Backyard chickens. More people have them, and despite local controversy, more people want them. Fresh nutritious eggs with deep-yellow yolks sure taste great! But what happens when a highly productive hen decides to slow down and take it easy?
While some may see their chickens as pets, most folks don't want to see their chicken coop turn into a retirement home. And after learning how to care for laying hens, some hobby-farm enthusiasts and urban homesteaders decide the next step is raising chickens for meat.
On a recent Saturday, a small number of people gathered to learn about poultry meat breeds and how to butcher a chicken. The seminar and demonstration were presented by Black Hills Poultry Society co-founder and program director Alan Harper, who has raised and kept chickens for most of his life.
While butchering chickens, particularly chickens that you are fond of, may seem cruel and unusual, many animal keepers believe they are morally responsible for providing creatures under their care with a good life and a good death. As Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," puts it, when "animals are treated well, fed an appropriate diet, and generally allowed to express their creaturely character, I think the benefits of eating such meat outweigh the cost. A truly sustainable agriculture will involve animals, in order to complete the nutrient cycle, and those animals are going to be killed and eaten."
That was the group's prevailing sentiment as Harper shared his expertise on raising and butchering chickens for meat.
Meat bird types
Butchering an old laying hen will produce a stewing chicken that can be used for a tasty soup or casserole, as well as for making chicken stock for general use. Meat chicken breeds raised exclusively for butchering are best if you want to fry or roast the meat.
Some people prefer to raise heritage breeds or multipurpose breeds for meat. Delaware, New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte, Holland and Orpington are some of the old-fashioned breeds that can be used for both meat and egg production. The chicks take three to four months to reach a good size, and can be butchered as late as 8 months old. After that, they tend to get tough.
Many people choose Cornish Cross Hybrids for their meat birds. These birds have been genetically bred to eat, grow and put on weight fast. At about eight weeks, they weigh at least five pounds and are ready to slaughter.
These hybrids might be considered "unnatural" chickens by some, because genetic engineering has bred out many common chicken behaviors.
"They are designed to simply sit, stand and eat," according to Harper. "They are not interested in exploring or being your friend."
They are best raised in a confined space under continuous low-light conditions that enable them to eat pretty much non-stop. Their extremely fast rate of growth mean they are more susceptible to disease, heart attack, stress, temperature variations and broken bones (caused by the inability of their leg growth to keep up with the meat growth).
If you decide to raise hybrids, start with a starter/growth feed that contains 23 percent protein. After three weeks, switch to a grower/finisher with 18 to 20 percent protein. If the chickens are having problems such as skin splits or broken legs or if you are losing some to heart attack, withhold feed or decrease lighting to slow the growth process. In six to seven weeks, their growth slows by itself and it's time to set a date for butchering.
While heritage breeds are more "natural," they take twice as much feed as the hybrid to reach butchering stage and will still yield less meat. Whether you choose to raise heritage breeds or hybrids, a six-pound bird will yield a four-pound dressed carcass, and a four-pound bird will be more tender than a larger size. If the chicken's breast area seems full and round to the touch, it is ready to harvest.
Actually, the process begins the evening before you plan to butcher. Take the feed away from the chickens, but give them access to water overnight. With no food, their water intake will probably increase a little, which helps plump up the meat and make it more moist.
It's easier to gather up the chickens early in the morning when they are still a little sleepy. A non-stressed, relaxed bird will taste fresher. Containing them in a dog carrier, as Harper did, keeps them calm and quiet as the process begins.
According to Harper, using an ax to chop off the head is not the best method to kill a chicken. He prefers to dislocate the neck by putting the chicken's head under a rake handle, grasping the bird by the legs and pulling up. This method instantly snaps the bird's neck for a humane kill.
After about 15 seconds, the body stops moving and the bird can be placed upside down in the killing cone or prepared milk jug. Remove the head and allow about 10 minutes for the bird to bleed out.
Some people may simply skin the bird this point, but most people prefer to remove the feathers and leave the skin on. While it is possible to "dry pluck" a bird, the "scald pluck" is the preferred method.
It is essential, according to Harper, to heat the water to 135 to 140 degrees and no hotter. Hotter water toughens the meat and removes the protective coating from the skin, making the finished bird look unattractive. Harper uses two thermometers for a precise measurement of the temperature before he dunks a carcass into the large pot of water.
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After about 15 to 25 seconds of swishing the bird around, he tries to pull out a large wing or tail feather. When it pulls out, he removes the bird from the pot and dunks it into a tub of cold water. This step reduces the possibility of skin tearing, along with making sure the bird is not "too hot to handle."
It doesn't take long to remove the feathers by rubbing and plucking the carcass. Pin feathers may need to be scraped off or individually plucked, or you can quickly singe them off over an open flame or with a blow torch. As soon as you have plucked the bird, put it into a tub of ice water. Then let the carcass cool completely before the next step: evisceration.
Before removing the "innards," check the bird to make sure there are no large breast blisters with pus. Such a bird is diseased and must be discarded. If the carcass looks good, begin by removing the feet with a knife. Then remove the oil gland (used for preening), which is a yellow spot above the tail. After slitting the skin along the back of the neck, the crop/windpipe/esophagus are cut away close to the body and removed, followed by the neck.
Now it is time to take out the entrails. Cut a horizontal slit across the rear above the vent (where eggs come from). If there is yellow watery fluid in the body cavity, the bird is diseased and must be discarded. Reach in the cavity and loosen the connective tissue holding the entrails in place with your hand. Grasp the gizzard at the center of the mass and pull the entire contents outside the bird. Then cut around the vent to separate them from the carcass. The lungs and sexual organs must also be removed, so reach back in and pull them out by scraping against the upper wall of the bird.
You are now finished with the "yucky" part. Rinse the bird well, inside and out, and toss it into ice water. When it is well chilled, rinse it again and hang it so it can drip dry for a short time.
Then take the carcass, which will be getting stiff, and wrap it loosely in a cotton towel (such as flour sacking material) and put it in a plastic sack. Age butchered chickens in the refrigerator for one to three days, a process that makes the meat taste better and tenderizes it. When you wrap it for freezing, the body should again be pliable.
Butchering day supplies
A sturdy table with a source of running water nearby
Rake handle (or similar tool) to kill chickens
A post to attach the killing cone
Killing cone or milk jugs with the spout cut out to form a 2- to 2-1/2-inch hole.
Propane burner or stove to heat water
Large scalding pot
Tub filled with cool water
Tub filled with ice water
Trash bags for feathers and entrails
Large bag with cotton sheet to age chickens in refrigerator
Freezer bags to hold whole chickens