#79 – Butchering Poultry

We get a lot of questions about butchering chickens over here on the podcast, and those questions range from “I have a backyard flock and I would like to be able to cull a few hens and some roosters every year,” all the way up to, “We are planning to raise enough meat birds for ourselves and our neighbors and we need to know what tools we need to get started on that.” In this episode, I am going to do my best to get you comfortable with the idea of butchering a few hens on your kitchen counter, and reassure you that you have every tool you need, and it really is a simple and straightforward process – but there is a learning curve, and it is worth learning.

This is an ancestral skill that used to be fairly familiar to many people; if you have read many older books you know they are always butchering this, that, or the other chicken and it doesn’t even barely make a comment in the book because it is such a simple and familiar process to people in the days of old. We will cover the tools you need for both a simple few birds a year, all the way up to the larger batches that involve more equipment; we will talk about involving your kids in the process, and we will talk about the clean-up and packaging process at the end as well.

I hope you find this episode to be very useful and interesting, and please be aware that we are going to talk about all the blood and guts in this episode and it is appropriate for all ages, but please be aware before you jump in.

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Meredith Leigh, Episode 77

Modern Homesteading Conference

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery




Thieves Cleaner

Some helpful YouTube videos (go down the rabbit hole!). Use each of these videos as a jumping-off point and take advantage of YouTube’s algorithms to watch video after video of the processes! You may find one particular creator speaks to the way you learn best, and dive deep on their videos:

Justin Rhodes butchering with minimal equipment

Justin Rhodes butchering 100 chickens

Brandon retiring laying hens

Brandon shows how to scald and pluck a chicken using a drum plucker (could do it by hand, too)

Brandon demonstrating how to take the guts out of a chicken

Joel Salatin demos broiler processing and as always, he touches on the sacredness of taking a life to begin his process. This is an excellent demo as Joel has butchered hundreds of thousands of birds and he casually drops lots of little useful details.

Note that if you attend a homesteading conference there will almost always be a broiler processing demo on the schedule, and those are well worth attending! Even after butchering many birds we still like to watch these and learn new things or just be encouraged. However, those demos don’t typically teach finer points like how to get the crop out; you will more get the broad scope of processing birds.

Mini Urban Farm processes chickens

Stoney Ridge Farmer butchers chickens

You can also see Joel Salatin’s early cameo butchering chickens in the documentary, Food Inc! This was the first time I saw cones in use back in 2009.

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Why butcher chickens?

  1. Not everyone has to! If you have a great farm around you, don’t feel bad about outsourcing this process.
  2. If you keep a home flock of layers, it’s a good skill to have. You may never wish to do big batches and that is fine; but butchering the occasional cull hen or rooster enables you to add good broth to your pot with resources you have already expended. We get offered a lot of free birds from people who need to cull these hens and roos but don’t want to butcher them themselves; I also know of a woman who has made a name for herself taking other people’s birds they don’t want and butchering them for her own table. It’s a great way to fill your freezer for free!
  3. If you want to raise all your own meat birds, it’s nice to start small and work your way up (especially if you are learning on your own without someone to teach you, as we did!).

What about the emotional aspect of butchering?

  1. It’s different for each person. I can really only speak to my own experience. Meredith Leigh who we interviewed in episode 77 also created a patreon bonus ebook about her experience moving from a plant-based eater to an accomplished butcher.
  2. Make a ritual or a prayer if that is helpful.
  3. It does get easier (in my experience anyway), and especially when you start doing more and more. When you are spending a lot of money feeding the birds, it’s a relief to know they will be in the freezer soon. Euphemistically called freezer camp, by many homesteaders.

Can children be involved in the process?

  1. We find it appropriate for our children to be involved. They have all been involved from a very young age so I don’t think it has been too much of a shock for them; the first chickens I killed were in a field on a farm with Jakob tied to my back, just a few months old.
  2. Not every kid may be ready to be involved and I don’t think they should be pushed.
  3. The process and the way you explain it and treat the animals is important. Respect, gentleness, and kindness. I know adults who grew up on farms butchering animals from a young age, and the experience was cavalier, careless, or thoughtless towards the animals. Those adults still have issues being around butchery to this day.
  4. We have had to butcher some loved, named animals that the kids didn’t want to butcher. The reality of farming is that you can’t keep every animal as a pet. Year over year it has gotten easier as we make sure to frame the animal’s life span and purpose from the beginning of acquisition, and talking about this constantly with the kids.

Let’s get down to butchering! I have a hen who is too old to lay much, or a few roosters grew up from my batch of chicks, or I am planning to raise a flock of meat birds and I want to butcher at home. Let’s talk about the process and the tools we need.

What happens when we butcher a chicken?

  1. The kill: Capture your chicken. If this was a planned butcher, you may have kept them off feed for 24 hours – this helps a lot during the butcher process because a full crop is harder to pull out, and messy. You can invert the bird in a cone (easiest method – I will detail a few options for cones later), or you can hold it between your knees with its head down at your knees as you kneel on the ground (we have done tons of birds this way and we much prefer the cone method, also saves time), and cut the jugular on both sides of the neck. We sever both sides not across because cutting the windpipe causes more stress for the animal, aspiration of blood, mess, etc. There are other ways to kill chickens which are also good, but this is the one we use. The bird can fully drain in the cone which is better for the quality and keeping of the meat.
  2. Feathers: Next you will take your fully dead and bled bird and scald it by plunging into hot water (temperature is important – we use 146F and Gary has found that even a 1 or 2 degree difference may be critical for different breeds and for perfect plucks and skin). Plunge the bird up and down to get water fully under all the feathers. You can add a few drops of soap to the water to help with this. Too long or hot of a scald will cook the skin and not only will it be unsightly, but it will start to tear when you pluck the bird, too. That’s not harmful but it is unattractive! Now the bird can be plucked, either by pulling out handfuls of feathers (easily, if your scald was right), or by putting a few scalded birds in a mechanical plucker per mfrs instructions. A mechanical plucker is like the tub of an upright washing machine with holes in the side, except in the holes are rubber fingers that grip and pull out feathers while the machine spins. Constant running water keeps the feathers washing down and away. This is really only necessary if you are doing a lot of birds; birds are easy to pluck by hand.
  3. Innards and head and feet: Now you have a plucked bird! Time to remove the head and feet. Watch the YouTube videos carefully to know how to do this right, I could spend a lot of time talking about how Gary does this but you really need to see it. Note that you NEVER poke or stab a bird with your knife – through the entire process you only slice. If you stab a bird you run the risk of opening its entrails, which makes for messy meat and processing. You will remove the head, the feet, and the neck, then the crop, windpipe and esophagus. Harvey Ussery has a great explanation of this process on page 300 of this book, and nothing beats doing it yourself, too. After this, a slit is cut down under the base of the breastbone, and by reaching inside you can loosen all the organs and pull them out. This is where you can stop to sort out organs, or pass that job on to someone working with you. Joel does the evisceration in 30 seconds – that’s what happens after gutting thousands of birds by hand!
  4. Sorting organs: We like to save the heart, liver and gizzard. The gizzard needs to be cleaned and the yellow membrane inside pulled away. Removing the gizzard and liver must be done very carefully so you don’t burst the fragile bile sack – it will happen eventually and it’s all part of the learning process.
  5. Remove the oil gland – you can cut off the entire tail, or just cut out the oil gland. Pictures and videos online are helpful for finding this – it is simple and takes just two quick slits of the knife.
  6. Other things – we have also saved the testes of roosters and ate them, hey they weren’t bad at all. If you are butchering layers, they will have eggs ranging from tiny clusters of yolk all the way up to even egg in the shell, if she hasn’t laid that day yet. You can save these yolks and eggs and use them in custard or ice cream!
  7. The lungs come out last and are pretty embedded in the ribs. Sometimes they come out all in one, sometimes in pieces. We sometimes leave them in. We also often leave the kidneys inside.

What tools are needed to butcher chickens?

  1. It’s helpful to watch as many videos as you can of people butchering. We watched I don’t even know HOW many videos on YouTube. Different people show different angles of the butcher process, or they use different tools, they have different sized birds, they work at varying speeds, etc. It’s helpful to see that there are many, many ways to do it. The book I recommend most is The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery. This is a vibrant, living book written by a man who is deeply passionate about both his fowl and the natural processes of nature, and also about sharing and teaching this with others. I recommend this as the number one book for anyone who wants to keep chickens in any capacity – it is gorgeous and colorful and full of brilliant pictures, my kids love reading it, if you read aloud to your children it makes a fascinating read-aloud. He includes a chapter (Chapter 28) on butchering poultry, including step-by-step photos. You could in fact follow his book carefully and, with some trial and error (always be ready for trial and error), learn poultry butchering just out of that chapter. You can also sign up for memberships or classes like Farmstead Meatsmith or Abundance+ offers.
  2. For a simple butchering, in truth all you need is a good sharp knife, a pot of water and a stove. The pot of water and the stove is for scalding so I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could skin the bird and avoid scalding, too. I have done this on the kitchen counter in a tiny apartment.
  3. For a full-on butchering process, we like having: cages for transporting chickens from field to butcher site, cones, bungees to restrain feet, sharp replaceable razor knives, a large scalding pot and scalding burner, a plucker and a hose to run water through it, folding tables or stainless steel tables, a hanging hose to keep the work surface clean and not hassle with the hose falling on the floor, Thieves spray by the gallons to constantly spray down surfaces with continuous sprayers, sharp knives, a sharpening steel, rubber or leather aprons, boots, buckets lined with compostable bags for blood (at cone site – you can feed your soldier flies or worms this blood or compost it! It is really sticky and hard to get out of the bucket without a bag) and unwanted innards (at dressing table), plastic bussing tubs to throw odd bits into, large tubs or coolers or troughs of ice to set tubs in, and also additional to plunge dressed birds into, disposable gloves for working, heaters for the work space if it’s cold season, a cover if it’s rainy season and you’re outside, pressure washer to clean pavement afterwards, cutting tables, and vacuum sealer and vacuum seal bags, labels for packaging, or poultry shrink bags (not our favorite), racks for drip-drying chickens on, paper towels for clean-up, and lots and lots and lots of clean water, a compost pile for feathers and innards (whatever dogs and pigs don’t want), and not to be forgotten, a freezer meal that can be baking while you’re outside doing all this because you will be ravenous when you come inside!

Options for cones: an actual metal purpose-made cone, which can be purchased online from either Amazon or feathermanequipment.com or a variety of other places. For US farmers we recommend featherman as they are made in the USA and often equipment from other places has a low quality rating. Gary built their Whizbang Plucker with their original plans for a friend back in 2009. A 1-gallon jug with the bottom cut off and the neck cut wide enough for a hen or duck’s head to pass through, nailed to a tree. A traffic cone with the hole on top cut a little wider to allow the head to pass through, nailed to a tree or post. A 5-gallon bucket with the bottom cut off, cut down the side, and twisted into a cone shape, nailed to a tree or post. This is what we did for the first year.


For meat, the birds should be chilled to 45 degrees. (WSDA requires to be able to show the process used to chill a bird to 45 degrees within 4 hours of killing). Plunging them right into ice water is perfect for this. You will want to have LOTS of ice on hand if you are butchering a lot of birds! You will need twice as much as you think for a hot day. For just one bird, it’s less of a concern!

Storing and using:

  1. Birds should be chilled fully, then drip dried and can be patted dry with paper towels if you like.
  2. If freezing: They need to be patted nice and dry before sealing or you will have lakes of water in your packaging, which is not beneficial to flavor or appearance.
  3. fIf you are just butchering a hen for stew or broth, you still want her to fully chill for tender meat, or so I am told. We have taken old hens that we know would be too chewy to eat anyway, and put right into the pot. The dogs are happy to eat the carcass afterwards.
  4. Organs need to be process and stored fast, within a day; they don’t last long. Organs chill quickly (we place ours in bins on ice as we butcher), and of course can be used right away. We often start a broth pot the same day we butcher.

Clean up!

  1. Clean everything right away, it will start to smell very quickly!
  2. We do not use bleach or chemicals in our cleaning process, we use tons of water throughout, and Thieves spray between things and everywhere at the end. You can also use vinegar.
  3. Hang, drip dry, invert, etc. Maybe take a hot shower (we are always cold after butchering!). Eat something hot and tasty!

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