Processing our first pasture raised meat chickens today

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Processing our first pasture raised meat chickens today
1/1/0001 12:00:00 AM

This morning started like most.  I was met at the window by one of my farm critters.  My best rooster came to wake us up. 

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I am not sure if he knew what the day had in store for all those ladies he had been eyeing out in the yard.

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It’s hard to believe that not long ago we built our first Salatin style chicken tractor.  The chickens quickly went from the brooder out to the pasture.  And today, at least for some of the birds, is slaughtering day.

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My wife went to choose the first bird.

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She got the bird positioned just right in the cone (a traffic cone with one end opened up a bit).

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Where as I was once a fan of the “off with your head removal”…as seen in our last round of slaughtering… this time we opted for the slitting of the neck while the bird remains alive.  The theory behind this method is that the bird lives a bit longer so that the heart can pump the blood out of the birds body.  While this may do a better job of removing the blood…I don’t think it was quite as humane as just a quick head removal.  I think the next time we will attempt the slitting of the throat…after getting the bird a bit tipsy!

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To perform a neck slicing you navigate up the birds neck where the small fluffy feathers become actual feathers.  Once there you can easily expose a whole section of the birds neck.  Moving from the side of the neck towards the throat of the bird you should easily be able to locate the major artery in the neck.  With a box cutter (or similarly sharp blade) you can open the skin exposing the veins.  You can then either take another pass at the vein or you can insert the tip of your blade under the vein and sever it.  I find that poking the bird is not appreciated very much!  So slice slice slice.  Eventually you will spring the geiser of life!

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Be sure to dress appropriately during this part as more than one geiser may come to life.  As Drake found shortly after the neck was slit.  All sorts of stuff came out of every end! 

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This is an important time to also note that you should remove food from the birds being slaughtered 12 hours ahead of time so that their crop (where the chicken pre-processes its food prior to swallowing) is not full of stuff to be shot about.  But also so that you do not waste any rations on birds that won’t get it processed in time.

Once the first bird was kaput and and fully drained (the bird will be “mostly dead” quickly…but the heart will still be pumping…monitor this closely) we took it to the scalding tank for a quick bath. 

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Our scalding tank also serves as our turkey fryer!  We made sure that the flame was set to low once we had reached about 150 degrees so as not to waste gas or make the water so hot that it cooked our birds.  We found that a quick head to dip in the tank about 10 times in-and-out did the job of releasing the feathers.

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After several quick dips the bird was ready to be picked/plucked (depending on the circles you run in…you will hear this process call by a couple different names).  We have not yet invested in an automated “picker”.  We employed the family pickers.

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While the first bird was being de-feathered I got another bird draining.  Got to keep that pipeline moving to get this done quickly.

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Pretty soon everyone was employed at the plucking station!

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Once the feather mess was gone we washed the chicken up on our processing table(more on that later).  I then removed its head (sorry…I don’t appear to have that picture anywhere!).

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Then it was time to quickly get the guts out.  I start by cutting the skin that surrounds the leg and stomach area to get a little freedom in that area.

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Then I **carefully** cut the skin around the base of the breast bone to expose the guts.

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Next I like to pull back the skin that surrounds the stomach so that I can grab and pull the guts out.

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While holding the chicken vertical I now reach in and remove the guts from the bird.

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Once you get the majority of guts out of the bird take a quick look inside and remove anything that got left behind.

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Be sure to immediately wash your hands, the bird, and the work surface to get any unwanted materials out of the way! CLEAN CLEAN CLEAN!!!

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Next I quickly remove the neck area.  You can of course keep this (and the entrails from above).  Neck is good in a soup or to help create a broth. A quick slit on both sides of the neck makes removing this part pretty easy.  Be careful so as not to rupture the crop.

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We are almost done!  Time to remove the feet.  Take a small knife and run it around the joint where the chickens foot is connected.  Then grab the leg and the foot and break the joint open with your hands.  Then cut the tendon.

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Give the bird another quick wash and you are done.

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If we are processing a bunch of birds at one time we will have a big ice chest full of water and ice.  We toss the birds into this chest once they are processed and clean to be held for further processing later.

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Some of the birds we got off this batch were so big they didn’t fit a gallon sized zip lock!

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What would we do different the next time?

  1. Processing table: I really love the over head shower.  It is great to keep the water flowing to keep the table clean, the flies away, and have a steady stream for washing the birds or your hands at all times.  BUT…by the end of the processing session you are soaked!  While this isn’t so bad when processing 10 birds, I can’t image our next time when we plan to process 100 birds in one session.  To fix this I think I will create individual over head showers that can be controlled separately as you need it instead of one master switch.  Also, I plan to angle the table from the sides into the center so that the run off is directed down a pipe away from our bodies.  More water control would be good!  Also, we could then capture the water to be used for the plants elsewhere.
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  2. The kill cone #1:  Our kill cone has worked great for our previous butchering as we were doing a low number of birds.  Also, when using the head removal process it is really just to hold the bird while it goes through its death dance.  This time around we chose to slit the throat and let it drain.  This takes several minutes.  By far the biggest bottle neck in this processing session was draining the bird.  To solve this we need to have at least 5 cones on hand of various sizes to appropriately handle the volume and size differences.
  3. The kill cone #2: The next biggest issue with our current set up is that the kill cone is right next to everything else.  When the chicken starts flinging itself around…who knows what is going to get flung and where.  See Drakes shirt above for an example of how this can go wrong.  Relocating the kill cones a bit further away and in their own area would be better.  Also, draining the blood in a consistent manner into a bucket would be easier to clean up after.
  4. The picker: …or lack of one!  I think it is time to buy at least a 2 bird picker.  This would allow us to then show the kids how to butcher the birds and be more a part of the bigger picture rather than just one stop in the line.  This should make the whole process faster!
  5. Feeding: It is absolutely essential to remove the food 12 hours prior to butchering.  As our birds are on pasture this means we need to pick up the supplemental food (pellets) as well as take them off pasture.  To do this we will need to get some bird crates as suggested in Joel Salatins great book Pastured Poultry Profits.

Some videos!

Here is a video of Drake learning how to bleed a bird out. 

Here is a video of Farmer Andy bleeding out a bird.

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