When tiny, fuzzy broiler chicks make their appearance on your farm—freshly hatched or newly received in their postal-shipping box—it’s hard to believe they’ll be fully grown meat birds in just eight to 16 weeks. Especially if you’re new to chicken-raising, you might be surprised at the preparations for processing you need to make ahead of time. If you’re not butchering the birds yourself—and even if you are!—make sure you have all of your ducks … er, chicks … in a row with these preparation tips.
1. Set Up Transportation
While your hybrid SUV is comfortable and smart for your family, it’s no place for 500 pounds of live chickens. They don’t like wearing seat belts, and their hygiene leaves something to be desired. Crates are the answer here, which you could technically stack in your SUV if you were to put down tarps to catch their aforementioned lack of hygiene. A covered pickup truck or livestock trailer is a better option to transport your crates.
Good crates are an expensive investment. Better deals can be found when buying in bulk, so try making a purchase with other chicken keepers. Use caution when borrowing crates and transport vehicles, as some diseases are easily shared. Power-wash and sanitize borrowed equipment before bringing it to your farm.
2. Make An Appointment
Finding a processor who is able to work with small batches of chickens is difficult. The National Center for Appropriate Technology maintains a list of small-scale processors by state, and when you find one you like, treat them well.
Call the processors in your area. You want them to be as close to you as possible for your own and your chickens’ stress levels. Ask questions about the cost to process each bird, any administrative or other fees, the scheduling process, the amount of time you can expect to be at the facility, processing options they offer, et cetera.
When you’ve found a processor you’d like to work with, discuss the date you expect the birds to be ready for harvest and the number of birds you’ll bring. It’s never too early to discuss possible schedules with your processor, says Lauren Gwin, co-founder of the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network and associate director at the Oregon State University Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems. If you know you’re getting day-old chicks on a certain date, you can pretty closely estimate the date they’ll be ready for processing.
Make a processing appointment as far in advance as possible, and follow up a week or so ahead of time, when you can be more confident in your birds’ readiness and your availability. It’s very important that you keep this appointment and arrive on time once it’s confirmed. One major barrier to the success of small-scale processors is being able to keep quality labor, and that’s partly because it’s hard to keep a steady throughput of processing work. If you cancel your appointment the day before or only bring half the number of birds as you said you would, the processor can’t pay its labor for that day.
“Treat your processor like a business partner,” Gwin says. Your processor needs you, and you need them.
3. Properly Prep Your Chickens For Processing
NCAT recommends withholding feed from your chickens for eight to 12 hours before processing to reduce the amount of feed and feces in the digestive tract.
“The more dirt and poop that comes to a processing plant, the more chance for contamination,” Gwin points out. It’s not like you have to bathe your chickens, but be mindful of where they’re kept before processing, preferably out of manure and mud.
Chickens are easiest to catch and load at night or just before dawn—an infrared headlamp is your friend. Handle them quickly and gently, causing the least stress necessary for everyone.
4. Know Your Limits
Often, small-scale processors allow the farmer to be involved in processing.
“It’s a very common practice 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.”
You might be able to pull remaining feathers after the chicken comes out of the plucking machine, trim hearts and livers before packaging, or assist with other jobs.
5. Know What You Want To Take Home
Most processors will offer whole-bird packaging, as well as cut-up chicken parts, like wings, legs and breasts. Know ahead of time how much of each you’d like to have based on the number of birds you’re bringing in. Sometimes a bird will have been injured—you might not have even noticed it—and the state or USDA food-safety inspector can deem part of it not suitable for sale but part of it as passable, so that chicken will go to parts anyway.
Do you want your cuts bone-in or boneless and skin-on or skinless? The more processing each cut requires, the more expensive your tab will be.
Additionally, ask about organ meats and odd parts. You could potentially take home chicken livers, hearts, gizzards, necks and feet depending on the processor’s capabilities.
6. Have Storage Facilities Ready
You’ll need a lot of coolers with lots of ice to transport your chicken from the processor back to the farm. Once you get home, the chickens can stay on ice for a few days and then will need to be cooked or frozen. Be sure you have the freezer space to keep all of this meat until you are able to use it or sell it.
Given all of this, if you fall within the USDA 1,000-bird or 20,000-bird poultry exemption, consider processing the birds yourself.
NCAT’s “Small-Scale Poultry Processing” publication is an excellent overview of everything you can expect on processing day, whether you do it yourself or bring your chickens to a small-scale processor. NMPAN also offers archived webinars about humane handling of poultry at a processing facility and how to work with your processor.
Processing animals that you’ve raised can be a stressful event, regardless of whether you have any emotions about it. Be as prepared as possible to make it a positive experience.