Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tips on How to Butcher Chickens

Advisory:  One of the photos may be graphic.
One thing I like to do on this blog is to share things we've learned from our mistakes.  Today I won't share the actual mistakes, but I will share things we've learned from them to make our chicken processing work better.

The first time we butchered chickens, there were four of us working on 26 chickens, and we managed to do them all in one day.  We learned several things from that
and we're learning even more this time.

1)  Plan ahead.  Know when the chickens will reach the right age, and make sure that everyone participating has a clear calendar.  It is not fun to help butcher chickens when you are eight months pregnant, right, Monique?

2)  Do NOT butcher chickens in December!  It's just TOO cold--and some of you will be wet on top of being cold.  We did plan ahead this time, knowing the chickens needed to be butchered in early June.  We just didn't plan on two weeks of days in the mid- to high-90's!  That meant we needed to be flexible and work in multiple small batches in order to finish before the heat of the day.

4)  Know your limits.  This is something we planned well:  With just two of us, we figured we could do only 10 chickens a day.  By getting up early, Herb was able to start heating the water by 7 am; he started slaughtering and plucking once the water reached 175°; I started butchering by 8 am.  I took the last chickens inside to rinse, weigh, and bag at noon while Herb began cleaning up outside.  I finished the last of the kitchen sanitizing at 1 pm--and we were both worn out!

5)  Segregate! After having problems last time with full intestines, we realized that removing grain was not enough when we left the chickens in the chicken tractor . . . on grass!

This time, we borrowed Zephyr's crate and put it on Charis' wagon with the sides down.  After dark when the chickens were settled, we put on our headlamps.  Herb reached in and picked up one roosting chicken at a time while I manned the doors of the chicken tractor closed the crate.  When all 10 chickens were settled in the crate, we rolled it out of the pasture and secluded it in an area that would be shady in daylight and away from the "killing field."  We gave them a small mason jar chick waterer because of the 70° heat even at night.

The first day, the roosters pooped all over the plastic tray in the bottom of the crate, then wallowed in it overnight.  You can tell how nasty their feathers are--and you can imagine what dipping their feet in the feather-dipping water did to it!  At one point, Herb had to dump out the turkey fryer full of boiling water, refill it, and wait for it to reheat.  That cost us about 20 minutes of wasted time.

So before our second batch of chickens, Herb removed the plastic tray.  Most of the manure fell through the wire mesh of the crate and the wagon, keeping the chickens clean.  As an extra precaution, we filled a garden trug with water which Herb used to wash the chickens' feet BEFORE dipping them into the boiling water.

Next time, we will build a small chicken tractor for penning up chickens TWO nights before.  The schedule will look like this:
Pen the chickens at night, using the crate and wagon to ferry them to the new pen.
Feed them the next morning.
Withhold food at night, only giving water.  (This will make sure their intestines are completely emptied, something that doesn't happen when we catch them after their evening meal and butcher them the next day.)
Butcher them the next day.

6)  Shop for supplies a day or two before you plan to butcher:

Ice--This is not a place to economize in hot weather!  We needed more than the 60 lbs. we had purchased for Monday's 10 chickens (and had to raid our ice maker), although we only used about 55 lbs. for today's.  Next time we will start bagging our own ice in the chest freezer several weeks in advance so that we can plan on about 10 lbs. of ice per chicken.  Because of having to buy it all--and finding the cheapest places out of ice--we calculate that it cost us more than $1 extra per chicken just for ice!

Disposable gloves--The first day I had to keep using the same gloves when I would have wanted to change them because the ones I thought I had, had been used up.  So both of us bought gloves Monday night, and now we have them coming out our ears!

Dawn dishwashing liquid to put in the feather-dipping water.

Matches for lighting the burner for the turkey fryer that heats the feather-dipping water.  (I'm beginning to sound like "This is the house that Jack built"!

Sanitizing materials--Tablets for making disinfectant solution for knives, table, boards, etc.  Bleach wipes for sanitizing kitchen counters, cupboards, etc.  Hand sanitizer pumps for convenience.  I could pump some over Herb's hands whenever he paused to butcher a chicken and went back to plucking one.

Ziplock plastic bags--Know the approximate weight of your chickens!  We bought gallon bags and then found that the roosters were far to big for them.  They sat for hours in the fridge in open bags, with some drying of the skin, until we could purchase oversized bags.

Lots of buckets, trugs, and plastic bags--We have two large muck buckets reserved ONLY for chickens.  The black one is for plucked chickens and the red one is for butchered chickens.  The red is a warning to KEEP AWAY with anything that is contaminated.  We also needed a mop bucket lined with a kitchen garbage bag under both killing cones.  This makes it easy to bag up and remove the blood.  In addition, we have a muck bucket lined with a large black plastic garbage bag which sits at the edge of the table to collect offal.  A large garden trug serves to wash the chickens' feet before dipping them.  And finally, another garden trug full of water serves as a place for Herb to rinse his bloody hands when he needs to.  It is not good for the slaughtering person to try to rinse their hands under the hose that is running over the table where chickens are being butchered.  Finally, an oval black trough is an easy container for feathers as they are plucked.

7)  Cleanliness is next to godliness!  Clean ahead of time and immediately upon finishing. I had the table and all butchering equipment sanitized the night before our first batch of chickens.  Of course, I had to re-sanitize the table (which was set up outside) that morning before I started, but I knew everything was clean.  Unfortunately, all I did was hose off the table at the end of that day.  It turned out that little bits of "stuff" stuck to the table and dried overnight, taking me more time to clean the second morning.

So after we finished today, I scrubbed everything down with Dawn and water, then covered the table with a clean sheet. Wednesday night I will mix up a gallon of sanitizing solution and put the clean knives in it.  Then on Thursday morning, I will pour the extra solution over the table and cutting boards and let them sit to disinfect while I fill our holding buckets with ice and water.

As soon as the last chicken went in the fridge, I started sanitizing the kitchen counters, backsplash, stove, cupboard fronts, fridge handles, scale--in short, everything that might have been touched with "chicken-y" hands.  I do know that no matter how tired I am, this is not a place to skimp!  The job ain't done till it's cleaned up!

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