For Findleys, processing chickens a family affair

Tabitha Findley | Courtesy photo

The chickens at Rare Breed Farms in Hulbert roam free during the day.

Most people enjoy having a bird on their dinner tables for Thanksgiving, but first the animals have to be raised, butchered and processed before making their way to the plate.

The Findleys have been processing their own turkeys and chickens for several years at Rare Breed Farms in Hulbert, where they turned the job into a family affair. While they enjoy having them around, they decided not to raise turkeys this year, as they were not very cost-effective. But while 2020 is different for most families this year due to the ongoing pandemic, perhaps it is appropriate that chicken be served as the main course this holiday season.

The family typically starts a batch of chicks in the springtime around March, said Tabitha Findley, and after about a week or two, they start another until they've finished about four rounds. After spending the first three weeks of their lives in a brooder house where they are protected and warm, the birds are moved by the Findleys to a field house.

"On one side, it's enclosed, and on the other side, there's chicken wire, so there's air flow and sunshine," said Tabitha. "Every day, they're moved to a new spot of grass. Then when they get a little bigger, we open it up and let them out during the day. So they have access to sunshine, bugs, weeds, grass, and anything they can forage for."

The chickens are raised organically, with no growth hormones or enhanced feeds. They're protected by the family's livestock guardian dogs, who have helped ward off predators looking for a meal. As they reach anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks old, depending on the breed, the chickens are brought to the chopping block.

"We've tried different techniques, but my husband [Kiley] has an ax and he chops their heads off," said Tabitha. "It's quick, clean, it's easy and it's done. He doesn't miss. He makes sure everything is clean, very sharp and ready to go, and that's his job."

Before Kiley lowers the ax down, however, he makes sure the chickens are calm and still. This is to ensure the job is done quickly and without error so the animal does not suffer. Once that is completed, the family lets the carcasses hang to allow the blood to drain.

"When that part of it is complete, we dip the whole body in hot water," said Findley. "It's usually about 180 degrees and it's just for a few seconds. That opens up their pores, so their feathers will come out easier."

The family used to pluck the feathers of their birds by hand. Anyone who has plucked a chicken will know it can be a time-consuming task. So now the family uses an automatic plucker.

"We put the whole chicken in and it has these little rubber fingers, and as the machine spins and the chicken rolls around in there, it literally takes every feather off," said Findley. "So in probably 10 to 15 seconds, you have a clean bird, whereas when we were hand plucking, it took forever."

Once the bird is feather free, the family goes about removing its entrails. The chickens aren't typically fed the night before to allow for a cleaner process. Tabitha said two of their eight children are really good at this portion of the family project.

"Once we clean it out really, really good and make sure we've gotten everything out of it, we put it in an ice bath for a while to cool the body temperature down," she said. "If it needs to bleed out any more, that process will take place as well."

After taking an ice-bath for about an hour or two, the birds are then put in packages. The family shrink-wraps them, weighs them, labels the chickens and throws them in the freezer. Throughout the entire process, each member of the family has a job to do. Tabitha admitted that killing something isn't a fun task, so the family tries to take their minds off of it as they work.

"It's not necessarily an enjoyable event, but we do try to make the most of it," she said. "It's very much a family-bonding experience. We might play music and sing. My family is notorious for movie quotes and constantly making jokes. So we just really try to make it a fun thing where we're not really thinking about exactly what's going on."

Check it out

Rare Breed Farms sells its chickens per pound. Customers can pick them up at the family farm, or there is a site in Tahlequah where the Findleys can meet customers to deliver the chickens. For more information, call 832-457-0091, or email info@rarebreedfarms.com.

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