Week 20: 800 Chickens! Also, Other Stuff. But 800 Chickens!

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It appears that I brought cold weather back from Michigan, as Week 20 has seen the true entrance of fall weather here in the Shenandoah Valley. We have had consistent lows in the fifties all week (47 last night!), and warm – but not hot – days. As Eli (from Minnesota), Parker (from Michigan), and I rode out to morning chores Monday morning, we were joking that we’ve all gone soft – we were freezing!

Of course, moving shelters warms you up in about two minutes, and then the cool weather is really nice.

Monday: Pig Stuff All Day, Yay!

This week, on our weekly chore rotation, I was assigned to moving pullet shelters and helping Gabe with pigs. On the downside, it wasn’t a big pig week (and I was on other projects) so I only had one big pig day…but the day I had, was great!

After Monday morning’s meeting, Gabe sent me over to the barn to start checking on various groups of pigs while he finished up some other stuff. We had an unusually high amount of pig group in the barn, so I dutifully checked four different waterers and feeders Then, per Gabe’s instruction, I took down the training wire in one of the pens. By this time, he had arrived and we spent the next few minutes setting up a new training wire and spreading hay bedding in all of the pens.

I should maybe explain why the pigs are in the barn in the first place, since Polyface pastures their pigs. Pigs always spend a couple of week in the barn when they first arrive. This is so that we can train them to mind the electric fence wire. Basically, they are left in the pen for a few days. Then, Gabe (or someone) strings up a super hot electric wire that blocks off one corner of the pen. The pigs have to learn that the wire is consistently hot, and that they shouldn’t touch it or try to cross it. Once they’ve learned this, they can go out in the forest and will (usually) mind the electric wire. We had two groups of pigs that were small – one had just arrived and we were setting up the training wire, and the other was about to go out on pasture.

The other time pigs are in the barn is when they are big and ready for slaughter. Polyface sends a certain number of pigs at periodic intervals to the abbatoir. Since pigs can be kind of hard to round up and move, it makes sense to bring down the whole group and pull pigs to butcher for a week or two.

Anyway, once we were done in the barn we went all the way to the top mountain pig pasture to move pigs between paddocks. We strung up some bluffs to help the pigs get from one paddock to the other and then herded them in. The move went well, and Gabe went to move the feeder and left the waterer to me.

Pig waterers are big, heavy, and awkward and I had to move it relatively far, so that was interesting and kind of a struggle. I experimented with different ways to carry it, and eventually got it where I wanted it. Then I moved the hose, found the next water hook up, and got everything ready to go.

The next project was to prep a pig pasture – a little further down the mountain – for another group of pigs. I walked a TON of fence, pulling off fallen limbs, fixing insulators, and adjusting the wire height. There was one tree that had fallen on the wire; moving that by myself was an adventure.

At this point, it was about 1pm, so Gabe had to go do cow stuff off farm. As we headed down the mountain, we were greeted with misfortune of a thin mist of water emanating from the ground – a leak in a water line.

Gabe asked me if I wanted to try fixing it now or come back, and of course I picked “fix it now.” So we got off the tractor and started looking at the line.

I’m not sure what happened, but the line was chipped and had small leaks in three different places. This whole section of line was super messed up, and had a ton of tiny pieces of hose spliced together. Polyface is great at fixing things instead of replacing them, which is awesome for their budget, but can result in the things like, well, a water line with a gazillion splices.

Gabe shook his head and said he wasn’t sure if this was fixable right now, but we gave it a try. He let me try it on my own first, giving tips to make it easier and more effective as I went. I started by undoing the clamps, and wrestling with the extremely high pressure jet of water that sprayed out (the water shut off was far away and Gabe didn’t think it was necessary). Then I used my multitool to cut off the bad end of the hose, and jammed the valve and clamps back in the new, not broken end.

This is where I ran into trouble – the water pressure was so strong that i couldn’t seem to keep the ends of the hose tight enough together to get the clamp tightened. Gabe helped by squeezing the ends together while I tightened them, but the hose kept leaking. He suggested getting a second clamp for the splice, as well as a specialized tool for tightening the screws of the clamps that would do a better job than the screwdriver of my multitool..

And so, ‘fix the leak’ got added to my after lunch to-do list (it was a really minor leak so it was okay to leave it for a little while).

First, I checked and walked other groups of pig that were out on pasture, which was pretty quick. Then I grabbed the requisite tools and set off to fix the water leak.

Fixing the water leak by myself was HARD, since the pressure in the line was so high. But after getting myself fairly wet and straining my arms and shoulders for all I was worth to yank the pieces of line together and hold them in place…well, I managed to get the clamps on and the screws tightened down. Only problem was that two other spots down the line had sprouted minor leaks, and these weren’t as straightforward to fix. One of them was fixed by simply tightening the clamps, but the third one seemed like the whole valve was possibly broken. I tried tightening everything, and got it down to a super slow drip, which was going to have to be good enough for now – I wasn’t sure what part to get to fix it, and it was past chore time. I texted Gabe a detailed update, and went straight into broiler chores.

I watered all four row of broilers on my own, since I’m a crazy person, and I’d told Eric I would plan on doing that, since I would already be near the Ridge field where the broilers are. I also fed three rows, leaving one row without feed since they would be getting butchered tomorrow and it makes butchering way easier if the crop of the chicken is empty.

Just as I was finishing the last row – surprise! A group of people came out to catch chickens for processing tomorrow. I probably should’ve realized that was happening and could have avoided watering that row as well, but we usually catch chickens at Polyface in the morning during chores, so I hadn’t thought about it. We were only catching at night since we were planning an early butcher time tomorrow. Oh well, whatever. I’ll just count it as an extra arm workout.

I joined in to carry a few crates, and then joined the rest of the team in returning to the main part of the farm to finish up the day with some egg washing.

After dinner I was on dishes, but after that, I went with Travis to shoot roosters, which was awesome. The boys had already been out while I was doing dishes, but left a few that were already ‘asleep’ in the Eggmobile when they got there. So Travis and I pulled them out, loosed them in the field, and…practiced shooting.

Let me explain. This isn’t as weird or wasteful as it sounds. We have roosters with the hens in the Eggmobile on Polyface. This is specifically to breed the chickens, and we frequently save eggs from the Eggmobile for hatching. We had just finished saving our last batch, and everyone is fed up with the roosters – they’re mean, they attack you, and they keep the hens from ranging as far from the Eggmobile as Joel would like them to. So now that hatching was over, Daniel was completely done with them. Since we harvest as many roosters as we can sell from the batches of pullets that we raise on farm, and these particular roosters are old and particularly tough, Daniel doesn’t bother to try and butcher them. He just opened up the Eggmobile to all of us for target practice. The dead roosters aren’t wasted – they can compost and build soil and/or go to the pigs. That’s the beauty of diversified farming – there’s no waste, even when you’re not able to eat something.

It was fun. ‘Nough said.

Tuesday: Kill/Processing Day

Tuesday was a fairly run-of-the-mill processing day, except that we started first thing in the morning since Shane (contract farmer) was using the facility to process ducks later in the day. I worked the end QC/chill tank station, and we finished all the birds fairly quickly. Daniel gave us two hours for brunch, which was absolutely awesome – I had time to read a good chunk of my book and lay on the couch, not sleeping exactly, but definitely resting. I really like the early-start processing day schedule, with the single long break.

Since we had started so early, we were done packaging super early, and had everything cleaned up and put away by about 3. Eric sent Steward Daniel, Gabi, and me over to the Barth side of the farm to do chores there, as well as some extra thing. We took down a cow shade (now that it is fall, we don’t need it anymore), added a bale of hay to the Feathernet nest boxes, and did some shelter repair at the pullets. It was an enjoyable array of small tasks, complete with ample sunshine and cool temperatures, and we arrived back with plenty of time get in on the usual afternoon egg washing and make it to dinner pleasantly on time.

After dinner, I volunteered with Eli, Jon, Charlie, and Isaiah to go catch chickens at an Eggmobile on a rental farm. These birds are old and at the end of their laying life, and a contract crew would be butchering them tomorrow for stewing hens. There were only 290 birds, so it took almost no time at all to catch them. It’s also super easy to catch birds in the Eggmobile, since you can stand up in it – it’s nothing like crawling around a chicken shelter. We left the main farm right after dinner, since the shortening days bring dark much sooner, and were back for bed by 8:15 It was great. I don’t miss catching chickens mid-summer when you don’t get home until 10pm.

Wednesday: Tour! Also, Looking at Grass

Wednesday was our long awaited tour of T&E, the abatoir where Polyface gets their beef and pork processed. We were all pretty excited, and arrived down at the farm with all of our gear to meet all the USDA regulations (hats, clean shoes, face masks/bandannas, etc) promptly at 8:45. Then we piled into trucks and made the near-hour drive to Harrisonburg, the closest “big” city.

When we got to T&E we started by unloading some stuff from the box truck that we had brought into Polyface’s freezer. Yes, Polyface has it’s own freezer on site, which is pretty cool. Then we went inside and got a thorough tour of all aspects of the facility. We saw everything from the kill floor – where they were killing Polyface cattle! – to the smoke room where they make bacon.

It was pretty cool. We’ve done the on-farm pig butchering, but I had never seen the equipment of a larger scale processing facility or the scale of a cow butchering. Everything in a cow is giant compared to a pig, and it was really neat to watch. Seeing how they cut up the meat into different steaks and roasts was also cool, and the owner pointed out differences in meat color between 100% grass finished beef (like at Polyface) and grain-finished beef, as we stood in the walk-in freezer looking at different carcasses.

As cool as it was to see how the processing side of things works, I definitely prefer production – I would go out of my mind dealing with all the regulations and inspection stuff, and I also like to be outside and not in a freezer all the time! Kudos to the meat fabricators who process animals for us.

The tour was fairly long and in depth, and Daniel took us out to a late lunch afterwards. We went to a bar and grill place in downtown Harrisonburg that had great specialty burgers (and fries – cooked in peanut oil!).

When we were done, everyone in Daniel’s car – myself, Isaiah, and Lauren – went back to T&E to gather the hides from the cattle that they had just slaughtered. Daniel wanted to salt and send another batch to the tannery, so T&E set them aside for us instead of throwing them away. We threw them in the back of the truck, and then headed for the next stop: Hayou, to look at grass.

Okay, this wasn’t exactly planned. Everything had taken longer than expected, and Lauren had a chiropractor appointment right near Hayou that she wasn’t going to be able to make if we all went back to the farm. So Daniel offered to drop her off, since he wanted to go assess the grass at Hayout anyway.

This was fairly cool for me and Isaiah – we got more exposure to the number of cow days on different densities of grass, and Daniel discussed the grazing plan with us, as well as potential changes that they are going to make. We haven’t been able to do a second cutting of hay this year because of how wet it is has been, so Polyface has made some grazing changes to get the cows to mow down the annuals and allow the perennials time to regrow before winter. There’s also some debate on what to do with a particular field at Hayou that has an excessive amount of cockleburrs for no clear reason.

While we were driving, Daniel spent some time on the phone talking to people about buying more cows, which was also pretty interesting to listen to. He had Isaiah drive, and was showing us pictures of bulls that are for sale and talking about cattle purchasing. It was pretty interesting, albeit low key.

A contract farmer crew had butchered more chickens today while were gone, and the people that had gone home right after lunch were hard at work packaging them when we arrived at Polyface. They also had chores underway.

This was great – it left the three of us to get to work on the hides.

We dragged each hide out of the truck, and laid it out on the floor of the processing shed. Then we trimmed it up, cutting off the ears, tail, udder, and any scarred or gross bits. Then we hosed it off on both sides, removing any dirt, blood, or manure. Finally, we folded it up and laid it off to the side to deal with later.

After dinner (which was awesome – Eli had requested homemade pizza for his birthday – score! Eli, have more birthdays, please), Daniel, Isaiah, Lydia, Parker, and I finished working on the hides. We brought them to one of the hoophouses and laid them out on a big tarp. Then we proceeded to dump 100 pounds of salt on each one, spreading it evenly over the hide. The salt will sit on the hides for…awhile. I don’t actually know how long. Then, Daniel will send them to a tannery to get tanned and sell them in the store.

Thursday: Trusses & Chicken Catching

On Thursday morning, I was sent with Buzz, Eli, Jon, and Oleg to Hayou to work on building a storage shed. This has been an ongoing project for awhile, but it was the first time I had been sent to work on it, so it took me a little time to get my bearings. We were working on putting up roof trusses, which was pretty neat. It was slow, methodical work with a lot of handing things to each other and slowly maneuvering the truss. But it was definitely interesting and Buzz is always good to work with.

We were fortunte in that the rain – which was impending all day – held off until around 2, and even then was very light until we were pretty much back to Polyface.

When we got back to the farm, it was raining pretty steadily, and we were told that Eric would be taking advantage of the rainy weather to give us an in depth tour of his maple syrup setup. He has a really cool system. There’s a brick fire pit built in a lean-to attached to his garage, with a huge pan for boiling down the sugar water. Everything is customized, right down to a slanted metal sheet above the pan that catches condensation and allows it to run into a PVC pipe that is suspended from the ceiling and drains down into a bucket.

Eric described how he began tapping maple trees at home as a teenager, and how he slowly revised and improved the different techniques. He has a pretty cool system at Polyface and neighboring farms, and said that anybody here over the winter might get “roped into” helping him – sounds fun and exciting to me!

After the tour Eric took volunteers to go catch birds at Smokey Row (a rental farm) for Friday’s butcher day. The rain made for less than ideal conditions, but when there was a moment of silence after he asked for volunteers, I raised my hand, along with Eli, Jon, Isaiah, and Steward Daniel. The crates were already loaded, so we piled into the truck and headed out.

We were catching 600 birds, which is considered the maximum number to butcher. But when we were done catching, there were only three shelters left at Smokey Row, and we started half-joking, half-begging Eric to let us catch the rest of them.

So some background: we normally send birds to a USDA facility as well as butchering them on site, but the USDA plant has been shut down for a couple of weeks…which has led to a sudden increase in processing days. This isn’t ideal, first of all because butchering more than twice in one week kind of sucks, and second of all because it’s taking away from other things we need to do (like building the corral and the shed). A vocal minority has been talking about combining butcher days and just doing a TON of birds on one day. First of all, we figured it would be fun to go as fast as possible and set a record. Second, it would free up time on other days and be more efficient because we’d only need to set up and clean up once.

But the leadership was like “uh…no.”

That is, until dinner, when Eli and Jon happened to sit next to Daniel and spent most of the meal talking him into catching those last three shelters. He finally laughed and agreed, stating “I’m not going to catch them. But if you want to catch them, I’ll kill them.”

I was sitting a few seats away from them, with Isaiah, Parker, and Oleg, and when whispers of what was happening reached us, we all started getting excited. We had all been a part of the group pushing for “BUTCHER 1,000 BIRDS!” and the excitement was palpable.

So finally, Daniel stood up for the usual end-of-the-meal announcements. “I’m going to stand over here,” he said, indicating the center table where we were all sitting. “Because if I stand over there, I might get plates thrown at me. But we’re going to try and butcher 800 birds tomorrow.” Our table burst into cheers. Smiles spread across the faces of most of the people sitting further down the table.

Okay, a few people weren’t very happy about this idea because it would mean a long, hard day. But the vast majority of us were super excited.

Jon and Eli had gotten permission to take the Duramax truck and the rest of the necessary chicken crates, along with whoever else could fit in the truck. When they asked for volunteers, Isaiah and my hands shot up simultaneously, and the four us ran off to get the crates set up.

We talked excitedly all the way to Smokey Row about the logistics of doing 800 birds and how we were certain we could do 1000 if the USDA plant stayed closed next week. We all agreed on the importance of doing what needs to be done, and since the plant is closed and we have to butcher a ton of birds anyway, we were ready to go and looking forward to pushing ourselves on speed and efficiency. We also all agreed to take short meal breaks and to really push ourselves to make things easier on the people who didn’t want to do it – no sense in making other people do extra work who don’t actually want to.

Of course, the first challenge was catching chickens. It had been raining steadily all afternoon and the road through Smokey Row is…well, pretty sketchy. And involves going up a fairly steep hill.

Jon’s first attempt to get up the hill involved us sliding sideways all the way back down the hill. Jon handled it super well, and none of realized how little control he had over the slide until after it was over because he stayed super calm. The second attempt wasn’t much better, and then Eli suggested coming up the hill at a sharp angle, gaining most of the elevation at a spot where it was less steep and there weren’t any tire ruts. To our deep relief, it worked, and we made it to where the broilers were.

The next hurdle was getting them to come out of the shelter. It was dark, and they were roosting underneath the metal part, where we couldn’t access them. Chickens also hate rain, so all the pounding in the world wasn’t enough to get them to come out. I used the sort boards to push them to one side, then climbed in and started pulling them out in twos and threes. Isaiah did the same thing in a different shelter, but then had the idea of literally picking up the shelter and moving it. Since these are slow, fat broilers and they were so opposed to moving anyway, this ended up working super well, and it’s what we did for the rest of the shelters. We just team lifted the whole shelter, moved it off of them, then picked them up and threw them in crates.

We made it back to the farm at 8:30, soaking wet and covered in chicken poop – and beyond excited for the next day.

Friday: WE BREAK RECORDS! IT IS AWESOME!

Daniel decided to begin our Epic Butcher day at chore time. Those of us who had chores (broiler people and Barth side people – which included me) would do their regular chores, then take breakfast. All the people who had “projects” or who didn’t have animal-related chores would immediately start butchering. When we got back from breakfast, we would sub in for them while they took breakfast, then they’d come back to finish out the morning.

Jon and Oleg went down early to get the kill floor set up, and the team started killing at 7:15.

We killed the last bird at 11:15.

For the record, with 500 birds we are normally done butchering by noon. Yes, we start after breakfast, but still.

It was awesome.

Everyone on the line was flying at maximum capacity. I gutted for most of the morning, and I can honestly say that I have never gutted so fast in my life. We made 20 birds per person-hour, which is about as fast as it can possibly get, and the energy was incredibly high the entire time. Oleg had the radio set up to play some sort of movie soundtrack style music, which often fit butchering super well (picture Lord of the Rings meets chicken processing).

When we were done, we were rewarded with some delightful chocolate milk that a local grass farmer is testing. He had to finish perfecting his recipe and then plans to sell it at the Polyface store and personally, I think his recipe is perfected.

After a quick lunch, we were back on the processing line. We had a little over 100 cutups, which Eli and Steward Daniel got started on right away. The rest of us worked the assembly line, and I don’t think it has ever moved so quickly. Parker and Charlie bagged birds, I shoved them through the taper, Oleg threw the labels on, and Isaiah got them into boxes. The line fluctuated as needed, and Daniel jumped around wherever there was a backup. Jon and Lauren took care of packaging hearts and livers, not to mention parts and pieces as the cutups got done, and Lydia ran the vacpacker. We had classic country music radio going – sometimes, blasting – and all of us were singing along, laughing, joking, and pushing each other – and ourselves – to go faster and faster.

We were done before four. We were done so early, that we had time to random extra stuff, like freezer work, as well as chores, and were at dinner on time.

Joel told us that this was the record for the highest number of birds butchered in one day at Polyface, and we weren’t even late for dinner. It was fantastic. Yes, it was exhausting…but it was fantastic.

And we could totally do 1,000.

As a side note, Daniel is also an awesome boss and made sure that the three people who weren’t on board to butcher 800 birds got to leave and go do other tasks for the majority of the day. Those of us who had pushed for it…well, we were on our A-game all day with short meal breaks, high energy, and a rapid pace. It was by far the most fun I’ve ever had on a kill day, and as Eli pointed out later, it was quite a team morale booster.

As I write this in the cool-but-sunny morning, I’m struck again by how great this team is. It takes a special kind of group to decide to take an unfortunate situation (like a closed processing plant), and turn it into an incredibly fun challenge. It also takes a special kind of group to actively volunteer to go out in the evening to do extra work, and to have fun while doing it. If the team, as a whole, was negative, and spent their time complaining or figuring out how to avoid work – as is often the case in our culture – farming in a team setting would be terrible. It’d be easy to see the closed plant and the repetitive task of butchering as a drain, it’d be easy to move slowly and inefficiently, and it’d be easy to be miserable. But why would anybody want to be miserable?

The key is attitude, and the “positive, can-do attitude” that Polyface tries to select for in their checkout process created a team that makes the work of the summer one of the most positive, empowering things I’ve ever experienced. When we are all happily pushing ourselves and each other, we are able to accomplish a LOT, learn a LOT, and have an amazing experience. I’m grateful for teammates who value work ethic and truly love farming, and for staff who encourage creativity and truly value and appreciate us. I can honestly say that I hope to keep in touch for the long haul with most of the folks who are leaving in October, and I’m very much looking forward to spending another year with the folks who aren’t.

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