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Slaughtering a Chicken at Home- A Step by Step Guide
This post WILL contain graphic photographs vital for detailing the entire slaughter process.
Slaughtering is an important part of keeping livestock and poultry- even if you aren’t raising them for meat. I know that many people beginning keeping chickens will raise them just for eggs or for the purpose of having productive pets. If you fall into this category, you’re probably thinking that knowing how to slaughter a chicken at home is irrelevant.
However, when birds come up sick, or a predator attack leads to serious injury; the skill of humanely dispatching a bird is indispensable. Even if you aren’t going to eat the chicken afterwards, it’s your responsibility to help them pass on humanely.
Having the skill of slaughtering a chicken is also vital if you’re breeding chickens. Most birds will not be of a quality to meet the breed standard (or personal standard that you set), so you will inevitably reach a point where you need to cull birds. Culling is removing these birds from your flock, which can mean selling them, but do you want to pass on subpar or problem birds to other flocks?
Eating the extra roosters or old hens is another way that your chicken flock will contribute to your home economy. They won’t be as tender as a 10 week old broiler, but they are brimming with flavor and nutrition. (Including extra proteins, fats, and collagen)
If we are homesteaders raising birds for meat, being familiar with the whole process of slaughtering a chicken will obviously serve us well.
Not having to hire help will keep the costs of meat production lower. Slaughtering the chickens ourselves also allows us to see the fruits of our labor & evaluate the health and vitality of the birds we raised. Finally, processing on farm eliminates the risks inherent to transporting poultry- shock, death, injury- and means a less stressful last day for our birds. Isn’t it our job to ensure that they have the best life, and the best death, possible? I believe so. And I believe that at-home processing is a vital aspect of our jobs as keepers of poultry and livestock.
I’ve been slaughtering poultry since I was in 8th grade. As part of the 4-H market poultry program in Alaska, kids were in charge of processing and delivering their 4-H auction poultry to their buyers. There was a steep learning curve those first few years in 4-H. So, when I was a sophomore in high school, I began to teach workshops for newer and younger 4-H kids.
I’ve since graduated from 4-H, but processing poultry is still a big part of my life. My husband and I grow and process all of the meat we eat on the homestead. I’ve been starting to put feelers out for more teaching opportunities or butchering for hire too, in an attempt to make an income as a stay at home mom and help save for our new house.
The birds I photographed in this tutorial were old laying hens I’d been hired to process for a neighbor. Read on to learn my simple process for slaughtering a chicken.
Slaughtering a Chicken: Step by Step
Equipment for Butchering Chickens-
My basic equipment list is a sharp knife, a work surface, and some sort of killing cone.
Specifically, I use a Havalon pirahna knife. For my work surface, I’ve used anything from plywood on a dog crate, to a folding table, to a counter top- as seen in this tutorial. My killing cone set up right now is traffic cones in a purpose-built stand. You can also just hang a bird from a rope around its feet, but I’ve found this to be more stressful on the bird.
Notice that I didn’t include a scalder or plucker on this list. They are convenient and speed the process up significantly. But they are also expensive, and make the slaughtering process look harder to get into than it really is.
(I’ll be going more in depth on my killing cones/slaughter setup in a future post)
Butchering Chickens- Dispatch and Plucking
Dispatching-This is the “hardest” step. Hardest in quotes because it’s actually quite simple and doesn’t require finesse. But dispatching is, by far, the most emotionally and psychologically difficult step of slaughtering a chicken.
To dispatch our chicken, begin by holding her firmly in your right hand. I place my pointer finger between the legs, and grip with my thumb and the rest of my fingers around the joints of her legs. Once she’s calm, lower her into the cone head-first, making sure that her wings are kept tuck along side her body. Maintain your hold on her legs with your right hand, and with your left, gently guide her head out of the bottom of the cone.
Let go of her legs with your right hand, and then grab your knife- maintaining a firm but gentle grip on her head with your left hand. We’re going to gently pull downward with the left hand, so that the skin on the neck is taut. Use the knife to firmly, but quickly, slice perpendicularly across the chickens neck.
(We aren’t trying to slice through the neck, but sometimes visualizing that as the goal will help you to apply enough pressure on the first cut.)
Maintain your hold on the chickens head with your left hand. After the cut, there should immediately be a stream of blood flowing from the now-severed jugular vein. If there is no blood, or only a few drops, you will need to cut again, deeper.
The chicken will seem absolutely oblivious to the cut at first, and as the blood flow slows, she will begin to squirm or twitch. After a matter of seconds (up to a minute) the chicken will be completely limp and unresponsive- dead.
Head- Depending on your set up/how many birds you’ll be processing, you can either remove the birds head while it is still in the cone, or after moving to your work space.
To remove the head, take the head in your left hand and the knife in your right. Bend the head back, away from you, sharply. Follow the cut you made in the previous step to go through the trachea, esophagus, muscle, and eventually between the vertebrae. Continue to bend the head backwards as you cut, ending by cutting through the skin on the back of the neck.
Scald- optional- After removing the head, you can scald the chicken. I did not scald these hens, opting instead to dry pluck them.
When I do scald, I use a large stock pot, with water heated to between 140 and 160*F. Submerge the bird in the water, keeping a hold on the legs. Use the legs to move the bird in the water, plunging up and downwards so that the every feather gets saturated. After a few seconds, pull a feather to check the scald. If it releases easily, the bird is ready. If it requires a hard yank or doesn’t come out, keep scalding.
Once the bird is scalded, move quickly to start plucking.
Pluck- Starting with the wings, grasp it firmly in one hand, and pull each of the longest wing feathers out one by one. Move to the smaller and smaller wing feathers until it’s completely plucked. Then move to the feathers in the armpit area, working back towards the tail. Pluck the tail, then begin plucking the opposite wing. Pluck the back and neck, then finish with the breast.
Plucking is the exact same process whether you’re dry plucking or you’ve scalded your bird. In both instances, work quickly. The more you do it, the better you’ll be at it. Expect a learning curve.
Feet- With your chicken fully plucked, set the bird on your work surface on its back. Grasp the foot with your left hand, then straighten the leg by pushing down towards the floor. This will make the knee joint obvious. Use your knife to cut in the natural indent/separation between the foot and leg. Continue to push the foot towards the floor as you cut. Repeat on the other side.
Neck- Turn the bird around so that the neck is closest to you. Peel the skin of the neck downwards, towards the body of the bird. You’ll see the esophagus and trachea, gently separate them from the neck itself.
Stand the bird up on it its end, neck up. Work the skin down, and the esophagus and trachea off to one side. Loosen up the (hopefully empty) small balloon-like sack that is attached to the front of the wishbone. This is the crop. You’re not trying to remove it or pull it out, just loosen it.
To remove the neck itself, we’re going to cut perpendicularly to the neck at the point where the neck and spine meet. There is a strong white band of connective tissue at this point- it’s about even with the top of the chicken’s shoulder blades. Bend the neck away from you as you cut; you may need to twist the neck to get it to completely detach.
Oil Gland- With the neck removed, lay the chicken on its keel (spine/back upwards), with its tail facing you. On the back of the tail near the tip, you’ll see a small cylindrical nub- this is the chicken’s oil gland. It doesn’t taste any good, and cutting it out is a good idea. You can either remove the whole tail, or just remove the gland.
In most chickens you can see the outline of the oil gland under the surface of the skin. To remove the oil gland, cut perpendicularly to the tail; angling downwards and towards yourself. You’re going to peel the oil gland back with your left hand as your right hand cuts, following the tail bone and continuing straight off the end of the tail.
Slaughtering a Chicken- Gutting
Believe it or not, you’re almost done slaughtering a chicken. The only steps left are gutting, quality control, and packaging- a breeze compared to plucking and dispatching. If you’re new to slaughter though, gutting can feel high stakes. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
To start, we need to cut through the skin in order to actually access the guts and organs. With the chicken on it’s back, breast up and legs towards you- we’re going to want to pull the skin around the vent taut. The easiest way to do this is to use the thumb and pointer finger of your non-working hand. Straddle the keel bone with your hand and pull the skin upwards with the tips of your fingers.
Use your knife to cut parallel with the work surface. This cut needs to be between the tip of the keel bone and the vent, closer to the vent. Cut shallowly at first; getting through the skin and fat, but stopping the cut once you can see into the abdominal cavity. At this point, take the pointer finger on your non-working hand, and pull the skin towards yourself, away from the intestines.
Continue to hold the skin away from the intestines, extend the initially cut. Then cut downwards on either side of the vent. Finally, hold the vent up, and cut between the vent and tail. All 4 of these cuts should be connected at this point, and the vent & intestines will start to slide out on their own.
Pull out the intestines by reaching into the abdominal cavity, with your pointer finger shaped into a hook, gently pull evenly backwards. Don’t yank if they get caught, up, just gently work them out. Yanking leads to tearing leads to feces getting loose in the cavity. Not good.
Tucked up against the end of the keel, you’ll feel a hard, muscular lump- probably surrounded in a layer of fat- this is the chickens gizzard. Loop your pointer finger around it, and gently pull it towards you. It won’t release or fully come out of the cavity. Feel along to the front of the gizzard, feel the intestinal-y tube that connects the stomach to the gizzard. Pull the the stomach firmly (but evenly- no yanking) towards you as well. With a bit of luck, the empty crop will pull straight through along with the stomach.
As you pull the crop-stomach-gizzard combination out, you’ll probably pull the liver and heart out along with it. If not, the liver is a very soft, very delicate organ tucked in near the gizzard. The heart will be a lot firmer, surrounded by a fascia-like sack, and tucked near to the lung and wishbone.
Keep the heart, trimming off any fascia or large vessels to make it look cleaner. On the liver, you’ll want to gently trim off the green bile sack. Keep the liver too. Both organs are great sources of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
Tucked into the ribs, on either side of the spine, are the chickens lungs. They’ll be bright pink and securely anchored in place. The easiest way to remove the lungs is to reach in between the ribs with your finger tips, higher up the side and nearer to the keel. Drag your fingers downwards between the ribs, working under the lungs and to the spine. Repeat on the other side. I keep the lungs for broth too.
If the trachea/esophagus/crop don’t release with the stomach and gizzard, turn the bird around so the legs are facing away from you. Gently pull the trachea out through the opening under the chickens wishbone. Repeat with the crop and trachea, if needed.
Slaughtering a Chicken- Finish Work
With the chicken dispatched, plucked, and gutted, we’re pretty close to being finished. At this point in the slaughtering process, I will take all of the chickens, organs, necks, and feet inside to the kitchen sink. (If you have an outdoor sink that would be perfect for this)
I start by rinsing the outside and inside of the birds- getting rid of any blood, staining, or feathers that have remained stuck to the bird. After a thorough rinse, pull any pin feathers or stubborn wing feathers- a pair of tweezers or pliers will work best for this.
Rinse the organs and necks as well. If you’re selling these birds or butchering for a customer; tuck a neck, heart, liver, and cleaned gizzard into the cavity of the bird.
Now it’s time to package the birds. I am a diehard fan of plastic wrap and butcher paper to package ALL of our homegrown meat.
The plastic wrap excludes oxygen and is easy to use. The butcher paper lets you rearrange the freezer (or drop something) without jeopardizing the integrity of the packaging. It’s also one of the cheaper packaging options.
Shrink wrap bags and food-saver type bags are also an option, but I have had serious trouble with freezer burn when a package inevitably cracks or punctures during handling.
(If you’d rather package your chickens in parts, such as thighs and wings, you can read about how to break down a whole chicken here)
Whatever you choose to use, be sure to weigh and label the packages, and then get the birds in the freezer quickly.
Now you’ll just need to clean everything up. I dilute the blood from the buckets under the killing cones with water and pour it into our compost bin or onto the base of our apple tree. The guts and heads get buried in our compost bin. The feathers can also be composted, but I usually throw them out.
Whatever your goals in raising poultry, being familiar with, and confident in, the dispatch and slaughter process is vital. I hope that this tutorial has demonstrated how approachable and doable slaughtering a chicken at home can be. Don’t let a lack of money or equipment prevent you from processing and producing homegrown meat on your homestead. It can be intimidating to tackle slaughtering birds the first time, but just know that everyone needs to start somewhere. The first time will be the hardest time, but every time it will get easier and faster as the process is more familiar.
If you have any questions about butchering chickens, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’ve been processing chickens at home for a decade, and love to help others who are just starting down this path themselves. Being able to take this task into your own hands is a freeing feeling, and will open doors to more homestead projects and productivity in the future.
Thanks for reading and happy homesteading!
PS Don’t throw out those chicken feet! They are the secret ingredient to amazing, homemade bone broth thanks to the high concentration of gelatin. Store them in a gallon freezer bag until you have enough bones saved up for a big batch of broth. (Save the lungs, tracheas, and necks in the same way) You can read all about making broth from chicken feet (and all those other odd bits too) here.