Butchering day dawns sunny and breezy. The weather looks perfect. But I’m asking myself, “what have we let ourselves in for?!” Maybe you are like us and have started out on a few acres in the country. You’ve mastered gardening, you’ve keep chickens for eggs, and perhaps you even have a few ruminants. Now you’re wondering how hard it could be to raise and butcher your own broiler chickens. Hopefully hearing about our adventures in broiler raising and butchering will spur you on to try it for yourself.
We decided on Freedom Ranger chickens when we started raising chickens for food. They are active birds that reach their peak weight of 5-6 pounds in 10-11 weeks. They are imminently suitable for free range, foraging and pasture environments which is how we wanted to raise them. Our research showed that their meat has more yellow omega 3 fat and less saturated fat than faster growing breeds.
First we needed to recruit partners since butchering seemed a bit overwhelming for our small family. Along with our butchering buddies we determined that 30 chickens split between two families would work well. We had the space to raise them on our farm, we split all associated costs between us, and our friends supplied a greater number of people for butcher day.
Now we needed a place to raise the chickens. Our winter sheep paddock (empty since spring) has a three sided shed in it that could be modified. My husband built door panels that were basic wooden frames with chicken wire and cross braces over them to keep chicks in and predators out. He encased the chicken wire between wooden laths so it couldn’t be pried off by raccoons. The barn sits inside a 50’x50’ pasture surrounded by 5 foot wire fencing. With heat lamps installed this building served well as a brooder for baby chicks, and then a night coop for growing broilers. The chickens were let out on pasture to forage for bugs and vegetation during the daylight hours then put away safely each evening.
Eleven weeks later, butchering day dawns sunny and breezy. We set up a canopy to create shade. Our first work station is a board with a hole in the center set on stacked cement blocks at both ends. A killing cone made of chimney flashing runs through the hole creating a funnel in which to place the live chickens. Placing them upside down before cutting the jugular calms and quiets them. This is more humane and also provides more tender meat. Station two is a large kettle of water heated to 150 degrees over an outdoor camp stove. This is where we scald the dead birds for 30 seconds, plunging them up and down to quickly heat and loosen the feathers.
Cording run between two trees like a clothesline gives us a place to hang dead chickens for fast plucking. A 6 foot folding table where we cut out the oil glands, cut off the heads and feet, tie the vents, and singe the pin feathers from them is the final outdoors station.
Each plucked chicken then arrives indoors at the eviscerating table where the organs are removed, the chicken is washed, and then put in an ice-water bath to cool. We use large coolers filled with ice water to soak the chickens for a few hours at this point. Then they are drained of water, patted dry, and put into plastic 2 gallon freezer zip bags. By holding the full open bag under water up to the zip line all the air is squeezed from it and we zip it up ready to chill. We put the bagged birds into the refrigerator to rest for 24-48 hours before freezing a few at a time. This makes the meat more tender and better tasting. Our freezer is now stuffed with broiler chickens waiting for roasting. How hard was that?
Interesting question. On the surface, it wasn’t hard at all. But the previous narrative is based on the learned experience of several years of raising and butchering broilers with the same friends. Some untoward things have happened along the way. Before we modified the barn we tried to protect the growing chicks in a small transfer cage we use for the sheep. It worked fine once we got them in it each evening but that process usually involved half an hour of running round and round the cage getting just a few chicks in with each pass. Tiring in our middle age!
Before getting smart and rigging a plucking line, we placed dead chickens on tables and plucked them there. This results in feathers everywhere, sticking to everything, and really messy chickens! Plus it took way too long and caused short tempers.
We’ve learned some strange things on our journey:
- Chicken feet make great battle gear
- Headless plucked chickens “honk” when you squeeze them
- Old laying hens can be skinned by inserting the basketball fitting of an air compressor under the skin
Our first year we only chilled the bagged birds for half a day, then popped them all in the freezer at once. We woke in the middle of the night to a loud alarm ringing incessantly. Turns out there is a limit to how much unfrozen meat you can dump in a chest freezer at one time. Who knew?
Then there was the year that a terrible black storm appeared on the horizon moving towards us at immense speed. We were only partially through the process and had a live chicken in the killing cone when the wind and rain hit! My husband hung on to the chicken’s legs and the cone itself, several of us grabbed the canopy as it was torn from its moorings and lifted off the ground. Plucked chickens swung boisterously on the clothesline, and we grabbed at the tables and tools to keep them from flying away. No one was brave enough to grab the kettle or camp stove for fear of burning. We just turned off the burner and stayed back. Meanwhile we were also rushing to put live broilers and egg layers back in their coops, get the sheep under cover, and keep patio furniture from blowing over to our neighbors. It was quite the day, but adventures like these forge strong friendships!
So go out and find a few friends, set up your growing area, and raise a few broilers of your own. We hope you have fun on butchering day and thoroughly enjoy the healthful meat you raise.