Today we’re gonna talk chickens! Three weeks ago we finally butchered our first round of meat chickens, and now it’s time to share that story. We’ll start at the beginning when we got the chicks, talk about what we did along the way, what makes meat birds different from egg-layers, as well as a walk-through of the butchering process itself (along with a few pictures…you’ve been warned, don’t worry though, it’s nothing too gruesome), and I’ll sum up with some of the things that we learned throughout. I am by no means a chicken expert, so if you feel that I left something out, or you have questions, feel free to point it out or ask! And if you are considering getting meat birds yourself, make sure you do plenty of your own footwork so you can be well prepared. (Note: There are captions on all pictures, you may need to click or hover over the pictures with your mouse in order to read them!)
Caring For The Chickens
Here’s the basic run down of raising these chickens. Back in July, we had 30 Cornish Cross chicks delivered to our homestead. We set them up in a shipping crate for a brooder box, filled with some hay, feed, water, and a heat lamp. They grow quickly, and by 3 weeks, it was time to move them to a bigger area. We built a chicken tractor out of scrap materials and transferred the chicks into it, but not before we lost 12 to a rat. Yes, a rat. (Read the links for more details on our set-up, the chicken tractor and the rat fiasco.) Around 3 weeks, we moved the chicks into the chicken tractor. It was hot in July, so we were able to move them outdoors, otherwise we would have kept them indoors with a heat lamp until about 5 weeks of age.
It wasn’t long before they became too crowded in the chicken tractor. At 8 weeks, we split up the meat bird flock, putting half in the main chicken coop while half stayed in the chicken tractor. We lost two birds in one week to what we suspect may have been heart failure. At 11 weeks, we put all of the chickens in the main coop, because the chicken tractor was getting crowded again, plus we were busy, and it simplified the feeding process. At nearly 13 weeks, we butchered the chickens.
The day before butchering, we separated the meat birds from the main flock, once again putting them in the chicken tractor. That allowed us to stop feeding them 24 hours before butchering so they could empty their systems.
Aside from feeding and watering them daily, and moving the chicken tractor every day or two to give them fresh grass, there wasn’t a whole lot more that we did for them. The brooder box and chicken coo got new bedding two times each, and I was clearing sections of tall grass next to the garden to move the chicken tractor onto. We plan to expand the garden next year, and now that patch of land has been fertilized by the chickens! The other work that was involved was to clean out feeders when they got dirty and to get feed for them from time to time.
Meat Chickens vs. Egg Layers
So, what makes a meat chicken different from an egg-layer? For starters, meat birds are bred to grow muscle quickly. The chicks were bigger than egg-layer chicks, and by the time they were butchered, they were nearly as large as our other hens. Because they grow so quickly, meat birds eat significantly more than egg hens, and because they eat so much, they poop significantly more as well. It was really hard to judge just how much more food they ate since we had combined part, and then all of the flocks and they shared feed. It seems that meat chickens eat all of the time and that if they are not eating, they are FAMISHED. Really, you’d think they hadn’t been fed in days! They also require more water than a typical chicken.
I know I said it already, but they poop a lot. I mean, they poop while they are eating, while they are drinking, while they are walking, while they are laying down. They poop on each other, on your boots if you aren’t careful, in their feed and water (if you don’t watch it)…seriously, they poop a lot. And the older they get, the worse it gets because they are bigger, therefore the poops are bigger, and they eat more, so they poop more often. They can get smelly, and you need to do your best to keep them clean…if they are in a chicken tractor, that means they need to get moved daily (especially if they are big), and if they are in a coop, they need fresh bedding more frequently than your average chicken. They are rather “lazy,” the older they get the less walking they do, they don’t do much scratching (for bugs), and you are more likely to see them on the floor than on a roost at night.
From what I have researched,it is possible to save meat birds for breeding purposes to become more sustainable (which makes sense, since they have to come from somewhere), however, I am told that it’s kind of difficult. For one thing, they gain weight so quickly that the older they get, the higher the risks of heart failure or other health issues are. The fact that they gain so much weight is a hindrance to their egg production as well. We might try to separate a few meat birds next time and regulate their feed to see if we can keep the cycle going, but that will mostly depend on our time and the resources we have available come next spring, as well as actually remembering to do it. Meat birds are typically butchered between 9 and 16 weeks, so they don’t often even make it to egg-production age. Leading up to the big day, we had quite a bit to get ready. Most of our preparations were in gathering supplies, though we did have to deal with set up as well. Between the financial investments, the worry that we would somehow mess up, and never having done this before, it all lead to a lot of extra stress (for me, at least)! It wasn’t until it was all done that we realized how heavily it had been weighing on our minds.
We had to gather a lot of supplies, some we owned already, others we needed to purchase. We split the cost of a chicken plucker with a friend of ours. It was a large financial investment, and while it didn’t pay for itself this year, it will in the long run, and it saved us a considerable amount of time. We purchased 2 restraining cones (kill cones), a boning knife, a large cutting board, a splitter for the hose, heavy duty rubber gloves, a thermometer, and a 3-burner gas cooking stand. I’m sure I am forgetting some other items as well.
The week before butchering we spent a few days making sure that we had everything we needed. We gathered 5-gal. pails, prepared 2 tables as work stations, moved the chicken tractor, assembled and tested the plucker (no birds, just making sure it functioned), assembled the burner and tested how long it would take to bring the water up to temperature. We butchered underneath a tree because it would give us shade if it was sunny and keep the rain off if it rained. Scott did some pruning to make sure that no branches would get in the way as we worked, and he attached restraining cones and 5 gal. pails to the tree trunk.
We ran extension cords and power strips out to the tree so that we could run the plucker and the vacuum sealer. We needed water for the plucker and for cleaning the birds, tables, and hands, so Scott put a splitter on the hose to make sure we had enough water sources that day. The day before butchering, the chickens were moved to the chicken tractor. There were a few reasons for doing this. We needed to have the chickens near enough to the butchering area, and we needed to have them be calm. Moving them the day before gave them time to relax before butchering took place. We also wanted to stop feeding them 24 hours in advance because they need to clean out their systems. You want to keep the butchering as clean as possible (i.e. limit the poo).
We weren’t able to butcher until the afternoon, so in the morning Scott finished preparing what he could. Right before butchering I got out towels, a cooler, the food scale and vacuum sealer ( and plenty of bags), a sharpie, an extra cutting board and knife, and a few bowls. My brother and his family came to help, and shortly after they arrived, we were ready to begin. The babies napped while we worked, and the kids played and watched from time to time. The first time through the whole process, Scott butchered a whole chicken start to finish, and the rest of us watched. We’d all seen videos about butchering and read up about it online, but seeing it in person is just different.
There are multiple ways to butcher chickens, but we used restraining cones for killing and bleeding the chickens. There are two things that are important to note if you’ve never butchered a chicken before. One, it is much easier to put the chicken into a restraining cone and then bleed it if you let it pass out first (hold it upside down by it’s feet until it passes out…you’ll know it’s out because it will stop flapping it’s wings and fighting). The second thing is to know and REMEMBER that their nervous system has spasms once they are killed, which is where the saying “running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off” comes from. They can literally run around without a head. I knew about the spasms, but it still caught me off guard and seeing it caused me to get light-headed which is why I wasn’t more involved in butchering. One of the big birds was a little large for the size restraining cone that we had. When it was killed, it flapped itself out of the cone and “ran” around. The kids thought it was funny, I thought it was weird. Once they are drained of blood, their heads are removed. (We used a pruning sheers for that.) My brother and Scott got the birds to pass out, then bled and decapitated the chickens.
Next they get dunked into a pot of water that is 150 F a few times until the feathers are easily pulled out (it’s called scalding). It’s recommended to add some liquid dish soap to this water as it helps break down the oils around the feathers, making them easier to remove. My brother was the chicken dunker.
Once the feathers can be pulled out easily, they were put into the chicken plucker. Some were cleaned faster than others, but it never took more than a minute to get a bird fully plucked. It worked well enough that there were only a few birds that we needed to do any additional plucking to by hand, and that had more to do with getting the scald times right on the birds. After they were fully plucked, we dipped them in a large bucket of cold water to stop the cooking process and make sure that handling them during the gutting would be easier.
At the butchering table, my sister-in-law and Scott took over the gutting. There are a series of cuts that are made around the neck and the rear to make removing the innards easier. Then everything gets removed (I’m not going to go through a specific play-by-play since I didn’t do the actual gutting, but there are lots of resources out there if you want to learn more). Caution needs to be used because you don’t want to break any of these organs open while butchering. When I asked my sister-in-law if there was anything important to note about butchering, she said “yes, the lungs are a little difficult to find,” but she said that if you ran your fingers along the ribs on the breast side of the bird, you could feel the lungs, but they are attached to the ribs which makes removal a little more complicated. If you would wear gloves for gutting, extra caution should be taken whenever using a knife.
The neck and feet get removed last. The feet get removed at the knuckle, which is the point where the feathers stop and their legs become yellow and scaly. (We rinsed and saved all of the feet and necks, and the plan is to use them to make chicken stock for soup…we’ve been told that it makes the best broth, but the feet need to be skinned and we have yet to try it, so we’ll see!) There is a little gland in the tail area that has to be carefully removed during the gutting process, as it can spoil the meat if it is cut open, though Scott and my sister-in-law didn’t seem to think it was complicated. When the bird was fully cleaned, they would rinse it off, inside and out, to make sure that all debris was removed. Then on some of the birds, they made a final cut into the skin near the birds rear, and pulled it over the bottom of the “drumstick.” That made putting the birds into the vacuum sealer bags a little bit easier for me.
My job (and the final step) was to prepare the birds for the freezer. I was used rolls in the vacuum sealer to make sure that I had appropriate sized bags. Once I figured out the size I needed, I was able to prepare extra bags while I waited. Once the birds reached my table, I dried them off, put them in a bag and sealed it. For some reason, I was having a very difficult time sealing the bags. I had to seal some of them twice to get a complete seal. Anyway, once they were sealed, I weighed the chickens and labeled each bag, then put them into the cooler. Once it was full, they were transferred into the refrigerator. Only one of the chickens did not fit into a vacuum bag (it was too wide), so I cut it into parts, breast meat in one bag, thighs and drumsticks in another. I left the remainder of the meat on the carcass because it can be cooked like that to make stock, and I then I should be able to easily remove the meat and put it into soup.
The largest chicken was 6lbs. 12 oz. the smallest 4lbs. 3 oz., and it appeared that the roosters were the largest birds, which made sense since they were always more aggressive when it came time to eat.
One chicken went straight into the crock pot and we ate it for dinner. It was good, but it was tough. After the fact, a friend told us that if you want the meat to be nice and tender, that you should cool it before cooking. He said that they put the chicken into a pot of ice water, and let it cool for a few hours before cooking. All we had heard was that you should probably eat something else for lunch that day, but we thought people were saying that you wouldn’t have a appetite for chicken, but it turns out they were saying that because the muscle needs to break down to make it tender. The rest of the chickens were put into the refrigerator for 24 hours, then transferred to the freezer. All of the bagged feet and necks went directly into the freezer until we are ready to attempt using them.
As for what we did with the remainder of the birds: heads, innards, feather, I’ll have to double check with Scott. I could be wrong, but I think they were disposed of in the tall grass, somewhere away from where the kids would go, and far enough away from our main coop that it wouldn’t lure in predators. There are plenty of animals around here that will clean that kind of thing up. We wanted to be able to use the blood as fertilizer for the garden, but because the garden was (still is) such a mess and food still needed to be harvested, we decided against it for this year. There are certainly plenty of resourceful ways to use the innards and feathers (and I am sure other parts), but we were not prepared enough for that this year.
What We Learned
This experience gave me a newfound respect for the food that goes onto our table. For the first time in my life, I understand why it’s so easy for people to be overweight. Though we understand that chicken meat comes from chickens, there is such a disconnect between us and the food that we consume…If we have no concept of what kind of waste can be created to give us food that we eat, if we do not see what kind of work goes into growing or making it, we cannot fully appreciate what we are putting into our bodies. I know because I’ve been there, and I still am…I still have a lot to learn, a lot to comprehend.
Besides a greater respect for our food, we all got quite a biology lesson on butchering day. We had biology in high school, but for the first time in my life, it became relatable. Everyone thought the whole butchering process was fascinating…Scott, my brother, my sister-in-law, our children and I. I don’t want to say that it was fun experience, because that’s not exactly accurate, but yet it sort of was. It was memorable, it fed us, and we learned a lot. There’s always a sense of pride and accomplishment when you can provide food for your family, especially in such a direct way., and I think we all were able to feel that.
We learned that raising and butchering our own meat was easy. I’m sure that each kind of meat presents a different challenge and that some kinds of meat are more difficult to raise. But it brought us one step closer to being self-sufficient, and that was worth it. We discovered that while it was not bad to have all of the birds in one coop, next year we would like to set up a larger chicken tractor or two, and that we would like to raise more chickens for meat. And we also learned that we would like to become more independent with the process of raising meat chickens…grow our own feed, hatch our own chicks…but those are “someday” things, goals that we will work towards. In the meantime, we are grateful for all that we learned, the experience gained and the food that we provided.
This year most certainly did not provide a cheaper source of meat, which we had expected going into this. Between procuring tools and materials and the cost of feed, we spent quite a bit of money on the whole operation. Most of these costs were one-time expenses, and if we can find ways to reduce our feed bills, I think we can certainly bring the price down substantially in the future. We don’t have a proper cost analysis for you this year, but maybe next year if we aren’t so busy….
Any of you raise meat birds, and if so, what breeds do you raise? If you haven’t, do you think it’s something you’d ever like to try? Leave your comments and questions below!
All of our chickens were named Cami…short for camouflage. Naming was courtesy of Miss Lady. When they were all still little and yellow, they blended in with each other and their bedding. Before that they were briefly named Bob.
We found out why those toy chickens make the weird squeak noise…I think I’ll make you ask in the comments if you want to know!
Scott and my sister-in-law were exceptional that day. I think “kids these days” would call my sister-in-law a rockstar 😉 For their help, they were paid in 5 chickens, half of the necks and feet, and experience for when they have their own homestead 🙂 Did I mention that they are our best friends? Yeah, we love them!
Chickens can still poop when you are gutting them.
The kids found the experience to be “amazing and cool.”
We now understand a myriad of phrases that citizens of the U.S.A. use on a regular basis…chicken with it’s head cut off, flew the coop, tough old bird, just to name a few…I had no idea how many phrases we use that come from farming