If you’re going to raise ninety-six chickens in a small-scale operation for the fryer, you better raise the bar on how you’re going to get them ready for the kitchen. Even though the garden-variety domestic chicken rarely flies more than a few feet, it still has thousands of feathers. Which is where the Whizbang Chicken Plucker came in handy for Ann Arbor native Chris Fraleigh.
Inspired by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Fraleigh set out in 2013 to raise a small flock of Cornish Rock chickens in the healthiest and most sustainable way.
Some online sleuthing led him to Virginia farmer Joel Salatin’s “chicken tractor” method of raising poultry. On his parents’ Scio Township property, Fraleigh’s Landscaping, he built his own version of Salatin’s moveable chicken pen. The ten-by-twelve-foot enclosure allowed him to move his feathered friends to a new spot of land every day. The pen kept the birds safe from predators while giving them new earth to tear apart with their beaks as they rooted for bugs and worms. Their nitrogen-rich poultry poop, meanwhile, enriched the soil.
Except for a little supplemental feed when the chicks were very young, Fraleigh says his only cost was water and fuel to cart the pen around the property. Within nine weeks the birds were ready for harvest–but to do that, he had to come up with an efficient way to pluck their feathers. Done manually, it would take a skilled plucker at least ten minutes of hand-achingly difficult work per bird.
Fraleigh paid $15 for the plans for the Whizbang Chicken Plucker, and built it in the driveway and garage of his north-side Ann Arbor home. Hosford and Co. fabricated the key part, a rotating stainless steel disc that Fraleigh hooked to an electric motor and installed inside half of a fifty-five-gallon plastic barrel. He placed about 200 rubber “fingers” around the inside of the half-barrel. Once running, the Whizbang lived up to its moniker. The birds were quickly killed, dunked in boiling water, and then placed in the machine, where the rotating wheel tossed them again and again against the rubber fingers to quickly remove their feathers.
Fraleigh says the Whizbang saved many of hours of tiring manual labor. But he hasn’t raised chickens since. Why? “Because they’re a pain in the ass,” he says. Even with a small flock, “You gotta be married to these birds and taking care of them every day.” And he realized that to bring his costs down to what people would be willing to pay, he’d probably have to raise about 1,000 at a time.
So once the harvest was over, the chicken tractor went onto the burn pile at the farm. But Fraleigh still has the Whizbang Chicken Plucker, which he’ll make available to 4-H, Future Farmers of America, or other small-scale poultry farmers for a nominal fee (he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org). If you’re raising your own poultry, you might want to give it a try and get those birds ready for the table the Whizbang Way.