Tips for navigating butchering day for your family's flock
Generations ago, people knew how to butcher their own chickens at home, but that knowledge has been lost for most people now. If you keep chickens for eggs, eventually you will need to butcher old hens in order to keep your flock productive.
I had zero experience with butchering animals prior to starting our own backyard flock 10+ years ago. In the last decade, I've learned a lot about how to make butchering day run more smoothly. I'm happy to share that knowledge with you.
Some Reasons Why You May Need to Cull Your Flock
Even if you never raise meat birds, you will likely need to cull the following out of your flock at some point.
Old hens: Laying hens are generally productive for 3-4 years, but they can live 5-8+ years.
Unproductive hens: Some hens are duds when it comes to egg production.
Roosters: You may end up with undesired roosters in your flock, especially if you hatch your own eggs or buy straight-run chicks. Mean roosters may also need to be culled.
Timing is Important for Harvesting Your Chickens
Here are some things to keep in mind about when to harvest your chickens.
Egg Production is Seasonal: Spring and summer are generally the times of highest egg production. After the first year, most hens will have lower egg production in the Fall and winter due to molting and shorter daylight hours.
Autumn or Winter Harvest: We generally try to cull old hens in the early Fall before they start to molt or in the early winter when their egg production has dropped off.
Hens 3-4 Years Old: If you mainly keep chickens for their eggs, you will likely want to cull your chickens once they have passed their peak egg production by around 3-4 years old. Don't make the mistake of butchering 1.5 year old hens just because they have slowed down egg production in the winter. These younger chickens will likely have a boom in egg production when Spring rolls around.
Avoid the Molt: Chickens generally molt and grow new feathers in the Fall. Try to avoid butchering your chickens while they are molting, or else it will be very difficult to remove the feathers that are in the process of growing in. We generally try to cull our hens just prior to or after the molting cycle.
Preparing Kids for Butchering Day
If your kids get attached to the chickens like mine do, butchering day can come with some extra challenges. We've had some tearful butchering days, but over time my kids have learned that this is a natural part of chicken ownership.
Ideally, kids should know far in advance that chickens will eventually need to be culled from the flock. I emphasize that our flock needs to remain productive for us to be able to keep chickens in the long-term. Another thing that has helped ease this process for my kids is knowing that when we cull old hens, that means we will be able to get new chicks in the Spring.
When we've raised meat birds, we have given them names such as "Tasty" or "Lunch" in order to help the kids remember not to get too attached to those ones. Some years, we have also made the purposeful decision to let a child keep one favorite hen, even if she is old and not producing eggs. Obviously there is some long-term cost to this, so we try not to do this very much.
Ignatia for People and Chickens
Homeopathic Ignatia can be an important aid in dealing with the emotions and potential grief of butchering day. My kids generally take a dose of Ignatia on butchering day, and this helps them integrate and move through the emotions relatively quickly. I will sometimes take Ignatia on butchering day, too, depending on how I'm feeling.
Ignatia can be helpful for the chickens, too. One year, we had a chicken die of a broken heart soon after we had culled her favorite rooster from the flock. Since then, we make sure to assess whether the flock could benefit from a dose of Ignatia to help them deal with the stress of chickens being removed from the flock.
Methods for Putting Down Chickens
I have tried various methods for putting down chickens, including cervical dislocation (the broomstick method), using a "killing cone," and chopping off the head with an ax.
By far, my preferred method is to give a gentle passing with a calm chicken on my lap and a very sharp knife. The video below shows the method I use.
Prepping for Chicken Harvest
Before dispatching chickens, we prepare by making sure we have on-hand:
a sharp paring knife (make sure to sharpen it ahead of time!)
an apron for securing the chicken on your lap
a medium pot for catching the blood
pruning shears (for cutting off the head once the chicken is done bleeding out and flapping)
a pot of very hot water (for scalding the chicken before you pluck it)
a bucket for the feathers and guts
a clean, uncluttered surface and sink in the kitchen
Harvesting Chickens with Compassion and Care
I try to give our hens a calm, peaceful passing. We say "thank you" and make a prayer of gratitude for each hen we butcher, and then I hold the hen on my lap to calm her before I dispatch her.
My kids are invited to participate in the butchering process. There are many lessons kids can learn from being involved in the overall process. Chicken processing can be a hands-on science lesson as well as giving kids a greater understanding of where food comes from.
When we're butchering chickens my kids are particularly attached to, it can help for the kids to wait to join me until the chicken is already dead. Plucking is a process that can benefit from extra hands, for sure. Since my kids are older now and managing our flock for their egg business, they are learning how to process chickens from start to finish.
After a quick dip in the pot of very hot water, it is fairly easy to pluck all the feathers off the chicken. We also remove the head and feet outdoors. Once we're done plucking each chicken, we wash it off with a hose and then bring it inside for the evisceration. That helps with keeping down the flies and gives us a comfortable place to wash and prepare the chicken for our family's table.
The video below video shows how to handle gutting and preparing the chicken. This video is especially helpful as it shows the process for an old hen (which looks quite a bit different than a young meat bird). The Small-Scale Poultry Flock book is also helpful as a handy reference with full color photos of the chicken processing steps.
Note that if you're going to cull a rooster, be aware that they are tough! Their sinews, tendons, and bones are all stronger than those on a hen. Make sure your knife is extra sharp and be prepared that you will have to use a bit more force to complete the whole process.
Making the Most of the Harvest
We try to use all the parts we can from the chickens we harvest.
Feathers are added to the mulch in our chicken coop, where they can become compost as well as potentially add a bit of protein to the hens' diets.
The coagulated blood becomes a protein-rich food for the chickens. (Remember that chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians!) There are recipes for cooking with blood as well, but I haven't tried any of those.
Old hens contain a bounty of rich, golden fat. I render this fat and use it for cooking.
The chicken feet are scalded and then peeled. They are a great addition to the pot when I'm making broth.
If the liver and heart look good, we will eat them gladly. Often, though, the liver from old hens looks lighter colored and worn out. In that case it goes to the dogs.
The dogs can eat other miscellaneous parts too, such as the gizzard, trachea, lungs, etc.
Old hens (and roosters) can be tough eating. The method I've found to work best for preparing an old hen for eating is to age the bird for a week in the fridge after butchering, and then cover it with water and cook it low-and-slow for 12 hours in the slow cooker. Adding wine or vermouth to the pot can also help with tenderizing the meat.
Butchering day is no one's favorite day, but hopefully these tips will help it flow more smoothly for you and your family.
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