How to Kill & Process Chickens for Meat.

as noted in the last post, we had our first chicken harvest on saturday. we started with the ceremony detailed there, and then began the process of killing, scalding, plucking, and butchering each bird.

You want to set some things up in advance. Several sharp knives, knife sharpener, butchering table, the cones for killing & bleeding the birds, a set-up for scalding birds, plucker, coolers full of ice or with bags of ice ready to go in. Bowls or bags for entrails. A clean dish of water for rinsing hands & knives. A hose for spraying water into the plucker. If you are going to use the blood as a garden fertilizer later, it helps to put a 5-gallon bucket or three under the area where you’re killing birds. Each bucket should be partly full of water; this prevents the blood from coagulating. Multiple buckets just mean you don’t have to keep moving one bucket; a chicken does not have that much blood in it. Blood makes a wonderful soil supplement in the garden, and as our area has poor iron content in the soil, this is an effective remedy.

Having your cones set up, and a place to hang the carcasses to bleed out while you do more birds, your first move is to catch a chicken. Holding the feet in one hand, and the wings close to the body so they don’t struggle, place the bird upside down in the cone.

Here is Chris at Ironwood, demonstrating the cone method. The cones are in a ladder, which is suspended between two other ladders. I’m sure there are as many ways to rig that set-up as there are people doing it. It just needs to be sturdy, and at a height you’re comfortable with.

Once your bird is in the cone, use your palm to cover their eyes so they remain calm. Pull the neck gently taut, and slice through the jugular & cartoid artery swiftly, in one or two strokes. You don’t want to sever the spinal column, as this actually impedes the swift bleed-out. Nor do you want to slice the windpipe (treacha), as doing so will cause the bird to aspirate blood and drown to death, rather than bleeding to death—this is a harder death for the bird, and it prevents the meat from draining effectively, so the carcass will be full of blood, which affects the flavor and overal aesthetic experience of the meat. Sometimes the body stays still, sometimes it jerks a bit—the phrase “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” has a solid foundation in reality. The cone restrains the body so that the bird cannot thrash much. The movement is an autonomic function as the nervous system shuts down; the spirit is gone long since, in the first heavy rush of blood. When you make the cut correctly, the blood spurts out fast and strong, and you can feel the bird go slack and the eyes dull as the spirit leaves. When you don’t make the cut correctly, the bird will jerk, possibly squawk, and not much blood comes out. You reposition the knife, and make a stronger thrust. At Ironwood, we were using a utility knife with fresh blades. At Sunflower River, we were using our skinning knife, which is a small, curved, wickedly sharp blade. I preferred that one. With the utility knife, the technique is to press the blade in on the far side of the neck, and your thumb on the other, and draw the knife sharply towards you—much the same gesture as peeling a potato with a knife. With the skinning knife, I pressed the sharp point in on the near side of the neck, just beyond the spinal cord, and then sliced sharply through and outward, severing the arteries and skin in one motion. I had more success with that method. I’m sure this is an individual thing, and each person develops the method that works best for them. The important thing is to get both arteries fast and clean.

Alan catching a bird from the overnight holding pen where we isolated the scheduled roosters, to separate them from our laying flock:

Here is Tristan, doing one bird at Ironwood, while two finished birds hang nearby to bleed out.

and the bird bleeding out.

those 2 photos were taken Tuesday at Ironwood; the rest are from Saturday morning at Sunflower River. Tristan with a rooster:

Jenny wanted to keep the nice feathers for use in costuming later on. So we plucked the big wing feathers and some of the nice tailfeathers by hand (or with pliers) before scalding the birds. Here Jenny is plucking one bird, while Tristan removes another for scalding.

Jenny & Kit, plucking birds:

Scalding the bird. To scald, you dip the whole carcass into water that is 140˚F. Run a wooden fork or, in this case, a forked stick, through the feathers, to help water penetrate and soak into the pinions. Joanna and Chris scald a bird:

Dip the bird in and out of the water, rubbing through the feathers with the wooden fork and agitating it in the water a bit to be sure water gets to the skin everywhere.

When feathers pull easily from the tail & wings, the bird is finished scalding.

once the bird is scalded, you turn the plucker on and drop the bird in. this plucker can handle 3 birds at a time, but we were doing them individually.

the plucker takes less than a minute to pluck each bird. a task that would take ages of hard work by hand! this one is motor-powered, but you can make crank-powered ones that run by hand (or hook up to a bicycle), too.

Then the plucked bird goes to the butchering table. First, you cut off the feet at the knee. When you bend the joint, you can feel the space in between. Slipping the knife into that space where it bends, you sever the joint. It comes apart easily.

Then cut the head off, chopping it with cleaver or other knife. You could do this first if you prefer.

Once the head is off, you remove the windpipe. Make a slit in the skin of the neck, pull out the soft stuff on the neck (trachea).

then locate the crop. This is either full of food, or full of air, depending on how recently your bird ate. it’s a waste of food to let them eat right before slaughter, so ours were not full. You sever the connective tissue around the crop and pull it out by hand.

then flip the bird over, and cut out the oil gland on top of the tail. This is not food (though the dog can eat it, along with the rest of the entrails, feet, heads and so on).

the oil gland is yellowish and looks like it’s name, round and oily. If you cut through it, just cut away the area around it.

i somehow didn’t manage to get photos of the next part. I’ll try to do that and come back to edit this next time we slaughter, which I think is October. Turn the bird onto its back, tail towards you. Make a V shaped slit in the skin, with the point of the V at the breastbone. Then reach your hand in there, and pull out the entrails. Doesn’t that sound easy? It’s really difficult; they’re in there quite firmly. And you don’t want to burst an intestine or anything equally gross, though if you do, it’s not an emergency, you just have to clean it extra well after you get it all out. Still, you really don’t want to do that. It smells terrible if anything breaks. I think this is the worst part of the whole process. You feel around in the abdominal cavity with your fingers, finding the connective tissue that links the abdominal sac to the ribcage, and breaking it with your fingers, until you can get your nails under the whole mess and pull it slowly out. Having accomplished that, you cut out the skin around the anal area, and you do not sever the intestine or anus. Instead, you remove the whole area of skin and discard it into the entrails pile (which in our case became dogfood, also known as gibsicles). Then put your hand back in there and scrape out the lungs and heart, near the top of the body cavity. The lungs are bright pinkish and easy to see. Here’s the heart, next to the pile Jenny has just removed:

then cut away the gall bladder from the rest of the entrails, because you don’t want to feed this part to the dog (it is not particularly toxic, but it tastes bad). The gall bladder is bright green.

Then you rinse off the carass, and ta-da! you have chicken. the meat should be rested (kept in an ice-packed cooler or fridge) for a couple days before being frozen.

rest the meat a few days, and fry it up with some green beans and fresh corn on the cob, and this is the extremely delicious result:

That’s chicken we raised, purple podded pole beans and corn that we grew. The whole meal out of our own garden! Tristan cooked all this up for house meeting earlier this week, and it was both flavorful and deeply emotionally satisfying: we are making enough of our own food now to cook whole meals that came entirely off the farm. That’s something.