I’ve debated for a long time whether to tackle this sensitive topic on the blog. I know that many chicken keepers view their chickens as pets, and this idea is repulsive to them. But I also know that there are other chicken keepers who would like to butcher, and are looking for information on the process. About a year ago, that was me!
I explained the reasons that I’m ok with butchering in this post. I hope you will read it and consider the alternatives.
Things you will want to have in place or ready to go:
- An extra coop or cage for holding roosters overnight
- A work space outside. We have an old counter top that we prop on two saw horses.
- A shady area for this work space, away from main traffic areas, but with access to water.
- A bucket for everything you don’t keep (the mess)
- An ice chest about 1/2 full of ice water (Be sure you have enough ice – I bag some up the day before to keep the ice maker chugging – I use large Ziploc bags and then save them to put the chickens in after cleaning.)
- One (or more) very sharp knife. You might also find a pair of poultry shears helpful (kitchen aisle of most stores).
- Bucket or spray bottle of bleach water
- Rags or paper towels
- Latex gloves (optional, but Mr. Fix It likes to wear them)
- Large Ziploc freezer bags (1 gallon barely fits a small bird, 2 gallon is better)
For us, butchering starts the night before. We wait until the chickens have gone to roost, then go in and take the roosters to a separate cage or coop. This avoids a big chase and capture scene on butchering day. We don’t want to scare the roosters or make any of this more stressful than necessary. This also prevents them from eating early in the morning of butcher day – which can make for a bigger mess.
Young roosters will be more tender than older birds. We don’t raise Cornish Cross. These are Ameracauna, Rhode Island White, and Barred Rock birds. We butcher them about 16 weeks if possible. When we have butchered older birds, the breast meat has looked like dark meat and the leg meat looked like roast beef. It still tasted delicious, but the darker color and toughness is due to the months of exercise and hormones pumping through their systems.
On butchering day, after we set everything up, we gently take the first rooster and use a shoelace to hang it by its feet from a tree branch. Hanging upside down, most chickens become very calm, so this isn’t as traumatic as it sounds. Some people use a “killing cone”. When using a cone, you place the chicken inside the cone with its head hanging out the bottom, and the cone prevents the wings from flapping. We just don’t happen to have one and hanging has worked well for us so far. Mr. Fix It usually stands and holds the rooster by its wings during the slaughter, and effectively serves the same purpose as a cone would.
Chickens can and do continue to move for a while after death. Thus the phrase “running around like a chicken with its head cut off”. Movement does not indicate life and you shouldn’t be concerned that your chicken is suffering. This is the most humane way to kill a chicken, short of taking them to a vet and having them put to sleep.
J-Bear holds the rooster by its head and firmly but carefully slices the side of the neck to open the main artery. We try not to sever the windpipe. The chicken will bleed out and the eyes will close.
Most people butcher and pluck their chickens, leaving the skin on. My family prefers skinless chicken, so we skin ours. It’s faster and easier than plucking by hand.
Mr. Fix It takes down the now lifeless chicken, and places it on his counter top. He removes the head and the feet just at the joint where feathers stop and scaly legs begin. He slides the knife under the skin of the breast to open it up and then pulls it back and off the chicken. It’s a little like removing a sweater from a squirmy toddler :-). When you get to the ends of the legs, the skin may not want to come off, but usually a firm tug will remove it cleanly. If not, you have your sharp knife. the wings are more difficult. The feathers there seem to grow right through to the bone sometimes. You’re going to cut off the wingtips and the first joint anyway – so don’t worry about it past there. Mr. Fix It just works at it and works at it (and sometimes I remind him that there isn’t that much meat there anyway if he’d rather just cut them off and forget it!). Another tricky spot is the tail, but we are going to remove that area later anyway so we don’t worry about it too much. Once the skin is removed, the crop is visible. It’s the round sack near the neck. He removes it before giving the carcass a good rinse. Now I can finally look without feeling squeamish and seeing my baby chick lying there. We use the hose to wash down the table and get rid of stray feathers before proceeding.
You might hear “chicken noises” coming from the lifeless headless bird as you are cleaning before you remove the neck. This is just the air being expelled from the lungs. Don’t be alarmed.
Also, restricting feed helps, but there is always the chance of a little poo being expelled during cleaning. That’s what the bleach water is here for. Wash away any mess and rinse with water before proceeding.
Mr. Fix It removes the neck. Then he makes a small opening in the lower abdomen just above the vent. You have to be careful doing this, so you don’t accidentally cut into the intestines. He tears the opening wider to give access to the organs. He runs his hand up inside, loosening everything from the ribs. When his hand is all the way inside, fingers up at the neck, he gently grabs hold and pulls. Most of the organs will come out easily together in one piece. Look for the gall bladder. It’s green and you do not want to break it inside the chicken. It will ruin the meat. So verify that it’s still in one piece. He often needs to go back in to get the heart and livers. They are easily removed, but don’t always stay in the bundle of guts. Usually the lungs are more difficult to remove and often must be scraped off the rib cage with fingertips or a knife. You can see the lungs easily because they are a bright shocking pink, unlike the other organs. (That is the bright pink thing Mr. Fix It is holding in picture #3 above). Once all the organs are outside the body cavity, he cuts them away from the back, removing the vent area and oil gland and any of those stubborn tail feathers. He gives the carcass one more good rinse, and then into the ice water it goes.
My family doesn’t like chicken organ meat, but if your family does, this is the time to remove them before tossing the mess into the bucket.
We always wash down our work space with bleach water between birds. We might not if we were doing larger batches, but now we only do half a dozen or less at a time, so it’s easy to clean up in between.
When you’re done, you have to dispose of the guts and skin and feathers in your mess bucket. We choose to burn them, but you could also bury them or dump them somewhere FAR from your chicken coop for the wildlife to enjoy. Some people even feed them back to the flock, though I don’t like the idea of finding leftovers in the run the next morning.
The first time we butchered, it went more slowly because we didn’t know what we were doing. Because of that, rigor mortis set in, and the legs were stretched straight out at an awkward angle. If this happens to you, don’t worry. Some time in the fridge will help, and he’ll taste just as good after he’s cooked anyway.
Later, I take the ice chest inside for a final clean-up of the birds. There always seems to be a bit of feather or skin that was missed or some fluff clinging to the bird that needs to be washed away. You can cut the chicken into pieces now, but I usually just store it whole. I put each chicken into a Ziploc bag, weigh it, and mark on the bag the date, weight, and breed. Our young roosters average out a little over 3 pounds apiece.
It’s best to keep the chicken in the fridge for a couple of days before cooking or freezing. It will be more tender that way. So far I have only used our butchered chickens in dishes calling for shredded meat (like Nanny’s Chicken Noodles or Chicken Pot Pie). For those purposes, I thaw the chicken in the fridge overnight in a brine of 1 gallon water, 1 cup salt and 1/2 cup sugar, plus some thyme or poultry seasoning. Then I rinse it and put it in the crockpot on low with 2 whole carrots, 2 stalks celery, 1 onion halved, thyme, salt and water, enough to fill the crock pot about half way. I check it after about 4 hours, then again every hour until the meat is just falling off the bones. I give the veggies to the chickens, save the broth for whatever I’m cooking. If there is extra broth I either put it in a jar in the fridge, or freeze it in an ice cube tray for use later.
I hope this was helpful to you. These are the sites that we referred to when we started butchering.
How to Butcher a Chicken Great pics of every step – especially removing organs
Chicken Processing on Custer Family Farm (YouTube Video) The sound isn’t great – but they skin their chickens just like we do. Great video!