Small Scale Poultry Processing Equipment and Stations
Set up small-scale poultry processing equipment and stations for quick broiler slaughtering.
By Anne Gordon Perhaps the greatest distinction between Cornish Cross broilers and layer chickens is how we relate to them. Cornish Cross broilers are raised for our dinner plates, as opposed to layers, which are raised for their eggs. Considering an animal as livestock in no way means we care less for them or stop worrying about their well-being. It simply means we relate much differently to them. We avoid naming them and keep an emotional separation between them and us. They are not pets. This understanding makes processing much easier for most small-flock owners.
Whether you transport your Cornish Cross broilers off-farm to a commercial processor, hire a neighbor, or slaughter and butcher them yourself, there’s always that moment when you realize their fate is at your hand. I’m happy that I still have that moment. It gives me pause to pray that their slaughter be humane and death be swift. As a transplanted city girl, it took me some real effort to reach that point.
As I prepared for this post, I decided not to write an article on how to slaughter, butcher, and eviscerate poultry. Many articles and videos already exist on that subject. Instead, I’ll share how I go about planning the processing event and what I do to make the task easier, more time-efficient and quicker to clean up.
I follow U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Exempt processing standards and recommend this video demonstrating those standards. My process involves extra-large rolled steel kill cones to immobilize the broiler and slaughter it by cutting the carotid artery, making sure not to puncture or cut the esophagus, which prevents microbial contamination. I employ a stun method of a brain stick; death is instant, promoting a more thorough bleed-out and easier feather removal.
Preparing to Process
For some folks, processing Cornish Cross broilers marks a day when family and friends join in the task, making it possible to process upwards of 100 broilers in one day. I live alone and do all my own processing, so planning for me has made the difference in raising and processing Cornish Cross broilers. Otherwise, without planning and efficient procedures, it would be a huge task to accomplish alone.
My first step is to pick a processing day based on the readiness of the broilers. At the fourth week, I begin weighing a sampling of broilers twice per week, noting their weight and general progress. This takes a little record keeping but pays off big-time in allowing you to note how many and which broilers to process first; you’re not guessing, and the finished product will be more uniform in weight and easier to process.
Like me, nearly all small-flock owners process their broilers as whole chickens. Depending on how many broilers I want as rotisserie-sized or fryers, I mark an “R” or “F” on the bird’s back feathers with Sharpie. This is nothing more than my way of identifying which birds are progressing the fastest and will achieve live weight at 6 weeks for rotisserie (5.5 to 6 pounds) or live weight at 8 weeks for fryers (7.5 to 8+ pounds). Some broilers are quick to gain weight and are good candidates for processing at six weeks, while others are a little slower but catch up by the eighth week. This approach makes it easier for me to quickly identify which birds to process when.
Once I’ve determined the broilers to process on which date, it’s time to check and make sure I have on hand all the necessary supplies needed. There’s nothing worse than to start processing only to find you’re short on zip ties for the shrink bags or that the propane tank runs out halfway through scalding. Like many of us, I’ve learned the hard way to do this in advance just in case I need to replenish the propane tank, order in additional shrink bags, pick up some zip ties, etc.
A lazy, sunny day is a great time to check the kill cones, sanitize the cool-down containers, sharpen knives, and make sure the refrigerator has enough space to handle the number of birds scheduled for processing. The auto feather plucker gets pulled out, and its tub rinsed and turned on, just to make sure it’s working.
Over the years processing broilers, I’ve managed to incorporate a number of items that make things run a little easier. Two items in particular have proven to be real time-savers. One of these items is a stainless steel lung remover tool. Just reach it into the broiler’s cavity, and it quickly and thoroughly removes lungs and also scrapes the broiler skin, removing feathers or follicles missed by the plucker. I also now use ring pliers to cinch up the shrink bags rather than using zip ties. Simply twist the bag neck with the broiler inside, and squeeze a ring around the twist. It’s faster and more professional-looking.
A wire exercise pen is quick to set up as a confinement pen for the broilers to be slaughtered. It’s a snap to set up, tear down, and store at the end of the processing day. It’s set up next to the kill cones stand positioned over a small compost bin. I can easily grasp a couple broilers out of the wire pen and place in the kill cones and dispatch them.
Once bled out, both broilers can be scalded at the same time and then placed into the auto plucker together. As I process one broiler on the garden kitchen countertop, the other is kept in plastic dish pan inserted into the sink as next in line for processing. It’s easy to lift the dish pan out of the sink, rinse the broiler I’m processing, and then bag and place it in an ice-water cooler. The broilers are kept separate using the dishpan, and the area can be easily sanitized with no cross contamination between processed broilers, which is critical in containing foodborne pathogens should they exist.
I‘ve found using a surgical scalpel to be most effective at cleanly cutting the carotid artery. And, rather than sharpen, I merely replace with a sterile blade after processing 25 birds. A seldom used stainless steel asparagus steamer – a 10-inch-tall and 7-inch-wide pot with glass lid – serves as receptacle for necks, hearts, livers, and gizzards, as future treats for my two Springer Spaniels.
An 8-quart stainless steel stockpot lined with a plastic shopping bag easily holds the entrails of two broilers.
A stainless-steel step lid trash can with BPA-free plastic liner was a recent addition making it easy dispose of the entrails. Once finished with the two broilers, step on the lid lever and drop the plastic bag of entrails into the trash bag. The lid closes and no flies or wasps gather at the can.
Broilers are scalded in a dedicated 30-quart aluminum pot with temp gauge heated over a propane burner with regulator to adjust the flame.
Perhaps the absolute best addition to my broiler processing is a garden kitchen I had built on a 5-by-8-foot deck covered by an attached grill gazebo. The 24-by-60-inch processing counter is the top to a commercial stainless steel prep table and a 20-inch square deep stainless steel sink along with articulating sprayer faucet. I modified the plumbing on the faucet to accept the garden hose so that it functions just like a kitchen faucet.
The entire processing kitchen is National Science Foundation (NSF) stainless steel. It’s easy to keep sanitized during processing and serves double duty being conveniently accessible to the raised bed garden complex and berry orchard for cleaning veggies and fruit. It’s also a great place to fill up seed trays and get seeds planted on a sunny spring day. I can process broilers in rain or blazing sun and can honestly say I don’t know how I managed without it. The set up will support my State Exemption to process broilers for Farmers Market customers without meat inspections.
The Dispatching Process
The day before processing is a quick and easy set up because all items used are dedicated to processing and stored separately in a tote. I simply unpack and place the items on the counter. The plucker is already out and ready, along with the propane tank, burner, and scalding pot set up. The kill cones are sanitized and attached to the frame over the small compost bin, and a wire exercise pen is set up next to it for convenient reach.
The broilers scheduled for processing are segregated in the grow-out pen the day before and their food is withheld after 6 p.m. This empties the crop and gut, eliminating the possibility of tearing it during processing, which, if torn, could result in fecal contamination of the carcass.
On processing day, it’s relatively straightforward. In sets of two, the broilers are slaughtered, scalded, plucked, and eviscerated. After rinsing, each broiler is placed in a shrink-wrap bag with a zip tie and placed in the ice-water cooler. Broilers are later moved to the refrigerator and held for 36 hours for resting. Thereafter, the bagged broilers are dipped in 150-degree water, shrinking the bags, and then placed in the freezer.
With this approach to processing, I’m able to easily process 20 to 25 broilers in a day depending on how many breaks I take. Cleanup is just as quick and easy as set up. Being prepared, organized, and with a plan can take the drudgery out of broiler processing.
Poultry Brain Pithing — Humane Stunning
Stunning a Cornish Cross broiler at slaughter has several significant benefits, namely a regular heartbeat, making the bleed-out process faster. Stunning, relaxes muscles and feather follicles, making feathers easier to pull out many EU countries mandate poultry must be stunned as a humane approach to slaughter.
Researchers have found that stunning kills muscle metabolism, which improves meat quality, which is why many commercial processors stun broilers before slaughter. In fact, hand pithing was part of American poultry processing until it was replaced by automation and electric baths. Fear that the process was painful for the birds made the practice unpopular in commercial operations. I would argue that pithing is quick and far more humane than many other processing methods. It would be good for this stunning method to become part of poultry slaughter again.
Several years ago, I learned how to stand a broiler at slaughter using the brain stick “pithing” method. Typically, a broiler placed in a kill cone would provide a clear view of the birds, mouth roof, exposing the palate’s long narrow slit called the “choana” that connects to the windpipe. (A Google search of con no anal slit will display multiple images.)
Begin by firmly grasping the sides of the broiler’s head from just behind the ears. Quickly cut the carotid artery just below the ear. Then immediately insert a narrow, sharp knife into the choanal slit, approximately 1/3-inch to 1/2-inch, aimed towards the top of the boiler’s head. The knife does not need to be pushed in hard as it may penetrate through the brain case and poke your hand. You’re aiming for the back of the brain cavity, located just below the comb. If done correctly, an audible snap can be heard. Twist the knife to approximately 90 degrees.
These are all small movements. The broiler is instantly dispatched as the knife severs the spinal cord brain stem. The broiler will then be thoroughly relaxed and bleed out within a few minutes. There will be only one small convulsion in the kill cone rather than the typical death throes of multiple violent convulsions when no stunning method is used. This stunning method makes for the most humane approach to slaughtering a broiler. Death is instantaneous and the immediate relaxing of the muscles makes feather removal much easier.
Barbut, Shari. 2002. Poultry Processing Systems. CRC Pres, Boca Raton. FL. p.548
Owens, Casey. 2001 University of Arkansas, Poultry Science Department, Fayetteville, AR. Personal communication.
Anne Gordon is a backyard chicken owner with a modest chicken operation that includes layer chickens and Cornish Cross broilers. And, like many of you, she doesn’t sell eggs or meat – all production is for her personal consumption. She’s a long-time poultry keeper and writes from personal experience as a city girl who moved to the suburbs to raise a few chickens and now resides on a rural acreage. She’s experienced a lot with chickens over the years and learned lots along the way – some of it the hard way. She’s had to think out of the box in some situations yet held to tried-and-true traditions for others. Anne lives on Cumberland Mountain in Tennessee with her two English Springers, Jack and Lucy.