Pastured Broiler Chickens on Butcher Day at Provenance Farm

September 16, 2012 · 9 comments

Rachel Prickett, co-owner of Provenance Farm along with her husband Keith, is a young, newish farmer, but what she lacks in experience, she makes up for in her steadfast care for her animals and the sweat equity she’s invested in the farm. For the last three years, the Pricketts have been raising thousands of pastured broiler chickens and laying hens as well as a few steers and sheep. The meat and eggs produced on the farm is sold around the state of Oregon from the self-serve refrigerator a few yards away from the pasture to some of the most highly regarded restaurants in the Portland culinary scene.

The following is not pretty, but it is real. If you choose to eat meat but you’re not raising your own animals, a Provenance Farm broiler chicken is as good as it gets in terms of a well cared for and humanely butchered bird.

Every four weeks during the spring and summer, Provenance Farm gets a delivery of 600 cornish cross chicks from a hatchery in California. The new batch of chicks are housed in a protective brooder for the first two weeks with a heat lamp for extra warmth.

When the chickens are large enough to survive without the heat lamp, they  are moved into mobile pasture shelters. Each 10′ x 12′ shelter houses 75 chickens. The shelters keep the chickens contained, and they protect the young birds from predators. These sturdy but lightweight structures are moved every day onto fresh pasture, so the chickens always have greens and an abundance of bugs for forage.

The fertilizer the chickens leave behind enhances soil tilth and allows lush grasses to thrive. The farm’s pasture is in a planned multi-species rotation, so a few months after the broiler chickens pass through an area, the land is again grazed over by the Prickett’s beef cattle or sheep.

The chickens are free to scratch and forage for bugs and seeds, but they never stray far from their specially formulated grain ration.

Cornish cross chickens have been bred for decades to grow quickly and process easily in a butchering facility.

Here’s where the saga gets gory. Click to continue if you want to.

Rachel is the co-owner (along with Brian Schack of Schack Farm) of a mobile chicken butchering facility. Rachel, Keith, a couple farming friends, and several volunteers butcher chickens every other Tuesday throughout the summer and fall.

Early on a butcher day morning, a predetermined number of chickens are rounded up, placed in chicken crates, and trucked back to the main part of the farm. They remain surprisingly calm while confined in this manner.

Half of each batch of chicks (around 300) is raised and butchered at five weeks of age. Two weeks later, the second half of the batch is butchered at seven weeks. Rachel organized this system to accomodate requests from Portland restaurants for smaller chickens that could be served whole, feeding two people.

Chickens are pulled out of the cages two at a time and placed into butchering cones on the porch of the mobile butchering facility. Quickly and calmly, an experienced butcher volunteer uses a very sharp knife to slit the throats of the chickens in the cones.

The chickens flop around briefly as blood drains from the carcasses.

After a few minutes, carcasses are pulled from the cones and placed in a rotating scalder. The carcasses are forced into very hot, soapy water which loosens the feathers from the skin.

From the scalder, the carcasses go into the chicken plucker. Once it’s turned on, the carcasses whirl around and rub against rubber “fingers” for about a minute.

When they come out of the chicken plucker, the carcasses are nearly naked and ready for processing by human hands. All the feathers that are ejected from the chicken plucker as well as blood and guts are taken out back and composted.

A butcher volunteer removes the carcasses from the chicken plucker and passes them through a window in the mobile butchering facility. The outside jobs are bloody and feathery and generally a big mess, but the inside of the facility is completely different.

The mobile butchering facility has a large stainless steel table that’s split in half by a divider. In the morning before the butchering begins, everything inside the facility is thoroughly cleaned and sprayed down with sanitizer, and all the knives are sharpened. Upon entering the facility, all volunteers are instructed to wash their hands and don clean aprons. While butchering, clean water flows freely from hoses hanging down form the ceiling.

Heads and feet are cut off first.

Chicken feet are reserved for chefs at restaurants around the state who use them for chicken stock.

The volunteers working on one side of the table do the preliminary evisceration, pulling out the guts and the oil gland on top of the tail. Livers, kidneys, and hearts are saved on ice while the rest of the innards are tossed in buckets for later composting.

Many hands make for quick work. Each chicken only takes a couple minutes for a skilled butcher to process.

Volunteers working on the other side of the table do quality control, pulling out feathers that didn’t loosen up in the plucker, trimming skin, and generally making sure that the carcasses are up to the Rachel’s high standards.

Every butcher day involves a different cast of volunteers, some returning with experience and some who’ve never butchered anything before. Rachel spends the first part of the morning giving folks specific instructions and explaining her standards, and then throughout the day, she continues to check in and remind her crew about avoiding common mistakes, or she gives a few words of encouragement. It’s inevitable that a few chickens end up cosmetically flawed but perfectly edible, and those usually go home with volunteers, or Keith cooks them in his own kitchen. Rachel and Keith are always on the lookout for willing volunteers to work in exchange for coffee, snack, lunch, chicken, and eggs. No experience is necessary, so this is a good opportunity for anyone interested in learning about chicken butchery. If you’d like to volunteer, call Rachel at 541-231-5493 or email rachel.prickett@provenancefarm.com.

At the end of the line, the chicken carcasses go into a cooler full of salted ice water. The salt helps minimize cosmetic skin blemishes, and it also serves as a natural bacteria killer. The whole process from live bird to plucked carcass on ice only takes five to ten minutes. The chickens stay in ice water for a couple hours before they get bagged up.

After a hearty lunch (one of the perks of volunteering), all the chicken carcasses are bagged up and labeled. The following day, they get delivered to several different restaurants and stores in Corvallis, Eugene, and the Portland area. The week after each butchering session, chickens can be also be purchased farm-direct from the self-service egg refrigerator at Provenance Farm (32897 Fern Rd.) in Philomath, Oregon.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashley September 16, 2012 at 8:50 pm

This is so very cool! Good to know there are decent chicken farms around this country giving birds a decent life and then humanely butchered. Thanks for sharing this story and all the pictures!

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Kim September 16, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I rarely leave comments but I love your blog; it is so informative and this post is one of the reasons I read you regularly. You are providing a valuable service by imparting this information and I appreciate the time, energy, and commitment that it requires. I very well might contact Rachel about volunteering.

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Camille September 18, 2012 at 3:03 pm

You should. I think it’s about as fun and interesting as chicken butchering ever can be. (And thanks for the kind words.)

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Daedre Craig September 17, 2012 at 8:00 am

Very Cool! I always wondered how those pluckers worked. I’ve never seen one in motion.

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Erica Dorondo September 18, 2012 at 1:20 pm

That’s Awesome!! nice job!

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laura September 19, 2012 at 10:26 pm

This is informative even if hard to read. I wonder why they only slit the throat rather than just cutting the whole head off? It seems like that would be a way to ensure that the chicken really is dead before scalded. This isn’t a criticism because I understand we need to know where our meat comes from, but I am curious.

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Camille September 19, 2012 at 10:35 pm

As I understand it, they will slit the major veins but not the windpipe so that the chicken will pass out immediately, but the heart will keep pumping for another 30 seconds or so, flushing blood out the neck (gruesome but practical). The chickens are definitely dead before they go into the scalder.

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Keith April 22, 2013 at 10:54 am

Laura,
If you cut the whole head off then the spine and electrical connections are severed which cause the heart to stop. We want to drain as much blood out as possible so we try to keep that connection so the heart will pump blood quickly out.

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Samantha October 14, 2012 at 3:42 am

This is both eye-opening and informative. Thanks so much for posting it. We’ve been thinking about growing our own meat for some time (starting with chickens) and this makes it seem doable :)

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