by Rochelle Robinson Are you interested in learning how to butcher a chicken at home? Before you get started, you need to have something to butcher.
How Our Homesteading Journey Began
Our homesteading journey began about four years ago. Our first child was an infant and we were reading “Mother Earth News” magazine when one of the regular articles, “The Pitchfork Pulpit” really struck a chord with my husband. It was about children being given the opportunity to take on a small farm business under the umbrella of the larger operation as a positive aspect of childhood development.
My husband came to me and said “We need animals so she,” pointing at our daughter, “can have that opportunity someday.” I looked at our daughter who couldn’t even walk yet and thought, “He’s crazy.”
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But the dream took root. We spent the next two winters dreaming about what our homestead farm would look like. We’re blessed to live on the family farm and some of the original infrastructure is still in place. The chick brooder house and the hen house are both standing so it made sense for us to start with chickens.
We Began With Chickens
In the early spring of 2018, we ordered 100 chicks from Miller Hatcheries. We chose them for a few reasons. They ship to select Agro store locations across Western Canada, which is convenient for us with a super box address. And they had a larger selection of breeds to choose from which appealed to us.
There are different hatcheries that will service different areas. A stop at your local agriculture store (Peavey Mart, Co-op, UFA, etc.) should be able to point you to a nearby hatchery.
For our first order, we chose a mix of layer, broiler and dual-purpose varieties (more about this below). We built chicken tractors and dragged them across our lawn. This meant fertilizing with every pass as the chickens got exercise and fresh air, saw sunshine and ate their natural diet of bugs and plants along with supplied grains and supplements.
44 Chickens in Five Days
As the summer progressed we started reading about how to butcher a chicken at home. We watched whatever we could online. The best resource we found was Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms — he is an inspiration in our journey.
We put 44 chickens into the freezer over five days. After the first three days of butchering, we decided to invest in a chicken plucker. It made the last two days of butchering much more efficient.
With three chickens left to go, a neighbour stopped by and said we should have let her know we were butchering. She likes doing it and would have helped. Our reply was, “We’ll ask you next year!”
How to Butcher a Chicken at Home – or 31 Chickens!
That brings us to butchering day 2019. This year we had 31 chickens to butcher. They included Miller’s Western Rustic roosters and hens, specifically bred as a “broiler” variety.
Broilers put on muscle (meat) faster then a Layer variety does. Although both can be eaten and both can produce eggs, they just have their specialties; Dual Purpose varieties fall in the middle between the two kinds. The size difference is noticeable within the first week or so of the chicks’ arrival.
Get Help – Have a Chicken Bee
In addition to the plucker and last year’s experience, we recruited additional help to make things more efficient this year. A couple from town (who asked to partner with us this year to raise chickens) came out. Other helpers included a neighbour with a generous heart and an interest in biology and our neighbour from last year. And Grandma, who came on the condition of not having to do any of the butchering but was a lifesaver in the kid-watching department!
In all we had seven adults and five kids under 5 years old taking part. We started at 6 am and had lunch (not chicken!) on the table by 11:30 with only the clean up left for the afternoon.
Chicken Butchering on The Homestead – 2019
This is what our day looked like:
The day before: set up butchering location with restraining cones, heat source, plucker, rinse tub, and hoses. Set up evisceration location with table, hose, and multiple buckets and tubs. Water is given to broilers but no longer feed, to clear their systems.
6 am: Get the water heating for dunking birds (to loosen feathers prior to plucking) and fill all the other tubs with cold rinse water.
7 am: Crew arrives & assign jobs. Ease everyone in, for as much reading and video watching as you do beforehand, in person the first time can be a little overwhelming and that’s okay. I didn’t cook a whole chicken for two months after we did it the first time!
Restraining Cones for Slaughtering
We use restraining cones for the slaughter portion of our operation and had five set up to keep the queue flowing. It is cleaner and gives a better meat quality than the “traditional” “chop off the head and let the chicken run around” method. It’s also less traumatic for all involved, people and chickens.
The chicken gets placed upside down with its head poking out the bottom of the cone. A quick slit to the throat makes for instant death and the blood drains out immediately. The chicken is dead but the organs die slowly which aids in the blood pump-out and results in better meat quality.
Tips for Loosening Chicken Feathers
After the blood has drained a few quick dips in hot water, around 150degF, will loosen the feathers. We add soap to the water to cut through the natural oils found on the feathers. We use an unscented natural soap found in the organic aisle of our grocery store. When a wing feather can easily be pulled out it’s time to start plucking.
Invest in an Electric Plucker
Our first year when we were learning how to butcher a chicken at home, we hung each chicken, one at a time, by its feet and hand-plucked about 20 birds in total. It took forever. Now with the electric plucker we can do two chickens at a time in a minute.
The plucker looks a bit like the inside of a washing machine. However, instead of the agitator in the middle this has little rubber fingers all over the bottom and the sides. Water from a garden hose enters at the top and rinses out the feathers, as they get knocked off, through a hole in the bottom.
As crazy as it sounds it doesn’t damage the chicken. A quick dip in the rinse tub and some quality control work on the pin feathers and the chicken is ready to move from the slaughtering side of the operation to the evisceration side.
Gutting the Chickens
We had two big tubs with cold water to hold the birds as they came to the eviscerating table. During evisceration (sometimes called gutting or cleaning the bird) the internal organs get removed. This is easier (and cleaner) to do if the chicken has no feed in its system.
Some people may choose to keep the liver and hearts. When raising your own birds you know what they have and have not been fed. That makes keeping these organs a great option and we did keep some. If we can’t find a tasty looking recipe (aka totally disguise it) they will become cat food during the winter.
After the chicken is finished it gets a rinse top to bottom with running water. Next, it gets transferred to the final tub with ice-cold water where it stays until all the birds are completed. We spent weeks making large ice blocks out of yogurt containers for this part.
When to Butcher Your Homestead Chickens
Last year we butchered at 12 weeks and averaged 3.5-4.5 lbs when they were dressed and in the freezer. This year we grew the chickens to 16 weeks and they cleaned out at 5-6 lbs. This makes a nice size for a chicken dinner with leftovers for the next day. Some of the hens had even begun to develop eggs by this time: a neat biology lesson in the middle of this.
Storing Your Chicken Once Processed
Meat quality improves if the chicken can stay refrigerated for 24 hours before freezing. Yet if you don’t have space it’s okay to go directly to the freezer.
Since we still had a few whole chickens left from the year before we decided to try our hand at “parting out” the chickens this year. We did this after they sat in the fridge overnight.
In the end, we had freezer bags of breasts, tenders, legs back attached, wings and soup bones. This takes up way less space in the freezer and adds versatility to the recipes you can make.
Why We Learned How to Butcher a Chicken at Home
Are we crazy? Some may say so when it is so easy to buy a package of chicken from the store. However, the satisfaction, not to mention the flavour, of eating a chicken you nurtured from the start is incomparable. Serve the chicken with your own garden vegetables and you are well on your way to a sustainable homestead meal! Oh, and ask my four-year-old how to butcher a chicken at home. She can tell you more than you’d want to know – the learning is amazing!
About the Robinsons
Chris and Rochelle live on the family farm with their children, chickens, and cats. Summer is spent in the garden and moving chicken tractors, Autumn is spent harvesting the bounty of the land, Winter is spent dreaming up new ideas and Spring is spent trying to implement them all!