Processing Day: Things We Have Learned

Saturday was beautiful.  We worked at a leisurely pace and wrapped up processing and packing birds in about 3 hours of work time then went to church in the evening.  No big deal.

Sunday was awful.  Awful.  The wind picked up and I felt like I was fighting the scalder all day long.  Just awful.

As a quick review, we really like our Featherman equipment but you have to know its limitations.

The Featherman kill cones are awesome.  We find cleanup is easier if we fill the base with sawdust before we begin but the cones themselves owe me nothing.  The plucker may be the best thing ever.  Compared to the Whizbang we used before, the Featherman plucker is a dream.  Where before the birds would tear, legs would get stuck or the belt would fall off, with this beauty there is no belt, the fingers are very soft and we have never had a leg (or head) fall through.  On top of that I suspect, were one so inclined, the plucker would work on the moon.  Really.

But now the fun part.  I’ll start by saying in the old days we used a pot on a turkey fryer in conjunction with a number of pots warming water on an electric stove.  It was awful.  I was married to the scalder, holding two birds at a time in the water, hoping I was keeping the water at a consistent temperature and trying not to splash water into the burner.  Please understand, your whole processing experience hinges on getting a good scald.  If your scald is poor, your day will be long.  You will pick feathers all the way through to packaging…slowing that process down too.  So we got the Featherman one.  Bigger burner, larger thermal mass, automatic dunker.  Should be awesome right?

Well…it is.  But only under fair conditions.  You can’t expect a miracle.  If you are working outside in a 20 mph wind on a 30 degree morning you should hold off for better weather.  That was reinforced for us yesterday.  The first 10 or 12 birds were great.  From then on it was all downhill.  At 30 we decided to call it and go eat an early lunch as the propane tank had frozen.  The kids and I even fit in some goof-off time.  I fell asleep playing video games with them.  The kids thought it was hilarious.

By 1:00 the air temperature had risen enough that the scalder was back on top of its game…but out of propane.  I changed tanks, heated some water on the stove to kickstart the process and we dove into the work.  We worked at a slow pace as we were tired from processing the day before and finished up 115 birds by 3.

Beyond just understanding the limitations of the equipment, over the years we have made a few adjustments to make things better.  Let me start with the scalder:

  • Work with the weather.  If it’s cold and windy either move indoors or wait until it is not cold and windy.  Similarly, if you want to play baseball at night, turn on bright lights or hold off till daytime.  I don’t know why this is so hard for me to remember.
  • If the birds dress out above 4 pounds each you can only put one bird in each basket.  Smaller birds can double up.  The roto-dunker motor can only do so much lifting.
  • Refill the water frequently.  Keep it full.  Refill with warm water if available to keep the burner from working so hard.
  • There is an overflow location on your scalder.  Plug it.
  • Be sure your scalder is parked level.  Even 1/4″ out of level and you risk the birds falling out.

Other processing tips?

  • Sharp knives.  If your knives are razor sharp you do less cutting or sawing.  Less work means less tired.  Less tired is more good.
  • Keep a bucket of water near kill station to clean your kill knife(-ves).  I now keep a gallon bucket of warm, soapy water on top of the kill station and drop my knife in every kill.  It is just more pleasant to use a knife that isn’t coated in dried blood.
  • Be careful what you sell.  Years ago we offered a group of Asian customers more than we could deliver at a profit.  We offered chicken with feet and head still attached.  They loved it but the bird didn’t fit in a gallon Ziploc bag.  Again, it sold well but was inconvenient for us.  Sometimes customers ask for heads or feet or gizzards.  It would be nice to sell every part of the bird but there are no free lunches.  At some point we have to say no.
  • Don’t use gallon Ziploc bags.
  • Say no.  Yeah, I know.  Look.  Pencil it out.  It may sound like a great idea but every new idea takes more time.  And more energy.  And more packaging.  I have better things to do with my time than split gizzards.  Maybe when the kids are older.
  • If you are going to cut up a bird make sure you are getting paid to do so.  The total of the bird cut into parts should be greater than the price of the bird intact.  If it’s not, either raise your prices or stop wasting your time.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.
  • Give yourself enough time.  We can kill 100 birds in about the same time it takes us to clean up from killing any number of birds.  Clean up takes longer than you expect.  Plan for it.  After we clean up we shower, change and begin packaging the birds.  Again, this can take more time than you expect at a time when you are already tired.
  • Plan to rest.  Chicken processing is intense, hard, heavy work.  I kill, scald and pluck.  That means I pick up each 7 pound bird when I pack it in a crate, load it into a cone, place it in the scalder, move it to the plucker and carry it to foot removal and final picking.  Along the way I pull the head.  Let’ me tell you, I’m sore the next day.  Plan to rest.

Other tips:
We (I) have made (make) a lot of stupid decisions…usually based on emotion.  Fear can keep you in bed.  Carelessness can cause major injury.  Short tempers can damage your relationship with your children…er…co-workers.  Raising chickens can make you swear off raising chickens.  But fear is paralyzing.  Fear is the mind killer.  Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.  Confront your fears.  Chicks will die for no apparent reason.  Chickens may not always die quickly.  A dying chicken will fling poop in your face.  You will cut your finger.  Some customers may complain about your prices.  Freezers full of meat may thaw.  You may lose money.  Your family may say, “I told you so”.  Once those fears are counted and compelled, they can quickly be dispelled.  Don’t be afraid.

Let me know if you have any additional tips for butchering day.  It’s hard work but little changes to the routine can make it better.  It seems to get better for us each year, beyond the kids growing up and becoming more helpful.

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.

Featherman Product Review Update

This post serves as an update to my original review in April 2012.  Though I think that post is still worth reviewing, the scalder and I have gotten to know each other better and I have more to say about it.

I’m nearly 900 birds into my new Featherman equipment.  Today we processed 75 birds in just under an hour working at an easy pace.  As usual, I was kill, head removal, scald, pluck, foot removal and tail gland removal.  I also plucked whatever the plucker missed.  Three of my children stood at the table to hang up to 8 birds for mommy and to help me pluck feathers.  The oldest daughter also cut feet and glands.  My wife eviscerates 4 birds at a time cutting all crops, setting down the knife, pulling the crop and trachea from each, picking up the knife, cutting all the vents, setting down the knife and gutting each bird.  Finally, the oldest son collects the finished birds from the shackles, removes the lungs, inspects and rinses the birds and places them in chill water.  We started at 8:45 and by 10:30 we were scrubbed, had the offal in the compost and relaxing for a few minutes to write a blog post (this one).  Again, 75 birds took an hour to dress out for 2 adults and 4 children (aged 11, 9, 7 and 6) working at an easy pace.  This was not possible before we had our Featherman setup.

Even with our Featherman setup, I have a few issues.  Every part of the process hinges on the scalder.  If the water is too cold you don’t get a good pluck.  That translates into extra time spent picking feathers out later.  If the water is too hot, the skin tears and you end up with a mess you have to salvage by cutting up the bird.  When we processed on Wednesday we spent 3 frustrating hours trying to keep the scalder lit and warm.  When we finally finished I was sufficiently frustrated that I emailed Featherman to ask what could be done.  Was I using it wrong?  Am I trying to force the equipment beyond its design?  Should I sacrifice a chicken before firing up the scalder each time to appease the scalder gods?

David replied just over 2 hours later.  I’ll say that differently.  The owner of the company replied to my email almost immediately.  That’s cool.  Anyway, here’s his full reply.

Hi Chris,

I very much appreciate the time you’ve taken to outline the problems. I regret you are having them, but this is how we learn, grow, and improve. I am confident we can rectify every problem area you have identified.

I’m just back from Falling Sky Farm In Arkansas and got a big education there. Cody does 8000-9000 birds per year. At this level they are more intimate with the equipment than I can ever be. Although he doesn’t use our scalder (but one with the same burner) he says he had to move indoors. The slightest bit of wind kept it from warming up.

If you are committed to an outdoor space-the way my wife and I always did it-do your best to shield the scalder from the wind while still giving it plenty of combust/exhaust air.

Steel baskets with sharp edges remaining are a huge mistake. I will let our machining and our shipping people know. A potential injury like that should never have gone out. I got cut at the beginning too. They were all supposed to be well sanded down. Due to the extra weight and chore of sanding, we have redesigned with a heavy wire mesh (1″ opening) rather than the flat and sharp expanded metal. We are adding fingers at the ends to help deter heads and feet from dragging on the outside. If you want to swap yours we will be accommodating. They are not out of production yet, however.

I have seen the Ashley and Poultryman scalders – with identical burners as ours – produce at 200 birds per hour. There is no reason ours cannot. You do have the new model scalder, correct? Our first scalder is limited by the burner to 70 bph. Either there is a perennial problem with wind or there is some obstruction in the gas or the air is choked. Look at the flame. It should be a bright blue with only a bit of yellow at the tip and about 1 1/2″ long. If not, check for dirt in the orifice (clean with air, not an object), adjust the air intake cover to see if that helps. If the flame looks good then it is environmental cooling.

Poor location of the scalder, too much or too little air flow, jostling causing movement of wires or thermocouples or pilot light or air intake cover, dirty burner orifices – all of this I have seen or personally experienced as I used the equipment. On one video shoot we waited four hours for water to heat outside, finally broke down and set up inside a green house and zipped along fine (rooster video with roto-dunker). Stainless takes up and gives off heat incredibly rapidly and I’m guessing and hoping that is the culprit here but it is always a challenge to sleuth from far away.

I’m very keen for your demo to go well and for the quirks to disappear. Please keep me informed and let us know what we can do.

One last suggestion. Get a digital thermometer and put the probe safely in the scald water so that you know immediately if the temperature is falling off.

Thanks again,

David Schafer
Featherman Equipment
660.684.6464 farm

I was and am pretty satisfied with his response.  The fire under my scalder looks good so I need to find a way to shield my scalder from wind if we continue to do my part of the job outside.  It was pretty breezy toward the end of our processing on Wednesday.  Also, primarily because of sharp edges, we’re working on replacing my roto-dunker with the one he mentioned above.  David writes later to say that, like the newly redesigned scalder, the roto dunker will evolve in time.

I’m watching the roto-dunker closely. I don’t think we are done with it yet. Nobody knows better than I the frustration of equipment mishaps at processing time. This business from Heaven was born of blood, sweat and tears. We are a long way from being finished with a line of equipment.

I am at the summer break in my schedule.  900 birds down, 300 to go in the fall.  Here are my thoughts regarding my Featherman purchase:
-The cones and stand are great.  If you want to process 200 BPH, you’re going to need more than 8 kill cones…lol.  Look for a post coming up on how we clean up the stand.
-The scalder heats up quickly and it does work well but wind and cold weather both tax its abilities.  In May I heated water three times from one 20# propane tank.  That shows it can be efficient at heating water when conditions are right.  Conditions were wrong, wrong, wrong Wednesday.
-The roto-dunker can be your friend.  If your birds dress out below 4 pounds it will turn two in each side.  If above 4 pounds, one in each side.  As I say above, using the roto-dunker under those parameters frees me to go do other things for a few minutes.  That time counts when I’m working to keep my cones full.
-The plucker is absolutely trouble-free.  I do wish I had gotten the turkey plucker though.  I had gotten the milage out of my poor Whizbang plucker.  I remember the frustration of using it on large batches of birds last year.  The Featherman plucker has asked nothing of me.  Not so much as a hiccup.
-Evisceration shackles of any make will speed up your process and help your back but the Featherman shackles are, not surprisingly, the best value we have found.  I hung ours with some inexpensive carabiner clips.
-The chill tank is durable, easy to clean and holds a lot of birds.

I wrote to David because I was frustrated with his scalder.  Looking back, I was really frustrated with the wind.  Any scalder would have given me the same trouble and any other scalder would have cost me more money.

Thanks David for all you do to help small farmers like me and for taking the time to respond to my questions.

600 Birds Later…

We processed our 600th bird with our Featherman equipment.  We did 56 birds in a little under an hour with just two adults early Sunday morning.  I was kill/scald/pluck/head and feet removal…as usual.  My wife hung them on the shackles and eviscerated, inspected and placed in the pink chill water.  Our kids woke up and joined us when there were a few birds left.  I was happy to see this pace though we haven’t broken any records.  In Pastured Poultry Profits, Salatin says he did 150 birds in 2.5 hours with his wife and young son helping.  I think that’s doable, we just aren’t quite there yet.

We need about an hour to scrub and sterilize the work area.  We need an hour to process 60 birds.  We need an hour to clean up and compost.  Then we need about 2.5 hours per 60 birds to package them because I had so many cut-ups.  Yikes!

The packaging process is the worst.  It’s a big chunk of the reason I need $3 per pound tending toward raising the price.  Darby reminded me, “You may as well do nothing for nothing as something for nothing”.  Something has to change on the packaging front.  Something has to change.  A label printer would save a few seconds and a bit of frustration.  Working to get a good scald would save a bit of time cleaning up birds before packaging.  Otherwise, it just takes time to cut and bag them.

I stand by the Featherman review I published earlier.  The kill cones are great.  The scalder does a good job but I have found the burner to be a bit fiddly.  The roto-dunker needs work as my fingers are cut from sharp edges on the dunker and the motor isn’t powerful enough.  The plucker does a fine job on the birds and the shackles are awesome.  Porter Pond Farm offers independent verification of the issues I am having with our processing equipment.

Raising chickens is easy…even with Cornish Cross.  We lose less than 2% of the birds to natural death.  The percentage goes up just a little bit when you include accidental death from pre-teen feet and very rare accidents when moving the chicken tractors.  Killing and eviscerating isn’t too bad.  It’s manageable work.  Packaging the birds in shrink bags is rough as cutting up and packaging parts eats away at the day.

I’m happy to report three 90 degree days later the compost pile is mostly containing the odor.  I put in equal parts sawdust and chicken offal along with a bale of straw on top of it all.  You can smell bad management.  My management must not be too bad…but that means it can be better.

Featherman Initial Thoughts

I’m not ready to give a final review of my new Featherman equipment so I’ll try to make this fast.  We ran 35 birds through tonight in about 45 minutes because we didn’t want our big processing day on Saturday to have any surprises.  We weren’t running at full speed because we had so many changes to adjust to.  I think we’ll be significantly faster as we make some adjustments.

Here are my initial thoughts:
-The kill cones and stand are awesome.  The best thing ever.  Ever.  It could be improved if the sides of the base were higher to catch more of the blood but that’s not a deal breaker.  Next time I’ll put a layer of sawdust around the base and cleanup will be a snap.
-The scalder is pretty darned good.  I’m not sure it generates enough heat to process 200 birds/hour as David claimed but I’m going to try to find out.  After about 15 birds the burner kicked on and stayed on for the duration.  For the most part, the birds came out clean…then I remembered to add soap to the water (blushing).   As I understand it, the scalder was recently redesigned and I have the new model.  I think she lit the burner around 4:30 and it was hot at 6:00.  No complaints.
-The roto-dunker is going to need some getting used to.   There is a youtube video where a user has problems with it.  I can see what his problems were.  I think I have it figured out but we’ll see.  The motor may just not be powerful enough for four giant, wet birds.  It ran flawlessly with only two birds.  I think it is fine though, I just need to load the birds right…and maybe park a 6-year old next to it in case it stops.
-The plucker did a great job.  I bought the gamebird plucker with extra fingers.  By “extra fingers” I mean “extra hard to clean”.  Otherwise it did a great job.

At this point I hand the birds off to my wife and son for evisceration.  The wife gave positive feedback on the shackles saying they will need some getting used to but they are good.  She was working on four birds at a time, making the same cut to each one before returning to the beginning.  Then the birds were handed off to our oldest son for lung and scent gland removal and final inspection.  Ultimately the shackles will hang from chain on a pipe.  For now, we just wanted to verify the hype so I whipped up something quick.

That’s really all I have time to write because I still need to cut and package the birds…after I eat dinner…after I tuck the kids in.  I also have to make plans for a more permanent pipe to hang the shackles from.  And close up the chickens.  And move the cows.  And…

Ah, the joys of being a sundown farmer.

Ghosts of Processing Equipment Past

We have used a variety of homemade equipment for several years.  Today we remembered why we were upgrading away from it.

We use transport boxes and kill cones we got from this APPPA article.  The transport boxes are great.  I cut them out and my then 10 year old son assembled them.  I probably need more than 10 but where do you store empty boxes when they are not in use?  When we were much smaller we used a wagon to tote the boxes around.

The cones listed in the link above could be better.  I won’t say they were awful but they aren’t great.  They served their purpose for two years but needed a lot of attention along the way.  $35 seemed like a lot of money for a cone but I now believe it is worth the it.

We have been using a turkey fryer or the side burner on our old hand-me-down grill to keep our scald water hot.  This could be better.  Normally we also keep several pots of boiling water on the stove so we can replenish the water when it cools down.  Cool water leads to an incomplete scald and and unhappy Steward pulling wing and tail feathers with a pliers.

Then we move to the Whizbang plucker.  Really, this isn’t a bad little unit and can be used to amaze your friends but it’s not good for more than 20 birds at a time.  After about 20 birds you need to move it away from the pile of feathers or the mass of feathers will knock the belt off the drive pulley.  This gets old when you are trying to process 150 birds.  A belt tensioner would be a good addition.

We got a stainless steel table from some friends.  It is awesome and will continue to be a part of our process.  However, Mrs. Steward’s back gets sore eviscerating chickens at this table all morning.  She wants to move to hanging shackles.  Hanging shackles it is.

We needed to find an upgrade solution that was a good value and met our current and near-term production needs.  I am not processing 400 chickens/hour. I just need equipment appropriate to keep three adults and a child or two busy for a couple of hours in the morning.  Something that will get about 80% of our capacity so we don’t kill ourselves.  We are going with a package from Featherman Equipment.  After today’s fiasco I can’t wait for it to get here.  It should arrive Tuesday.  We don’t plan to process until Saturday…if we can wait that long.

I would like to add that we weren’t even considering Featherman Equipment until we met with David (the owner) at a recent conference.  His price, quality and proximity all favored his product.  Plus, the videos he put on Youtube years ago showed us everything that the books couldn’t quite describe.  The videos alone make him a hero in our book.  His prices put him over the top.