Butchering Turkeys: From Gobble to Table
How to pluck a turkey the easy way
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Butchering turkeys for the holiday season is a tradition on many homesteads, and for a good reason. Perhaps you’re looking for the freshest, most tender bird possible with only a simple turkey brine. Maybe you want to butcher turkeys at home, so you know exactly how your food was grown. Perhaps you decided to start raising turkey poults to add a profit center to your farm. In any case; butchering turkeys on the homestead may be a great option for you.
Butchering Turkeys For Yourself
If you plan on butchering turkeys for personal consumption, then I presume you’re not planning on processing all that many. If you’re not concerned about the perfect presentation of a whole roasted turkey, then knowing how to field dress a turkey will save you lots of time.
Field Dressing A Turkey
Field dressing cuts out the unnecessary and time-consuming parts of butchering turkeys. You don’t need much beyond a clean place to work and a sharp knife. A hunter’s knife or a deboning knife should serve you well.
To field dress a deceased turkey, place the bird on it’s back with the breast bone facing up. Cut the skin along the breast bone from neck to tail, taking care not to cut the crop or the vent in the process. Pull the skin, feathers and all, down on either side to expose the breast meat. Separate the breast meat from the frame of the bird by cutting it from either side of the breast bone and ribs.
Once you’ve removed the breast meat, remove the legs at the hock joint with a knife. Don’t cut through the bone, but instead cut the skin and tendons so you can separate the joint. Then, just like the breast bone, cut and pull the skin to expose the drumsticks. Cut the connective tissue and twist both drumsticks from their socket.
Butchering Turkeys For Others
Butchering turkeys for other people is a far more complicated process. You can skate by with limited or marginal equipment if you’re processing very few birds, but if you’re handling more than six birds, you owe it to yourself to buy, build or borrow proper equipment for the job.
If you can’t afford to buy, build or borrow equipment, look for a local processor that butchers turkeys. I’ve met many a small farmer who wound up stuck with turkeys they couldn’t process because they didn’t do their research, so be sure you have a processor available if that’s the plan. These unfortunate souls usually gave the birds away or had to learn how to keep turkeys healthy in winter, all because they incorrectly assumed there was a local processor that would work with them.
The USDA custom slaughter exemption allows the end consumer of the animal in question to bring it to a custom processor (such as you) to be butchered. Operating properly under the USDA’s Custom slaughter exemption is somewhat tricky. Be sure to research and fully understand the law, both federal and state, before you attempt it.
Learn The Process
The process of butchering turkeys is somewhat involved, albeit not impossible. This article should be considered an informational overview since there are many little things I can’t cover in one article. Seek local guidance. Find a farmer who butchers turkeys on the farm and help them when they process their birds to learn the process first hand.
The tools I use for butchering turkeys are straightforward; some sharp knives, several short hoses with valves, some bits of rope, pruning loppers, an exceptionally unsafe lamp cord with “gator clamps” attached to the business end, plastic tubs, buckets, and a scale.
There are professional job-specific knives available on the market such as pin feather knives, sticking knives and such, but I find a good, sharp deboning knife does the job. Have several knives, since stopping to sharpen a dull knife takes longer than simply reaching for a fresh one.
If you’re planning on butchering turkeys en mass, you’ll need some helping hands. Many times I find willing hands to help on the line either by bribery (Pizza and a turkey), volunteers who want to learn how to butcher turkeys, or fellow farmers who have birds to process. Many hands make for quick work, so be sure you have a crew ready.
Doing The Deed
Some farmers use a kill cone, which is an inverted cone you place the bird in upside down to hold it as you bleed it. They work, but I find them to be expensive, and one size does not fit all. I prefer to hang birds by the legs with a simple length of rope that has a “toggle” tied at the end of it. A quick wrap and turn of the toggle keep my birds suspended safely. I like the rope and toggle method instead of kill cones or shackles because it’s cheaper and more comfortable for the bird.
I don’t recommend using my crude, dangerous but effective method of stunning, despite the fact that I’m about to explain it. You can exsanguinate your birds while conscious, but I prefer to use my highly unsafe lamp cord to stun my birds before bleeding them. Once hung, I attach one “gator” clip to the skin near the tail or vent, and the other on the snood. I stand back, plug the cord in for 10 to 15 seconds, unplug, and then bleed the bird while it’s unconscious. Did I mention this is dangerous? Don’t try this at home kids.
To pluck your turkey, you need to loosen the muscles that hold the feathers in place. You do this by scalding the deceased bird in hot water. Soak the bird in the hot water bath until the wing feathers pluck with marginal effort.
I use a water tank set on a robust bayou burner to achieve 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Thermostatically controlled scalders are a marvelous tool to have, but I’m stuck fidgeting with a propane burner and 40-gallon tank of hot water. It’s not ideal, but with persistence and constant temperature monitoring, it works.
How To Pluck A Turkey
Unless you plan to hand-pluck your birds, you’ll need a plucker. Professional plucker machines are expensive, even in the used market. I’m fortunate to have acquired two stand-up pluckers. One of these pluckers runs on 110 volts and the second one runs on 220 volts. Because turkeys are heavy, I use the 220 volt unit for turkeys.
If fortune has shone upon you, you may find yourself in possession of a tub plucker. Drop a scalded bird into this fantastic machine, let it spin, and remove a plucked bird. It’s a back saver compared to stand-up pluckers.
The Pope’s Nose
Now that you’ve gotten down to a featherless mass of turkey, it’s time to eviscerate. I start by cutting the legs off at the hock joint, then I skin the kneck and use the loppers to remove the kneck at the base. Don’t forget to cut off the “Pope’s Nose”, aka; the tail stump off the bird. I have absolutely no idea why they call it the Pope’s Nose, but I’ve been told this by so many old farmers that I’ve stopped questioning the term.
Now that the legs and neck are gone, you need to open the back of the bird, being sure to cut around the vent and not rupture any internal organs, especially the intestines. Reach inside the bird as it sits breast bone up, following the breast bone to the front. Grab and pull the entire viscera out with your hand.
You’ll have to cut or pull the trachea out and reach between the ribs in the back to remove the lungs. I use my fingers for lung extraction, but they do make lung scrapers if you prefer a tool for the job. I suggest putting your small-handed helpers on the evisceration table since people like me who have big mitts have issues with this part.
Immediately after your bird is eviscerated and rinsed clean, immerse it into a chill tank. You want those birds to chill quickly and thoroughly for storage. Don’t underestimate how much ice you’ll need to chill these birds, because it goes very fast.
Butchering turkeys at home is an education unto itself, one that I’m glad to have received. If you intend to attempt this yourself, do your research. There are a great many things I don’t have space in this article to discuss, but hopefully, it gave you a general overview of the process.
Have you butchered turkeys on your homestead before? Have any hot tips for your fellow readers? Tell us all about it in the comments below!
Originally published in the October/November 2019 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.