At What Age to Butcher Chickens?
If you’re raising backyard chickens for their meat and eggs, at some point you might wonder at what age is it okay to butcher chickens.
Should you schedule it when the chickens stop producing eggs? Is it better to butcher them before they stop producing eggs? Or simply, at any time after they reach a certain weight?
The different stages of development influence the taste and texture of the meat, so you must take these into account before planning the chicken processing.
Here’s an overview of the aspects to consider before deciding on when to slaughter your chickens.
Age Considerations for Butchering Chickens
Without a doubt, the age of the chicken will influence the tenderness of the meat, and the tenderness will influence how you process that meat. But so does the breed of the chicken and how they’re raised.
Depending on the reasons they’re raised for, chickens can be slaughtered at various stages of their development.
Here’s a quick overview of the types of chickens based on slaughtering age and meat tenderness:
– Broiler Chickens
Broiler chickens are primarily raised for meat production rather than egg production, which are called layer chickens. These chickens are often white and bred to be large.
They’re also bred to be healthy and to grow fast. They’re typically slaughtered at the age of 6-7 weeks, which results in tender and flavorful meat. Their size is around 2 ½ pounds.
To sustain their fast growth and healthy development, broiler chickens are fed more frequently than other chickens and drink more water.
Broiler chickens also need nutritious food high in nutrients, vitamins, amino acids, lysine, and methionine.
– Roaster Chickens
Roaster chickens are also raised for their meat instead of their eggs. They’re young chickens too, but they’re usually slaughtered at 12-20 weeks. Some consider roaster chickens below the age of 8 months.
The meat of these chickens is tougher than that of broiler chickens but still relatively tender and flavorful. As their name suggests, these chickens are most suitable for roasting.
Roaster chickens are slaughtered when they reach a weight of around 3 ½ to 5 pounds.
Because they’re bred for their meat, the same nutritional recommendations I mentioned for broiler chickens apply here too.
– Stewing Hens
Stewing hens are typically hens that have been raised as laying chickens, but they’ve reached an age where their egg production has diminished considerably or have stopped laying eggs altogether.
These hens are typically over 10 months of age and up to 3 years of age and at a weight of around 5 to 7 pounds.
At this stage in their development, their meat is not as tender as the meat of roaster or broiler chickens, instead, it’s tougher and stringier, but still very flavorful.
This meat is best consumed in slow-cooked stews.
– Heritage Breeds
Heritage chickens usually have less breast meat and longer legs. Chickens hatched from an egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard breed established prior to the mid-20th century. Some breeds captured by this definition include the Leghorn, Cornish, Bantams, Holland, etc.
Heritage breeds are typically slow growing with a great flavor profile. They’re also deemed as excellent dual-purpose breeds, meaning they can be raised both for meat and egg production.
These chickens can be butchered depending on your meat processing needs, but the general recommendation is to butcher them before they reach the age of 8 months, or else their meat will start to lose tenderness.
Growth Cycle of Chickens
The average lifespan of a chicken is around 3-5 years, although some breeds will live much longer. During its life, a chicken will go through several stages of development from egg to chick to full-grown chicken.
Some breeds will mature quickly and they’re ready for slaughter at just 5 weeks of age, others will take longer.
The growth rate is influenced by many factors, chief among them being the diet, general health, and environmental stressors.
– How Long Does it Take for a Chicken to Reach Slaughter Weight?
Some breeds can reach the market carcass weight of 4 to 6 pounds in just 6 to 8 weeks. Cornish cross broiler chickens are a typical example of chickens that reach their slaughter size as early as 6 weeks.
Breeds that grow slower will reach the same size in as many as 10 to 12 weeks.
– Variables that Affect Chicken Growth Rate
Just because a chicken can reach its slaughter weight in 6 to 8 weeks, it doesn’t mean it will.
Many things will affect the growth rate including:
- Diet and nutrition
- Abundance or lack of food
- Litter quality
- Coop temperature (minimal variation over a 24-hour period is best)
- Environmental stressors (fear of predators or humans, lack of space, etc.)
Anything that will put stress on chickens will unfavorably influence their growth rate. Even increased fear of humans can have a negative impact on productivity.
Studies have shown that reducing stress levels in chickens is associated with an increase in productivity.
– Chicken Breeds That Mature Quickly or Slowly
Depending on your goal of having a small backyard flock, you can choose from chicken breeds that mature quickly or those that have a slow growth-rate.
Usually, the breeds that mature quickly are bred for meat production. Here are some breeds that reach their slaughter weight relatively quickly:
- Cornish Cross
- Red Broiler
- Freedom Rangers
- Delaware Chickens
Other breeds will take longer to reach their slaughter weight. Some of these are excellent dual-purpose breeds too, others will reward the longer waiting time with higher meat production.
Here are some slow-growing chicken breeds:
- Jersey Giant
- Buff Orpington
Because there’s a significant variation in growth rate that affects the meat and egg production of these chickens, you should carefully consider your needs before choosing one breed or the other.
Besides the growth rate, make sure to also factor in the keeping requirements of these chicken breeds and their hardiness levels.
Processing Chickens for Meat
Now that you know more about the age you should butcher chickens, there’s another piece of information you need to learn about – the actual processing of chickens.
Before I delve into the steps to process chickens for meat, here’s a list of tools you will need:
- Two well-sharpened knives
- A pair of sharpened chicken shears
- A big pot of hot water (hot not boiling as boiling water will cook the skin of the chicken).
As for the steps involved in processing, here’s a rundown of what you should do:
Step 1: Bleeding the chicken out
This step involves removing the entire head or simply nicking the carotid artery by cutting the neck just behind the ear.
Regardless of your choice, you should restrain the chicken, so it doesn’t move around and then hold it upside down to bleed it out. This is needed to avoid a metallic taste on the meat.
Step 2: Removing the feathers
The next step is scalding the chicken, so you can pluck the feathers. Simply take a large pot filled with hot water (temperature should be around 125°F to 130°F) and immerse the whole chicken, legs included for around 120 s. Use a spoon to hold the chicken immersed in water.
Remove the chicken from the water, then start plucking the feathers in the opposite direction from their natural growth. Remove the scales and toenails as well.
Tiny hair-like feathers can be removed by briefly singeing the chicken with a propane or butane torch.
Step 3: Removing the organs & intestines
Once you’re done with the plucking of feathers, your next step is to remove the organs. Besides slaughtering, this is the other least appealing aspect of processing.
Using the side of a sharp knife, cut the skin in a circle around the vent. Do not use the point of the knife as there’s a risk of perforating the intestines and you want to avoid contamination. Once the vent is released from the skin, widen the opening with your fingers.
Assuming that you’ve cut off the head (if not, take your shearing knife and cut it off), proceed to turn the chicken so that you can work on the head end. Take a knife and run it through the skin on the back of the neck to avoid perforating the larynx and the esophagus.
You will need to remove these along with the crop, which you can release by pulling the esophagus up from the neck. You will need to release the crop from the fleshy tissue surrounding it. And ou can also cut off the neck.
Next, you will need to cut off the oil gland by cutting about half an inch up the tail and slicing it off. Discard the gland.
The following step is to remove the intestines and the internal organs. You should work carefully and without putting pressure on the intestines or gallbladder to prevent contamination of the meat.
Flip the bird on its back, make a cut just above the cloaca, and insert your fingers to make the cut wider, then reach into the cavity to remove all the intestines, making sure not to squeeze with too much force to prevent the gallbladder from bursting.
The intestines are attached to the intestinal vent of the chicken, cut it loose, without cutting into the intestines.
Once you’ve removed all the intestines and the gallbladder, locate the heart at the center of the chicken’s chest, then the lungs attached to the backbone. Remove them both.
Storing Chicken Meat in Refrigerator
After you’re done plucking and removing the organs and intestines, make sure to vigorously wash the carcass inside out. No fecal matter should be visible on the carcass.
You should not leave the carcass at room temperature after butchering. Use a chill bath to cool down the chicken carcass or move it to a refrigerator if you’re not going to cook it right away.
If you move the carcass to the fridge or freezer, store it in a resealable plastic bag. You can store raw chicken in the fridge for up to 1-2 days.
Whole raw chicken can be stored in the freezer for up to one year.
As you can see, there are quite a few things involved in the processing of chicken meat. And let’s admit it – it’s not a task for the faint of heart.
Whenever you process chicken meat, make sure to wash any utensils and workspaces thoroughly before and after processing to avoid contamination.