Meat chickens, making peace with their fate on their last morning.
PLEASE NOTE: Chickens were harmed in the making of this post. If you’re not comfortable seeing photos and descriptions of where chicken comes from, please don’t continue. This post is for those who are interested in learning more about the chicken butchering process–whether you’re simply curious or planning to grow your own chicken in the future, or even if you’re already experienced but just want to know more about someone else’s process.
We’ve been growing meat chickens for years. I’ve done classes on butchering in the past–which was very rewarding and a lot of fun. I remember one woman who attended a class telling me how happy she was to come to a workshop where she could learn how to do it from another woman. She said her husband did all their butchering at home and she didn’t want him to teach her! (I thought that was funny.) I imagine her going home and telling her husband to get out of her way, she knew what she was doing!
Yesterday morning, we butchered 12 meat chickens, all roosters, all Jumbo Cornish, my favorite meat breed. I’ve bought chickens–both layers and meat breeds–from Murray McMurray for years. I’ve always had a good experience with them, and I love the Jumbo Cornish. They grow very fast, and can be butchered in 6 to 8 weeks for a 4-pound chicken. Over the years, I’ve gradually experimented with keeping them longer to grow bigger chickens for more meat per bird. You have to be careful with Jumbo Cornish on how long you keep them. If you keep them too long, they can get so big, their legs will break or they can drop dead from a heart attack. Or so I’ve read–this has never happened to us.
Our Jumbo Cornish in their baby picture from late May.
This year we grew them the biggest we ever have–we took them to 11 weeks. They were healthy and fabulously plump, and we decided that was going to be our limit. We won’t keep them any longer than that, but we were very happy with our results at 11 weeks.
As you can see from the photo above, we use a chicken tractor. We learned quite some time ago that a chicken tractor is the way to go for meat birds. It really helps keep the chickens clean, which makes butchering day a lot easier, and it also keeps the chickens healthy. Rodney, with his brother-in-law Robbie, built our chicken tractor–I’ll have to do a separate post showing the design, which Rodney created after looking at several chicken tractors online and figuring out what was best for us.
From taking the first chicken out of the chicken tractor to cleaning everything up, we processed 12 chickens in two and a half hours. The speed of our process is due to years of experience, a lot of organization, and the right tools and equipment, so I’m going to go step by step through our process and show you how we do it!
First, we keep everything organized in a small area so we don’t have to move far from one station to the next. The day before the processing, we made sure the chicken tractor was moved close at hand. In the picture above you can see our processing stations: the chicken tractor, the cone at the fence post (butchering), the scalder, the plucker, and a table which you can just barely see in the lower right corner where we had our cutting boards, scale, knives, bowls, etc. Just inside the back door to the house is the vacuum sealing station set up with bags and the vacuum sealer, ready to finish the meat for the freezer. We had everything laid out and prepared before we got started.
If you can access a traffic cone…..it makes a handy free killing cone. You can buy cones online, also. I remember using a stump to cut off the heads the first time I butchered chickens (way back in Stringtown!) but some kind of cone definitely makes it easier as it immobilizes the chicken. The one hold-up we had during the morning was when we tried to stuff the first chicken out of the tractor into the cone–the chicken was too big to fit! We’ve been using this same cone for years, so we knew we had grown some really huge chickens and started getting excited about the point when we would weigh them. We had to put the (at this point, quite cranky) roo back in the tractor while we made some cuts to the cone to make more room. Once we opened up the cone further, everything went smoothly from there. You just pop the chicken head first into the cone, pull the head out from the bottom, and take care of business. We keep a bucket below the cone to catch as much of the blood as possible.
We hold the chicken in the cone until they stop moving–there’s nothing worse than a chicken running around with its head cut off! Once they’ve settled down, we lined them up on the tarp we had under the plucker until we had four ready to go in the scalder. We processed four chickens at a time, all the way through to vacuum sealing and in the freezer, then went back for the next four and the next until we finished. The reason we did four at a time instead of all at once is because that way we can skip the “icing down” step. With two of us working, we each processed two chickens at a time, so we could get them in the freezer quickly without having to deal with putting them on ice in a cooler. It’s really not a big deal, but it’s just what we prefer.
After we had the first four through the butchering station, it was on to the scalding station.
We use a large propane turkey fryer. The scalding temperature for chickens is 145 degrees. (Use a thermometer! You don’t want to cook your chicken by having the temp too high.)
To make dipping them in the hot water quick, thorough, and safe, we use grill gloves as scalding gloves. The gloves are heat resistant to 425 degrees, which makes it handy for dipping the chicken all the way into the water and not worrying about burning your fingers.
Scalding shouldn’t take more than a minute, maybe less, it varies. Dunk them up and down in the water, pulling test feathers. We test using a wing or tail feather–as soon as one comes right out, easily, the chicken is ready for plucking.
After the birds are scalded, two at a time go in the plucker. If they were smaller chickens, three or four could go in, but these chickens were huge.
I got this plucker several years ago and it is AWESOME. It makes short work of plucking–in under a minute, you have two fully plucked chickens.
It’s an automatic electric chicken plucker–I’ve used it for ducks before also, and can be used for any fowl. Push the button, running water from a hose into the plucker the whole time, and the chickens spin around inside–the rubber fingers inside the tub pull off the feathers. It’s like magic! Note: Automatic pluckers aren’t cheap. I compare them to a milking machine. If you’re into milking a cow for the long haul, you’re probably going to want to get a machine. Same thing with growing meat birds and getting a plucker. Plucking by hand is laborious and gets old fast. If you’re in it for the long haul, a plucker is a worthwhile purchase.
Here they are, plucked clean!
The feathers come out from the bottom of the plucker, which is why we put a tarp down to make later clean-up easier.
Here, we’ve got them laid out ready for a final washing before we start butchering.
First thing that comes off is the feet.
After removing the feet, each chicken was weighed. They averaged 7 to 8 pounds! The biggest one was 8 1/2 pounds! We were quite pleased and decided 11 weeks was our go-to raising time from now on with the Jumbo Cornish. That’s the biggest we’ve ever raised them, and we’re happy enough. We don’t want to risk keeping them longer than that.
If you plan to keep whole chicken, you’re going to get up close and personal now with some chicken butts and pull the guts out and remove organs you may want to keep. We decided to just quarter this batch–cutting out thigh/leg pieces and breasts–so we didn’t even gut them. (You can quarter, carefully, without gutting.) Next batch, we’ll keep a few whole chickens. I like a few to roast whole through the year. When we do that, I like to seal up the organ meat, and neck, separately in a small bag and put it inside the bag when I vaccuum seal the whole chicken. I love using chicken heart, liver, gizzard, neck when making chicken gravy or stock.
Next step was the vacuum sealing station, which I had set up just inside the back door.
I love my FoodSaver. I used to have another, cheaper, vacuum sealer that always refused to work exactly when you needed it the most, so I dumped it and got a FoodSaver. LOVE IT.
As you can see, we quartered the chickens. I might keep a whole chicken or two on the next round, but quartered chicken works best for our use later in cooking.
Speaking of the next round, we have a new batch of Jumbo Cornish arriving this week, so the chicken tractor won’t be empty for long!
By the way, there is a roof built on the chicken tractor. We added the tarps later, wrapping them around to protect the chickens from rain.
Of course, yesterday ended as any good day butchering chickens should–
–with fried chicken!