Processing Day – always a lot of fun, hard work, and lesson learning. So, what all happens on processing day you wonder. It actually begins the day before processing actually happens. The chickens are moved in the late afternoon one last time and get one last feast of fresh grass, bugs and worms. The processing equipment is taken out of storage, positioned and set up. Everything is cleaned, sanitized, and tested. Once everything is ready to go for the next day, it is cover up for the night. We then go through our checklist of supplies, tools, and equipment and gather everything needed for each station of the processing line so we are as organized as possible for the next day.
The day of processing start around 6:30 am. All the processing equipment gets another wipe down with a bleach and water solution and a rinse off. The scalder is filled and turned on to get the water at the right temperature. The first batch of chickens is brought from the pasture to the processing area. Chill tanks are filled with ice and water and additional ice in coolers is prepositioned near the chill tanks to top them off as needed throughout the day. Once everything is in place and the scalder is up to temperature, a blessing is said and thanks is given to the chickens for the sacrifice they will make to put food on all of our tables and then the processing starts.
There are eight steps or stations that our small four person team mans in our processing line. The first is the Kill Cone station. The chickens are placed upside down (which naturally calms them) in the cones and an incision is made in their necks that severs the carotid artery. This quickly lowers the chicken’s blood pressure, causing it to pass out. The chicken then bleeds out and is ready for the next station. I know this initial step doesn’t sound very nice, but it is a necessary fact of life that must be done and the chickens are dispatched as humanly as possible. The next station is the scalder tank where the chickens are rotated around in hot water for about a minute to loosen the feathers for plucking. After the scalder, the next station is the plucker. As the name implies, the plucker plucks the feathers from the chicken. The plucker is basically a drum with a rotating bottom and a number of rubber fingers sticking out the sides. As the chickens rotate around, the rubber fingers pluck the feather. Once done, the chicken moves to the next station – evisceration. Evisceration is a fancy word for removing the guts. At this station, the head, feet, and innards are removed. Hearts, livers, and gizzards are saved and the rest is put in the compost bucket. Next is the first of two quality control stations where the chickens are inspected to make sure nothing was missed and they are of the quality in which we want to offer to our customers. Then next station is the chill tank. Here, the chickens are placed in an ice water bath to bring their temperature down to below forty degrees as quickly as possible. The chickens are then kept below forty degrees for approximately 24 hours to allow them to rest so that the customer gets the most tender and juicy chicken possible. After their rest, the chickens go through one more quality control inspection and then are either bagged in shrink wrap bags or butchered into individual cuts and vacuum sealed. Both are able to be frozen for a year or more.
As always, learning happened during processing day. The first lesson of note for future processing days was to make sure all hose clamps are tightened down. Nothing like having a water line pop loose in the middle of the operation. Next was to have a chill tank for chickens that are not “customer worthy.” These are chickens that while in the plucker tore some skin or ended up with a broken wing/leg. Basically, any chicken that we would not want to present to any one of our customers will get tossed into this chill tank. The last big lesson learned was to be more prepared for and have a more steam lined process for customer pick up and work on providing a more enjoyable experience for our customers.
So, with the 2015 pasture poultry done and behind us, we are going to be using the off season to internalize our lessons learned, streamline our processes and work to deliver not only extremely tasty and nutritious chicken, but a more enjoyable customer experience.
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In the meantime, enjoy the fall weather and chicken from our pasture to your plate.