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Caponizing: Reviving a Lost Art

I wrote this brief introduction to caponizing for a couple of poultry/homesteading newsletters in August, 2004, making an addendum in December, 2004. I can’t believe it’s been that long since I did my caponizing experiment. I have not continued with the caponizing, but really want to do so. Clearly there is a lot of interest in the subject among homesteaders: This “caponizing” page is among those most frequently “hit” since the site went up three years ago, according to my site statistics analyzer. I will try valiantly to make the time to caponize another batch of cockerels next year, and will report on the results. ~September, 2007

While it is true that capons (surgically castrated male chickens) are still commercially available in specialty markets, the art of caponizing is largely lost on the homestead and small farm. I would like to take part in a revival of that lost art.

Recently (late June)—after years of dancing around the idea—I finally took the plunge and caponized a dozen young cockerels. Seven of them are still standing, out on our pasture, and are doing quite well. My wife and I are looking forward to having one of them in lieu of the traditional turkey this Thanksgiving. Though I do not produce commercially myself, I am not a casual backyard hobbyist: I produce all the dressed poultry we eat year-round. I turned to caponizing because I love roast chicken, but I hate working with Cornish Cross, the most widely raised fast-growing meat hybrid. I wanted a big, meaty, flavorful bird that would still be tender enough to roast. (Cornish Cross is big, meaty, and tender.) Perhaps other homesteaders will join me in reviving this almost-lost art. And perhaps those who raise poultry for sale will consider capons for targeting a niche market.

Caponizing has been practiced for thousands of years, by the Romans for example, as well as the ancient Chinese. As with castration of mammals, e.g., bull calves, the removal of testosterone-producing glands yields an animal that has better weight gain, is docile, and remains tender up to the day of slaughter. Unlike with mammals, the testicles in male birds are not held externally (easily accessible), but are deep within the body cavity, tucked up next to the spine. Taking them out is major surgery, and without question a major intimidation for the beginner. Even a rank beginner such as myself, however, is able to learn the technique “cold” (i.e., from a book rather than an experienced practitioner) and practice it successfully. Surgical kits for doing the operation are not difficult to obtain.

Capon production could be advantageous for pastured poultry farmers. Cockerels are always in plentiful supply and usually quite a bit cheaper than pullet chicks. The actual operation—once one has developed the necessary skills and had sufficient practice—takes little time, and the follow-up care is routine. The grow-out is much longer than for a meat hybrid broiler, of course, so an adequate price to cover the additional feed and management input would have to be forthcoming to justify the enterprise. Aside from the surgery itself and the longer grow-out, though, there is no element in the project that would be significantly different from raising broilers. Indeed, my seven capons are simply part of my general flock. (The recommendation in the literature is that they be raised separate from other birds. When raising larger numbers than I am, that would make sense.)

I will not give a detailed account here of my own experience with caponizing my birds. However, the following are a few general observations and conclusions.

I intend at some time to add a caponizing session to my current poultry workshop offerings. However, I cannot predict whether I will feel ready to do that by next year. I will need considerably more experience before I feel able to instruct while standing with a scalpel over the fragile inner workings of a living creature whose well-being is in my care.

Addendum, Dec 6, 2004:

I have now slaughtered three of my seven remaining capons. Unfortunately, all three turned out to be “slips.” A “slip” occurs when the removal of the testicle leaves behind a small amount of tissue, which grows. The bird may not be fertile, but he is not a full capon because there is testosterone in the system.

I am not particularly discouraged by these results, since I learned a lot from them. First, I caponized cockerels that were past the ideal age for the procedure—nine weeks rather than the recommended three to five. The testes in an older cockerel are larger and thus easier to locate; but they are softer and easier to tear. The testicle in a younger bird is smaller—a firm little kernel which, if grasped with the forceps, is certain to come out whole. Next year I plan to caponize at around four weeks.

Secondly, I learned how to spot the “slips” unfailingly: If there is any testosterone in the system at all, the combs and wattles will develop. Only a castrated bird with a completely hen-like head (perhaps with a comb even smaller than that on a hen of the same breed) is a full capon. (The hackle, saddle, and tail feathers may look more or less “male.”)

Of my remaining four castrated males, one is a slip, but three (a Buff Orpington and two Silver Grey Dorkings) are clearly full capons. I plan to grow them on for awhile longer, and to report after we have tried them at the table.

Addendum, January 2007

I remember that we ate the last of the capons—the Buff Orpington—at a year and a half age. He was quite tasty, though not quite as tender or juicy as I expected. Still, vastly more edible as a roaster than an intact cock of the same age would have been (tough as an old boot!). I look forward to raising more capons, and experimenting with proper cooking techniques.

There are various versions of caponizing kits available. The one I use is the NASCO Caponizing Kit (their Stock No. C10606N), available from many of the large poultry supply houses. I have found the surgical retractors rather difficult to use, but have no basis for comparing this kit with others that might be available.

People often inquire about instructional literature on caponizing. The truth is that not much is needed. The problem is not the complexity of the procedure itself, but getting up one's nerve to try it, and then, with practice, developing the skills needed to do it quickly and competently. The NASCO kit I bought comes with instructions (actually Leaflet No. 490, U. S. Department of Agriculture), which are completely adequate, assuming one has sufficient experience slaughtering chickens. I bought “Caponizing: Modern Management and Profitable Marketing,” by Loyl Stromberg. Like anything by Mr. Stromberg, one of the worst written and edited things you are likely to see in print, though it has information on the history of caponizing you may find interesting. Online, there is an instructional leaflet originally produced for Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1922.

Addendum, September 2007

The three most frequent questions I get about caponizing:

How do you achieve sterility? We've all seen the tense operating room dramas where all the doctors and nurses are garbed to the eyes in sterile gowns and masks and the last caution is taken to ensure that not a single stray germ can gain access to the surgery site. How can the homestead caponizer possibly create such a clinically sterile environment? The answer is that it is really not necessary to do so. The robustness of immune response of a well managed homestead flock is astounding, and your birds' recuperative powers are enormous. Of course, you should come as close as you can to reasonably sterile conditions. I use a stainless steel surface (the one on my slaughter table, actually), well cleaned and swabbed with alcohol or peroxide. I soak the tools of my surgical kit, and generously rub my hands and fingers, in the alcohol or peroxide between operations. This level of precaution is sufficient. You are far more likely to lose a bird to stress brought on by your beginner's lack of skill, than to infection.

Do you sew up or bind the incision? No, sewing or binding the incision through which the testicles are extracted has never been a part of caponizing. The incision is made between the lowest two ribs. From the standpoint of the bird's immune response, the incision through the skin is trivial. It is the incision between the ribs and into the body cavity which presents the most critical threat of infection. Standard practice is to pull the skin over the ribs well to one side before making the incision. After plucking out the testes, release the skin you have pulled to the side, and it will return to its normal place, covering the incision site and guarding against its contamination with dirt and pathogens.

Do you give the cockerel any sort of anaesthetic? Again the question arises out of our anology with operating room procedures. But remember that the anaesthetist who sedates the patient is a highly skilled technician with years of training in the use of what is actually a rather perilous procedure—rendering the patient unconscious or insensate with a substance which at too high a dosage would kill him. Do you plan to duplicate that training? Where will you buy potentially lethal anaesthetics? Who can advise you how many units to apply to a chicken of seven and a half ounces? Obviously, as much as we might wince at the thought of inflicting pain on our patient, administering an anaesthetic is not an option. Actually, I'm not sure what the nature of the cockerel's experience is. He's quite upset when caught and handled, but calms down completely when put under restraint on the table. (Various ways of restraining the bird have been used.) I have been amazed when making the incision and pulling out the testicles with the forceps—he doesn't even blink. (On occasion, it is true, I have hit some sort of nerve, and the poor guy has jerked as if hit with a jolt of electricity. I think one can learn where that super-sensitive spot is, however, and avoid it.)

More later!