Butchering Backyard Chickens



Warning: this post contains pictures of chickens being processed (killed, plucked, etc.). If you prefer to not see such things, please stop reading now.

If you really want to learn how to process backyard chickens, you should probably go learn from Herrick Kimball, who’s done it for years and years and even invented his own chicken plucking machine. He has a series of 12 posts explaining in detail how to butcher a chicken. If you want to see how we processed our first batch of home-raised broiler chickens, under the guidance of every piece of information we could get our hands on, then read on my friends.

Before we raised our first chickens for meat, we read Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits (buy it here). This book was invaluable to us, from start to finish. In it, Joel writes,

The point of this discussion is to encourage you to start small, to start with something, and to realize how little capital and time is required to raise a few chickens. It really is not that complicated.

Go for it.

And so we did.

When processing your own chickens, the order of operations goes something like this: kill chicken, dip in scalder, pluck feathers, remove extra parts (feet/guts), place in ice bath, package for freezing. Then start all over again on the next chicken.

The night before. The night before processing day, we removed the feeder from the pen for the night (as we did every night), but we didn’t put it back in the next morning. Not feeding the chickens on the day of processing translates to their crop not being full of grains, which means the processing is slightly easier because you aren’t dealing with a full crop that could bust while you are cleaning the bird.  

Step 1. Starting the fire for the scalder. Early in the morning on processing day, Farmer Dickie got the fire going so the scalder water could get up to temperature. Our scalder was a cut off steel drum heated by fire. It took a couple of hours to get the scalder water to the correct temperature  (145 degrees F).

fire for scalder

steel drum on fire

scalder

Step 2. Setting up the rest of the equipment. The actual killing took place in killing cones, with five gallon buckets hanging beneath to capture the blood (all waste- blood, feathers, guts- was composted, and will later be used as fertilizer on our gardens). Hubs made the killing cones, which are basically flexible metal pieces rolled up into a cone shape, and attached them to a tree. That same tree contains some sort of pulley device that he uses to clean deer (technically called a gambrel- see it here), and we used it to hang the chickens from during plucking. We collected plucked feathers in a large cut off plastic barrel that we placed beneath the plucking area. Our cleaning station was set up near the house so we could access water from the hose to keep the cutting board washed down at all times. And last but not least, we filled giant, clean coolers with plenty of ice and water, for icing down the chickens after processing. killing cones

cleaning station

Step 3. Fetching a chicken. Once the equipment was ready to go, it was time to grab a chicken from then pen. We gave thanks for the chickens before we began the process. As soon as you catch a chicken and flip it upside down, it calms down and just seems to submit to its fate.

fetch chicken

Step 4. Killing. Place the chicken head first into the killing cone. The chicken just hangs upside down inside the cone while you quickly slit its throat. As per Joel Salatin, “the goal is to slit the main artery with a knife, but not cut the windpipe.” This prevents the bird from going into the shock and allows the heart to pump all the blood out of the chicken. The death is quite quick. During the throes of death, “contractions” as Joel Salatin calls them, the chickens flop around a bit- these are the same reflexes responsible for the phrase “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” According to Joel, if the killing cones are correctly sized for the birds, they should eliminate bruising that can otherwise occur. 

death

Step 5: Scalding. Once the chicken was dead and the blood had drained, we’d tie its feet (with wire) to one end of a stick, and then repeatedly dip the entire chicken into the 145 degree water. The temperature of the scalding water is important. If the water is too hot or if you hold the chicken in the water for too long, the skin will tear during the plucking process. If the water is not hot enough, the feathers don’t come out easily during plucking.

We’d hold the chicken under the water for about 10 seconds, then bring it completely out of the water for 5 seconds and then dip it back in, dunking and removing the chicken from the water intermittently until we could easily pull a large feather out with no resistance. The whole process took about 40 seconds to a minute per chicken. The dipping action, according to Joel Salatin, encourages “feather flocculation, which helps displace oxygen at the feather follicle and aids water penetration.” (Seriously, his book is so informative.) Many people, Joel included, swear by adding a couple of tablespoons of soap to the scalder to really help the feathers come out easier. We skipped this step because I couldn’t bare the thought of dipping my clean, organic chickens in soap, dilute as it may be.

scald

scald

scald

Step 6: Plucking. The entire stick-with-attached-chicken was wired to the gambrel (this again) in our big tree, and we hand-plucked the feathers. We tossed the plucked feathers into a large bucket to be composted. After hand-plucking 36 chickens, we decided that we’d really like to have a plucking machine of some sort. While plucking was not hard (at all), it was the most time consuming step of the process, and we could have moved a lot faster if this step was automated.

While the chicken was still strung up from plucking, we once again followed the advice in Pastured Poultry Profits and removed the heads from the chickens by pulling… yep. We pulled the chickens’ heads off. And by we I mean my husband. “Pulling ensures neck severance at the vertebral joint and makes a clean job.” Next time around I want to save the chicken heads, because you can use them to make chicken stock. No sense in wasting them.

pluck

pluck

Step 7. Eviscerating. After the plucking, it was time to remove the guts. We moved the chicken over to the cutting board and removed the feet. I peeled the feet and chopped off the toe nails so they would be ready to toss in the stock pot (how to prep chicken feet for stock making). Then we removed the guts, saving the liver and heart from each chicken to include in the stock as well. One day I hope to actually consume organs, at least livers, but for now I just toss them in the stock. I won’t go into the details of how to properly gut a chicken, but you can find step by step instructions here.

clean

Step 8. Ice Water Bath. Once the chickens were completely finished, they went into an ice water bath in the cooler. We stored the feet in a separate ice water bath, and the organs in a third ice water bath.

Step 9. Preparing for Freezer. We vacuum sealed a whole chicken, a set of organs, and two feet in each bag.

chickens

The whole process from start to the ice water bath took about 15 minutes per bird once we got the hang of things. Really not bad at all. But man, an automatic plucker would be nice.

Do you raise any backyard meat? Do you process your own chickens? What do you do differently?

-Ashley

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Comments

  1. Really cool post. I was surprised by the chicken walking by in the photo of you holding the 2 dead ones on the stick, they were not bothered by them apparently? Did you use all the cone/ bucket setups at the same time?

    • The other chickens- our egg layers- hung around the whole time and weren’t bothered at all. They seemed more interested in what we were doing and if there was any food involved for them. I guess chickens just aren’t very bright!

      We typically just used one cone at a time, but once or twice we had two going at the same time. It was just me and my husband, so we never needed all three. We also found that all of the chickens fit fine in one cone, even though we had some gigantic chickens and some smaller ones.

  2. Ann Bledsoe says:

    We harvested out first batch of chickens last weekend. My husband taught me how to do it the way they did on his Grandmas farm. We only did 13, it took about two hours. We don’t have cones or a hanging thing. He cut off their heads over a burn barrel and tossed them into a plastic basket. He and I both dipped them in hot water that we brought from inside the house to the yard. We both yanked feathers and eviscerated into the burn barrel and set a fire in it. We can’t compost animal material because our dogs are ..well, dogs! and anything I put in compost can end up on the porch. Then we washed them in cold water, took them inside and I finished processing..cut up fryers, made stock from the bits we don’t typically use, and then we had a chicken dinner.

    • That’s great, Ann! My husband and I always wish we had some family experience that could be passed down to us. I suppose we could ask our grandparents, since everyone used to have to kill their own chickens. I need to question them!

  3. Lori Cochran says:

    Well done. It was a “REfressher course” FOR me, nice to see you used the same style of equipment, ie the cut off 55 gal drum for scalding. I was disappointed you didn’t show the gutting process. I lost a video of a young lady. We only used the a big wood stump for chopping heads no cones for us. This was all when I was about 10 yrs old. 5 families all related came together and did about 200 in one day. Thanks again.

  4. Thank you for sharing. My mother was always in charge of the chicken process. I was small – and the chickens without their heads kind of freaked me out (no cones back in the day – it was always done at our brick fire pit) – anyway, while that was going on, I hid in the hay loft. My job came after scalding the chickens and my sisters had plucked out the feathers…. I singed the pin feathers over a small flame.

  5. Sue Eleazer says:

    We have a 2 cold water system the first ice water bath has salt in it to pull out any blood that might remain. We soak the chickens 20 -30 minutes then move them to the final ice cold water bath, then quarter/pack and freeze. And I fully agree about the plucker…one day soon I hope 🙂

  6. Great description and photos! We just processed 50 Freedom Rangers last weekend in a mobile processing unit with large scalder and plucker. We agree, a plucker is amazing–very few feathers to pull out, and the feet come out peeled! We do smaller numbers of birds with equipment similar to yours, but we would love to get our hands on a plucker before long.

  7. Nice instructions for folks! I’ve never used a fire before, good idea. I will say, the plucker is nice, but only necessary if you’re consistently doing lots of chickens. I’m always thinking about how to save time and the tying of the legs isn’t really necessary. You can always get a big spoon if your pot is so big that the chicken gets lost in it. If you have lots of chickens you’re processing, you might want to see if any local restaurants would be interested buying the hearts and livers; some nice restaurants might give you a good price depending on your community.

    • Thanks Megan! I am trying *really* hard to learn to eat organ meats. I successfully ate one of the chicken livers fried in bacon grease this week (I am so proud!), so hopefully soon we’ll just be eating the livers and hearts ourselves.

  8. I have only processed chickens 2 separate times so far and my first batch didn’t have a yellow coloring on the skin and my second batch did. I noticed yours had the same orange yellow coloring my second batch did. Do you know what causes the skin coloring to be that way. I wasn’t sure if it was something in the grass that they might eat, the breed, etc. Thank You!!

    • Kathy, I know of two things that can cause the yellow color- Joel Salatin says the fat of a pastured bird will be yellow, indicating lower saturated fat levels due to eating grass. I also know fava beans, which we used for the protein source in our feed, can give them a yellow coloration. So for our chickens, I am assuming it’s a combination of having access to grass as well as the fava beans. So if you did not use fava beans, I would think yours might be yellow simply due to grass eating. Were the yellow chickens raised at a different time of year than the first batch?

      • The first batch of 24 were raised early spring and processed the first week of April. They were cornish cross bought from Tractor Supply which uses Mt. Healthy hatchery. This second batch I bought from Ideal Poultry, cornish cross also, and they were processed the first week in July. They were raised on Countryside Organic Feed and free ranged on grass all day. I am a novice at processing the birds so when my second batch of birds had the different coloring to the skin I was just curious as to why. I don’t use fava beans so I guess it would have to be the grass they were on. Thank you for replying back to me. I bookmarked your site and liked you on facebook. I look forward to following your posts.

  9. When I was growing up (I haven’t done it since I was a teen, but will be in the next few months), the only thing differently we did was put the scalding water in a roaster pan. We filled it just enough so only half the chicken was under water and flipped it every few seconds as we plucked (the feathers came out pretty easy)… We always sat with the pan between our feet, which gave us a good center of gravity and the chicken was stationary….
    That’s how my grandmother grew up doing it, and I’m so thankful I was able to learn from her 🙂

    • That is so wonderful, to learn from your grandmother. I’m going to ask my husband’s grandmother today to see what she can remember!

  10. Thanks for all the details. I have not used the feet or heads before……. Would like to know how you get them clean enough to consider cooking and *gasp* eating them. Mine are usually pretty gnarly.

    • Candi, I use them to give the stock flavor, but don’t actually eat the feet. If you toss them in boiling water for a minute or so, you can then peel the outer layer of skin off. I clip the entire end of the toe off to remove the toenail too. It sounds super gross but the feet are said to have all kinds of good collagen (good for wrinkles!) that makes the broth extra healthy.

  11. My husband and I are first timers with processing our own organic chickens, this was a fantastic post and immensely helpful! So excited to raise and process our own meat and have our boys learn how to do it, so they can one day pass on these lessons to their kids along with the farm!

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