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Extension > Agriculture > Livestock > Poultry Production and Health > Home processing of poultry

Home processing of poultry

Melvin L. Hamre


Poultry can be processed at home with little or no special equipment. If you are processing only a few birds you can improvise facilities for the job quite easily. However, if you are processing many birds you might want to consider more adequate facilities and equipment to make the job easier or even have the birds custom processed if there is a custom poultry processing facility nearby.

Federal and state laws regulate inspection of meat and poultry products. Producers may process birds they raise for their own household consumption and up to 1,000 chickens, turkeys, ducks, or geese for sale to other consumers within the state without inspection. Uninspected poultry is not allowed in interstate commerce. Refer any questions concerning the exemption of small sales under the provisions of the Poultry Products Inspection Act to your poultry extension specialist, or state meat and poultry regulatory agency, or office of the Meat and Poultry Inspection Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This publication should help you understand the importance of cleanliness and the procedures for properly processing poultry. In processing you must follow a number of steps to convert the live bird to meat for human use. You must develop your processing techniques to prevent contamination of the meat with intestinal or crop contents. Poultry meat can also become contaminated from dirty equipment and facilities or from people who have a transmissible disease. Any form of contamination of the poultry carcass lowers its quality and shortens the storage time as a wholesome product. The following suggested procedures provide an orderly manner for converting your live poultry into a clean, attractive, dressed carcass. Study the procedures, develop your techniques and proceed in an orderly manner to process each bird.

The job is not unpleasant if properly done in clean surroundings even with a minimal amount of equipment.

Selecting birds for slaughter

Top quality poultry carcasses can only be obtained from live birds in good health, well-finished, and well-fleshed by slaughter time. So good care and management during the growing phase is an important part of producing poultry meat successfully. The many strains of poultry, as well as the different breeds, vary in the growing time required to reach the best size and condition for slaughter.

You will normally process all the healthy birds from a farm flock. Some birds may show symptoms that raise questions concerning their health at time of slaughter. If the bird appeared reasonably healthy before slaughter and shows none of the following conditions when processed, it should be suitable for human use. Do not use birds that have any of the following:

  1. lumps or spots of any size on the surface of the liver.
  2. any measurable quantity of fluid in the body cavity.
  3. fat in a poorly fleshed bird which is orange rather than yellow or white.
  4. any individual internal organ two or more times the normal size (compare with similar sized bird). Ignore gall bladder size in this observation.
  5. breast meat with the same coloration as meat of the thighs and legs.
  6. meat showing white streaks or an area of abnormal enlargement when compared to the same area on the opposite side of the bird.

These observations form a basis for those slaughtering poultry to make some reasonable judgments on suitability of birds for meat purposes.

Select your best birds for marketing. Youth project members will likewise want to select only healthy, well-fleshed, well-finished birds free from defects for exhibition. Breast blisters, bruises, skin tears, and similar defects must be avoided when selecting birds for competition. These birds can be processed, the damaged tissue trimmed, and yet a wholesome carcass remains for meat purposes. Do not attempt to dress pinfeathery birds. Wait a week or two until these feathers have grown out and are more easily seen and removed during processing.

Poultry to be processed should not be fed for 6-8 hours before slaughter but should have access to water. Fasting reduces the feed and ingested material in the digestive tract and helps prevent contamination during processing. It is best to have a wire-bottom holding cage or crate for the birds during the fasting period to help keep them clean. Dirty birds contaminate the scald water. Keeping the scald water clean will reduce contamination of the poultry meat being processed.

Processing facilities and equipment

Figure 1

The processing area should be a place that is clean, has an adequate water supply, and is free from flies. The processing procedure should be done in three steps: 1) Killing, scalding, picking, singeing; 2) eviscerating (removal of internal organs) and washing; and 3) chilling and packaging. To reduce possibilities of contamination, the operations in the first step should be completed before starting the evisceration procedures or done in a separate room or outside. The area should be arranged and equipped for ease and cleanliness of work.

Knives should be sharpened before starting work. Boning and cutting knives (fig. 1e) are adequate for home dressing of poultry. Special knives with thin, sharp blades and points (fig. 1d) make some phases of eviscerating easier. If birds have pinfeathers a pinning knife (fig. 1c) may help scrape off the pinfeathers after the larger feathers are removed. Kitchen shears are used by some processors for harvesting and cleaning giblets.

Clean plastic or galvanized garbage type cans make good containers for scalding and chilling water. Similar containers or boxes lined with plastic bags can be used for feather and offal containers. A sturdy table will be necessary for a worktable. Most tables will not have a good clean working surface so a disposable plastic covering should be used. Giblets should be placed in a clean kitchen pan large enough to hold giblets from the number of birds being processed. Scald water temperature can be better adjusted with a thermometer that registers in the 120 to 212 F. range. A pocket model with a protective case (fig. 1b) is less subject to breakage when not in use. Have an adequate supply of packaging materials so that birds can be packaged for handling and storage after they have been processed and cooled.

Killing and dressing

Figure 2

Killing. Remove birds from coops and crates carefully to reduce bruising (fig. 2). Place the bird in a killing cone or hang it from a shackle. If neither of these devices is available, poultry can be suspended from a clothesline or other support by the feet with a short piece of rope with a small square of plywood held fast to the end by a knot d (figs. 1a, 3, 4). Hold the head in one hand and pull down for a slight tension to steady the bird (fig. 5).

Figure 3

Using a sharp knife, cut the bird's throat from the outside just behind the lower jaw. The cut should sever both the large vein and the cross vein at this point to bleed freely. To reduce carcass contamination, do not cut the esophagus or windpipe.

Figure 4

Hold the front part of the head securely to avoid cutting your hand. To prevent excessive splattering of blood, hold the head of the bird for a few moments until the bleeding and flopping stops. Catch the blood in a container to aid with your cleanup operation.

Figure 5

Other farm slaughter methods include wringing the bird's neck or chopping off the head with an axe. Not as much blood may be pumped out of the carcass by those methods as with a good throat cut.

Scalding. Dry picking today is usually limited to some waterfowl processing. Pick these birds immediately after they have been bled.

The appearance of the dressed carcass as well as the ease of feather removal will be determined by the time and temperature of the scalding procedure. Lower temperatures are used with longer periods of immersion in the scald water. The hotter the water the shorter the scald time and more chance of overscalding. The use of higher temperatures results in the loss of the yellow cuticle layer of the skin and may result in more skin tears during feather removal. Boiling water should be kept nearby to keep the scald water hot enough during the entire processing period. For best results check water temperature with a thermometer.

Figure 6

Young birds with easier to remove feathers can be scalded at 125° - 130° F. for 30 to 75 seconds. The proper length of time for adequate feather removal leaves the epidermal layer of the bird's skin intact. Temperatures of near 140° F. for 30 to 75 seconds can be used with older birds for easier feather removal. The cuticle covering of the skin will generally be removed at this temperature. Because of the difficulty in removing feathers from waterfowl, ducks and geese are processed at higher temperatures 1 to 2 minutes in water at 160° - 170° F. Adding detergent to the scald water helps water penetrate through the feathers, especially on waterfowl.

Figure 7

Immerse the bird, head first in the scald water while holding the bird by the shanks (fig. 7). The bird should be moved up and down and from side to side in the scalding container to aid in more even and thorough scalding. If a proper scald has been achieved, the tail and wing feathers can quite readily be removed. Repeat dips of short duration may be necessary for difficult-to remove feathers.

Picking. Hang the bird back on the rope or shackle for ease in picking. Use a slight pressure with gentle rubbing action for more rapid and easier removal of feathers (fig. 8). Do not delay picking after the scalding. Develop a picking procedure, pulling the large tail and wing feathers first and then setting a sequence of removing the rest of the body feathers. Rinse the bird with water after most of the feathers have been removed. Use a slight pressure and rubbing motion to remove any remaining small feathers and pinfeathers. A pinning knife or a dull knife helps remove the small pinfeathers.

Figure 8

Waxing waterfowl. Waterfowl are often immersed in a container of paraffin wax to remove small feathers and down after most feathers have been removed. Follow directions supplied by the wax manufacturer. Usually at least two dips of a fairly dry carcass in a wax bath at 135 - 160 F. and then dipping in cold water to set the wax will build up a wax coating to remove the feathers. Some directions recommend a hotter temperature for the first dip, with a dip in water or a short air cooling period between wax dips. The wax should be removed when it is at the flexible stage, not cold enough to be brittle. A little experimentation with times and temperature should lead to satisfactory results. The wax can be reclaimed by heating and straining out the feathers. Dirt, blood, and water will separate from the melted wax.

Figure 9

Singeing. It's usually not necessary on young birds. The more mature chickens and turkeys may have a few hairs which remain after feathers are removed. Use a bottle gas torch or an open flame on a gas range to singe these hairs, being careful not to burn yourself or the skin on the bird's carcass (fig. 9).


Figure 10

Remove head and neck. Cut off the head between the head and the first neck vertebra using a twisting motion to cut through the joint (fig. 10). Do not try to cut through the bone.

If the bird is going to be cut up for frying or split for barbecuing, the neck with skin intact can be removed with shears or a knife, cutting close to the carcass. For birds to be roasted, split the neck skin, inserting the knife through the skin at the point of the shoulders, cutting forward guiding the knife up the back of the neck (fig. 11). Pull the skin loose from the neck. Pull the crop, trachea (windpipe), gullet (esophagus) loose from the neck skin (fig. 12) and cut off where they enter the body cavity. Next cut off the neck, or you may prefer to do this after chilling the carcass. Cut the neck muscle into the bone around the neck at the shoulder (fig. 13) and then twist off (fig. 14). Wash the neck and then place it in the giblet chilling container.

Figure 11 Figure 12 Figure 13 Figure 14

Figure 15

Remove shanks. With the bird breast up on a table, hold shank with one hand, applying upward pressure on the hock joint. With a sharp knife, cut through the hock joint starting on the inside joint surface (fig 15). Pull the joint into the knife with a slight movement of the bird's feet to aid in cutting through the joint.

Figure 16

Remove oil gland. With the bird breast down on the table start the cut 1 inch forward from the oil gland nipple (fig 16). Cut deep to the tail vertebra, then follow the vertebra to the end of the tail in a scooping motion to remove the oil gland (fig 17).

Figure 17

Abdominal openings. Two types of cuts can be used to make an opening into the body cavity. The midline, vertical, or "J" cut is often used for broilers and other small poultry not to be trussed when cooked. For turkeys, capons, or other large fowl where trussing for roasting is desired, the transverse or bar cut can be used.

To make the vertical cut, pull the abdominal skin forward and up away from the tail of the bird, then cut through the skin and body wall starting the knife point just to the right of the point of the keel and extending the cut to the tail alongside the vent (figs. 18 and 19). Make the cut slowly and do not cut into the intestine. Use a shallow cut with just the point of the knife penetrating the skin and body wall. Then complete the cut around the vent, keeping the knife next to the back and tail as far as possible from the vent (fig. 20). Cut entirely around the vent and pull the vent and end of the large intestine out away from the opening of the body cavity to prevent contamination of the interior of the carcass (fig 21).

Figure 18 Figure 19 Figure 20 Figure 21

To make the bar cut, make a half circle cut around the vent next to the tail (fig 22). Use short, slow strokes and avoid cutting the intestine. Insert the index finger into the opening that has been cut, up over the intestine. Using your finger as a guide, extend the cut with the knife or shears to a complete circle on around to free the vent (fig. 23). Pull the vent and short section of the intestine out to prevent contamination of the body cavity. Now make a cut from side to side of the bird about 3 inches long, 1- to 2 inches below the point of the keel (fig. 24). This will leave a bar of skin about 1- to 2 inches wide between this cut and the opening where the vent was cut free (fig. 25). Now thread the end of the intestine up over the skin bar and leave extended from the body cavity.

Removal of internal organs (viscera or entrails). Stretch the abdominal opening, insert the hand as far forward as possible in the body cavity, breaking the attachment of organs to the wall as you go (fig 26). Pick up the heart between index and second finger, cup hand and gently pull all viscera out, using a slight twisting motion as the viscera is brought out of the body cavity (fig 27).

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