Raising and Processing Meat Chickens

When I first decided to raise chickens for meat, I had to consider all things from start to finish.  Such as:  Type of chicken, time of year, weather, brooder, lights, food, chicken tractor for the pasture, and then processing.  (I read and researched for months)
I decided to get my chicks the first of April.  NW Arkansas April weather can be a little iffy, but generally our last freeze is around the middle of the month.  This would give the chicks some time to grow inside the barn before transitioning to the (hopefully warmer) outside tractor.  It would also make the processing time around the first of June which is usually not too hot.
I chose a Cornish Cross breed vs. a heritage breed for a couple of reasons.
chicken- 1 day old cornish cross
The Cornish cross are bred to be a fast grower usually ready for processing in about 6-8 weeks.  The heritage breed (Red Rangers for example) could take anywhere from 9-12 weeks.  The Cornish are also bred to be a good meat chicken (this is the type you get from the store) as opposed to maybe a more muscular meat with the heritage breeds (although I know people who have raised the heritage breeds and state the meat is just as comparable to the Cornish.)  Since this was my first experience, I chose the quicker Cornish.
(Note:  click on the highlighted links for more details)
When the chicks were little, I kept them in a brooder (formerly a water tub for the cows) in the barn with 2 heat lamps for heat.
meat chicks, chicken
I kept fresh water in the brooder at all times, changing it often as baby chicks are messy!  The feed I used was not totally organic but was a non GMO feed I was able to get at my local Farmer’s Co-op.  I started them on chick starter (which is 21% protein) and kept them on that for about 3 weeks or until the 50 lb. bag was gone.   I was very pleased with the feed.  The chicks loved it and ate very well.  It was also reasonably priced at about $20 for a 50 lb. bag (compared to $50/50 lb. bag for total organic.) After the chick starter was gone, I switched them to a grower feed (19% protein) until processing time.
The barn proved to be too drafty though and I lost a few chicks.  So I drug out some old quilts and covered up most of the tub to keep the warmth in.
cornish cross brooder, chicken
This helped but I still lost a couple more chicks.  (Next time, I will keep the brooder in the shed part of the chicken coop which is smaller and very little draft.)
At 4 weeks, they had most of their feathers and were ready to move out of the brooder and into the chicken tractor.
chicken tractor
The cows didn’t know what to think.
cows/ chicken tractor
The weather was not cooperating at all.  After a few days out in the pasture, a cold rain set in.  I lost a couple more.  We then drug out extension cords and the heat lamp and hooked it up in the chicken tractor.  I bought a tarp to cover the exposed end and hoped for the best.
Every day, I would get up and take them fresh feed and water.
chickens 5 weeks old chickens 5 weeks old
When I would get home, I would remove the feed for the night and move the tractor into fresh grass.  Fresh water was given but no food except grass.  This is to keep the chickens from eating 24 hours a day and growing too fast.  Cornish Cross are bad to develop heart and leg problems due to the fast growth.  I did not have any problems with this possibly because I did remove their food at night and kept them moving in the tractor.
At 8 weeks, they were ready for processing.
chickens 8 wks old
The only flaw with the chicken tractor was getting the chickens out.  The first one was easy, but the others quickly moved to the back where I couldn’t reach them.  It was too small for me to get in unless I did a belly crawl to the back which I was not going to do.  Al stepped in and brought out an old fishing net he had and we scooped them up and put them in a large rabbit cage and dog kennel for the short trip.
I had read that chickens stress easily and when they stress, their muscles tighten.  Tight muscles equal tough meat.  We decided to do the processing early in the morning, collecting them for the trip while they were calm.  The trip to Richard’s (my brother-in-law) was only 10 min. which also kept stress levels down.
When I arrived, my chickens were left alone while we did his first.  This also reduces stress.  He had done a quick run through the night before and had everything set up so we could begin.  This was extremely helpful.  I love organization!
Ok.  This is where is gets a little graphic and disturbing for some folks.  If you are squeamish you might just want to check out my non graphic blog post at:  http://theblondegardener.com/2014/06/08/i-did-a-dessie-2/
garden chicken
Otherwise, read on at your own discretion.
Keep in mind, this is all part of the sustainability process.  Not the most glamorous part but an important and necessary part if you want to control the environment and methods in which your animals are processed.
Richard started by placing the chickens upside down in a set of cones opened at the end.  Below the cones are buckets for draining the chicken.
The heads were removed and it only took about 3-4 minutes for the chicken to bleed out.  Fortunately for me, this was Richard’s job.
The next step is to scald the chicken to remove the feathers.  Richard’s set up included a propane tank with 2 burners and 2 turkey fryers filled with water heated to 145 degrees.
Each chicken was dipped into the water and then lifted out.  Dipped again and lifted out. Dipped again and lifted out.  After about the third dunk, Richard would check a wing feather.  If it pulled out easily, it was ready for the plucker.  If the feather didn’t pull off easily, it went back in the water for another dunk.  The constant dunking kept the chicken from burning.  The key is to keep the water at 145 degrees.
Richard and my husband, Allen are very good at building things.  Richard saw a model of an automatic chicken plucker and in no time, they had one made.
chicken plucker
It is a food grade barrel obtained from a friend.  The bottom of the barrel was cut out and a stainless steel base was purchased.  The base already had holes for the rubber fingers (or picker fingers) but holes had to be drilled to put in the fingers of the barrel.  This, I was told, was the tedious part.
chicken plucker
It is powered by a one horse 1725 rpm motor with a 1.7 inch pulley on the motor and a 16 inch pulley on the drive shaft.   A stand was built by two by fours and an on/off switch was installed.
chicken plucker
When the chicken was ready for the plucker, it was placed inside and turned on.  Water from the hose kept the chicken cool, and in about 30 seconds, the feathers were gone.
The next step was putting them in an ice chest (you will need 3 or 4 for the different stages) filled with ice water (and you will need several bags of ice on hand)  to cool the chicken down quickly.
After about 15 minutes, it was mine and Leslie’s (my niece) turn to work.
chicken chicken
First, we exposed the neck bone by cutting the skin and, keeping the crop out of the way, removed the bone with a very sharp knife.  Keep the necks!  (they make great chicken stock.) Then, we turned the chicken around and carefully cut about a half-inch above the vent and up each side about an inch, opening the cavity of the bird.   The feet also need to be removed.  Sometimes I did this first and sometimes I did it at the end.
This is when it gets kinda yucky.
Next, you stick your hand inside the bird and begin pulling out the intestines and organs.  I was able to pull out most of the organs the first time and then I flushed the bird with water and examined what was left.  The hardest part was removing the lungs which are soft, fleshy and stick to the ribs of the chicken.  Leslie discovered that instead of pushing and pulling on the lungs, if you push your finger under the lung, most of it will come out.  Flush again, look, flush and look.
Then place them in another ice chest filled with ice water.  Repeat this process until all chickens are done.
With three people, we were able to process 36 chickens in 4-1/2 hours.  It took some time to figure out our method but, once we did, it went pretty fast.
Before I left, I bagged the chickens in Ziploc bags and put them in my cooler.  When I got home, I put them in my refrigerator and left them for a day.  From what I’ve read, this is a step some people don’t do but I read that it ages the chicken and makes it melt in your mouth tender.
The next day, I used my vacuum sealer and packaged the chicken (whole) in one bag.  I did weigh every chicken and the average weight was 4 lbs.   Then I put them in my freezer.
chicken in the freezer
All except one.  I put it in the crock pot and let it cook all day.  Near the end of the day, I went to the garden and picked some okra, lettuce, and spinach.  Our supper that night came entirely from the farm.
chicken dinner
I was very proud of myself.
So how did the chicken taste?  It really did melt in my mouth.
I used very little seasoning because I wanted to understand the flavor of a home-grown chicken.   It wasn’t a strong “in your face” wild flavor, but just a fresh, clean taste if that makes any sense.
Allen was even impressed.
I will definitely do this again and hopefully I can improve and expand each year.  For those of you that have done this before, I welcome any and all suggestions.  Thanks for stopping by.
p.s. for a more detailed tutorial about this process, check out   http://butcherachicken.blogspot.com  He has great step by step instructions and lots of helpful pictures.

8 Responses to Raising and Processing Meat Chickens

  1. Pingback: I Did a Dessie | The Blonde Gardener

  2. Laura says:

    We have just done exactly this! My partner built the very same plucker and I can tell you, after plucking the last lot by hand, this machine is AMAZING! And how good does the chicken taste? =)

  3. Pingback: A Good Time To Look Back | The Blonde Gardener

  4. My mother-in-law cooked fried chicken dinner every Sunday for years They grew their own. She would buy 100 male chicks and she’d say they were ready when they began to crow. Then she’d get her family’s help and clean all of them in one morning. She was fast. I got in on a couple of those days before we moved too far away and I learned a few little tricks I can share:
    1. when you remove the insides, be very careful not to rupture what she called “the gall bladder”. It is a small, very dark green (like spinach) organ or bladder, just under the surface of the skin on one side (I forget if it’s right or left). You can see it through the skin, since it lies near the surface and is such a dark green color. It’s about the size of the first joint of your finger.
    2. After she plucked (by hand!) she would pour rubbing alcohol into a disposable pie pan and light it, to use the flame for burning off the small hairs that remain on the body. This flame burns very clean and being outdoors, was not much danger at all. Be sure it’s not scented alcohol, though.
    3. She would cut all the chicken meat into regular pieces for frying: drumsticks, thighs, etc. She would fold the wings back onto themselves, to make more compact. Then she would put all the parts into her spotlessly-cleaned bathtub. Once all the outdoor work was done, she would go indoors and bag it all: two legs, two thighs, two wings, two backs, two chest pieces, a neck, a heart, and a gizzard. Over and over—100 times! She never cared if the leg from one chicken got into the bag for another. It just was faster.
    Her fried chicken was delicious and then had not invented the x-chicken, yet. I can taste it, still. Her amazing fried chicken, home grown mashed potatoes, home grown creamed corn, home grown English peas, a gallon of scratch chicken gravy, and sometimes home-made rolls. You could founder! And she had dessert, too. All washed down with a tall glass of milk. Oh, MY! 🙂

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