In Oregon, it is legal to process poultry outdoors on the farm where they were raised and then sell them direct to consumers. We process all our chickens for sale and home freezer and also do our own ducks. Ducks are much more difficult to pluck and eviscerate than chickens, thus the higher price per pound. Each duck takes between 30-40 minutes from crate to package. But, if we were to take our birds to the local ODA licensed facility, we would be paying more than $10 a bird. This is cost prohibitive for us, but the amount of labor we provide is also large. We usually rely on the help of friends and family (and pay in duck or other favors!) but have discovered the amount of labor required is still greater than the price per pound we are currently charging. Because of this, we plan to grow fewer ducks next year and to charge a higher price per pound. Sorry folks, but this is hard work.
This post is for fellow homesteaders who are interested in how we process our birds, and for customers who aren’t squeamish. Be warned, graphic images to follow.
We begin by catching the birds the evening prior to butchering. We use a large fishing net to catch them and don’t over-pack the crates. The birds are then left covered in a light cloth to keep them calm. This holding period is the least ideal part of the 3-4 months our birds enjoy life. But being confined overnight gives them the chance to relax after the brief chase and to evacuate their bowels and crops.
The morning begins by sanitizing all surfaces and heating the water to a perfect 145 degrees. We slaughter each duck in a cone, slicing the arteries to release blood and give them a head rush, then cut their spinal cord with sharp pruners for a quick cervical dislocation/instant death. Their hearts will continue to pump blood but they no longer feel pain or fear. We keep the light cloth over the crates so that the birds cannot see their siblings meet their end. Cutting off the heads right away also prevents the ducks from making sounds that the other birds might hear, causing them to panic. Slaughter isn’t pretty. It isn’t fun. But we do our best to make it as painless, quick and humane as is possible. * We save the blood from slaughter to fertilizer our plants or water our compost heap. Blood is full of nitrogen and feathers break down to encourage fruit set: we waste very little!
Each bird is then scalded in hot water with a splash of dawn. Andy scrubs the feathers with a pasta spoon to try and get the water deep into the down. Even with this agitation and the soap, the down is often still dry when placed on the pre-plucking table. Yes, we pluck our ducks THREE times. First our lovely volunteer will pre-pluck the majority of the feathers by hand while super hot (rubber gloves, yes please.) Then the ducks are placed in the plucking machine. From there they go into a chill tank.
Once i am done slaughtering i move over to the evisceration table. This time of year we set up inside a mesh tent to protect me from yellowjackets. I eviscerate each bird then place in a cooler with lots of ice to chill down. Once Andy and our volunteer are done scalding/pre-plucking they move into the tent to do quality control. This includes pulling pin feathers, wing feathers, removing feet and making the ducks look as pretty as possible. This tedious activity includes the use of tweezers, fingernails, pliers and LOT of patience. “Q.C.” can take a very long time per bird depending how well they plucked in the first two steps. Sometimes very little needs to be done, other times they are so feathery we just give up …. and we get to keep those ‘ugly’ birds. Lucky us. Plucking success has a lot to do with the age of the duck, but we have as of yet (after 5 years) not found the absolute guaranteed sweet age… every bird still seems to vary wildly.
Once Q.C. is done, the birds go into a final ice bath and wait for packaging. We usually break for lunch while the birds chill down then package, weigh and label each and place in the freezer.
Duck butcher days are long. And this year we spent the bulk of our summer Saturdays in the backyard turning beautiful animals into delicious meat. We are so proud of our hard work and of feeding our community such high quality meat…. but it is exhausting. We butchered 12 ducks this past saturday and were at it from 7 am to 3 pm. 53 pounds of meat went into the freezer, which at 2018 prices will retail $344. Feed costs take out over half that gross, which puts the two of us working for about $10 an hour….. if you don’t count the hours a day for the past 3 months. Farming is hard, folks. We do it because we love it….. and because we love eating homegrown food…. but the income is not sustainable, so we are re-thinking the future of this particular farm product.
If you love our duck: let us know! We plan to sell most our more limited duck inventory next year by pre-order. And we welcome volunteers willing to help: you’ll get a discount!
Thanks to Sarah Cook for taking these wonderful photos and for helping us with this batch of birds!