Butchering Chickens: Slow and Effortful, by Mrs. Alaska

For a decade, we have raised laying hens and enjoyed them immensely, for their eggs, foraging for bugs, and alerting us to predators, as well as for their entertaining antics. We have kept 4-10 at a time, and named them. I have never been able to kill any hens (cockerels yes) or eat those that died.

However, I do like to eat chicken, so I thought it time to explore raising and butchering meat chickens. A friend had the same idea. So she bought 25 Cornish cross chicks, which are the ones most commonly raised for meat in the U.S. We agreed that she would care for them for 6-8 weeks, we would split the cost of purchase and feed, and then my husband and I would join her for the butchering work.

Here is what I learned and what I will do in the future.

When we arrived, my friend was fuming that the development of this breed is unconscionable and she will never buy them again. The Cornish cross is bred to gain weight so rapidly that by 6-8 weeks (6 weeks for us), they are unable to live with their unnatural weight distribution. Their hearts, lungs, and legs cannot support them. Many had respiratory problems, three appeared to have died of heart attacks, and one had a broken leg. None behaved like her laying hens, which are active, social, and curious roamers. These chickens were listless and sedentary. They also smelled bad – which is apparently a known trait. Her daughter cried at the state of them.

We set up the butchering area outside for five of us to work:

a) To a vertical board, four metal cones were nailed, into which the chickens were slipped, upside down, so their heads slid below the bottom of the cones. Below each cone was a bucket to catch the blood when their necks were cut. Our two husbands collected the chickens, slipped them into the cones, and a third man cut off their heads and necks and let them bleed out for a few minutes.



b) Then one man dropped the bodies into the two pots of 155-degree water (on propane burners) for a short minute to heat the skin enough to loosen the feathers.

c) He then handed these, two at a time, to another who put two birds at a time into an electric chicken plucker, which looks like the cylinder of a washing machine, with rubber finger-like projections within. When turned on, the birds tumble about, shedding feathers. An adjacent hose stood ready for that station, to wash the feathers down into a bucket beneath. The wet feathers were then drained, bundled, and subsequently hauled off to the dump.



d) Betty and I manned a table full of cutting boards, as well as jars for the hearts, livers, and kidneys. Adjacent garbage cans received the intestines and feet, and coolers filled with ice water stored the finished bodies. Having never dissected anything – not even in biology classes (!?), I was amazed by the length of the intestines, and the unpleasant odor of the warm body cavity. We had to work carefully to separate the gall bladder from the liver so its green liquid would not squirt out and taint the meat with its bacterial load. When it did, we tossed both parts into the garbage as a loss.

I am sure that other people make good use of the chicken blood, feathers, feet, and innards, but on this, our first effort, we did not.

Since the men finished their quicker work before we concluded our slower butchering, they shifted their attention to weighing and vacuum sealing each chicken. We calculated the cost per pound at about $2/lb for $3.50 per chick plus feed over six weeks. The butchered weight was 3.5 to 5 lbs per bird. (None of that salt water added to commercial birds that add 3-5% weight). Altogether, it took five of us 3.5 hours to process the 21 chickens that survived six weeks. Their meat was clean and tasty.



From this experience, I have drawn several conclusions.

I will not raise Cornish Cross chickens. They really appeared pathetic and suffering from their bred condition, in direct contrast to the healthy laying hens nearby. A neighbor subsequently told us that he raised 50 of these chickens (long ago) and separated the water and food by 30 feet so the birds had to move about. By doing so, the birds were stronger and healthier. So that’s an idea.

I had been squeamish about the butchering process, but recognized myself as a “hypocritical meat eater” who should better appreciate what a chicken dinner really entails.

I can now conceive of raising dual-purpose hens, like Plymouth Rock and Rhode Island Reds, for a winter chicken dinner. They produce fewer eggs than some breeds, and less meat than the Cornish Crosses, but can live normal lives of foraging and socializing with other chickens and people. I have raised them in prior years as layers. Since it is tough for us to provide (at our off-grid home) the warmth and light that chickens need in an Alaskan winter, this could be a future plan.

I was surprised by the number of people, hours, and steps that the butchering process required. For a large family, this would be a frequent or time-consuming endeavor. My husband (and many people to whom I mentioned this) remember their grandmothers wringing the necks of chickens and giving them to the grandchildren to pluck by hand for dinner later. That is motivation!

We already know, from raising rabbits for meat and chickens for eggs, that meat/egg production on a small homestead scale is always more expensive than buying from a huge consolidator like Costco. It can be more expensive than buying from large-scale organic sources, too, especially if you figure in construction costs, hay, and utilities. (By contrast, raising fruits and vegetables and herbs are much less expensive than store-buying.) On the other hand, you know the health of your birds, what they ate, and foraging chickens contribute other beneficial services, too… as long as I can keep them out of my gardens.


I have much greater respect (and sympathy) for all the workers processing smelly chickens for national vendors in Iowa and other states. I hope the companies have figured out good use for all those feathers and intestines and blood.

I already knew, from helping (or observing) my husband butcher bear and fillet fish, how much time it takes before food even gets to cooking condition. Dealing with feathers, though, was new to me.
I will continue to eat meat, but will be more appreciative of the effort that goes into cooking it.

Vegetables and fruit are much easier and cheaper to raise and harvest, as all my gardens prove.

This article first appeared at Mrs. Alaska’s informative blog.  It is re-posted with permeission.