Set up small-scale poultry processing equipment and stations for the rapid slaughter of broilers.
By Anne Gordon
Perhaps the biggest distinction between Cornish Cross broilers and laying hens is how we relate them. Cornish Cross broilers are raised for our plates, as opposed to layers, which are raised for their eggs. Considering an animal as livestock does not in any way mean that we care less about it or that we stop caring about its well-being. It just means that we have very different relationships with them. We avoid naming them and keep an affective separation between them and us. They are not pets. This understanding makes treatment much easier for most small flock owners.
Whether you transport your Cornish Cross broilers off the farm to a commercial processor, hire a neighbor or slaughter and skin them yourself, there is always that moment when you realize their fate is between your hands. I’m happy to still have this moment. It gives me pause to pray that their slaughter will be humane and the death quick. As a transplanted city dweller, it took real effort to get here.
As I prepared for this article, I decided not to write an article on how to slaughter, butcher, and gut poultry. Many articles and videos already exist on this subject. Instead, I’m going to share how I go about scheduling the treatment event and what I’m doing to make it easier, faster, and faster to clean up.
I follow the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Exempt Processing Standards and recommend this video demonstrating these standards. My process involves extra-large rolled steel slaughter cones to immobilize the broiler and slaughter it by cutting the carotid artery, being careful not to puncture or cut the esophagus, which prevents microbial contamination. I use a brain stick stun method; death is instantaneous, promoting more complete bleeding and easier feather removal.
Preparation for treatment
For some people, Cornish Cross broiler processing marks a day when family and friends join in the work, resulting in more than 100 broilers being processed in a day. I live alone and do all my processing myself so planning for me has made the difference in keeping and processing Cornish Cross broilers. Otherwise, without effective planning and procedures, it would be a huge task to do alone.
My first step is to choose a processing day based on the readiness of the broilers. By week four, I begin weighing a sample of broilers twice a week, noting their weight and overall progress. It takes a bit of time to keep records, but is very cost effective by allowing you to keep track of how many and which broilers to process first; you don’t guess, and the finished product will be more uniform in weight and easier to process.
Like me, almost all owners of small flocks treat their broilers like whole chickens. Depending on how many broilers I want for rotisserie or fryers, I mark an “R” or an “F” on the bird’s back feathers with Sharpie. This is nothing more than my way of identifying which birds are progressing fastest and will reach liveweight at 6 weeks for rotisserie (5.5-6 pounds) or liveweight at 8 weeks for fryers (7 ,5 to 8+ pounds). Some broilers gain weight quickly and are good candidates for processing at six weeks, while others are a bit slower but catch up by week eight. This approach allows me to quickly identify which birds to treat and when.
Once I have determined which chickens to process on which date, it is time to check and make sure I have all the necessary supplies on hand. There’s nothing worse than starting the treatment only to find you’re out of shrink bag ties or the propane tank runs out halfway through the scald. Like many of us, I learned the hard way to do this ahead of time just in case I needed to refill the propane tank, order extra shrink bags, pick up zip ties, etc
A sunny, lazy day is the perfect time to check slaughter cones, sanitize cooling containers, sharpen knives, and make sure the refrigerator has enough space to handle the number of birds to be processed. The automatic plucker is removed, and its tank is rinsed and turned on, just to make sure it is working.
Over the years of broiler processing, I have managed to incorporate a number of things that make things a little easier. Two things in particular have proven to be real time-savers. One such item is a stainless steel lung extractor. Just reach into the cavity of the broiler, and it quickly and completely removes the lungs and also scrapes the skin of the broiler, removing any feathers or follicles missed by the plucker. I also now use ring pliers to tighten shrink bags rather than using zip ties. Simply twist the neck of the bag with the grill inside and tighten a ring around the twist. It’s faster and more professional.
A wired pen is quickly installed as a containment pen for broilers to be slaughtered. It’s a breeze to set up, take down and put away at the end of the treatment day. It is installed next to the destruction cone stand positioned above a small compost bin. I can easily grab a few broilers out of the wire pen and put them in the kill cones and ship them out.
Once bled, both broilers can be scalded at the same time and then placed together in the automatic plucker. While I process one broiler on the backyard kitchen counter, the other is kept in a plastic dish inserted into the sink as the next in line for processing. It’s easy to lift the dish pan out of the sink, rinse out the grill I’m dealing with, then pack it up and place it in an ice water cooler. Broilers are separated using the dish pan, and the area can be easily sanitized without cross-contamination between processed broilers, which is essential to contain food-borne pathogens if they exist.
I have found using a surgical scalpel to be the most effective in cutting the carotid artery cleanly. And, rather than sharpening, I simply replace with a sterile blade after processing 25 birds. A rarely used stainless steel asparagus steamer – a 10-inch-tall, 7-inch-wide pot with a glass lid – serves as a receptacle for necks, hearts, livers and gizzards, as future treats for my two Springer Spaniels.
An 8-quart stainless steel pot lined with a plastic shopping bag easily holds the innards of two broilers.
A stainless steel lidded trash can with BPA-free plastic liner has recently been added, making it easier to dispose of bowels. Once you’re done with the two broilers, press the lid lever and drop the plastic bag of innards into the trash bag. The lid closes and no flies or wasps gather on the box.
Broilers are boiled in a dedicated 30 quart aluminum stock pot with temperature gauge heated over a propane burner with regulator to adjust the flame.
Perhaps the absolute best addition to my broiler treat is a backyard kitchen I had built on a 5ft by 8ft deck covered by an attached grill gazebo. The 24 x 60 inch treatment counter tops a commercial stainless steel prep table and a 20 inch deep square stainless steel sink with a hinged sprayer faucet. I modified the faucet plumbing to accept the garden hose so it would work like a kitchen faucet.
The entire process kitchen is National Science Foundation (NSF) stainless steel. It’s easy to keep sanitized during processing and does double duty by being easily accessible to the raised garden complex and berry orchard for cleaning vegetables and fruits. It’s also a great place to fill seed trays and plant seeds on a sunny spring day. I can cook broilers in the rain or in the blazing sun and I can honestly say that I don’t know how I ever lived without it. The facility will support my state exemption to process broilers for farmers market customers without meat inspection.
The allocation process
Treatment Standby is a quick and easy setup as all items used are dedicated to treatment and stored separately in a bag. 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 above the small compost bin, and a wire exercise pen sits alongside for convenient reach.
Broilers scheduled for processing are separated in the grow-out pen the day before and their feed is held after 6:00 p.m. of the carcass.
On the day of the treatment, it is relatively simple. In groups of two, the broilers are slaughtered, boiled, plucked and gutted. After rinsing, each broiler is placed in a shrink bag with a zipper and placed in the ice water cooler. The broilers are then moved to the refrigerator and kept for 36 hours to rest. Subsequently, the bagged broilers are immersed in 150 degree water, shrinking the bags, and then placed in the freezer.
With this processing approach, I am able to easily process 20-25 broilers per day depending on how many breaks I take. Cleanup is as quick and easy as setup. Being prepared, organized and with a plan can take the drudgery out of broiler processing.
Anne Gordon is a backyard chicken owner with a modest chicken operation which includes laying hens and Cornish Cross broilers. And, like many of you, she doesn’t sell eggs or meat – all production is for her personal consumption. She is a lifelong poultry farmer 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 has experimented a lot with chickens over the years and learned a lot along the way, some of it the hard way. She had to think outside the box in some situations, but stick to tried and true traditions in others. Anne lives on Cumberland Mountain in Tennessee with her two English Springers, Jack and Lucy.