Poultry Processing

Be sure to check out the other articles in this season’s series:

Lessons From the Farm, Pt. I – Brooders and Feeding
Lessons From the Farm, Pt. III – How Much Does it Cost to Start a Farm?


Poultry Processing

From October 11 – 13, we processed poultry for the very first time. I’m willing to say that things by and large went very well, but there were plenty of lessons learned along the way. This article is my attempt to get as many of those lessons down on paper for your benefit, while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Lesson Learned #1: Get Help

This one seems like a no-brainer, especially if you’re raising a large number of birds. Our test set, however, consisted of just a single pen of 73 birds. Because of this small number, I figured I’d be able to handle that number with just the help of my wife. As it turned out, Annie wasn’t able to help me much because her in-town job schedule was a bit haywire. So for the most part, I was left to process all the birds alone.

You’ll hear that it’s impossible to process poultry alone, and I’ll confirm that statement is true. It is technically possible to process alone if you have nothing else to do. Otherwise it’s going to be an all-day activity for several days and the rest of your farm is going to be completely neglected. It’s easy to think of processing time solely in terms of the amount of time it takes to kill, scald, pick, clean and chill your birds, but it’s much more than that.

First there’s the setup phase. The hooking up and testing of the water supply. The heating of scald and shrink-bag water and the cooling of tank water. The catching and transporting of birds out in the field. The testing of the equipment. The sharpening of knives. None of these tasks can be done in parallel if you’re working alone, so they’ll easily eat up three or four hours.

Next comes the actual processing phase. I wound up working in batches of four birds at a time, then moving up to six at a time by the third day. You have to be careful about killing too many birds at once; they’ll go into rigor and be difficult to deal with. The kill step, which includes loading the birds into the cones, took about 5 or 6 minutes. The scald takes another 2 minutes or so, including loading time. The pick takes another minute. At my skill level, the clean of four birds takes about 10 – 12 minutes, or longer if the pick wasn’t so good. Then the birds chill in the tank for 45 minutes or longer, followed by 10 minutes on the drying rack. Then a couple of minutes to bag and tag. By the third day I was able to get a batch of six birds from the cones to the tank in just over 30 minutes.

Once you’re done with all the birds, you have to clean up. The offal and blood have to be walked or trucked to compost. Water must be drained from the chill, scald, and shrink tanks. Then you have to wipe, disinfect, and store your equipment. Finally, you have to move whatever birds aren’t sold to the freezers. And in between all three phases of prep, process, and cleanup, there are other farm chores to do: pasture and forest animals need to be moved, fed, and watered, and any emergencies that pop up have to be dealt with.

I figure you’ll need about a five-person operation to move through processing without any bottlenecks. One person loading cones and killing, another operating the scalder and picker, two more cleaning, and one person bagging and tagging. How many birds you can get done without the bottlenecks will depend on the skill of your crew, especially the folks doing the cleaning. You’ll really appreciate the help during the setup and cleanup phases, the latter of which will go particularly faster when you have more hands on deck.

Lessons Learned #2: Particulars of Processing

Here’s a bullet list of tips and tricks for killing, scalding, picking, cleaning, etc., most of which I learned the hard way:

  • In the kill cone, pull the head of the bird down through the cone while your other hand holds the feet out. If you let go of the feet, it’ll be harder to expose the neck.
  • Put on your big boy/girl pants during the kill. Look at what you’re doing and do not close your eyes. Cut deep along the side of the neck just behind the ear, and prepare to get bled on.
  • After the cut, do not look down into the cones. Some chickens will poop, and in their senseless death throes will kick that poop right into your eye.
  • Don’t kill more birds than you can get cleaned in the next ten minutes. Otherwise they will go into rigor.
  • Fill your scald tank to the top. Otherwise your dunker may not submerge the birds enough and you’ll wind up with a poor scald, usually around the wings.
  • Don’t put fewer than three birds in the picker at once. If you do, they can get stuck and have their skin torn.
  • Pulling the heads off can be tricky. Lay the bird on it’s back, with beak facing you and head hanging off the edge of the table. Grab the head by making a loop with your thumb and index finger (like you’re making an OK sign), and stabilize the rest of the bird with your other hand. Break the neck by pulling the bird toward you by the head, and bending the head sharply down and away from you (pointing the beak towards the bird’s body); you’ll feel the neck separate. From there you can just pull the head straight back toward you, but first…
  • Don’t rip the head off just yet! You’ll see the esophagus and windpipe exposed at the neck; this is the best time to loosen them without having to make a cut into the skin above the breast. If you loosen those pipes before you pull the heads off, you’ll have a prettier carcass in the end.
  • To pull the guts out, envision your hand as the claw on an excavator; the claw reaches into the ground as far as it can go, curls back at the hinge while still in the ground, then pulls out. Likewise, reach your hand into the body cavity along the spine as far as it will go, make a claw and curl up with your hand still all the way in the cavity, and then pull out taking everything you touch with you.
  • That green thing attached to the liver is the gall bladder. Do not rupture it. If you do, don’t let the green bile touch any birds. After I got smart, I started waiting until I’d cleaned the entire bird and put it in the tank before salvaging livers.
  • Lungs are also tricky. Get them by reaching forward into the front of the bird, then sweeping down (and hard) on one side then the other. The lungs are bright pink.
  • If you’re having trouble pulling out a crop/windpipe/esophagus from the inside, give the body cavity a quick rinse. That’ll make things a little less slippery in there.

I’m sure there’ll be a Part II to the processing lesson, but this will do for now. Next season we’ll take videos of our processing and post the details, being sure to go nice and slow and give lots of closeups. In the meantime, feel free to email me if you have any questions.