Options For Old Laying Hens

Chopping Block_1
The Chopping Block…

Cornflake the chicken was not harmed in the shooting of this photograph.

A chicken has a potential lifespan of 10+ years when given proper care, and that should be considered before you add a laying flock to your home, as should what you plan to do with them when they stop laying. It’s hard to justify keeping an animal around that only consumes on a homestead where everything must earn it keep. After 2-3 years of laying, a hen is past her prime in egg production. In most cases she will be processed in a canning jar; even though we’d all love to provide a rent-free home for the remainder of their lives, it isn’t always in the cards or the budget to do so. But there are some jobs that a veteran flock member can do — even if she isn’t producing eggs — that makes keeping her around worthwhile.

Like adolescents in every other species on the planet (humans included), young flock members can be a total pain in the rear end. They sleep in nest boxes and cause poopy eggs; they fight over food and manage to sit inside the feeders to eat and then get stuck; they find new and exciting ways to get out of the run; basically they have no idea how things work in the coop. Having older flock members present who know the routine can help the teenagers figure out when to return to the coop at night, and that they sleep on roosts not in nest boxes. The teachers show them where to take dust baths, where to scratch and peck, and how to eat at the feeder like a decent member of the flock. Flock matriarchs can kick a little butt, too, to teach newbies their place in the world and knock out some of their cockiness. Before long, they will behave and follow the routine just like everyone else in the coop.

Oatmeal with her adopted chicks

Surrogate Moms:

There comes a time when flock expansion is needed, and sometimes heat lamps and brooders aren’t ideal. Sometimes hens don’t sit on their eggs for the full 21 days. Sometimes hens are murderers and they kill all their babies as soon as they hatch. Enter the broody hen surrogate mom. They go broody at the mere sight of two eggs nestled in a nesting box and try to hatch them, and they happily adopt any abandoned chicks. Being a momma is their calling, and that’s why broody inclined hens will always have a home in my flock whether or not they lay eggs.

Broodiness however, can at times be unwanted or become dangerous to the hen if her need to be a mother isn’t satisfied. Check out this article from the Chicken Chick that tells you how to safely break a hen of broodiness if the situation calls for it. I love her method, and I have used it many times to break my regular broody mommas if I can’t find hatching eggs or  day old chicks for them.

Garden Tending:

Garden tending is the perfect job for your old hens. They eat weeds, scratch up the roots, eliminate pests, and fertilize and aerate the soil as they go! You will have to come up with a way to keep your fowl away from your veggies, though. There are some great, garden-row-sized chicken tractor plans on Pinterest, or you can come up with your own. I am working on plans for my own row tractor to use this gardening season and I have two perfect hens in mind…maybe this will fix those stinkin Isa Browns from eating my brussels sprouts for good.

And, every now and then, a chicken comes along that has a very special personality that saves her drumsticks. When I was a kid I had this lovely, huge, barred rock hen named Roxy. I wouldn’t let her get chopped, and I even painted her toenails red so I could keep her apart from everyone else. Now its my white Cochin, Oatmeal, who has hatched lots of new babies and survived being mauled by a Chihuahua, and of course Kahrl, a blue Cochin who is extraordinarily fluffy and who has raised new babies when other hens abandoned them. My husband’s buff Orpington, Cornflake, probably won’t be found on the dinner table either, since she is abnormally friendly.

An old hen’s working days aren’t always over after her laying days are over. She pays her rent in new ways that might even be more productive than before.

Happy clucking!

5 Tips To Avoid Poultry Remorse

Chickens are the first thing that come to peoples minds when planning out their dream homestead.  They seem like an easy first farm animal; they provide meat and eggs all in a compact package and they can be fairly inexpensive to keep.  But there is a little more work to them than meets the eye.  With the rise of homesteading popularity, and more cities allowing urban livestock within their limits its easy to jump in both feet first without spending some valuable time soul searching whether or not this lifestyle is for you.  In fact abandoned urban livestock is filling humane societies across the country.  A little bit of realism and research could save many animals from that fate, and it could save many homesteaders from feeling regretful of the feathery additions to their farms.

If you have never kept chickens before there are some things you will want to consider.

Kahrl The Blue Cochin

1. Choosing the right breed for your intentions.
I cannot put enough emphasis on researching the breed you want to keep. It could make all the difference in your chicken keeping experience. Consider the birds’ size, activity level, rate of maturity, rate of lay, and friendliness. You don’t want an active bird living in a confined space like a chicken tractor. Crazy birds = unhappy chicken keeper. And you may not be willing to wait a whole year before you get your first egg out of your Cochin pullet (like we did).  However, for my purposes I prefer Cochins, they aren’t the best laying hens in the world this much is true but for the most part they are content in their large run. Our Isa Brown hens on the other hand get out every. single. day. and head straight for the garden.  And they do this with clipped wings mind you.

The best resource I have found for poultry picking is the breed comparison chart on The American Livestock Conservancy website. You can print it off and check out breeds that fit into your chicken keeping goals.

2. Where will your chickens be living?
Choosing the appropriate home for your chickens falls in closely with what breed you pick. You want an easily accessible coop, dry, free from drafts, with sufficient roosting and nest boxes. You also will want to consider having an electrical outlet for the winter months when a water warmer will be necessary.

A note about chicken tractors: They have many benefits. But there are some flaws as well. The chickens have access to fresh grass every day. The run and coop provide a safe place to live. Tractors are easy to clean for the most part, the small size is the benefit here. The downside? You WILL have to move the tractor every day. This can get a little annoying and its not necessarily as easy as you think when its loaded down with chickens and water and food. It will be heavy and bulky and may not be easy for you to move by yourself. If you are in the market for a chicken tractor, go see it in person first and move it around a few times. Keep in mind how many chickens you want to keep too. Many say 14 bird capacity … but that’s for bantams, not standard chickens. There is also the option to build your own to your desired specs.

3. Choosing “Litter”.  There Will Be Poop:
Seriously … skip the pretty and fresh smelling pine shavings, the crushed corn cobs, and the straw. Go straight for the construction sand. It is cheap. You only need to refresh the sand once a year. Cleaning up is a snap. It really does take a whole two minuets of raking and sifting with a modified manure fork with ¼ inch hardware cloth zip tied to it, think of it like chicken kitty litter! Chickens don’t sleep on the floor. They poop on it. It dries quickly too. Sand cuts down on mold growth and moisture which can mean respiratory issues, and in the winter months frostbite and freezing birds.

4. Feeding on the cheap.
Besides your starter/layer ration it really helps to give your girls a chance to eat all the delicious bugs and veggies they can. Supervised free range them as much as you can, (yeah, supervised … chickens are tasty treats for hawks and other critters … they also have a tendency to get greased in the road) or if that isn’t an option, save your grass clippings and toss them into the run; they like to scratch through it and find bugs. Save your kitchen scraps, and send over those torpedo sized zucchini from the garden that you thought “just needed one more day.” We also like to fence off our garden every year after it is done producing to let the chickens clean things up for us. With 6 chickens during the spring and summer months we only need to buy 1 bag of feed every 5 weeks.

5. Brush up on Poultry Illnesses, how to treat wounds, and general poultry knowledge.

Poultry injuries are a gruesome fact of life.
This is a photo of one of the wounds our white Cochin pullet “Oatmeal”sustained from being attacked by a neighbors dog. She made a full recovery thankfully.

Be prepared for disasters. Have a chicken first aid kit ready. That way when your chicken gets viciously mauled by a rogue chihuahua you aren’t running to the farm store in a panic wearing your pj’s looking for the Vetericyn. The best resource by far is the blog “The Chicken Chick” by Kathy Shea Mormino. She has fantastic informational posts about any chicken thing you can dream. Her information has helped me save a dog chewed chicken and taught me how to treat mite infestations efficiently.

Here’s to happy chickens and happy chicken keepers! Good luck!

This Article Was Featured In GRIT Magazines Guide To Backyard Chickens Spring 2016 Edition & GRIT Magazines Guide To Chickens Premium Issue, Fall 2016