Beginners Guide To Butchering Chickens Breakdown


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A few years ago, if you’d have told me I’d be butchering chickens as part of our family’s animal protein, I wouldn’t have believed you. 

I’m the healer on the homestead, the nurturer and supporter of our animals, not the taker of lives. 

Overview of this post:

  • Our Food Convictions
  • Why Chickens
  • Learning Sources
  • Recap of Chick to Processing
  • Products we used and What You’ll need (+ a discount code)
  • Day of Processing
  • Common Questions

Me? Dispatch a bird? (Our Food Convictions)

I’d rather help an animal give birth, being a witness to the miracle of life, or heal the sick, offering comfort and care. I know though, that distancing myself from death and processing of animals doesn’t make me noble or superior. It shouldn’t be about sparing my delicate sensibilities when it comes to ending a life. By removing that piece of the puzzle between farm and table, I’m actually taking something away from our family. Doing them a disservice. I’m not offering them the chance to truly appreciating and understand the life given for our sustenance. That the meals placed before them are so much more than the act of simply filling empty tummys. 

Also. The American Food system. The conditions on corporate farms. When you dig into these topics, it’s heavy. Heartbreaking even. All this has lead our family to the conclusion that we either purchase from small local farms, do it ourselves, or a bit of both. To know or be the farmer, to see the animal though its life. Beginning to end. There is honor in that. The desire to give our animals better lives and take control of the process. This is crucial for the health of all involved. 

And as your read our story and convictions, let there be no guilt attached to this as if we’re placing our belief system on you. We’re all in different stages of learning, or maybe more appropriately, unraveling the food system and what our place in it looks like. My hope is to be an encourager. A provider of information. So you can make informed decisions that work best for your family. 

Why Chickens

Chickens seemed like a great entry level into processing our own protein. If I’m being completely honest, I’m not a huge meat eater. I’ve always told people that if I was forced to be a vegetarian, I easily could. (Never give up my cheese or dairy products though. Ever.) However, I know animal protein has so many health benefits, plus, my family is carnivore to the core.

The kids favorite dinner is steak.

So, we kept with meat we knew. Chicken. I wasn’t about to try goat, or lamb, or rabbit. We stick to the three American staples in this family: beef, pork, and chicken. Since you need a largers scale set up for beef and pork, chicken seemed the easiest option to start. 

Learning Sources

The homestead movement is going strong and there are so many resources out there. One of my favorite tutorials is Joel Salatin at the 2019 Homesteaders of America Conference where he butchered chickens in real time and shared the whole process in detail. Watch it here. I also was able to interview John Moody on my podcast Homestead Journey, another who’s who in the sustainable, organic movement and a speaker and teacher at several of the homestead conferences and Rogue Food conferences around the U.S. each year. Listen to my interview with him here: From Brooder to Butcher: John Moody’s expert tips on raising Cornish Cross

After two years in Tennessee I’ve also acquired other friends striving to live similarly to us, and one of them was butchering a few weeks before us. I was able to go over and watch them process a few chickens, ask questions, and get a good understanding of how it’s suppose to go in real time. If you have someone local you can help with the butchering process first or an experiential workshops it’s definitely something I’d consider attending! 

Before we attempted to process our meat chickens, we decided for a trial run we’d cull all our extra roosters that were causing unneeded stress on our hens. Too many roosters to hen ratio is not good for a flock. We had eight, and five of them had to go. We also had a friend that needed five of hers gone so we offered to butcher them as an experimental run. They weren’t meat birds, so if something happened and we didn’t process them correctly, it wasn’t a huge deal. They’d make great bone broth so they’d still not go to waist. 

Doing those roosters was a great intro and we learned a ton! When it came time to process the meat birds, it went so much easier!

Recap of Chicks To Processing

We purchased our 25 Cornish Cross birds from McMurray Hatchery. They hatch them out at specific times only so you need to make sure you head to their website in advance and get on the list for the hatch time that works best for you. There are many options for purchasing meat chickens, so find one that works for you. Wondering why we went with the Cornish Cross breed? I did a full recap on the different butcher breeds and why we picked the one we did which you can read all about here

The newly hatched day-old chicks were shipped to us and soon we had our brooder up and running with little fluff balls. We lost two during shipment, but the hatchery sent two extras so we still ended up with 25. These chicks grow fast! They’re meant to process between week 7 & 8, so after a little less than two weeks they were ready to go out into the chicken tractor. I did keep a chick heater with them for the first week out there as they acclimated and also because we had some cool nights. For a full visual of the process from beginning to end I saved a highlight on my Instagram called Meat Birds that you can go through. 

We moved the birds once a day, fed them twice, fresh water always, and truthfully, they were pretty easy keepers! I’ve heard of people having issues and lots of death, but we had none of that! (Maybe beginners luck?) We kept the 25 chickens in a 10×10 tractor so they had ample space. We also hit the sweet spot between spring and summer where it wasn’t too hot or cold, like Goldilocks.

The Products We Used (+ A Discount Code)

If I’m being honest, I’ve talked about processing our own chickens for a while now, but have been nervous about actually committing to it. However, when Roots and Harvest, an amazing company that offers homesteading supplies, wanted to sponsor this series, I finally decided to go for it. Their support gave me the push I needed to commit to the project! They wanted me to share, in real-time, the experiences and perspectives of someone new to raising and butchering meat birds. To prove to those watching the series (as well as me it turns out) that truly, anyone can do it!

Plus, with Roods and Harvest full line of Chicken Processing items, we knew we’d be successful on the day of processing. Their product line is such high quality and we were very impressed with how easy it made each step go. From Harvester, to Scalder, to Plucker, it was seamless. Yes, you could do it without those items, but gosh, I feel like it would make the process a lot longer, and a lot less fun. Travis, who grew up bird hunting, was so taken with the plucker he said it felt like cheating after years of plucking game birds by hand. 

We also had their bleeding knife, poultry sheers, and poultry shackle and hook for dipping in the scalder. The full line was what I attribute to our successful harvest. 

​Other items to have on hand: poultry shrink bags to place the finished birds into, as well as several coolers filled with ice to hold for 24 hours before freezing or separating. 

Roots and Harvest has been very generous and is offering all my readers 10% off your order + FREE shipping when you use the code: ERYN10 

Day Of Processing

We had such a great system going. The kids or I would catch the live chicken, holding the chicken’s legs I’d lower them into the kill cone, taking my other hand to bring down the chicken’s head through the opposite end of the cone. Travis would then grasp the head gently, turn it, and dispatch them using the following method. This truly is the most humane way for the bird to go. From there he’d let them drain out, then place them in the scalder for about 10 seconds, (we had the water temperature at about 180F) and then immediately into the plucking machine. We’d process poultry in there for about 10-15 seconds and then Travis would hand the birds off to me. 

How To Dispatch a Bird

  • With the chicken securely positioned in the cone, use a sharp knife to make a swift, decisive cut across the neck just below the jawline on the side of the neck.
  • Ensure your cut is deep and precise to sever the major blood vessels and nerves quickly, resulting in a swift and humane death. 
  • Give it several minutes in the cone as the blood drains out.
  • Be prepared for some movement or flapping from the chicken immediately after the cut, which is a natural response to nerve activity.
  • Sharpen knife every few birds.

How I processed chickens, detailed instructions for the first time:

Let me give you a bit of encouragement: the first bird is always the hardest. Push through and get it over with and I promise, you’ll fall into a patterns and your heart will hurt less the more you finish.

We were able to find a stainless steel table that came out of an old local store that worked great for the entire process. But a folding table will work just fine too. Work with what you have!  

  • Preparation:
    • Place the plucked chicken on a clean work surface.
    • Have a sharp knife, a bucket for the innards, and other clean buckets for items you’d like to keep like the feet etc. 
  • Remove the Head and Feet:
    • If needed, make a small incision at the base of the head through the neck, you should then be able to twist and pull the head off.
    • Remove the chicken’s feet by cutting at the joint where the shank meets the drumstick.
  • Open the Cavity, Detach the Crop:
    • Turn the chicken onto its back with the breast facing up.
    • Carefully make a small incision just below the breastbone, ensuring you do not cut into the intestines or other organs.
    • Reach into the neck cavity and locate the crop (a small sac where food is stored before digestion).
    • Detach the crop from the skin, but leave it inside the cavity as it will be pulled out with the other organs later.
  • Remove the Internal Organs:
    • Insert your hand into the body cavity and use your fingers to scrape the inside of the bird to detach all the organs. Be thorough, especially around the backbone and rib cage.
    • Once you have loosened all the organs, grasp them and gently pull everything out through the back opening. The crop should come out along with the other organs.
    • Lastly, scoop out the lungs, which are located towards the back.
  • Clean the Cavity:
    • Rinse the inside of the chicken thoroughly with cold water to remove any remaining blood or organ remnants.
    • Ensure the cavity is completely clean.
  • Final Rinse and Inspection:
    • Give the entire chicken a final rinse under cold water.
    • Inspect it to ensure all feathers, pinfeathers, and internal remnants are removed.
  • Chill the Chicken in Shrink Bags:
    • After the final rinse, place the chickens in a poultry shrink wrap bags.
    • Submerge the bagged chicken in hot water (about 180°F) for a few seconds to shrink the bag tightly around the bird.
    • Place the bagged chicken in a bucket or sink filled with ice water to chill it quickly.
  • Allow Rigor Mortis to Pass:
    • Keep the bagged chicken on ice in a large cooler for 24 hours.
    • This allows the chicken to go through the rigor mortis process, which improves the texture and tenderness of the meat.
  • Packaging for Freezing:
    • Check the plastic bags for any air pockets and ensure it is tightly sealed.
    • Label the bag with the date and type of meat.
  • Freezing:
    • Lay the packaged whole chicken flat in the freezer.
    • Allow it to freeze completely before stacking or moving to a different part of the freezer.

Following these steps ensures that your chicken is properly cleaned, processed, and ready for long-term storage in the freezer while maintaining the best quality of meat.

Storage of Birds and Common Questions

How long can I store a chicken in the freezer?

Properly processed and packaged chicken can be stored in the freezer for up to a year. Ensure the chicken is:

  • Well Packaged: Use vacuum-sealed bags or poultry shrink bags to prevent freezer burn.
  • Labeled: Label the packages with the date of freezing to keep track of storage time.
  • Stored at a Consistent Temperature: Maintain a freezer temperature of 0°F (-18°C) or lower.

How do I know when my meat birds are ready for butchering?

To determine if your meat birds are ready for butchering, consider the following:

  • Age: Most meat birds are ready for butchering between 6-8 weeks of age, depending on the breed.
  • Weight: Cornish Cross birds typically reach butchering weight at around 6-8 pounds live weight in 6-8 weeks. Other breeds, like Red Rangers, may take longer and weigh around 5-6 pounds live weight.
  • Physical Appearance: Look for a well-rounded breast and a good amount of fat under the skin. The bird should appear fully feathered and healthy.
  • Behavior: If the birds are showing signs of leg problems or other health issues due to rapid growth, it may be past time to butcher them. Butchering should be done before birds show signs of not being able to keep up with their weight gain. 

Processing chickens has been a transformative experience, reshaping our approach to food and deepening our connection to the life cycles on our homestead. By taking responsibility for every step, from raising to butchering, we gain a profound appreciation for the sustenance our animals provide. It’s not about the ease or comfort, but about honoring the life given for our nourishment. This journey is as much about education and respect as it is about self-sufficiency. So, whether you’re just curious or ready to take the plunge, I hope our story encourages you to explore your own path in understanding and appreciating the true source of your food.

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