Trigger warning, slaughter descriptions, dead animal photo.
My family and I moved to two and a half acres in Northern Ohio almost three years ago. Our goal is to raise as much of our own food as we can. This is an adventure, and all pretty new. This is part of a series.
When you are growing your own food, there are lots of ways to grow your own protein. Low on the food chain are nuts and beans.
There are so many options with beans, you could grow a different bean for each day of the year. We grow three or four varieties of pole beans that can be used as green beans, and then later be left on the vine to dry into soup beans. For nuts, we have hazelnuts planted, and hope to have bountiful nut harvests-- eventually.
If you choose to go up the food chain, milk and eggs are good choices. I don’t have dairy animals right now- maybe down the road- but we purchased chickens for eggs as soon as we could after moving here. From an initial flock of four chickens, we have grown to seventeen, mostly because neighbors keep dropping off their chickens that have decreased egg production. But we still get plenty of eggs. Even through the winter we get four or five each day, and by June a dozen or more a day is pretty normal. Our two ducks give us eggs most days too, and they are very rich. My favorite lunch is a freshly boiled duck egg, cut open with a little butter and sea salt on it, along with toast and fresh strawberries. So good!
Beside eggs, last summer, we raised meat chickens. In batches of 10 and 15, we raised 40 Cornish Cross chickens over the summer. We were also given four black rooster chicks too. We didn’t know they were roosters until one by one they started crowing at all hours of the day.
At first, I didn’t realize it was crowing. Their first attempts sounded more like a cat being slowly strangled, and I spent several mornings at 4 AM tromping around outside in my boots and nightgown trying to find the animal that was being hurt. But I finally caught one scrawny chicken doing it, and figured out what it was. Within a week the young fellows were pestering the lady chickens so much that several of them started molting early. Then the neighbor came over and told me he was tired of hearing them crow, and offered to wring their necks for us.
The first batch of cornish cross chickens weren’t ready to butcher, and I had never dressed a chicken by myself before, so I figured the roosters would be good butchering practice. I watched a bunch of youtube videos and set up a sterile area on the tailgate of the truck using plastic tablecloths and bleach water.
Killing the first chicken was hard. I had sharpened my knife, gotten a large pot of very hot water ready, and plenty of clean cloths. I put the rooster’s feet in a loop of rope so it hung upside down. Talking to it the whole time, I separated the feathers under it’s cheek, and cut hard with my sharp knife. There was a slight sucking hiss when I hit the artery, and the rooster bled out quickly. It hung calmly, watching me and the blood running out, until it closed it’s eyes, and then went into death throes of wildly flapping it’s wings and shaking violently.
At that point I ran inside, sobbing. This was a chicken that was young, that I had held and named and fed and stroked. It’s gaze at me after I cut his throat was trusting, I imagined, and only slightly reproachful. My guilt was overwhelming, and I cried for a while to get past it. My daughter reminded me that if I left it out there, dead and hanging, I would be wasting it’s life. She was right, and I went back out to finish the job. I dunked the body in the very hot water, swishing it around to get the water under the feathers. I pulled some now and then, and when they came off easily, I tied it back up by the feet and plucked the chicken. Most of the feathers came off easily, but there were feather shafts left all over, and the black feathers stained the skin under the shafts black. It took ages to get the chicken clean enough for the next steps of disemboweling, cutting the feet off, separating and cleaning off the edible innards. An hour and a half later, and I was ready for the next bird.
I have gotten faster, and am now able to dress a chicken in about 30 minutes, but I still get close to tears each time. My sister suggested coming up with a small ritual of thanking each bird for it’s life, and that helps a lot. I’m not religious, but the ritual helps me, though I’m sure it does nothing for the chicken.
We also had purchased three breeding rabbits. One female had a litter of nine rabbits, and the other a litter of six about the same time. I’m very fond of the rabbits, and dreaded butchering the babies, but it had to be done. We let them get to about 4 lbs, and then spent a day doing all fifteen of them.
Rabbits are much quicker than chickens to butcher. First, I held the rabbit between my feet, with the head forward. I put a broom handle across the back of the rabbit’s neck, then put my toes firmly on the broom handle, not squishing the rabbit’s neck with it, but holding it firmly. Then I reached down between my legs and grabbed the rabbit’s back feet, and quickly pulled straight up, breaking the rabbit’s neck. I hold the feet until the death throes stop and I tend to scream a little with my eyes tightly closed while that happens.
Once the rabbit is dead, I hang it by the back feet from loops of strong string. I cut off the head, let it bleed out, and cut through the fur and skin around the paws and tail and bum hole. Then the fur can just be yanked off in one jerk. At this point the rabbit now looks like meat to me, and I can be calmer. I cut off the paws, and open it with one long stroke down the belly. It cleans out very quickly, and then on to the next rabbit. It is nicer (for me) to do the rabbits, because they don’t watch themselves bleed out, and I can kill them in the grass, where they are happy and calm.
The bad thing about the rabbits is that they are small. There are eight of us, and a rabbit is one, possibly two meals if I am thrifty. I have trouble with the idea that an animal would give it’s whole life for one meal. The meat itself is good, though the texture reminds me of dry chicken, so it is best in casseroles or under gravy.
At this point, I’m just keeping the three rabbits for their poop, which is pretty valuable for the garden. Though Maurice, the male rabbit, got out a couple weeks ago, and may have impregnated both the females. If they have babies, I guess I’ll have to butcher them.
We also have raised pigs the last two summers. I figure that if I’m just raising the meat animals the same way that a factory farm would is defeating the purpose of raising my own, so the chickens, rabbits and pigs all have lots of access to grass and weeds, and time to do what chickens, rabbits, and pigs like to do.
I also want to spend as little money as I can, since I’m on a tight budget. With that in mind, I’ve looked around for ways to feed the animals. Down the road is an orchard, and they now set out their overripe fruit for me in a crate or two by the side of the building. If I see a crate out, I know there are apples, pears and plums for the animals.
A little farther down the road is a bigger vegetable market, and they call me when they have a truckload of produce they can’t sell. They grow most of their produce, but some of it they get shipped in. Last summer they asked if we would raise an extra pig for them, if they bought the piglet and paid for butchering in exchange for all the produce they give us. We agreed.
Then another neighbor heard about it, and asked if we would raise one for them in exchange for a truckload of spent grains from a local microbrewery every other week.
We agreed, so last year the pigs got by with almost no purchased food, but all they could possibly eat. There was enough for the chickens and rabbits too.
While the pigs got plenty of produce, we also made sure they had pasture. When the pigs were small, we put them in a fencing-lined hay feeder, and I moved them several times a day when they had eaten all the plants they could reach. When I had to be gone for the day and I couldn’t move them every few hours, the piglets were put in with the chickens.
They all got along until the pigs got to be about 150 lbs. I looked over and saw one of the pigs just look over and bite a chicken, then gobble it right down. There weren’t even feathers left. If I hadn’t seen it, I would have just wondered where that chicken had disappeared to.
When the pigs got to be about 200 lbs, it was time to butcher. I didn’t do it myself, instead I had an appointment with a local small slaughterhouse. At the time, the chickens were using the horse trailer, so I moved them out temporarily, and cleaned it out so we could use it to take the pigs to the butcher. When it came time for them to go, they wouldn’t get in. So I gave each of them a beer. They loved this new food, and snorted for more. I popped two more cans, and put them in the back of the trailer. When the pigs smelled the beer, they trotted right in. I gave them each their second beer, and shut them in.
Pigs normally get carsick pretty easily. But these guys were a little tipsy, and seemed to enjoy the outing. At the slaughterhouse, they ambled right in, and laid down in their pens right away. The woman checking them in laughed at me for wasting beer on pigs, but I don’t feel it was wasted. They inspected the pigs to make sure they were healthy, and then they were killed with an electric jolt through the head. In three days we picked up the boxes of meats, all neatly packaged and no longer recognizable as the piggies we knew.
I feel guilt at eating meat, but less so with the pigs, because I’m not killing them. They also give us most of the meat we use. Somehow I can justify it in my head by saying that they will feed us for a year. It doesn’t make sense, I know. It’s an odd paradox. I love meat. I like burgers and roasts and stews. I love animals. I’m fond of the rabbits, chickens and pigs. There is an inherent cruelty in being an omnivore that is hard to come to terms with, until the coals on the grill are hot, and the meat is sizzling and smelling so good. Then I don’t rationalize, I just eat.
**Thank you so much for the Community spotlight and recs! :)**