Tag Archive for: Meat Processing

Sol Seeker Farm: Raising a Pastured Poultry Business

By Ann Baier, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Edgar Mendoza Samaniego of Sol Seeker Farm, in the Spanish-language podcast Producción Avícola de Pastoreo, about the business of raising poultry on pasture.

Our conversation addresses some of the many questions that all new farmers need to ask:

  • How can this poultry enterprise be economically viable?
  • What are the steps to establish layer and/or meat bird enterprises?
  • What are the key start-up costs and investments for each type of enterprise?
  • How can I maintain cash flow for my farm and family?
  • What are the phases of growing the business to an appropriate scale to match farm and family priorities and balancing production capacities (land, labor, cash flow/capital investment) with marketing channels and government regulations?
ducks on pasture Sol Seeker Farm

Ducks on pasture at Sol Seeker Farm. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT

Edgar and his wife, Kaley, own Sol Seeker Farm, focusing on pastured poultry. They started their farm enterprise in 2014, selling eggs from 50 laying hens at one farmers market. As their business grew and developed, the farm’s production, processing, and marketing practices have evolved. Sol Seeker Farm now raises eggs and poultry meat from both chickens and ducks, seasonal Cornish game hens, and Thanksgiving turkeys. Marketing channels include several farmers markets, independent grocery stores, a CSA, and (added during the pandemic) online sales with home delivery.

Investment of land and capital, labor, and knowledge are key to all production systems. Cash flow is critical, especially in a new business. Sol Seeker Farm has grown in phases, with diverse enterprises. Raising broilers has enabled the farm to achieve a return on its investment in approximately eight weeks. This income provided a necessary source of cash to purchase feed to raise their layer flock until pullets reached 6 months of age and began producing eggs to sell. Over the past several years, Edgar and Kaley have invested their sweat and earnings into the farm’s assets, purchasing necessary equipment for the business, including a truck, egg washer, and walk-in freezer. After moving between three different rented farm locations, purchasing their own land in 2020 provides stability and focus at a single production location. They’ve constructed fencing and rely on livestock guardian dogs to protect the flocks from predators. The guard dogs work as a team to protect the whole pasture area where poultry are raised. The foraging birds are rotated from one part of the field to another to allow the pasture to recover.

Sol Seeker Farm poultry raised on pasture, with livestock guardian dog on watch. Photo: Ann Baier, NCA

Planning for their current phase of growth, Edgar and Kaley developed a new poultry meat-processing plan. The number of birds they planned to raise would surpass the number of birds that could be processed on their own farm under federal and state regulations and exemptions. They made the decision to take their meat poultry—chickens and ducks— to a USDA-inspected processing plant. Edgar explained the impact of this change on their production practices. In contrast to the smaller number of birds they had previously processed on-farm and sold fresh, they now raise broilers and meat ducks in fewer, larger batches to meet processor minimums. Receiving larger quantities of product at once necessitated purchase of a freezer to store product on the farm and to sell frozen meat gradually. They had to explain to their customers why they are now selling frozen poultry rather than fresh. They also had to explain the change in their labeling—why they could no longer sell their meat as organic. Even though their birds are still raised organically, processing and packaging the birds in a USDA-inspected plant that is not certified organic means that Sol Seeker can no longer label or represent its final product as organic.

Sol Seeker Farm multicolored eggs

Sol Seeker Farm multi-colored eggs from different breeds of hens, all raised on pasture. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT

The farm’s eggs, however, are sold as certified organic because they are raised with certified organic management practices, including organic feed, and washed and packed on-farm in their certified organic facility. They use two different labels, both of which meet all government (USDA and State of California) regulations. A simple label is printed economically on-farm and used for direct sales; a professionally printed (nice-looking but more expensive) carton label incorporates additional elements, such as bar codes, that are required for selling eggs in stores.

Raising poultry on pasture has the potential for (though not a guarantee of) good land stewardship, humane treatment of birds, and economic viability. Realization of that potential depends on planning and preparation for challenges and opportunities where you are, with anticipation of adapting to changing conditions in natural, market, and regulatory environments. Working out enterprise budgets with real-world numbers will help farmers better plan and manage their time, money, and other resources. Analyzing records of actual farm production activities (including the value of their own time) and financial accounting (including overhead expenses) can inform future decision-making. What are the gross margins and net benefits of your farming enterprises? How can the farm enterprise contribute to fulfilling holistic goals of positive financial return, health of natural resources and ecosystems (land, soil, water, air, plants, animals, and climate), and the well-being of the family and community?

Edgar emphasized how helpful it has been to learn from other farmers in the region, including members of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, as well as from as workshops offered by California Farmlink and business development guidance from Kitchen Table Advisors. They have also begun working with Kitchen Table Consulting. ATTRA serves as another excellent resource for farmers looking for assistance on a wide variety of agriculture topics.

Asked what advice he had for other beginning farmers, Edgar urged: “Do your calculations carefully!” Head over here to listen to the full episode.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Processing Poultry Meat for Sale: The Right Approach for Your Farm?

Poultry Production Systems

Other Resources:

American Pastured Poultry Producers Association

Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. 

Ann Baier

Processing Poultry Meat for Sale: The Right Approach for Your Farm?

By Ann Baier,  NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist

As I’ve worked on NCAT’s pastured poultry projects for a few years, I’ve been listening to and learning from smart entrepreneurial farmers who are finding ways to make their businesses work. While wonder and curiosity, idealism, and hard work were characteristic of my childhood and early farming experiments, I am increasingly appreciative of the breadth of knowledge, perspective, and skills needed to develop a successful poultry business.

Beginning poultry producers commonly ask How do I navigate poultry processing regulations for selling poultry meat? or Does it make more sense to process my broilers on-farm or to take them to a processing facility? There are two main approaches to processing poultry meat for sale: 1) USDA inspected; or 2) Exempt from USDA inspection. The latter includes on-farm processing, and state-licensed facilities (see further explanation below). Which approach is right for your farm depends on your location, production volume, and intended customers.

poultry processing approaches

USDA-Inspected Poultry processed in a USDA plant receive continuous, bird-by-bird inspection by a USDA poultry inspector. Processing birds in a USDA-inspected facility offers the greatest flexibility for marketing. You can process any number of birds, and sell poultry meat to any type of customer, even across state lines. One challenge is finding a plant that will work for you. Although there are many USDA-inspected plants across the country, only a few slaughter birds for independent producers. Search by state and activities (slaughter) in the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS)’s Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Inspection Directory then contact plants to ask if they will process your birds.

USDA Inspected label

Chicken processed at a USDA-inspected facility.

Once you find a plant, you need a practical way to transport live birds and time for them to be processed. If plants are distant from the farm, transportation can be time-consuming and stressful to both birds and people. Talking to other farmers about their experiences with plants is the most practical and efficient way to identify a plant whose processing and packaging services might be right for your farm and marketing plans. If you do not have a farmer network, join one! Two organizations that facilitate active sharing of information and support among producers and processors are:

American Pastured Producers Association (APPPA), a nonprofit trade organization, offers information resources and networking opportunities.

Niche Meat Processors Association Network (NMPAN), a national extension project, manages an active listserve for exchange of processing procedures, equipment, regulations, feasibility and profitability. See research, case studies and guides on the website: A Best-Practices Guide to Open-Air Poultry Slaughter.

On-Farm Poultry Processing (with Federal and State Inspection Exemptions)

On-farm processing has many potential advantages, including reducing the stress of long-distance transport. However, on-farm processing requires not only skill and hard work, but also commitment to consistent procedures for good sanitation, quality control, recordkeeping.

Regardless of where it takes place, processing needs to meet the requirements of the Poultry Products Inspection Act to ensure poultry products are “wholesome, not adulterated, and properly marked, labeled, and packaged.” You can process legally either on-farm or in a state-licensed facility if you meet the criteria for Exemption from USDA Inspection (see: Guidance for Determining Whether a Poultry Slaughter or Processing Operation is Exempt from Inspection Requirements of the Poultry Products Inspection Act.) and follow all other applicable federal, state and local regulations. USDA exemptions limit sales to 1,000 or 20,000, mostly direct to consumers.

State and Local Regulations are Complex

In addition to USDA exemption, on-farm processing must meet state criteria for inspection or exemption, many of which are more restrictive than federal exemptions. Regulations vary widely in states that do not have an inspection program that is equivalent to USDA. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund offers this State-by-State* Review of On-Farm Poultry Processing Laws, Poultry Map and Chart. Consult with your State Departments of Food and Agriculture, Food and Agricultural Code, Health and Safety Code, Food Retail Code, County Health Departments, or other appropriate agencies.

Local regulations also come into play with respect to everything from building codes to sale of products at farmers markets. Producers must comply with all applicable regulations. Steps to find, understand and comply with regulations take time, patience, and perseverance!

Farmers Caleb Barron of Fogline Farm and Gary Roberts of Zentner’s Fogbound Farm shared their experience in ATTRA’s podcast episode 98. and explained how they make their decisions about processing birds. Caleb became skilled and efficient at on-farm processing, but as he clarified his priorities, concluded that it made sense to take his birds to be processed at a USDA plant so he could grow his business to more than 20,000 birds per year, and market poultry meat to restaurants. Gary mentioned efforts to address California state inspection exemptions that are more restrictive than federal regulations with respect to the number of birds that can be processed.

Choose the Appropriate Path for your Farm

No matter which regulatory pathway you choose—USDA plant, state-licensed plant, or on your own farm (under USDA and state inspection exemptions) — the underlying goals are the same: Ensure quality standards (healthy birds, sanitary processing, proper labeling) to produce wholesome food, please your customers, and keep them safe and healthy. Choose an approach that meets both the spirit and the letter of the regulations, and your farm and family goals.

Over the coming months, I will be working hard to revise some of ATTRA’s older publications, and to collect specific topic-based resources for poultry entrepreneurs. Please feel free to send questions and suggestions! In the meantime, here are a few resources related to poultry processing and production.

Related Resources

Poultry Resources

Small-Scale Poultry Processing

Meat Plants: Improving Profitability in Small and Very Small Operations

Small Poultry Processing Plants and Services, a self-listing directory of poultry processing facilities, not limited to USDA plants. Although it includes a limited number of plants at this time, it will be more complete if you add yours!

Episode 98. Poultry Processing Strategies

Episode 83. Poultry Processing

A Best-Practices Guide to Open-Air Poultry Slaughter, by Lauren Gwin and Rebecca Thistlethwaite. Also available in Spanish: La guía de buenas prácticas para el sacrificio al aire libre de aves de corral.

For more information on this topic, contact Ann Baier directly at annb@ncat.org.

This blog is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. 

Selling Meat During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Margo Hale, NCAT Southeast Regional Director and NCAT Livestock Specialist

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I, like many of you, was focused on working from home while also homeschooling my daughters. I was busy postponing and rescheduling several NCAT training events and figuring out how to best serve our ATTRA clients. As the pandemic continued to spread, we saw various impacts in all aspects of our life. Across the country, we saw our traditional supply chains falter, and consumer buying habits changed overnight. Thankfully, our household never ran out of toilet paper, but it was several weeks before I could find rice and beans to buy!

Because we raise our own beef, pork, and eggs, I rarely pay attention to those areas of the grocery store, but it was shocking to see empty shelves. We sell only a few beeves and hogs each year, mainly to friends and coworkers. You can learn more about how we sell our beef and pork from this short video. While we never have a problem selling what we have available, we also don’t usually have an overwhelming demand. As soon as COVID-19 hit, though, people who have never bought meat from us before began reaching out to see if we had any meat available for sale. They wanted to stock their freezers! I heard from farmers all over the country that this was happening to them, too. This demand is great for producers, but it also comes with some challenges.

Meeting Increased Demand for Local Meat

You might be able to gain new customers during this time, as people are wanting to stock their freezers and prepare for supply-chain disruptions. You want to ensure that these new customers continue purchasing from you even after the grocery stores are restocked. In order to do this, you must provide an excellent product and good customer service. It is tempting to quickly scale up production to take advantage of the demand, but don’t do so at the cost of quality. Don’t process and sell animals that don’t meet your highest quality standards. Providing great customer service is another way to keep customers coming back. NCAT Specialist Dave Scott and his wife Jenny shared some really great tips on providing excellent customer service to their meat customers in the “Direct Marketing Meat” podcast series.

Episode 128. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 1

Episode 129. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 2: Processing

Episode 136. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 3: Relationships

Episode 137. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 4: FAQs

In the ATTRA video COVID-19 Market Adjustments, you can also hear how COVID-19 has affected Dave’s and Jenny’s business, Montana Highland Lamb.

Plan for Processing

Another challenge many livestock producers are facing is the lack of processing. Access to meat-processing facilities has always been a challenge for small-scale livestock producers. The problem has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Producers are increasing production in response to increased demand for direct-to-consumer meat sales—which means there are more animals to process in facilities that already have limited availability. For example, I can usually call just a couple of months in advance to schedule a processing date for our animals; I called our processor in May and the earliest dates they had were in January 2021! Our hog will be awfully big by then. If you are a livestock producer and haven’t already booked your processing appointments for the coming year, I encourage you to call your processor today. I had a great conversation with Rebecca Thistlethwaite with the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network about these challenges with processing, especially during this time. You can listen to that podcast here.

If you are a livestock producer, there is a great opportunity to meet the demands for locally-produced meat, though there will likely be some challenges. If you are selling meat directly to consumers for the first time, expanding production, or have questions related to processing, please know our NCAT Livestock Specialists are here to help. You can contact us by calling 800-346-9140 or emailing askanag@ncat.org.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Organic and Grass-finished Beef Cattle Production

Direct Marketing Lamb: A Pathway

Direct Marketing

Working with Your Meat Processor

ATTRA COVID-19 Resources

Other Resources:

Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network

NMPAN COVID-19 Resources

Farm to Freezer: The Logistics of Online Sales & Shipping Meat Webinar

The New Livestock Farmer: The Business of Raising and Selling Ethical Meat

Direct to Consumer Beef Webinar Series

Episode 137. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott, Part 4: FAQs

Today’s episode of Voices from the Field – Part 4 of our “Direct Marketing Meat” series – features a question-and-answer session with Dave and Jenny Scott. Linda Coffey asks questions submitted by listeners, and Dave and Jenny provide great answers. You will hear some innovative marketing ideas, as well as more information about production practices and nutrition.

Dave and Linda are livestock specialists with NCAT’s ATTRA sustainable agriculture program. Dave works out of NCAT’s headquarters in Butte, Montana, and Linda is on the staff of NCAT’s Southeast Regional Office in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Dave and Jenny are co-owners of Montana Highland Lamb near Whitehall, Montana.

Be sure to check out the first three parts of this series. In Part 1, Dave and Jenny talk about marketing meat and how they started and grew their business. Meat processing was the primary topic in Part 2. And, Part 3 focused on working with customers, assessing profitability, and deciding on the scale of the enterprise.

If you have a question, please do not hesitate to contact Dave or Linda directly at daves@ncat.org and lindac@ncat.org.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Direct Marketing Lamb: A Pathway

Putting a Hand on Them: How to Tell When Your Lamb is Finished (Publication)

Putting a Hand on Them: How to Tell When Your Lamb is Finished (Video)

Lamb Cut Guide for Direct Marketers

Creating an Excellent Relationship with Your Lamb Processor

The Lambulator: A Cut-Yield Calculator

ATTRA YouTube Channel, Livestock and Pasture

Working with Your Meat Processor

Other Resources:

Montana Highland Lamb Facebook

Please call ATTRA with any and all of your sustainable agriculture questions at 800-346-9140 or e-mail us at askanag@ncat.org. Our two dozen specialists can help you with a vast array of topics, everything from farm planning to pest management, from produce to livestock, and soils to aquaculture.

You can get in touch with NCAT/ATTRA specialists and find our other extensive, and free, sustainable-agriculture publications, webinars, videos, and other resources at NCAT/ATTRA’s website.

You can also stay in touch with NCAT at its Facebook page.


Beef hanging in a meat plant’s cooler.

Episode 136. Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott, Part 3: Relationships

In this episode of Voices from the Field – part 3 of our “Direct Marketing Meat” series – Dave Scott and his wife, Jenny, join Linda Coffey to talk about aspects of working with customers, planning pricing, assessing profitability, and deciding on the scale of the enterprise.

Dave and Linda are livestock specialists with NCAT’s ATTRA sustainable agriculture program. Dave works out of NCAT’s headquarters in Butte, Montana, and Linda is on the staff of NCAT’s Southeast Regional Office in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Dave and Jenny also are co-owners of Montana Highland Lamb near Whitehall, Montana. During the discussion, Dave and Jenny emphasize the challenges and rewards of their business and the importance of relationships – family, business partners, and clients.

Dave, Jenny, and Linda will be back next week with a different format – taking questions from listeners. You’ll hear some innovative marketing ideas, as well as more information about both nutrition and production practices.

If you have a question for them, don’t hesitate to contact Dave and Linda directly at daves@ncat.org and lindac@ncat.org.

Related ATTRA Resources:

Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 1

Direct Marketing Meat with Dave and Jenny Scott. Part 2: Processing

The Lambulator

Working with Your Meat Processor (Podcast)

Working with Your Meat Processor (Publication)

Creating an Excellent Relationship with Your Processor

Intensive Grazing: One Farm’s Setup

It’s More than Getting the Wool Off

Putting a Hand on Them – How to Tell if your Lamb is Finished (Video)

Putting a Hand on Them – How to Tell if Your Lamb is Finished (Publication)

Direct Marketing Lamb: A Pathway

Lamb Cut Guide for Direct Marketers

Other Resources:

Building a Sustainable Business, MISA/SARE

Montana Highland Lamb Facebook page

Please call ATTRA with any and all of your sustainable agriculture questions at 800-346-9140 or e-mail us at askanag@ncat.org. Our two dozen specialists can help you with a vast array of topics, everything from farm planning to pest management, from produce to livestock, and soils to aquaculture.

You can get in touch with NCAT/ATTRA specialists and find our other extensive, and free, sustainable-agriculture publications, webinars, videos, and other resources at NCAT/ATTRA’s website.

You can also stay in touch with NCAT at its Facebook page.

Tag Archive for: Meat Processing

poultry in pasture

Tipsheet: Organic Poultry Production for Meat and Eggs

Organic Poultry Production for Meat and Eggs

By Ann Baier, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

poultry in pasture

Outdoor access is required by organic regulations for all livestock. Access to pasture, although not specifically required for organic poultry, allows birds to actively forage for plants, bugs, and seeds, and generally results in better health. Photo: Pamela Wolfe, NCAT


This tipsheet discusses certified organic poultry production for eggs and meat in compliance with United States Depart­ment of Agriculture (USDA) organic reg­ulations. The costs of meeting organic production regulations are related to the cost of organic feed (which varies widely depending on access and prox­imity to production of organic grains) and housing and management (which vary with weather and system design). Some markets and consumers value organically raised livestock and live­stock products, both in terms of food value and benefits to animal welfare and environmental stewardship. In these markets, organic products com­mand price premiums, which may off­set higher production costs sufficiently for organic poultry production to be a viable business.

NOP Organic Regulations Related to Poultry Production

Organic regulations specify, in 7CFR §205.2 Terms defined and in §205.236 Origin of Livestock, that poul­try or edible poultry products must be from birds that have been under continuous organic management beginning no later than the second day of life. Provisions for livestock feed, including allowed ingredients, are addressed in §205.237. The livestock health care practice standard, §205.238, emphasizes preventative health and humane treatment. Organic livestock living conditions are described in §205.239.

Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock production and handling are specifically listed in §205.603. Conversely, non-synthetic materials that are prohibited for use are listed in §205.604. Organic handling regulations are found in §205.270, and a list of nonagricultural (nonorganic) substances allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as “organic” appear in §205.605. Facility pest manage­ment is addressed in §205.271. Prevention of commingling and contamination are described in §205.272. Regulations on labeling are found in §205.200-311, including §205.306 Labeling of livestock feed.

Regulations that apply to all organic operations include §205.103 Recordkeeping, §205.201 Organic system plan, and §205.202 Land requirements. Parts of §205.203, Soil fertility and crop nutrient management, are relevant to management of organic poultry production operations.

A clean environment with young birds

A clean environment for young birds, along with selection of well-adapted poultry breeds, are foundations of preventative health care for organic poultry. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT

Selection of Animal Type and Breeds; Source of Livestock

According to USDA organic regulations, an organic livestock producer must select species and types of livestock that are suitable to the site, well-adapted to the climate, and resistant to diseases and parasites that are common in the area. Poultry breeds vary with respect to the range of temperature in which they thrive and maintain good productivity. Some do better in colder climates; others tolerate heat better. Some are better foragers; others grow faster. Producers should seek a balance of desirable characteristics. Hatchery breed descriptions and producer experience can guide breed selection. For organic production, one-day old chicks and poults may be purchased from any hatchery. (Poultry farm advisors recommend purchasing only from breeding flocks approved by the USDA National Poultry Improvement Program, which certifies flocks to be free of certain diseases.) Organic management must begin no later than the second day of life.

grain silo with ladder to access the top

Organic poultry must be provided with rations that are 100% organic and allowed ingredients for good nutrition and productivity. A grain silo is one way to protect feed from the elements and pests. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT

Nutrition: Feed, Supplements, and Additives

Organic poultry must be fed rations sufficient to meet nutritional require­ments, including vitamins, minerals, protein and/or amino acids, fatty acids, energy sources, and fiber. Agricultural ingredients must be cer­tified organic. Oyster shell may be used as a calcium supplement to strengthen eggshells. All feed rations, additives, and supplements must be listed with complete brand name, formulation, and manufacturer in the producer’s Organic System Plan (OSP).

Synthetic methionine is an amino acid that may be used in certified organic feed rations in limited quantities that are specified by the reg­ulations (two pounds per ton of chickenfeed; three pounds per ton of turkey or other poultry feed). This level of use will be allowed until the sunset date on this regulation. (Please check with your certifier and the National Organic Program website to verify this date.)

Organic poultry producers must not use animal drugs, including hor­mones, to promote growth. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits hormone use in all poultry production, whether organic or non-organic.) Additionally, organic producers must avoid products such as non-organic “medicated” chick starter, which includes antibiotics. Arsenic is included in some non-organic broiler feed as a feed stimulant and for protozoan parasite control. Arsenic should not be included in organic rations; its use is prohibited for organic crop production, so it must not be “applied” to organic land through poultry manure. Organic producers must not use feed supplements or additives in amounts above what is needed for adequate nutrition and health maintenance. Organic regulations specify that it is prohibited to feed mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products to mammals or poultry, or to use any feed, feed additives, and feed supplements in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Although pasture is not required for organic poultry, outdoor access is required. Production systems that allow poultry to forage fulfill the requirement for outdoor access and can provide for healthy living conditions. Pasture-based systems can be certified organic when they use organic feed, preventative health care, and avoid prohibited materials. House-based systems are also permitted for organic production, provided they allow for access to the outdoors and direct sunlight, and oth­erwise fulfill all other regulatory requirements described below in Living Conditions.

colorful hens on pasture with clean water

Laying hens on pasture with clean water, Solseeker Farm at Hain Ranch Organics. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT

Preventative Health Care

Organic regulations require preventative health care, beginning with appropriate selection of species and breeds, an overall healthy environment with good sanitation and biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of diseases, and measures to minimize stress. Vaccination against prevalent diseases of poultry is allowed in organic poultry production, as long as the vaccines are not genetically modified. Vaccines commonly used in the United States include those for Marek’s disease, Newcastle disease, and infectious bronchitis. Preventative practices and healthy living conditions, such as maintaining clean feeding and watering systems, are critical to reducing diseases such as Coccidiosis, which is caused by a protozoan parasite. Probiotics, or beneficial microbes, may be fed or added to drinking water to establish beneficial microflora. These work in the poultry’s gut, through competitive exclu­sion, to reduce pathogenic organisms such as Salmonella and E. coli.

Use of parasiticides is prohibited in organic slaughter stock of any kind, including poultry. Parasiticides are limited to uses specified in the Live­stock healthcare practice standards, the National List, and only by writ­ten order of a licensed veterinarian if required. Organic regulations §205.238(b) specify the conditions under which parasiticides may be used. §205.238(c)(6) also states “The producer of an organic livestock operation must not: Administer animal drugs in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act”. The producer must, therefore, be aware of, and avoid recommendations for off-label use of any drug.

Physical alterations of organic livestock are allowed only when neces­sary to promote the animals’ welfare, and when they are performed in a matter that minimizes pain and stress. Most organic producers find alterations such as beak trimming to be unnecessary when they have designed their systems and management practices to provide adequate space, include roosters for natural social order, and use other strategies to reduce stress among birds.

chickens in a fenced pasture near their coop

Living conditions required by organic regulations include access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight, as shown at Everett Family Farm. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT

Living Conditions

A healthy environment that minimizes stress is foundational to produc­tion of healthy birds. Organic poultry, like all organic livestock, must have access to the outdoors, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean drinking water, shade, and direct sunlight–suitable for the animal’s stage of life, climate, and environment. Animals need to express their natural behaviors to maintain good health. For poultry, this includes exercise, roost­ing, scratching, and dustbathing, which, among other benefits, helps control ectoparasites.

Chicks, poults, and other young birds are typi­cally confined during brooding to keep them warm and safe from predators. Outdoor access is required for all poultry once they have ade­quate feathering. Confinement of poultry after this stage of development—about four weeks for chickens—must be documented and jus­tified according to the reasons for temporary confinement allowed in §205.239: inclement weather; stage of life; health, safety, or well-being; risk to soil or water quality; healthcare—illness or injury; sorting, shipping or sale; breed­ing; and youth projects.

Housing must be designed to protect birds from the elements, with reasonable temperatures for health and stress reduction. Although organic programs in other countries, and animal welfare programs in the United States, specify minimum per-bird requirements for roost space, housing area, and outdoor access, as well as limits on the size and density of flocks, NOP organic regulations do not quantify how much living or roosting space is adequate. Instead, they focus on qualitative descriptions of living conditions and the purpose of the requirements: that livestock producers cre­ate living conditions that minimize stress. Any production practice that restricts space or outdoor access, or otherwise compromises healthy living conditions, will not comply with organic regulations.

In organic production, use of lumber treated with prohibited materials is not allowed where it will contact soil, crops, or livestock.

Supplemental lighting, commonly used in layer operations to diminish seasonal dips in rate of lay during winter months, is not specifically addressed in the organic regulations. Describe your proposed practices with respect to lighting in your Organic System Plan (OSP), to be reviewed and approved by your certifier.

Good air quality is extremely important to birds’ health because dust and high levels of ammonia in the air can cause respiratory problems. Adequate ventilation, appropriate bedding (high-carbon material to absorb the nitrogen in the manure), and regular cleaning of poultry housing are all important.

Feed-storage facilities, feeder design, and maintenance procedures must keep poultry feed clean. Practical consider­ations (some of which are common sense and not covered explicitly in organic regulations) are listed below:

  • Provide balanced rations and adequate feed to birds. Layers are often fed free choice, such that they may eat their fill. However, fast-growing meat birds, such as Cornish cross, are prone to heart attacks and leg prob­lems when they overeat; their daily feed quantity needs to be limited to reasonable rations for the breed.
  • Protect feed from factors that diminish its nutritional quality and health, such as moisture (which may allow growth of undesirable microorganisms) and excess heat (which degrades vitamins).
  • Manage rodents to prevent both feed loss through consumption and introduction of pathogens through rodent droppings.
  • To prevent disease and parasite reinfection, position feeders to prevent birds from standing, scratching, or defecating in the feed.

Watering equipment needs to provide a reliable supply of clean, cool water. Birds drink twice as much, by weight, as they eat. Because they eat in proportion to their drinking, poultry health, growth, and productivity depend on a reli­able supply of good water. Poultry prefer cool water over warm water. Check and maintain watering systems regularly to ensure reliable function and prevent leaks that waste water and create fly habitat.

farmer with guard dog

Pastured poultry farmer Aurelio Lopez of Fiesta Farm with guard dog. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT

Predator management, while not directly addressed by organic regulations, is necessary for the safety and well-being of both poultry and predators. Keeping predators at bay is criti­cal to the survival, health, and stress reduction of poultry. In addition, the manner in which predator management is accomplished must maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water, wet­lands, woodlands, and wildlife. Predator man­agement practices must be designed and car­ried out in ways that prevent wildlife contact with livestock. Producers must “train” each type of potential predator not to perceive their live­stock as prey. Protecting livestock against pred­ators must be done with conscientious planning in order to protect the lives of both potential predator and potential prey to promote ecologi­cal balance, as is required by the definition of “organic production” in §205.2 of the organic regulations.

Predator management strategies should consider some combination of the following: physical barriers such as housing and fencing; deterrents such as “predator eyes” lights, motion sensor lights or sprinklers; management barriers such as placement of housing to make livestock less accessible to ground and air predators; and regular presence of humans and well-trained guard animals. Certain breeds of dogs have especially good instincts and can respond well to train­ing for this occupation.

Regulations §205.239(a)(3) require producers to establish conditions for livestock health including appropriate, clean, dry bedding. Roughages used as bedding must be certified organic. “Bedding” is interpreted to include materials used to line nest boxes to protect and keep eggs clean. Any agricultural products used for that purpose, such as straw or rice hulls, must be certified organic. Organic certification is generally not applicable to forest products, such that wood shavings need not be organic, but must consist only of plant material that is not treated with any prohibited substances.

Manure management is a critically important part of an organic livestock operation. Per §205.239(e), “The producer of an organic livestock operation must manage manure in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, heavy metals, or pathogenic organisms and optimizes recycling of nutrients and must manage pastures and other outdoor access areas in a manner that does not put soil or water quality at risk.” Although hydrated lime is allowed per §205.603 as an external pest control, its use is not permitted to cauterize physical altera­tions or to deodorize animal wastes.

hands holding freshly gathered eggs

Freshly gathered eggs. Eggshell colors are characteristic of different breeds of laying hens. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT

Handling (Processing)

Handling facilities for processing meat or eggs may be on- or off-farm. Regardless of their location, organic operations must comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws, such as those related to meat inspection and market­ing, egg handling and egg handler registration, sanitation, water use, and waste management.

In order to sell eggs as organic, they must be handled in certified organic handling facilities and using allowed materials. Materials com­monly used in egg handling include cleaners, sanitizers, and egg-coating materials. These are listed in §205.605(a) and (b) with any restrictions on their use as sanitizers (e.g. chlorine materi­als, hydrogen peroxide, peracetic or peroxyace­tic acid); defoaming agents (ingredients must be organic or on the National List, e.g., silicon dioxide, organic vegetable oil), and egg coat­ings (organic oils). As noted above, any mate­rial planned for use must be listed in your OSP and approved by your certifier for its intended use. In addition to being allowed under NOP organic regulations, egg handling methods and materials must meet federal regulations: USDA Grading Standards (Agricultural Marketing Ser­vice or AMS); Egg Products Inspection Act or EPIA, Egg Safety Rule, and Food Code (Food and Drug Administration); the National Poultry Improvement Act (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service or APHIS); Flock Health & Production, Research, Statistical Information (from the Food Safety and Inspection Service or FSIS, Agricultural Research Service or ARS, and National Agricultural Statistics Service or NASS). They must also meet state and local requirements as appli­cable, such as regulations of State Departments of Agriculture, Departments of Health Services, Industry Marketing Boards, and Farmers Market Boards, as well as Retail Food Codes.

Similarly, in order for a producer to sell poultry meat as organic, it must be handled (processed) in a certified organic facility, using allowed practices and substances. Any materials used on equipment, food-contact surfaces, and organic products themselves must be: a) on the National List as allowed; b) listed in your OSP; and c) approved by your certi­fier for their intended use. Materials commonly used for poultry meat production include soaps/cleaners and sanitiz­ers used in scalders and on evisceration tables, scales, or any other food-contact surfaces that organic products touch.

turkeys in a pasture with a guard dog

Turkeys on pasture. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT


Documentation needed to show implementation of the producer’s Organic System Plan and compli­ance with the National Organic Program organic regulations includes the following:

  • Source of birds (purchase receipts or brooding/hatching records)
  • Feed sources (receipts and labels for purchased rations and feed supple­ments, production or purchase of organic forage or other agricultural feedstuffs)
  • Preventative health care practices
  • Production, handling, and sales records (meat-bird slaughter, packaging and sales; or egg collection, washing, can­dling, grading, and sales)
  • Labels must be part of the producer’s OSP, approved by the certifier, and compliant with government regulations for labeling of meat (e.g. inspec­tion or exemption, and safe food handling instructions) and eggs (“Sell by…[30 days from pack date]”, Julian date, keep refrigerated, etc.). See the ATTRA publication entitled Small-Scale Egg Handling for further details.


National Organic Program Resources

USDA Organic Regulations 7 CFR 205

USDA National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances

USDA National Organic Program Handbook

  • PM 11-12 Confinement of Poultry Flocks Due to Avian Influenza, or Other Infectious Diseases
  • NOP 5029 The Use of Kelp in Organic Livestock Feed

Market News and Transportation Data: Organic Poultry and Eggs

NCAT/ATTRA Resources

Print Publications



  • Small-Scale Table Egg Quality and Processing
  • Specialty and Small-Scale Poultry Processing

Spanish-Language resources

Organic Poultry Production for Meat and Eggs
© 2015 National Center for Appropriate Technology—NCAT
By Ann Baier, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

This publication is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. This publication was also made possible in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

pollos en un pasto

Hoja de Datos: Producción de Aves Orgánicas para Carne y Huevos

Hoja de Datos: Producción de Aves Orgánicas para Carne y Huevos

Por Ann Baier, Especialista en Agricultura NCAT; Traducción: Pame Wolfe, Especialista en Agricultura, NCAT

pollos en un pasto

El acceso al exterior es requerido por las regulaciones para todo animal. El acceso a pastura, a pesar de no ser específicamente requerido para aves orgánicas, permite a las aves forrajear activamente en busca de plantas, insectos, y semillas, y generalmente resulta en una mejor salud. Foto: Pame Wolfe, NCAT


Esta hoja de datos habla acerca de la producción de aves orgánicas certificadas para huevos y carne en conformidad con las regulaciones orgánicas del Departamento de Agricultura de los Estados Unidos (USDA, por sus siglas en inglés). El costo de cumplir con las regulaciones orgánicas de producción está relacionado al costo del alimento orgánico (que varía ampliamente dependiendo del acceso y proximidad a la producción de granos orgánicos) y las viviendas y el manejo (que varían con el clima y diseño del sistema). Algunos mercados y consumidores valoran los animales y productos animales criados de manera orgánica, tanto en términos de valor del alimento como los beneficios de bienestar animal y el manejo de recursos ambientales. En estos mercados, los productos orgánicos generan precios recargados, que pueden compensar los mayores costos de producción lo suficiente para que la producción de aves orgánicas sea un negocio viable.

Regulaciones Orgánicas del NOP Relacionadas a la Producción de Aves

Las regulaciones orgánicas especifican, en 7CFR §205.2 Términos definidos y en §205.236 Origen de Animales, que aves o productos avícolas comestibles deben provenir de aves bajo manejo orgánico continuo que comience a más tardar el segundo día de vida. Las provisiones para alimento de animales, incluyendo los ingredientes permitidos, se describen en §205.237. El estándar de las prácticas de cuidado de la salud animal, §205.238, enfatiza los cuidados preventivos y el tratamiento humano. Las condiciones de vida de animales orgánicos se describen en §205.239.

Sustancias sintéticas permitidas para uso en producción y manipulación de animales orgánicos se enlistan en forma específica en §205.603. Al contrario, materiales no sintéticos que están prohibidos para uso se enlistan en §205.604. Las regulaciones de manipulación orgánica se encuentran en §205.270, y una lista de sustancias no agrícolas (no orgánicas) permitidas como ingredientes en productos procesados etiquetados como “orgánicos” aparecen en §205.605. El manejo de pestes en las facilidades se menciona en §205.271. La prevención de mezcla y contaminación se describen §205.272. Las regulaciones acerca del etiquetado se encuentran en §205.200-311, incluyendo §205.306 Etiquetado de alimento para animales. Regulaciones que se aplican a operaciones orgánicas incluyen §205.103 Mantención de Registros, §205.201 Plan del Sistema Orgánico, y §205.202 Requerimientos de terreno. Las partes §205.203, fertilidad de suelo y manejo de nutrientes de cultivo, son relevantes al manejo de operaciones de producción orgánica de aves.

Selección de Tipos de Animales y Razas: Fuente de Animales

Según las regulaciones orgánicas del USDA, un productor de animales orgánicos debe seleccionar especies y tipos de animales adecuados al sitio, bien adaptados al clima, y resistentes a enfermedades y parásitos que son comunes en el área. Las razas de aves varían con respecto a la gama de temperatura en el que prosperan y mantienen buena productividad. Algunas se desempeñan mejor en climas fríos; otras toleran mejor el calor. Algunas son mejores forrajeras; otras crecen más rápido. Los productores deben buscar un equilibrio de características deseadas. Las descripciones de razas por parte de proveedores y la experiencia del productor pueden guiar la selección de una raza. Para la producción orgánica, los pollitos de un día pueden obtenerse de cualquier proveedor. (Asesores de granjas avícolas recomiendan comprar sólo de parvadas de reproductores aprobadas por el Programa Nacional de Mejoramiento de Aves del USDA). El manejo orgánico debe comenzar a más tardar el segundo día de vida.

Nutrición: Alimento, Suplementos, y Aditivos

Las aves orgánicas deben ser alimentadas con raciones suficientes para satisfacer los requerimientos nutricionales, incluyendo vitaminas, minerales, proteínas y/o aminoácidos, ácidos grasos, fuentes de energía, y fibra. Los ingredientes agrícolas deben ser orgánicos certificados. Concha de ostras puede ser usada como suplemento de calcio para fortalecer las cáscaras de huevos. Todas las raciones de alimentos, aditivos, y suplementos deben estar listadas con nombre completo de la marca, formulación, y fabricante en el Plan de Sistema Orgánico (OSP por sus siglas en inglés).

La metionina sintética es un aminoácido que puede ser usado en raciones de alimento certificados orgánicos en cantidades limitadas que son especificadas por las regulaciones (dos libras por tonelada de alimento para pollos; tres libras por tonelada de alimento para pavos u otras aves). Este nivel de uso va a estar permitido hasta fecha de terminación (“Sunset date”) de esta publicación. (Por favor confirme con su certificador y con el sitio web del Programa Orgánico Nacional para verificar esta fecha).

Los productores de aves orgánicas no pueden usar fármacos animales, incluyendo hormonas, para promover el crecimiento. (La Administración de Alimentos y Fármacos de EE.UU. prohíbe el uso de hormonas en cualquier producción avícola, sea esta orgánica o no orgánica). Además, los productores orgánicos deben evitar como alimento de inicio para pollos no orgánico “medicado”, que incluye antibióticos. El arsénico se incluye en algunos alimentos no orgánicos de parrilleros (broilers) como un estimulante y como control de parásitos protozoarios. El arsénico no debe estar incluido en raciones orgánicas; su uso está prohibido en producción orgánica de cultivos, por lo que no puede ser “aplicado” en terrenos orgánicos a través de estiércol de aves. Los productores orgánicos no pueden usar suplementos o aditivos en cantidades por sobre lo que se necesita para una nutrición adecuada y mantención de la salud. Las regulaciones orgánicas especifican que está prohibido alimentar a mamíferos o aves con subproductos de sacrificio de mamíferos o aves, o usar cualquier alimento , aditivos alimenticios, y suplementos alimenticios en violación del Acta Federal de Alimentos, Drogas y Cosméticos.

A pesar de que no se requieren pasturas para aves orgánicas, el acceso al exterior si es requerido. Los sistemas de producción que permiten que las aves forrajeen cumplen con el requerimiento de acceso al exterior y pueden proveer condiciones de vida saludables. Los sistemas de producción basados en pastoreo pueden ser certificados orgánicos cuando usan alimentos orgánicos, cuidado de salud preventivo, y evitan sustancias prohibidas. Sistemas basados en gallineros también están permitidos en la producción orgánica, siempre que permitan acceso al exterior y luz de sol directa y cumplan con todos los otros requerimientos regulatorios descritos en Condiciones de Vida.

Cuidado de Salud Preventivo

Las regulaciones orgánicas requieren un cuidado de salud preventivo, comenzando con la selección apropiada de especies y razas, y un ambiente sano en general, con buena sanitación y medidas de bioseguridad para prevenir la disipación de enfermedades, y medidas para minimizar el estrés. La vacunación en contra de enfermedades prevalentes está permitida en la producción orgánica de aves, mientras las vacunas no sean modificadas genéticamente. Las vacunas comúnmente usadas en Estados Unidos incluyen aquellas para la Enfermedad de Marek, Newcastle, y bronquitis infecciosa. Las prácticas preventivas y condiciones de vida sanas, como mantener sistemas de alimentación y bebederos limpios, son críticas para reducir enfermedades como la coccidiosis, causada por un parásito protozoario. Los probióticos, o microbios beneficiosos, pueden ser alimentados o añadidos al agua de beber para establecer una microflora beneficiosa. Esta trabaja en el tracto digestivo del ave, a través de exclusión competitiva, para reducir organismos patógenos como Salmonella y E. coli.

El uso de parasiticidas está prohibido en animales orgánicos para matanza de cualquier tipo, incluyendo aves. Parasiticidas están limitados para usos especificados en los estándares de práctica de cuidados de salud de animales, en la Lista Nacional, y sólo a través de una orden escrita de un veterinario licenciado si se requiere. Las regulaciones orgánicas §205.238(b) especifican las condiciones bajo las cuales los parasiticidas pueden ser utilizados. §205.238(c)(6) también afirma que “El productor de una operación de animales orgánicos no puede: Administrar fármacos animales en violación del Acta Federal de Alimentos, Fármacos y Cosméticos”. El productor debe, entonces, ser consciente, y evitar recomendaciones de usos no indicados en la etiqueta de cualquier fármaco.

Las alteraciones físicas de animales orgánicos están permitidas sólo cuando sean necesarias para promover el bienestar animal, y cuando se realicen de manera que minimice el estrés y dolor. La mayor parte de los productores orgánicos creen que las alteraciones como el despique no son necesarias cuando han diseñado sus sistemas y prácticas de manejo para proveer espacio adecuado, inclusión de gallos para mantener el orden social natural, y otras estrategias para reducir el estrés entre las aves.

Condiciones de Vida

Un ambiente sano que minimiza el estrés es fundamental para la producción de aves sanas. Las aves orgánicas, como todo animal orgánico, deben tener acceso al exterior, refugio, áreas para ejercicio, aire limpio, agua de beber limpia, sombra, y luz solar directa—adecuado para el etapa de vida del animal, la clima y el ambiente. Los animales necesitan expresar su conducta natural para mantener una buena salud. Para aves, esto incluye el ejercicio, perchas, escarbar, y baños de polvo, que en conjunto con otros beneficios, ayudan al control de ectoparásitos. Pollitos, pavitos y otras aves jóvenes están típicamente en confinamiento durante la crianza para mantenerlos cálidos y protegerlos de depredadores. El acceso al exterior se requiere para toda ave una vez que tienen plumaje adecuado. El confinamiento de aves después de esta etapa de desarrollo—alrededor de cuatro semanas para aves—debe ser documentado y justificado de acuerdo a las razones para confinamiento temporal permitidas en §205.239: clima inclemente, etapa de vida, salud, seguridad, o bienestar; riesgo a la calidad del suelo o agua; cuidados de salud—enfermedades o lesiones; clasificaciones, transporte o ventas; cruzas; proyectos juveniles.

Las viviendas deben estar disenadas para proteger a las aves de los elementos, con temperaturas razonables para la salud y reducción del estrés. A pesar de que los programas orgánicos en otros países, y programas de bienestar animal en los Estados Unidos, especifican requerimientos mínimos para cada ave acerca de espacio para perchar, área de alojamiento, y acceso al exterior, así como límites en el tamaño de y densidad de las parvadas, las regulaciones orgánicas del NOP no cuantifican cuanto espacio para vivir o perchar es adecuado. En su lugar, se enfocan en descripciones cualitativas de las condiciones de vida y en el propósito de los requerimientos: que los productores creen condiciones de vida que minimicen el estrés. Cualquier práctica de producción que restrinja el espacio o el acceso al exterior, o que comprometa condiciones sanas de vida, no va a cumplir las regulaciones orgánicas.

En la producción orgánica, el uso de madera tratada con materiales prohibidos no está permitido en donde contacte el suelo, los cultivos, o los animales.

La luz suplementaria, comúnmente usada en operaciones de ponedoras para minimizar depresiones estacionales en la tasa de postura durante los meses de invierno, no se menciona en forma particular en las regulaciones orgánicas. Describa sus prácticas propuestas con respecto a la luz en su Plan de Sistema Orgánico (OSP, por sus siglas en inglés), para que sea revisado y aprobado por su certificador.

La buena calidad del aire es extremadamente importante para la salud de las aves porque el polvo y los altos niveles de amonio en el aire pueden causar problemas respiratorios. Ventilación adecuada, cama adecuada (materiales con alto nivel de carbono para absorber el nitrógeno en el estiércol), y limpieza regular del gallinero son todos importantes.

Facilidades para el almacenamiento de alimentos, el diseño del comedero, y los procedimientos de mantención deben mantener el alimento de las aves limpio. Consideraciones prácticas (algunas de ellas son sentido común y no son cubiertas específicamente en las regulaciones orgánicas) se enlistan a continuación:

  • Provea raciones balanceadas y alimento adecuado para las aves. Las ponedoras por lo general se alimentan con elección libre (ad-libitum), para que coman hasta que se llenen. Sin embargo, aves de carne de rápido crecimiento, como cruzas Cornish, son propensos a ataques cardiacos y problemas de piernas cuando comen demasiado; la cantidad de alimento diaria debe ser limitada a una ración razonable de acuerdo a la raza.
  • Proteja el alimento de factores que disminuyen su calidad nutricional y salud, como la humedad (que puede permitir el crecimiento de microrganismos no deseables) y el exceso de calor (que degrada vitaminas).
  • Maneje los roedores para prevenir tanto la perdida a través de consumo de alimentos como la introducción de patógenos a través de heces de roedores.
  • Para prevenir enfermedad e infestaciones parasitarias, ubique los comederos para que las aves no se paren en ellos, no escarben el alimento, o defequen en el alimento.
  • El equipo de agua debe proveer una provisión de agua confiable, potable y fresca. Las aves beben el doble, en peso, de lo que comen. Debido a que comen en proporción a lo que beben, la salud, productividad y crecimiento de las aves depende de la provisión de buena agua. Las aves prefieren agua fría en comparación a tibia. Revise y mantenga los sistemas de agua regularmente para asegurar una función confiable y prevenir goteras que gastan agua y crean hábitat para moscas.

El manejo de predadores, aunque no se menciona directamente en las regulaciones orgánicas, es necesario para la seguridad y bienestar tanto de las aves como de los predadores. Mantener a los predadores a raya es crítico para la sobrevivencia, salud, y reducción de estrés de las aves. Además, la manera en que se controlan los predadores debe mantener o mejorar los recursos naturales de la operación, incluyendo el agua, el suelo, los humedales, los bosques, y la vida silvestre. Las prácticas de manejo de predadores deben estar diseñadas y realizadas de manera que eviten el contacto de animales silvestres y con los animales de ganado. Los productores deben “entrenar” cada tipo de predador potencial para que no perciban a sus animales como presas. Proteger a los animales en contra de predadores debe realizarse con una planificación consciente para proteger la vida tanto del animal de cría como del predador, para promover un equilibrio ecológico, como se requiere por definición de “producción orgánica” en §205.2 de las regulaciones orgánicas.

Las estrategias de manejo de predadores deben considerar alguna combinación de lo siguiente: barreras físicas como alojamiento viviendas y cercos; disuasivos como las luces “ojos de predadores”, sensores de movimiento y rociadores; barreras de manejo como ubicar la casa para que los animales estén menos accesibles a predadores aéreos y terrestres; y presen-cia regular de personas y animales guardianes bien entrenados. Algunas razas de perros tienen en especial buenos instintos y pueden responder bien al entrenamiento para esta ocupación.

Las regulaciones §205.239(a)(3) requieren que los productores establecen condiciones para salud de sus animales incluyendo lecho o “cama” apropiada, limpia y seca. La fibra alimenticia utilizada como cama debe ser certificada orgánica. Se asume que “cama” incluye los materiales usados para cubrir nidos para proteger los huevos y mantenerlos limpios. Cualquier producto agrícola, tal como la paja o la cáscara de arroz, debe ser orgánico certificado. La certificación orgánica generalmente no aplica a productos de bosque, por lo que las virutas de madera no deben ser orgánicas, pero deben consistir sólo en productos de plantas que no son tratados con materiales prohibidos.

El manejo de estiércol es un componente crítico de una operación de animales orgánicos. Según §205.239(e), “El productor de una operación de animales orgánicos debe manejar el estiércol de manera que no contribuya a la contaminación de los cultivos, el suelo, o el agua por nutrientes de plantas, metales pesados, u organismos patógenos y que optimice el reciclaje de nutrientes y debe manejar las pasturas y otras áreas al exterior de forma en que no se ponga en riesgo la calidad del suelo o agua.” A pesar de que la cal hidratada es permitida bajo §205.603 como un control de plagas externas, no se permite su uso para cauterizar alteraciones físicas o desodorizar heces de animales.

Manejo/Manipulación (Procesamiento)

Las facilidades de manejo para el procesamiento de carne o huevos pueden estar dentro o fuera de la granja. Independientemente de la ubicación, las operaciones orgánicas deben cumplir con todas las regulaciones federales, estatales, y locales que apliquen, tales como aquellas relacionadas a la inspección y mercadeo de carne, manipulación de huevos, e inscripción como manipulador de huevos, sanitación, uso de agua, y manejo de desechos.

Para poder vender huevos como orgánicos, deben ser manipulados en facilidades certificadas para realizar manejo orgánico y usando materiales permitidos. Materiales comúnmente utilizados en la manipulación de huevos incluyen limpiadores, sanitizantes, y materiales que recubren al huevo. Estos se listan en §205.605(a) y (b) con toda restricción en su uso como sanitizantes (ej: materiales clorados, peróxido de hidrógeno, ácido peracético o peroxiacético); agentes antiespumantes (los ingredientes deben ser orgánicos o estar en la Lista Nacional, ej.: dióxido de silicona, lecitina, aceite orgánico vegetal), y materiales para recubrir el huevo (aceites orgánicos). Como mencionamos anteriormente, cualquier material que se planifique utilizar debe estar listado en su OSP y aprobado por su certificador para su uso previsto. Además de estar permitido por las regulaciones orgánicas del USDA, los métodos y materiales para manipulación de huevos deben cumplir con regulaciones federales: USDA normas de clasificación (Servicio de Mercadeo Agrícola o AMS por sus siglas en inglés); Acta de Inspección de Productos de Huevos o EPIA por sus siglas en inglés, Regulación de Seguridad de Huevo, Código de Alimentos (Administración de Alimentos y Fármacos); el Acta Nacional de Mejoramiento de Aves (Servicio de Inspección de Salud de Plantas y Animales o APHIS por sus siglas en inglés); Producción y Salud de Parvadas, Investigación, Información Estadística (del Servicio de Salud e Inspección de Alimentos o FSIS por sus siglas en inglés, Servicio de Investigación Agrícola o ARS por sus siglas en inglés, y Servicio Nacional de Estadísticas Agrícolas o NASS por sus siglas en inglés). También deben cumplir con requerimientos estatales y locales como se aplique, tales como regulaciones de Departamentos Estatales de Agricultura, Departamentos de Servicios de Salud, Directorios de la Industria del Mercadeo, y Directorios de Mercados de Productores, así como Códigos de la Venta de Alimentos.

En forma similar, para que un productor pueda vender carne como orgánica, debe estar procesada en una facilidad certificada orgánica, usando prácticas y sustancias permitidas. Cualquier material usado en equipos, superficies con contacto con alimentos, y los mismos productos orgánicos deben ser: a) permitidos en la Lista Nacional; b) listados en su OSP; y c) aprobados por su certificador para el uso intencionado. Los materiales comúnmente usados para la producción de carne de aves incluyen jabones/limpiadores y sanitizantes usados en la escaldadora y en mesas para evisceración, pesas, o cualquier otra superficie de contacto con alimentos que tienen contacto con productos orgánicos.

Mantención de Registros

Documentos necesarios para demostrar implementación del Plan de Sistema Orgánico del productor y conformidad con las regulaciones orgánicas del Programa Orgánico Nacional incluyen lo siguiente:

  • Fuente de aves (recibos de compra o registros de incubación)
  • Fuentes de alimentos (recibos y etiquetas de raciones y suplementos alimenticios comprados, producción o compra de forrajes orgánicos o cualquier otro pienso agrícola)
  • Prácticas de cuidados de salud preventivas
  • Registros de producción, manipulación y ventas (sacrificio de aves de carne y empaque y ventas; recolección de huevos, lavado, ovoscopía, clasificación, y venta)
  • Las etiquetas deben ser parte del OSP del productor, aprobadas por el certificador, y que cumplan con regulaciones del gobierno acerca de etiquetas para productos cárneos (Ej.: inspección o exención, e instrucciones de manipulación segura de alimentos) y huevos (“vender antes de…[30 días de la fecha en el empaque]”, fecha Juliana, mantener en refrigeración, etc.). Vea la publicación en inglés de ATTRA Manipulación de Huevos en Pequeña Escala (Small Scale Egg Handling) para más detalles.


Recursos del Programa Orgánico Nacional (en inglés)

Regulaciones Orgánicas del USDA 7 CFR 205
Busque en el sitio web en inglés del NOP enlaces que lo llevarán a información acerca de los reglamentos orgánicos y al Manual del Programa Orgánico Nacional en español.

Lista Nacional de Sustancias Permitidas y Prohibidas del USDA

Manual del Programa Orgánico Nacional USDA

  • PM 11-12 Confinamiento de Parvadas de Aves Debido a Influenza Aviar u otras Enfermedades Infecciosas
  • NOP 5029 Uso de Alga Marina en Alimentos Organices para Animales

Noticias del Mercado y Datos de Transporte: Aves y Huevos Orgánicos

Recursos de NCAT/ATTRA

Publicaciones Relacionadas en inglés:

En inglés

En español

Videos (en inglés)

Presentaciones (español)

Presentaciones sobre las Aves de Corral

  • Criando Pollos para Carne en Pasturas
  • Aves en Pastoreo: Razas y Nutrición
  • Producción de Huevos en Pastura
  • Producción de Aves de Carne en Pastoreo Viviendas y Equipos
  • Procesamiento de Aves de Carne en Pasturas

Hoja de Datos: Producción de Aves Orgánicas para Carne y Huevos
Por Ann Baier, Especialista en Agricultura NCAT
Traducción: Pame Wolfe, Especialista en Agricultura, NCAT
Publicado Julio 2015 • SP405

Esta publicación es producida por el Centro Nacional de Tecnología Apropiada a través del programa de Agricultura Sostenible ATTRA, en virtud de un acuerdo de cooperación con el Desarrollo Rural del USDA. Esta publicación también fue posible en parte gracias a la financiación del Servicio de Comercialización Agrícola del Departamento de Agricultura de EE. UU., Programa Nacional Orgánico. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

Publicado originalmente Julio 2015, SP405

Publicaciones Relacionadas en inglés:

En inglés

En español

Beef hanging in a meat plant’s cooler.

Meat Plants: Improving Profitability in Small and Very Small Operations

Meat Plants: Improving Profitability in Small and Very Small Operations

By Nick McCann, NCAT Agriculture Specialist


Small and very small meat plants in the U.S. typically struggle with extensive overtime costs, high turnover, high stress, production overcapacity, a declining rural customer base, declining profitability, and an extensive need for capital investment. This publication highlights small changes that have been made at some meat plants to solve common problems and increase profit that don’t require significant capital expenditure. In addition to small, low-capital changes, this publication highlights a basic methodology that meat-plant managers can use to create their own solutions to individual plant problems.


Rate and Margin
Key Opportunities in Meat-Plant Management
Further Resources


Is your meat plant a high-stress environment? Is every day an emergency? Is overtime a fact of life? Do you have trouble keeping employees? Does your plant lack capacity, with only risky capital investment and expansion as viable alternatives for your business to address the issue? Such problems are common in small meat plants and have come to be accepted as normal by many owners and man- agers. This publication will discusses methods that have been used in small meat plants in the U.S. to identify excess capacity, reduce overtime, decrease employee turnover, and reduce the number of management “fires” that need to be put out. Readers will see that with small changes in scheduling, product mix, and how employees are used, it is possible to produce significant improvements in profitability. The first part of this publication will discuss the basic metrics for decision making. The second part will give a framework for managers to analyze and then improve their business’s performance. Finally, this publication will discuss some actions that have helped improve the profitability of small plants. While this publication does provide examples from real meat plants in the U.S., the point is not to give a set of answers for how every meat plant should work. Rather, it is to give a set of decision-making tools for managers to analyze their own situations and develop their own solutions to increase profitability.


“Show me how I will be measured, and I will show you how I will behave.” This familiar statement illustrates the important implications of measurement for capital-investment, prod- uct-mix, and employee-management decisions. Without proper measurement, key information used to make decisions in any of these areas can be misleading or arbitrary. As a first step, let’s answer a number of questions to outline a basic framework for making decisions.

What’s the Goal of Your Business?

Money may not be everything, but it is an important element of all businesses, small meat plants included. The goal of a business is to make money now without jeopardizing its ability to make money in the future. Simply put, actions that move the business in the direction of that goal are productive, and actions that don’t move the business in that direction are not.

It is greatly important, then, to define the measurements we need to determine whether we are moving toward our goal. These are our goal-oriented measurements (Goldratt and Cox, 1984):

  • Net income. This is all the money left over after expenses.
  • Return on investment. This is a relative measurement of income. For example, it might seem like a good thing to have a million-dollar income, but it’s not if you had to invest $1 trillion to make it.
  • Cash flow. This is a two-sided measure of business success. If a business has a healthy cash flow, it is of secondary importance. But if you lack cash, on the other hand, it can be a disaster for your business.

These overall goal-oriented measurements are important, but they are not sufficiently connected to what’s happening on the meat-plant floor to be of use in day-to-day decision mak- ing. The following measurements can show the likely future impact of decisions or actions on the meat-plant floor in regard to net income, return on investments, and cash flow (Goldratt and Cox, 1984) (Goldratt and Fox, 1986):

  • Throughput: Throughput is not production. It is the rate at which the business generates money through sales. Throughput can generally be calculated by subtracting unit-variable costs from sales. Unit-variable costs are costs that can be tied easily to each unit of production. However, unit-variable costs do not include labor in meat plants. For a locker processing a custom animal, the rate that money is generated through sales can be represented by this calculation: sales – (ingredients + offal removal + packaging). For an official animal, the rate can generally be represented this way: sales – (animal purchase + ingredients + offal removal + packaging).
  • Inventory and investment: This is everything the system invests in to generate sales. Inventory generally includes money tied up in boxed meat, purchased live animals in pens (for inspected facilities), products waiting to be delivered or picked up by customers, products in retail coolers, and ingredients. Invest- ment will typically include money tied up in equipment and buildings.
    • Operating expense: This is money the system spends turning inventory into throughput. Operating expenses typically include labor, utilities, and depreciation.

What Does This Mean for Decision-Making in My Small Meat Plant?

Consider this scenario: The owner/manager of a small custom meat plant in a rural area is thinking about buying a new sausage stuffer. This stuffer is nice. It stuffs faster with less labor, and it really impresses friends in the industry. The stuffer salesman has some impressive graphs and statistics on labor savings, savings in raw-material waste, and the payback period. Raw-material-waste savings are negligible, but there are huge savings in the labor category. However, the manager is still unsure about making the investment even with the impressive potential labor savings. How should the manager analyze the situation? Below is an example of how to look at throughput, inventory and investment, and operating expense to make a decision.

How Will the Decision Increase Throughput?

At this plant, the owner makes an especially delicious smoked product that is often in high demand from his custom-slaughter custom- ers. Because of this, many of the orders require smoking. Even though the new sausage stuffer would move faster, approximately half of the products out of the new stuffer would still go to the smokehouse. This would create a bottle- neck of orders waiting for the smokehouse. The customers often wait until the whole order is finished so they don’t have to make more than one trip to pick it up. The new stuffer would move much faster, but, because there would be a line of orders waiting for the smokehouse, the plant wouldn’t get orders out the door any quicker. That means throughput, the cash generated from sales, would not improve with a new stuffer. Remember, throughput is not throughput until you get paid.

How Will the Decision Decrease Inventory and Investment?

We can see that a faster sausage stuffer would not make the rest of the production process faster. It also would do nothing to decrease inventory because the orders would still be waiting for customers to pick them up. Additionally, payments on a loan for the stuffer would increase investment costs, thereby reducing cash flow, especially in light of the fact that through- put would not increase.

How Will the Decision Decrease Operating Expense?

The owner of this plant has no plans to let any- one go. The woman currently working the sausage stuffer is a part-time employee already, and she is often needed at the checkout counter of the plant, which doubles as a small-town grocery store. In effect, expenses will actually go up because of depreciation on the sausage stuffer. However, even if the manager could eliminate a full-time position or change an employee’s job to part time, would that be advisable? Think about the following questions:

  • What is the likely future impact on employee behavior if new equipment replaces job positions or reduces them to part time?
    • Would you get significant resistance from your employees for any business improvement because of the fear it would inspire more job cuts? Would that environment make your business money, or would it create more friction and problems in your plant?
  • Will you find good employees who are willing to work part time?
    • Would it be more likely that you would find part-time employees who have other priorities or are waiting for something better to come along?

These are all important questions for a meat- plant manager who thinks that new equipment and layoffs and/or lower wages are the answers to increasing profitability.

In the case of this plant, it was decided that a new sausage stuffer would not change throughput and probably wouldn’t change inventory, but it would surely increase investment and operating expense. This would serve to decrease return on investment and cash flow yet offer no increase in net income.

A typical sausage stuffer.

A typical sausage stuffer. Photo: Arion Thiboumery

In fact, a new stuffer, in this instance, would probably negatively affect net income as well as return on investment and cash flow. Because the goal of this owner was make more profit, the sausage stuffer was not purchased—despite the attractive graphs and payback-period information provided by the salesperson. The risk of spending money only to see negative effects on the bottom line became even more apparent in light of expected competition from a rebuilt plant nearby. Often, businesses measure their actions based on labor “savings” or greater “machine efficiency.” But do these measurements give you the information you need to make decisions? Ask yourself, How do I make decisions? Are my decisions getting me closer to my goal? Experience at small meat plants has shown that decisions increasing throughput—while simultaneously reducing or maintaining operating expenses and inventory and investment—will have positive effects on net income, return on investment, and cash flow.

Rate and Margin

However, having better measurements is only the first step in increasing business performance. There are ways to organize your plant’s produc- tion to promote even better performance. To begin to understand how to implement them, we first need to understand how the rate of pro- duction behaves. To illustrate this concept, let’s outline a hypothetical situation.

Figure 1: Two Money-Printing Machines

Figure 1: Two Money-Printing Machines

Figure 2: Two Money Printing Machines with Rate

Figure 2: Two Money Printing Machines with Rate

The graphic above represents two money-printing machines. Machine 1 prints $10 bills and costs $2 million, while Machine 2 prints $20 bills and costs $1.2 million. At first glance, which machine looks more attractive? Machine 2 costs less, and it prints a bigger denomination per unit. Given that, it seems you’d have to be crazy to choose Machine 1. However, let’s add one more piece of information that really puts this choice in perspective:

Which machine would you choose now? Machine 1 might cost more and have a lower denomination, but it actually prints money faster. Machine 1 should now be looking much more attractive than Machine 2, despite its higher price. A meat plant has more than one station and machine, but, as we will discuss, no matter how large the plant and complicated the processes, decision making can be very simple.

How Can I Find the Rate at Which a Plant Operates?

The rate at which a plant operates is most often tied up in what is called the plant constraint.

The plant constraint is simply this: anything that limits the plant’s ability to achieve more of its goal. A constraint could be an internal plant process such as your cutting table, or it could be market demand. Either way, the constraint in your system governs the amount of money that you make. Identifying and focusing on your plant’s constraint will help increase profits and general business performance. The graph below represents a simplified meat-plant process. This plant only kills beef and is used to illustrate the concept of a constraint.

Figure 3: A Generic Meat Plant Process

Figure 3: A Generic Meat Plant Process

From Figure 3, we now can answer key questions about the plant’s ability to process beef:

  • What is the constraint? The cooler. Why? The cooler can only accept and discharge one beef per day. In every other part of the plant, more than one beef can be processed per day. The cooler limits the amount of beef moving through the system.
  • Should we buy a faster sausage stuffer for the sausage kitchen? No, any increase in capacity in the sausage kitchen would yield no improvement in the system. Remember, the cooler is already blocking the plant’s production ability. Improving the sausage stuffer would cost money with no improvement in profit.
  • Should we buy a bigger smokehouse? No, any increase in smokehouse capacity would not yield an improvement in the system. Why? For the same reasons we wouldn’t buy a faster sausage stuffer.
  • What is the maximum rate at which the plant can produce beef for sale? One beef per day. Why? That is the maximum rate at which the constraint can operate. The constraint governs the rate at which the plant can generate sales (throughput).
  • When would the constraint become the customer demand? If the capacity of the cooler were expanded to be greater than customer demand for custom beef (more than 10 beef per day).
Beef hanging in a meat plant’s cooler.

Beef hanging in a meat plant’s cooler. Photo: Arion Thiboumery

What Does This Mean for My Small Meat Plant?

The key is focus. Only by increasing processing capacity at your constraint will you improve the ability of your plant as a whole to process more (and thus make more money). Improvements in other areas will not increase profitability.

Improving throughput has a much bigger impact on the bottom line than cutting operating expense. Extension manufacturing professionals working with small meat plants found that improving throughput had roughly 2.7 times more positive impact on profitability than simple cost cutting (Willett, 2010).

The key to increasing throughput is to first find excess capacity and then capitalize on that excess capacity through increased sales. Business-pro- ductivity specialists Eli Goldratt and Jeff Cox outlined five focusing steps (1984) that can help you identify and capitalize on excess capacity in your plant:

  • Identify the constraint(s)
  • Exploit the constraint
  • Subordinate the constraint
  • Elevate the constraint
  • If a constraint has been broken, repeat the process.

How Do I Identify the Constraint in My Meat Plant?

During the busy part of the year, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where am I getting backed up?
  • Where do my people need to work the most overtime?
  • What process and/or policy, if I had the choice, could I change and thereby increase throughput?

The place or process that gives you the most headaches is generally a good point to start looking for your constraint. During the slow part of the year, it might be that you have excess capacity and the market is your constraint. Remember, the constraint is the limiting factor in your business, with respect to your goal. Ask yourself, “What is my limiting factor?”

How Do I Exploit the Constraint?

When you exploit the constraint, the aim is to maximize the throughput through this con- straint (and thus the system as a whole). Remember, throughput is not simply production; it is money in the bank. Because the constraint is the limiting factor in a meat plant, increasing the capacity of the constraint will increase through- put. One small custom U.S. meat plant has instituted a policy of keeping the cooler—the plant’s constraint—full during the busy season. When a beef is taken out of the cooler to be cut, another beef is harvested and put into the cooler. This means that the manager had to decide to begin slaughtering every day. However, even as the manager resolved to slaughter every day and keep the cooler full, there were still reservations:

  • What happens when a customer is late?
  • What happens when a customer doesn’t pick up an order?
  • What about when an employee calls in sick?

One thing is for sure: something unexpected will happen. This plant outlined several solutions to cope with that inevitability:

  • The plant kept a buffer of ready-to-slaughter animals in pens out behind the plant. Why? If a customer didn’t show up on time (or at all), the ready-to- slaughter animals were available. Even if an employee didn’t show up to do the slaughtering, the plant could rearrange the duties of other employees to keep the cooler full. The cooler (the constraint) was protected, despite the unreliability of customers and sick employees.
  • The plant began delivering products for a fee and charging for late pickups. Why? Originally, there was a problem with the freezer filling up and stopping the production flow. A late-pick-up fee gave customers an incentive to pick up orders on time. Additionally, delivery has become a value-added service that some customers like, and it has helped to win more business.
  • The plant lowered prices for retail sales during the slow season and increased advertising. Why? The owner had always thought of slow season as something that simply had to be dealt with. However, a better understanding of the plant’s system showed that the business could sell more exempt retail products through a sale. Even as it was charging less, the business made more profit by filling its excess capacity.

At first, the owner had thought the plant needed to make capital investments to expand capacity. However, she now realized that her plant actu- ally had excess capacity and could accept more business. This increased profit.

How Do I Subordinate the System to the Constraint?

When you subordinate the constraint, you set the pace of the system to match the pace of the constraint. The plant shouldn’t accept more animals than can realistically be processed by the constraint. For example, if two beef are coming out of the cooler, then only two beef can be accepted for slaughter and then moved into the cooler. Accepting more animals would just expand the production queue.

Special note. It is possible that some employees might be standing around idle some of the time. If the process isn’t the constraint, this is OK. If the process is the constraint, then you should work hard to make sure that this doesn’t happen. Remember, making all your people work 100% of the time doesn’t necessarily make you more money.

How Do I Elevate the Constraint?

Elevation of the constraint comes after you have fully exploited the constraint and subordinated the system to the constraint. Elevation usually requires that you increase the capacity of the constraint to generate throughput. Additionally, elevating the constraint in a meat plant can mean investing capital. If you know the limiting factor that governs the productivity of your plant, you also know where to focus investment in increased capacity. Remember that in our example meat plant, only an investment in the cooler would yield increased profitability.

If a Constraint Has Been Broken, Repeat the Process

If, through the preceding steps, you have been able to “break” a constraint—to overcome it so it is no longer the limiting factor in your process—a new constraint will form, and the analysis process must be repeated to find it.

Key Opportunities in Meat-Plant Management

Experience at small custom exempt and inspected meat plants has identified four related strategies, based on common constraints in the industry, that the plants have successfully used to improve their profitability.

Scheduling: Slaughter Every Day

This serves to smooth the flow through the plant and decrease the amount of overtime that you and your employees need to work. For plants with only official slaughter, it might not be feasible to slaughter every day because an inspector might not be present. However, if you have both custom and official slaughter, it is still possible to slaughter every day by timing official slaughter according to your inspector’s visits and filling extra slaughter slots with custom animals. Slaughtering only on certain days shocks your system, creates panic, and racks up overtime. Slaughter every day to spread the work out. Ask yourself, why do I slaughter only on certain days of the week? What do I need to do to slaughter every day?

Employee Placement: Keep It Stable

Are you constantly moving people around to put out management “fires” in your plant? Do you find that after you have solved one problem, another problem emerges? Do you then move people over to solve the next problem, with the cycle continuing itself? Keep your people focused on their jobs. Moving them around to cope with problems just makes the overall struggles bigger.

Product Mix: Should I Choose Beef, Hogs, Goats, Deer, or Poultry?

As our money-machine example showed, both rate and margin are important in making decisions. The same principle applies when you’re deciding whether to emphasize beef, hogs, goats, or chickens in your meat plant. One plant in Iowa can process hogs six times faster than beef. If this is true, beef must generate six times more profit per unit than hogs in order to be equal in profitability. Product mix, then, is an important part of increasing throughput to generate higher profits. Many plants hang beef for seven to 14 days, while hogs, deer, or goats require much less or even no time in the carcass cooler. Additionally, most small-plant managers generally find that hogs and deer are easier to fabricate. Think about getting more hogs or small ruminants into your plant to make more money. Think about which animals allow you to get paid faster. Should you be emphasizing one species over another?

Delivery: Consider It a Value-Added Opportunity to Increase Sales

One small custom plant in the U.S. was suffering from low sales and a declining population in the county where it’s located. In order to stimulate demand for the plant’s services, the owner began offering delivery of custom meat for a fee to friends and family locally and in regional cities. This was a value-added service that solved the problem of declining sales due to declining population because it opened another avenue for selling meat. Farmers found out about the service, and now sales have increased.


There are often significant opportunities to improve your business with little or no capital investment. Slaughtering every day, keeping employee placement stable, and adjusting the product mix are all changes that a plant man- ager has the power to influence. The results can be tremendous. One processor has improved her profit by at least 93% simply by deciding to slaughter every day, adding delivery to her sales strategy, and keeping her employees focused. She did all of this without significant capital investment. Ask yourself, “Is this possible for my meat plant?


Goldratt, Eliyahu and Jeff Cox. 1984. The Goal: Excellence in Manufacturing. North River Press, Great Barrington, MA.

Goldratt, Eliyahu and Robert E. Fox. 1986. The Race. North River Press, Great Barrington, MA.

Willet, Michael. 2010. Successes and Opportunities in Process Management. Iowa Meat Packers Association Annual Conference, Ames, IA.

Further Resources

The Goal: Excellence in Manufacturing. 1984. Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox. North River Press, Great Barrington, MA.

The Race. 1986. Eliyahu Goldratt, and Robert Fox. North River Press, Great Barrington, MA.

Meat Plants: Improving Profitability in Small and Very Small Operations
By Nick McCann
NCAT Agriculture Marketing Specialist
Published March 2011
IP 385
Slot 382
Version 032411

This publication is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. 

Originally Published March 2011, IP385

Related Publications

Small-Scale Poultry Processing

Pastured Turkey Production

Pastured Turkey Production

By Kevin Ellis, NCAT Agriculture Specialist


Pastured turkey production is based on giving a flock access to outdoor areas where they are free to roam and forage. Due to recent consumer interest in animal welfare issues, nutrition, and taste, there has been a growing demand for turkey products from farms where pasturing is practiced. This publication introduces producers to the concept of raising turkeys on pasture and the many considerations related to breed selection, housing, nutrition, welfare, processing, and marketing.

closeup of a cluster of white turkeys

Photo: NCAT

Contents is H2

Breed Selection
Predator Control
Further Resources


For a variety of reasons, including animal welfare, environmental concerns, or a growing interest in local food systems, consumers are looking for meat that comes from animals humanely raised on pasture. This includes meat from turkeys, a traditional holiday food. Turkeys are excellent foragers and can help restore fertility to pastures through application of manure.

Although turkeys are similar to meat chickens, or broilers, in how they are raised, their size and personality lead to some key differences. Because turkeys are much larger than broilers, they require a longer period of time to reach market weight. However, turkey meat is often highly sought-after in local food systems because it is a mainstay in many traditional holiday meals. Even though there can be a large initial investment, raising turkeys often becomes a profitable enterprise for small-scale producers.

Breed Selection

In conventional turkey production, the Broad Breasted White is the most commonly used variety. The Broad Breasted White is a fast-growing bird, able to reach a marketable weight in about 12 to 14 weeks. However, they have trouble reproducing naturally without the aid of artificial insemination and may have health problems stemming from rapid growth. Although the Broad Breasted White can thrive in pasture-based systems, many consumers are more interested in purchasing heritage-breed turkeys. Reasons cited for this interest include taste differences, genetic conservation, or interest in something different than the perceived norm. Unlike heritage breeds, Broad Breasted Whites can be purchased as poults and produced year-round.

The Livestock Conservancy defines a heritage- breed turkey as one that meets the following criteria:

  1. Must be reproduced and maintained through natural mating.
  2. Must have a long productive lifespan in outdoor production systems.
  3. Must have a slow growth rate, reaching a marketable weight in approximately 28 weeks to allow for healthy growth (American Live- stock Breeds Conservancy, 2007).

Heritage-breed turkeys take longer to raise on pasture and will often have a smaller dressed weight than the Broad Breasted White. The Broad Breasted White can reach a live weight of 36 pounds for toms and 24 pounds for hens in 20 weeks (Hulet et al., 2004). Toms and hens of the breeds Black, Bourbon Red, Narragan- sett, and Slate will reach 23 pounds live weight for toms and 14 pounds for hens after 20 weeks of age (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, 2007). Conventional broad breasted turkeys are often processed after 14 to 18 weeks, but heritage- breed turkeys will need up to 30 weeks to reach a marketable weight.

Examples of Heritage Breeds

The Livestock Conservancy lists the following turkeys as Heritage Breeds:

  • Black
  • Bronze
  • Narragansett
  • White Holland
  • Slate
  • Bourbon Red
  • Beltsville Small White
  • Royal Palm
  • Jersey Buff
  • Midget White

All are recognized breeds under the American Poultry Association’s “Standard of Perfection.”

Even with the extra time and cost required to produce heritage turkeys, consumer demand still exists. In blind taste tests, consumers often prefer the taste of meat from a heritage-breed bird (Bon Appétit, 2011). However, because of the size and body-composition differences, meat from a heri- tage bird may cook more quickly. This can lead to dry meat if not prepared correctly, and consumers should be informed of this difference.

Poults may be purchased from a private poultry breeder, hatchery, or may be hatched on-farm from a breeding pair of turkeys. If buying from a hatchery, ensure that it is part of the National Poultry Improvement Program (NPIP). Poults that come from NPIP-certified hatcheries will come from breeding stock proven to be free of pullorum-typhoid, mycoplasma gallisepticum, mycoplasma synoviae, and avian influenza. Starting with a flock of healthy poults not only ensures that your flock will get a good start in the brooder, but will also protect any other poultry on the farm from disease transmission.

When buying from hobby breeders, producers should gather information on different traits such as feed conversion, body composition, feather color, and behavior. Turkeys with black or dark brown pinfeathers will leave marks on the carcass that may be unappealing to potential customers. Producers should check with the breeder to get a better understanding of what the final carcass will look like, and if it is something that their customers will buy. Furthermore, some varieties may thrive in specific climates. Producers should ask about these differences to find the bird that will work best for them.

Poults are often more expensive than chickens from a hatchery. Broiler chicks may cost $1 to $3 each, whereas poults will generally run $6 to $10. Producers should be prepared to pay more upfront and build this cost into their final pricing.


Brooding is a critical step in setting up a flock for a healthy, productive life cycle. Conditions in the brooder can have negative effects that will impact the flock for the rest of the birds’ lives or can result in unnecessary losses. The brooding period is a time when poults are most susceptible to disease and unfavorable conditions. Before the flock arrives, the brooding area should be cleaned and disinfected. If certified organic, check to make sure that any sanitizer used is approved under

USDA organic regulations. The area should be round, or at least have rounded corners. Stock water tanks or tubs are adequate for small flocks in terms of space. When planning a brooder, plan for each poult to have at least 1 to 1.5 square feet of space (Hulet et al., 2004).

poultry brooder arrangement

A typical poultry-brooder arrangement. Photo: NCAT

The brooder should be secure and prevent the entry of pests and predators. Rats, snakes, and small mammals such as opossums or raccoons have been known to kill and eat poults in the brooder. Rats can be a very troublesome vector of disease, spreading it through any vulnerable feed and water sources. Attaching hardware cloth or chicken wire over the top of the brooder and around the perimeter can prevent entrance by many would-be predators.


A brooder should be set up 48 hours before a flock arrives. This will allow the producer to ensure that the conditions are correct for the birds and will be able to remain stable for the duration the flock stays in the brooder. Any unexpected drops in temperature or sudden changes can have detrimental effects on the health and welfare of developing poults. Setting up a brooder before a flock arrives makes it possible to monitor the ambient temperature and make adjustments.

For the first 10 days of their lives, poults are unable to regulate their own body temperature properly (Hulet et al., 2004). In order to stay warm, the poults must have access to a main heat source. Examples include electric or gas hovers, heat lamps, or ceramic space heaters. At day one in the brooder, the temperature should be between 90 and 95°F. For each following day that the birds are in the brooder, the range should be dropped one degree. For example, at day two, the temperature range should be 89 to 94°F, at day three it should be 88 to 93°F, and so on. This should be continued until the range matches the ambient temperature outside of the brooder. At this point, the birds will be able to regulate their body temperature more effectively.

The flock will often communicate their comfort level in the brooder through spacing and general behavior. If the temperature is too warm in the brooder, the birds will be spread apart, as far away from the heat source as possible. If too cold, the poults will be clustered together very tightly, usually near or under a heat source. If there is a draft in the brooder, poults will avoid the area of airflow and pile together against walls or under the heat source. When temperatures reach extremes (either hot or cold) poults have a tendency to pile on top of one another in the corners of the brooder. If you use a brooder guard that has rounded corners or secure cardboard inserts in the corners, the flock is less likely to pile up.


Like all poultry, turkeys require a bedding material that is absorbent, comfortable, and of appropriate size. Wood shavings work best, but other acceptable materials include peanut hulls, corn cobs, and peat moss. However, wood shavings need to be larger than sawdust to prevent accidental ingestion. When laying down bedding, be sure to remove any large or sharp pieces that may injure the birds as they walk or sit on the floor.

For the first few weeks of brooding, poults need solid ground to walk on to aid in leg development. At this critical juncture, the flock is susceptible to leg deformities due to shifting bedding material. To help reduce the chance of developing leg problems, a layer of burlap or paper towels can be put down over the shavings. This allows the birds to get more traction as they move around the brooder, helping their legs to develop normally. After a week, the extra layer may be removed to expose fresh bedding. As the litter becomes soiled with manure, fresh material may be added on top, or the litter may be turned to move fresh material to the top. Wet litter will often lead to a buildup of ammonia, which can be harmful to a flock. Different bedding materials absorb moisture at different rates, so each material must be

managed differently. Peanut hulls, for example, absorb less moisture than wood shavings and compact quicker. This can lead to wet pockets and anaerobic zones in the bedding, which can proliferate pathogens and disease. Ventilation is key in removing odors, keeping litter dry, and preventing respiratory stress. Litter should be changed routinely between flocks to prevent the spread of disease.

Feed and Water

When the flock arrives, the birds should have immediate access to cool, clean water and feed. When placing poults in the brooder, show them where the water source is by dipping their beaks (if using a tray or bell waterer), or press their beak against the waterer and set them down (if using a nipple waterer). Poults will watch one another and quickly learn how to access water. If using a bell waterer, it’s important that the tray line up with the average poult’s back so that the bird is comfortable while drinking. If using a nipple waterer, it should be just over the poult’s head so that the bird doesn’t have to lean down or jump to drink. Water should be provided constantly and never allowed to run out. When there is no water source, it can put considerable stress on a flock. Waterers should be free of any microbial growth and should be scrubbed weekly, if not daily, and must be disinfected before being returned to the brooder.

Plenty of feed should be provided during the brooding stage, as the flock will need enough to start developing. Many producers use pie tins or shallow pans to introduce feed to the flock. Since this will allow poults to walk on top of the feed, the system may need to be changed if there is a buildup of manure. Crumbled feed works best as a ration at this stage. More information on nutritional needs can be found in the nutrition section of this publication. Some producers will put grass clippings in the brooder in order to get the flock acquainted with pasture.

The flock’s general behavior should be monitored for the first day. Within a few hours, the poults should be drinking and eating normally or sit- ting beneath the heat source. Poults should not be crowded into the brooder. They should have enough space to move around to eat, drink, sit, or sleep. Turkeys will start to roost at about two weeks of age. At this point, start providing roosts for the birds to sit on. Roosts should be built to provide roughly six inches of space per poult, at six inches above the floor (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, 2007). Materials used for roosts should have rounded edges and be a comfortable place for the bird to spend time. The flock should receive at least 14 hours of light daily. This will allow them to eat enough in order to grow (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, 2007). After four to six weeks, the flock will be ready to transition to pasture.

turkeys under a shade cloth

Shade can be provided by constructing a makeshift structure out of shade cloth and two-by-fours. Photo: Kevin Ellis, NCAT


At this point, some producers will move the entire flock out to a range house where the birds will spend the grow-out phase. Others will simply open a door to outdoor paddocks to let the birds explore on their own. Many birds will not leave the confines of the brooder easily and may need incentives to explore the pasture area. Feed and waterers can be placed in the pasture, away from the house, in order to get the flock to leave the confines of a coop or brooder. Feed and water should be placed under a shade structure, such as a mobile frame with a shade cloth roof.

When moving a flock, special care must be taken to reduce stress. Water and feed should be provided as soon as the birds reach the pasture or range coop. It is best to capture and move a flock while they are sleeping at night or early in the morning to limit stress that comes with catching each bird.

Turkeys can be kept in mobile, secured coops or in day-range systems where they are allowed to roam the pasture during the day, and then return to roost at night. Each of these systems has advantages and disadvantages that should be considered when designing a range coop.

Day-Range Systems

Day-range systems feature a house or shade structure in the middle of a paddock that is surrounded by mobile or fixed fencing. Electric net fencing is popular among producers because it is easily staked into the ground but can be moved and reorganized easily. Fencing of this type can be charged using a solar-powered charger. The fence is used to keep smaller predators away from the house. Larger predators such as coyotes may be able to jump over the fence easily. However, the fence can serve only as a general border for the flock. If an area is depleted of forages, several birds may find their way over the fence to try and find fresh forages. Electric net fencing 48 inches tall is available and is an appropriate size for containing turkeys. Electric net fencing will usually cost near $200 for approximately 150 feet of fence (without a charger).

two people carrying net fencing in a pasture

Electric net fencing is used to change the pasture area that a flock can inhabit. Photo: NCAT

Some producers use a fixed house with fixed fencing for a day-range system. This system utilizes a stationary house with several rotating paddocks. Turkeys are only allowed access to one paddock at a time. As pasture in a paddock is depleted, the flock is then allowed access to a new paddock and the original one is closed off. Fenced runs in this system can be completely enclosed using chicken wire or mesh over the top to prevent escape or predator attacks.

Due to their lower body weight, heritage breed turkeys are able to fly, unlike conventional commercial birds. Turkeys prefer to have a place to roost at night and will leave to find a tree if it is not provided for them. Although not all turkeys will leave the confines of a day-range system, some will if their surroundings lack fresh food, pasture access, or roosts at night. Turkeys may also fly off in the case of a traumatic event such as a predator attack. To reduce the likelihood of a turkey escaping a paddock, plenty of fresh feed, clean water, shade, and roost space should be made available at all times.

Some turkeys will make a habit of flying over a fence. If favorable conditions have been provided, but the problem still persists, trimming wings maybe an option. When done correctly, clipping wing feathers is a painless procedure can keep turkeys from flying. To trim the wing feathers properly, hold the turkey securely and slowly expand one wing. Using scissors or shears, gently cut the secondaries one at a time, starting from the feathers closest to the body and moving toward the tip of the wing. The longest 10 feathers, known as the primaries, should be left intact. The feathers that are cut should not be cut shorter than the overlapping feathers, known as the coverts. Producers looking to become certified organic should check with their certifying agency to make sure clipping is allowed.

In day-range systems, turkeys should have access to fresh feed and water at all times. Feed and water should be provided in the house and refilled daily. In addition to feeders in the main range house, “range feeders” or troughs may be placed away from the house to lure turkeys out onto pasture. Shade should be provided over feeders placed away from the main range house to keep turkeys cool and give them a sense of security from predators.

Mobile Housing

hooped house

Hooped houses allow for pasture access, security, and proper ventilation while providing pasture access. Photo: NCAT

To combat problems with escaping members of a flock and predators, mobile, enclosed houses have become a popular method of raising turkeys on pasture. Flocks are often broken up into smaller groups and placed in field pens that provide access to the pasture area under the house. Mobile housing should be designed to ensure that the flock has protection from rain or inclement weather. Tarps or tin are often used as roof materials to provide the flock with shade and cover from rain. Sides may be left open to ventilate the pen properly and provide the flock with fresh air by creating a “wind tunnel” effect. Multiple mobile pens can be grouped together in a line, and then moved in the same direction across the pasture. Pens should not follow one another, and they should allow for the turkeys inside to have access to fresh pasture daily.

Mobile houses should provide adequate feed and water access to the birds inside. Plastic hanging feeders are commonly hung from the ceiling of the pen to avoid the need to pick them up while moving the pen. Feeder height should be adjusted as the turkeys grow, to ensure that they are able to eat comfortably. The lip of the feeder should be even with the birds’ backs. Hoppers, tray, or trough feeders should be filled daily with only the amount the flock needs to consume over the course of a day. Any more can result in unnecessary waste. Automatic waterers, including nipple-type drinkers and bell waterers, can also be hung in the pen.

Providing water can be a challenge in a range poultry system. Bell waterers that need to be cleaned and refilled daily can add substantial amounts of time to daily chores. Some producers have developed automatic watering systems in which a hose connected to a water tank or well supplies a mobile house. Gravity or a pump is then used to provide the house with water. A system such as this can be connected to a line of mobile houses; however, a pump would become necessary to provide the entire line with water. Water lines should be checked daily to ensure that there are no leaks or unnecessary spillage.

Space Requirements

Because turkeys forage at a faster rate and will cover more ground, they will often require more acreage than broilers. Soil type, climate, forage type, and availability will all play key roles in determining stocking density. It is recommended that a producer start with smaller flocks (averaging 200 birds per acre) and then slowly increase with subsequent flocks while noting any major changes in overall health of the flock, native plants, and soil, and then make necessary adjustments.

As the turkeys forage in the pasture area given to them in a mobile house, they will often scratch and defecate, leaving the ground bare and caked with manure. Turkey manure is high in nitrogen, which can help in restoring fertility. However, if allowed to build up, it can create conditions that are often “too hot” for pasture regrowth. It is recommended that mobile houses be moved before the ground is fully exposed to avoid creating “hot spots” or a buildup of nutrients. As they grow older, the rate at which turkeys will forage increases, so pens should be moved more frequently. When moving turkeys, standing water or muddy areas should be avoided, as they can be a potential source of pathogens. Depending on their size and the stocking rate, turkeys in range coops may need to be moved more than once per day. In a range coop, turkeys should have three to four square feet of space per bird, and the coop should be tall enough for the birds to be able to stand upright.

Turkeys on pasture should also have access to perches. These can be within the mobile house or in a separate structure moved along with the day-range house. Perches should be easily accessible and built to hold turkeys weighing up to 25 pounds each. Turkeys should have 15 inches of roost space per bird and perches should have two feet of space between each bar (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, 2007).


Although turkeys are excellent foragers, they cannot survive on insects and native plants alone.

Turkeys that are provided a correctly formulated feed ration will reach market weight quicker than those fed a diet that is lacking in key nutrients. As a turkey grows, its nutritional requirements will shift. This should be included in planning, whether purchasing feed or mixing on-farm.

Turkeys require much higher levels of protein in their diet than broilers or laying hens. A feeding program should start with a very-high-protein feed while the flock develops in the brooder and then transition to a lower percentage as they mature. A starter feed should be fed up to eight weeks and contain 28% protein. After the initial eight weeks, the protein content can be decreased steadily as the birds enter the “grow out” phase. From 8 to 16 weeks of age, turkeys should be fed a 20% protein diet (Mercia, 1981). For a “finishing” diet, the ration fed up until slaughter, the flock should be provided a ration with at least 16% protein from 16 weeks of age until the time they are processed (Hulet et al., 2004). Protein sources can include fish meal, soybean meal, and peanut meal.

Some producers may feed cracked or whole grains that they may have available on-farm. Cereal grains used in turkey rations include corn, wheat, barley, rye, milo, sorghum, and millet (Heuser, 2003). Alfalfa meal can also be used when feeding turkeys and can constitute up to 35% of the total ration (Alder, 1946). Alfalfa is high in Vitamin A, of which turkeys need more in comparison to chickens (Heuser, 2003). Studies have shown that different grains used on-farm can have effects on meat quality. For example, corn-fed turkeys have been found to have a slight increase in tenderness (North, 1943). Vitamin and mineral premixes can also be added in to prevent deficiencies and developmental problems. Vitamin D is especially important for turkeys. Vitamin D deficiency can result in leg deformities or rickets in the brooder (Heuser, 2003).

Before turkeys can fully digest feed, it will need to be ground to a digestible size. Like all poultry, turkeys possess a gizzard, which is used to macerate feed before it is moved to the stomach. Grit is a rough material such as oyster shell that poultry will consume and then hold in their gizzard in order to grind their food to a digestible size. Grit should be offered free-choice to a flock in a separate trough from feed, where turkeys will consume as needed. In pastured systems, turkeys may consume small stones or grit naturally, but supplemental grit should still be provided to ensure that they have enough for digestion. When feeding a mixed ration that has not been milled, it is especially important to provide grit, as feed-stuffs will be coarser and require grit in order to be fully digested.

Temperature Effects on Feed Consumption

Feed consumption will vary due to environmental factors such as temperature. When it is hot, the flock will eat less feed, leading to a reduction in weight gain. When it’s cold, turkeys will eat more to keep warm, often reducing the overall feed efficiency of the flock (National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on Environmental Stress, 1981). Producers should keep this in mind when providing a ration to a flock. Some producers will increase protein and vitamins in feed during periods of high temperature because the flock will eat less feed then, but the birds still require a balanced diet. Conversely, during cold temperatures, some producers will increase carbohydrates and decrease protein, to provide more of a holding ration, when less protein is needed in the flock’s diet.

Feed can come as a mash, pellet, crumble, or grains, and nutrients can be fed through free choice. Poults should be provided crumbles, as the small particle size is appealing to smaller birds. As the flock grows older, pellets can be used. Pelleted feed results in the least amount of waste from spillage out of the feeder. Some nutrition is lost during the pelletization/crumble process. Freshly cracked (30 days or less) grain mash is the most nutritious form of feed. After 30 days, grains begin to degrade and slowly lose nutritional value and vitamins. Producers must weigh the different options and choose which form of feed is best for their production systems. Feed should be stored in containers that will reduce the chance of spillage or infestation by pests and provide protection from air and water.

Over the course of 20 weeks, toms will consume approximately 100 pounds of feed each, while hens will consume approximately 64 pounds (Hulet et al., 2004). Producers will need to estimate for more than this amount when purchasing feed for each flock, in order to make sure that the flock will have feed over the entire grow-out period.

Turkeys are known to be excellent and aggressive foragers and will be able to supplement a feed ration with native plants or insects. During the day, they will actively consume insects, seeds, and plants in the area provided to them. Turkeys tend to prefer pasture with plenty of diversity and lots of legumes, but will eat almost anything that they can find, often in competition with other members of the flock. For more information on pastured turkey nutrition, see the ATTRA publication Pastured Poultry Nutrition and Forages.

Organic regulations also dictate what may or may not be fed to a flock. Feedstuffs must be certified organic to be fed to a flock that will sell as certified organic. Furthermore, all antibiotics are banned for use in organic livestock rations. Many feeds that are premixed and sold in 50-pound bags are medicated. Synthetic feed additives are also prohibited in organic production, with some exceptions. For instance, the use of synthetic methionine is limited to no more than three pounds per ton of feed. Methionine is an essential amino acid in poultry growth and development. Methionine is often provided through fishmeal once the limit per ton for synthetic methionine is reached. Producers should check with their certifying agencies to make sure all rations fed to turkey flocks adhere to organic regulations.

Predator Control

livestock guardian dog in a pasture

Livestock guardian dogs can help protect a flock from many predators, including coyotes, skunks, raccoons, and opossums. Photo: NCAT

As with all poultry in a pasture-based system, turkeys are susceptible to predation. Most predators will view a flock as an easy target if it is not properly guarded. Common predators of poultry include coyotes, weasels, skunks, opossum, raccoons, snakes, rodents, hawks, eagles, and owls.

Domestic animals such as cats and dogs can also be of concern. Dogs, especially strays, will chase a flock and become more excited as the flock tries to escape, often killing many in the process.

The first line of defense in protecting a flock from predation is secure housing. Doors should have latches that cannot be shaken open easily. Siding should allow for airflow and ventilation, but should not have gaps large enough for a predator to enter or reach through. Chicken wire can be installed in offset layers to reduce the opening size, or hardware cloth can be used. The material must be strong enough to prevent stretching. If using a mobile range house, the pen should be properly staked down to prevent predators from burrowing under or lifting up the pen. Pieces of rebar fashioned into “U” shapes can be put over corners to help secure the pen to the ground.

Domestic animals used as livestock guardians are a popular choice among pastured poultry producers. Dog breeds such as Great Pyrenees or Anatolian Shepherds have been bred to be around various species of livestock and protect them from predators such as coyotes. Guardian dogs should be introduced to livestock early in life and monitored as they are trained to ensure that they do not chase the flock out of boredom or hunger. Puppies should be bonded to livestock in controlled environments such as smaller paddocks or holding pens. Guardian dogs tend to roam, and the majority of injuries and losses happen as they venture beyond a property. As a dog is introduced to a farm, it should be taught to respect the boundary fence (Redden et al., 2015). Goats and donkeys are also compatible with turkey flocks as guardian animals. Producers need to factor feed, equipment, and veterinary costs for the guardian animal into the overall costs of production for the entire flock. Livestock guardians are especially important in day-range systems that only utilize a shade structure for water and roosting at night. Predators can often be deterred if they feel that they are encroaching on a larger or unknown predator’s territory. Devices are available that are meant to mimic light reflecting off of a nocturnal predator’s eyes. This will scare away some predators, but if the pattern of use is not randomized, predators may adjust and learn to disregard these devices. Scents can also be deployed to ward off predatory animals. However, scents will wear off quickly and must be reapplied. Pie pans, streamers, CDs, or other reflective materials can be hung on or around the range coop to ward off nocturnal predators. Light reflecting off of these materials will disorient predators such as owls and will help keep them away from the flock.



When transporting turkeys to the processing plant, special care must be taken to reduce stress as much as possible. The birds must be handled in a way that reduces the chance for bruises or broken wings. Capture and crating should start early in the morning, before sunrise, to reduce stress on the flock. This will also make the process easier. Feed and water must be removed from the turkeys’ pen to ensure they arrive at the processing plant with a clean gut. The withdrawal reduces the chances of cross-contamination later in slaughter. In order to have a clean, but strong, intestinal tract, there are two windows for feed removal; eight to 12 hours off of feed or 18 to 24 hours after feed removal (Savage, 1998). This includes the time it takes to transport to the facility and the wait time before the process begins. Water should be removed two hours after feed has been withdrawn to ensure that the gut is cleared out by the time the birds reach the processing plant (Savage, 1998).

Flatbed trailers with plastic coops

Flatbed trailers with plastic coops can be used to transport turkeys to the processing plant. Photo: Kevin Ellis, NCAT

A processing plant should be no more than three hours away from the farm. After this point, losses begin to occur more frequently. Turkeys should be transported in a way that allows them to be comfortable and free from unnecessary stress. Plastic or metal transport coops can be stacked on a flatbed trailer and pulled behind a vehicle. Special planning and consideration should be taken to make sure that air can flow through all of the coops and reach birds in the middle of the trailer. Turkeys can also be transported in livestock trailers. A layer of bedding material such as pine shavings should be put down first to avoid leg injuries and keep the birds clean. Turkeys should be separated into groups of toms and hens when they are loaded into coops to prevent stress or fighting (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, 2007). Contact the manufacturer of the crates to find out how many toms or hens are recommended for loading into each crate. Rain and thunderstorms should be avoided during transportation, but a tarp can be used to cover the trailer and keep the turkeys dry in the case of sudden storms.

Equipment Requirements

Processing turkeys is done in much the same fashion as it is for broilers. However, the larger body size and weight of turkeys brings with it some extra considerations. For instance when planning how many birds will fit in a scalder, plucker, ice bath, or cooler, the larger size of the birds should be taken into consideration. In most cases, equipment can only handle half as many turkeys as it can chickens. For example, a scalder that can hold six to eight chickens at a time will only be able to scald three to four turkeys at a time. Producers should plan their volumes and workflows accordingly. For more information on the process of slaughter, see the ATTRA publication Small-Scale Poultry Processing. If available, processing facilities that offer their services or use of equipment may be best suited to handling large birds.


Processing regulations greatly impact how or where meat can be sold. Finding a processor with inspection capabilities can open new markets. Poultry meat inspection is handled by the USDA on a national level, and by various state agencies at the local level. There are also some exemptions that will allow producers to sell on a smaller scale.

USDA Inspection

Turkeys processed in facilities with a USDA inspector on site may be sold anywhere. This includes across state lines, over the Internet, to stores or institutions, and through direct-to-consumer markets. Obtaining USDA inspection may add to the cost of inspection, but the addition of several markets can help make up for the extra cost to the producer. However, USDA-inspected processing plants, especially those that will handle turkeys, are very rare.

State Inspection

All states provide meat inspection services through their department of agriculture or public health. Depending on the state, a representative will inspect the facility annually or inspect each turkey as it is slaughtered. Packaging will then be stamped with an official logo indicating that the final product meets the correct food safety and sanitary requirements needed in order to enter commerce. However, products bearing this mark may only be sold within the state in which they were produced. Processing regulations may differ from state to state, which is why, in most cases, products that are state-inspected cannot be sold across state lines.

Some states require that the facilities in which poultry are processed must be inspected to ensure that they meet sanitary guidelines. This may require an annual inspection, certification, and fee. Producers should check with their state and local departments of agriculture or public health to learn more about what is required before processing turkeys.


The Food Safety Inspection Service allows for the following exemption from inspection: producers may process up to 1,000 of their own birds per calendar year under the “Producer/Grower 1,000 Bird Limit Exemption.” In order to claim this exemption and sell poultry direct to consumers from their farms, producers must ensure sanitary procedures during processing, not buy or sell poultry products from another producer, keep necessary records, and not sell meat outside of the state in which it originated (USDA-FSIS, 2006).

Interstate Cooperative Shipment Program

Even though most state-inspected meat products cannot be exported or sold across state lines, the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) allows interstate commerce for states and processing facilities that meet specific criteria. The Interstate Cooperative Shipment Program recognizes processing plants with inspection standards that are “at least equal to” those of USDA inspection. States that currently meet this standard of inspection with their own regulations include Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming (USDA-Food Safety Inspection Service, 2016). Under this program, meat can be sold to states that share a direct border with the state in which processing and inspection occurred. As of the time of publishing, states participating in the program include Indiana, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin (USDA-FSIS, 2016).

For larger farms, there is another available exemption known as the “Producer/Grower 20,000 Bird Limit Exemption.” This exemption allows a producer to slaughter up to 20,000 of his or her own birds per calendar year. If using this exemption, no other exemption for poultry products can be claimed, and birds may only be sold or distributed in the state in which they were produced. In addition to sanitary and record keeping rules similar to the Producer/Grower 1,000 Bird Limit Exemption, the equipment or facility used for processing cannot be used on flocks from other farms. Finally, in order to utilize the Producer/Grower 20,000 Bird Limit Exemption, poultry labels must include the farm’s name, address, and the statement “Exempt P.L. 90-492” (USDA-FSIS, 2006).

packed and frozen turkey

Packed and frozen turkey in a twist tie bag for sale at a farmers market. Photo: Kevin Ellis, NCAT

Additionally, state public health or agriculture departments may have their own rules when it comes to processing exemptions. Producers should check with the appropriate state agencies when planning for turkey processing.


Unlike broilers, turkeys require a lengthy time investment from brooding to processing. With this comes higher production and opportunity costs. Due to the longer grow-out time, the resulting meat is often priced higher than pastured chicken and substantially higher than conventional turkey. This may prevent many people from buying a bird in a relatively short window of time before major holidays. Turkeys are much larger than other poultry and will come with a much higher final price. All of the costs of production, including poults, equipment, feed, and labor should be factored into the final price. Because Broad Breasted White turkeys reach a marketable weight more quickly, they may be priced lower when compared to heritage breeds. To prevent “sticker shock,” many farmers have come up with strategies to help spread the cost over a longer period of time.


Because turkeys require much more in up-front costs, some farmers will do a preliminary survey to gauge the interest of their customers. In early summer, they will ask regular customers if they would be interested in buying a turkey near the holidays. They may also put together a sign-up sheet at this point. If turkeys are being produced to be sold around the holiday season (November and December), this survey and sign-up sheet should start in the late spring or early summer to build interest. A sign-up sheet will give the producer an idea of how many turkey poults they should buy. When buying poults to meet a stated demand, always purchase extras. Producers should plan for a 15 to 25% mortality rate initially and then adjust after more experience (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, 2007). In the case of unexpected losses, having extra birds will give the producer more flexibility to meet an order. This will also give the producer a chance to sell extra birds to customers who may have missed the sign-up deadline or further process the extra meat into different products such as ground turkey, lunch meats, or drumsticks.


When a customer signs up to purchase a turkey, producers will often require a deposit. This deposit is often 25 to 50% of the final price of the dressed turkey. The deposit will help pay for some of the upfront costs, such as poults and feed. This will also encourage customers to keep their promises to pay for and pick up the meat at the end of the season. Some farmers will provide updates to their customers as to how the turkeys are growing. Producers will usually refund the deposit in the event of a catastrophic loss of flock.

Instead of charging a large, up-front deposit, some producers have implemented a monthly schedule for payment. This month-to-month membership starts before the grow-out phase. The customer signs up and provides 5 to 15% of the final cost of the turkey up front. For each following week or month they then pay a small additional fee that goes toward the final cost of the turkey. At the end of the season, after processing, the customer may pick up the turkey without having to pay any other fee. This allows the customer to break up the payments into easier installments, and it gives the producer more cash flow to work with during the grow-out period.


Like other pastured poultry, turkeys can be a profitable enterprise to add to a farm if managed correctly. Special care needs to be taken to work with the larger birds, but they can be excellent foragers, provide extra fertility to fields, and complement a multi-species grazing rotation. Heritage turkey is a highly sought-after meat in local food systems and can provide a niche for some farms to fill. However, producers should be aware of the cost of raising a flock and the problems that can occur due to disease or predation.


Alder, B. 1946. Economical Turkey Production in Utah. Utah Agriculture Experiment Station. No. 323.

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ed.). 2007. How to Raise Heritage Turkeys. American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, Pittsboro, NC.

Bon Appétit. 2011. Does heritage turkey taste better than conventional in a blind taste test? Bon Appétit. November 2.

Heuser, G.F. 2003. Feeding Poultry: The Classic Guide to Poultry Nutrition. Norton Creek Press, Blodgett, OR.

Hulet, R. Michael, Phillip J. Clauer, George L. Greaser, Jayson K. Harper, and Lynn F. Kime. 2004. Small-Flock Turkey Production. PennState Extension, College Park, PA.

Mercia, Leonard S. 1981. Raising Your Own Turkeys. Storey Communications, Inc., Pownal, VT.

National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on Environmental Stress. 1981. Effect of Environment on Nutrient Requirements of Domestic Animals. National Academies Press, Washington, DC.

North, M.O. 1943. The Influence of Protein Concentrates upon the Quality of Meat in Turkeys. Wyoming Bulletin 264.

Redden, R. Reid, John M. Tomacek, and John W. Walker. 2015. Livestock Guardian Dogs. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, College Station, TX.

Savage, Stan. 1998. Designing a Feed and Water With-drawal Program for Turkeys. Manitoba Agriculture.

USDA-FSIS. 2006. Guidance for Determining Whether a Poultry Slaughter or Processing Operation is Exempt from Inspection Requirements of the Poultry Products Inspection Act. United States Department of Agriculture—Food Safety Inspection Service, Washington, DC.

USDA-FSIS. 2016. Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program: Backgrounder. United States Department of Agriculture–Food Safety Inspection Service, Washington, DC.

Further Resources


The Livestock Conservancy
This organization promotes the genetic conservation of heritage livestock breeds by providing informational materials and facilitating research into heritage livestock breeds.

American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA)
APPPA is a membership-based organization that provides education and producer networking opportunities for pastured poultry farmers. APPPA publishes the bi-monthly newsletter Grit.

Pastured Turkey Production
By Kevin Ellis, NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Published May 2018© NCAT
Slot 568
Version 051418

This publication is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

Processing Poultry Meat for Sale in California

Processing Poultry Meat for Sale in California

By Ann Baier, NCAT Agriculture Specialist


Approaches to Processing Poultry Meat for Sale in California
Practices for Processing of Poultry with USDA and State Inspection Exemptions
Choose a Safe and Sound Approach that Fits your Farm
Further Resources

This publication describes legal approaches to processing poultry in California and is intended to be read alongside ATTRA’s publication Approaches to Processing Poultry Meat for Sale: Navigating Regulations across the United States.

Approaches to Processing Poultry Meat for Sale in California

Appropriate equipment, such as this small-scale plucker, facilitate on-farm processing. Photo: Ann Baier, NCAT

Poultry producers in California can process birds and sell poultry meat through one of four different legal approaches to poultry inspection, or through exemption from inspection. The best approach for your farm depends on your current scale of operations and marketing strategies, as well as your farm and family priorities.

Inspected poultry products from an “Approved Source” have broader marketing options.
1. USDA Inspected
2. CDFA Licensed + USDA Exempt
Uninspected Poultry not from an “Approved Source” may be sold directly to consumers only (see CDFA’s Exempt Poultry Slaughter Guidelines, with links to regulations and forms).
3. CDFA Registered Custom Exempt + USDA Exempt + CDFA Exempt
4. Not Registered + USDA Exempt +CDFA Exempt

1. USDA-Inspected Plant

For more details on USDA inspection and exemption, refer to the ATTRA publication Approaches to Processing Poultry Meat for Sale: Navigating Regulations across the United States.

Poultry processed at a federally inspected USDA plant may be sold directly to consumers or to retail or wholesale customers, and it may be sold within the state or enter interstate commerce. Facilities operate with daily bird-by-bird inspection by an inspector of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS), as mandated by the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). Provided they qualify, products are labeled and sold as “USDA inspected and passed.”

One of the main challenges to this approach is that, although there are many USDA plants, the ones that will do fee-for-service processing for independent producers are few and far between. NMPAN’s Find a Processor list currently lists just three such plants in California. Is there one that is reasonably accessible to your farm location?

An advantage to processing in an existing USDA plant, in addition to the expansive marketing opportunities for poultry products, is the relatively low capital investment. The cost of equipment needed to take birds to be processed (crates and transportation) is small compared to the costs of setting up an acceptable (state-licensed or exempt) poultry processing facility and the time required to develop an adequate set of operating procedures. The day of processing in a USDA plant involves the work of crating birds the night before, driving them to where they will be processed, and waiting to pick them up. Compare this to carrying out the work of doing your own processing, cleaning and sanitation, recordkeeping, and waste-water and offal management.

2. CDFA-Licensed Plant + USDA Exemption

California is a “designated” state, one of several States Without Inspection Programs. Its meat and poultry inspection program is not “equal to” USDA inspection. Because it is not USDA inspected, poultry processed in a CDFA or California state-licensed facility must qualify for a USDA Exemption. Poultry meat inspected in a CDFA-licensed plant may be sold to any retail customer within California, including hotels, restaurants, and institutions, according to the criteria of the USDA exemption under which the producer is operating in the calendar year. Products may not be sold wholesale (for resale), and may not enter interstate commerce.

CDFA does not place a limit on the number of birds that can be processed in a state-inspected facility. However, each USDA exemption specifies a limit on the number of birds that may be processed and includes other sales restrictions. The poultry operation must keep records to document compliance with the federal inspection exemption under which they operate each calendar year, whether Producer/Grower, Producer/Grower or Other Person, Small Business Enterprise, or Retail Exemption.

In California, plants are licensed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Procedures for Obtaining State Meat or Poultry Inspection describes the necessary steps to establish a poultry plant and obtain a Poultry Plant License. One of the requirements is licensing a qualified on-site Poultry Meat Inspector (PMI) who is responsible for daily bird-by-bird inspections. With appropriate training, the producer, or his or her employee, may obtain a Poultry Meat Inspector (PMI) license. All application forms, as well as inspection manuals, are on the CDFA website. Questions may be directed to CDFA’s Meat and Poultry Division: 916-900-5004.

3. Not Registered + USDA Exempt + CDFA Exempt

Poultry producers who qualify for a USDA Exemption and meet the criteria for one of the two California Exemptions from inspection may slaughter and sell up to 1,000 birds per year directly to consumers within the state, without formal registration. Paraphrased, CDFA inspection exemptions allow for poultry to be processed either of two ways:

a) with only immediate family labor: may be sold to consumers on-farm, or off-farm at customers’ homes or in a farmers market (provided it is allowed by local regulations); or

b) with employees when the entire production is sold directly from the farm (not for resale). Exempt products are not considered to be from an “approved source”; may not be sold to hotels, restaurants, or institutions (HRI). USDA exemptions limit sales from exempt, unregistered processing to <1,000 birds per year. Please note that all poultry operations are subject to inspection and periodic review.

4. CDFA Registered Exempt Poultry Establishment + USDA Exempt + CDFA Exempt

In order to sell more than 1,000 birds per year, a business must register with CDFA as a USDA Exempt Poultry Establishment by completing and submitting an Exempt Poultry Establishment Registration Form. The limit on the number of birds per year that an exempt operation may slaughter for sale is specified by the federal exemption under which the business operates during that calendar year. As with a state-licensed poultry facility, a Registered Custom Exempt* Poultry Establishment is exempt from federal bird-by-bird inspection requirements only; poultry processors must comply with all other relevant federal requirements for inspection, namely 9 CFR 303 and 381, and recordkeeping requirements. Any establishment can claim only one exemption per calendar year; no establishment can claim two or more exemptions at a time.

*Note that the term “Custom Exempt” used in this context is distinct from the “Custom Processing” exemption associated with federal inspection, in which livestock is processed for an owner’s personal use, and whose meat may not be sold.

State inspectors are contracted by the USDA to perform Custom Exempt Reviews, which take place at least once a year. Requirements to operate with a USDA Custom Exempt Poultry Establishment Registration are described in CDFA’s document Exempt Poultry Slaughter Operations, which includes links to key regulations and Guidelines for Poultry Slaughter, Best Management Practices (BMP), and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) flowchart.

Table 1. Four Approaches to Processing Poultry Meat for Sale in California
(California is a designated state, meaning California’s meat  and poultry inspection program is not “equal to” USDA inspection)
Approach Inspection or Exemption Marketing Options Limitations on volume Limitations on Species Proper Labeling*
Products from an “Approved Source” include poultry processed in a USDA-inspected or CDFA-licensed plant, and these have broader marketing options.
1. USDA-Inspected Plant Daily Any customer (retail or wholesale); No limit on number of birds. Poultry “amenable species” per USDA definition of poultry **** “USDA inspected and passed”
bird-by-bird inspection by USDA poultry inspector In-state or Interstate commerce
2. CDFA Licensed Facility; USDA Exempt USDA Exemption + Inspection by a CDFA-licensed Poultry Meat Inspector Any retail customer within the state of California. Limited HRI sales. Per USDA Exemption, slaughter Poultry or non-amenable species (also rabbits, per CDFA regulations) “Exempt PL 90-492”
Not from an “approved source.” Exempt products may be sold directly to consumers; not to hotels, restaurants, or institutions (HRI).
3 Subject to periodic review and USDA / CDFA investigations Sales <1,000 birds per year, directly to consumers <1,000 birds/year Poultry or non-amenable species
USDA Exempt “Exempt”
CDFA Exempt PL 90-492” *
Not Registered (recommended)
4 State inspects processing set-up and procedures 1-4X/year Must register to sell >1,000 birds/year, directly to consumer. <1,000 or <20,000 or more birds per year, per the USDA Exemption claimed Poultry or non-amenable species “Exempt
USDA Exempt PL 90-492” *
CDFA Exempt CDFA Registered (required)
*Name and address of processor and safe-handling instructions are always required. Additional information is required depending on exemption type and/or approach.
**See On-farm Poultry Meat Processing with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Exemption https://ucanr.edu/sites/CESonomaAgOmbuds/Poultry_Processing_Exemptions/
***Voluntary USDA inspection of non-amenable species can be done at the producer’s expense.
****Under Retail Exemption: Unlimited direct sales; Sales to HRIs limited to 25% of poultry product sales and dollar-amount limit per year, set by FSIS.

Practices for Processing of Poultry with USDA and State Inspection Exemptions

Consistent quality control ensures wholesome food, worker health and safety, and viable business practices. Reliable resources include ATTRA’s Small-Scale Poultry Processing, NMPAN’s A Best-Practices Guide to Open-Air Poultry Slaughter, Butte County Environmental Health’s On-Farm Poultry Slaughter Guidelines, and Tennessee’s detailed guide Managing Risk: Costs, Regulations and Food Safety for On-farm Poultry Processing in Tennessee. These resources outline essential processing steps, practical sanitation materials and dilutions, required recordkeeping, and key components of a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (or HACCP) Plan, including Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for quality control in cleaning and sanitizing. Grown in Marin provides links to guides on processing waste water and managing offal (through rendering or composting poultry waste on-farm).

Choose a Safe and Sound Approach that Fits your Farm

No matter which regulatory pathway you choose —USDA plant, CDFA-licensed facility, or processing yourself on-farm or in your own facility (under USDA and CDFA inspection exemptions), the underlying goals are the same: Ensure quality standards (healthy birds, sanitary processing, proper labeling) to produce wholesome food, please your customers, and keep them safe and healthy. Remember that all operations are subject to periodic inspection and must comply with all other federal, state, and local regulations as they apply to poultry production, processing, recordkeeping, and business management.

Producers must comply with all applicable regulations. Steps to find, understand, and comply with regulations take time, patience, and perseverance! Please refer directly to agencies responsible for regulations on poultry production and processing businesses. In addition to national and state rules, local regulations come into play with respect to everything from building codes to sale of products. Look up your local health department, municipality, farmers market board, or other bodies with marketing authority.

Upcoming Event Listings and Recorded Learning Opportunities

UC Davis
UCCE Ombudsman (Marin)
Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT)

Definitions of Poultry

Poultry are species that fall under the USDA definition of Poultry in 9 CFR 381.1 as any domesticated bird (“chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas, ratites, or squabs, also termed young pigeons from one to about thirty days of age”). Poultry may be processed in either a federally inspected or state-licensed plant. Species that are not included in the list in the federal definition of poultry (e.g., pheasant, quail) are referred to as non-amenable species. Non-amenable species (including rabbits, which are considered poultry under CDFA regulations) can be processed either at USDA-inspected, or USDA-exempt / CDFA-licensed facilities. Because USDA inspection is voluntary for non-amenable species, the producer must pay inspection costs. There is no annual limit on the number of rabbits processed under CDFA licensing.

Exemption from USDA Inspection

The Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) mandates poultry inspection by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS). Poultry not federally inspected must qualify for one of the exemptions from inspection described in the PPIA. Operations that qualify for exemption from federal inspection must comply with all other federal, state, and local laws applicable to poultry processing. Criteria common to all federal exemptions include but are not limited to: a) Poultry are healthy when slaughtered; b) Processing is sanitary, producing products fit for human consumption (not adulterated); and c) Product is properly labeled with the owner’s name and address (responsibility statement), safe-handling instructions, and identified as exempt product with the statement Exempt P.L. 90-492. A business may operate under only one exemption in a calendar year and must keep records to document practices and production. Exempt product may not move in interstate commerce but may be sold only within the state, territory, or District of Columbia where it was produced. Read the regulations carefully! Each exemption includes detailed criteria and limitations with respect to customers, number of birds, equipment, or facilities. Sale of product is not allowed under Personal Use or Custom processing. Producer/Grower; Producer Grower or Other Person; and Small Business Enterprise exemptions limit sales to a maximum of 20,000 birds per year. Retail exemption limits production weight and/or dollar amounts.

Exemption from California State Inspection

Poultry not inspected in a state-licensed facility, in addition to qualifying for federal inspection exemption, must also meet the criteria to qualify for one of the exemptions from California state (CDFA) inspection requirements. The relevant sections of Food and Agriculture Code (FAC) excerpted in Appendix B specify that USDA Exempt / CDFA-Exempt poultry may be sold either:
a) per FAC section 24713, directly to the consumer at their homes, at a retail stand operated by the producer on their farm or in a farmers market (if allowed by local regulations), if they use only immediate family labor; or
b) per FAC section 24714, by selling the entire poultry production directly from the farm (not for resale), with employees allowed. Products that are neither USDA-inspected or processed in a CDFA-licensed facility are considered not to be from an approved source, and may not be sold to hotels, restaurants, or institutions.

In summary, a poultry operation that meets one of the exemptions from federal inspection (per USDA’s FSIS), and one of the California state (CDFA) exemptions from inspection may process poultry without daily bird-by-bird inspection by a licensed poultry meat inspector. All operations, however, are subject to periodic review of exempt poultry plants, which CDFA performs for the USDA (under Cooperative Agreement), and to investigations by local agencies.

Further Resources

Producer and Processor Networks, Education, and Mentoring Resources

The American Pastured Producers Association (APPPA) 
A nonprofit trade organization for the pastured poultry industry.

“Ask APPPA” Q&A calls 
Poultry Processing Regulations

Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network (NMPAN) 
A national Extension project and processors network.

Poultry Specific Resources with links to the PPIA, sample HACCP Plan, mobile slaughter units, and guides to planning for profitability.
Research to Assess Meat Processing Options
Planning a New Facility or Expansion (Four-part course with modules on Plant Design, Business Planning, Workforce Management, and Financing Options)
Poultry Processing Regulations and Exemptions
A Best-Practices Guide to Open-Air Poultry Slaughter

Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) 
Resources including producer/processor grants, mentorships, and webinars.

Poultry Processing Strategies, NCAT podcast
Farmers Caleb Barron of Fogline Farm and Gary Roberts of Zentner’s Fogbound Farm shared their experience in ATTRA’s podast, explaining how they make their decisions about processing birds. Caleb became skilled and efficient at on-farm processing. However, as he clarified his priorities, he concluded that it made sense to take his birds to be processed at a USDA plant so he could grow his business to more than 20,000 birds per year and market poultry meat to restaurants and other markets. Gary explained how California inspection exemptions are more restrictive than federal regulations with respect to the number of birds that can be slaughtered.

More Poultry Processing Resources

California State Agencies and Regulations California Department of Food and Agriculture – Meat, Poultry and Egg Safety Branch

Poultry Guidelines
Forms and Applications
Food & Agriculture Code (FAC), Poultry Meat Inspection section
California Health and Safety Code
California Food Retail Code
Q&A CDFA regarding USDA-Exempt Mobile Slaughter Units and Open-Air Processing

University of California Cooperative Extension

UC Cooperative Extension Poultry
Sonoma Ombusdman
Grown in Marin
Foothill Farming

Butte County Environmental Health
On-Farm Poultry Slaughter Guidelines
Provides an overview of best practices for exempt poultry processing and development of HACCP plans.

Processing Poultry Meat for Sale in California
By Ann Baier
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Published September 2021
IP610, slot 637

This publication is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.  

Broiler carcasses

Approaches to Processing Poultry Meat for Sale: Navigating Regulations across the United States

Approaches to Processing Poultry Meat for Sale: Navigating Regulations across the United States

By Ann Baier, NCAT Agriculture Specialist


This publication provides an overview of the main approaches to processing poultry meat with respect to regulations. It includes a resource table with hyperlinks to facilitate access to government regulations and agencies, Cooperative Extension and nonprofit resources, and practical guidance from producer and processor networks for pastured poultry producers and niche meat processors. The approach that is right for your farm depends on the species you raise, your state and location, your sales volume, and intended customers.


Poultry-Processing Regulations: Choosing an Approach for your Farm
USDA Inspection
Steps to Processing in a USDA Plant
Exemption from USDA Inspection
State-Licensed Facilities (with USDA Exemption)
Processing Your Own Poultry (under USDA and State Inspection Exemptions)
Further Resources

Poultry-Processing Regulations: Choosing an Approach for your Farm

What is the most appropriate approach for your farm to process poultry meat for sale? Does it make sense to process your birds on-farm, take them to be processed in an existing USDA-inspected plant or state-licensed facility, or establish a new plant? Processing needs to be legal, sanitary, and humane, as well as practical and economically viable. Production, processing, and marketing all need to be aligned with your land, farm business, and family priorities. The approach that is right for your farm depends on the species you raise, your state and location, your sales volume, and intended customers. The approach you take to processing may change over time according to your farm goals, poultry-enterprise scale of production, human resources, and market opportunities.

Broiler carcasses

Broiler carcasses exiting an automated feather-picking machine. Photo: Mark Freeman

This publication provides an overview of the main approaches to processing poultry meat with respect to regulations. It includes a resource table with hyperlinks to facilitate access to government regulations and agencies, Cooperative Extension and nonprofit resources, and practical guidance from producer and processor networks for pastured poultry producers and niche meat processors.

There are two main approaches to processing poultry meat for sale with respect to federal regulations: A) USDA inspected or B) Exempt from USDA inspection. The fundamental goal is the same no matter where you process your birds. Regulations for inspection and exemption are intended to ensure that poultry products are “wholesome, not adulterated, and properly marked, labeled, and packaged,” as described in the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA).

Federal regulations describe requirements of the physical plant set-up and procedures for a USDA poultry meat inspector to provide direct, daily, on-site oversight and inspection of every bird processed in a USDA plant. Markets rely on USDA’s framework for quality control, and recognize the mark of “USDA inspected and passed” as assurance that the product is safe to sell at retail and wholesale.

Outside the framework of USDA inspection, yet fulfilling the big-picture goal of wholesome food, is an approach to processing under USDA inspection exemption. When you, as the producer, meet USDA inspection exemption criteria, you oversee quality control procedures yourself. Processing under USDA exemption can take place on your own farm or in your own facility, or in a state-licensed facility, allowing you to legally sell a relatively small number of birds directly to customers who will consume the meat or use it to prepare meals. The specifics depend on the exemption you choose, and further limitations of state and local regulations, which can be more restrictive. These marketing limitations are based on a set of assumptions that product processed with less direct government oversight can be safe when managed on a smaller scale, by a prescribed set of participants, and sold to limited types of customers. Regulations for processing in a state-licensed facility vary by state. There is further explanation in the section on the variety of state-licensed facilities below.

Table 1: Approaches to Processing Poultry Meat for Sale with Respect to USDA Regulations
Approach Inspection Marketing Limitations Labeling*
 USDA  Inspected Plants (includes state plants with meat inspection programs “equal to” USDA) “Continuous” bird-by-bird inspection conducted by a USDA inspector Any customer; Intrastate sales or Interstate commerce No limit on number of birds or production volume. “Amenable species” per the USDA definition of “Poultry” include chickens, turkeys, ducks, ratites, squabs (pigeons 1-30 days of age). “USDA inspected and passed”
Exempt from USDA Inspection (on-farm, or state-licensed, but not “equal to” USDA) Exemption from USDA inspection only. Must meet other provisions of the PPIA, and state and local regulations. Sold within state only ** Customer limitations depend on the exemption. Operate under one exemption per year. Maximum number of birds a producer or business may slaughter is 20,000/year. State and local regulations may be more restrictive. “Exempt P.L. 90-492”
*Name and address of processor and safe handling instructions are always required. Additional information is required depending on exemption type and/or approach.
** Interstate commerce may be allowed where state-inspected establishments are participating in Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program. Check with your state and USDA.

USDA Inspection

Processing poultry in a USDA plant provides the greatest flexibility for marketing. You can sell an unlimited number of birds and poultry products to any type of customer, anywhere within your state, district, or territory, as well as across state lines through interstate commerce. Continuous bird-by-bird inspection is done by a USDA poultry meat inspector. Compliant products are labeled “USDA inspected and passed.” USDA defines “poultry” or “amenable species”) as “any domesticated bird: chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas, ratites, or squabs, also termed young pigeons one to thirty days of age.” Costs for mandatory USDA inspection of amenable species are covered by taxpayers.

Non-amenable species, such as pheasant, quail, and captive-raised waterfowl, may be processed in a USDA plant, but because USDA inspection is voluntary, not mandatory, inspection costs are paid by the producer. Non-amenable species are typically processed in state-licensed plants according to state regulations, or by the producer under state inspection exemptions for sale directly to consumers. USDA inspection of rabbits, like other non-amenable species, is voluntary. Refer to your state’s regulations for further guidance. (California considers rabbits to be poultry with respect to processing regulations.)

Steps to Processing in a USDA Plant

First, identify a USDA-inspected plant that will process your birds. Talk to people with direct experience in your producer or processor networks, such as the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), and Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN). Of the many USDA plants listed in the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS)’s Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Inspection Directory, only a few do fee-for service processing for independent producers. Find these in NMPAN’s Find a Processor list. NCAT’s database of Small Poultry Processing Plants and Services includes all types of plants, is self-listing, and would be more complete if you list yours!

The ATTRA publication Working with your Meat Processor provides tips for building effective relationships with processors. Understand services and requirements for clear expectations about type of processing, whether they provide packaging, cost, and volume. Do you produce a sufficient and predictable number of birds? Some plants will process small numbers; others prefer or require regular batches of several hundred birds. Transporting birds can be time-consuming and stressful to both birds and people. Plan your schedule ahead. Withhold feed at least 12 hours prior to processing and crate birds the night before. Transport live birds to the plant at your appointment time, usually early in the morning. Show up on time! Wait for birds to be processed, then pick up and deliver poultry products to your markets and customers.

Overhead costs related to processing in an existing USDA plant include management time to find a processor and work out arrangements, as well as investment in transport equipment, including crates for delivering birds to processing, and packaging/containers, vehicles, and cold storage to pick up and deliver processed birds to customers (and cold-storage facilities, if appropriate). Depending on your customers, if you sell wholesale, you will probably need to register your storage facility with USDA-FSIS. Contact USDA’s Small Plant Help Desk to clarify how federal regulations apply to your operation.

Operating costs for processing each batch of birds include not only per-bird processing fees, but also trip-related expenses such as preparation and transport time, mileage, and expenses. The processing plant is responsible for many details, such as cleaning, sanitation, and waste management, which saves labor compared to on-farm processing. Consider your options, the practical upsides and downsides, and economic viability of each approach. Compare economics of on-farm vs. inspected processing in the context of your farm production and marketing goals.

Exemption from USDA Inspection

The Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) requires inspection, yet provides certain exemptions. When you meet the criteria for an exemption from USDA inspection, you can process your own birds on-farm or in your own off-farm facility, or in a state-licensed facility (in those states that do not operate a meat and poultry inspection program that is equivalent or “equal to” USDA inspection; see details below under State-Licensed Facilities). You may operate under only one type of exemption each calendar year.

Exemption is from inspection only; operations must comply with all other applicable federal, state, and local regulations, many of which are more limiting than federal exemptions. Federal, state, and local regulations address many additional topic areas, such as zoning, building codes, facilities, workers, food safety, labeling, water, and waste management.

Criteria in the PPIA that are common to all USDA inspection exemptions include the following:

  1. Slaughter only healthy poultry;
  2. Use sanitary slaughter and processing practices to produce a wholesome product; and
  3. Properly label your production: “Exempt PL 90-492” (required if you produce more than 1,000 birds/year; recommended if <1,000 birds/year) and state labeling requirements, as appropriate. All poultry labels (inspected or exempt) must include, at a minimum, the name and address of the processor (responsibility statement) and safe-handling instructions.

Exemptions are described in Guidance for Determining Whether a Poultry Slaughter or Processing Operation is Exempt from Inspection Requirements of the Poultry Products Inspection Act. Read these regulations carefully; each USDA Exemption includes detailed Criteria and Notes that describe specific limitations and requirements.

These are the USDA Exemptions commonly chosen by producers:

  • Producer/Grower Exemption allows for slaughter of birds you raised (<1,000, or <20,000 birds per year), either for direct sale or to other businesses for resale as meat or meals, including a distributor, hotel, restaurant, retail store, institution, or small enterprise.
  • Producer, Grower or Other Person (PGOP) Exemption allows for sale of poultry (up to 20,000 birds per year) directly to household consumers, restaurants, hotels, and boarding houses for the preparation of meals.
  • Small Enterprise Exemption allows for raising or purchasing of poultry (<20,000 birds per year), with processing limited to cutting up of poultry (not grinding or making sausage) for sale to household consumers, hotels, retail stores, restaurants, or similar institutions.
  • Retail Exemption allows for poultry that have already passed USDA or state inspection to be cut up, boned, stuffed, smoked or rendered, and packaged for direct sale (no resale). An unlimited quantity of product may be sold directly to consumers for their own use. Product may be sold to hotels, restaurants, and institutions according to the limitations specified in the Criteria for this exemption: 25% of total poultry sales, or no more than the amount specified by FSIS Retail Exemptions Adjusted Dollar Limitations for the given year. For example, poultry may be cut into parts, marinaded, packaged and sold at a meat counter, butcher shop, or farmers market in quantities reasonable for household or restaurant use.

State-Licensed Facilities (with USDA Exemption)

Some states operate their own Meat and Poultry Inspection (MPI) program that is considered “equal to” USDA Inspection. If you live in one of those states, you need not concern yourself with this section. Processing in a USDA-inspected plant or a state plant equal to a USDA plant provides the widest array of marketing options, allowing you to process an unlimited number of birds and diversify your marketing strategies to sell any volume of poultry meat.

If your state operates a program to license and inspect poultry plants, but its MPI program is “designated” or not “equal to” USDA, processing in state-licensed facilities must also meet the criteria one of the USDA inspection exemptions. Be aware that states have not uniformly adopted USDA exemptions. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund offers a State-by-State Review of On-Farm Poultry Processing Laws, Poultry Map and Chart and details about the legality of slaughter and sale of poultry meat processed under USDA exemption. Processing poultry in a state-licensed facility may allow you to sell products within your state, territory, or district. It does not allow you to sell through interstate commerce (unless specific conditions are met under the Cooperative Interstate Shipment Program).

Processing in a state-licensed plant, while also meeting criteria for a USDA inspection exemption (if that plant is not “equal to” USDA), expands your legal marketing options and enables you to grow your poultry production business up to the limits of each USDA exemption (slaughter of up to 20,000 birds). If your poultry enterprise pencils out to be economically viable within these number limits, then a state-licensed facility may be an appropriate approach to process your poultry, as well as any “non-amenable” species you raise, such as pheasant, quail, or waterfowl.

As you develop your approach, do so with consideration not only for federal exemptions, but also state exemptions and local regulations. Even though several USDA Exemptions allow sales to different types of customers, many states restrict the sale of uninspected poultry. State regulations vary with respect to their inspection exemption requirements. Many are more restrictive than federal exemptions. Find a way to see clearly through all the regulatory frames at the same time. Your approach to processing must fulfil federal, state, and local regulatory frameworks simultaneously. Some regulations appear to prohibit shared use of facilities, or fee-for-service processing for other producers, such that you would you need to establish your own state-licensed plant to process your own production. However, there is nuance to understanding pathways to compliance at the intersection of USDA inspection exemption criteria and state regulations, such as ownership of birds at the time of slaughter and location of mobile processing units operating as state-licensed facilities.

Learn more about your state’s regulations for processing, inspecting, and marketing the types of birds you raise by contacting relevant state agencies and reading relevant regulations. NMPAN’s State Poultry Processing Regulations can help you identify regulatory entities and resources in your state. Specific regulation and agency names may vary by state. They may include agencies such as the state Department of Food and Agriculture, County Health Department, and other agencies, and regulations such as Food and Agricultural Code, Health and Safety Code, or Food Retail Code.

Starting a Processing Plant

If your farm has sufficient volume of production, you may consider establishing your own processing plant. Contact USDA or your state department of agriculture for information on developing a USDA-inspected or state-licensed poultry processing plant. State-licensed processing with intrastate sales may provide sufficient market options for producers in large states, whereas producers in smaller states with markets across state borders may need USDA inspection so their products can enter interstate commerce. Starting a state-licensed plant can be an end in itself, or a decisive step toward establishing a USDA facility. In one of many informative webinars presented by the Food Animal Concerns Trust, Farmer Bruce Hennessy of Maple Wind Farm highlighted the importance of processing approaches to decisions about Scaling Up Pastured Poultry Production. After beginning with a state-licensed facility (using a prefabricated “Plant in a Box” processing facility), Maple Wind Farm now operates a USDA-inspected facility to process birds for other farms, in addition to their own farm’s poultry production.

Production and processing are separate farm enterprises. Assess the best fit for your farm by thoroughly researching different approaches. Learn from the experiences of other producers across the country through NMPAN’s Testing The Idea: Using Existing Research to Assess Meat Processing Options. NMPAN’s website includes an invaluable four-part series in A Beginner’s Guide to Local Meat Processing, for people considering operating their own plants. NMPAN has recordings of past webinars available online, including Cost Analysis: Are you making money?

Processing Your Own Poultry (under USDA and State Inspection Exemptions)

Processing poultry yourself can be appropriate when you produce a relatively small number of birds and market poultry meat directly to consumers. To sell poultry products that you process, you must qualify for both USDA and state inspection exemptions. USDA exemptions allow for slaughter of up to 20,000 birds per year; state exemption limits may be lower.  Exempt processing may be done either on-farm or at another facility operated by the producer.

Processing on-site where poultry are raised has several potential advantages, including reducing the time and stress of long-distance transport. Nonetheless, doing your own processing involves an investment of time and money to plan and set up your processing facility, purchase equipment, and develop protocols for food safety and environmental health.

The work of processing birds includes pre-slaughter preparations, immobilizing, killing and bleeding, blood recovery, scalding, plucking, eviscerating, cooling, packaging and labeling, proper storage, transport, and delivery to customers. To become proficient in processing, there is no substitute for hands-on learning with an experienced practitioner—and practice. Poultry processing requires skill, hard work, and a commitment to food safety, quality control, and essential recordkeeping.

Consistent quality-control procedures ensure wholesome food, worker health and safety, and sound business practices. Several resources (see Sidebar) outline processing steps, required recordkeeping, sanitizer materials and dilutions, and key components of a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, or HACCP, Plan, including Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Standard Sanitation Operating Procedures (SSOPs). They also address the other essential tasks of processing waste water and offal management. Whether you process on-farm or take your birds to be processed in a USDA-inspected plant or state-licensed facility, these are essential tasks. Either you pay a processing facility to do the work, or commit to the responsibility of doing it yourself.

Orient yourself to processing procedures. These guides include generally reliable principles.  However, everything is developed in a context of time and place, regulations, and assumptions.  As you develop your own procedures, always verify that your proposed practices align with current regulations in your state and region.

Small-Scale Poultry Processing, ATTRA

Best Practices Guide for Open-Air Poultry Slaughter, NMPAN

On-Farm Poultry Slaughter Guidelines, Butte County (CA) Environmental Health

Managing Risks in On-Farm Poultry Processing, Tennessee

Managing Water in Poultry Processing, University of California

Composting Poultry Waste on the Farm, University of California

Further Resources

Organization / Website Useful Links
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS)

Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA)

Small Plant Help Desk

Meat and Poultry Inspection Plant Directory

Guidance for Determining Whether a Poultry Slaughter or Processing Operation is Exempt from Inspection Requirements of the Poultry Products Inspection Act

Non-amenable species

Food and Drug

Administration (FDA)

HACCP Principles & Application Guidelines
National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program Poultry Resources: https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/poultry/ 

Small-Scale Poultry Processing

Meat Plants: Improving Profitability in Small Operations

Working with your Meat Processor

Database of Small Poultry Processing Plants and Services

Podcast Episode 83. Poultry Processing, Terrill Spencer

Podcast Episode 98. Poultry Processing Strategies

The American Pastured Producers Association (APPPA) 

A nonprofit trade organization for the pastured poultry industry

Membership: https://www.apppa.org/join-us

“Ask APPPA” Q&A calls https://www.apppa.org/about

Poultry Processing Regulations

Discussion of P.L. 90-492

Niche Meat Processors Association Network (NMPAN) 

A national extension project and processors network

Join the Listserve (active information exchange)

Poultry Specific Resources

Research to Assess Meat Processing Options

Planning a New Facility or Expansion

Poultry Processing Regulations and Exemptions

Best Practices Guide for Open-Air Poultry Slaughter

University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE)

Grown in Marin

Foothill Farming

Poultry Resources (statewide, all topics)  

On-farm Poultry Meat Processing with USDA Exemption

On-Farm Poultry Processing: business, regulations, food safety, and best practices for facility construction

Processing Waste Water

Composting Poultry Waste

Foothill Farming, Pasture-Based Poultry

This publication is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.  

Approaches to Processing Poultry Meat for Sale: Navigating Regulations across the United States
By Ann Baier
NCAT Agriculture Specialist
Published September 2021
IP609, slot 635

Small-Scale Poultry Processing

Small-Scale Poultry Processing

By Anne Fanatico and Kevin Ellis, NCAT Agriculture Specialists


In order to sell poultry meat products, they must be processed in a way that results in a quality and economically viable finished product while taking into account animal welfare and environmental impact. This publication explains the poultry slaughter process step by step and some of the factors that affect final carcass quality. This guide also covers equipment needs, waste product management, and packaging needed to get poultry meat to market.


Immobilizing, Killing, and Bleeding
Feather Removal
Removal of Head, Oil Glands, and Feet
Washing the Carcass
Cut-up, Deboning, and Further Processing
Waste Management
Equipment and Supplies
Processing Diverse Species
Batch vs. Continuous Processing
Processing Rate
Processing Setup
Further Resources


A growing number of small producers are raising poultry outdoors on pasture, processing the birds on-farm, and selling the meat directly to customers at the farm or at a farmers market. Many states allow up to 1,000 birds to be processed on a farm each year and sold directly to consumers with no inspection. Some small producers are going further—building government-licensed processing plants to supply regional or niche markets. Specialty “religious kill” is often done in small plants.

Access to processing is a critical issue for small producers. Consolidation in the meat-processing industry has left very few small plants that will do custom poultry processing. (Large plants generally don’t process for small producers; they can’t keep track of a small batch of birds and can’t make money on small-volume orders.)

This publication covers small-scale processing, both on-farm and in small plants. Relevant information on large-scale processing is also included for comparison, to provide context, and because small processors need to have some understanding of how large-scale processing works.

During the first part of the 20th century, poultry was sold live to consumers who did their own processing. In the 1930s, only the blood and feathers were removed (“New York dressed”). As consumers demanded more convenience, the market grew for eviscerated or ready-to-cook (RTC) birds.

Producing ready-to-cook poultry involves:

  • Pre-slaughter: catching and transport
  • Immobilizing, killing, and bleeding
  • Feather removal: scalding, picking
  • Removal of head, oil glands, and feet
  • Evisceration
  • Chilling
  • Cut-up, deboning, and further processing
  • Aging
  • Packaging
  • Freezing
  • Distribution
Table 1. Comparison of Types of Processing
On-farm Small Large
Size Outdoor or shed facility 2,000 to 3,000 sq. ft. 150,000 sq. ft.
Equipment Manual Manual/Mechanical Fully automated
Cost Less than $15,000 Less than $500,000 $25,000,000
Labor Family Family/hired Hired
Capacity 50-100 birds per day 200-5,000 birds per day 250,000 birds per day
Operation Seasonal; 1-30 pro- cessing days per year Seasonal or year-round; 50-plus processing days per year Year-round; process daily
Marketing Product sold fresh, sometimes frozen; whole birds Fresh and frozen, whole and parts Mainly cut-up, sold fresh, further-pro- cessed
Comments Independent operation; labor-intensive; low- risk; usually non- inspected, direct sales Independent or part of a collaborative group; requires good markets and grower commitments Part of an integrated operation including grow-out, processing, and marketing


Broilers are usually processed when they reach 4.5to 6-pound live weight. Feed is withheld for eight to 12 hours before slaughter to reduce the amount of feed in the gut and the possibility of tearing it during processing, which would cause fecal contamination of the carcass. However, withholding feed for too long will result in added stress and watery guts that have the potential to leak.

Catching and Loading

Large producers harvest all their birds at once (all-in, all-out). Small producers often “skim” by harvesting larger birds and leaving smaller ones to grow. Birds are best caught at night or early in the morning. Catching when it is dark out can help reduce stress and related fatalities. For small producers, picking birds up individually by the sides is the best way to minimize stress and prevent injury. In large-scale production, chickens are caught by grabbing both legs just above the feet. No more than three birds should be carried in one hand. Crews of 10 people catch and crate birds at the rate of 10,000 per hour, bruising up to 25% of them (Barbut, 2002). In Europe, automatic harvesting machinery is increasingly used in large operations because it is considered more humane than the rough treatment by catchers who handle several birds at once.

trailer stacked with empty crates for birds to transport

Birds are crated and transported to processing in this trailer. Photo: NCAT

A typical crate can hold about eight birds, depending on their size and on the weather. Crates usually have a small opening to help prevent escape during loading, but this can increase the chance of physical injury to wings. Crowding birds in crates can lead to unnecessary stress, which can have an effect on overall meat quality.

For proper sanitation, crates should be made out of plastic or metal. Used crates are sometimes available at lower prices, but should be thoroughly sanitized before use. Small producers sometimes make their own wire crates from welded wire mesh and clips.

Transport, Holding, and Unloading

Avoid holding birds in crates for too long or transporting them when the weather is too hot, cold, or wet. With on-farm processing, there is little or no travel time. If you have to transport in cold, wet weather, be sure to cover the birds. Small producers typically cover the crates with a tarp.

You will need a full-size pick-up or larger truck—200 birds in 25 crates weigh about 1,250 pounds. For more birds, you will need a trailer. If you need to transport 1,000 birds at a time, you’ll need a special vehicle such as a bob truck. Coops can be stacked on a flatbed truck or trailer and secured using ratchet straps. Birds can be allowed to roam in the back of a covered trailer; however, this is usually not encouraged as injuries can occur at a higher rate.

Once the birds reach the processing facility, it is important to keep them comfortable in the holding area. Scheduling arrival at the plant can reduce waiting time. On-farm processors usually hold crated birds under trees or other shade. The conventional industry typically produces birds within one hour of the processing plant. With two hours of travel, shrinkage or weight loss is about 1% (Tanner, 1969). After two hours of travel, mortality can occur. Companies are fined for arriving with dead birds. Large processors keep crated birds in a holding shed with fans and misters to keep them cool.

mounted stainless steel kill cone

Mounted stainless steel kill cones. Photo: NCAT

Care must be taken when unloading the birds from the crates to prevent bruises and broken bones. On-farm and small plants unload birds by hand. At large plants, broilers are unloaded onto conveyor belts. Transport crates should be washed and sanitized thoroughly after each use.

Catching, loading, transporting, and unloading expose birds to new environments and new sources of stress. This can negatively affect meat quality (see Aging section). During hauling, in particular, birds have to deal with heat or cold, feed and water withdrawal, motion, vibration, noise, and social disruption (Barbut, 2002).

Immobilizing, Killing, and Bleeding

Small processors usually place birds in funnel-shaped kill cones after removing them from crates; large plants hang them on shackles and stun them before killing.

For on-farm processing, stainless steel kill cones, wrapped metal, or traffic cones are commonly used. Cones can also be made by removing the bottom of a bucket or jug and attaching it to something solid. Birds are not stunned before killing and will jerk a lot during bleeding. Cones should be the proper size, and the bird’s wings folded down when inserted, to prevent the bird from flapping its wings or backing out of the cone. Wing flapping can cause hemorrhages in the muscle and broken bones (Barbut, 2002). In large plants, birds are hung on shackles in a dark room to help calm them and ease handling. Special lighting, such as blue, will also keep them calm and prevent flapping and injury (Barbut, 2002).

An overhead track is used to move carcasses through a plant. Keeping birds on-line throughout killing and dressing reduces labor since there is no handling. In many small plants, the operator pushes the shackle along; in large plants, the track is motorized.

There are several ways of cutting blood vessels in poultry, the most common killing method. In the conventional industry, the carotid arteries and the jugular veins are cut on both sides of the neck by a deep cut in the front. In kosher and halaal slaughter, only one side of the neck is cut, so the birds bleed more slowly. The spinal cord should not be cut (as when the head is cut off ) because the feathers “set” and are hard to pick (Sams, 2001). The esophagus should also not be cut, to prevent microbial contamination from leakage.


Stunning is not used in on-farm processing and is only sometimes used in small plants, where it is often impractical. In some specialty religious processing, such as kosher and halaal, stunning is not permitted. However, stunning is very helpful when working with turkeys or geese because of their larger size. When using a stun gun, it is critical to set it at the correct voltage—110 volts. If you do not adjust the stun correctly, birds will be over- or under-stunned. Over-stunning will result in hemorrhages and broken bones.

Stunning is the norm at large plants. It immobilizes the birds for the killing machine, provides a uniform heartbeat for better bleeding, and relaxes the feather follicles for easier picking (Owens, 2001). Furthermore, stunning is considered more humane than not stunning. U.S. law requires stunning of other livestock, though not poultry.

In large plants, stunning works as follows. The heads of the birds are dipped into a saline bath with an electric current, rendering them temporarily unconscious (one to two minutes—enough time for cutting and bleeding them to death) (Owens, 2001). The current is low-voltage and low-amperage (about 20 volts, depending on bird size, for three to five seconds; the amperage is 10 to 12 mA per bird) (Owens, 2001).

There are relationships between stunning, killing, muscle metabolism, and meat quality. These interactions have been studied mostly with stunned birds killed in shackles because that is the typical practice in large plants. Less is known about the effects on meat quality of killing in cones with no stunning.


Small processors usually believe that the bleed-out is more thorough with no stunning. About 35% to 50% of the blood comes out of stunned birds, with the rest remaining mainly in the organs (Barbut, 2002). Bleeding takes one and one-half to three minutes (Owens, 2001). According to industry thought, if the bird is not stunned, the bleed-out is slower and not as complete because the bird is struggling and its organs are using blood. Maximum drainage of blood is desirable so there won’t be dark spots on the meat, especially on wing veins.

On the farm, blood is collected in a bucket or trough and used in composting; however, on a large scale, blood is a wastewater pollutant since it contains a lot of organic matter. On a shackle line, blood can be collected in a blood tunnel that reduces splashing.

a typical poultry scalder

A typical scalder that can handle four to six birds at a time. Photo: NCAT

Feather Removal


Small processors remove the birds from the killing cones for scalding. In large plants, the birds stay on the shackles.

Birds are scalded (immersed in hot water) to loosen the feathers. Heat breaks down the protein holding the feathers in place (Sams, 2001). Scalding is a very temperature-sensitive process.

In the United States, a hard scald is used by small and large processors alike. It loosens the outer layer of skin, providing a better coating adhesion for fried foods (important for further processing). After a hard scald, the skin must be kept moist and covered or it will discolor. A very hard scald is needed for waterfowl because their feathers are harder to loosen.

In Europe, soft-scalding is more common and used in conjunction with air-chilling (see the Airchilling section below). The Label Rouge program in France, which focuses on gourmet meat quality, requires a soft scald. The skin remains intact and skin color is retained; however, picking is more difficult.

Table 2. Scalding
Types of Scald  Temperature Length of time  Comments
Waterfowl (very hard) 160-180°F 30-60


Needed for waterfowl
Hard 138-148°F 30-75


Removes outer layer of skin
No Man’s Land 130-138°F Avoid: too hot to keep skin intact but too low to remove epidermis
Soft 123-130°F 90-120


Keeps skin intact
(Source: Adapted from Tanner, 1969. p. 20.)
Table 2. Scalding types, temperature, and length of time

Table 2. Scalding (Source: Adapted from Tanner, 1969. p. 20.)

Scalding increases the body temperature of the carcass. In kosher processing, the bird is not scalded because it would partially cook the meat. As a result, the birds are harder to pick.

On-farm processors use a single tank of hot water, usually scalding one to four birds at a time. Labor is saved when a mechanism such as a basket or arm dunks several birds together. In small plants, scalders with such a mechanism can handle 12 birds at once. Some on-farm processors add dish soap to the scald water to help it better penetrate the feathers and facilitate picking; others do not find this necessary.

It can take a while to heat the water in a small scalder to the right temperature, and it can be tricky to maintain that temperature, especially when fresh water is added. Most on-farm processors don’t replace the water during processing for these reasons. However, this can lead to contamination problems. Some on-farm processors solve the dilemma by using two scalders at a time, rotating them as one reaches the correct temperature. Some large scalders have an overflow to add fresh water continuously.

Additional precautionary measures can reduce filth in the scalder. Wet birds in the field can pick up manure on the skin and feathers and this material can end up in the scalder. Prior to slaughter, birds should be kept or held in an area that keeps them dry. Large plants may use a bird scrubber (large rotating brushes on either side of the bird) and also spray the birds with chlorinated water before putting them in the scalder.

While small processors use a single-stage, static tank, large plants use long, multiple tanks for multi-stage scalding. The tanks vary in temperature—the first is kept at a lower temperature since it can take two minutes for the track to carry the birds through. In that time, they would cook at 134°F. The tanks also have a countercurrent flow of water, which produces a dirty-to-clean gradient. The scald water flows in the opposite direction from the birds, so they are continually moving to cleaner water. Overflow adds fresh water continuously.

Water for processing

It is important to have an adequate supply of potable water for processing. If you have well water, it needs to meet drinking water standards and should be tested. If the rate of water flow on your farm is slow, you may need to add a reservoir tank.

tub-style picker

Feathers are removed by the abrasive action of rubber fingers in this tub-style picker. Photo: NCAT

a picker constructed from a plastic barrel, rubber fingers, and a small motor

Pickers can be constructed from a plastic barrel, rubber fingers, and a small motor. Photo: NCAT


The quality of the pick is related to the scald. If the scald water was too cool, the feathers won’t loosen; if it was too hot, the skin will tear in the picker. But if it was just right, the feathers usually come out easily and can even be removed by hand. However, hand picking is time-consuming. If you are planning to process very many birds, you will need a mechanical picker. Removing the feathers by abrasion, these machines can pick a bird clean in about 30 seconds but will sometimes break the wings. A drum picker—a cylinder with rubber fingers around the exterior—defeathers one bird at a time. The operator holds the bird above the cylinder, rotating it as the cylinder spins and picks off feathers. Drum pickers come in table-top or free-standing models. A more common picker is a tub or batch picker. This is a rotating tub with rubber fingers mounted on the inside walls; it can handle two to 12 birds at a time. Small processors carry the birds to the picker. Large plants use continuous, in-line pickers that look like a tunnel with rubber fingers. Birds pass through the tunnel on shackles.

Turkeys and older laying hens are harder to defeather, and waterfowl feathers are especially hard to remove. Pinfeathers—immature feathers still in the feather shaft—can be hard to remove mechanically. “Pinning” is the removal of pinfeathers by hand. “Singeing” involves passing the bird through a flame to burn small hair-like feathers. Some on-farm processors use a propane torch to burn them off, being careful not to burn the skin. The feathers of colored birds may leave spots of pigmentation on the skin. Commercial poultry breeds have white feathers that do not leave stains. Consumers in the United States are accustomed to a carcass with a clean, unspeckled appearance.

Scalding and Picking Equipment

Small scalders (one bird at a time) cost less than $200 and small pickers cost approximately $600. Companies also offer many larger models. A 12 to 16-bird scalder costs about $10,000.

Small processors can look for used equipment from a variety of sources. There may be old poultry-processing equipment in your area from small plants of the past. Large plants in your area that are remodeling can be a source of used equipment. Large companies have graveyards with used equipment, some being turned into scrap metal. Keep in mind that while used equipment can help you cut costs, it may not meet the specifications your facility requires.

Homemade or Modified Equipment

Making your own equipment is another way to lower costs, but consider the time required to build or find parts. Again, make sure the design and materials meet the specifications you require. But be forewarned that homemade equipment is not likely to meet Federal or State meat inspection requirements.

Homemade scalders: When first starting out, some small-scale producers use a large stockpot in the backyard, heated with a fire. On-farm processors have also used propane burners (from outdoor turkey fryers), water-bath pots made for canning, and hospital sterilizers (common before the advent of the autoclave). A homemade scalder can be made with a utility sink, a heating element, and a thermostat for about $50 (Beck-Chenoweth, 1996). On-farm processors also make large insulated scalders from old electric or propane water heaters. Some even have a dunker. It is especially important to use thermometers with homemade scalders to ensure a constant temperature.

For those making homemade equipment, it is very important to be aware of the danger of electrocution. Scalders and pickers are used around water, which makes improperly connected electrical parts even more dangerous. Important safeguards include using a competent electrician, following electrical code, installing ground fault circuit interrupters (GFIs), and making sure the power cord is of sufficient gauge to handle the current. Gas-powered water heaters are also used, but there is an explosion risk.

Homemade pickers: Many have converted old washing machines or plastic 55-gallon drums into pickers. On-farm processor Herrick Kimball, author of Anyone Can Build a Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker (Kimball, 2002), estimates that this type of picker can be built for $500—much less than the typical $2,000.

Removal of Head, Oil Glands, and Feet

After feather removal, the heads, oil glands, and feet are removed. On-farm and small processors usually cut the head off; large plants have machines that pull heads off so that the esophagus is also removed. Necks are typically removed and can be sold as a specialty part.

Birds preen their feathers with an oil gland located on top of the tail. It is almost 1% of the carcass, but because of its odor and taste, it is removed. Asian markets may prefer a carcass with the oil gland intact; government regulations permit it to remain under religious-kill exemptions.

The feet are removed at the knee joint. In small plants, birds are put on evisceration shackles after scalding and picking. In large plants, after the feet are removed, the birds are rehung on the shackles. When birds are first hung, it is easiest to hang them by the feet, but during rehanging, they are hung by the knee joint. This process also keeps the dirtier kill shackles separate from the cleaner evisceration shackles. In small plants with only a single line of shackles, the feet should be removed on a stainless-steel table in the scalding room and then the birds are passed into the evisceration area to be hung. One kill line feeds several evisceration lines because evisceration is relatively slow. In a small plant, nine shackles per minute is a good rate during evisceration (Plamondon, 2002a).

a woman eviscerating a poultry carcass

Eviscerating in a small plant. Photo: NCAT


To eviscerate manually, make a circular cut around the vent and open the body to draw out the organs. Remove inedible viscera or guts (intestines, esophagus, spleen, reproductive organs). Loosen the crop so it will come out with the guts. The kidneys and lungs remain inside because they are hard to remove. Lung removers or scrapers are available that force water into the body cavity and loosen up the embedded organs, allowing them to be removed more easily.

Instead of using shackles, on-farm processors usually eviscerate on a flat surface (stainless steel for easy cleaning or a disposable plastic sheet). However, some on-farm processors use an individual shackle on a rack or stand.

On-farm processors and small plants eviscerate manually with scissors, knife, or a handheld vent-cutter gun with a circular blade, and draw out the guts by hand. Large plants use automated machines that scoop out the guts; high-speed lines eviscerate 2,000 to 8,000 birds per hour (Barbut, 2002). These automated lines are usually designed for one species, and uniformity in size is very important for proper operation.

For State and Federal inspection, the guts usually remain attached. They can be separated but must remain alongside the bird so that the inspector can see both the inside and outside of the bird as they look for disease or other problems. Inspection requires bright light, a handwashing station, and places to put suspect birds and condemned birds (Barbut, 2002). A mirror on the backside of the bird allows the inspector to examine it without touching.

If the gut is torn, microbial contamination will occur. One gram of gut content can carry a billion bacteria (Barbut, 2002). In some countries, a spill results in the whole bird being condemned; in other countries, including the United States, washing is permitted. Small plants use spray bottles of chlorinated water to clean off fecal contents. In large plants in the United States, 2.5% of birds are condemned because of contamination. (A torn crop is also a source of contamination.) It is unknown how often the intestines tear during manual evisceration. Proper feed withdrawal before processing will help reduce tears; when the gut is full, it tears more easily. Feed should be removed from a house eight to 12 hours before processing to decrease the likelihood of contamination during evisceration.

The edible viscera or giblets (heart, liver, and gizzard) are collected. On-farm and small-plant processors peel the gizzards by hand. Many small processors simply discard the giblets. Others may collect giblets and sell them in bulk. However, inspection is required on all giblets before they can be sold. The lungs can be scraped out with a lung puller or a handheld gun used with a vacuum. Large plants automate harvesting of edible viscera and removal of lungs.

A pile-up of feathers and viscera can be a problem when processing a lot of birds. Some small plants have systems that expel the feathers from the picker to an outside container. Guts are collected in a trough and hauled away from the area in barrels. These are called “non-flow-away” systems. “Flow-away” systems in larger plants use water to remove feathers and guts continually.

Washing the Carcass

Washing can occur at different points in the slaughter process. The most common point is before chilling, when the carcass is washed inside and out. On-farm processors usually use hoses to wash. Small and large plants use food-grade hoses and sprayers. Large plants use additives to the water, such as chlorine, to reduce bacteria.


The carcass temperature must be lowered quickly to prevent microbial growth. The USDA requires that the temperature of the carcass be lowered to 40° F within four hours (for 4-pound broilers), six hours (4to 8-pound), and eight hours (greater than 8 pounds or turkey) (Sams, 2001). Soaking the carcass in chilled water is the most common method of chilling poultry in the United States.

On-farm processors use large plastic tubs filled with cold water and ice for chilling. Sometimes they have two tubs, using the first to remove the initial body heat, and the second to chill the carcass. Carcasses usually stay in the water for about one hour. Small-plant processors use food-grade plastic or stainless steel bins filled with ice, in which a slush forms as the ice melts. The drainage holes in the bottom can be opened and the water drained out, leaving only ice (Elliot, 2001).

Ice is an important supply issue for on-farm and small processors. Only potable water may be used to make ice that will be used in the chilling process. A rule of thumb is one pound of ice per pound of meat. For example, in a small plant designed for 500 birds per day, 2,000 pounds of ice would be required. An ice machine with a bin capacity of 1,800 pounds costs about $7,000 and has a recovery of 900 pounds per day. In order to process on consecutive days, a second ice maker would need to be mounted on the bin to allow sufficient recovery (Elliot, 2001). Bagged ice is an option for chilling, but may become costly over time and hard to transport. Crushed ice is more efficient than cubed ice, which always has pockets of warmth.

 Some on-farm processors use dairy equipment—bulk milk coolers with stainless steel tanks—for chilling carcasses. The tank never gets below 32°F, and a submersible fountain pump keeps the water circulating to ensure that chickens don’t freeze to the bottom.

Water chilling is used in most large plants. Carcasses are removed from shackles and put in large chill tanks filled with cold water. About one-half gallon of water is required per carcass for the initial tank of water (make-up water). Some chillers hold more than 300,000 gallons of water. They are either a through-flow type with paddles or rakes, or a counter-current-type with augers to move birds. The water is cooled to 32 to 39°F by a heat exchanger.

chill tank

Chill tank. Photo: NCAT

First, the carcasses are placed in a pre-chiller to cool them down gradually. The carcasses are warm (107°F) when they enter the pre-chiller (55 to 60°F), where they stay for 15 minutes. The carcasses are then moved to the chiller tank (32°F) and kept there for 45 minutes. Counter-currents are used so the carcass moves continually to colder, cleaner water. An overflow continually replaces water with clean water (1/2 gallon for each bird coming in). Air bubbles agitate the water to improve heat exchange.

Small processors put the carcass directly into an ice slush (32°F). Although, theoretically, cold shortening can occur, the skin pores close from the cold, reducing water uptake. Most small processors report only about 1% to 4% water uptake. In large plants, the chill water has chlorine added. Most small processors simply use city water or treated well water with negligible chlorine. Some believe that preventing a high uptake of chlorinated water can improve the quality and taste of poultry meat. Low uptake of water is an important distinction in the marketplace for on-farm and small processors.

Air Chilling

Air chilling of poultry is commonly practiced in Europe, Canada, and Brazil, and was once common in the United States, where air chilling is still the norm for beef, pork, and lamb. Air chilling takes longer than water chilling, usually at least two hours.

Air chilling takes place in an insulated room or tunnel in which the temperature is kept between 20 and 35° F by coolers in the ceiling (Owens, 2001). Air is blown from nozzles directly into the cavity of each bird or around it. An overhead track conveys the carcasses into the room. It saves labor to keep the birds on the shackles for chilling because there is no need to handle them, but sometimes they are removed and put in baskets or on racks. To prevent an upper layer of carcasses from dripping on a lower layer, the birds are usually not stacked. Heightened humidity or a water spray prevents the carcass from drying out. Evaporative chilling is a type of air chill in which water is sprayed on the carcass; water absorbs heat during evaporation.

Cold Shortening

Cold shortening is not a big problem with poultry since they have a fast rigor-mortis process (one to three hours after death) (Barbut, 2002). Large animals have a slower rigor process and therefore more problems with cold shortening. Theoretically, if you dunk a warm, freshly processed bird in 32°F water, the muscles will contract, resulting in tough meat; however, small processors who practice this type of chilling do not report a problem with tough meat and prefer to reduce temperature quickly.

Water Uptake

Gradual temperature reduction results in water uptake by the carcass. Most of this water is absorbed by the skin; not much goes into the meat. The cold water in the chiller seals the water gained during cooling into the carcass by closing the skin pores. USDA allows poultry to contain 8% to 12% water when sold. This regulation was developed in the past to compensate processors when excess water dripped out of packages and was lost during marketing. Nowadays, poultry meat is allowed to have 8% water in tray packs and 12% in bulk packaging, but broilers typically contain 6% water (Owens, 2001). It is obviously an advantage to poultry companies to have high moisture in their products, because it increases the weight—and the products are sold by weight. However, regulations require the moisture level to be printed on the label if the carcass was chilled using water after evisceration (USDA-FSIS, 2013).

Air-chilling equipment requires more space and uses more energy than water-chilling equipment and costs more. However, water use is low. Both types of chilling are effective and the choice depends on water availability, the market, and other factors (Barbut, 2002). Air-chilled poultry is usually sold fresh. Birds that are air chilled should be soft-scalded—if they are hard-scalded, the meat may discolor.

There is no water uptake with air chilling. In fact, there is water loss of 2 to 4%, and the outer skin is drier (Owens, 2001). Because air chill does not promote cold shortening as much as water does, a gradual temperature reduction is not as important. Birds encounter cold air in the first stage of entering the chiller (19 to 23°F). In the second stage, the air is warmer (25 to 30°F) (McKee, 2001).

Refrigerated rooms can be assembled from insulated panels and a “coolbot” device, or used coolers can be bought from restaurant supply companies at reasonable prices. Racks for air chilling poultry that prevent the carcasses from dripping on each other can be made or purchased.

Small poultry growers in the United Kingdom use 40-foot refrigerated trucks for air-chill. The trucks must be fitted with racks, but they already have blowers. Some growers remove the wheels for a stationary set-up; others keep the trucks mobile. Other types of refrigerated vehicles can also be used. For example, refrigerated containers for ocean transport hold potential for air-chill. Some are plug-in and some rely on diesel generators.

Cut-up, Deboning, and Further Processing

On-farm processors generally sell carcasses whole—they do not offer cut-up. In small plants, about 16% to 30% of the birds need to be cut up because of bruises, broken bones in the picker, and other damage (Elliot, 2001). U.S. customers are very accustomed to the convenience of cutup poultry and parts. In the industry, about 70% of poultry is sold as parts or further processed. Boneless, skinless breasts are a particularly popular product, and dark meat is exported overseas. Large plants use automated equipment to cut up, while small processors cut manually or use a saw.


Average yields for poultry carcasses without the feathers, blood, and viscera:
• 75% for broilers with giblets
• 65% for broilers without giblets
• 78% turkeys with giblets (due to the larger neck)

Cut-up includes removal of the wings, legs, and front halves (breast). Whole legs and leg quarters can be cut into thighs and drumsticks. Common cut-up configurations consist of eight pieces (wings, breasts, thighs, drumsticks). The wings can also be cut into drumettes. The remaining “backs” are a by-product and can be sold to make bone broth or pet food.

Small plants that debone manually place the whole bird on a cone and cut off the wings, breast, and legs. Breasts and thighs are commonly deboned in large plants with automated equipment. Meat should not be deboned for at least four hours, since rigor mortis is occurring, and deboning early would toughen the meat. (See the Aging section below.)

While the slaughter areas in large plants are kept at about 65 to 80°F, the temperature is 50°F or lower in further-processing areas. The cooler and the shipping dock are 34°F or lower.

“Further processing” includes not only cut-up and deboned, but also portioned, formed, cooked, cured, smoked, and brined products. Further processing seems like another world for most small processors today, but in the future it may be an important value-adding option for them. It’s important to note that further processing requires government inspection.

Portioning and sizing are important in the conventional industry, because many restaurants only want to buy uniform portions of meat.

Formed products are made by reducing the particle size of the meat, adding ingredients for flavor or functionality, tumbling to increase penetration of brine, and forming with a stuffer or mold. Some products are also coated with breading and cooked. Formed products include the following:

  • Whole (deli rolls and loaf); these have pieces that can still be recognized as meat.
  • Comminuted (chicken nuggets, patties); the pieces of meat have been chopped and are smaller; breast meat or deboned meat and skin are used.
  • Emulsified (hot dog, bologna, sausages); the pieces of meat are very small and, when mixed with fat and water, may not be recognizable as meat (Owens, 2001).

Curing and smoking are ancient ways of preserving meat that also contribute to flavor. Curing uses nitrites as a preservative. Smoking can be done without nitrites. Some small processors brine poultry. On-farm brining is usually done during chilling, but can also be done in the refrigerator. In kosher processing, the meat is salted to draw out all visible blood, because the Jewish dietary laws prohibit the eating of blood.


Tenderness is directly related to aging. Poultry meat needs to age for at least four hours before it is eaten or frozen, or it will be tough. This is because of rigor mortis—a temporary toughening—which is part of the process of muscle death, the natural biochemical process that converts the muscle to meat. Although the bird is dead, there is still energy in the muscle. The muscle cells continue metabolizing until this energy is used up, switching from aerobic metabolism to the less efficient anaerobic (without oxygen). Rigor mortis does not set in immediately after slaughter, but gradually as the muscles deplete their energy stores. “Cross bridges” form within the muscle structure, and the muscle cannot be extended. After a while, the muscle structure starts breaking down, and the muscle becomes flexible again (Barbut, 2002).

Rigor mortis is relatively brief in poultry; it is largely complete in four hours in chickens (six to eight hours in turkeys). Rigor is not fully complete for 24 hours, but tenderness only increases marginally after the initial four hours.

Rigor is dependent on temperature: at warmer temperatures, it occurs more quickly. However, carcass temperature must be kept low enough to prevent microbial growth.

Meat Quality

Biochemistry  Meat quality is affected by any stress the bird experiences during catching, loading, transport, unloading, and immobilization before slaughter. After death, when energy metabolism switches from aerobic to anaerobic, lactic acid will accumulate in the muscle until the glycogen (stored energy) is depleted or the pH becomes too low for enzymes to work (Barbut, 2002). Animals that were stressed before slaughter will have little glycogen in the muscles. The limited production of lactic acid, and high ultimate pH that result, make the meat dark, firm, and dry (Barbut, 2002). On the other extreme, the pH can drop quickly and produce pale, soft, exudative meat.


After the carcass is properly chilled, it is ready to be packed. On-farm processors usually don’t have to refrigerate or deliver. They sell their birds fresh, immediately after slaughter, to customers who come to the farm to pick them up. They usually put the chicken in a plastic bag, close it with a twist-tie, and weigh the package. Consumers of fresh poultry must eat or freeze the birds within six days.

Small processors also package in individual bags, but they usually shrink-wrap them. Dipping the bagged birds in hot water will cause the shrink-wrap to contract, removing the air.

Another popular option for small processors is to vacuum-bag poultry. The carcass, or cut-up parts, are put into a plastic bag and go into a machine that removes any extra air and seals the package tightly. Poultry packaged via vacuum sealing are easy to label and freeze. Vacuum-bagging machines are now easy to find and can be purchased from most commercial kitchen equipment stores. The shelf life of vacuum-packed poultry is usually five to 12 days (Barbut, 2002).

In addition to individual packaging, small processors can also pack birds on ice in plastic crates that the customers return.

Dry tray packs—good for retail trade (in display cases)—may be an option for small processors. The bird is placed on a pad in a Styrofoam tray, which is wrapped with plastic film and heat-sealed. However, this type of packaging is not suitable for freezing (Elliot, 2001).

Scales that print out a label when the package is weighed are available. Producers should choose labels designed for cooler and freezer use so they won’t fall off.


On-farm processors store the carcasses for their customers in refrigerators or freezers. If storage is limited, it is best not to slaughter too many birds at a time. Loading birds that have not chilled to 40°F in your refrigerator or freezer may drive up the temperature and allow microbes to grow on the carcass. One option is to rent freezer space at another location.

Although U.S. consumers are accustomed to buying poultry fresh, freezing will extend the shelf life. Meat does not freeze until it gets below 28° F because of its salt content, which suppresses the freezing point. Poultry meat kept above 26° F can still be marketed as fresh (Sams, 2001).

Frozen poultry will stay flavorful for about six months, but after that it may become rancid. Don’t store poultry for more than 12 months (Barbut, 2002). Freezing does not kill all the microbes; some will survive and grow after thawing.

Storage recommendations:

  • At 10°F, limit storage to two months.
  • At -0.4°F, limit storage to four months.
  • At -11°F, limit storage to eight months.
  • At -22°F, limit storage to 10 months (Barbut, 2002).

The rate of freezing affects the meat:

  • Slow freezing (three to 72 hours) results in large ice crystals, which damage cells and membranes. Upon thaw, there is more drip loss.
  • Fast freezing, which lowers temperature to -22°F in 30 minutes, results in small crystals (Barbut, 2002).

Methods of freezing poultry include the following:

  • Still air is a slow method used by home freezers.
  • Blast freezing uses cold air circulated by fans for rapid air movement. The industry uses blast freezing to form a frozen crust on a product to insulate it.
  • Liquid immersion or spray immerses the product in a freezing liquid (Barbut, 2002).

The packaging material used for frozen meat should be strong because the meat will dehydrate and get freezer burn if exposed to cold air (Barbut, 2002). Some bags are made for cooler use and some for freezer use. The material should be moisture-proof and stretchable so that it will cling to the meat (Barbut, 2002). If meat will be frozen for a long time, it is better to vacuum-pack it. This removes the insulating air, makes a skin-tight package, and prevents water evaporation and ice formation inside. Removing the oxygen also helps reduce oxidation and rancidity (Barbut, 2002).

Bone darkening is sometimes seen in young chickens after freezing. “This shows as a dark/ bloody appearance of the tips of the bones and muscle areas close to bone. Myoglobin squeezed out from the bone marrow, through the relatively porous bone structure of young chicken, during the freezing process causes this” (Barbut, 2002). It is usually seen around the leg, thigh, and wing bones, and is unappealing to consumers (Barbut, 2002).


On-farm processors usually clean with water hoses, using hot water and soap, followed by a water rinse and a sanitizing rinse. Small and large plants clean with pressure washers, and water is disposed of through a center drain on the floor of each room. When processing under inspection, written sanitation procedures are required.

Waste Management

Waste from processing includes offal, feathers, and blood and on-farm processors usually compost their waste. ATTRA’s Farm-Scale Composting publication provides a list of information resources and suppliers.

Small plants usually pay rendering companies to pick up barrels of waste, often at a flat rate (the same price whether they pick up one barrel or several). Because of the high expense, some processors are considering switching to large-scale composting or to incineration.


A lot of water is used in processing, especially for scalding, washing carcasses, chilling, and clean up. Large plants use about eight gallons per bird. The wastewater “cannot simply be discharged into lakes and rivers because of the relatively high content of organic matter such as protein and fat and the microorganisms present” (Barbut, 2002).

On-farm processors often apply the wastewater to a garden. Small-plant processors may discharge into a municipal sewage system, but a municipality can charge high fees for treating water with a lot of organic matter. Some initial treatment at the plant will lower this cost. In fact, most large plants—and some small ones—have extensive water-treatment facilities. At large plants, water and its associated treatment as waste costs $5.00 per 1,000 gallons (Sams, 2001).

Treating wastewater starts with screening out big chunks and ends with the breakdown of dissolved organic matter by microorganisms. Treatment methods must be able to handle fluctuations in waste load, which can vary depending on what is occurring in the plant (e.g., slaughter, clean-up, or downtime). Treatment also takes into consideration the use of cleaning agents in the plant.

When planning waste management, it is critical to be aware of Federal, State, and county regulations regarding waste disposal.

Equipment and Supplies

Since birds are small, processing them doesn’t require a saw, track, or other heavy-duty equipment needed for slaughtering larger animals. Equipment used by on-farm processors includes poultry crates, killing cones, scalder, thermometer, picker, stainless steel eviscerating tables or shackles, and a chill tank. Plastics, including the water hoses, should be food-grade.

Large-scale plants use costly automated equipment that is highly specialized. Industry magazines list equipment suppliers. An Internet search for poultry processing equipment will also yield suppliers and prices.

Small equipment and supplies include sanitizers, brushes, soap, paper towels, buckets, pans, brooms, mops, knives, pinning knives, lung puller, ice, scales, bags, staples, clips, plastic gloves, metal mesh gloves, hair nets, aprons, and rubber boots.

Processing Diverse Species

Because they slaughter manually, on-farm and small-plant processors can handle a wide variety of poultry. In addition to broilers, they may process large roasters and stew hens and small Cornish game hens, or other poultry species, such as turkeys, ducks, geese, quail, squab, guineafowl, and pheasant. In contrast, large plants cannot handle much diversity because their automated equipment fits one size only.

Turkeys vary widely in size, from small hens weighing 17 pounds to big toms weighing more than 40 pounds. Turkeys are also very heavy, an important consideration for manual slaughter, especially if you do not have an overhead track. Feathers and crops are harder to remove, and more ice is required. Large birds such as turkeys will take up more space in the scalder and picker, which will increase the time it takes to process an entire flock.

Batch vs. Continuous Processing

Birds are processed in batches during manual processing on the farm and at small plants. Processors usually do one activity at a time. For example, all the birds may be killed, eviscerated, and chilled during the first hours of operation, and packaged during the last hours. Workers usually perform a variety of duties. On the other hand, large plants use automated, in-line equipment for continuous processing, killing birds throughout the day. Workers usually perform only one duty over and over.

A typical on-farm processing setup

A typical on-farm processing setup. Photo: NCAT

Processing Rate

The rate of processing depends on the workers, the equipment, and the set-up. The workers’ level of proficiency is especially important. Eviscerating is usually the most time-consuming part of manual processing, but an experienced worker can eviscerate two birds per minute. Manual cutup and deboning requires skilled labor.

The type of equipment you buy depends on your chore cycle: whether you process a few birds often or a lot of birds infrequently. However, if the scalder is too small, it will cause a bottleneck down the line.

There are other limiting factors. If your overhead track is not motorized, the speed at which the plant operates will be no more than the speed of the slowest person. Is your cooler or freezer large enough to allow you to process daily? Can you empty it daily? Set-up is discussed in the next section.

Typical processing rates:

  • Working alone with minimal equipment: six birds per person per hour.
  • Using equipment that handles at least four birds at a time: 15 birds per person per hour.

Good layout, design, and standard operating procedures in a small plant can improve efficiency. The rates for equipment are sometimes given in terms of eviscerating speed. When evaluating processing rates, find out what the estimate includes. Is it for evisceration only, “kill-to-chill,” or does it also include set-up, packing, storing, clean up, and paperwork time?

Processing Setup

Processing can be done on-farm, in a mobile processing unit, or in a processing plant.

On-Farm Setup

On-farm processors usually work outdoors, under a tree or in a shed. They use existing out-buildings or build a dedicated area, often just a concrete pad with a shed roof. These are generally not enclosed areas and are rarely screened to keep out insects. Crews needed for a typical processing day are anywhere from one to six people.

An on-farm processing setup usually includes a combination of new, used, and homemade equipment. Costs range from $100 to $500 for minimal equipment up to $4,000 for a specialty line for pastured poultry production.

Upgrading equipment is a common strategy for on-farm processors. Many start out with minimal equipment, sell it, and buy a better set of equipment. It is usually not difficult to resell used equipment.

On-farm facilities have limitations. The facility lies unused for several months of the year, because it is too cold in winter to process outdoors. Also, it is not legal in some states to sell meat from on-farm facilities. Check with your state’s department of agriculture to learn where farm-processed meat can be sold.

Mobile Processing Unit (MPU) Setup

MPUs are a way for producers to work cooperatively, sharing equipment and labor, with portable equipment such as a scalder, plucker, and sink, mounted on a trailer. Many MPUs are cooperatively owned by a group of producers and coordinate the scheduling of its use. Trailers can also be enclosed to better control the climate and satisfy local regulations. Most MPUs operate under the USDA on-farm processing exemption. While these units allow more farms access to processing, potential markets can be limited due to the restrictions on where exempt meat can be sold. Most MPUs are capable of processing 50 to 500 birds per day. Special considerations needed include on-farm water and electrical hookups, a vehicle that can tow the unit, and a way to chill or freeze the poultry afterward.

Small Plant Setup

Small plants are generally specialized buildings; however, some small plants are former dairy parlors or other renovated buildings.

The USDA used to print construction guidelines for plants intending to operate under inspection. However, the USDA no longer makes priorapproval decisions. It now relies on the company, through the company’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan, to produce a product under sanitary conditions.


Barbut, Shai. 2002. Poultry Processing Systems. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL.

Beck-Chenoweth, Herman. 1996. Free-Range Poultry Production and Marketing. Back Forty Books, Creola, OH. Black, Karen. 2002. Re: processing knife. E-mail posting to PasturePoultry listserver. January 13.

Dhladhla, Vusumuzi. 1992. Economics of Establishing a Low-Volume Poultry Processing Plant: A Computer Application Design. Ph.D. Dissertation. Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.

Elliot, Luke. Pastured poultry producer in Fox, Arkansas. Personal communication with author, 2001.

Kimball, Herrick. 2002. Anyone Can Build a Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker.

Kip Glass. 2001. Re: Chilling birds. E-mail posting to PasturePoultry listserver. September 25.

McKee, Shelly. 2001. Chilling difference. WATT Poultry USA. January. p. 18, 20, 22-23.

Mead, G.C. 1989. Processing of Poultry. Elsevier Science Publishing Co., Inc., New York, NY.

Mountney, George J., and Carmen R. Parkhurst. 1995. Poultry Products Technology. 3rd Edition. Food Products Press, New York, NY.

Nielsen, V.C. 1989. In: Processing of Poultry (ed. G.C. Meade). p. 361-412. Elsevier Applied Science, New York, NY.

Owens, Casey. 2001. University of Arkansas, Poultry Science Department, Fayetteville, AR. Personal communication.

Plamondon, Robert. 2001. Re: Processing speed. E-mail posting to PasturePoultry listserver. May 17.

Plamondon, Robert. 2002a. Re: Cleanliness. E-mail posting to PasturePoultry listserver. February 13.

Plamondon, Robert. 2002b. Re: Domestic Water Storage. E-mail posting to PasturePoultry listserver. February 14. Salatin, Joel. 1993. Pastured Poultry Profits. Polyface, Swoope, VA.

Sams, Alan R. (ed.). 2001. Poultry Meat Processing. CRC Press, New York, NY.

Tanner, James Jerrel. 1969. A Wastewater Characterization of the Poultry Processing Industry. MS thesis, University of Arkansas.

USDA-FSIS, 2013. Water in Meat and Poultry.

Further Resources

Most small processors recommend learning from an experienced processor. See ATTRA’s List of Available Internships for a listing of farmers seeking interns; some of the farmers process poultry.

Books on backyard poultry production describe the on-farm butchering process, especially the evisceration. Pastured Poultry Profits, by Virginia poultry producer Joel Salatin, Includes photographs that show how to eviscerate.

Some Extension materials that offer how-to information for on-farm slaughter include:

Information on low-volume processing on a small commercial scale is hard to find. A Ph.D. dissertation titled Economics of Establishing a Low-Volume Poultry Processing Plant, written by Michigan State University student Vusumuzi Dhladhla, examines four plants: with capacities of 200, 350, 500, and 1,200 birds per hour.

Books about processing in large plants offer useful information:

  • Poultry Meat Processing, by Alan R. Sams
  • Poultry Products Technology, by George J. Mountney and Carmen R. Parkhurst
  • Processing of Poultry, by G.C. Mead
  • Poultry Processing Systems, by Shai Barbut

As the number of small poultry plants grows, trade associations can help further their interests.

The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) is a trade association for producers of eggs and poultry meat in the United States. The organization provides a network for producers to share information with other members.

The Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network is a network of small and specialty processors who share information and knowledge on the subject. The network operates a listserv and a website with archived information.

Small-Scale Poultry Processing
By Anne Fanatico, NCAT Agriculture Specialist May 2003
Updated by Kevin Ellis, NCAT Agriculture Specialist August 2017
Slot 233

This publication is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

A grey bunny

Small-Scale Sustainable Rabbit Production

Small-Scale Sustainable Rabbit Production

By Anne Fanatico and Camille Green, NCAT Agriculture Specialists


This publication provides an introduction to small-scale rabbit production, focusing on meat rabbits and sustainable rabbit management.

New Zealand White rabbits

New Zealand White rabbits. Photo: Piotr Bizior, www.bizior.com


Rabbit Uses
Case Study: Seely’s Ark
Further Resources
Appendix 1: Sample Budget


Rabbits are raised for many different uses, and they can play an important role in a small sustainable farming operation. While the most common use in agricultural industries is for meat, rabbits also are raised for pelts, manure, show, and laboratory use. Rabbit meat is high in protein and low in fat, calories, and cholesterol when compared to most of the meats eaten in the United States (Samkol and Lukefahr, 2008).

On the international market, European countries account for the majority of rabbit production, while China ranks second (Samkol and Lukefahr, 2008); however, rabbit production has recently gained attention as an effective means of alleviating poverty in developing countries (Lukefahr, 2008). In the United States, the meat rabbit industry was more significant around the time of World War II but has since declined. In recent years, a new movement of commercial rabbit production has increased for a handful of reasons: niche markets, feasibility of ecological management, and as a component of the Slow Food movement.

While raising rabbits is a labor-intensive endeavor, there are many reasons to consider doing so on a small farm: rabbits are quiet and small, their meat is nutritious, litters are large with short generation intervals (meaning a quick economic return), rabbits can eat waste materials, and they are efficient at extracting protein from forage (Samkol and Lukefahr, 2008). Furthermore, organic rabbit production is a relatively untapped market. Rabbit meat has great potential to feed economically disadvantaged people and could be promoted in the United States as a healthful, natural meat and a small farm asset.

Rabbit Uses

Rabbit meat is fine-grained, lean, and mild and it can be cooked much like poultry. Meat rabbits are either sold as fryers (young rabbits at or below four or five pounds) or as stewers (older rabbits with tougher meat) (USDA-APHIS-VS, 2002). Rabbit meat is lower in fat, cholesterol, and calories than beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and turkey, while being comparable in protein (Lukefahr et al., 1998).

Rabbit manure can be a great garden fertilizer and compost ingredient, since it can be a relatively high source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, as well as a source of secondary nutrients (Kelly and Crouse, no date; Lukefahr et al., 1998). Worms can be raised in the rabbit manure to produce fishing bait and worm castings (Hemenway, 2009), and the manure can be used as a nitrogen source in thermophillic compost.


Two medium-size breeds, the New Zealand White (NZW) and the Californian, are the most important for meat production. They have white fur that is difficult to see if a few pieces are stuck to the carcass, and they have higher meat-to-bone ratios (Spencer, 2011). The NZW is considered the best breed overall, considering mothering ability and carcass characteristics. However, crossing male Californians to female NZWs and then breeding the female from this cross back to male Californians results in larger litter sizes and heavier fryers than using straight NZWs.

Other meat breeds include Californian, Champagne d’ Argent, English Spot, and Flemish Giant, but these may not receive a premium price because of the colored fur. A relatively new hybrid breed developed from crosses of Flemish Giant, Champagne d’Argent, and Californian named the Altex (a combination of Alabama and Texas, as the breed was developed between Alabama and Texas A&M), has been bred for commercial viability. This breed is more heat-tolerant and gains more weight quicker than other breeds—reaching up to 10 to 20 pounds.

Breeds developed for fur include American Chinchilla, Checkered Giant, Silver Marten, and Rex. the Angora was developed for wool and meat. Laboratory breeds include Dutch, English Spot, Himalayan, and Polish (Shaeffer et al., 2008). Pet breeds include Holland Lop, Polish, Dutch, and Mini Lop (www.arba.net). There are many other breeds of domestic rabbit that are raised for meat, show, laboratory use, and fur and wool production.


Rabbit housing depends on the scale and purpose of the operation. Rabbit Housing: Hutches, Cages, Wires by James McNitt is useful for planning and designing housing (see Further Resources). While there are many rabbit housing designs, McNitt points out a handful of basic requirements: comfort for rabbits, protect rabbits from predators and prevent them from escaping, protect rabbits from extreme weather, allow easy access to the rabbits, be easy to clean or “self-cleaning,” and, lastly, affordable to build and maintain (McNitt, 2009). It is economical to make use of any outbuildings already available on a property. Even a lean-to in warm areas can provide a roof to keep out the rain and sun, but dogs and predators could be a problem if they are not fenced out. An experienced producer with a stable market may want to build a specialized building. In areas with mild climates, housing can be open-walled (for example, a long, narrow A-frame with a walkway down the middle and a row of cages on either side with roll-down plastic curtains or hinged boards for cold weather). In cold regions where there are prolonged periods below freezing, buildings need to be enclosed to prevent drafts and conserve body heat. Heating is usually not necessary since rabbits have thick fur coats. However, drafts in cold weather can be a problem, particularly for newborn kits in the nest box. In fact, backyard producers often do not breed rabbits in the wintertime. Unheated rabbitries risk freezing of water supplies in cold weather. Even if the lines are heated, the watering nipples can still freeze.

Hot weather is even more of a concern than cold weather. With high humidity and temperatures above 90°F, adult rabbits overheat. Rabbits are ideally kept where the temperature can be maintained at 62°F.

In any type of building, ventilation is very important in reducing ammonia buildup and helping the animals stay cool during hot periods. Open-walled buildings can be ventilated by natural air flow. An enclosed building will require fan-assisted ventilation, and in hot areas, cool cells or foggers can help cool the building. Single levels of cages are easier to ventilate and cool than stacked rows of cages.

Commercial rabbitries normally house animals in all-wire cages suspended above the ground. The cages are hung at a height convenient for the producer, usually at waist level. Manure pellets fall through the wire bottom to the ground instead of remaining in the cage, preventing coccidiosis— a parasitic infection spread by contact with the manure. The manure accumulates on the ground or in specially dug pits, often sand-lined, until the manure is removed by wheelbarrow, tractor, or, in some cases, an automatic scraper.

Quonset-style cages are rounded on top and save on wire material. the placement of the doors on quonset cages allows for easy access to the rabbits (it is easier to reach into quonset than square-style cages). However, it is important to ensure rabbits have sufficient space. While building or designing rabbit housing, remember that rabbits tend to gnaw, especially on wood.

If plastic water lines are used to deliver water, attach them to the outside of the cage so the rabbits cannot chew them.

On a backyard scale, a small, free-standing unit (called a hutch) can be built to house a few animals outside. Various publications that give designs are listed in Further Resources.

The Polyface Farm has developed a mixed rabbitry and chicken coop in which rabbits are suspended above the chickens, as well as a mobile hutch that acts similar to a chicken tractor. Raising rabbits above laying hens allows the manure to be processed by the chickens, so the hens get whatever nutrients are left over, and ammonia does not build up. the mobile pen allows for a reduction in purchased feed.

Toby Hemenway describes a system where an open box is placed underneath an elevated rabbit hutch. the box is lined with up to six inches of shredded newspaper and peat moss or dry leaves, and collects manure, urine, and spilt food. After the box is relatively full, red worms are added to the mix and then covered. A second box is set out underneath the hutch, and by the time it is ready for worms, the first box of compost should be finished (Hemenway, 2009).


Rabbits eat only plants and are classified as non-ruminant herbivores. They recycle feed by re-ingesting the cecotropes. Cecotropes are small particles of digested food that collect in the cecum (hindgut), which the rabbit excretes once a day and then consumes. Cecatropes are sometimes called “night feces” and look softer than the round, hard pellets usually seen. Rabbits require high-fiber diets, which are bulky and low in density, unlike poultry or swine (Lukefahr et al., 2004). While purchasing commercial feed is common in commercial operations, there is an increasing amount of research being conducted on forage-based rabbits and other self-sustaining means of feeding the herd.

Commercial Pellets

Rabbits are usually fed a commercial pelleted diet that is balanced in the necessary nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals). These diets contain alfalfa, grain (barley, wheat mill by-products), protein supplements (soybean meal), vitamins, and mineral supplements.

With a small operation, it may be economical to reduce the amount of pellets by feeding rabbits available greens. Greens and succulents include fresh legumes (alfalfa, clover), grasses, vegetables (lettuce, celery), roots and tubers (carrots, potatoes), weeds (dandelions), and comfrey. Clean table scraps that fit into these categories are also acceptable. If greens complement a pelleted diet, the amount of pellets can be reduced by 50% without lowering rabbit production. However, since fresh greens are about 80% to 90% water, it is difficult to raise rabbits solely on these materials because they are not nutrient-dense. Over-feeding of fresh greens may also cause indigestion.


Rabbits can be pastured in outdoor pens placed on the ground, which allows them to harvest their own fresh forage. Fryers can be kept in outdoor pens with wooden slats or chicken wire on the floor to prevent the rabbits from digging out of the pen. Pens are moved daily to fresh pasture, and the rabbits are provided with concentrate feed. Ideally, rabbits won’t graze the same area of pasture again for at least six months to prevent the spread of coccidiosis.

An example of a movable outdoor pen designed for forage.

An example of a movable outdoor pen designed for forage. Photo: NCAT

There are many different production models for raising rabbits on pasture. Some producers choose for rabbits to be born and raised to weaning indoors. The weaned rabbits are then moved to portable cages on pasture. Rabbits raised on pasture may take longer to reach slaughter weight. Rabbits that have been bred for commercial confinement production may not perform well on pasture. You may have to spend time experimenting with breeds and breeding to find the type of animal that best fits your production system. As with any livestock, you should purchase breeding stock that has been raised in a similar manner to your production system. So if you are raising rabbits on pasture, it is in your best interest to buy stock from another pasture producer instead of stock that has been raised indoors and fed only a commercial feed ration.

Growing local feed for rabbits is also an option. Research has been conducted on using water spinach, sweet potato, cassava foliage, mulberry leaves, and other plants and found that such crops can replace or be combined with conventional feed ingredients (Samkol and Lukefahr, 2008). Another study claims that growing sweet potato forage along with a small amount of cereal grain for an energy supplement can be a self-sustaining program for a small farm (Lukefahr et al., 2010).

Homemade Diets

Instead of a commercial pelleted diet, producers can mix their own feedstuffs, especially if they grow or purchase their own feed ingredients. Before commercial pellets were available, people often raised rabbits on a diet of alfalfa hay and white oats. This is an acceptable diet if salt licks are also provided.

A legume hay such as alfalfa or clover provides high protein and fiber and can be included at a level of about 50% to 60% of the total diet. A concentrate for energy (grains such as oats or barley) is needed at a level of about 20% to 30%. The grain should be rolled or ground to facilitate digestion. Feeding too much grain can cause a carbohydrate overload in the hindgut and the animal may die from enteritis (diarrhea). Grain by-products that are high in fiber, such as wheat bran or wheat mill run, are also good options. Adding hay to increase fiber and decrease the amount of grain fed will also reduce enteritis. A small amount of protein concentrate such as soybean meal or sunflower meal at about 10% of the diet ensures adequate protein. Rabbit diets need to have about 16% to 17% crude protein, as well as mineral supplements or salt spools.

The grain and hay ingredients mentioned above are relatively dry (only about 10% moisture). Rabbits do not relish eating a powder-dry mixture. If the mixture is moistened with feed-grade molasses, it will be more palatable to the animals. If the alfalfa or other forage is in hay form, it can be offered separately.

More feed wastage can occur with non-pelleted rations than with pelleted rations. The rabbits may feed selectively, and the cage bottom and ground below can become littered with hay. Keep this in mind when considering the cost-effectiveness of feeding home-mixed rations rather than commercial pellets. It may be possible to have a feed mill custom mix a pellet ration.

Having a balanced ration ensures that diets contain the proper amount of nutrients for rabbits during different stages of growth or reproduction. The book Rabbit Feeding and Nutrition (see Further Resources) includes a section on ration balancing and nutrient requirements.


An important part of reproductive management is taking the female (doe) to the male’s (buck’s) cage. Otherwise, the buck would spend his time marking new territory in the doe’s cage instead of breeding. Breeding should occur within about one minute. If it does not occur, the doe should be removed and the process should be tried again in a few days. The doe should not be left in with the buck for long periods of time because they may fight. Rabbits do not have a heat cycle like many animals do—rabbits ovulate after mating.

The doe’s abdomen may be palpated 10 to 14 days after breeding to see if she is pregnant. The embryos are round and feel like grapes (Gill, 2004). Birth of the kits (kindling) occurs in 31 days with NZWs. A nest box with wood shavings or other bedding material is placed in the doe’s cage at 29 days so she can pull fur and build a nest.

It is a good policy to breed several does on the same day in order to be able to divide large litters at kindling among the does. NZWs make good foster mothers. Being touched by human hands at birth does not harm the kits or cause the mother to reject them. Eight or nine kits with each NZW mother are an appropriate number. Cannibalism by the mother is often due to poor nutrition, but sometimes it may have no apparent cause.

Rebreeding can take place about one and a half months after kindling for four to five litters per year. Kits are generally weaned at 30 days of age; however, if the doe is rebred at one and a half months after kindling, the kits can be left with their mothers for up to two months. This is a particularly useful practice if cage space is limited. With top nutrition and management, some producers wait only one to seven days after kindling to rebreed the doe for maximum production (up to 11 litters per year). However, does may require a rest after three or four breedings at this accelerated rate. A good doe sends an average of 50 fryers a year to market. Young rabbits (fryers) should be separated by gender after 12 weeks to prevent fighting and inbreeding.


It is important to keep production records in order to know when to carry out crucial activities such as putting in the nest box, and to aid in choosing the best replacement stock. Ear tags or tattoos are necessary with large numbers of rabbits. Sanitation is very important. When fur and dust accumulate on cages, they can be removed by burning with a propane torch. Nest boxes should be cleaned and disinfected after use (one ounce of bleach to one gallon water is a good cleaning solution).


Mastitis, or inflammation of the mammary glands, is a common disease in rabbits but it is treatable with antibiotics. The bacteria Pasteurella causes snuffles and pneumonia; chronic Pasteurella sufferers should be culled from the herd. Rabbits showing overgrown teeth, those developing sore hocks, and poor producers should also be culled.

If antibiotics are used to treat disease, a withdrawal period is required before slaughter to ensure that residues have cleared the animal’s system. Since antibiotics and hormones are not routinely used in rabbit production, the meat is especially appropriate for natural and organic markets.


Rabbits that receive good nutrition reach a market weight of four to five pounds live weight within 10 to 12 weeks and are marketed as fryers. It may take longer to reach market weight with poorer nutrition. Older rabbits (usually above six pounds) culled from the herd are less valuable due to tough meat and are marketed as stewers.

Rabbit processing generally consists of stunning or killing the animal, hanging it to bleed, removing the head, removing feet and tails, removing skins, eviscerating, washing the carcass, chilling the carcass in a water tank or refrigerated room, aging the carcass under refrigeration, and packaging.

In a plant, an automated line reduces labor for rabbit processing compared to a manual overhead track but is subject to possible electrical breakdowns and other problems. If you are planning to establish a USDA-inspected plant, contact the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). There is very little information available on building plans for rabbit processing; however, much of the equipment is very similar to or the same as poultry-processing equipment. Also, since rabbits are not classified as livestock, USDA inspection is voluntary (USDA-APHIS, 2002).

Under voluntary federal inspection, each rabbit and its organs are inspected to ensure it is wholesome, free from disease, and slaughtered under USDA poultry regulations. Voluntary inspection of rabbits (along with game meats) is handled under the Agricultural Marketing Act (USDA-FSIS, 2006). Since rabbit inspection is voluntary, the federal government does not pay for inspection and the producer must cover the costs. According to the USDA-FSIS (2006), when rabbit is not voluntarily inspected, the processor is subject to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspection under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Some states only permit the sale of rabbit if it is inspected under state laws. Contact the USDA-FSIS for information on regulations in your state. Also check with any states to which you plan to ship rabbit meat.

Products other than meat include breeding stock, manure fertilizer, and worm production from the manure. Some processors sell “biologicals” after slaughter—such as brains and blood—to pharmaceutical companies.


Marketing rabbits can be difficult and frustrating because there are few processors who buy live rabbits, and supply and demand can be unstable. In the wintertime, producers may have a more difficult time raising rabbits and supply is therefore limited. In the summertime, supply can become glutted. A market report from the American Rabbit Breeders Association is available. This report includes the names and addresses of processors, along with information on current prices paid for fryers and stewers.

Direct Marketing

The United States does not have a history of rabbit consumption. However, there is untapped potential, especially for the natural and organic markets. ATTRA can provide more information on organic production and certification.

Direct marketing requires extra time and effort for the producer but provides the opportunity to produce a high-quality product, educate the consumer, and develop customer loyalty.

In establishing a direct market, you can start with producing meat for family or selling to neighbors and friends. Providing free samples to businesses patronized by the producer, at county fairs, and similar venues can acquaint potential customers with the product. Advertising through newspaper, radio, flyers, brochure, and the Internet can be effective. Some farms send out a newsletter to past customers describing activities at the farm and emphasizing the quality of their products.

Education helps to build a loyal customer base. Presentations to local organizations and civic groups may attract consumers interested in lowering fat and cholesterol in their diets. New social media tools can also engage consumers with the farming operation. Customer bases include local health food stores or grocery stores interested in carrying farm-fresh products (these usually require a steady supply), farmers markets, and restaurants.

Besides the sale of meat, rabbits can also be raised and sold for pets and show animals.

Thousands of youth across the country participate in 4-H rabbit projects and shows. Raising rabbits for these purposes is very different than raising them for slaughter. There are dozens of recognized breeds. If you are selling rabbits for show, you must pay special attention to the various characteristics specific to a particular breed.

A Rabbit Field Day at a school could provide the opportunity for people to handle live rabbits, sample rabbit meat prepared in different recipes, get pamphlets about rabbit production and qualities of the meat, and see exhibits of crafts that can be made from rabbit products, such as rugs from the pelts and rabbit foot key chains. Rabbit producers may be able to coordinate with 4-H groups or the Cooperative Extension Service in order to carry out a project of this kind.


The U.S. rabbit industry has many challenges. Rabbit meat is high in cost compared to other livestock and should be considered a luxury meat. Feasibility studies and business planning are necessary if you are planning to invest money in rabbit production. Raising rabbits is a business a producer should grow into gradually as experience increases and management improves. In many ways, rabbits are more suited for small-scale production than large-scale, industrial production.

It is difficult to automate rabbit production because does must be housed individually due to territorial behavior. Their feed costs can be high because they require a high-fiber, low-energy diet that costs more to produce than typical corn and soybean diets fed to poultry and swine. For example, alfalfa is an excellent feed for rabbits but it is expensive. However, qualities that make rabbits less suitable for industrial production make them more suitable for small-scale production. They can eat forages, hay, garden waste, and high-fiber milling by-products like wheat bran, and they can be an important part of a diversified farm.

Case Study: Seely’s Ark

Beth Seely, of Seely’s Ark, a commercial meat rabbit operation in Florida, started with three does and one buck a little over 20 years ago. Today, she manages roughly 500 breeding does on 10 acres of land. Seely’s Ark initially marketed directly to high-end restaurants. Now, it is the only supplier of rabbit meat to Publix Super Markets, a quickly growing grocery chain in the South.

How did this successful rabbit farm get its start? Although Beth grew up on a dairy, her interest in rabbit farming didn’t begin until she moved back to the country after years in the city. “Then I caught the bug! I had to farm,” she recalls. Rabbits are an ideal livestock option for her because they do not require much land and are physically easier for her to handle than larger livestock. Beth started her farm with three does and one buck, and as the herd grew, so did her operation. She considers 500 breeding does to be as large as Seely’s Ark can get without hiring outside help.

Like any operation, Beth faces challenges, which, she says, generally relate to the time and labor required to be successful in rabbit husbandry, developing a year-round product, and dealing with a sometimes finicky market. Another major limiting factor is that there is little automated technology for rabbit production. With a 40-day reproduction cycle, the rabbits need a lot of attention, and the process can be time- and labor-intensive.

Seely’s Ark is primarily a meat operation, although they have experimented with other markets to varying degrees of success. Their location is too rural for there to be much of a pet industry, and they no longer sell rabbits to labs because the lab industry now requires rabbits that have been raised in sterile environments. They do sell some breeding stock, and because their line has been developed for best heat tolerance, they are even able to export some stock to Caribbean and Central American countries. For supplemental income, fishing worms are raised in bins underneath the suspended rabbit hutches.

While high temperatures have allowed Seely’s Ark to develop a unique rabbit operation that is successful in traditionally prohibitive conditions, they also have posed great challenges. In the early days of her operation, rabbit breeders in Beth’s region stopped breeding from June through November because temperatures simply got too hot for the rabbits, which is not only a danger to their health but can also slow their growth. Through different techniques—mainly what she attributes to the “right genetic material” and a breed of rabbit specifically developed for larger sizes and higher heat tolerance (Altex, along with the traditional New Zealand and Californian)— she is able to breed rabbits nearly year-round, ensuring a continual supply for market.

Rabbits at Seely’s Ark are fed a pelleted mix— developed in partnership with a local mill that now uses the same recipe as its shelf mix—that specifically takes into account the extremely high temperatures. The new mix is lower in carbohydrates, since a diet that is too high in carbohydrates can cause sickness and even death in a rabbit.

Beth admits that she has access to an ideal market— Florida has an ethnically diverse population, and most other countries don’t have the same issue with eating rabbit as does the United States. In the winter especially, with contingents of Canadians and Europeans who overwinter in Florida, there is a much higher retail demand for rabbit meat.

Growing into the commercial meat rabbit industry has had its ups and downs for Beth Seely— and certainly its share of challenges—but Seely’s Ark has been a consistently successful economic endeavor in a growing industry in the sustainable agriculture movement.


Gill, Charlie. 2004. . The art of palpation. Countryside Magazine. Sept/Oct.

Hemenway, Toby. 2009. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. Chelsea Green Publishing. White River Junction, VT. p. 171.

Kelly, Lelia Scott and Keith Crouse. No date. Organic and Inorganic Fertilizers and Materials for the Home Gardener. Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Lukefahr, Steven. 2008. Role of organic rabbit farming for poverty alleviation. Proceedings MEKARN Rabbit Conference: Organic rabbit production from forages. Cantho University, Vietnam. November 25-27.

Lukefahr, Steven, Joe Paschal, and John Ford. Cooperative Extension Services. 1998. Backyard Production of Meat Rabbits in Texas. Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Texas A&M, College Station, TX.

Lukefahr, Steven, P.R. Cheeke, J.I. McNitt, and N.M. Patton. 2004. Limitations of intensive meat rabbit production in North America: A review. Canadian Journal of Animal Science. Vol. 84, p. 349-360.

Lukefahr, Steven. 2012. The Rabbit Research Program at TAMUK. June 12.

Lukefahr, Steven, G. Schuster, K.G. McCuistion, T. Verma, R. Flores. 2010. Self-Sustaining Rabbit Projects: A Pilot Study Involving Feed of Sweet Potato Forage. Proceedings of the 4th Rabbit Congress of the Americas. Cordoba, Argentina.

McNitt, James. 2009.Southern University Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Baton Rouge, LA.

Samkol, P. and S.D. Lukefahr. 2008. A Challenging Role for Organic Rabbit Production Towards Poverty Alleviation in South East Asia. 9th World Rabbit Congress. Verona, Italy.

Shaeffer, Robert, Lynn Kime, and Jayson Harper. 2008. Agricultural Alternatives: Rabbit Production. Cooperative Extension Services. College of Agricultural Sciences, Pennsylvania State University, Park, PA.

Spencer, Robert. 2011. Cooperative Extension Service. 1997. Guidelines for Entry into Meat Rabbit Production: Rabbit Production 101. Alabama Cooperative Extension, Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities.

USDA-APHIS-VS. 2002. U.S. Rabbit Industry profile. United States Department of Agriculture/Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service/Veterinary Services, Centers for Epidemiology and Animal Health, Center for Emerging Issues, Fort Collins, CO.

USDA-FSIS. Rabbit From Farm to Table. Fact Sheet. 2006.

Further Resources

Online Resources and Websites

AWI’s Humane Husbandry Program Expands; Rabbits Hop onto the Scene. By Animal Welfare Institute.
Basic explanation of AWI’s Human Husbandry Program and how it relates to rabbits.

Breed Information – ALBC Conservation Priority List. 2012. By American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Don’t Tell the Kids. 2010. By Kim Severson. The New York Times. March 2.

Life as a Polyface Apprentice. Blog posting by apprentices at Polyface Farm.
Sample blogs include:
Butchering Rabbit
Hare Pen
Rabbits and Layers

Meat Rabbit Breeders. Online directory of meat rabbit breeders by state.
Also offers information about raising rabbits, and sells various supplies.

Rabbit – Meat Enterprise Budget. 2009. By Alabama Cooperative Extension.
A sample budget for rabbit meat production, in Microsoft Excel format.

Rabbit Production. 2010. Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station. Mississippi State University Extension Service.
This useful resource list identifies publications, fact sheets, and other resources.

Rabbits. 2012. By Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
A good resource on rabbit production that includes information on marketing and production, as well as case studies.

The Rabbit Research Program at TAMUK. 2012.
Gives an overview of the rabbit research program at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and lists different publications and resources.

Rabbits – From the Animal’s Point of View (Parts 1 through 5). 2009. By M. Smith, C.L. Meehan, and J.M. MA. University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, Oakland, CA.
A five-part curriculum developed for 4-H that can be downloaded free.

Voluntary Inspection of Rabbits and Edible Products Thereof. U.S. Law. 9 C.F.R. PART 354.
The voluntary rabbit inspection law.

Organizations, Associations, and Agencies

American Branch-World Rabbit Science Association (AB-WRSA)
The WRSA was created in Paris in 1976 to promote and exchange knowledge about rabbit sciences.

American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA)
ARBA has over 23,000 members in the United States, Canada, and abroad. Its website offers information and resources for rabbit breeders.

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
The USDA-FSIS website provides information to protect health through food safety and is easily searchable for information.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act page explains specifics of the act.

U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Marketing Service. 2002. United States Classes, Standards, and Grades for Rabbits. AMS 70.300 et seq.
U.S. standards and grade for rabbit meat. Includes a summary of standards of quality for carcasses and parts.

U.S. Department of Agriculture-Alternative Farming Systems Information Center. Rabbits. 2012.
A useful list that identifies publications and online resources for rabbit producers.

Books and Other Publications

Growth of fryers reared and (or) finished using controlled grazing in movable pens. 2003. By J. McNitt, R. Way, M. Way, and I. Forrester-Anderson. World Rabbit Science. Vol. 11, No. 4. p. 189-198.
Examines the productivity of fryers kindled in hanging wire cages and then finished on pasture, kindled and reared in a pasture pen, or kindled and reared in cages, as well as the feasibility of pasture raised rabbits.

Influence of open-air rearing on fatty acid composition and sensory properties of rabbit meat. 2004. By C. Cavani, M. Bianchi, M. Petracci, T.G. Toschi, G.P. Parpinello, G. Kuzminsky, P. Morera, A. Finzi, World Rabbit Science. Vol. 12, No. 4. p. 247-258.
This study examines the fatty acid (FA) composition of rabbit meat from rabbits raised in open-air moveable pasture hutches.

Rabbit Feeding and Nutrition. 1987. By Peter R. Cheeke. Academic Press, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN.
An extensive book that discusses the nutritional needs and feeding requirements of rabbits.

Rabbit Housing: Hutches, Cages, Wires. 2009. By James McNitt, PhD, Southern University Agricultural Research and Extension Center, Baton Rouge, LA.

Raising Meat Rabbits. 2005. By Cooperative Extension Services. Cornell Cooperative Extension, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
A short but useful fact sheet that includes an estimated budget worksheet.

Proceedings of the 8th World Rabbit Congress. 2004. Puebla, Mexico.
A collection of conference papers ranging from rabbit genetics to meat quality and processing.

Statistics on organic production of rabbits on grassland. 2002. By F. Lebas, L. Lebreton, and T. Martin. Cuniculture Paris. Vol. 164. p. 74-80.
Studies the profitability of organic pastured rabbits.

Individual Contacts

Beth Seely
Seely’s Ark
6151 NE 21st Ave
Ocala, FL 34479
The source of the case study, Beth Seely, is a wealth of information on rabbit production.

Appendix 1: Sample Budget

Sample Fryer Rabbit Budget
Based on 20 does and two bucks producing five litters per year (seven kittens per littler)
Expenses Quantity Price Total Your Estimate
Feed  5 tons $440/ton $2,200
Health program $25
Marketing $200
Supplies $50
Labor 150 to 200 hours
Replacement breeding stock $280
Buildings, cages, and handling facilities $750
Total Expenses (excluding labor) $3,505
Assumed production:
35 fryers x 20 does = 700 fryers marketed
700 x 5 pounds  each = 3,500 pounds
3,500 pounds x $1.20*/pound = $4,200
*For current market prices and to find a processor, see www.arba.net/processors.htm
Income $4,200
Expenses $3,505
Net Profit $695
Budget adapter from Shaeffer, R. and J. Harper. 2008. Rabbit Production. Pennsylvania State University; and Smith, Tom. No date. Commercial Rabbit Production. Mississippi State University.

Small-Scale Sustainable Rabbit Production
By Anne Fanatico and Camille Green, NCAT Agriculture Specialists
Published December 2012
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Version 120412