Raising chickens can be rewarding. We learn valuable lessons, acquire functional skills and even grow to love our birds. This sense of connection can make processing or harvesting our chickens for meat that much more difficult. As the saying goes: Once you name your chicken, you can’t eat it.
You’ve probably never processed a chicken unless you grew up on a farm or had relatives who owned a farm. Those who have processed a chicken understand that it can be extremely daunting and emotional the first few times. There is the fear of causing unnecessary pain and stress to the animal or contaminating the meat if the process isn’t done correctly or carefully. This article aims to give you the background and knowledge to process your birds by separating processing into small, easy-to-manage steps.
Equipment Needed for Processing
Most of this equipment can be purchased at your local farm-supply or feed store or online poultry-supply store. Feed-store employees’ expertise can be invaluable. For example, they can advise you on what size killing cones you need. (Laying hens are typically smaller than broilers.) They can also show you additional equipment that can make the work easier and as humane as possible.
- Clothing/First Aid: First and foremost, make sure you have some type of waterproof apron and rubber boots that are dedicated for processing. In addition, purchase disposable hairnets. Also have some bandages ready in case you nick yourself.
- Knives: A sharp knife and a knife sharpener are the most important pieces of equipment that you’ll need to successfully process your broilers. Having and keeping a sharp knife reduces the likelihood of causing extra pain to the birds and greatly reduces the probability of any self-inflicted wounds. You’ll need at least two knives, one for slaughtering and one for eviscerating.
- Cone(s) : A killing cone is recommended for the slaughtering process (shown below). Placing the birds in a killing cone puts them in a relaxed state for slaughtering, which reduces the chances of them hurting themselves and makes it easier for you to cut the main artery in their necks (the carotid artery).
- Plucker: A plucker (pictured below) is extremely convenient — especially if you are processing more than a few birds at a time — but not necessary. It’s basically a large drum with a rotating bottom and rubber fingerlike protrusions on the inner wall and bottom of the drum. You can always just “roll up your sleeves” and pull out all the feathers by yourself, but a good plucker will do all that work for you.
- Scalder: You’ll also need some type of container, such as a scalder (shown below), to hold 140- to 150-degree Fahrenheit water where the birds can be placed in order to loosen up the feather follicles to make pulling out the feathers easier.
- Table: A table with a nonporous tabletop is also necessary. You want it to be nonporous to reduce the chances of bacterial and fungal growth, which can contaminate your meat and cause illness.
- Coolers & Ice: Coolers full of ice and clean running water are also needed. The coolers work as storage for the fully processed birds. Maintaining a “cold chain” is essential from a food safety perspective. Ice water helps reduce the development of any pathogens and increases the shelf life of the meat.
- Buckets: Having a number of buckets is useful as well. They can capture and collect blood from under the killing cones or used as containers to dispose of the unwanted eviscerated gastrointestinal tract (“the guts”).
- Water & Soap: Fresh clean water is necessary to clean out the eviscerated chicken carcass. Finally, scrub brushes and dish soap are necessary for the cleaning of your entire workspace following processing.
- Transport Container(s): If you don’t plan to process the birds on location, you will require a sturdy crate to transport them. Ideally, you’ll have one or more plastic crates designed to transfer chickens that are easy to clean and disinfect after each use. Alternatively, you can transport your birds in single-use cardboard boxes that have secure covers. Just make sure that the boxes are sturdy enough and provide proper ventilation. (The reason they are single-use as opposed to plastic is that cardboard can’t be disinfected and, hence, can transmit disease.)
It’s important that you remove any feed available to the broilers 10 to 12 hours prior to processing. This will ensure that the crop and the rest of the guts are fairly empty, reducing the probability of fecal contamination. However, make sure that water is still accessible; you don’t want stressed, dehydrated birds in the killing cone; if they’re dehydrated, their blood volume will be low, making it difficult to get them to bleed out effectively.
At the processing location, set the scalder next to the killing cones. Then, set the plucker, if you’re using one, a few feet from the scalder. The table should be set a few feet away from the plucker. This setup mimics an assembly line, making the transition from each station smoother.
Going through a few mock drills can increase your confidence and highlight any logistic faults you hadn’t anticipated. Set up all the equipment the evening before processing day to ensure you are ready when the time arrives.
Killing & Bleeding
Place the chickens headfirst into the killing cones, making sure that their heads slide out through the bottom holes. Take hold on the bird’s head and carefully make a cut just under its jaw, being careful not to cut the chicken’s windpipe. (Cutting the windpipe can cause the broiler to panic.)
The bird will start to loose vast amounts of blood and will lose consciousness from the loss of blood pressure. After approximately 1 minute, the broiler will die and might begin to shake in a manic fashion. These spasms are natural and happen only after the bird has died. Leave the chicken in the killing cone for another 30 seconds to 1 minute after it has died. This will make sure all the blood has drained from its body.
Scalder & Plucker
After the animal has been completely bled, place it in a hot-water bath or scalder. Keep the water temperature of the scalder between 140 to 150 degrees. Dip the birds in and out until you can easily pull off the feathers. After scalding, the broiler can be placed into a plucker, if you have one, which will remove the feathers with rotational force and fingerlike rubber protrusions. You can also do this manually, if you don’t have a plucker.
After you have pulled any feathers that the plucker missed, rinse the nonfeathered broiler with fresh water and place it on the table. Cut off the oil gland that is located on the tail. Then, pull the head off and remove the feet by cutting the knee joint.
Pinch the skin at the base of the neck and make a small incision. Using your fingers, pull the skin toward the head and toward the vent, revealing the crop, windpipe and esophagus. Carefully separate them from the neck but not from the chicken itself.
Then, just above the vent, pinch the skin and make another small cut. Using your hands, tear the skin in order to make the opening larger. Place a hand inside the opening and scoop all the internal organs, making sure to hook the windpipe, esophagus and crop. Next, carefully pull everything out, being careful not to rupture any portion of the digestive tract, which can lead to fecal contamination.
If contamination does occur (that is, if you nick the digestive tract), then you must discard the chicken. Thoroughly rinsing the broiler with water and/or food-grade biocides will not remove all of the bacteria from the carcass. Some bacteria can still “stick” to the tissue even if it’s washed
Once the digestive tract is removed from inside the bird, cut and remove the vent from the body. This will completely remove the entrails from the animal. The giblets (that is, organs) can be removed at this time.
Reach a hand back into the open cavity and remove the lungs and any other organ or organ system remaining (Figure 6). Rinse the outside and inside of the broiler before placing it in a cooler. Repeat the process for each broiler.
With planning, proper equipment and a steady hand, you can complete a process that might have at first seemed overwhelming. With continued practice, you can even master it. Remember: This type of knowledge is invaluable and should be passed on to members of future generations so they, too, can benefit from this experience.
This article, which originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Chickens magazine, was written by Oscar Martinez, an animal science undergraduate, and Maurice Pitesky, D.V.M., a faculty member from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.