PLEASE NOTE: Some of the pictures contained herein are quite graphic. I want to share as much of my experience processing chickens as possible and part of that entails getting close to the blood, organs and other internal body parts. If you are squeamish, this might not be for you. But if you eat chicken, please try to get through to the end. It’s so important that we know where our food comes from and what happens to it before it arrives on our plates. Ultimately, if you can’t stomach how a food item is being processed, then perhaps you shouldn’t be eating it?
At Root n Roost Farm in NY, we were taught to process (eg, kill, clean and prep for consumption and storage) chickens. Here’s my summary:
1) Set up.
It’s very important to have your station completely set up and ready to rock before you begin. You want to keep the amount of time between the kill and the moment the meat goes into cold storage as short as possible. Having everything near at hand helps with speed and ease. Wendy Lombardi from Falcon Ridge Farm had this homily, a favorite of her dad’s: “Organization is the key to success.” Also, working with a team of people rather than just one or two helps as well.
2) Da’ Birds.
Chickens will squawk when you try to pick them up no matter if you are untangling them from a fence or dragging them to the slaughter. I think it’s pretty important to keep the birds (and yourself) as stress-free as possible during the entire process. Personally, I’d rather not have a bunch of stress hormones in my meat! If you hold the birds very close to your body, they seem to calm down a bit.
We’ve had a chance to process chickens twice and neither time did the farmer try to separate the cage of live birds from the killing area. At Root ‘n Roost, we did cover the cage with a sheet, but knowing chickens a tiny bit, I don’t think it achieved anything. Pigs and cows may be different – we’ll have to see. But chickens are fierce reptiles with feathers and quite ruthless. I don’t think they care about their colleagues being killed and I don’t think they are smart enough to know that they may be next. If I was writing a movie set in a barnyard, I’d definitely make the villain a chicken. Or at least the the villain’s minions.
3) The Cone.
Most people use “killing cones“ to process poultry. Using the cone hung at about chest height, the chicken is lifted by the feet into the cone and the head is pulled through the small opening at the bottom. There is a theory that when birds hang upside down the blood rushes to their heads and they go into semi-sleep state. I couldn’t really tell if that is so, each time we processed chicken the we were going as fast as possible and no one waited. The cone is extremely helpful as it uses gravity to hold the birds still and makes the head and neck easily accessible. Killing cones can be made of anything really, but you want to be able to get the blood off eventually so I would think stainless steel or high-grade plastic would be best. Some people have even used traffic cones!
Some people take time to thank the animal before the killing. Whether it’s spoken out loud or uttered soundlessly I think it’s an awfully important step. It takes a great amount of time, effort and care to produce clean, healthy, sustainable food and the people and animals who are invested in it need to be respected and honored. My biggest issue with factory farming is that it makes everything seem disposable and cheap. Life is neither.
When it was my turn, I tried to say thank you to the bird but it fell flat and insincere. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the service the chicken was providing. I did and I do. I just had a hard time believing that the chicken could receive any message that I was sending out. In short, I didn’t think we could relate. Instead, I expressed my gratitude to Nature for creating such an amazing variety of species (including chickens) and for giving each of us such wondrous bodies and energies. I also promised the bird that I would make its death as quick and painless as possible.
5) The Kill.
Cheyenne instructed us to make the incision right behind the eye where the ear socket would be and cut backwards. The theory here is that you do not want to sever the windpipe because this will cause the chicken’s heart to stop beating. You want the heart to continue to beat to pump out all of the blood. And you want to make sure that as much blood as possible is drained from the chicken before butchering.
The second time we butchered chickens was at Falcon Ridge Farm, There the head was completely severed by a quick cut with a pair of shears. This seems like a more humane way of killing. It seemed to me that the same amount of blood was left in the chickens by both methods and that the birds’ final moments were a bit more peaceful.
At Root n Roost, the piercing method that Cheyenne demonstrated seemed to create a panicky, stressful few final moments for the bird. And if your hand wasn’t sure, if you hesitated or tried to be gentle, it would only make matters worse.I was second in line and nervous. I was afraid of getting squeamy and making mistakes. I was concerned not only for the birds, but also for the farmers who had invested so much time, energy and money into raising these birds. I knew that the best thing I could do for my chicken was to be decisive and clean – as surgical as possible.
I picked up the chicken and pulled its head through the cone without a problem. I was surprised by how warm the bird’s body was and how scaly and reptilian its feet. I tried to grip the windpipe with my two fingers as instructed but I couldn’t tell what I was grabbing. I pinched something, then slipped. I tried again, but could only get a very loose grip. I was going to try again but the pressure was mounting. We had 13 birds to process that day and this was only the third.
I focused on the spot on the bird’s neck where the knife should go. I readjusted my grip on what I hoped was the windpipe and drove the knife into the spot. I cut backwards to slice the jugular and the blood streamed out. The chicken struggled and blinked at me a few times, her spiky tongue stuck out, like she was trying to say something. After a split second of quiet, the death throes erupted and the chicken’s body spazzed and kicked. I quickly reached in to hold the tail feathers down, to ensure that I wouldn’t get sprayed with poop! After a while the spasms stopped and I moved the body to a cross-bar to finish draining.
At that point, I was surprised by how little I felt. In a way, I wanted to feel worse about it. It. I had killed a creature and somehow, some deep empathy or sadness over the death would prove that I have a real heart. We are all food for other creatures though aren’t we? This bird doesn’t feel badly when it eats a worm. Does it make sense for me to feel sad when I eat it? One day, I will die and become food for the worms. I can’t be mad at the worm. It’s doing what it does in the Cycle of Life conga line. In that context, death might not be that bad. Perhaps, we spend too much time avoiding death and not enough time familiarizing ourselves with it. I know that this chicken lived everyday to best to if its ability. And then it died and was eaten. Which is exactly as it should be. Kind of anticlimactic to be sure but processing chickens isn’t about creating rising action in the second act, now is it?
6) Water Bath.
The most common method for removing the feathers is to dunk the bird in hot water for about a minute. This allows the pores to open and the feathers to come out easily. The water in the pot should stay between 145-155 degrees. (This is why it’s smart to do this as a group with each person manning a station. Cooperation leads to success!) If the water is too hot, the skin may break when try to use the de-feathering apparatus. If the water is too cold, the feathers will be tough to remove.
At Root ‘n Roost, Sean has rigged up a bucket studded with rubber feather “fingers” and a metal fitting on one end. A cordless drill fastened to the metal fitting provides rotation at variable speeds. You simply hold the pre-dunked chicken against the rubber fingers and the feathers come off in a flash.
I can’t begin to explain how hilarious this was and the pictures don’t do it justice: One person spinning the bucket with a power drill and the other rotating the chicken into all of these obscene positions while the rubber fingers whip the feathers off. The finger bucket worked wonders. You’ve just got to figure out the right asanas to get the feathers off all the bird parts.
When we were at Falcon Ridge Farm in Missouri, we learned a different method where we removed the skin in conjunction with the feathers “like pulling off a t-shirt”. So, no water bath, no extra de-feathering gear. Yes, that means the chicken is skinless after processing, but it takes much less time to complete.
At some point, the line at the bucket backed up and I decided to pull feathers by hand. It took all of 10 minutes to de-feather a 4-5 lb bird…although, I wouldn’t want to try it without the hot water bath.
OK, here’s where the processing gets technical but this post won’t. Please refer to John Seymour’s book on self-sufficiency which is enormously helpful on a wide range of topics including butchering animals. There are also a ton of websites and videos online with exact instructions on eviscerating your chicken.
First, we rinsed our birds and plucked off remaining feathers. Then off came the heads, feet, and (if you like) wing tips. Sean and Cheyenne save the chicken feet to make stock. Our Chinese friends on the farm enjoyed them afterwards!
Next, we removed the strange little oil gland from just above the birds tail and then cut into the bird’s cavity to remove the organs. In order to get the organs out cleanly, you have to cut around the anus, being careful not to pierce it in the process. This was very, very stressful for me. You can’t see inside, you have to just give it your best guess. If you miss, then you will have chicken shit on your bird. Not good.
If you like, hearts, livers and gizzards, these can be saved, washed and cooked. There is a special tool with teeth that is used to scrape the lungs out. Some people cook this and feed it to the dogs or the chickens. Yes, chickens eat chicken. Sometimes they eat their own eggs. Sometimes they eat the chicks, too. Like I said, chickens are cold-blooded. Personally, I wouldn’t feed any animal meat from its own kind. In my book, that is just plain counter to the laws of Nature.
We took all of the offal, feathers, heads, etc and put it on the “5-year” compost pile. Most of the farmers we’ve met so far keep their vegetation compost bins separate from their meat/ offal/ humanure compost. There are various concerns about meat in your compost. It’s organic, so it can be composted, but bones and feathers take longer to decompose than flesh which takes longer than vegetation. Hence, the “5-year” moniker. Also, meat attracts animals like dogs, cats and chickens (yes, chickens!) and you want to take even more precautions to keep critters out with that compost than you might take with your garden compost. Also, there are some theoretical concerns about pathogens from meat contaminating your compost making it unfit to spread in vegetable rows. There are many great guides detailing how to manage compost as a part of a sustainable system. One of these days, I will have a chance to read The Humanure Handbook by Joseph C. Jenkins.
The cleaned and dressed birds were stored in a bin of cold water until they were ready to go into the plastic bags. Once in the bags, most of them were frozen immediately. We enjoyed a BBQ that night of three of the chickens we butchered and I’ve gotta say, fresh chicken is really a treat!
Thanks again to Sean and Cheyenne for such an educational day!