March 1, 2016

Aggressive Composting, and Retiring Chickens

Reading The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins last year really inspired me to try to compost (almost) everything. So this last season we started ignoring those picky commonplace composting rules often given to home scale composters. Such as: No Meat or Animal Products, No Fat, etc. We just started putting it ALL in there.

For instance, after we eat a chicken and Becky turns the carcass and bones into stock, the extras just go into the compost. Same with beef and pork bones, bits of meat and fish leftovers, animal and vegetable fats (though we save bacon grease for cooking, yum). This has worked out perfectly fine.

I think we have more insect and worm life in our compost house than is typical, which helps to break things down much faster and with normally no perceptible odor outside the bin. The kids sometimes dig around in there to find cool bugs and pull out worms. Millie puts on garden gloves first, because the compost can be a little gross, but once she has her catch extracted she goes bare handed with it.

That is a big earthworm found in the wood chips, not a compost worm, which are redder and smaller. But you can get an idea of Millie's close relationship with worms.

A family of mice nested in the compost last winter. One day in early spring I opened the lid and saw about 5 little mice running around. This was fortuitous because Buster is obsessed with mice. For a few months they would often go out and peek under the lids to check out how the mice were doing. As the season progressed we occasionally found dead mice around the yard.

We buried these near perennials, to give a dose of nitrogen and phosphorous to the plants.

When people got tired of burying mice, then started going to the compost instead. From compost they came...

Violet started carving a little headstone for a mouse burial from a scrap piece of carrara marble I had around, but it became an unfinished project.

I was a little concerned about the mouse population exploding in the compost bins, or mice finding their way into our house, but neither of those outcomes materialized.

I'm loving the compost house we built the year before; so convenient to use, plenty of capacity, and keeps the critters we have around out effectively. The greater volume and thick wood walls help retain heat and moisture, allowing the pile to seethe more actively during the cold season. Seeing as how I built it from green local rough sawn pine, it probably won't last long, but when I rebuild it I may do so with green local oak, which ought to last longer. If I can figure out space to do so, I may cut up and bury the used pine into a hugel bed, removing and reusing the stainless screws first.

We accumulate compost in the westernmost bin, at a rate of a 20L pail every 4-7 days plus seasonal garden waste. At the end of June 2015 when we cut down our strawberries for renovation, I emptied out the second bin in from the West and piled all the strawberry cuttings and some other garden waste in the bottom, then forked on the contents of the accumulating bin from a year of compost. The level was nearly to the top after forking over, but over the ensuing months it has dropped to about 2/3 full as it consolidated and continued to decompose. I'll riddle this compost to remove big chunks (sunflower plant roots and avocado seeds take a while to reduce), pick out produce labels, then spread it on the garden this spring or summer. This will mark a year since I put anything new into that batch.

Meanwhile we are accumulating another year's load into the western-most bin. The level builds up somewhat during fall and winter as the temp drops and plenty of garden cleanup and harvest processing leftovers are loaded in. But then it goes down again as biological action quickens in spring.

Most paper waste still goes into the recycling rather than the compost. It is too carbon rich and slow to decompose if much of it goes into the pile. There is also some concern about what is used for inks and glossy paper coatings, and if I want to be putting that on our food later on. But if we had the moral fortitude and space to compost our poo like decent citizens, I think the pile could probably deal with a lot of shredded paper. Maybe someday. But I'm too much of a wimp to go there yet.

Old chickens to compost
One new category of bio material we put in the newly aggressive compost system was feathers, heads, feet, blood, and innards from three chickens we dispatched in the backyard in October.

A friend of mine from work, Steve, had kept a few hens for eggs the last couple years. He had always figured on turning them into chicken soup when they became unproductive, but in those years his kids had become very attached to the birds and thought of them as pets. So slaughtering them himself was not going to make him too popular in the family. He offered them to me instead and I said I'd be glad to take them.

I'd actually never killed and dressed a chicken. One time years ago Becky and I processed a duck from my mom's neighbor for thanksgiving. We tried to catch it in a fishing net for like an hour until the farmer finally just shot it for us (probably we gave him a fun story to tell his friends about those youngster yankees from the city). And I killed and dressed plenty of rabbits and quail from hunting with my mom when I was growing up, but never chickens.

I do believe that if you eat meat, it is good to sometimes be reminded of the fact that animals are being raised and killed to satisfy your appetites, and to be faced with the earthy details of that enterprise. So it seemed like a good thing for our family to get a dose of reality and an experience we don't usually have the opportunity to choose, plus some tasty chicken soup.

We scheduled the pickup from Steve for when my mom was visiting, since she had experience with keeping and dispatching chickens, gained during her tenure living in the country in North Carolina. I purchased an ebook about the subject called EATING the working chicken" by Anna Hess. Her books are great since her interests and methods often coincide with my own, and I've bought plenty of them on Amazon. They are short, but to the point and inexpensive. Her frequently updated and always interesting blog is at

So equipped with a paring knife, garden gloves, a clean sheet of plywood, a bucket of water, and my kindle we set to work. My mom has a special technique for the killing part which she says is faster, cleaner, and less chaotic than the usual methods, taught to her by an old lady in North Carolina. It is claimed to make the feathers easier to remove too. Here it is:

hang the chicken up securely by the feet; when they are turned upside down they get weirdly calm. We bound the feet with jute garden twine and hung off the side of the slide on the play set in the back yard, such that the head was about waist level.
cup the head in the palm of one hand
hold the paring knife with your other hand, positioning it just outside the beak
do a quick but controlled and firm insertion of the point of the knife in through the open beak and up into the skull through the roof of the mouth
twist and gouge the knife around a bit to scramble the brain. Don't get too enthusiastic and poke it out the back of the skull and into your hand.
wait a few seconds or minutes for the bird to die, then slash both sides of the neck to let the blood out and proceed as usual

This actually worked great for us, though I have little to compare it with, not having killed chickens any other way. The first two died very quickly after the knife plunge and the whole affair was quiet and low drama, lasting only a couple seconds. The third one was less calm and squawked around while we were hanging it up, then flopped around some after the killing stroke; my mom had to hold the wings down and I held onto the head while we waited. Probably a typical setup like a kill cone or bucket would be a good substitute if you were doing it alone or with helpers otherwise engaged.

As I stood there with a chicken's living head in my hand, knife poised, I couldn't help thinking to myself, "I'm about to end your existence for no justifiable reason, other than that life is brutal and unfair for most living things. I promise to try and minimize your pain, and be grateful as I am eating you". You know, the kind of thing a liberal city person would think in this situation. What can I say, it was an intense experience. I just don't often find myself killing warm blooded animals up close with my own hands. I do think it would be better for people's health, the environment, and animal welfare if everyone were vegan. In fact, our family was mostly vegan for a year. But nevertheless here I am, still enjoying meat.

If I did this more often I'm sure it would be no big deal, and perhaps my mind would have wandered to thinking about how dreamy Kim Soo-Hyun is in the excellent K-drama My Love from Another Star, which Becky and I had recently enjoyed via the internet.

But as it was, I was very much in the moment.

After letting the chicken bleed into a pail positioned under the hanging spot for a few minutes, my mom and I would start in with pulling out feathers. They were not too bad to get out by hand; some of the big wing feathers didn't come out all the way and left behind some stubble. In maybe 10 minutes of effort we had 98% of feathers removed and put into the blood bucket. Maybe the brain stabbing method does help with feather release. I would then take the chicken down and remove the feet and head with kitchen shears. Next I opened it with the paring knife and scooped out the insides in the manner described in the ebook listed above, then rinsed well with the hose.

I was up to my elbows in warm chicken stuff, so I didn't take many pictures. Here is my mom with one of the birds, note my kindle on the table.

Violet was indoors during the few hours it took us to work through the chickens, but Millie and Buster were playing in back. They really didn't seem to have any issue with what was going on, and even asked for feathers while we were plucking.

Being in the 16th most densely populated city in America, with the backyard in view from about 17 neighbors and countless passers by, I half expected the cops to show up at some point. But apparently no one noticed, or it was not a remarkable activity.

Inside, we dipped the chickens in hot water and tried to get out the last few feather quills. These chickens had a LOT of creamy yellow fat on them. We need to do more to learn about chicken fat based cooking. Jewish tradition has a whole cuisine built upon schmaltz. The meatiest chicken was the Barred Rock, which had the coolest feathers most in demand with the kids, plus it was very calm throughout the process. I wonder if it was the individual chicken, or the breed?

At last the three chickens were double bagged in shopping sacks and went into the chest freezer. The bucket of extra chicken stuff went in the compost. In the following weeks, the compost did get a little stinky, but nothing extreme and it dissipated eventually.

Later in her visit (after we had a chance to mentally distance ourselves from the chickens), my mom made us her choice of dish for old hens: chicken and pastry. Here is her recipe:

Make stock and meat

- cut up chicken and cover with water or broth, at least 100mm above meat
- season to how you like (she uses sage, cumin, rosemary, salt, pepper)
- add one onion, some garlic, whatever else you would put in chicken stock e.g. celery, carrot
- simmer for 2-3 hours, pick or strain out chicken and chunks you don't want to leave in
- pick meat off bones and chop coarsely (don't remove fat from pot, yet)
- skim off 3 TBS worth of fat from pot, take the rest out and put in the compost or save for other uses
- take out 2/3 cup broth

Make pastry
- mix 2 cups flour, 1.5 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt
- make a well in dry ingredients, add the cooled broth and fat reserved from above
- stir quickly, knead for 1 minute, let rest for 10 minutes
- Roll out to ~3mm thickness, cut to about 2x10 cm

Make stew
- add pastry to simmering broth, gently boil for about 30 minutes
- add in reserved meat if you haven't already, any extra veggies you might want at appropriate time
- push pastry down a couple times until is stays down

It was pretty good. Becky has used the other two chickens to make stock, then peeled the meat and used it for soup or salads. While the meat is not plentiful and is a little tough, the flavor of the stock and soup is intense and delicious.

We have a hazy idea that we may in future build a chicken house and keep some egg hens. Maybe after they become unproductive, Steve can return the favor and take them off my hands to spare my kids some hard feelings!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It sounds like the chicken processing went much calmer than the sessions I vaguely recall from my childhood at Grandma's. IIRC, they did about 50 chickens at a time (Grandma used to sell eggs). Step 1 was tie up the dogs :-). The actual dispatching was done by wedging the chicken's head between 2 nails hammered into the top of a fence post and applying a hatchet. And the smell of the scalding part :-(. I don't recall what was done with the non-edibles, I think Grandpa took care of that by tossing it waaaaay out back in the corn field while Mom, Grandma, Aunts were busy with washing/bagging/cleanup. Doing 50 at a time is a lot, but when split among 4-5 families....

As far as composting the "uncompostable", I used to get farm magazines from Dad. Once they had an article on a farmer who was experimenting with composting whole hogs that had died and not usable for food due to for some reason that escapes me. All I recall on that is they used LOTS of sawdust and it took a long time.