Chicken Processing Day (caution: not suitable for the faint of heart, or for vegetarians)

So it’s been a pretty excit­ing and busy week in a lot of ways, but for now I’m just going to focus on what hap­pened in the poul­try world.   

We processed our Cor­nish X chick­ens last Thurs­day (which is a polite way of say­ing that we slaugh­tered and dressed them). These chick­ens have been quite a hand­ful. Despite our best efforts, we’ve lost about a third of them over the last eight weeks. A hand­ful died as chicks, either because they were weak or got smoth­ered. Then, about a week after we put them out­side, we had a very cold and rainy stretch towards the end of May. We think they were weak­ened by the bad weather, and that con­tributed to a num­ber of them get­ting sick, most likely from a par­a­site called coc­cidia (we noticed bloody stool in their pen). Then, only two days from our sched­uled chicken pro­cess­ing date, we had an excep­tion­ally warm Tues­day and the chick­ens over­heated. We went down to check on them after  lunch to find over a half dozen dead or dying. It was heart-breaking.

These inci­dents aren’t very easy for me or Dave to talk about. We are respon­si­ble for these ani­mals, and when they die there is no deny­ing that it is usu­ally almost entirely our fault. Mostly, we make our­selves feel bet­ter by telling each other how we will never make the same mis­takes again — hope­fully this is true. At the same time, we are get­ting bet­ter at cop­ing with the feel­ing of loos­ing one of our ani­mals. There’s a cliche about how liv­ing on a farm brings you closer to under­stand­ing and accept­ing death — so far, this is true.

In this case, how­ever, there is no deny­ing that it wasn’t just our inex­pe­ri­ence that caused so many of these chick­ens to die. For our first exper­i­ment with meat birds we decided to get all Cor­nish X chicks, one of the most pop­u­lar breeds of meat chicken. The Cor­nish X is bred to grow fast and large, which in turn makes them less hardy than other birds. Through­out the eight weeks we spent with these chick­ens, we couldn’t help but to feel a lit­tle depressed about how help­less they seemed. Cor­nish Xs have a lower sur­vival rate than other breeds of chicken, they suf­fer from leg prob­lems and weak hearts, and due to their weight they are very inac­tive. We have vowed from now on to only buy her­itage breed chick­ens. They might take longer to grow and may never get as big (and they con­tain less white meat, and more dark meat, which is okay with me), but Dave and I have agreed that we want to raise birds with bet­ter instincts. Our new chicks are all Free­dom Rangers and Dark Cor­nishes.

As we stood and stared and swore at those seven dead chick­ens on Tues­day, I felt both guilt and anger. Look at how much food was being wasted! These were our biggest chick­ens (which prob­a­bly explains why the heat gave them heart-attacks), they had been gorg­ing them­selves on our expen­sive organic chicken food for eight weeks! They prob­a­bly totaled 40 lbs of deli­cious organic pas­ture raised chicken meat, and they were being thrown into the compost!

It was, by far, the worst day we’ve had to date.

By prop­ping up one side of the chicken trac­tor to facil­i­tate a cross breeze, and run­ning an exten­sion cord out from the house to the pen and set­ting up a fan, we were able to keep the chick­ens cool through the rest of the after­noon and into Wednes­day, which was 95 degrees. Need­less to say, we’re plan­ning on mak­ing some changes to the tractor.

Wednes­day night we went to bed early. Dave woke up at 3:30 AM to get the scalder going, and then woke me up at 4:30 so I could help him fin­ish set­ting up. The fore­cast Thurs­day said that tem­per­a­tures were sup­posed to be near 100 degrees F, which we were pre­pared for, but we weren’t pre­pared for the thun­der­storms that con­sis­tently rolled through all day. Luck­ily, we had a tent for the farm­ers mar­ket that pro­vided just enough shel­ter for the five of us (Dave, me, my mom and two friends) to stay mostly dry.

Dave cut up two traf­fic cones and built a stand for them, so we could safety hold the chick­ens upside-down while they bled out. To pluck the birds, we bor­rowed the scalder and the picker from another farm in town. The scalder fills with water and holds it at con­sis­tently 147 degrees F, which is hot enough to loosen the feath­ers on the bird with­out cook­ing it. When we tested it out on Tues­day, the scalder took an unbe­liev­ably long time to heat up, so Dave built an insu­lat­ing wooden box to fit around it to help it reach and hold its tem­per­a­ture.  The picker is a cylin­dri­cal spin­ning machine that is filled with lit­tle rub­ber fin­gers. When the scalded bird is placed inside, the rub­ber fin­gers pick off all its feath­ers. The picker is attached to a hose so the feath­ers can all be washed out the back as the bird spins. The next step, the evis­cer­at­ing, was done by hand.

Both Mom and I have done a cou­ple pro­cess­ing days with Pete and Jen’s Back­yard Birds in Con­cord, Dave and I have been doing a lot of read­ing and I’ve dealt with my fair share of chick­ens and knives work­ing in the food indus­try, so I felt con­fi­dent that we could process these birds safety and cleanly. We made sure to keep all our sur­faces hosed down and san­i­tized, and we got the dressed chick­ens iced as quickly as pos­si­ble. Pro­cess­ing chick­ens is time-consuming and sticky work, but it was reward­ing to know that we were finally pro­duc­ing our own meat.

Which brings me to my next point: when the chick­ens died need­lessly because of a mis­take that I made I felt awful, but when we killed them our­selves them on Thurs­day I felt noth­ing but con­fi­dence in the fact that we were doing the right thing. Yes, it’s hard to slit a chick­ens throat, and yes, it can be kind of dis­gust­ing to gut it, but we had raised these chick­ens as humanely as pos­si­ble, and we killed them as humanely as well, and if I’m going to be eat­ing meat I feel as if this is some­thing that I should know about and experience.

With that in mind:

CAUTION: some of these pic­tures are vio­lent and there is also some blood.


Check­ing the tem­per­a­ture on the scald­ing box. We bor­rowed the box and the plucker from a farmer cou­ple we know in town. Thank god, it would have been a pretty impos­si­ble task with­out them.
The chick­ens we hung upside in the cones and Dave slit their throats and then let them bleed out into the buckets.
Then we scalded them for about a minute.
Then they went into the picker, which spins the chicken
Next, we cut off their feet and heads and evis­cer­ated the birds.  This is done by cut­ting a hole around the chicken’s vent and extract­ing their diges­tive sys­tem, heart, liver and lungs.
Heads and guts

After we were fin­ished we imme­di­ately put the chick­ens into an ice bath to cool them down. Then, we went back over them with pli­ers and a hose to pluck out any stub­born feath­ers and do qual­ity con­trol (dou­ble check to make sure all the birds were prop­erly gut­ted) before dry­ing them off and bag­ging them up to go into either the refrig­er­a­tor or the freezer.

We’ve grilled three chick­ens to date and they have all been deli­cious.

4 Responses to “Chicken Processing Day (caution: not suitable for the faint of heart, or for vegetarians)”

  1. Katherine Erickson says:

    >man, I love being a veg­e­tar­ian, because I can look at this an be 100% dis­gusted and 0% guilty.

  2. Katherine Erickson says:

    >(note: not dis­gusted with you guys — you clearly did it as humanely as pos­si­ble — I just know I couldn’t ever have the nerve to do it myself and so feel good that I don’t have to!)

  3. Andrew says:

    >I, on the other hand, love being an omni­vore, because I can see the care you guys put into this and know you’re just going to get bet­ter at it. When I get to taste one I can think “where did this chicken even come from? Oh, right over there.”

    Also — Free­dom Rangers is going to be my new band name.

  4. jennythatsme says:

    >you guys are beau­ti­ful and i love every bit of it. also, the first “intestines” pic­ture is amazing

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