Here is a list of essentials and a few optional extras, for getting started with processing meat birds on the homestead.
For processing chickens at home, there are 3 main steps: dispatching (killing), removing the feathers (plucking), and gutting.
Dispatching is most commonly done with the use of restraining cones.
The chicken goes in headfirst so that its head sticks out the bottom. Then with access to the neck, the jugular veins are usually opened up with a sharp knife to bleed the chicken out or the head can be removed completely at this stage.
An old-school alternative is to chop the chicken's head off with an axe.
This tends to lead to the chicken flapping around and bruising the meat.
A quick fix for this is to cut a hole at the end of a feed sack, put the chicken in so that its head sticks out and chop the head that way. If the feed sack stay's tightly wrapped around the body of the chicken, it will restrain it until it stops thrashing.
Plucking is ultimately optional as the chickens can be skinned instead of plucked, but most people enjoy the skin and would prefer to go through the effort to pluck their chickens.
If you decide to keep the skin on your chickens, removing the feathers is broken up into 2 main steps; scalding and plucking.
For scalding, the idea is to dip the chickens in some hot water to loosen the feathers from the skin to make them easier to pluck out.
For this, there are some really fancy setups out there, but all that is needed is a big pot, filled with water and some way to heat it.
Our preferred method is a propane burner.
These are similar to turkey fryer setups, although turkey fryers usually come with a timer. The timer will shut off the propane when it runs to zero. This can be very annoying when in the middle of a batch of chickens. Most of these timers can be bypassed in some way, but do so at your own risk.
Once the chickens have been scalded (usually at about 150F for about 20 seconds), the feathers should pull out easily and the skin on the feet should start to peel off easily. From here it is time to pluck.
The gold standard for homestead chicken plucking is the chicken plucker machine.
We have mainly used these as we were able to borrow one from a friend.
It is a pain to clean the machine, but if you are doing more than about 15 birds, it is worth the cleanup to have the plucking done so quickly and easily.
This would be the first big upgrade that I would recommend to new homesteaders if they are getting into poultry. It is definitely not necessary, but it will help save A LOT of time, especially if you are going to be doing extra birds to sell.
For starting out though, the birds can be plucked by hand or with some of the other cheaper plucking contraptions out there like the drill-powered pluckers.
We tried one of these on ducks and it didn't go very well. I can't say 100% that it was the fault of the drill as ducks are notoriously difficult to pluck anyway. But if you find a cheap one, it might be worth giving it a try.
Once the feathers have been removed, it is time to take the feet and head off of the bird and then take out the guts.
No specialized equipment is needed for this part, just some sharp knives and maybe some nitrile or latex gloves for the more squeamish homesteaders out there.
Something like this filleting knife set would be perfect.
Once the guts have been removed and the birds rinsed off, they are usually put into a tote with some ice water to help them cool.
Once they have cooled they can be taken inside to package up, part-out, or whatever else you want to do with them.
Note: some people like to put their birds in a fridge for 24 hours to let the meat rest as they say it makes the meat more tender. I have other friends who don't do that and say they have never noticed it being tough without it, so this is an optional step to try if you have the fridge space or if you experience tough meat from your first attempt.
All the best for processing your own birds.