University of Kentucky College of Agriculture

Poultry feathers - What can they be used for?

While feathers are often considered a by-product of poultry produciton (and often a waste by-product), some produces raise poultry speicifically for their feahters.

Feathers are used in a number of decorative products such as boas, feather fans, masks, costume accessories, bird ornamnets, and even earrings and flowers. Feathers are also routinely used in the production of fishing flies.

While chicken feathers don't weigh much, with the amount of chicken produced in the U.S. annually, the volume of feathers produced is considerable. For the 8+ billion broilers produced each year, 2-3 billion pounds of feathers are produced. Research has shown that the keratin in the feathers (a protein also found in hair, hoofs, horns, and wool) can be used in the produciton of a wide variety of products.

  • Pillow stuffying
  • Diapers
  • Insulation
  • Upholstery padding
  • Paper
  • Plastics
  • Feather meal

Feather protein has properties in common with cellulose, the starch that forms wood and paper. Feathers are keratin just like wool but the surface area is much large because the diamter of the fibers is smaller. So the fiber can absorb more than wool or cellulose fibers. The crystal structure of feather fibers also makes them naturally stable and durable.

More than 16 million dipaers, made from wood pulp, are discarded each year. A year's worth of feathers could replace approximately 25% of the wood pulp used annually for diapers.

Three companies - Featherfiber Corporation, Maxim Systems and Tyson Foods - are now working to scale up production of absorbent feather-based products including diapers, filters, insulation, upholstery padding, paper and even clothing.

The orderly structure of keratin helps stabilize the structure of plastics, making them stronger.

Feather meal is produced by a high-pressure steam processing method similar to autoclaving, followed by drying. Heat and steam hydrolyze the feathers into a cysteine-rich, high protein product that is 60% digestible.