For Full Instructions on Dressing Your Bird, Visit My Post ‘How to Butcher a Chicken.’
Fall Butchering Season Will be Here Soon
Fall is traditionally the time of year when extra livestock on a farm or homestead is butchered. The simple fact of the matter is this…farm animals are typically born in the spring and grow all summer and into the autumn, but farmers don’t always have the extra feed to nourish those animals over the winter. Extra males are the first to go. They create a commotion as they mature and fight for mating rights. Perhaps a new stud is kept and the old one is sold or butchered, but most will go on the table while they are still young and tender.
Next are the older females that aren’t producing enough milk, eggs, or babies to justify keeping them around. A farmer can’t be sentimental about his dear old milk cow. If she doesn’t produce, she doesn’t stay. Sometimes these ‘extras’ are lucky enough to be sold off to a new farmer or family that can’t afford an animal in prime condition.
Some of the exceptions are horses, oxen, and cattle. Working animals such as horses or a team of oxen are kept until they are no longer able to pull their weight around the farm. Then they are fair game for butchering too (at least back in the day they were). Cattle are normally kept until the second season to reach a good butchering size.
Butchering on My Homestead
We only have a bit over an acre of land, so cattle, pigs and the like are not feasible here. However, I raise all of the poultry that we eat and I butcher them myself. I consider it my responsibility to provide the best life for my animals and the best end of life too. Their death is as quick and as painless as I can make it. But that doesn’t mean that I enjoy this responsibility. In fact, it is a very sobering part of my homestead life.
Our farming forefathers would often eat extra poultry during the warm summer months, since a chicken or duck would provide enough for a nice dinner without leftovers. There usually was no refrigeration for keeping extra meat from spoiling, so larger animals like pigs and cattle were typically butchered late in the fall or early winter when there was natural cold storage.
I also butcher my poultry throughout the year. As I notice egg production tapering off, I try to isolate older hens to see who is still laying…and who will be culled. It’s never easy to end the life of one of my laying hens. They all seem to have their own little personalities and, well, I enjoy having them around. But I can’t afford to provide organic feed for hens that aren’t laying more than a couple of eggs a week.
Last year I raised turkeys and I found it even more difficult to butcher them. They were inquisitive birds and they followed me around the garden like pets. And they definitely knew I was up to no good when I took a member of the flock away. It was tough.
This year I raised ducks for the first time since I was a kid. They are harder to butcher too. They just seem a bit smarter than the chickens, and they have such deep, dark eyes. They know something is up when I take a member of their flock away.
When I know that some of the birds need to be butchered, I keep an eye on the weather forecasts, watching for a cool day so there won’t be as many flies and bacteria won’t multiply as quickly. I usually know a day or two in advance when I am going to butcher, and how many birds I will be processing.
The thought is on my mind every time I walk out to feed, water, or collect the eggs. My heart sinks every time I look at the unlucky members of the flock. I try to watch to see if there are signs that one male is better suited for carrying on the flock than the others, making my mental preparations.
The night before butcher day I might separate the ones that will be butchered, but not always. I know you are supposed to stop feeding them and just provide water, but I have gotten pretty good at butchering without spilling the contents of the intestines. So I usually just catch the victims in the morning and put them in a cage until I’m ready.
This is the point when I get knots in my stomach, or maybe they’re butterflies. Whatever it is, I don’t like it. I set up the scalding pot and let the water start heating. The table is pulled out, knives and hatchet sharpened, chopping block wiped down. A container is readied for the feathers and entrails. I cut one corner of a feed bag off for putting the bird’s head through and restraining them. This allows me to hold the animal safely while I chop off the head and let it bleed out. It protects my arms from their toenails and keeps the meat from getting bruised. I move through these preparations methodically, finding solace by moving with purpose.
When the water in the scalding pot is hot enough, I know it’s time to get started. Once the animal is dead, I really have no problem with the rest. At that point it is meat, not a living creature. The first one is the hardest and I try to move through the steps methodically and efficiently to get the job done as quickly as I can. My ultimate goal is to make each death as swift as possible so the meat is processed and chilled right away.
What You Need to Butcher a Chicken
- sharp paring knives
- hatchet or ax
- container for offal
- scalding pot and a means for heating it (I use an electric burner, but a propane burner works well too)
- pot or large bowl for carcass
- ice or refrigerator for chilling carcass