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.