Tuesday and Wednesday, of this week, were duck slaughter and processing days for us. Unfortunately, due to some incubation challenges (to be shared shortly in a separate post), this first round of ducks, were born in California at Metzer Farms on March 27th. They traveled by plane, train, and automobile* across the country to lovely Lowgap, NC where they started their lives here by hanging out in our brooder with some cool chicks (a.k.a. our new chicks that arrived from Cackle Hatchery in Missouri just a day earlier than the ducklings).

 *Ok – so, I’m not really sure if they were on planes and trains – it could have been trucks. But however they got here it was a big trip by Post for such little ducks and they were a bit shell-shocked when they arrived.

Ducks in brooder.PNG

After a few days, when they were hardy enough to leave the warmth of the brooder lamps, I loaded the ducklings into buckets and carried them in batches of five up to our greenhouse. Here they graduated from small, shallow watering dishes to their “first ponds” shown in the photo below.  They also got loads of fresh air through the open door and buckets of weeds brought to them several times daily to ready them for pasture.

Ducks in the Greenhouse.PNG

Here they stayed until they were about five weeks old when we moved them into our duck paddock paradise.

Duck Grooming

This was their happy home until June 26th. For their tenure here they feasted on formulated feed and 1600 square feet of pasture and frolicked in their personal pond. On hot days, I also ran a hose over the roof of their house so the water came down like a waterfall because they loved to play under the running water.  I also threw them lots of cut comfrey, sun choke stalks, weeds, and herbs from the food forest just next to their paddock.

Preparation. On harvest day, I prepared my kill station before I caught my first duck.  This included setting up a three bucket wash station (1 soapy water, 1 bleach water, 1 rinse water), sharpening knives, getting my scald water ready, washing and sanitizing everything (absolutely everything), and readying my cooler with ice water.

Killing. I entered the paddock, herded the ducks into a corner, then used a net to catch a single duck. I picked the duck out of the net, carried him or her in my arms to the kill cone, and put them head first inside.  I pulled their beak and neck out through the bottom of the cone with one hand and held it.  Then I swiftly used a sharp knife – grabbed from the table above the cone with my free hand – to cut the arteries on the left and right of their neck and their windpipe.  I held the duck’s head in my hand to direct the blood flow into the pile of straw below the kill cone. As the duck bled out, I said a silent prayer of thanks to the duck, and to the force responsible for the broader cycles of life and death that fuel our world.

Scalding. After the final death throes gave way to stillness, I washed the duck with a hose and wet its feathers.  I placed the body in a large aluminum pot of water, heated to 155º F. I dunked and swirled the duck body by holding the feet and using a pair of tongues to help submerge the entire duck and move water underneath the feathers.  Periodically, I checked the feathers to see if they were ready to pluck.

Plucking. When the feathers pulled out easily, I removed the duck from the pot, hung it by its feet on a hook on my kill table, and removed the feathers by hand.  The feathers fell into a bucket below to be trench composted later. Most feathers come off with gentle pulling, but the few hundred that don’t take a long (long, long, long…) time to pluck. When the feathers were mostly gone, I moved the duck to my stainless steel table, and used tweezers to do fine plucking.

Evisceration.  Next, I made a clean cut on the neck and removed the head entirely.  After that, I made a small incision just above where the neck meets the breast and used my fingers to pull the crop loose along the neckline.  Then I made another incision, large enough for my hand to fit, into the skin and fat between the ribs and pelvis of the duck’s belly area (careful not to nick the intestines).

I put my hand in and grabbed the gizzard.  I disconnected the tasty fat from around the gizzard and left it attached to the duck carcass.  (Later I would trim that fat to render as lard for cut carcasses or just leave it attached for whole ducks). I pulled the gizzard out, bringing the loosened crop with it, to make it easier to fit my hand in the body cavity.

Since the gizzard is attached to the intestines, I just set it to the side to clean-up later so I don’t run the risk of breaking the intestines and contaminating the meat. When killing commercially, if you cut the intestines, any part of the meat that potentially had contact with fecal matter has to be cut off and not sold.  So details like this are important if you plan to sell your meat.

Then I reach inside, free the heart and lungs from around the rib cage area and sweep my hand around to break through any other connective tissue. When everything is loose, I pull all the organs and bowls out of the cavity and onto the table and carefully cut around the anus to disconnect the intestines from the meat.

After moving the guts a safe distance from the carcass, to avoid risk of contamination,  I cut the gall bladder off the liver. I also cut the connective parts off the heart and gizzard. The heart, liver, and gizzard are saved for eating. What remains goes into a bucket for the pigs, along with the two oil glands on the tail nub on the duck’s backside.

Chilling. I rinse the duck inside and make sure there are no remaining lungs, bladder, or urethra inside the carcass cavity (since these are the most likely to be still attached after eviscerating).  Then, I put the carcass in a cooler of ice water to chill overnight. (Note: When I put my last duck in for the day, I make sure there’s plenty of ice in the cooler, close it, and put a few concrete blocks on the lid to keep critters out.) 

Sanitation and my resetting ritual.  After each duck, I wash my table, kill cone, and all my equipment with soapy water, bleach, and rinse them all with fresh running water. I check my scalding water and get the temperature back to 155º F. I sharpen my knife, set it on my kill station, and go pick up my next duck.

It takes much longer to do it this way and it is absolutely not required for inspection purposes.  I could clean my station after four or five ducks and still be within regulation. For me, though, this process of re-setting is how I stay mindful of each duck’s sacrifice. It’s my ritual to make sure I don’t become numb to the killing and forget to appreciate the animal whose life I am taking.

Carving. The next morning, I take my first chilled duck to my table and pick out any feathers I missed the day before. Then, I remove the feet, legs, breasts, wings, and neck.  I trim extra fat from these cuts and put it aside to render into lard. I also break the carcass in two at the waist and tuck the narrow part inside the large barrel chest part to make packing easier.  Then I rinse off any last feathers from the cuts with cold water, pat the meat dry using fresh paper towels, and seal it inside vacuum bags.  I sometimes keep a whole duck or two for special customers, but most people prefer breasts or thighs.

On Eating Duck. We don’t eat a lot of duck – or a lot of any kind of meat for that matter. Meat is a luxury for us, particularly because we know the exact cost of raising, processing, and taking a life.

Most of the ducks we raise and kill are sold at our local farmers’ market. If you want to try to apply the current minimum wage standard to the 3 months I spend raising the ducks, and the two full days I spend processing them, I’d need to charge about 5 times more per duck than I currently do.  And that’s before you add in the hard costs of buying feed, building infrastructure, packaging, fuel, etc.

But I know the realities, people can only spend so much on food. And not everyone cares whether an animal was well-treated and given a respectful death.  Even when they genuinely do care, they have families to feed and budgets to adhere to. So, in my pricing, I simply try to cover my hard costs and the physical time spent selling the meat at the market.

The rest of my payment comes from the fertility the ducks add to our land which helps grow our other food, makes our home beautiful, and helps us build ecological diversity. We also take our payment by using the parts I don’t sell. We keep the fat trimmings to render as lard. The livers are turned into pate.  Gizzards and hearts go to an appreciative neighbor. And we keep the wings for rillette.

Legs and breasts are easy to cook. Carcasses make great bone stock.  And I have customers who buy the necks to give to their dogs as popsicles. (I sell it as human food, but this is what they choose to do with it).  The rest, though, is basically ours.   We also keep any under-sized or slightly imperfect cuts.  For example, this time, I broke a thigh bone removing the feet, so I got to keep the legs from that duck.

Our way is labor intensive, time-consuming, and much more meticulous than necessary to meet legal requirements. But we have other reasons for keeping ducks our reLuxe way that changes the equation and makes this a meaningful and worthwhile endeavor even when the almighty dollar doesn’t quite fit the bill.

As I said in an earlier essay, The Silence of the Ducks: Thoughts on Raising, Butchering, and Eating Animals,

There is so much debate about meat and what is ethical and right. I don’t have all the answers. But even the night before the slaughter when it occurs to me that our animals’ deaths will literally mean blood on my hands, or while adjusting to the notable silence of the ducks that follows the kill, I know my life is better because I am dependent on animals for my well-being. I also believe that even though many of our animals end up on a dinner plate, their lives are better for being dependent on me and other farmers like me. It might seem counter-intuitive, but humans’ and domesticated animals’ lives have been intertwined since the advent of agriculture which directly coincides with the creation of civilization. The fallout from ending that ancient relationship would likely be catastrophic to both parties.

To boil it down to soundbite length…

I love ducks and that’s why I raise them as layers and for meat for us and our customers.

In nature these graceful, gentle Pekins wouldn’t exist.  They no longer have the instincts or skills to sustain themselves without human intervention.  We’ve made them so by breeding them for domestic purposes.

Seven Layers

On Continuity. After killing nine ducks for market, we opened the gate to the duck paddock paradise and let seven female ducks, destined to be layers, find their own way to our big pond and to the company of the rest of our laying flock.

It took them about a day and a half to get the up the nerve to venture out to the great beyond.  This morning though, they finally did.  Today they tentatively contemplate the pond and their new companions.  In a couple more days, we won’t even be able to tell the new ducks from the old.  They’ll have been welcomed by the laying flock, integrated into the life of a layer, and at ease as a reLuxe duck.

I don’t think ducks have the same philosophical pining habits as humans do. I doubt they’d write a 2175 word blog about the lives and deaths of the tadpoles and crickets they eat every day, even if they could.  But, I like to think that the layers who live on, and bear witness to our activities, understand our efforts to find balance between our need to cultivate sustainable meat sources and our desire to inhabit a place where we live happily and interdependently with all the life forms that sustain us and are sustained by us.