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.


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.