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A How-To Guide for the Processing of Poultry at Home

Raw chicken on a cutting board

Warning: Post contains graphic images

Many families are looking into growing and raising their own food to lower the costs associated with food shopping in today’s world or because they want to be able to create tasty, nutrient dense food that and know where it came from. For some, that comes with a curiosity about how to raise chickens, turkeys, and ducks to consume their eggs and meat.

Raising chickens for eggs can be rewarding and accessible for many families to incorporate into their daily lives, but the processing of poultry is a bit more challenging. Freedom Ranger Hatchery has provided quality baby chicks for farms and backyards around the United States since 2005. We understand the differences between larger-scale chicken farming and smaller, family-focused chicken farming.

Whether you’re looking to save money by butchering chickens yourself or you can’t get a processor date for the flock you’re currently raising, we want to help you safely process your chickens for your family and customers to consume. This lost art is simpler than you think and doesn’t require expensive equipment for the homeowner, backyard grower, or small farmer.

When you’re ready to start raising and processing chickens for your family, buy baby chicks from our NPIP-certified hatcheries to start with healthy, happy birds.

What Is Poultry Processing?

Poultry processing is the safe processing of poultry meat and products for human consumption. While backyard chicken processing might not utilize the same equipment as large poultry production plants, ensuring your family’s and customers’ safety and humanely treating the birds is essential. There are many different techniques for the processing of poultry, but the same steps are generally followed, no matter your preferences.

Which Birds Should I Choose to Process?

When your chickens, ducks, or turkeys are ready to be processed, you’ll want to choose adequate ones. The most common type of processed chickens for homesteaders includes young roosters, old hens, or young meat birds of either sex. If you own a small backyard flock, it’s especially important that you do not have more than one mature rooster. They can become aggressive towards one another to protect their flock.

Each breed of bird is mature at separate times. For example, a Cornish hen is ready for processing at six to eight weeks, while Freedom Rangers take 9-11 weeks and heritage and dual-purpose breeds take 12 to 15 weeks. Also, egg-laying hens may stop producing eggs after three or four years.

You can process them for chicken meat at this point, but the meat will be tougher than younger birds. You’ll need to tenderize, slow-roast, or use them for broth. Either way, stop feeding them 10 to 12 hours before processing to ensure the crop and guts are empty. However, keep them hydrated to ensure the blood runs freely.

What Equipment Do I Need for Chicken, Duck, or Turkey Processing?

You’ll also want to gather the necessary equipment and sanitize your work area before starting the process. Keeping the area clean and sanitized when slaughtering and processing poultry is critical for proper food safety. One accidental cross contamination could lead to an E. coli outbreak, resulting in severe illness for your family.

Clean your work area by using a diluted bleach solution. You’ll also want to clean your supplies, including:

  • Two or three sharp knives (one for slaughtering, one for eviscerating, and one for cutting up the bird) with blades between four and six inches long
  • Knife sharpener to use as needed
  • Waterproof apron and rubber boots
  • Hairnet
  • Killing cones mounted on a wood beam, sawhorse, or side of a barn
  • A scalding tank—a large stockpot filled with water and attached to a heat source
  • Thermometer
  • Extra buckets for waste
  • Extra buckets for clean water
  • A workbench
  • Plucker (optional, can be quite costly, $300-$500, but worth the investment if you choose to process poultry routinely and do several birds at once)
  • A pinning knife (optional)
  • Lung scraper (optional)
  • A large bucket of ice water
  • Coolers full of ice
  • Gloves
  • First aid kit in case you accidentally cut yourself

After you’ve gathered the necessary supplies and cleaned all your surfaces, set up an assembly line of your supplies. Set the scalding tank next to the killing cones, and then the plucker (if you’re using one) a few feet away from it.

Set up your table a few feet from the plucker or the killing cones. Your tools, buckets, and ice buckets should be nearby. You are ready to begin the processing of poultry.

1. Killing

Chicken cones are set on a wooden stand.

The first step in processing poultry is to kill the bird. A few generations ago, granny would go out back and take an axe to the bird’s head upon a wooden block to prepare it for dinner. Today, there are other ways to kill your chickens, but the most humane way is to use a killing cone.

Hold the chicken upside down so the blood rushes to its head, which also helps to calm it. Pull the chicken’s head through the bottom of the cone and hold it taut. Until you get the hang of things, we recommend killing one bird at a time to prevent spoiling the meat.

Chicken hanging from a rope off a tree branch by their feet.

If you don’t have a killing cone, you can suspend the poultry from a clothesline or tree branch by the feet. Either way, you’ll want to ensure a bucket is underneath the bird to catch the blood.

Take your sharpest knife and slit deeply on both sides of the neck, just below the jaw, to cut through the jugular vein and carotid artery. Be careful not to cut through the chicken’s windpipe, which will make the bird panic.

Then, pull the head down firmly to allow the blood to drain. The bird will be unconscious but may still kick and jerk. The cone will help prevent bruising and keep them in place. Once the bird is entirely still (after a few minutes), you can continue processing.

2. Scalding

A large stainless-steel pot with water in it attached to a propane tank and a thermometer.

Scalding the chicken makes it easier to pluck the feathers. Heat the water in your scalding tank to the right temperature for the type of bird you’re processing:

  • Young Birds—125 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 to 75 seconds
  • Older birds—140-150 degrees Fahrenheit for 60-75 seconds
  • Duck and geese—160 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit for one to two minutes
Dead chickens lying on a table with their head cut off.

Getting the temperature right is essential in this circumstance, as any higher amount may damage the skin or cook the bird. You may be able to gauge the scalding time by whether or not the skin is peeling off the feet. If not, you may need to turn your temperature up.  Grab the bird by its feet from the killing cone and dunk it headfirst into the scalding tank. Swirl the bird in the water for the time specified, moving it up and down and around to get the water into each portion of the bird.

At this point, you may choose to remove the head of the chicken or wait until you are processing its gizzards. To remove the head, pull it upwards and cut through the esophagus and trachea just below the head using one of your sharp knives.

3. Plucking or De-Feathering

A person's hand plucks feathers from a chicken.

After scalding, immediately begin removing the feathers. If you have a plucker, place the bird into the plucker to quickly remove the feathers. Otherwise, pull against the grain to remove smaller feathers in little handfuls to avoid tearing the skin. Pluck one at a time for larger wings and tail feathers.

Many tiny pin feathers will come off when you scald the bird, but the others need to be plucked by hand. You can also purchase a pinning knife to remove the remaining pin feathers at a farm supply store. If any feathers are too hard to remove, you can scald the bird again for a few seconds.

4. Eviscerating

A person removes the innards from a goose.

Once your chickens, turkeys, or ducks no longer have feathers, you’ll want to begin gutting your bird. If you see dark green fluid at any point, it may indicate that you ruptured a bile duct, resulting in a foul-tasting, unsanitary bird. Therefore, abandon your processing of that specific bird and try again on a different bird.

Otherwise, put on your gloves and grab a clean knife. Rinse the bird in fresh water. There are three primary steps to this stage of the processing:

  1. Gut from the tail end—Remove the yellow oil gland on the chicken’s tail. This gland can compromise the taste of your chicken, so it’s important to remove it first. You’ll cut the gland down to the bone and then slide your knife towards the tail. There should be no yellow gland left on the bird.

    From there, cut through the skin upwards until you reach the natural opening to the body cavity. Insert your fingers, stretch the skin, and cut open to the breastbone.

    Be careful not to sever the intestines. Next, you’ll want to insert the knife one inch above the vent or anus and carefully cut around it. When you pull it free, the intestines will follow.
  2. Gut from the neck—Turn the bird around. If you haven’t already removed the head, you’ll want to do that now. Then slit the skin from the back of the neck and slide it down to reveal the trachea and esophagus.

    Loosen the tubes until you reach the point of the body where you will feel the crop. If the birds have fasted before slaughtering, they should be empty. Otherwise, there may be partially digested food in there.

    Pull the crop free and leave it with the esophagus and trachea hanging. Reach inside the bird’s body and find the hard, round gizzard. Pull it out. The rest of the entrails, crop, esophagus, and trachea will follow.

    Next, insert your hand into the body cavity and pull out the lungs. It will feel like a squishy tissue along the ribs. Some farm supply stores sell a lung scraper to help with this step. Finally, remove the neck by cutting the muscle tissue around the bone and bending it to break it.
  3. Cut off the feet—Lastly, you’ll want to remove the feet, also known as chicken paws. Straighten each leg and cut through the joint the remove them. After all the organs and feet are out, rinse the bird again in clean water.

5. Chilling and Packing

An anatomy chart of a chicken.

After eviscerating your bird, you can either leave it whole or cut it into pieces. To cut it up into pieces:

  1. Lay the carcass on its back
  2. Cut the skin between the thighs and body with a new knife
  3. Hold a leg in each hand and lift the carcass from the board. Bend the legs back until the hip joints snap free.
  4. Cut the legs from the body by cutting from the front to the back close to the backbone, then cutting through the knee joint to separate the thigh from the drumstick. To help find the knee joint, squeeze the thigh and drumstick together.
  5. Remove the wings by cutting inside the wing just over the joint. Cut down and around the joint to remove the wing. Cut off the wing tip or fold it back under the wing.
  6. Separate the breasts from the back by placing the carcass on its neck. Cut from the tail along each side of the backbone through the rib joints to the neck. Cut the back into two pieces by bending it to find the joint and cut through the meat to the skin.
  7. Split the breast lengthwise.

Whether you cut it up or keep it whole, do not immediately package it because you’ll trap bacteria inside. Instead, chill your chicken in a clean bucket of ice water for at least two hours.

After chilling, pat dry and store in a large, freezer-safe, sealed bag in the refrigerator. This rest allows the muscles to relax. Some folks will allow it to rest overnight while others prefer to let them rest for several days after this rest you can cook and eat it or freeze the chicken.

Tips to Ensure Your Processing Goes Smoothly

Now that you know the steps to process your poultry, here are a few tips to ensure it goes well:

  • Read through all the directions before starting. Ensure you understand each step thoroughly.
  • Lay out your work area like an assembly line to move easily from one task to another
  • Always keep food safety in mind by keeping areas clean and not freezing your bird immediately after processing.
  • Ensure there are no trip or safety hazards in your work area
  • Wash your hands well before, during, and after handling raw poultry products, as contaminants like fecal matter and blood from internal organs could expose you to disease.
  • Separate food at various stages. If you keep the gizzards, chicken paws, or necks for human consumption, be sure to refrigerate those as soon as possible to avoid bacterial growth.

What Breeds of Chickens are Best for Poultry Production?

If you’re just getting started with raising chickens for meat, you may be wondering which breeds are best for flavorful  meat. There are many types of broiler chickens for your backyard or broiler farm. If you want to get delicious, flavorful meat from your birds, we recommend these breeds:

  • Cornish Cross
  • Freedom Ranger Chickens
  • Freedom Ranger Color Yield
  • Jackie Chickens
  • Kosher Kings
  • Sasso Chickens

At Freedom Ranger Hatchery, we also offer other kinds of poultry, including turkeys, ducks, and geese. So whether you’re looking to crack into the egg-laying business, poultry meat selling, or selling turkeys for the holidays, Freedom Ranger has you covered!

Which Breeds of Chickens Are Best for Egg Production?

Perhaps you aren’t looking to get meat from your chickens but would love to enjoy their eggs. In that case, we can help you with high-quality egg-laying birds to feed your family and then some! Egg processing facilities and backyard farmers who want to enjoy fresh eggs should buy the following egg layers:

  • Barred Rock
  • Easter Egger Chickens
  • Novogen Brown Egg Layer
  • Novogen White Leghorn
  • Rhode Island Red Chicken
  • Rustic Rambler Chicken

Duck eggs are also delicious and nutritious, so choose from our Khaki Campbell Ducks or White Muscovy Ducks.

The Processing of Poultry Is Easier than You Think!

When done right, you can turn happy and healthy birds into delicious meals safely and humanely by following the steps outlined above. If the processing of poultry in your backyard sounds like something you might want to try, then be sure to save this blog post for future reference! You’ll want to be sure you understand each step thoroughly before you begin so that your process goes as smoothly as possible.

If you have thoughts about raising chickens for eggs and as a food source, then Freedom Ranger Hatchery can get you started. We can answer any questions about processing poultry birds like chicken and turkeys, so your family can become more self-reliant.