Backyard chickens are becoming very popular. Many folks are excited at the possibility of raising their own layers. But all too often, they don’t stop to think about another reality: at some point (usually in 3-5 years) a hen’s egg-producing years will taper off. Particular breeds reach this margin sooner than others, leaving owners with a dilema: what should they do with their birds now?!
They’ve become attached to their hens, but it costs to feed them. Economically they cannot sustain a flock of old birds who are unable earn their keep. Plus, space is usually limited and young, fresh hens must be brought in if egg production is to continue.
The old hens have to go. The question is where and how? No one knows. So they keep putting more, more and more money into their old birds.
If you are willing, you can help them out and put (mostly) free food on the table! The amazing this is, anyone who lives in a small town or community can do this.
Are you an individual who rents an apartment while saving for your own farmstead? Perhaps you live in the country, but your spouse doesn’t want chickens? Maybe you have land to keep chickens but can’t afford the set up just yet? Or perhaps you are a farmer who need to cut back on grocery bills?
If you live in a small town or community and are willing to do the work, it’s likely that there are folks around who have old hens that need to go (and they know it) but because of personal attachments to their birds, can’t do the deed.
We’ve used this method to supply food for our table more than once via our neighbor’s old hens. Its lots of hard work, but it puts meat on the table.
To be sure, the meat must be either stewed, cooked via crock pot or pressure canned. Definitely too tough for frying! But if you have the know-how, it is good, usable meat.
You must have a proper setup, knowledge, the ability to handle strong odors and lots of poultry fat! Lest you should return to shake your fist at me after a failed attempt at butchering, I’m going to walk you through NOT the butchering process itself, but what you need in place to butcher old hens.
Don’t attempt to do this on your own if you’ve never butchered poultry before. Its hard work and you need to know your stuff. If new to it, I’d recommend recruiting the help and know-how of a local farmer. Inquire if they’d be willing to walk you through the process. Taking the life of an animal ought to be sure, quick and clean. If you don’t know what you’re doing, get help.
Choose the Proper Location
There are bylaws in many towns that don’t allow folks to keep chickens and presumably, butcher birds. Why? It’s messy and smelly. Really. And I don’t imagine your neighbors would appreciate having feathers blown all over their yard, their dog returning victorious with a chicken head hanging from it’s mouth. If you don’t live in a proper location, consider asking permission from a friend who lives outside city limits, if they would allow you to do the deed on their barnyard? Perhaps they are the ones who could teach you the ropes?
Even if you technically can have chickens, be aware that your back yard may not be suitable for butchering. Our house rests between two businesses just outside city limits. Our tiny backyard is well-hidden by a tall hedgerow and technically, we were ok to butcher there. But after I had to chase a scrawny, run-away rooster around a business parking lot for 30 minutes while sporting my husbands clunky shoes and blood spattered Carhartt overalls, I decided it was time to find a different place to do the deed! We did. Though it involved more hauling on butchering day, it was worth our while.
Have a Proper Pen
When it comes to hens, “old” doesn’t mean inactive! If you have no more than 10 birds, they can be left in transporting containers if you butcher immediately. If keeping them over night or if you have more than 15, I highly recommend keeping them locked up in an unused chicken house or chicken tractor with space (and a roof). It doesn’t have to be large if butchering immediately, but it does need to secure the birds when you go in to catch them. Tip: not allowing them to see the butchering procedure will keep them calmer.
Treat Them Fairly
Just because the old gals are going to be dinner isn’t reason to treat them poorly while they live. If you strike it lucky (as we have) and are given over 50 birds at a time, attend to their needs. Depending on your available time, it may take a few days to do the deed and caring for the birds’ needs will ensure that you get a plump, content fowl for the dinner table. Give them food, shelter if needed, a roost and above all else, make certain they have access to clean water.
If you can ensure the above on your own or a friend’s property, its time to begin spreading the word!
Spring and fall are the best times to pick up old hens, but you can try anytime of year. Spread the news via word of mouth, local feed store bulletin boards, a farming facebook page or the local paper. Make it clear you are not looking for pets. Some folks want old birds re-homed, not re-purposed on your dinner platter! I believe you should respect this.
Clearly state if you are willing to pay for the hens. Where I live, most folks consider our work a favor. Their hen house is free for new layers and they don’t have to feel guilty because the birds are going to good use. They don’t have to deal with old hens and in return for our labor, we get free (or almost free) meat. If folks deliver birds to us, we offer to cover gas costs but don’t “buy” birds from locals.
You don’t have to have a truck to pick up birds. We transport chickens in the back of our mini van after removing the back seats and putting down a good tarp. The trunk of a car is also adequate, so long as your containers will fit. Most folks will want you to pick up the birds and most often, after they are roosting for the night or in early morning hours. Expect a few roosters to be added to the mix. Folks are quick to pass them off! Though it depends on the amount of birds you will be picking up, I’d recommend staying within a 15 minute drive from the staging grounds or the cost of your meat will quickly add up.
Dog kennels work well for transporting, but we’ve also successfully used rubbermaid totes with lids. If you are worried about a mess, use the totes! When chickens are placed in a dark environment, they become docile and droppings are fully contained. Regardless of the system, make certain its secure. I believe your friendly neighborhood officer would claim that a back (or front) seat full of flapping chickens would qualify you for ‘distracted driving!’
Butchering & Feather Removal
When it comes to butchering, I’d recommend you use either the killing cone or the chopping block. The cone is the surest, unless you are good at swinging an ax or hatchet. The cone gives you close-up contact as you kill the bird (which some folks can’t handle). Both are solid, reliable methods.
Skin your old hens! Its by far the fastest way to remove feathers and none of the recommended cooking/processing methods requires it. Check out the video on my FB page for a live tutorial on skinning birds. This technique requires a strong overhead setup. I’d recommend placing a tarp or rubbermaid bins below to collect heads and feathers.
If you are butchering on a neighbor’s property, you’ll want to ensure you have the following items before leaving your home:
- Slaughter Necessities: be it a cone and knife or ax and block, make sure your setup is adequate and will allow for a swift, clean job.
- Waste Containers: old rubbermaid bins or buckets work well to catch feet, heads and feathers when skinning birds. I recommend putting down an old tarp as well. If you live in a windy climate, do the butchering and cleaning in the shelter of an out-building.
- Other Necessities: You’ll need a table, cutting boards and sharp knives (bring a sharpener). Have bowls on hand if keeping giblets (organs), buckets for innards and for rinsing finished hens. If you have lots of birds to do, a cooler full of cold water will help cool carcasses down and ‘refrigerate’ them until you can prepare them for the freezer.
- Wrapping for freezer: its easy to slip a cleaned, rinsed bird into a 1 gallon zip loc bag. Our preferred method!
- Transporting Containers: When the job is done, the meat must be carried somehow. Don’t try juggling 15-20 clean, packaged chickens, but bring boxes or bins for transportation.
- A Place to Dispose of Heads, Feet, Innards & Feathers: chicken innards smell terrible! Unless you know of a farmer who wants to feed them back to his chickens (it happens), you’ll have to dispose of them far away from civilization. Again, if working with a local, he might have some ideas about where to go. Never dispose them close to other farms or animals because it will draw in predators.
Health Safety While Butchering
It pays to proceed with caution when dealing with other folks’ poultry. While the birds will vary in breeds and size, if you have a chicken that looks sickly, is inactive or sluggish, don’t eat it! Set it aside and wait until the end to butcher in order to avoid contamination. If you are cleaning an old hen that has an unusually rounded-out abdomen (see bird on left), she probably has water retention (not uncommon in very old hens). If you can’t tell by looking, you’ll know soon as you puncture the skin due to the rush of foul-smelling liquid. If this happens, set the carcass aside in a garbage bin and sterilized or change out the cutting board and knife.
Culinary Uses for Your Old Hens
Don’t treat the meat from these old hens as if it was young and tender. Above all else, don’t attempt to fry it! Planning ahead, lots of liquid and long cooking hours are usually the name of the game! Here are a few ways we do it:
Let it Marinade
Place chicken in fridge and with your favorite marinade. Let sit for 3-5 days, turning each day, then cook long and slow as possible in the crock pot. See my favorite: Coffee Lemon Marinade
Place an entire chicken (whole or divided) in a stockpot (or crock pot) and cover with water or tomato juices. Simmer for 8-10 hrs or until meat falls off bones. Meat can be used in soups or tossed into baggies for the freezer. Use frozen meat in tacos, on salads and in omelettes.
Stewed Chicken-is a water-based recipe that will tenderize your chicken meat and make a wonderful soup
Stewed Chicken with Tomatoes-tomatoes are acidic and will break down meat quicker. Thicken the sauce when chicken is done and serve over rice.
If pressure canning is your thing, you’ll love doing old hens! For the past 2 years I’ve put up nearly 100 quarts of canned chicken with the raw pack method. Definitely a favorite in our home!
Pressure Canning Chicken-a raw pack method with bone in that leaves behind wonderful gelatin!
Spicy Pulled Chicken-requires pre-cooking the chicken and canning in a spicy curry tomato sauce. Wonderful poured over rice or noodles.
Is it Really Worthwhile?
It’s lots of work, but if you don’t mind that part, it’s usually free (aside from the cost of gas for pick-ups). It’s been a real money saver for us, and for 3 years in a row we’ve been able to provide a 4-6 month meat supply from free, old birds. It just gets easier over time. Now, the locals contact us when they have birds they need to move. As individuals who don’t mind the work (or perhaps thrive on it), its been totally worthwhile!