We’ve had chickens for over two years now. The first four were purchased from a produce store on the outskirts of Brisbane and although we pride ourselves on research, I’ll admit that we have learned much as we go. We named them Henny (black Australorp), Penny (white leghorn), Ruby and Rose (ISA browns). We had chatted a few times about ‘if’ we could dispatch one of them but really, it was all hypothetical at the time.
When we moved to our country home we quickly added to our original four bird flock. We got chatting to a lady we met on the side of the road buying self serve seedlings and realised that she in fact was the same lady hubby had been emailing regarding buying some pigs. Anyway, she mentioned she had excess chickens she was keen to move on. We packed morning tea and lunch and took off on a morning road trip to her property.
I was keen to get more hens as our original girls were breeds known for high egg production but a life span of 2-10 years. So I was also looking for heritage breeds. Understanding that egg production per year may be lower but their laying life a whole lot longer. I selected two bantam black astrolorps as I thought the kids could name them, and two black araucanas. Araucanas lay blue eggs. I thought that was about the coolest thing ever. All birds were from the same pen so were accustomed to each others company. The seller did say she could not be 100% sure if they were hens or roosters but did offer to swap them in they did indeed turned out to be roos (the chicken whisperers term for roosters).
We kept them in a separate pen and coop for a month before we would transition them to the large run with the big original girls. When we heard the first crow we were a little surprised, but by then had our own suspicions we had 1-2 roos in the new group. We’d also had more discussion about the logistics of dispatching.
It was when we discovered our Henny had passed away in her sleep (at age 2) that we decided to transition the new four into the flock. With Henny’s passing the original girls would be sorting out the new pecking order and figured this seemed like a good time to merge. We transitioned them over the course of 4-5 days before they were all sleeping in the same coop. Although our bedroom is at the far end of the house away from the coop (we planned this) we could hear the little cockerel crowing starting around 5am in the mornings from the closer parts of the house. We had read that when they start crowing is a good time to consider dispatch. So it would be. I remember plucking and gutting chickens as a kid. There is a certain smell about it. But I did find it fascinating. Dad did the actual killing of course, but now I was the adult. Hubby and I had a lot of discussion about which method we would employ based on the wellbeing of the bird and our own skills and experience (which was zero). While there are plenty of produce type stores near us, none were equipped with a killing cone or any dispatching or processing gear. A helpful staffer told us how to make our own killing cone and recommended a junk yard where we could buy supplies.
We sourced a large piece of tin for $9 and a pair of near new snips for $6. We already had a rivet gun and rivets. Hubby followed instructions found online to make the cone and we attached the cone to a star picket. A plastic garbage bin would be for the chicken bits and to bleed into. We selected a shady spot near to a tap with a spray nozzle on a hose. It was close to the house, in the shade, not too far from the chicken run, but out of their sight. A large trestle table we used for our wedding (so very handy) would be our work bench and we had some other bits and pieces for the task.
- Kill cone on star picket
- Garbage bin or bucket under
- Trestle table
- Large plastic chopping board
- 2 large stainless steel bowls
- A sharp knife
- A pair of newish pruning shears
- A pressure cooker full of hot water
- A thermometer to check the temperature of the hot water
- Our mobile phones
We cleaned down all items, agreed on who would do what and felt we were ready. Hubby had decided he would use the pruning shears.
We had already isolated the rooster and had him in a separate area under the coop. All undercover but with some dirt and grass. He had a cardboard box to sleep in and a supply of water but no grain. ‘Starving the bird’ sounds harsh, so I prefer to call it ‘don’t feed them grain’. We had a large run so I found it easiest to catch him when he had retired into the coop for the evening but it was still light enough to see. He then slept in his isolated area that first night, stayed in it the next day and that night as well. They say you should not feed the bird 12-24 hours before dispatch so there is no food in their system. I guess separation also means you can keep an eye on them in the lead up too. He was still close to the others and was also safe from predators (as ironic as that seems).
It was time. I grabbed him from his separation area and held him close but upside down. This sends the blood to their head and apparently makes them sleepy and therefore easier to handle. I told hubby we needed to act swiftly and he assured me he was ready. For a man that gets a bit queasy at the thought of digging out a splinter we were both unsure how this would pan out.
I carefully but firmly held his wings in and got him in the kill cone. His head was not to be seen. Hmmm. I reached from the bottom to grab his head and tried to pull it out, but I was too gentle and only a small portion of his head was actually visible. This would not work. We had to make a quick decision and pulled him out of the cone. I held his head and at the last minute hubby told me to move my hand. He snipped with the shears. Things did not appear to go well. It is hard to be sure. So with rooster flapping I reached for the knife and hubby swiftly took action. I held the rooster until the nerves had stopped the muscle spasms then popped him back in the cone to bleed for a bit.
Next was plucking. While the rooster was bleeding (about 5 mins) we checked on the water temperature in the pressure cooker and added cold water from the hose to bring it to about 70 degrees celsius. Enough to help loosen the feathers without starting the cooking process. I was happy to pluck. The wings and legs cool first so after plunging the rooster into the hot water I started with them. Most were easy to remove and I used a small plucking motion rather than trying to grab handfuls of feathers so as not to rip the skin apart. The black feathers meant they were easy to see but we got a bit weirded out when we saw what looked like yellow worms.
I realised they were oil deposits from the feather quills. Some of the feathers looked like large needles without any feathery bit and I remembered reading about pin feathers. I carried on. I had a bowl of cold water to dip my hand into as it got too feathery and we plunged into the hot water a couple more times along the way. Hubby was anxious as he was up next for the gutting.
So the proper term for gutting a chicken is called eviscerating. Hubby had watched a demo video on Youtube a few times to get an idea of how to do it. He had the knife. He watched the video again. Then again. Our bird was so small in comparison to the one in the video which made things a little fiddly. Our bird was a young bantam rooster. I knew this, but hubby had not made the connection and was uneasy.
Hubby removed the crop which was empty except for a few blades of grass. Not feeding them grain beforehand really does make this bit easier. I remembered as a kid being fascinating by seeing what the chicken had eaten by inspecting the crop. Next task was to locate the windpipe and loosen it. Hubby found this tricky and ended up cutting off what he could see.
The bottom end. The video gave instruction on ‘cutting out the butt hole making sure not to cut into the digestive tract’. Terrified of getting poo everywhere hubby watched the video another 10 times at this point. He struggled to know where to put the knife but cut it out – mostly. The next step is to get your whole hand in and pull out the insides. He looked a bit awkward so I volunteered to do this. My hands a smaller than his so fitted more easily anyway. I scooped out the insides. I even managed to get one of the lungs. We inspected the gizzards and admired on how healthy they looked. I pulled out the other lung. It was almost looking like a shop bird at this point.
We would not be eating the feet or gizzards so wanted to removed the feet at this point too. Hubby bent and cut and eventually got them off. We were left with an empty bird but a long and bloody neck. By this time a couple of flies had honed in on the action so hubby took the bird inside to finish while I cleaned up.
A cleaver was the best thing to remove the neck. My dog would have loved it. They were one of his favourite things. With no dog and a neighbour with no dog meant we ended up tossing this out (in hindsight we should have saved it for stock – we were clearly a bit preoccupied).
There were still some pins remaining and hubby decided to just skin the bird in order to deal with them. He started to get stressed because we knew we would be needing to refrigerate the bird soon. A rinse and into a bag and into the fridge the rooster went. We will leave him in the fridge for a day as this allows rigour mortis to set in and then time for the muscles to relax a bit again before cooking or freezing.
All in all, we did okay. As expected we know we will make some adjustments for next time. We only dispatched the one bird today knowing that we did not want to be stressed about having to process multiple birds quickly.
Here are some of the key lessons we learnt in the process:
- Read and watch different videos to help get a feel for exactly what is required.
- Make sure your knives or cutting implements are sharp. Ours were not nearly sharp enough.
- A large pressure cooker is great for boiling the plunge water and keeping it at temp if working outside.
- A thermometer is a must
- Make sure your outside area is set up and ready but also make sure your kitchen bench and sink are clear too. Ours were a big mess and it added an element of stress in at butchering stage.
- Consider investing in a proper kill cone to ensure the dimensions are accurate. Alternatively a friend told me they used a hession bag with the corner cut off. They taped around the bird after putting it in to minimise movement. We will give this method a try next time.
- Decide what bits you are going to use and discard. We do not have a rubbish service so burying remains is most practical for us. If you have a dog – they’ll be happy.
- Give yourself ample time and ensure the kids are off site. Ours were at daycare.
- Act swiftly.
- Try not to get flustered. Keep calm and understand you are learning a new skill.