There is much to do as that day approaches. That day—you know, the one you marked on your calendar with a red “X” eight weeks after your chicks hatched—comes faster than you expect, and before you can say “chicken pot pie,” it’s time to prep your meat chickens for harvesting.
The very first thing you need to do—even before getting chickens in the first place—is decide where and how to process them. Depending on your location, the number of chickens you have, whether you are selling your chickens, your experience and other factors, your options include processing your chickens at home, in a mobile processing unit or at an inspected processing facility. As you decide on the best method for your farm, take the follow considerations into account.
1. Access To A Processor
Finding a processor who is able to work with small batches of chickens is difficult because there just aren’t very many in this country, and existing processors are very busy.
“The best way to find out what your options are is to speak with your local extension office and fellow poultry producers,” says Tori Lee Jackson, extension educator and associate professor of agriculture and natural resources with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Also check out the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s list of small-scale processors across the United States.
“Besides the cost, you want to be sure the processor you choose has a good reputation, can accommodate small flocks, produces a consistently high-quality carcass and is someone you want to work with,” Jackson says.
If there isn’t a processor within a few hours of you or none that are a good fit for your budget and standards, your best choice may be to process your birds at home or in a mobile processing unit operated by your state cooperative extension or land-grant university. If there is a processor within a reasonable driving distance—important for both your and your chickens’ stress levels—get on its schedule as soon as you know the date your chicks are hatching. (Just count ahead the number of weeks you expect your chickens to be an appropriate weight.) Lauren Gwin, Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network cofounder and Oregon State University Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems associate director, says it’s never too early to discuss possible appointment dates with your processor.
2. Your Market’s Needs
Your customer determines what level of inspection your meat is required to have. If you’re only raising birds for your own table, you don’t need to worry about inspection.
“Wholesale buyers, restaurants and other institutions will generally require that birds be slaughtered and processed in a USDA-licensed facility,” Jackson explains. “Even retail sales that cross state lines must meet this requirement. If that is the case, producers must use a USDA processor. For sales directly from the farm or at farmers markets, there may be more flexibility in what is required, giving producers the option for state inspection (in some states) or exempted on-farm processing. These exemptions simply allow producers to—in a facility meeting specific standards—slaughter and process whole birds on their own property.”
Check with your state department of agriculture for regulations regarding meat sales that apply to your state and the size of your flock.
3. Transportation Of Your Chickens
Chicken crates and an enclosed trailer or truck are necessary evils of transporting chickens to processing. If you don’t have this equipment and can’t easily borrow it, home processing or bringing a mobile-processing unit to your farm are your only options.
Good crates are expensive, particularly if you only going to use them a few of times per year. Borrowing crates and transport vehicles is risky—particularly with the current concerns over avian influenza—as some diseases are easily shared. Carefully power-wash and sanitize borrowed equipment before bringing it to your farm.
4. Your Processing Budget
If someone told you raising your own meat birds made good financial sense, they were mistaken. On a small scale, meat chickens are rather expensive to feed and maintain, and they’re expensive to harvest, as well.
“The cost per bird at a slaughter facility ranges and generally increases as you move to a higher level of inspection, making USDA-inspected birds the most costly,” Jackson says. Per-bird processing fees vary greatly depending on your location, generally ranging from $3 to $5 per chicken.
“The more birds you have, the less you might expect to pay, but producers raising fewer than 3,000 birds per year do not generally meet the requirements for a volume discount,” she says.
DIY processing seems like it should be less expensive, though there are food-safety details that add up. If you’re only processing a few chickens at a time for home consumption, it’s easy enough to dispose of (compost) the offal and feathers and to have an adequate water supply and wastewater disposal.
“[For larger harvests,] a home septic system must have the capacity, or other arrangements must be made to dispose of the offal and water in a way that meets environmental regulations,” Jackson says.
Jackson points out you could potentially build a small processing facility yourself for $1,000 if the water and disposal issues are under control. With your own facility, though, you also need labor.
“Who is going to actually do the slaughter and processing?” Jackson asks. “Do they know how to do this? Is your liability insurance sufficient to cover any mishaps during processing? Do you have the ability to wrap and label [the meat] yourself?”
Mobile-processing units are also not a super-economical option, and they’re not available everywhere, either. These are challenging to bring to the farm because, Jackson says, “skilled labor needs to go where the unit goes, and even if you wish to rent a unit and provide all the labor yourself, you still need a concrete pad for it to sit on and the water resources and waste-management system in place. Most backyard and small-scale producers do not have these in place, and once a site does have those things, it generally makes more sense to simply create your own facility.”
5. Your Level Of Involvement
As Jackson pointed out above, chicken processing requires skilled labor. You can work with other chicken keepers to learn the steps, but it takes some practice to make harvesting a fluid process. Processing at home, you’d obviously need these skills.
Taking your chickens to a processing facility, you could help in the process, or you could simply drop off your birds and come back when they’re chilled and ready for the freezer. “It’s a very common practice [for farmers] to be there on the cut floor and working side-by-side with the workers,” Gwin says. “It’s a great way for processors to get stuff done, for processors and farmers to build rapport, and for farmers to see what goes into this.”
If home-processing is your goal, starting out at a processing facility may be how you get your practice.
“Anyone thinking about raising and processing their own chickens should first visit other producers and operations to see exactly what is involved and, ideally, get some experience actually doing the slaughter and processing,” Jackson says. “If you determine early-on that this is not for you, you can simply focus your efforts on finding the best facility to take your chickens to, -rather than investing in equipment, upgraded water and sewer, and becoming inspected, only to find that you don’t have the stomach (or heart) for it. Hands-on experience is a must.”
Your decision between processing your birds at home or at an inspected facility may be made more complicated by the range—or lack—of options in your area. When that day comes and it’s time for chicken harvesting, you’ll know you’ve made the best choice for processing by doing this necessary research ahead of time.