Warning: If you are at all upset by the processing of poultry meat, please read no further. We raise our animals humanely and ethically dispatch them, with gratefulness in our hearts and minds. We encourage others who maintain meat in their diet to support ethically raised meat supplies, either by raising the animals themselves or supporting farmers who do. Much of the problems with meat consumption these days are because of inhumane agri-business.
We raise ducks for their eggs. It’s some of the best protein, Omega-3, and good-for-you food you can get fairly easily. Drakes don’t lay eggs. One drake in our brace, Joe, was a rescue and he will always be the Daddy of Duckville here at Thrasher Studios & MicroFarm. He chases the wild birds and squirrels and alerts his ladies to aerial predators. This will be his job until he passes of natural causes. Domesticated ducks can live upwards and past a decade. Joe has been with us for three years now. (Photo of Joe) He’s got a long time left with us, if all goes as planned.
This past spring, we could not break Ms. Buffy, one of our chickens of being broody. And we only had two female ducks and duck egg demand has gone up considerably in our community. We’re more than happy to supply families with their duck egg needs where we can. So, it became clear that having Buffy hatch a clutch of duck eggs would be the easiest way to break her of her broodiness (Buffy has been in a pattern of broodiness for more than a year, so this was kind of our last ditch effort). Also, let me tell you having a hen raise chicks — or clucklings as we called them — was super easy compared to incubating eggs indoors and having the hatchlings all alone. Mama was so attentive and protective and I never worried. Our clutch was four eggs and all of them ended up being viable. We ended up with two females (Riker and RoLaren) and two males (#2 and #3).
When the clucklings were integrated into the brace with Joe, Jayne, and Inara, things went really well (seemed like the ducks knew that the babies were there the whole time and got used to them fast). But as #2 & #3 entered sexual maturity, things went downhill. Most drakes have a harem of up to five ducks and each drake should have about five females to mate with to keep the peace. When you have seven ducks and three of them are males, they fight constantly. As with our last dispatch season, we tried to rehome the ducks, but most farmers and duckkeepers are in the same spot we are — they need to keep everyone happy and safe. Fights break out, and as we found during our butchering process — #2 & #3 had been fighting hard and had injured one another unbeknownst to us. Also the ladies stop laying eggs because they are stressed with the over-mating happening. Our duck egg customers, as well as our own needs, were unfulfilled and none of the ducks were happy. It was time to harvest duck meat.
We had to wait for a calm wind day where it was cool to do this. Finally this past Saturday fit the bill, no pun intended. Here’s the process, along with my thoughts and lessons.
What you need:
- sharp paring and boning knives
- compost bucket with a small amount of water in it for blood catch
- container of bleach water for sanitizing
- pvc pipe snippers (preferred), hatchet or ax
- empty cardboard box for feather catching (We used a copy-paper sized one per bird)
- container for offal (basically guts you won’t use)
- bowl for giblets (internal organs you can use)
- giant pot (which will always be your dispatch pot) and a means for heating it (we used the burner on our bbq, you could use a camp stove — that works well too)
- one brick (aka 16 oz. box) of paraffin wax per bird
- a table with cutting board is very helpful
- A flat piece of cardboard or old cooking tray to place bird on after wax dunk
- pot or large bowl for carcass
- ice and sink
- refrigerator for aging carcass
- a roll of paper towels or shop rags for cleaning hands and surfaces
- A helper
- dispatch cone/old feed bag with corner snipped off at an angle
- A way to hang the bird for plucking (we don’t have this yet, but the Chief Engineer is working on it
- A space outside to do this.
- Clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty and potentially bloody (why do you think butchers wear those leather aprons?)
- A cool, windless day. Cool to minimize bacteria from growing on your meat and windless because, well, feathers.
- cheese cloth
- wax paper
- Separation. On the morning of dispatching, or even the night before if you want, you need to separate your cull and keep them isolated. This minimizes stress on the rest of the flock. My separation kennel is on the other side of wood shed and garden shed out of eyesight from the other poultry. Give them water, but no food. This lets the animals clear out their digestive tract, which keeps the meat clean and the process easier for you, the farmer.
- A Clean Quick Cut. The MicroFarm’s Chief Engineer fashioned a dispatch cone for us the first year. You can also tack up an old feed bag and snip off a corner to use for field expediency in case you don’t have a dispatch cone. Many small hobby farmers use an old traffic cone turned upside down for this. This allows the bird to be still while you dispatch them quickly.
This is where a second set of hands, an assistant is necessary. As you put the bird in the cone or bag, be aware of their claws. I always seem to get scratched. It’s always a reminder to me to say a quick prayer of gratitude for the gift this animal is giving me. Place the bird either in the cone or the old feed bag and take the PVC shears to its neck. The first snip will cut either artery on each side of the bird’s neck and kill it instantly. (Be sure that you have the shears on either side of the neck from the bill.) If you’re using an ax on a chopping surface through the feed bag, you’ll need to do a quick cut with a boning knife on each side of the neck. The dispatch cone with PVC shears method allows you to completely cut the head off (put in offal bucket) and let the blood drain into the compost bucket with the small amount of water in it. When you have bled out your cull, you can put that water and blood on flower beds. The roses especially love this liquid nutrients. Because my farm services people who are vegans and vegetarians, I only put the dispatch blood water on non-edible things like cut flowers. It doesn’t take long for the animal to bleed out, but do give it a good fifteen minutes. That way you can make sure you have all your other supplies ready to go, including getting the big pot of boiling wax water going. We have a tall 3-gallon one that we fill half way. Put the paraffin in and let it melt. Once the wax melts, keep the water at a about 155 to 175 degrees F. You don’t want it to scald, just coat the bird. But first, you need to pluck.
- Pre-plucking. You need to take the headless carcass and pre-pluck all the feathers as best you can. Start with the tail feathers. You can save these separately if you want, because many crafters and artisans would love to have these feathers for their artwork or craft. Same for the wings, which you can snip off at the elbow joint and put aside. Don’t spend time plucking those as there is little meat on it. You just want the stubs of the wings on your carcass at the end. Keep the feet intact on the carcass for now, you’ll need their help for the wax dunking. The pre-plucking takes the longest part of this and that’s why if two of you are working at it, it can take as little as ten minutes total. At this point the bird will be going into rigor, too. Don’t be alarmed, this is part of the process. It won’t stop the plucking process. Pull the feathers opposite from the direction they are going. Put the feathers you pull into the cardboard box. We’re fortunate in that our refuse service takes yard waste/compost. These are perfect for that receptacle at the end of processing the bird. Get as many of the feathers as you can. But it doesn’t have to be perfect — that’s what the wax water is for. If someone wants your duck feathers, bag up in a garbage sack and put aside. I haven’t had this situation yet; but, I have a fellow farmer who saves her duck feathers for a crafter that makes warm clothing out of it.
- Wax Water Dunk. This is a trick I learned from my father, who is an avid duck hunter. Many folks skin their ducks, but I like to have the skin to help keep the meat moist during cooking. Also, duck fat rendered is such a good cooking/baking ingredient. You don’t want to miss out on that. Take your wax water and put it on the ground somewhere that if wax water leaks out it’s no big deal (a grassy or gravel area is where we have done), take the carcass by the feet and dunk the whole bird in the water and let it sit there until it’s fully coated in wax. You’ll be able to tell. Then place on the cardboard sheet and let sit a moment for the wax to harden. Then peel the wax off and all those little tiny feathers and remaining tufts you couldn’t get comes right off and you have a great smooth carcass. Rinse off with warm water and get ready to gut. (When you’re done processing the birds, let the wax pot cool. Once cool, scrape the wax and save for the next harvest day. Dump the water in a weedy patch.)
- Gutting. This is the trickiest part and I advise you to watch someone do it. Fortunately, YouTube is full of great videos of folks disemboweling ducks. I especially like this video on how to gut.(6:22 starts the disemboweling part.) Put on nitrile gloves if you’re a little squeamish. I use my bare hands, just remembering to wash when I’m done. It allows me more feel as I do this delicate part of the processing. But I make a big “V” cut from the end to avoid the bunghole, using the breast bone as a guide. Some folks (like in the video), make a separate cut to pull off the oil gland on the back. I make a big giant triangle cut and take off the bunghole and oil gland all at once and put in the offal bucket. Once you have that you can pull out the innards. They mostly come out all at once. Save the extra inner fat, liver, heart, and gizzard and put in your giblets bowl. I use that for either giblet gravy or making dog food. Be very aware not to slice into the bile duct. It’s this little green gland that looks like a giant pill. Do not puncture that or squeeze it. Gently cut it away from the bile duct from the liver and get that sucker in the offal bucket. I have found that the liver detaches from it very easily without the need of a knife.
However, if the connecting tissue is a bit tougher, gently use your very sharp paring knife to cut the bile duct away from the liver. DO NOT CUT THE BILE DUCT. Just cut the connecting tissue. If you cut the bile duct, that would be bad. And ruin your meat. It also will make you puke with its smell. Worse than cutting into the bunghole. I only know this from watching other people on YouTube having done this. I’ve been fortunate to not have any bile duct or bunghole accidents. Like in the video, the lung tissue is very difficult to get out.
You’ll be rinsing the inside of the cavity when you’re done, so don’t stress too much. A good rinse brings out all the lung tissue. Snip the feet at this time and set aside for stock or feeding to chickens (They’re omnivores, after all. Cats & Dogs love them, too. Unless you don’t want your cat/dog to want to eat your livestock, save it for a friend’s pet who lives far away. Some folks also use them for talismans and protection craft. They can be frozen for crab bait, too.)
- Rinse & Rest. Now rinse the carcass inside and out and rest in an ice bath. I use my kitchen sink for this. This past week, while the first carcass was resting in ice bath, we dispatched a second bird, following all the steps above. Meanwhile freezer ziploc the offal and fat for rendering or set to cooking for poultry, dogs, cats, or gravy, and lard. Some folks like the liver for Pâté. We’re not fans.
- Aging. Next you need to line a baking sheet that will sit in a refrigerator (some folks can use a flat surface in the garage if the temp doesn’t rise above 40 degrees F). Line the baking sheet with cheese cloth, put the carcass on it, cover with wax paper and let it rest 48 hours up to five days in the fridge. Then freezer pack and put in the freezer. This allows more blood to drain from the carcass and lets the whole rigor process go through so your duck meat will be tender when you cook it. You may have to change the cheese cloth after the first day. Be sure to do that. Rinse the bird before freezer packing it, pat dry, and pack for the freezer. We use a food saver system for the carcasses to prep for freezing. Looks very professional.
There you have it, for those who have been asking for this blog post (you know who you are). I hope I didn’t forget anything. Oh, the Chief Engineer says that you can use a leaf blower to blow any feathers that escaped from the box back into a pile for cleaning up. We just blew them back into the duck range yard. Wild birds pick them up for their nests. They’re not stupid. They know warm when they see it.
Last year we ate the duck as part of our Imbolc celebration in February. We have two this year, so we may get to have one sooner. Or maybe I’ll share with someone. We’ll see.