This post is my recounting of our first, on our property, chicken processing day. While I now have the gift of hindsight, I can gather my thoughts, lessons learned and musings over this wonderful experience.
Wonderful, really? You’re describing the process of taking a chicken’s life, processing and butchering it as wonderful? Yes, yes I am. You’ll have to stick around to see why or skip the rest of this post now and watch the full video on youtube below.
This spring, we had the privilege of raising 24 cornish cross broilers for our family freezer. These chickens are specifically bred for meat. They are bulky, ravenous, and active. A totally different type of bird so to say, from our fluffy and docile egg layers.
When we first got the cornish cross broilers as chicks, we used two of our homemade chicken brooders (In video clip below). They were our 4th batch of chicks to be raised through our brooders. Our brooders are two large plastic storage totes, with openings cut into the lids. The opening is covered with metal hardware cloth and fastened with rivets and washers. They are a very affordable way to make brooders in my opinion. They are also wonderfully easy to spray down and clean, store all chick-sized waterers and heat lamps when not in use, and the lid works well to keep baby chicks safe from predators including the mice or rats that may lerk in the garage.
The heat lamps we used are converted clamp lights from the hardware store that we used with a red heat light bulb. When we first started raising chicks, this was a more affordable option than purchasing a heat lamp specifically for brooders but it may not be so in present day. I will say, that I DO think the ceramic light bulb socket does add a better level of safety and decreases the hazard of melting plastic versus a plastic socket included in hardware store clamp lights that you would typically use with a regular bulb and not heat bulbs. Even if the clamp lights were to save you a few bucks, I’d definitely recommend the ceramic light bulb socket over the plastic sockets.
We have found that the red light decreases continued pecking from other chicks (egg layers and broilers alike) as they cannot see blood or injuries as easily as they might with a regular white heat lamp. We did notice that the broiler chicks were much more ravenous as compared to our egg layer chicks and needed something to do, as well as room to move about and scratch for food. If they were bored or too crowded, they would pick on each other. Thankfully, this was caught just in time to move them to a larger space.
As the chicks grew (really quickly) we moved them to a galvanized feeding trough as we continued to build the chicken tractor. Looking back, we would have started all 24 chicks in the feeding trough until their pin feathers began coming in and then transition them straight to the chicken tractor. In early spring, it was still dipping pretty low into the 30s-40s F some nights which would not be ideal for chicks that do not have their true feathers in. The smaller, more enclosed brooders saved heat from the heat lamps better than the wide open feeding trough. Depending on weather and conditions, there would be ways we could make the galvanized feeding trough more insulated for future use. We typically wait to take chicks off heat as we notice the majority of their body is covered in true feathers, as well as their wings.
CHICKEN TRACTOR Our chicken tractor is 6 ft. x 8 ft. and about 2 ft. tall. Will used hardware cloth over chicken wire to enclose it. The reason behind that is because of our woodland location and previous experience with predators. Raccoons can easily fit their grimy little hands through the holes of chicken wire. If they can grab a hold of a chicken, they can do some serious damage. I want to spare you of this and come out and recommend hardware cloth. We might could get away with chicken wire if we had a dedicated guardian dog or electric fencing, but we do not. The tiny square holes in hardware cloth offer us a bit of security and peace of mind.
Feed and Cost
Feed Cost: At 9 weeks, we calculated that we went through 10 bags of crumble feed for all 24 birds. We spent about $100 in feed. We wanted organic feed but settled for non GMO, no wheat, no soy feed instead. It would have cost us a lot more if we went the organic route and we may do so in the future by growing fewer birds at a time, versus 20+ all at once, to keep feed cost lower. They also drank roughly 5 gallons per day, if not more. We fed morning and night and kept water filled.
Cost of Chicks: For 25 cornish cross broilers (We lost one on the first day) it cost $78.
To build the Tractor: It was almost $400 in materials. Materials are expensive 2021 and although we were able to reuse some hardware cloth we already had, as well as screws, the treated lumber ran us way over our ideal spending amount. We will be “paying off” the cost of the tractor for future meat chickens, as that was a one-time investment. If if they coop needs repairs in the future, it shouldn’t cost us what it did to have a brand new one.
The roofing will eventually get upgraded. We used an asphalt-type of roofing that does need to be on a pitch in order to hold its shape properly. It was much more sturdy when we purchased it but we had no idea that it would absorb any sitting water from rain. Lesson learned. $40 not well spent. We will have to scrounge around to see if we have any scrap metal left. I have a feeling we may. At the time, the construction of the tractor was rushed as we didn’t have it prepared in advance for the arrival of the chicks. We were also looking to keep the weight of the tractor light, and the asphalt roofing is very light. We will also upgrade the tractor by adding wheels as some point and a pulling rope that we can loop around the hitch of the four wheeler to move the tractor around the yard more easily. Pushing and pulling that thing is not made for my noodle arms. Although, I think I may have sprouted a muscle or two. May need to rethink that.
To prepare for harvest, we borrowed several things from our seasoned homesteading friends. We borrowed a stainless steel prep sink for washing chicken during and after butchering, and an electric chicken plucker. These items are pricey and we are grateful for their generosity to let us borrow them for our processing day. I have read that many co-ops have them available for rent, and some family’s will go in and purchase equipment together. This is a great way to keep cost low.
EQUIPMENT IS NOT NECESSARY. If you are thinking that you can’t raise your own chickens because of the cost of machinery, think again.
Over 100 years ago, mothers would go out to the yard and pluck up a chicken. She would kill it, pluck it, have it cleaned and ready for supper that afternoon. She didn’t have a fancy plucking machine, or special prep sink. She might have enjoyed having some of those things, but they are not necessary. This process is as complex or simplistic as you want it to be.
Start Small If you want to just see if you can stomach this process, invest in a few meat chicks. They’re usually available when spring chicks hit the feed stores. Raise them in a separate brooder, and when it’s harvest day – do it the old fashioned way. You also don’t even have to have a “meat bird” – any chicken or dual purpose (egg or meat) bird will do. If you know someone who has done this process or will do this process near you, go and watch. Get involved if you think you can. Also, seek out a farmer or visit a farm. Observation cost nothing but time and you may pick up something else you weren’t expecting, while you are there.
Other helpful tools were a plastic folding table, sprayer nozzle on a hose, Thieves Cleaning Concentrate, bone shears, several sharp knives and knife sharpener.
Prayer, Respect and Appreciation As christians, we acknowledge God’s sovereignty over creation and all life. We also acknowledge and take seriously our roles in tending to His creation in a way that is honoring, and respectful. This is the wonderful part I mentioned in the beginning. We get to be active participants in caring for creation. How amazing and wonderful is that?
This is just me, sharing my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth. If it’s worth nothing to you, that’s ok! You don’t have to tell me about it.
Genesis 1:26 – Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
God gave man dominion over the animals.
We take this seriously and want to do our part in raising our animals in their needed comfort, with plenty of food and water. By raising them as they would enjoy being raised, in fresh air, access to sunshine and outdoors – we are honoring the unique quality of the chicken the way that God has made them. We aren’t forcing them into our ideas of how they need to be raised, sterilized, cared for, deprived of or even fed.
I realize this can be taken out of context, dissected further, etc. but that also leaves room for us to work out our own convictions about this matter. Ruminate on it, and pray.
We also pray and give thanks before harvesting our chickens. They are dying to feed myself and my family to sustain our lives with nourishment. Have you ever thought about that? It’s something I never thought of until I was the one taking their life for my own. It puts another layer of respect and reverence that isn’t even explainable until you witness it.
This is a wonderful thing.
Ok, back to the surface stuff ….
This is the part that was the most intimidating and scary and awful and I just thought I can’t do this. Then, you do it, and it’s over and it’s ok (kind of). I will say, dallying helps no one. Not you, not the chicken. Just be quick and get it done.
Blood Flow You want blood flow to be quick and strong. Bleeding out the chicken allows it to pass out from volume loss and makes it a less painful process for the chicken and honestly, for the one performing this act, as well. If you’re unsure that you’ve cut the correct vessels, you can continue to cut a v shape under the neck or decapitate the bird. We noticed that the bird’s body jerked either way (cut vessel or decapitate) because they have more nerves in their body than their head or neck. We did witness that they were less jerky, if we continued to hold onto their neck and gently pull down on their neck as their wings sunk in more in the cone.
We repurposed a safety cone to become our kill cone but later realized we had cut the opening a bit too large. It was then that I understood the horror stories of our parents and grandparents only remembering their childhood with “chickens running around with their head cut off”. It didn’t last long, but it was enough to decide we needed to take pause and find another cone or method. We ended up borrowing 2 galvanized cones from our neighbor that were fixed to a saw horse.
We have also seen where some folk repurpose laundry detergent jugs by cutting out the spout portion and the bottom. Google this. This may be a great, economical alternative to the galvanized cones.
2 cones gave us a better advantage for two reasons:
- We could kill one bird and have it bleed out while we fetched the other bird.
- We had two birds to put in the whizbang chicken plucker, which made the defethering process happen more quickly vs. having one chicken in there.
Scalding the bird – Feather removal prep
Think of it as a spa – The warm water opens pores. It also opens pours and loosens the feathers, so that they are easier to remove in the whizbang chicken plucker. (Yes, that’s it’s actual name).
Dropping the chicken in the water and rocking it back and forth, loosened all the feathers and gave it a bit of a clean too.
After 20-30 seconds, remove a pin feather from the wing and tail. If it ‘s kind of difficult to pull, put the bird back in and continue rocking back and forth.
Then, test the feathers again. They should be pretty easy to pull out with little effort when they are ready.
After scalding, we added the bird to the high-speed drum(Whizbang chicken plucker, say it five times, fast) and sprayed with water. In 30 seconds, the chicken had very little feathers left. As mentioned before, we did find that putting two birds in there allowed it to do a more efficient job at removing feather as they would spin and move about in a more random pattern as it spun.
Defeathering Don’t forget, you can sit and pull all the feathers off by hand! You do not need fancy machinery. If you have fewer chickens or more hands to help, this may be a viable option for you.
After the chicken is clean, and the feathers are gone. You will remove the feet at the knees by using a sharp knife, and bending it backwards. Go in a circular motion and the feet will come off at the knee joint.
To remove the neck, Turn the chicken over breast side down, and in between the shoulder blades, cut the base of the neck with shears. You can use a knife, but make sure that it is very sharp! Avoid cutting bone as this will dull your knife. Look for vertebrae and locate in-between two of them. You can also leave the neck. It’s yummy when roasted and is one less step to take during processing day. You’ve got options.
To clean cavity and remove innards, Turn chicken breast side up. Just above the vent (chicken egg + potty hole), cut a slit into the skin. Don’t cut too deeply or you may knick intestines. Just poke a hole and begin to tear it open wider so that your hand can fit.
Insert your hand and start making a bowl/scoop shape and make a strong sweeping motion on the inside of the cavity – pulling away tissue and connective tissues away from the chest wall. It feels like you are putting your hand into a latex exam glove and pulling it away from a rib cage. Think of your hand as the scoop of an excavator, and your fingers as the teeth of the bucket/scoop of the excavator. Gingerly but purposefully, grab and pull away from the chest cavity but not squishing and squeezing what is in your hands. This is the part where a farm tour or observation would be helpful. There is not replacing a hands-on experience, especially at this step.
Eventually, all the guts will be in a large blob and fairly loose. Pull it out in a gentle fistful, and make sure it is still connected at the base – where the intestines connect to the vent.
When the guts are pulled out and you’ve located the intestines connected to the vent, cut around the vent – paying close attention to the intestines, so that you do not cut into them. Think of it as making a little U shape cut and you have a clean, large opening on the chicken.
Then, turn the chicken over, breast side down, and locate the gland on the end of its tail – it’s bulbous and has a pointed, fleshy end. It looks like you might have left a quill of a feather in the tail but it’s a little pillowy and different. This is an oil glad that chickens use to clean themselves. Shave it off with your knife, make sure you remove the yellow tissue underneath. It can make make the meat taste odd.
And, then you’re done! We put our chickens directly in ice and let them stay in the coolers overnight before butchering and packing them up the next day.
I hope to get more photos that are step by step for the processing portion, but that will come and be a separate blog post and video.
If you want to learn how to butcher a whole chicken, or at least, how I attempt it – check out the video below.
If you made it this far, thank you! I hope this was helpful. I always enjoy seeing how others homestead and do things on their farm so I’m happy to share too.
Also, huge thank you to Greg Nance, my mother in law for watching the boys, Graham Yelton for the lovely photos and company, and of course, Will for making all my homesteading dreams come true. You are so appreciated!