Processing Chickens 101

Have you heard people talk about “processing” chickens or “meat birds”? Do you wonder what that’s all about? Are you interested in filling your freezer with wholesome “real” food? And why should you do so when chicken is readily available at the grocery store?

LET’S START WITH WHY!

  1. If you haven’t noticed, our United States mass-produced food is becoming more and more precarious. You should definitely look into growing, processing, and storing your own food. If you are not a vegan or vegetarian, this includes meat.
  2. If you also haven’t noticed, the American population is fat fat fat. This isn’t because we sit around eating cookies, although that factory-processed food doesn’t help. The reason Americans are fat is that our meat is pumped up with antibiotics and growth hormones. When you eat that meat, those hormones also make you grow. Common sense. Can you get meat without hormones? Yes, raise it yourself.
  3. If you haven’t noticed, there are more and more and more recalls every day. E-coli, Salmonella, Bacteria in our food. Every single month, even in our pet food now, an outbreak of unknown origin is reported by the CDC. It travels between numerous states, and most of the time, they never find out where it came from.
  4. Did you notice how there were signs in grocery stores in mid-2020 stating only one package of chicken or pork or beef per visit per family? How does a family of four or six live on that? And for how long will it continue? Why would you take the chance?

WHERE TO START

There are two common meat birds: Red Rangers and Cornish Cross. Red Rangers take 12-14 weeks to grow to processing size. The good thing about them is if the weather or your schedule doesn’t cooperate, you can delay processing a week or two with no problem. Cornish Cross take about 8 weeks to grow to processing size. They grow so fast and are so big, that if you can’t process them when scheduled, you take a risk of them dropping dead of a heart attack or breaking their own legs due to their weight. Red Rangers are about 4-5 lbs processed, Cornish Cross are about 6-8 lbs. More meat in 1/2 the growing time. That’s less time, less care, and less food you have to supply. I prefer Cornish Cross.

You can purchase your birds from any poultry house, but after purchasing from all of them, I’m partial to Hoover’s. The birds I receive from them are the biggest and healthiest that I’ve ever gotten. Of course, you can always use Meyers, McMurrays, or even Tractor Supply.

You don’t need a big farm to grow meat chickens. Ten chickens will easily fit in your garage or any place that is enclosed. The home for baby chicks is called a Brooder. It can be as simple as a cardboard box, but the brooder needs to increase in size as the chickens grow. Some folks put their chickens in a chicken tractor that can be moved daily out in the yard. That’s very clean for the chickens, you don’t need to purchase bedding, and they get to peck for bugs and grass and do all the chicken things, but you need a heat source until the chickens are fully feathered, and that’s about 6-8 weeks of age. I already have my CornishX processed by then, so I opt not to use a chicken tractor. I keep mine enclosed in my mudroom. The good things about raising them in an enclosed environment is they are protected from predators and you can regulate the temperature, which is of utmost importance.

You need a heat source. I hang a regular poultry heat lamp. Chicks need 95 degrees the first week, 90 the second, 85 the third, 80 the fourth, 75 the fifth, and 70 the sixth. After that, they can take care of themselves. You don’t need to be all concerned about the exact temperature, just watch the birds. If they all gather under the lamp, they are probably a little cold. Lower the lamp or add a second lamp. If they all move away from the lamp, they’re probably a little warm and you can raise your lamp up a few inches. Just provide the warmth, the chicks will do the rest.

FEEDING

You can feed your birds any chick starter for the first few weeks. After 5 weeks, look for 18% protein until they process. Also, they need food available constantly for the first week or two, after that, feed them 12 hours on and 12 hours off. The night before you process, pull their food and don’t put it back in the morning. Birds are easier to process when they don’t have a crop full of food. And, you don’t want any poop getting on your meat.

SAFETY

Besides the bird’s comfort and safety, you also want to keep your family safe. Birds are dirty things and carry all kinds of bacteria and diseases like salmonella. Don’t snuggle or kiss on your birds. Don’t let your children play with the birds unsupervised. Always wash your hands after handling your birds, their feeders, their waterers, etc. Your birds may be completely healthy and disease free, but don’t ever take the chance.

PROCESSING

First of all, processing isn’t easy emotionally. Especially the first time. So, don’t be hard on yourself and say you can’t do it. You can do it just as easily as you can eat that chicken sandwich from Chik-whatever. Processing day on the farm is a tough day. It’s a lot of work. It’s hard emotionally. But, it’s rewarding on so many more levels than just how you feel and that it’s work. Your health, your family’s health, your full freezer, no hormones or antibiotics going in your body, living closer to the land, and being self-sufficient where there are no “one-per-customer” signs.

HOW-TO

We use a sharp knife, a killing cone, a turkey fryer with water heated with propane, a thermometer, a portable chicken plucker attached to a drill, a portable table set up outside, a hose, four large buckets or containers (one under the killing cone, one for plucking, one for disgarded parts, and one for finished chickens), and shrink bags.

The most important item you need is a SHARP knife. If you don’t have a knife sharpener, buy one. You’ll use it over and over again for years. We dispatch with a killing cone. The bird hangs upside down and pretty much passes out, so the process is quick. Some cut a slit in the neck, some cut the whole head off, either way, the bird will bleed out in a minute or two, and with the help of your sharp knife, it’s as quick and painless as it can possibly be. Bring your hot water to 150 degrees. Holding the dead bird by a foot, dunk the bird in the hot water for about 45 seconds to loosen the feathers. You can tell if it’s ready by rubbing part of the foot that’s in the water. The skin will rub off. Now, place the bird in a large bucket and use the chicken plucker on it to remove the feathers. These drill-attached portable pluckers are about $70-80 for a good one and will last you years and save you tons of time. You may still have a few feathers to remove, but a majority are gone! Now you can eviscerate your bird. I’ll leave You Tube to explain that to you, but it’s really not hard (search Eviscerating a Chicken). When you’re finished, rinse the bird with the hose and place in a large container of cold water and continue with the next bird. When you’re ready to bag them, raise the temp of the turkey fryer water to 190, place bird in a shrink bag, and following the shrink bag’s instructions for time, dunk in the turkey fryer to shrink. Place the bird in the fridge until tomorrow, then transfer into the freezer. You have to give the bird time to get past the rigor mortis state, and that won’t happen if it goes directly into the freezer. You’ll have tough meat. I think I read to place in the fridge one hour per pound, but I just leave them overnight.

FINAL TALLY

We process about 30 birds twice a year. I don’t do more as I don’t have the fridge space for them. You can do anywhere from one to one hundred, as long as you have the time and space. The reason I say “about 30” is that you always lose some. Generally, you’ll lose 5%. The previous batch I ordered, three were dead on arrival. This batch, all arrived alive but we lost one the first day. You will never get 100%.

So, from this batch of 29 birds, we processed about 180 lbs of meat (average 6ish pounds each): 19 whole chickens (shrink wrapped), 20 pints of chicken broth, 4 quarts of boiled shredded chicken, 18 breasts, 18 thighs/legs, a gallon-size bag of 16 wings, and 4 gallon-size bags of backs/necks to make 4 batches of soup later, which translates into 20 quart jars of soup. All in all, we get 5-6 servings from a bird, so about 160 chicken parmesan/chicken salad sandwich/chicken noodle soup/etc. from this batch.

PRICE?

The 30 birds were $77 and they went through five 50-lb bags of food ($13 each) and five packages of pine shavings for bedding ($5 each), so $167 total, which is $0.93/lb or $5.76/bird.

If you say, why do all that work and spend $5.76 per bird when I can get one at the grocery store for $5 on sale? Go back and read the first part of this blog – especially #2. If you’re not so concerned about your health, but would really like some eye-opening information, Google Chicken Factory Farms and how factory-farm chickens live in a space about 8.5×11. Yes, a piece of paper. You may never buy chicken again.

Until next time, I have this baby in the crockpot. So good.

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