Reading time: 5 minutes
How to get the most out of your chicken flock? Matthew Wilkinson shares his thoughtful and practical perspective on the difficult task of transforming your chickens.
First Foraging Lessons
In college, I was obsessed with the book Hunt wild asparagus by Euell Gibbins. I would rush home after school, grab the book, and head off to our local woods, looking for new food treasures in the forest. During this time of exploration and adventure, I was drawn to the simple dandelion. Gibbons loved the “weed” that everyone seemed to hate. As I read about the common dandelion, I began to appreciate the diverse offerings provided by the pariah plant. Dandelions are givers! The plant provides a range of culinary delights – you can harvest its bright yellow flowers and turn the pedals into a sweet wine; add the leaves to salads; and grind the roots into strong charred, bone-colored coffee. This simple plant instilled in me the understanding and practice of utilizing the total food product and not wasting any usable part of anything I have grown, harvested, or bred.
I kept those lessons until I milked my very first chickens. Here is a new form of dandelion. I was faced with a challenge and didn’t have a grandparent to show me how to use the whole bird, or even a book with clear instructions and pictures. I was alone in the world of total chicken use.
Use of all parts
Something very magical happens when you take the time to care for and nurture any living organism. The time, energy and resources required to take a plant or animal from conception to finished product is an intimate and personal experience. I spent many hours in compromised positions weeding row after row of carrots, separating each bundle of tiny plant stems, and trying to separate the carrot from the weeds. During many of these weeding marathons, all I thought about was how many extra carrots I needed to pick up before the job was done. Yet the effort of the task is what ultimately connected me to the value of the carrot. I no longer considered the carrot as a simple food. My time and effort in developing the vegetable had forged a much higher level of respect for the plant. When it came time to pull out the carrot and use it, I was determined to use every part of it.
I feel the same way about each of my chickens. At first I was determined to learn how to use as much of each bird as possible. I soon learned that there was a huge range of products each chicken could offer. As soon as you terminate the life of a living organism, a clock registering the quality of the product begins to tick. It is imperative to have a clear understanding of what you want to use and how to go about it. You only have a short time before the product starts to lose value in its quality level.
Learn to treat my own birds
start with blood
When I prepare to treat chickens, I place a five-gallon bucket under each killing cone. If you are going to transform your own flock, you will become intimately connected with chicken blood, whether you like it or not. We always inform and remind new chicken processors to never lick their lips or laugh at someone’s jokes while killing chickens. It’s a surefire way to get a great taste of chicken blood.
Chicken blood is useful for many different purposes. Those interested in the culinary arts can use chicken blood as a thickening agent, rehydrating agent, or color and flavor enhancer. As soon as the blood comes out of the neck of the chicken, mix it with a little vinegar. This will prevent it from coagulating and preserve it as a valuable food ingredient. Our family has not tried using chicken blood in our food, but we have collected the blood and poured it around our fruit trees, taking advantage of its rich protein and mineral levels.
feathers and manure
Chicken feathers are the main player in exploring the use of animal products. Rich in keratin, chicken feathers are used in animal feed, cement and plastic composition. It’s a hot commodity in the world of animal waste disposal. Chicken manure isn’t as diverse in its total uses as chicken feathers, but it’s arguably more potent in its heat level. Always let chicken manure age in a compost pile, allowing its nitrogen levels to drop while providing excellent soil amendments. Failure to provide “dead time” to your chicken manure could cause a nasty burn or kill any plants that come in direct contact with the manure.
As I process each bird, I take great care to carefully separate the entrails, collecting more of the organ meat. Our family enjoys turning the livers into chicken liver pate, while the other organ meat feeds our dog and pigs. Many people gobble up the hearts and gizzards of their birds. All other internal bird products that are not edible are piled on the same compost pile with feathers and manure.
Up and down
Although I’ve never made much of it, we have friends who rave about the taste of fried cockscomb, the wobbly little red appendage that sits on top of a chicken’s head. There is also a huge bone broth movement due to the health benefits of eating broth made from chicken feet. If you dare, venture into any authentic Asian restaurant and bite into a plate full of chicken feet, so crispy and delicious!
Broth and bones
After the main parts of the chicken have been put into service, such as the thighs, breasts and thighs, the carcass is put into action. We always add some peeled carrots, onions and celery with the chicken carcass and start simmering in a pot of water. The result is a fat-laden, dark yellow chicken broth liquid that will drive away all winter illnesses. We then scoop out any remaining meat on the carcass for pots, chicken salads and tacos. The cleaned bones are then added to the ever-growing compost pile. Before discarding the bones, extract the “triangle” from the breast of the chicken carcass. It’s fun for kids to shoot the bone and see who can make a wish.
Deepen your connection with your birds
I doubt I would ever have taken the time and invested the energy to utilize the total bird if I hadn’t taken care of the flock throughout its development. You develop a connection with every animal you care for. Those hot, scorching summer days, dragging water to their paddocks. The sight of storm clouds rushing towards your unprotected birds. All of these moments forge a bond between you and the animals that depend on you. This connection is what allows us to formulate an enduring respect for the total value of these living organisms. This respect is what drives us to use every part of every plant or animal. Such a level of connection took me back to when I was forging wild plants and how happy I was to use every part of what I had collected, found, or grown. The same will happen to you if you care for your own food animals.
Matthew Wilkinson is known for his humor, knowledge and easy-to-understand explanations of homesteading techniques and systems. Wilkinson and his family own and operate Hard Cider Homestead in rural East Amwell, New Jersey.
Originally Posted on the Community Chickens website.