Really? $20 for a chicken? You must be getting rich!

I know it can be jarring to hear a 5 pound chicken will cost over 20 bucks. I mean after all, you can get a ready to eat bird for less than half of that from Trader Joe’s and a whole chicken at your typical grocery store will barely be over a buck a pound. You could be forgiven for thinking that we are making a killing on a chicken that costs $4-5 a pound. I hope to illustrate a bit of just how much it costs to raise a small flock of chickens and a share a few ideas to get all the value you can out of each chicken and waste nothing. Let’s first take a minute to examine how much it costs to raise a chicken in a small flock, that gets to live outside and eat local organic grain.

  • $2.75 Purchase price per chick

  • $5 Butchering

    • For those counting, you can see that we are already up to almost $8 just buy the bird and kill it without it even having a drop of water or bite of food yet!

  • $4 Grain

    • 13 pounds per bird at $.30/# for local organic grain.

      • This is super local, as in from just up on the ridge, purchased directly and in bulk which is significantly cheaper than if we buy it by the bag from a feed dealer

  • $3 Labor

    • 30 minutes per day for 59 days at $20/hr divided by 200 birds

      • I don’t pay myself nearly this much though I feel like I am worth much more, but this is the number I use when accounting for the cost of my labor in an enterprise budget

  • $2 Transport

    • Because there are so few state or USDA inspected butchers left, we have to drive 2 hours to the nearest butcher

      • Loading up, driving to the butcher, unloading driving home and then going back for pickup the next day costs about $75 in fuel and 11 hours in labor

  • $2 materials and supplies

    • While most supplies are durable and last many years before needing to be replaced, there are still real costs for things such as : poultry fences, fence chargers, marine batteries, waterers, feeders, freezers and electric

That comes to $18.75 to raise a single chicken. This doesn’t even account for attrition or loss which we really should account for but we don’t. It’s a brutal reality, some animals will die along the way which is sad enough in it’s own right but you also lose every penny you have invested in an animal that doesn’t survive to butchering. It is also worth noting that while we do go above and beyond organic certification standards, our chickens are not certified organic (but our vegetables are). If they were it would cost $1 more for organic butchering, and about another $1 for certification which would bring the cost to almost $21.

One could argue that we need to be more efficient in which case we need to ask, compared to what? For a small flock we honestly operate about as efficiently as we possibly could and to scale it up would defeat our purpose while taking all of the enjoyment out of it. While it is true that their lives are short, we pride ourselves in giving them a nice life brief though it may be. They spend their whole lives outside, they get to roost, and graze for seeds, worms, bugs and whatever else comes through their pasture. They eat organic grain and they eat organic veggie culls from the farm, they get lots of exercise and they get to learn (my rather poor) signing voice which signals mealtime.

There is a value judgement that consumers need to make about the kind of farming system they want to support if they are in a financial position to do so. I say that because while I get defensive about defending our prices, it would be ignorant to pretend that $20 is not a significant amount of money. For my purposes here I won’t go down that rabbit hole just to say that if you can afford to support local and organic then you really should do so and there are ways to maximize the use of a chicken to get the most value as possible from it. A whole roast chicken can be nice from time to time but honestly we think it is a little bit boring because we generally use a chicken for several days of protein and we like to create multiple meals from each chicken without being married to a specific flavor or cooking method. This means getting comfortable with breaking down a chicken which may seem a bit daunting but really takes only 10 or 15 minutes if you are slow but comfortable with it like myself a bit longer when you are learning and far less if you are actually good at it. At this point I would also like to mention that we are not great home chefs, we aren’t terribly creative or inventive in the kitchen and we are not super skilled. These skills aren’t necessary to eating great home cooked meals. What we have, is a willingness to put in a bit of work, an appreciation of quality ingredients, the curiosity to try new things, a desire to eat well on a tight budget and we can follow a recipe. We are not great home chefs, we are competent home cooks and that’s enough. What we think is most important is that families take the time to cook at home as much as possible. If you want to cook at home but a $6 Purdue bird from Wal-Mart is what works for your budget, then I hope you can get some ideas from my tips below because they don’t care what kind of chicken you are cutting up. While it is my prerogative and livelihood to promote organic foods that are produced locally, I am more concerned with people getting back in to their kitchens and feeling the pride (and sometimes disappointment) that comes from home cooking and eating as well as possible.

That being said, on to the tips that work for us in our home: You can find plenty of better visual tutorials online than I can provide here to help get you through the basics.

One thing I like about breaking a chicken down like this is that we can eat it over time rather than feeling like we need to eat chicken all week since we are only two people, at least for now. Whatever cut we plan on eating first we put in the fridge and the rest can go back in the freezer. Some people will say you can’t defrost and refreeze something, to this I say bollocks. Refreezing a cut one more time will not hurt it at all, especially if you defrost it slowly at room temperature.

  • Defrosting the chicken: it takes a while so you need to think a day ahead. Get out bird out of the freezer put it on a plate (leaving it in its packaging) and leave it on the counter to defrost all day. Put it in the fridge over night and the next day it will be ready for breakdown.

    • If you are in a pinch you can put it a mixing bowl and run cold water over it for a few hours though this always seems a bit wasteful and I am not a big fan of it.

    • I would never recommend trying to defrost in a microwave or oven, it will start to cook on the outside while remaining frozen in the middle which will all but ruin the chicken, it really just needs time.

  • Pull the giblets and neck out of the cavity and set aside. I like to use cold tap water to rinse the bird inside and out, I drain the inside well but I don’t worry to much drying it.

  • I like to take the breasts off which are great for grilling, fricassee, chicken parm, or just about anything since the breast is really versatile and most of us are pretty comfortable with this cut

  • Then it’s about cutting the thighs and legs off. I usually leave the skin on because for some recipes you will want it on and it can always be skinned later if need be.

    • I have found that these dark meat cuts work just as well as breast in many recipes though you may have to debone it first. The bones can be discarded or saved with your other bits for stock or broth.

  • I keep a bag in the freezer for wings and drummies. So I cut them off and separate them (cut the wing tips off and set them aside) and add them to the collection until we have enough for a wing party.

  • Now you will be left with the carcass, neck, wing tips and maybe a few leg bones. We keep all of these in the freezer until we have half a dozen or so and then we can make stock.

    • Before discarding the bones after cooking you should strip all of the meat and put that in a separate bag which can be used later for soups, stews or pulled chicken or coxhina.

So now we have the chicken broken down, what now? As we use up our bird we will try to add the recipes here or you can always follow along on our Instagram page to see what how we use each of our pieces and get some ideas of your own.