quilts, and veterinary services. I did buy a bottle of locally produced and raw fireweed honey. It looks delicious, but I haven’t opened it up yet.
Following the sign-in, and coffee/pastry breakfast they had, we headed off to our first classes. My first class was “Smoking Fish.” I had high hopes for the class, but they fell flat. It was taught by a guy and his daughter. The gist of the 1 hour class was “I catch the fish, then use my special curing recipe (2 parts brown sugar, 1 part salt… that’s it), and then hand it off to my daughter, who smokes it in this electric smoker that we have.” That was it. They had no experience with using anything other than that particular brand of electric smoker, no info on using something like a kettle grill to smoke, vague suggestions about how to cold smoke, but no concrete information or photos of how to construct a cold smoking setup. It was a waste of time. I didn’t learn anything at the class that I didn’t already know from random hearsay and references online. Whatever. I was really mostly there for the poultry processing class.
I wasn’t sure whether they’d have animals that were alive or dead. I was kind of hoping that we wouldn’t have to kill the animals, but then I was kind of hoping that we would. Not that I was looking forward to killing anything, but really, how do you know whether or not slaughtering a bird is something you think you can do, without actually doing it or seeing it done? Anyway, I was the first person to make it to the greenhouse where the class was taking place. Outside, they had a scalder and a plucker set up.
And inside the greenhouse, they had the menu: 4 chickens, 3 ducks.
I had a mini panic attack at this point, but overall, I am glad that we had to kill the birds. They were going to die either way, and seeing how it’s done with someone who knows how to do it was significantly more helpful than watching some youtube videos and having a meltdown when we are processing our own flock.
Here are the chickens in the cones. It’s a pretty simple process. You get a very sharp knife (she had a razor knife that we used) hold onto the beak and back of the head (if it’s a chicken), or just both sides of the beak (if it’s a duck), feel where the skull is, and cut between the feathers downward into the carotid artery and jugular. You take (if you’re doing it right) one firm and decisive slice on each side of the neck. Using a sharp knife greatly lessens the pain involved in this. Having cut myself with a dull knife and a very sharp knife, I can attest to the difference. Oftentimes, you don’t even feel a wound made by a sharp knife until several seconds later when you begin bleeding. The bird quickly goes unconscious and proceeds to bleed out. Ducks take longer to bleed out than chickens(they’re also bigger), and you have to be sure to hold their head down as they have a tendency to bend a little bit and not drain properly. Right before the animal fully dies, the nervous system tries to keep the heart pumping. In birds, it tries to get the wings flapping to pump the heart, so right before they die for good, there is a little commotion as the wings try to flap while the bird is in the cone. You want to continue holding their head during this step, otherwise they’ll splatter blood on you.
After the bird has bled out, you move onto the next step, which is scalding it to loosen the feathers. This happens in a pot of 145 degree water that’s had a little dish soap squirted into it, to help break down the oils in the feathers so that the water gets to the skin of the bird and does its magic. You dip the bird into the water and swirl it around for several seconds, then check the feathers to see if they come out easily. If not, dip again. If you dip it too much, the skin will begin to cook and will come off during the plucking process, not a good look.
Following the scalding process, you pluck. We had the luxury of a plucking machine, which was pretty awesome. It’s basically a washing machine tub, with a domed agitator that spins. There are little rubber fingers sticking off of every surface, and when the agitator gets going, the feathers stick to the rubber fingers more than they stick to the bird. There is also a hose that squirts fresh water onto the birds while they’re spinning to help rinse the soapy water off. Unfortunately, we were experiencing temperature control issues with the scalder, and the water got too hot, making it so the ducks couldn’t stay in the water long enough to loosen the feathers sufficiently before the skin began cooking. The temp was closer to correct for the chickens, so we were able to get most of the chicken feathers off in the plucker, and got some of the duck ones off, then had to hand pluck the remainder.
Once the feathers were removed, the birds were essentially just meat. We needed to gut them, but at that point, they quickly began looking like something you’d see at the grocery store. The first part of the process was to remove the head and feet. The instructor (who sells chickens) uses a pair of pruning shears. Actually, she uses the exact pair of pruning shears that I have.
After the head and feet have been removed, you slice open the skin of the neck, and use the pruning shears to clip the neck down as far as you can cut it, and set it aside (you usually get a neck tucked back inside the chicken cavity when you buy a whole chicken at the store). If the birds have been fasted for 24 hours before slaughter, which the instructor recommends, the bird will not have anything in it’s “food sack,” however, someone else brought the chickens and they had been eating, so the food sack had to be removed from the neck end. You basically work it loose from the surrounding tissue, and pull. Then you’re done on the neck side, and are ready to go in from the bottom. We were shown where to cut the chicken open, down the middle, then circle the vent (without cutting into anything important!).
Then, you basically work your hand inside, and grab onto the hard ball, get a good grip, and pull it out. The hard ball is the gizzard (which btw – is full of gravel. Very strange).
A couple of the hens were laying hens. We got fully shelled eggs out of them when we cut them open, and then were able to see the progression of yolks developing. If you look inside the chicken, all of the little yellow balls are developing yolks.
And that’s pretty much it. You see the hot pink things inside the bird above? Those are the lungs. Apparently they’re left in. Keep an eye out for those next time you buy a chicken at the store! You just rinse the bird out, and get it into a 3% salt solution icewater bath to chill.
My personal experience of this was not quite what I expected. I expected to be a lot more upset by the actual killing process of the birds. It was far less traumatic than I expected. Once the chickens are upside down for a few seconds, they get very calm with the head rush and just relax. The throat cutting was minimally violent and they bled out faster and I imagined they would. That said, I think that I would have trouble cutting the throat on an animal that I had raised. If I could get a friend to do that, I feel confident in doing the rest of it. The plucking wasn’t bad, and I was unsure how yucky the eviscerating process would be, it wasn’t any yuckier than breaking down a raw chicken from the store. Surprisingly, I feel better about the idea of growing our own animals for food that have had a good life and a fairly calm and respectful death than I expected to. I’m still processing the experience a little, and don’t expect to have meat birds this year, but maybe next year if I’m feeling adventurous.
Getting Craig to agree to ducks took over a year. Probably closer to 2 years if we are being honest here. Knowing that I do not have adequate construction skills to assemble anything more complicated than a raised garden bed, it became imperative that Craig be “on board” with this whole duck extravaganza. As seems to be an effective method of “getting your way,” I started out suggesting way more than I expected. That is, a 15×15′ square, 6′ tall, with a hoop house roof. Craig quickly nixed that idea, and in turn came up with an extremely complex and elegant solution that would be minimally visible from our neighbors’ houses. And then we discussed how to build such solution, and plans changed. The new solution turned into leveling off the corner by building a couple retaining walls and then building a 12×12′ structure that was 6′ tall on one side and 4′ tall on the other. Then when we actually went outside to start levelling off the area and figuring out how many retaining wall blocks we’d need, it became clear that we hadn’t thought that out all too well either. It was going to cost several hundreds of dollars just in blocks to execute the pen. So we went back to the drawing board. Stick with the 12′ square, and the 6′ to 4′ rake on the roof, but build the whole thing on the slope. This actually bodes well for drainage, so I’m totally in. We are going to put the 6′ side on the lower side of the slope, which will effectively make the whole structure appear smaller from our house/deck. Half of the enclosure’s lid/roof will still be hinged, allowing for enough head room to get in there and clean things while standing up, but still maintain the lower roofline that we were hoping for. Based on our new design, we got out there, filled in the hole from the tree, and evened out the grade of the slope.
As you can see, Helo was immensely helpful.
This is the view from our main deck. The back fence is about 5′ tall, so we’re looking at the back being 1′ taller than the fence.
As we tried to fill in the hole from the tree, Helo kept laying in it. Of course.
The new sketches include a 12′ square, half of it roofed, the other half covered in wire to keep predators out, with a hinge running side to side. The box sticking off the right hand side of the pen will be the duck house. It’ll have a hinged roof that’ll allow me to gain access to it from the outside and collect eggs/clean it. Speaking of…
Side and front views. It’ll be 4ft wide by 3′ deep, and 2.5′ tall. It is theoretically a hair small, but based on my understanding, most of the time, ducks won’t even go in the house, and with another covered area, they will not commonly need to use it. And if it ends up being too small(I don’t think it will), it’s easy enough to add a doghouse inside the run down the line. I like that it’s kind of mid-century looking! I will have to consult with my husband and father in law to discuss the specifics of my design idea, but it SEEMS pretty straightforward.
I also intended to order 10 ducklings and brood them inside the house, as it’ll be too cold outside til May to reliably leave them outside, but I just discovered how huge they’re likely to get, and there is NO WAY I can fit 10 6 week old ducklings in our house and keep them secure from the dogs and cat while we’re at work. I am still working out how I can go about getting ducklings in batches of 3 or so, or getting friendly females and avoiding the hassle of brooding ducklings in the house altogether. Everything will wait for the pen and house to be built. If that doesn’t seem feasible, we will just find some friendly lady ducks on Craigslist. It’s likely to be the least dramatic part of the whole process, but much less fun than cuddling ducklings.
My coworker who’s a really great cook also has impressive self control. She made a new year’s resolution to stop eating sugar. That isn’t to say that she’s not eating fruit or carbs, just that she’s not eating sweets, or stuff with sugar added to it. That’s an impressive resolution, and I expect that she’ll do a great job (crazy good self control). As part of her resolution she also chose to do one week out of the month eating vegan. Also, probably pretty great for her, and she’s got great vegan cooking skills, so I know she’ll make it happen. She asked me if I wanted to join her this month, and after the week of macaroni and cheese that Craig and I did, I was ready for it! The arrangement is brown rice and vegetables in nature. Upon discussion of our terms, we came to any whole grains (as long as they’re not wheat), so we’ll be eating quinoa, brown rice, and wild rice. Any veggies are OK, but I think we’re avoiding legumes (they’re not in this week’s plan anyway, so I’m OK either way). We can do sauces as long as they don’t add tons of calories to the dish (no heavy coconut or peanut based sauces, or super sweet stuff like sweet and sour sauce.) And that’s where we stand. I can’t quite give up on complete proteins though, and the vegan thing isn’t my resolution, so I have agreed to the basics of the vegan thing, with the exception of eggs. They are an important part of my breakfast, and for me, they make the difference between a side and a main dish, psychologically. Squash soup is just soup, unless there’s an egg on top. Then it’s a meal. Anywhoodle, I had MLK Jr. Day off work, so I did my grocery shopping yesterday morning.
I went a little heavy on some things that I was out of, so costs increased a bit. We were out of tamari (basically wheat-free soy sauce), so that ran about $8, I was out of tahini, which was $12, and apple cider vinegar was another $5. Otherwise, my biggest expense was the organic, free range eggs, at $4.50/dozen (I got 2). Otherwise, I got 2 containers of greens, one was “mixed baby greens” and the other was spinach. A bunch of kale (which ended up being FILLED with some type of insect eggs…. I composted it and harvested the remainder of my kale from the garden instead. Gross.), a small head of cabbage, 3 bell peppers, several apples, a bunch of bok choy, some flat leaf parsley, 2 hunks of kobucha squash, 1.5 lbs of mushrooms, and some brown rice, quinoa, and wild rice. After subtracting the deli meat for my husband’s sandwiches, chicken for the dogs, and other odds and ends to keep my husband from committing mutiny, I’d say my total was somewhere around $75-80. But a solid $30 of that was stuff that I don’t normally run out of all at once. What I had on hand was pretty much just carrots. I bought a 5lb bag of organic “juicing carrots” at whole foods a few days ago for $4. Carrots and apples will be my primary snacks. If all-carbs-all-the-time is killing me, I may start putting all natural peanut butter or almond butter on apple slices to tide me over.
The main meal plan is:
Wild Rice w/ winter veggies (beets, squash, mushrooms, kale)
Cabbage salad w/ lemon tahini dressing
My first dish on the menu is a riff on a sesame noodle bowl, but instead of noodles, brown rice. I usually put fried tofu, shrimp, or chicken on noodle bowls, but since we’re not doing that this week, I just left it off. It was satisfying. I don’t have a full recipe for you, but I can give you the gist. I know that I was a little heavy handed with the oil, but realistically, it’s only 2 tsp per serving.
Sesame-Tamari rice bowl – vegan and gluten free
1.5 c of carrot matchsticks
1 bell pepper, sliced thinly
1 small head broccoli, sliced thinly
8oz mushrooms, quartered
2 stalks celery, sliced on a bias
1 bunch baby bok choy, quartered
1 large handful spinach
1 lb dry brown rice
1 qt vegetable stock (I used homemade)
1/3 cup tamari
1/3 cup sunflower seed oil
2 T sriracha
2 T granulated sugar (I’d normally use honey, but not vegan)
several dashes chili oil and sesame oil
maybe 2 T apple cider vinegar (possibly 1/4 cup?)
1 T grated ginger
1 t grated garlic
Makes 8 servings equalling about 2 cups.
Basically, cook your brown rice in the stock, prep your veggies, saute them, mix up the dressing, taste and adjust as necessary. Add your veggies to the dressing, mix in rice. Enjoy.
I had some for breakfast this morning with a fried egg. It was delicious.
But then it was really crappy on Saturday evening, so we decided to do it on Sunday. So I was laying in bed on Sunday morning and totally revamped my whole plan. We still needed to move the tree, but with it getting moved, it would be shading my lilacs, which aren’t particularly fond of shade. So I decided to move the lilacs, and re-dig the (huge) hole for the tree, then move some of the shade-loving plants into a more protected zone. Anyway, I ended up digging up 2 lilacs, 4 small bushes, a dogwood, and redigging the hole for and replanting the plum tree. I also laid out a very loose interpretation of what the potential final layout will be, in order to have a better idea of how it will look in the space. I stuck some old bamboo poles in the ground where the corners would be. But they blend in with the sad brownish green of that corner and the rotting fence, so I superimposed some red lines to make it easier to imagine.
Also, I’ve been doing some reading on the duck forum (oh yes, there’s a duck forum) and I guess ducks have a tendency to get something called bumblefoot, which is basically an infection that they get in scrapes on their feet, and they require smooth stones, versus sharp concretey stones for most of their walking surface, so I started putting aside some of the bigger rocks that I ran into while digging, and have formed a bit of a collection.
I made a 3D rendering of what i expect the duck house will look like. It looks a little intense, but the only things that won’t be covered in wire (vs solid wood) are the storage shed (blue), the roof on the green portion, and the shelter (pink). The “taller” center section is situated down lower than the green section, as it will be downhill from it. I imagine that the other red “wing” will be lower as well, but we’ll have to go out and take some measurements before making any actual declarations.
I have finally nagged Craig to the point that he is willing to let me get ducks. I have wanted chickens for quite some time, but after a friend’s girlfriend got some, and they were NOISY, Craig has been unwilling to put our neighbors through it. Which I understand, but still don’t like… you know… because I want chickens. But last year, we learned about a breed of ducks that is quiet. They’re called Muscovy ducks. They’re not particularly attractive, they look kind of prehistoric. They are the only domesticated breed of ducks not related to Mallards. As a result, they do not quack. They twirr and whisper. And they are smart. They wag their tails. They also get quite big, males coming in at about 15lbs. And they have claws. All of those things kind of work together well enough to make them a reasonable option. They will not make a lot of duck noise, they lay an egg a day from spring through autumn, they get big enough to hopefully make the dogs think twice, and they have talons to defend themselves. Also, they make good eating! After Craig’s brother got some chickens last year, Craig seems to be feeling a little jealous (they really are fun birds!), so with the help of his family, I convinced him that we could get some ducks!
|This is not my photo, it’s a public domain image.|
I did all of my research in terms of what will work for us, and I think we have a plan. We have a corner of our back yard that we never use, and it’s also the only part of the yard that ever gets any shade. It will make a perfect location for the ducks. One downside of ducks, besides how messy they are, is that they require a lot more space than chickens. Luckily, we have plenty of space in the yard. It has been interesting gauging how much space we should really set aside for them. According to the forum, for an enclosure that they only let out of to do supervised free ranging, you need to set aside 10-25 sq ft/duck. The more space they have, the less totally disgusting their enclosure gets. Counting on getting 4 ducks, 100 sq feet would theoretically be sufficient, but in the future, I would like to raise some ducklings for dinner. I originally pushed for a 15×15′ enclosure, half roofed, the other half covered with chicken wire (to keep the ducks safe and inside) and about 6′ tall, plus whatever pitch the roof has. Craig was less than impressed by that plan, and we eventually settled on a smaller 6′ tall enclosure (a 5×5′ space) that we could stand up in, and also set up some roosts (muscovies are the only type of ducks that roost on things, due to their talons), with 2 “arms” coming off of it at 90 degree angles. Each arm’s dimensions will be 5×10′ and they will be 3′ tall, which is obviously not tall enough for a human to walk in, so we will make them so they open up from the top, allowing people in there to feed and clean and whatnot. The proposed enclosure gives us 125 sq feet of space for ducks, allowing at the top end, 12 adult ducks, or probably 14 small ones. That allows us to raise up to 10 additional birds for meat in the future, should it turn out to be something that we want to do, and if not, give our laying duckies lots of space to stretch out their wings.
And said corner of the yard. It looks horrific now. Covered in weeds, wet, overgrown grass, it’s a mess. Also, the fence looks like it’s going to come down, and we will have to move some bushes and trees to make room for the pen.