Over the last 2 weekends we have gone from 13 meat chickens to 7 meat chickens and 6 chunks of meat. This was a really interesting experience, the culmination of the whole “let’s be more hands on with our food”. It is easy to do when you are pulling a carrot out of the ground or slicing a zucchini free from the vine, but making that transition from living thing to food is not as easy when it can look you in the eye.
Getting ready to butcher the chickens was as much of a production as the butchering itself. On Saturday I had to build a killing cone out of sheet metal and get the area prepped. The cone was built using dimensions I found online and was fairly easy. I cut a trapezoid out of some ducting metal and then cut 3 large tabs from one end and 3 slots into the other side. I rolled it together, fit the tabs into the slots and then bent the tabs over and hammered them flat. This ensures the cone won’t pull apart, and while it would have been easier to just rivet the ends together I didn’t have a rivet gun handy. I then hammered over the top edge where the ends overlap to keep them together and wrapped a seam of duct tape inside and out to make the joint free from any sharp edges – I wouldn’t want a chicken to get cut in the cone because I had been lazy. To finish it off I hammered a hole near the top to put a hooked nail through so I could hang it in the pumphouse off a metal loop I had installed on the wall.
The other thing to get ready was the butchering area. The pumphouse has easy access to water (although very cold) and electricity and has a cement floor so it was the best place to set up camp. I had noticed an old sink in the garage holding up a shelf and after moving some things around an old enameled cast iron sink was found to painfully move across the field. Someone had fitted iron pipe together to make a 2-legged stand and screwed this to the garage wall so this had to be moved as well. After getting the sink in I considered fitting a drain underneath as there was a hole in the wall right under the sink, but I settled on just placing a large bucket under the sink that I could dump outside. I ran a hose from the pump up behind the sink and we were halfway to a working butcher area. I also needed a cutting station so I moved an old desk from the quonset to use as a table, but I didn’t like it as a cutting surface. I racked my brain and remembered the pair of “modern” glass and metal computer desks we had never unpacked when we moved here. I went into the garage to raid the boxes and came out with a (probably) 2 foot by 3 foot glass sheet that could serve as an easy to clean and durable cutting surface.
Early Sunday morning I went out to the chicken coop with my scale and bucket and picked out 2 of the biggest chickens wandering the yard, each was about 6 pounds. I put them into a wire dog kennel for the day with access to water, but no food, as butchering is easier if the crop (a food storage sack in the neck) isn’t full, and their intestines would be less full of wastes that could make things messy if I missed a cut. The day went on as normal and after getting the kids to sleep Erron and I were able to go out and get to work. We brought out a big pot of ~140-150oF water for scalding and a hot plate to keep it warm, a couple of newly sharpened knives and some pots for “bits”.
Erron served as the reader while I did the majority of the cutting. We set up my laptop with a well photo-documented butchering tutorial on one side and she would tell me where and what to cut next. She was also there to take pictures for your enjoyment. To start you put the chicken head-first down into the cone and make sure the head is poking out, the cone will keep them from thrashing too much and promote bleeding to get the meat well drained.
Once you pull out the head you make 2 deep cuts into the neck just under the head to sever the arteries. Since the head is still attached the brain will tell the heart to keep pumping, unlike chopping the head off, and will bleed the chicken more thoroughly. I had made the cuts on the first chickens a bit low and had to saw through the feathers to get a deep cut, but the next week I had realized my mistake and got spurting arterial blood much more easily.
Once the chicken is dead (and be prepared for death throes despite the cone), you can take them out and give them a dunk in the hot bath. Swirl them around a bit to get water under the feathers as this relaxes the muscles holding the feathers making them easier to pluck. You can try pulling on a feather or two to see if they come free to know when is a good time to pull them out. Out of the 6 chickens so far I over-scalded one and the skin ripped to reveal partially cooked breast meat underneath, this one was cut into pieces instead of freezing whole.
Without a mechanical plucker, or any plucking experience, it took us maybe half an hour to get a nice clean chicken. We improved over time and I made a cheap drill-powered plucker for the second butcher day, but even then we did the final once-over in the kitchen to get the last remaining feathers. After you have a clean and dead bird you cut off the head and feet, we kept the feet in a pot for making chicken stock, but you could make a cool rear-view mirror dangly-thing if you wanted I suppose. The first real delicate step is to get the crop detached. You slit the neck skin and skin the neck, then pull the esophagus and trachea away from the neck until the big crop-sack pulls free. Everything is stuck to everything else by membranes so a snip or rip here and there is necessary to get stuff free, the same goes for when pulling out the guts. After the crop is free you cut the neck muscles at the base and twist the neck around to remove it, this we kept for stock, separate from the feet that needed an extra cleaning.
To start at the bottom end you make a slit on the back of the tail to remove an oil gland that the chickens use to preen their feathers and then flip the chicken over to make the delicate cut into the belly. I say delicate because the intestines must not be cut or else you will foul the meat with partially digested food, chicken poop, and bacteria. You could probably salvage the meat, but I’d rather just keep it clean. You make a small cut into the belly and then use your fingers to rip it wider while pulling the guts and their membranes free from the abdominal wall. Once the hole is big enough you take the plunge and reach in as high as you can.
You gently curl your fingers and grasp all the innards and then pull out while taking the time to rip free any membranes that are attached. You get most everything except for the lungs out in one or two pulls, just make sure to leave the intestines attached to the cloaca (chicken asshole). Now you can slice down either side of the gut and across the bottom so the intestines are completely free from the carcass. The liver, heart and gizzard can be kept for stock, but the gizzard needs to be sliced open and washed to get the gravel and grain out. The lungs are nestled into the ribcage and by slipping a fingernail between the lungs and ribs you get an opening to slide your fingers under them and pull them free one by one.
Once it is gutted we gave them a rinse by running some water through them and then brought them inside for “detailing”. We found a pair of tweezers is handy for the last couple feathers that just won’t come out.
Once clean, we patted the birds dry and weighed them to find out what all our hard work had rewarded us with. The first two birds were about 4 pounds each, and a week later the next 4 birds were about 5 to 5.5 pounds each. They need to spend a day in the fridge to age the meat so it can tenderize a bit as they are in rigor mortis at this point and the legs are locked in place, but after a day the go soft and pliable like a store-bought bird.
Well, there you have it, from baby chicks to 1-2 meals per bird in only 7 or 8 weeks. The second round was a lot easier than the first once I knew what I was doing and I am looking forward to the next 2 weekends of butchering the remaining birds so I don’t have to put up with them making such a mess of the coop anymore. Those egg layers are just so clean compared to the meat chickens that eat so much, drink so much, and poop so much.
One final picture, I was making a joke at the time with this first chicken liver, but I did in fact eat a raw chunk the next week when we had cut one up to feed to Dash. It had a taste and consistency similar to sushi, who knew?