Chicken Processing

*Note:  The end of this post contains photos of butchering a chicken.  Please do not read past the disclaimer if you’re opposed or sensitive to the images.*

We’ve been preparing for this since our meat flock arrived at the beginning of October.

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27 chicks arrived safely and over the course of 20 weeks, we lost 2 roosters to a hawk in December and around that time we realized that, surprise!, the hatchery sent us a hen in the mix.  We were left with 24 roosters to process.

Our adorable fluff balls grew rapidly and by the time they were moved from their brooder to the great outdoors at 7 weeks old, they were feathered pecking machines.

While the plan had been to raise them free range, a hawk quickly changed that after making a meal of two roosters.  A fence went up around their coop to keep them safe from predators (and a plan is forming for a chicken tractor next year).

At the end of our first year of chicken processing, we have spent a grand total of $455.95.

$157.29 was spent on construction and supplies for the brooder and the coop, meaning it’s a one-time expense.  This total included hinges, lumber, metal roofing, pine shavings, brooder lamps and bulbs, chick feeders and waterers for brooder, food pans and gallon waterers for the coop.

The remaining $298.66 was the cost of the chicks and shipping, along with 16 bags of chicken feed.

We  chose the heritage breed chicken Black Australorp, which are usually processed for meat between 16 and 20 weeks.  We decided to process 5 chickens per week beginning at 16 weeks so that we could see if there’s a significant weight gain in that time period.  This will tell us whether to process early or later in the future, which could potentially save us money in feed cost if there isn’t a large weight gain between 16-20 weeks.

Based on our chicken and feed costs of $298.66 and our birds weighing an average of 4 pounds each, our price per pound for 2017 is $2.99.

While many companies selling chickens use the term “organic”, it is almost impossible to know what they actually mean since it is used so loosely.  Even seeing the term “free-range” simply means they have access to a small door to the outside but doesn’t tell you if it’s a slab of concrete outdoors or an open pasture to roam (not likely).
I’m tired of the guess work.  
The chickens we raised were given a large outdoor space in the woods, free of human interference besides refilling their water source and giving out additional feed (and lucky them:  our leftovers!).  They were raised free of antibiotics, hormones, or steroids.  When processing their meat, we’re adding zero artificial ingredients or preservatives.

I see “organic chicken” sells in stores in a wide price range, the cheapest I’ve found being $4.99 per pound and upwards of $10 per pound for boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
I’d say that by taking the guess work out of how the chicken I consume was raised by doing it ourselves, our price of $2.99 per pound is a bargain!

I understand many people don’t have the time, ability, or stomach to process chickens themselves.  I understand many people may not care about the conditions these chickens live in before becoming a meal.
This was a personal decision my family made to take control of our food which we believe also means taking responsibility for our health.  As meat eating animal lovers, it means treating all of our animals with respect and great care, right up until the very end.

I read something recently (and I wish I remembered who to attribute the quote to) that will stick with me:  “Every day something dies so that you can live.”

I hadn’t thought of the sharp truth of this before.  Each day, trees are cut down for paper and warmth, animals are butchered, vegetables are consumed, minerals are excavated… the list goes on.  We live in a time when we don’t think of these things because we have removed the majority of the overall population from the equation.  Only a couple of generations ago, people grew their own meat and vegetables instead of driving to a grocery store.  Your supper was hard work and had a face (possibly a name, too?)  behind it.  If a crop didn’t do well one year, you had to go without.  If predators took hold of your livestock, you went without whatever that animal provided, as well as their meat.

So while it is inconvenient in this day and age to consider how animals and vegetables are raised (I’m talking about pesticides, genetic modification, antibiotics, steroids, etc.) before it’s on our plate, it wasn’t so long ago we knew how to raise our own food in order to survive.

At the end of our 2017 processing, here are the final stats:

27 chickens: 1 surprise hen, 2 roosters lost to hawk

16 bags of chicken feed

800 lbs of chicken feed consumed by 27 chickens over 20 weeks

24 chickens processed for the freezer

Each chicken averaged 4 pounds

Based on the cost of the chickens themselves and their feed, our meat cost us $2.99 per pound, compared to the average grocery store cost of $7.99 per pound.

Since there wasn’t a significant increase in weight between 16 and 20 weeks, we will be processing future flocks at 16 weeks, which will cut our feed costs by around $80, if we continue to use the same feed.  This means we have the potential to cut our price per pound to $2.50

We’re researching making our own chicken feed in the future (cost effective by purchasing ingredients in bulk, which is perfect for a large meat flock) and also building a chicken tractor.  We have a few ideas for making feed and water distribution easier.

In addition to the meat in our freezer, we are using the chicken carcasses, necks, and feet in our own chicken stock canned for the pantry.  The gizzards are kept to eat (don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it!) and sell, the feathers become compost, the hearts and livers are fed back to the remaining chickens, and the intestines and heads are left in the woods for the nocturnal animals to take care of.

I have put together a basic step-by-step with pictures of how to process a chicken.  If you’re morally opposed or sensitive to images of butchering an animal, please don’t scroll further.  For those interested in the process, take a look and let me know if you have questions.  If you’re interested in more processing details, I’m happy to discuss!

We begin each butchering day by saying a prayer and thanking the birds for providing us with food.

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Our killing cone is a traffic cone attached to a board and cut to accommodate a chicken’s body.  In the background is a double sink on a wheeled cart made of scrap wood.
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We have a burner on to keep our stock pot of water between 145 and 150 degrees.
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My husband made our chicken plucker by attaching rubber plucker fingers to a PVC cap on a drill.  A zip tie holds down the power so the drill is hands-free while plucking.
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18 weeks old.  The bird is carried upside down by the feet to the killing cone.
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The bird is placed in the kill cone; neck down, feet out.  An incision is made across the neck.  The bird is instantly unconscious and the organs will shut down as the bird bleeds out over 2-3 minutes. (Photo taken before the cut)
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Next, the bird is placed into the stock pot of water between 145 and no more than 150 degrees for 45-60 seconds.  This loosens the feather for plucking.
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The drill is plugged in and the rubber plucker fingers rotate to pull the feathers quickly from the skin.  The barrel is set up behind to catch the feathers.
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After the plucker, we place the bird in the sink to rinse it and remove stubborn feathers by hand.  The wing feathers are always the most stubborn.
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The feet are removed next.  By bending the leg you will find the joint the blade quickly separates.
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It’s beginning to look like what you see at your grocery store.
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Next we remove the head.  We make a thin incision then twist and pull.
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Once head is removed, we find the crop (also known as the craw) in the neck.
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We make a small incision in the skin above the crop.  The crop is attached to the esophagus and one breast, so you will feel the large sac at the base of the neck and above the breast plate.
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We pull the crop through the incision we made and pull it away from the skin and the breast.
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Next, we flip the bird around and slice off the gland located above the tail.  This is the oil gland, which oiled the birds feathers.
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Flipping the bird on its back, another small incision is made over the pelvis.
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We use our hands to stretch the incision and open the body cavity for organ removal.
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Inserting your hand is the easiest method for removing the organs in one scoop.
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One large scoop should remove all the compact organs at once, including pulling the crop we started with at the neck down through the cavity and out.  Take a look inside the cavity to make sure it is completely cleaned out.  Sometimes the lungs are stubborn and have to scraped out.
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This is just a quick photo I snapped of a few of the organs.  The gizzard is a muscle that is essentially the stomach, but it doesn’t contain bile/acids.  Chickens eat small stones/pebbles which filter to the gizzard that then contracts and grinds down the food before it passes through the intestines.  People cut open the gizzards, remove the stones and muscle lining,  and then fry them up and eat them.  Sounds tasty, right?
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The final step is to begin an incision between the pelvic bones and cut around the anus  to remove the final piece of intestines.  This removes it without opening up the contents of the intestines (which would ruin the meat).
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The body cavity has been completely cleaned.
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This bird is ready for the cooler!  We keep the meat “resting” on ice for 2 days before we quarter it up to cook immediately or freeze for later.
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