Farm Life: Culling the Herd

Farms, as domestication of all things wild that we find useful, have biological and cultural carrying capacities. Eventually, the fruits, vegetables, and livestock require harvesting. The fruits and vegetables you want to harvest when they are ripe. Leave them too long, and they will be come food for birds, rodents, insects, caterpillars, worms, microbes, and fungus. Livestock and poultry are best butchered before you have too many of them, they get too old (I.e. tough and gamey), or obnoxious.

Caution, if you prefer to consider your meat as something that comes in rectangular packaging from the store, you may prefer to stop reading here.

A year ago, some neighbors called up to say they had six roosters that they wanted to give to our barn and field. They are homesteader-types too, but live on an acre or so in the suburbs. They have forest property near us. They eat in a vegetarian style for the most part, raising chickens for eggs. A year ago, in the Spring, they noticed some of their hens were broody. They let them sit on their eggs. They hatched out more hens.

So, they let the hens sit on their nests again, but the second round they hatched out six roosters. Anyone who raises livestock can tell you 1) you only need so many males per so many females of whatever you are raising, and 2) excess males just lead to trouble (should we apply this to human population distributions, having 50/50 ratio of females to males is definitely going to lead to problems… maybe we will get back to that later). We became the proprietors of six roosters along with our dozen or so ducks. Our friends, though vegetarian themselves, said that they did not mind us butchering the roosters at some point, as they would have had a beau colic life on our farm.

Initially, the roosters were quiet cute, being about half the size of the ducks. They were no trouble as the duck could herd them around and put them into their place (the term “pecking order” definitely comes from raising poultry). By Fall, when we had intended to butcher them, they had grown to about the equivalent size as our ducks. But, we were busy and without any hens, the roosters were rather docile. Winter came and went. They crowed at all hours of the day, and ate lots of insects in the barn and field. They seemed useful.

They continued to grow over winter. Warmer days came. And, they got really roostery. Any idea of the docile farm was gone. They now wanted to dominate the top levels of the pecking order. Even within the rooster-ranks, they began to develop the rulers-of-the-roost versus the smaller roosters that did their scratching a little ways off.

Then they began to challenge our position on the farm. Ever wonder why muck-boots go most of the way up your calf? Good protection again Mr. Testosterone. Of course, that brings up the mating thing. With six roosters wanting to procreate and no hens, the ducks got the worse of it. Duck sex is unpleasant enough to come upon at 5:30 a.m. feeding time, but roosters mounting ducks is crossing social boundaries (and does not yield much).

We noticed that our duck’s necks were becoming bear of feathers. The ducks were cowering from the roosters swooping down on them (the roosters slept on half doors in the barn and would literally fly down for a little humpty-dumpy). One morning, we found a duck lying dead from rooster-abuse.

Time to cull the herd (or flock, in this case).

Culling is the process of selecting out individual animals for slaughter and butchering (or to sell/give to someone else, as our friends had done the year before). This gets back to the concept of carrying capacity. This is the ability of X amount of space to sustain Y number of whatevers. Carrying capacity can be biological, in that X amount of of space has Y+N number of whatevers, they cannot survive. Thus, N number of whatevers go to freezer camp (that’s what the locals say to their children before they are of age to understand that butchering means slaughtering those cute critters on the farm). Carrying capacity can be cultural, when Y+N number of whatevers is greater than we (farmers or society) can tolerate, even when X amount of space could sustain them. Thus, we had both a biological and cultural carrying capacity crisis.

Not being a large farm with reason to own the equipment for regular poultry harvesting (e.g. killing cones, scalding tanks, stainless steel butchering tables, cold storage, etc.), we had more modest arrangement. Anyway, plucking a chicken is a lot of tedious work.

First, we had to catch one of the roosters. While I would have preferred to start at the top of the pecking order to reduce the most aggressive one, I went with practicality: who was closest that I could actually catch. Out our way, where we have “poultry houses” which raise 50,000 birds at a time, one of the jobs is “chicken catcher”. I have done rehab on some of their hands. They can catch and carry six chickens at a time. I was happy to get one without skinning my knees too much. Anyway, one rooster, flapping away and trying to peck you is best held with two hands, one around each leg with the guy upside down. They become relatively calm after a minute.

Now, they old-time image of grandma cutting the chicken’s head off and letting it run around the yard (even without a brain the chicken’s reflexes allow it to run and flap), is actually not humane nor desirable. All that running around puts a lot of stress hormones and blood into the meat. It sours the taste. Rather, you want to quickly bleed it out.

For that, we have the “gallows”. We place it over the compost pile, as blood is a very good source of iron and nutrients for future soil. This means holding the bird upside down, securing it feet in bailing twine hanging from the structure, and leaving it for about 5 minutes to settle.

Meanwhile, that is time to set up the sanitizing and ice baths. We take basins of ice water and vinegar. One will be for washing the meat as we cut it out, and the other for cooling. Quick packaging, then a run into the house to put the meat in the refrigerator, or better yet, right into the the crock-pot for cooking.

Back to the gallows, hold firming to the head, stretch out the neck and cut both carotid arteries. Leaving the head/brain intact, allows the heart to pump, thereby draining the blood from the meat. Go do something else for a few minutes.

According to the humane butchering book (yes, such things have been written), if you do not want to invest in lots of equipment and time for plucking feathers, you can do a “dry pluck” method within about 10 minutes of slaughter. After that, the skin begins to lock up the feather base. Dry plucking is just pulling off feather as fast a possible. As we intended to skin the roosters, I only removed the feathers from the legs, back, and breasts up to the neck. Feathers have a lot of good compost nutrition too, so another reasons to butcher right over the compost pile.

Feathers off, skinning begins. Cut along the breast sternum. Cut around the thighs and legs. Pull off the skin. Debone the breast and drop them in the washing basin water. All of this has been done with the rooster hanging upside down in the gallows.

Lacking a stainless steel butchering table, I rolled a good size block of wood from the log splitter pile to make a chopping block. A hatchet comes in handy here. Wack. Off comes one leg/thigh. Wack. Off comes of the foot. The legs and thighs go into he washing basin (meanwhile, The Mrs has cleaned the breast and moved them into the cooling basin). Wack. Off come the wings (not enough meat to make “wings” for the effort it would take). Wack off comes the head. Removing the innards is a little bit of a messier process. While the hearts and livers might have been good to save for dog food, I opted to just pull out all the innards and crack off the pelvis from the back. The back can, with the ribs attached, can go into the washing basin.

Breast meat is good canned for future stews and soups. The backs and ribs became broth. The legs and thighs became crock-pot meals, just add lots of vegetables and spices for flavor.

Rather than trying to do this process six times over in a day, we opted to do in one rooster per day over several weeks on our days off. The barn is much quieter now. The ducks are back to mating in their own way, and sitting on their nests.

Carrying capacity. Whether we contemplate this concept or not, we apply it in various ways in our domesticated existence. While we might not eat our pets, we do cull them. We sell off or giving way extra from littler a of puppies and kittens. When they get old and ill, we “put them to sleep”. We consider this humane rather than letting our beloved pets live in pain.

But, do we consider how we apply this on humane scale? I have read of prior societies disposing their excess babies and elderly through exposure (i.e. putting them out in the cold over night and collecting their bodies the next day for burial). Recently, I have read controversies about certain cultures doing this in essence by drowning those who they cannot afford to keep alive. In our western wisdom, we debate aborting babies and euthanizing elderly and terminally ill I (with as much the same language and reasoning that “Old-Yeller” gets the blue cool-aide). Is this biological or cultural carrying capacity?

In a college writing class, I recall writing an essay, unfortunately loss to culling of my files, on the topic of population density. Even then, I had concluded that the earth’s biological carrying capacity was at or near it’s limit. While I advocated reducing, as a personal/social decision not government mandate, birth rates, I recognized that natural or social processes would have the effect of culling our herd. I identified wars as one means by which we slaughtered millions of people. Famines starved millions more. And, diseases could take out a percentage of population, especially as population density allowed for greater ease of infection, illness, and death rates.

Last year, while watching our roosters grow, and watching the Covid death rates rise, I revisited that thesis. Whether vectoring from some natural source or released by carelessness or design, Covid is one more wave of culling our herd. Wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes are helping with the harvest. These events happen on regional and global scales. The tragedy is on an individual scale.

I suggest not being an obnoxious rooster.

About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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3 Responses to Farm Life: Culling the Herd

  1. Brother Dave says:

    This city-slicker is glad to read that this process is finished for the year. The only thing I’m looking forward to chopping when we are out there is wood… and I promise to be a good rooster.

  2. We usually kept one rooster, who became a guard rooster for us children. If any strange adult appeared in our backyard as we played, that person would be attacked by the rooster.
    I have mixed feelings about the culling of the human herd – most people who went to war were poor, and too many of the essential workers killed in this pandemic are poor, immigrant, and people of colour.

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