Preparing for Chicken Processing

There is a rhythm to work.  Every job has its own groove.  You just have to find it.  Processing chickens is no different.  You have to find your groove.

We moved from square dancing to bebop this year when I upgraded my equipment.  At first we tripped all over ourselves trying to make sense of our Featherman equipment.  It was pretty bad.  Now, it’s no big deal.  As a team, we have divided the workload so each of us is working at a good pace.  With that in mind, I want to address a portion of an email I got from a friend/reader.  I pared down his original question a bit.

…as my first processing day is approaching fast in two weeks, I am assembling some equipment.  I got some knives, heat-seal bags, table-top, scale, etc.  one thing I am still pondering is the chill tank situation.  I am leaning on going with two 110 gallon black stocktank tubs from tractor supply.  They are fairly cheap per gallon compared to some options, $64 for 110 gallons.  I can’t seem to find another freezer or 55 gallon food grade barrels locally.  I was also comparing rope tubs as you mentioned or large rubbermaid trash cans, but I would think the larger 110 gallon tanks would stay cooler longer?  Just looking for your advice.  Also, how long do you chill the birds?  How much ice should I have on hand?  somewhat scared,

If I’m not mistaken, the author has about 100 birds to process and has not processed birds before.  Rather than go with 220 gallons of chill tank in any format to chill all 100 birds at once, I would like to see him spread his processing out over several relaxing days.  I suspect it would take us the better part of 4 hours to sterilize equipment, kill, eviscerate, chill and pack 100 birds then clean up again.  At the end of it we would be tired.  When we first started we got tired after 20 birds.  Our friends at Porter Pond Farm needed 7 hours just to kill and process 130 birds their first try.  Keep in mind, they had help and that 7 hours did not include bagging the birds.

So the best thing you can do is just process a few birds at a time.  Maybe 2 days of 20 birds and one day of 60 birds or 4 days of 10 and one of 50.  Give yourself some time to find the groove.  Just how does Salatin get the crop out so quickly?  It takes time to learn how to do it.  Watch this video over and over.  And over.

We figure you need 10 pounds of ice per 6-10 birds.  We chill the birds until they are cold.  You’ll know when the ice stops melting.  We normally let them rest in the ice water while we compost and clean up.  Then we change clothes and start bagging.  Maybe 90 minutes.  You can save a few bucks by using frozen bottles of water and blocks of ice have more thermal mass but less surface area.

I suspect there are better places to deploy cash than to buy stock tanks to chill birds.  They aren’t a bad idea as they can always be deployed for livestock use but I really doubt you’ll do 100 birds your first day.  If you do, I doubt you’ll be anxious to go back for seconds.  There is a lot of skill involved.  Until you can work efficiently and as a team you’re probably better off doing 20 birds at a time.  20 birds can be chilled in coolers you probably already own.

Here are some other things you need but didn’t list in your email:

  1. You need a Compost Pile.
    With 100 birds to process you need to get four pallets.  Wire them together top and bottom with baling wire so they stand in a square.  Scoop out a bowl in the bottom center of the compost pile then throw in a bale of straw or old hay as a base layer.  Also, see if you can get a couple of trash cans full of sawdust from a sawmill…the finer the better.  Really, a pickup load of sawdust would be better.  Well, a dump truck would be better still but get what you can.  As you process birds, pull a layer of the straw to the sides, dump in your chicken offal, add a layer of sawdust above and cover with fresh straw.  See the link above for more specific detail.
  2. Sharpen your knives.
    Even if your knives are new, sharpen them.  Really sharp.  Crazy sharp.
  3. Gather buckets.
    You will need a bucket for every 20 or so birds you process but we keep one at each station.  One bucket for heads and feet, one for evisceration, one for lungs and some others for feathers and blood later.  You probably already have buckets, just make sure they are empty and ready on butcher day.
  4. Do a dry run.  Heat the water.  Dress one bird out.  Chill it.  Bag it.  Go through the motions all along the way.  Learn what you need to learn.  Find out what you didn’t plan for.

I am sure this list could be larger.  What did I miss?  What are your thoughts?  I may be too far from my first chicken processing experience.  I remember it being very difficult.  I wouldn’t want to do 100 birds out of the gate.


6 thoughts on “Preparing for Chicken Processing

  1. We bought the chill tank from Featherman and it took about 100 bags of ice. We would have been able to use less, IF we had enough to start with. But because we didn’t have enough, it melted too quickly and required more than it should. Blocks of water will be what we have on hand, at least to get the water chilling, the next time we process so that our ice expense will be much less. As for help, it’s great to have folks to help with all the work. I would encourage trying to get folks who will be there each time so that their skills improve and efficiency increases. And have some music! It helps with the monotony.

    • I agree on the music.

      We work in the shade while the morning is still cool and don’t use anywhere near a bag of ice per bird but we don’t work as long as you did either. 100 bags! That’s incredible. You’ll do better next time.

  2. Thank you! I did get my compost bins set up, still need the sawdust though, maybe today. I took your advice and went with the rope tubs instead of the stock tanks, and we plan on breaking these 100 down into smaller chunks as you recommended. How do you dry your birds before bagging? Also, I did get some nice knives, but I wish I had more experience sharpening them. What works best for you?

    • I cheat and use a hand held knife sharpener followed by a sharpening steel. We have a friend who gets our knives truly sharp and we hope to have him sharpen our knives once each year.

      We built a rack of PVC posts to pop the birds onto before bagging. This gets them up where you can inspect for feathers and gives them a chance to drain well. It’s just a series of 1″ PVC with caps about a foot long inserted into a 2×4, clamped to a table. I have also seen a PVC ring with posts sticking up around the ring so it sits on a table on its own. The bag just goes over the bird when you are finished. We work in turns. The wife loads birds, I check them out, she puts bags over them, I clamp the bags, she shrinks and I write the weights and prices on the tags. Then back to the beginning, 8 birds at a time. When the kids are out there we assign and stick with one specific task.

  3. Great post! It’s really great how you are willing to help others when they’re beginning. The farm that I volunteered at last time had another processing day yesterday. I couldn’t make it…had to go to work instead. I think chicken processing is really a quite enjoyable and satisfying experience (says the girl whose only done it once)

    • It is enjoyable to work with a knowledgeable group of people. It is less enjoyable when you are going it alone and it doesn’t go well. We have had our share of days that didn’t go well. I hope I can help others avoid some of those problems.

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