I’ll spare you the time and cut out the first thirty years of this story; suffice it to say that it took a long time for me to start caring about where my food comes from but I guess late to the game is better than never, and more than most people will ever do. It started with becoming concerned about the amount of packaging that was being sent to landfills just from my kitchen, which coupled with watching a couple of episodes of “Rotten”, and “Cooked” on Netflix really got me thinking about how distanced we have become from the growing and processing of our food. A few days later we had our first batch of egg layers ordered, and within a few weeks went all in and decided that if we are going to eat chicken we should be the ones to grow and process it.

The Setup

Flash forward eight weeks, and the birds are huge and ready to be processed. Knowing that my partner and I would struggle with processing 15 birds on our own I enlisted some and set a date that will put the whole grow out at around nine weeks, and gave us a couple of weeks to prepare.

This being, not only, our first time processing chickens, but also our first time killing anything at all, we wanted to be as prepared as possible so as to not take a life in vain by fucking something up irrevocably causing us to discard a chicken entirely. We read voraciously anything we could find about processing chickens at home, the best of which is a book by Adam Danforth about slaughtering and butchering smaller livestock. In addition, i found the videos by John Suschovich and Homesteaders of America to be indispensable.

With the big day approaching, and knowing that our help was just as experienced as ourselves, we decided that we needed to do a “practice run” with a couple of chickens, so that we would not have questions about equipment, set up, exsanguination, plucking, evisceration, or managing cleanliness and shilling of the birds. Below is a list of equipment, as well as a description of the layout and process that we followed.

Equipment

  • 2 Stainless steel tables (purchased off craigslist)
  • 1 turkey frying pot for scalding
  • 1 barbecue burner
  • 2 kill cones secured to a sawhorse
  • 1 power drill and “power plucker”
  • 3 12-gallon storage tubs
  • 1 5-gallon home depot bucket
  • 1 utility kife
  • 1 hose
  • lots of ice
  • lots of water

Layout

We set the sawhorse with the kill cones up out of site from our other chickens so that they would not have to witness the exsanguination of their former roommates, I’m not sure if they really care, but I have read that creates unnecessary stress when the animals witness the slaughter of other members of their group and stress is one thing we want to avoid.

The rest of the setup was done in an assembly line fashion, starting with the scalding pot on the barbecue then on to the plucking table where we had secured the power drill and plucker to the table with C-clamps. After plucking the carcass would be passed through a “Double-dunk” system of 2 12-gallon tubs filled with clean potable water, and on to the evisceration table, and finally landing in an ice bath housed in another 12-gallon storage container.

Preparation

The preparation really started the day before, when I pulled the feed from the chickens so that there would be enough time for whatever was a already in their system to pass through, thus lessening the risk of us getting manure all over and contaminating the meat.

First thing the morning of the processing, I went out and selected the birds to be slaughtered; I selected based on size knowing that an additional week of growth on a couple of the birds would possibly lead to them being too big for the cones.

After selecting and isolating the birds for processing, i reintroduced the feed to the birds that are continuing to grow, and then set up all the processing stations as described previously, and started heating the scalding water.

It’s time

When the thermometer in the scalding water read 140f we turned off the heat, picked up one of the birds and took it to station one, exsanguination. I handled the bird as described in Adam Danforth’s book, first holding it’s wings while it is still on the ground until it relaxes, then lifting it with one hand beneath holding its legs, and the other holding its wings, and hugging it clos to my body. This kept the bird perfectly calm, and amicable, making it easier on me emotionally. Prior to placing the bird in the cone I inverted it allowing the blood to rush to it’s head dazing it, and placed it in the cone as quickly and carefully as possible. The birds were good sized and did not require too much reaching in the bottom of the cone and pulling out the head. With the bird dazed it did not squawk or thrash about at all prior to the first cut. Once the head was out of the bottom of the cone, I located the jugular (or at least where they should be), pulled back the feathers so that my blade was touching skin, and made the first cut, then the second cut forming the V, as had been described in every book, article and video we watched or read, and finally I placed the knife in the birds mouth, finding the soft spot, performed the pithing, and that was that.

The rest of the process was pretty straight forward, dunk in the scalding pot until the feathers come out easily, pluck, and finally remove the head, legs, and viscera leaving a neatly dressed carcass.

Lessons for next time

Of course, recounting the process back allows me the ability to make it sound like everything went off with out a hitch, and for the most part, it went smoothly, but we did have a couple of learning experiences along the way.

Exsanguination

This was by far the hardest part for me emotionally, I made sure to thank the bird for the life it was giving in order to provide sustenance to us, and with my razor sharp knife hit the first jugular spot on. The second one, not so much, feathers got in the way, and the repeated attempts led to my lacerating the trachea. The lesson learned here is to ensure that your blade is sharp and touching skin the first time around.

Scalding

The lesson learned here is more about equipment, and trusting your instincts. The turkey frying pot that we had purchased came with a thermometer, it started at 50f and went upwards of 350f, the point at which the gauge is red and reads “May cause fire”, and it’s a good thing we wee just using water and not oil, because when the thermometer read 150, the temperature was much closer to boiling. Thus, when we dunked the first bird in to the almost boiling water it scalded to much to quickly making the skin too fragile, and slightly cooking the breasts. Though not a total loss it was very heartbreaking to know that this bird that had given it’s life to feed us would not be beautifully dressed, and will probably be mediocre meat. The lesson here is to trust your instincts, I knew it had taken a little too long to reach temperature, but trusted the cheap thermometer anyway. After this we started using a digital instant read, and things went much smoother.

Plucking

I’m not sure if we were using the power plucker right, but it was terrifying, and tore the skin right off the first (over scalded) bird, and was not much fast than our hands on the large surfaces, and unable to get the nooks and crannies, so all in all pretty much useless. Lesson learned here, if you have the time do it by hand, if you have the money (and I happened to ahve some money set aside for yard tools) buy the drum plucker. We purchased one on line as soon as we were done, and I will let you know how that goes in the next post.

Evisceration

This is the part I was most nervous about as a small slip of a razor sharp blade can send manure, juices, or all manner of unwanted fluids throughout the carcass, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well the Adam Danforth, and the videos at Homesteaders of America prepared me for this task. My one piece of advice here is to go slowly, be gentle, and pause when needed to rinse the bird or your workstation to ensure cleanliness is maintained.

Needless to say I am very proud that my partner and I are following through on our commitment to eating food from as close to home as possible, and it doesn’t get any closer to home than home grown.