*** WARNING! Graphic pictures of chickens being killed and processed for human consumption follows. If you are weak stomached or would rather think your chicken dinner comes from a pretty plastic container at the grocery store, then don’t scroll any further. If you realize that all meat came from an animal and you believe God created those animals for us to manage as He specified in Genesis (which includes eating them) and thus would like to learn more about humanely butchering a chicken, then do scroll further. Enjoy***
So as I mentioned in the prologue that I posted a few days ago, we are butchering and processing some of our chickens for meat. Now our chickens have been raised with much love and comfort. They are allowed to roam free over our entire homestead, because fences simply don’t stop them, and they have been given plenty of food, water, and of course fresh grass. Our chickens are without a doubt healthier and happier than any chicken from a grocery store was. So butchering some of our chickens has been the plan from day one, even though before today neither of us had ever done such a thing before. Boy oh boy, let me tell you it is a lot of work for a newcomer. For me the work wasn’t gross as I am an occasional hunter and have skinned and cleaned other animals before. I was nervous at first because unlike hunting where you don’t have a connection to the animal you are taking, we raised these chickens from only a few days old. Kallie on the other hand took just a little bit longer to get warmed up to the process but by the end of the day I had her quartering up the chickens. I am very proud of my wife and how much she was able to help even though she didn’t want to at the beginning of the day.
Well lets get started. First, collect some knowledge. We read about the process in books but what was the most helpful was YouTube videos.
Next you have to select the right age to butcher your chickens. We waited until now which makes them 24 weeks old. According to most peoples opinion this is a bit late and we can expect for the meat to be tougher than preferred. Now we have yet to try any of the meat but it definitely didn’t seem tough during the processing. Of course the meat was tougher than store bought meat and had better color too, but this is because the birds are allowed to free range and actually get exercise, unlike those poor commercial birds stuck in crowded cages. The reason we waited so late was because our birds got sick when they were only a few months old and we believe this stunted their growth. We were also hoping they would fatten up some more so we would have plenty of meat. In order to help facilitate this fattening processes, we have been feeding them a mix of layer feed at 16% protein and chick starter at 24% protein. Just like when a person eats a lot of protein to bulk up, the same can be done to chickens.
Collect the right tools for the job. The good news here is that very few tools are actually needed. This is what we found was helpful: a sharp knife or two, a killing cone (ours is made of an old milk jug), a sturdy table, a pot with hot water, a meat or water thermometer, gloves if desired, some garden clippers/shears, and plenty of paper towels along with a sink or hose close by. It is also a good idea to have some diluted bleach nearby to sanitize your work surface before and after. Lastly you will need some plastic bags and a cooler with ice or a free shelf in the fridge to store your meat for a few days, but more on that later.
So the first thing we did was get all of our supplies set up in the shop so we could be out of the cold winter wind when we did this. Next we selected which chickens to cull. From our little flock we grabbed all the roosters with the exception of two, and then we had to make a few hard choices as we selected two more hens to cull. In all we desperately needed to reduce our flock numbers as winter has left them with little natural food. Kallie and I decided that 12 chickens was the right number to have, which meant we had eight to kill.
That morning we grabbed the chickens we wanted to cull from the coop and put them in a large dog carrier crate and took it to the shop. We had previously setup a table to act as a work surface and thoroughly cleaned and sanitized it. I made a killing cone out of a one gallon milk jug by cutting off the bottom and widening the mouth and then screwing it to a post in the shop. The point of the killing cone is to safely restrain the bird upside down, which is a naturally calming position for a chicken, and to prevent the bird from running around as you kill it, creating a huge mess and potentially bruising the meat.
The Harvesting Process
First we washed the chickens feet in the sink because well, if you have ever had chickens you know they can be quite nasty and I had to hold them by their feet during the next few steps. Next I held the chicken close to me as I transitioned my hold so the chicken was on its back in my arms. It is important during these next few steps to keep the chicken as calm as possible because as we found out, a bird that dies stressed out is difficult to pluck. Holding tightly on the chickens feet, I slowly let the bird hang so that it would not freak out. Then I put the chicken into my killing cone and pulled it’s head and neck through.
This is where I usually let the bird just hang out in the killing cone for a few minutes to ensure that it would calm down. After a few minutes I would separate some of the chickens neck feathers while holding onto its head with one hand so that I could see the skin, and with the other hand I would drag the back (dull) side of the knife across its skin so that the chicken would get use to the feeling. After several passes I could feel the chicken relax in the hand that I was holding its head in. That is when I would turn the knife over and in one smooth motion I would pull the knife across one side of the chickens neck all the way from the spine to the throat with a strong pressure. It is important that you see a steady stream of blood pouring out from the neck. If all you see is a few drops IMMEDIATELY make another cut until the steady stream of blood appears. Please don’t let the chicken suffer. If done correctly the chicken will bleed out and be dead within 20 seconds. I would recommend moving aside, while still holding the head as this is when the chicken’s reflexes will start happening and the chicken will begin kicking and flapping its wings violently. This is why constraining them in the killing cone is so important. Don’t worry about all the commotion as it is just nerves, the chicken is already dead.
After a few minutes the chicken will go still and it is time to grab them by the feet and get ready to scald them in preparation for plucking. This is where the very large pot with hot water comes in. The water should be between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit which means you will need to heat it on a stove. Keep testing the water with the thermometer until it is in the right range. We found that closer to 160 degrees made the plucking process much easier, but it tended to scald the skin a little much. The results weren’t bad but it did look like a bad sunburn on the chickens skin with a thin layer wanting to peel off. Trial and error is the name of the game I guess.
Add a drop or two of dish soap to the hot water. This allows the water to better penetrate the oils on the feathers and thus allows the water to get all the way down to the skin. Dunk the bird in the hot water for about 30 seconds. Pull the bird out, placing it on your work surface, and start pulling on the feathers. Start with the big feathers on the wings and tail as these are the hardest to remove. If the water was the right temperature, the soft feathers on the chest and back should easily be pulled off in bunches. At this point you will notice a certain smell. It is not necessarily a bad smell but definitely distinct. It smells sort of like a wet dog but more bird like. I guess it is fair to say that wet bird is a type of smell. Once the bird has been fully plucked, which took us about 10 minutes a bird by hand, rinse the skin under some water.
Next, cut all the way around the neck about two inches down from its head and finish cutting the head off with the garden shears. Then cut off the feet at the knee by working the knife around the skin. (This is where watching YouTube videos help the most, as they show you exactly where to cut so you won’t destroy the meat)
Now to take out the guts. First slit the neck skin all the way down to the chest bone being extremely careful not to cut open the crop. Remove the crop with you hands. Then slit the stomach just below the ribs and cut all the way down and around where the vent and tail feathers are. Don’t cut too deep or you will cut into the guts. Now reach all the way up into the chest and pull out all the guts. Some things like the lungs will stick to the rib cage and will require extra work to get out. We saved the heart and liver to use later in some dog food and discarded the rest. If you really wanted to, you could save the gizzard (stomach), clean it out and save that too, but it is a lot of smelly work. Now just rinse.
At this point you have a chicken that has been plucked and gutted. We kept three birds in this state to use as roasting birds, except we removed their necks. The rest of the birds we quartered up by cutting off the thighs and wings. Then we removed the skin from the breasts and cut off the breast meat and tenderloins below, leaving us with just a carcass which we also kept to make chicken stock out of.
Now we put the meat in a cooler on a bed of ice. This is an important and interesting step. Freshly butchered meat has to age for several days in the fridge. I always knew that but never knew why. The reason is that within a few hours of death, rigor mortis sets in as the tissue in the muscles tighten but after two days in the fridge the tissue relaxes. After that you can freeze the meat or use it. That’s not to say you couldn’t use the meat before that but it might be tougher than expected because of the rigor mortis.
It took us two days to butcher all eight chickens because we were new to the process and we could only spend a few hours each day working on it. In all we had 24 pounds of meat after it was all bagged up. We also had some parts to be made into dog food and some carcasses to be used in making chicken stock. It was a long and memorable process for sure, but one that I am glad we did. We learned a new skill.