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.


Butchering Days

We are butchering this week.  We have 3-digit high temps coming this week so we’re trying to butcher our broilers before that happens…you know, since I’m on vacation.

Yesterday morning there were 300 broilers on pasture.  We butchered 100 yesterday.  It took us 2 hours to get them in the chill tanks, another hour to bag.  But we were late getting started so we barely finished before lunch, took a break and bagged them from 3-4.  Today we intend to start earlier.  I really mean it this time.

My flat Salatin-style chicken tractors get the hottest so they got emptied first.  Today I’ll take 20 birds from each of the hoop tractors to make more room, take 40 of the turkey’s roommates and finish up the remaining Salatin-style box.

Yesterday’s birds weighed an average of 4 pounds.  That’s just what we were shooting for.  Customer feedback on 5 and 6 pound birds varied.  It’s nice to have normal-sized birds available again.

The freezers are nearly full!  This is it for the summer.  There are no chicks on the farm right now.  Soon we’ll be focused on swimming instead of feeding and watering!

OK.  Really gotta get going.  Have to start butchering at 7 and I have to catch the birds, sterilize the work surfaces and sharpen the knives.

The Day After

I must process chickens.
Chicken processing is the mind killer.
Chicken processing is the little chore that lasts all day.
I will face chicken processing.
I will stand here and do this all night if I have to.
And when it is gone I will close my eyes and go to sleep.
When the chicken is gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.  (Sorry Mr. Herbert)

The chickens will be gone and I will remain.  My faith will remain.  My marriage will remain.  My children will remain.  The dirty dishes in the sink will remain.  I have to do something about the dishes.

We spent Saturday morning processing chickens.  We spent Saturday afternoon processing chickens.  We spent Saturday evening processing chickens.  We spent Sunday afternoon processing chickens.  We spent Sunday evening/night packaging up chickens.  That took entirely too long.  Along the way the goats got out of their fence and the cows escaped and ran up and down the road in spite of our pleadings…you know…the normal things that happen when you’re too busy to watch your livestock closely.  Cows and goats have needs.  They don’t have words.  You have to watch them…especially when your heifer is in season.  We were so busy working we forgot to watch.


That takes us to Monday.  Monday.  Glorious Monday.  The laundry room is filled to the gills with some pretty gross laundry.  No dishes were washed over the entire weekend.  In fact, the whole house looks like we have four children under 12 running amok.  Well, we do have four children under 12…and they did run amok.  At least a little.

We do everything we can with our kids.  I want my kids with me.  They are an asset, not a liability.  We don’t force them to do much (even to learn) but we encourage them to at least be outside while we are working.  When I put up hay, they pick raspberries and mulberries nearby.  When we walk 1/4 mile out to the chickens to feed, they walk 1/4 of a mile to feed (or they bicycle).  When we process chicken, they are right there with us…even if around the corner in the sand box.  If nothing else my kids know more about vertebrate anatomy than you do.

We were tired Monday.  The kids were tired Monday.  The house was a mess.  Every muscle in my body was (still is) sore but the work has to be done anyway.  “Honey, wake up.  It’s time to make the chickens happy.”

It takes just minutes to make the laying hens happy.  Dump some corn and oats out in trays, refill their feeder, check the water and open the door.  Then we make the goats happy with a few flakes of hay and a bit of water.  When the cows got out we corraled them in pens next to the horses at the other place (my grandpa called it the home place because he was born there.  I was born there.  Why don’t I call it the home place?  (How many parenthetical phrases can you put in a paragraph?  (You don’t have to answer that.))).  Anyway, the cows had to come home.  It took 45 minutes to walk the cows home along the road.  It makes the cows happy if you let them grab a few bites to eat along the way.  Then we made the compost pile happy by tossing in a few hundred pounds of chicken offal and loads and loads of sawdust, wood chips, mulch and straw.

In total, it normally takes about an hour to make the animals happy.  How do I make my wife happy?  How long does that take?  15 years and still working on that.  It takes hours to hand wash seemingly every stinking dish in the house.  I have to be at work at 8.  Nothing to do but roll up the sleeves.  Oh, and I better get some laundry started while the wife works on breakfast.

How do I make the children happy?  At breakfast, while the kids are dirtying some more dishes, I pay the kids for the help they gave over the weekend.  I pay them generously.  I want them to know there is reward for hard work…and they all worked hard.  Again, I didn’t force them to do it.  They didn’t do it for the money.  They don’t even know we live in a world of scarcity and working is the means to fight scarcity.  They did it because they wanted to.  Sound strange?  Why do you think I do it?  (Hint: I’m a grown-up.  I don’t do many things I don’t want to do.)

Also at breakfast I gave them their choice of one item out of the prize box.  The kids earn points (monopoly money) throughout the week for doing their assigned tasks.  Tasks rotate.  Training them to function as a part a working household is a big part of home-schooling…and is a skill public schools seem to overlook.  It takes time to teach a 6-year old to fold towels.  Many towels have to be secretly folded again but it lays a foundation of necessary life skill early on so we can do more focused learning later.

Everybody was tired.  There was still work to do.  Throughout the day we tried to encourage the kids to sit and read, to play, to nap or just to relax.  Though we can’t be lazy this time of year we have to have downtime.

After work Monday we tried to relax with the kids some more.  We played some video games and let the kids pick a movie.  They wanted a Star Wars marathon.  Sounds good to me.  We grilled chicken leg quarters and wings, baked potatoes, made some green beans and added hot sauce…all washed down with lemonaide.  The only complaint came from the youngest who didn’t want to eat her potatoes.  I was so tired I fell asleep watching the imperial troops enter the base on Hoth.  But I was sleeping while snuggling my little girl…and our dog.  Important stuff.

After the kids went to bed we closed up the chicken coop, fed the goats again, gathered eggs, moved the cows one last time, closed up the greenhouse, fed the rabbits…another 30 minutes worth of work.

We were tired.  We are tired.  There is work that just has to be done.  Dishes have to be washed.  The fridge has to be cleaned out.  Laundry has to be washed, hung on the line, folded and put away.  Pets and livestock have to be cared for.  We just have to do that stuff.  But the work is not the goal.  The work is not an end.  I need to make time to be real with God.  I need to invest in friendship with my wife.  I have to make time to relax and play with the kids.  Our work is not burdensome, it’s part of life.  Our kids are not a problem they are a solution.  They are not the target, they are the arrow.  We have to teach them to enjoy work, but not to be workaholics.  To respect and revere creation but not worship creation.  To honor God, to make family come first and to make the chickens happy.  That is the stewardship that counts.  This requires balance.  Yes, work has to be done but life has to be lived.

If my children run away from the land when they are grown, my operation is not sustainable.  We seek to inspire, not require, them to continue our work.  We have to demonstrate to them the value of work, the necessity of work and the importance of just relaxing with the family.  I have to show them that I still love mommy even when we are tired and make mistakes.  I have to show them that people have value outside of their capacity for work…that we value live and individuality in addition to honesty and liberty.  I am working to develop my children’t core values.  I am working to build a foundation of business that my children can expand.  I have to make sure they have a clear understanding of what is most important before I hand them the reins.  Their mommy is the most important person in my life.  Everything else can go, but mommy and I are a team.  The chicken processing is gone and our marriage remains.

That was hard.  It will get better.

By the way, my dad is awesome.  He wasn’t there the whole time but he was there when I needed him.  He’s always there when I need him.  Dad has a way of stopping by at just the right time, seeing what needs to be done and bringing new life to the work and entertaining the kids along the way or just to help catch the cows.  Thanks dad.

Featherman Product Review

I initially published this review in April of 2012.  By the end of June 2012 I had a more informed opinion of my gear.  Much of what I said below is still helpful but the updated review should be considered.

My thoughts on my Featherman equipment shifted several times today.  We were so successful working slowly on Thursday night I really wanted to turn up the juice.  I was anxious to test David’s claim that this could handle 200 birds/hour.

It can’t.  I did get to 80 birds and I believe that’s pretty sustainable.  The scalder is the limiting factor.

Here are some notes on each item then I’ll go into the process that I found works best.

Kill cones:
Kill 4 at a time.  This equipment is best-suited for batches of four 4-pound birds.  My only real complaint about the kill cones is the difficulty cleaning the base when finished.  We scooped out 10 gallons of congealed blood with a cottage-cheese container before washing it.  The base is heavy and difficult to pour into another container.  This is a small complaint.

The  scalder nearly convinced me to write a strongly-worded letter to Featherman.  I do not believe it is capable of more than 60 birds/hour on a 45 degree day (this morning), though 80 birds is manageable if the weather cooperates.  It just doesn’t generate enough heat.  60 birds/hour sounds like a lot unless you’re processing 300 at a time and have other things to do with 5 hours of your day.  I bought this equipment under the impression that it could manage 200 birds/hour, 150 anyway.  I do not believe the scalder can go beyond 80/hour.  Be sure to keep it filled with water.

Another strongly-worded letter opportunity.  Thursday we were plucking four birds at a time each dressing out at 5 or 6 pounds.  That’s more weight than this little rotisserie motor can swing.  Birds that will dress out at around 4 pounds are perfect.  You have to keep the load balanced and the scalder full (more on that later) for this to work but it can work for you.  Also, we found the birds inch along head-first as they turn in the dunker and their heads will stop the rotation.  We also found that putting the heads toward the center wasn’t a solution because the feet would drag the rotation down.  The solution appears to be pulling the heads off of the birds before you put them in the dunker.  This way they will work across the cylinder and drag their necks against the sidewall without their big head being in the way of the rotation.  2 headless birds, facing the same direction, appears to be the way to go.  I also found it was best to flip the birds over halfway through their scald.  The roto-dunker doesn’t totally submerge all birds so you can end up with a feathery patch that will need to be hand-plucked.  Finally, there are a number of sharp edges on the roto-dunker and my fingers are pretty shredded. Gloves maybe?

Gamebird Plucker:
The plucker is terrible at plucking a single bird.  My whizbang did a far better job.  However, if you put in three or four birds at a time it does a great job.

My wife gives these 5 stars.  She says, “You just line them up and cut, cut, cut then gut, gut, gut.  It’s much faster than laying them on the table and better on my back.”  I agree.  They are easy to load and handy to use.  Highly recommended.

Chill Tank:
This little beauty doesn’t hold 200 5# birds.  It just doesn’t.  It is nice though.  Very nice.

There is a pattern I found in the afternoon that kept the scald water hot, kept my wife busy eviscerating and cut through the birds at a reasonable pace.  First, the scalder has to be full.  Full.  The roto-dunker doesn’t work if the bird isn’t totally wet.

I’ll start at the end.  Take the birds, one at a time, out of the roto-dunker and place them in the plucker.  Turn the water on, start the plucker and step away.  Grab the hose and refill the scalder to about half an inch from the overflow.  This little bit of water makes a big, big difference.  Keeping the scalder full makes or breaks the plucker.

I’m assuming you have a helper monitoring the plucker.  If not, put the hose down and go empty the plucker.  This gives time for the scald water to warm up again.  Now, go kill 4 birds.  While they finish up, grab the 4 birds that were already dead in the cones one at a time.  As you grab them, remove their heads.  You’ll need two full rotations to load four birds in the roto-dunker.  Both birds go in facing the same direction.

Once the scald is complete (8 rotations or so), unload them one at a time into the plucker.  Just like loading, you’ll need two full rotations to unload the roto-dunker.

You may feel like you’re standing around quite a bit in this process but believe me, it’s the right pace for this equipment.  I may find ways to go faster.  I may develop more comfort with the gear but at this speed the burner never shuts off.

David won’t be getting a strongly-worded letter from me.  I had to adjust my expectations.  Initially I was disappointed.  My scald was pretty awful.  But once I settled into the pattern above I found we could manage quite well.  I don’t think 60-80 birds/hour is a bad pace for 3 people.  And, for the price I could run two roto-dunkers and still save money over the Ashley or Poultryman scalder.  If one broke I would still be in business.

We have 50 birds left to process.  I have little doubt that we can finish them up in an hour plus cleanup time.

Also, everything fits in the scalder when cleaning.  That’s pretty handy.

These are my thoughts after one solid day with my new equipment.  My thoughts may change as I settle in more with the gear.  I’ll keep this post up to date.