I have nine hens in my chicken coop: six pullets that have just started laying small eggs, and three aging biddies who lay huge eggs… once in a while. We love the jumbo eggs—one per person is enough for breakfast—but we are only finding three or four per week, whereas the six pullets are together laying five or six eggs per day. In the meantime, the hens are all munching down on laying pellets at pretty much the same pace.
In their first year of laying eggs, most chicken breeds lay a lot of eggs. According to several websites (although they don’t document their source), the world record is held by a white Leghorn hen who laid an incredible 371 eggs in 365 days! A more normal average is around 270, which is almost one per day with time off for molting.
Once the hens have molted and started their second year of laying, they average closer to four eggs per week. In the third year, it’s two or three. After that, egg-laying is sporadic, eventually tapering off to zero.
Commercial egg operations only keep hens for that first, abundant year. It’s cheaper to get new chicks than to keep feeding molting hens that won’t lay as well thereafter. Since I am a bit more attached to my chickens than that, I keep mine around three years. Every year I get four to six new chicks. And every year I eliminate the oldest birds.
Those more sentimentally inclined, who perhaps think of their flock as pets with benefits, may have already decided to let their hens live out a normal lifespan—eggs or no eggs. For those of us who want our chickens to earn their keep, a hen that eats but no longer lays is not an option. Besides, my coop isn’t big enough for more than a dozen or so fully-grown hens. If I kept every hen until she died of old age, it would soon be full of pensioners, and we’d be out of eggs.
With my three oldest hens only laying once or twice a week, it’s time to take some drastic (at least to the hens) measures. Yup, it’s culling time.
At this point, the movie Chicken Run comes to mind. Still, I need to do something. I pretty much have two options. One, I can find a new home for my hens. Or, two, I can end their happy lives. (Oh, the guilt already!)
Naturally, I try the first option first. I put a notice in the feed store: “Older hens – no longer laying – free.” That has worked well some years. I don’t ask a lot of questions, and I’m sure most of my chickens end up in a soup pot, but at least I don’t have to do the deed myself. And then there was the year they became a harem…
I had posted the sign a few days earlier when I received a call: “I would like to come take a look at your hens.”
OK, that’s a bit odd. Well, it turned out that an older couple living on some acreage east of town had a rooster, but no hens. They were sure the rooster was lonely, and they were looking for a flock of ladies to keep him company. Egg production wasn’t an issue.
A few hours later, they arrived in a beaten-down pick-up with the rooster sitting between them on the front seat! Explaining that they wanted to make sure the rooster approved of their selection, they introduced him to the six hens I no longer wanted. I guess it went well, because the next thing I knew, we were stuffing the hens into a large cardboard box for the trip to their new quarters.
More often, no one wants my hens for any purpose, and I’m left to deal with them myself. While I happily buy chicken at the market and serve it several times a week, there is no way I’m going to take an axe to the neck of one of my own chickens. They trust me!
(Hint: Do not, repeat not, name any animal you intend to eat… unless it’s something like “Colonel Sanders,” or “Noodle Soup.”)
Thankfully, we have several friends who are hunters, or grew up on farms, and have no qualms about wringing the neck of a stewing hen. Once the bird is dead, my squeamishness disappears, and I help clean and pluck the carcass. Then I make my friends a crockpot full of chicken soup to thank them for their help. The meat may be too stringy for frying, but the flavor of the soup far surpasses what you can get out of store-bought poultry.
It’s probably a good idea to consider the end before getting your chickens in the first place. According to one website, “Chickens can live to be 30-35 years old, although the average lifespan of a healthy free-range chicken is about 15 years.” Considering that they only lay eggs for a tiny fraction of that time, what is your plan for your flock?