Poultry Processing Reader Questions

Our friend Jesse is just starting his farming adventures and regularly shares his experiences with me in email.  He makes some valuable observations and asks good questions.  Here’s our recent coorespondence concerning poultry processing:


We just finished up our first day of processing.  21 birds, ha.  We are  slow, BUT we didn’t have any problems.  It was actually really smooth.  Took us about 9am to 12 for the evisceration, then a break, then we shrink wrapped.  A lot of learning took place, but the equipment all worked well, and we didn’t hurt each other.  We are tired though.   Well I had to share that with you.  I do need to ask you, do you remove  the kidneys?  We did, but every evisceration video I watch says nothing  about it.  Also do you leave the necks on?  We did, but it looks a bit  unorthodox in the shrink bags.  Thanks again!

I replied:
We leave on the neck.  We leave in the kidneys.  Just make sure to scrape out the lungs.  We used a bent butter knife when we started but found that to be unnecessary.  Now we just run our fingers along the keel till we start feeling ribs.  Then we run one fingernail between each rib down to the spine.  The lung just pops right out.

Glad you started small.  Salatin makes it look so easy.  You’ll find your groove.

Jesse wrote later:

Our days 2 and 3 of processing went really well, so we finished our first batch of 100 and they are beautiful.  We sold some fresh and some frozen, and we hope the quality of those first sold set off a wildfire of new customer referrals.  We’re still trying to find our rhythm working with the featherman equipment.  We did about 40 in 3 hours on Sunday morning.  I killed, scalded and plucked all the birds, then put them in cold water.  Lesley [His lovely bride] started the evisceration, table top, and when I finished all the plucking I joined her.  We feel we’re getting a little faster each time.  Any tips on improving processing speed?  One thing that slows us down is picking the few pin feathers before we start eviscerating, especially on the tail and at the base of the legs.  Also I had the pilot go out twice on the scalder, not sure why, the weather was good.  How long does a normal propane tank last you?  We did have about 3 broken or dislocated wings.
Our birds were on Sunday were nearly all at 4lb or over, with one or two even at 5lb.

I replied:
A 20# propane tank lasts several processing days if I don’t light my fire too early.  I don’t know why the pilot light won’t stay on sometimes.  You can tell by my blog posts I find it frustrating.  I suspect I’ll be indoors next year.

I know you have read this before but I’m going to write it out so I can think it through.  If it’s just Julie and me I pull four birds out of the plucker and put them in a dry stainless steel sink (2 more should be in the scalder with more bleeding out).  These birds are already headless.  One at a time I cut the feet off and cut out the scent gland.  While the bird is in my hand I reach for my plyers and pull out any remaining tail feathers.  Then I check the armpits of the birds and pass the bird to Julie.  I have to finish two birds before the scalder finishes its work.  Then I unload the scalder into the plucker, load the scalder with two birds again, finish the other two in the sink, unload the scalder, turn on the plucker, load the scalder, kill two birds, turn off the plucker, kill two birds, put 2 in the scalder, grab the birds out of the plucker and start again.  WHEW!  It helps if you can make a little triangle of equipment around you but lay it out so dying birds don’t flip their crap on the evisceration table.  Julie cuts the skin at the neck to pull the crop and windpipe then eviscerates the bird, removes the lungs, rinses it out and drops it in the chill tank.  She also maintains the ice in the chill tank.  She can do all that faster than I can type it so she sometimes waits on me after cleaning her work area.  It really helps if you have children who will grab the birds out of the plucker, remove the feet, pluck the feathers and hand the bird to mommy…lol.  I know we can do 80 in an hour but 60 is a lot easier on all of us.  Just the two of us are probably limited to 40-50/hour.  When we have even unskilled adult help we can quickly push to 100 birds.  I just need somebody to keep the kill cones filled so I can focus on keeping the water hot, the scalder full and the plucker cleaned out.


Re-reading that response I realized I missed his comment about broken wings.  Lots of things can go wrong in the plucker.  We see broken wings, broken legs, broken ribs and torn skin but all of these are fairly rare.  Out of 100 birds Jesse saw three bad wings.  When we have a broken wing we usually salvage the leg quarters, breast meat and tenders for customers then keep the broken wing for ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with the bird, it’s just not up to the standards we want to present to our customers.  Just know that it does happen.

I want to emphasize several things Jesse said.  His first time out of the gate he needed 3 hours to do 21 birds and was tired when he finished.  He needed 10 minutes per bird his first time out.  That’s why I recommend you start small.  This stuff is hard.  His second and third times he needed 3 hours to do 40 birds.  That’s a lot better but still a hard way to make a dollar.  Play with your equipment setup, kill more birds and you’ll figure out a process flow.  Just keep doing it and finding ways to get better.  I still watch Salatin eviscerate.  I have never figured out how he grabs the crop as quickly as he does.  I have shaken his hand.  I don’t think he’s that much stronger than I am.

I would like to know how long it took Jesse to package the birds in the shrink bags each time.  Hopefully Jesse will let us know in comments.  In fact, maybe he’ll do some guest blogging for me now that he’s an old hand at processing.

Good luck with your bird processing.  I hope you, like Jesse, won’t hesitate to ask if you need help either in comments or through email.

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.


Chicken Processing Knives

I got an email from a reader who corresponds with me fairly regularly.  In the email he was sharing what is going on as he starts.  He has a 3 piglets in Premier fence and 101 chicks.  He asked a series of questions including this one:

What tools do you recommend for the dirty work, knives, shears, etc?

We use victorinox knives.  A boning knife for killing, evisceration and foot removal and a 6″ skinner for cut-ups.  As much as I like that victorinox skinner I have an old Dexter knife that is better.  I think Salatin uses a smaller poultry knife for evisceration but we just use the boning knife throughout.  We originally got this from Grady’s post on knives.

You also need a good cleaver.  I said a good cleaver, not a cheap cleaver.  I had a neighbor who gave me a collection of knives and saws.  He was in his ’80’s and his parents had been butchers.  I’ve got some pretty neat stuff.  My cleaver is an antique…and it’s awesome.  If you can’t find an old one, buy a high-carbon steel one.  Don’t skimp here.  You’ll need this when you butcher your pig and quality matters when you’re splitting your hog.

I’m still looking for a good set of game shears.  A friend suggested Cutco but I haven’t really looked yet.  I just use my cleaver.  The friend was helping me clean a rabbit at the time and swears by game shears.