Next year we expect to produce all of our own milk, cheese, and eggs here on the property, in addition to a much larger portion of our fruits and veggies.
It’s also likely that we’ll raise chickens or turkeys for eating, so a while back I volunteered to help with the chicken “processing” (killing and cleaning) at a friend’s ranch, as much to take measure of my own determination as to learn the skills involved. The skills have already come in handy!
The Saturday before Thanksgiving, I was perusing the local Craigslist, and found someone offering two free Bronze turkeys. They were aging (the larger domestic turkeys don’t age well), and she didn’t want to kill them herself.
The turkeys lived with chickens in a nice place just outside of Eugene. I liked the woman and felt that she cared about their welfare and was a fellow aficionado of “clean food”. These were turkeys I’d feel OK eating…well, one of them. The bigger one was a tom (male), and blind in one eye because chickens can be really mean. He was enormous and healthy, and ended up being our Thanksgiving bird. His name? Thanksgiving. That’s him at the top of the post.
The other bird…she’s a sad case. “Improved” (intensively selectively bred) turkeys become so heavy so fast that they are often crippled just by their own weight. “Gimpy” isn’t as big as Thanksgiving (who must’ve been 30 lbs), but she has a deformed right leg and can only get around with a lot of lurching and flapping. The chickens saw this weakness, and began to peck her to death. They removed maybe a quarter of her feathers and left her with a multitude of raw wounds by the time she came to live with us.
“Gimpy” originally escaped the butcher block because she just didn’t look healthy enough to eat. But something happened; as our neighbor put it, she “seems to want to live now”, so she’s a resident here for as long as she is satisfied with her life, though determining a turkey’s quality of life is guesswork for us. Away from the hectoring hens, she’s become more bright-eyed and energetic, and every morning we transport her by wheelbarrow from the predator-proofed henhouse to a grassy pasture where she can lurch about, eating bugs and grass and frustrating the hell out of our dog by her inaccessibility.
The rest of the post will be about butchering the big male turkey, and you have to click “more” to see it. But here’s how it turned out – home-processed turkey, homemade cranberry sauce and squash from Teri, fresh baked bread, and (of course!) a pumpkin pie brought over by a dear neighbor who we shared the holiday with. Note the “store boughten” beer – something we’re working to phase out, but if you have to buy them, the Deschutes Brewery ones are all really good.
Photo by Peter
If you’re a vegetarian, you might find the rest upsetting. If you’re not…well, this is the reality of meat, and it’s far more humane and hygienic than what happened to that “free-range organic” supermarket bird you probably just ate.
How to slaughter a turkey at home
This is by no means an expert or definitive guide, and we didn’t expect to be doing this so soon so there’s a lot of improvising going on, but it might be helpful to others who are making the sort of changes we are.
Step 1: No mincing words; you’ve gotta kill the turkey
We hung a pulley about 10 feet up in a tree and strung a cord through it. Turkeys, strangely, go really calm when inverted, so we looped the cord around his feet and quickly pulled him up. In the moments before he was properly upside-down, there was some struggle, but as soon as he was hanging by his feet the bird went quiet.
Though we both favored the idea of a quick beheading, most experienced homesteaders instead slit the throat and let the heart pump out the blood – and that’s the way I was taught to do chickens. Is it painful for the bird? I don’t know, I hope not. He barely objected when I slit his neck, though there was some flapping about right at the end. The theory is that if you cut off the head, the heart stops pumping and they don’t bleed out as well.
It was difficult to slit the throat of this creature who made the charming sounds and so willingly waddled along when we led him to the slaughter, but ethically far, far cleaner and more honest than any other way. This bird had a good life, with maybe a minute or two of confusion and fear at the end. A few tears were shed, and it was good; among the millions of turkeys that suffered miserable lives and deaths to fill ovens this week, this one was appreciated and treated gently at the end of a proper turkey sort of life.
It was hard, but made easier by the fact that these animals have been over-bred to the point where a bird much over 6 months old becomes grotesque, immobilized and eventually crippled by its own weight. If we raise turkeys, you can bet they’ll be un-“improved” types.
Step 2: Feathers, followed by more feathers, with feathers to come after that
This is the most time-consuming part of the job if you do it by hand. First we immersed the bird in 140° water, using half of a food-grade 55-gallon drum on top of our trusty Coleman stove. This loosens the feathers and starts cleaning up the bird.
Photo by Teri
After half a minute or so of dipping, feathers are starting to come out smoothly. The biggest ones are the hardest, so we scald until they can be yanked out – but too much scalding will harm the skin so there’s a balance to find.
We got the birds on Saturday and had to process them on Sunday (in between we had to finish the henhouse so they’d be safe overnight!), so not everything was ideal. The wheelbarrow actually worked fine as a place to do the plucking, but it’s not very photogenic:
Photo by Teri
3. Innards (might be the “gross” part, but it is kind of fascinating)
To begin, you make a slit across the soft area between the breastbone and the tail. This must be a very shallow incision, because you do NOT want to open any of the organs inside. Gently work it open with your hand, until you can reach inside and gently cup the entrails to pull them out.
Photo by Teri
Before pulling out the intestines, you reach in with a finger and hold them aside while cutting around the vent (a bird’s all-purpose rear orifice). This way you can pull it in, then out through the first hole, ideally without spilling any of the contents.
Photo by Teri
Once you have most of the “guts” out, you go to the other end, chop off the head, and get to work on the neck. Experienced people use a butcher knife, but a hacksaw works quite well. The neck, like much else, will go into the soup pot later:
Photo by Teri
The toughest part of the innards is the lungs; they’re spongy, soft, and well anchored to the inside of the cavity. You can get a tool called a “lung scraper”, but we didn’t have time, so it was slow work by hand.
Photo by Teri