Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Processing chickens

I'll spare you any photos as this post is not a how-to, but it is going to contain some pretty graphic descriptions. It's a reflection, review, and reminder (oooh, alliteration!) so the next time we do this it goes well (again).

That's right, it went well this time too. No big lessons learned, no we'll never do that again, just some pointers to help remind us what we did and what we want to do next time.

I did a bunch of research first and found these sites and videos to be most helpful:
Video of the slaughter
Video of the butchering
Video of slaughter and butchering
Text & photo of whole process
Text & photo of process again

We only had two birds since we lost four this spring to foxes. We decided that as this was our first time butchering chickens that we'd just do one bird at a time rather than trying to do an assembly line. That worked well for us as we didn't feel rushed.

Equipment used:
   Old canning pot (a deeper pot would have been better, but it worked okay)
   Two electric hot plates (that pot is big! Needed two to get enough heat plus it was more stable)
   Butchering table (plastic, easy to clean)
   Hose with nozzle
   Sharps: boning, paring, chef, boning shears, cleaver
   Cutting board
   Cooler with ice and water
   Trash can with liner
   Rope for tying up bird
   Propane torch
   Diluted bleach solution for cleaning up
   Rubber gloves (latex gloves are fine, they don't have to be those big kitchen things)
   For next time: add a rubber mallet and cut proof gloves

Set up:
   Hot plates on table at very edge of porch. Fill pot 2/3 full and heat water to at least 140 degrees but not over 160.
   Sharpen knives.
   Place the butchering table near but not directly in front of the hot water (you're using the water to scald the bird for plucking, it doesn't need to be right by the butchering table). It was handy for extra supplies though so don't put them too far apart.
   Tractor near the porch with rope attached to bucket.
   Cooler full of ice and water.
   Hose easily reached for rinsing bird after slaughter and for rinsing butchered bird.

The slaughter:
We hung the first hen by both feet from the tractor bucket so that we could raise or lower her as needed. This worked great as she was at first too low to handle easily and we could quickly raise her up without re-rigging the rope. The chickens weren't pets and were always destined for the pot but I really didn't want this process to be horrifying (for them or me). Yeah, yeah, maybe I'm self-justifying, but I believe that a calm approach to the whole thing can only help. So I had Chris wrap her in a towel while I slowly, calmly stretched her neck and found the vein just under the jaw line. Holding her head so that her eyes were covered and beak closed, I sliced the vein and pulled gently to the side to open the wound. I used the boning knife as it's got a non-slip handle and it's wicked sharp with a thin blade. The slice was quick and the bird barely moved when I made the cut. I can tell you the cut was barely felt because on the second bird I sliced my hand too and didn't notice immediately (note for next time - wear cut proof gloves as I had a hard time keeping my hand out of the way). Chris held her in the towel and I held her head until she'd completely bled out. I could feel her head/beak move slightly during the bleeding but she didn't struggle and it wasn't until the very end that there was any noticeable movement. Holding the towel tight avoided thrashing around and it certainly helped my psyche even if it did nothing for the bird. Once she was dead we took a walk around the building to regroup and then came back to pluck her.

The plucking:
No mechanical plucker so we did it the old-fashioned way - scalding and pulling. First I removed the head because that's not something I want to see flopping around while pulling feathers. Nope. A quick rinse with the hose removed any poo and blood that was on the feathers (I couldn't see poop but I figured, what's the harm? Rinse!). Then we dunked her into the hot water a few times - 10 seconds or so at a time, swish around, then out to check for pluckability (not a word but it should be), and in again if needed. Maybe two or three dunks. Don't overheat as it will make the skin tear easily and it's hard enough to pluck without that. (Note that there was no smell - not sure what everyone is talking about with scalding stinking).
Hung her back up in the same rope, grabbed the trash can, put on the gloves (boy did this help prevent feather accumulation on the hands), and started pulling feathers. The wing feathers were a total bear to pull out and the feathers around the butt were tough too. In fact we tore the skin around the tail so next time we'll need to be more careful (not that it really mattered as I cut off and discarded the tail anyway, but still - let's try to be professional, hmm?). The rest of the feathers came out pretty easily and then we used the torch to quickly burn off the hairs (okay, that smelled a bit).

The butchering:
Thoroughly rinse the bird and place on the table. Watch the videos, look at the photos, and go for it. Not a lot of notes here as the links pretty well show it all. We didn't perforate any organs and it all went well. First removed the crop, esophagus, and wind pipe (third video). We didn't deny food as we weren't sure when the weather would let us butcher so the crop was kind of full. No big deal, no mess, and it actually made it really easy to identify. Then spin the bird and cut along the pelvic bones to create slits that I could connect with my fingers. Kept my finger between the skin and the intestines and used the knife to open between the slits which let me see the internal organs. To remove the intestines I ended up using the method where you hook under the intestine with your finger and then cut under it to remove the entire vent (second video). Then just reached my hand in to pull out the organs. It helped enormously to have Chris hold the carcass up and let gravity assist with organ removal. I chose to spatchcock the birds after the initial gutting and that helped with final organ removal simply because I could see what I was doing - lungs, ovaries, and kidneys like to stick around if you can't see them.
Speaking of ovaries - it was totally weird to have yolks just falling out of the bird. I finally looked up this article chicken reproductive track to see if I did something wrong in the butchering but I think this was normal. Here's what I gather: the yolk is held in a sac that ruptures along the stigma before entering the oviduct. It looks to me like the yolk just hangs out in there until the infundibulum engulfs it and it eventually forms the egg. So my best guess is that the sac is very fragile and when I put my hand in there it was enough to disrupt it and the yolks fell out. So, weird yet fascinating stuff, huh?

Finishing up:
Once the birds were cleaned out and hosed off I put them in the cooler of ice water to quickly reduce their temperature. After a while I dried them off, put them in plastic freezer bags, and stored them in the fridge for a day or so before moving them to the freezer.

I'll give statistics and costs in another post but I'm counting this experience a big success and intend to get six new layers this coming spring.

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