My oldest chicken is eight years old. She still manages to pop out a handful of eggs a year, but they’re usually wrinkled and a bit misshapen with thin shells. She certainly isn’t winning any awards for egg production and we can’t rely on her for breakfast any longer! But she’s still an extremely valued member of my flock, not to mention a treasured family member. I mean, she’s been around longer than our dogs have. Culling chickens isn’t on our agenda; we put our older hens to work.
Alternatives to Culling Chickens
I’m sure you’re wondering how long do chickens live? Although I would guess the average lifespan of the backyard chicken is somewhere between three to five years, and that is mostly because of predation, chickens that are well-protected and kept in tip-top health can easily live to be ten or twelve years old, and even older. There have been recorded cases of chickens living to be almost 20 years old, so I hope that Charlotte, my Australorp, has at least a few good years left in her.
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One of the most common questions I get asked both on my Facebook page and at the various fairs I speak at around the country, is “What do you do with your chickens once they stop laying eggs?” That question about culling chickens amuses me, and I generally answer with my standard tongue-in-cheek response, “Well our cat has NEVER laid us an egg and we keep feeding him!” After the ensuing laughter subsides, I go on to explain some of the benefits of keeping older flock members around – because like a good barn cat and other animals around a farm, even the older chickens serve a purpose. Here are lots of alternatives to rehoming older chickens or culling chickens.
Older Chickens Make Better Broodies
An older hen is likely to be a better broody hen. Since she has slowed down a bit, she’s more likely to be perfectly content to sit in a nesting box on a clutch of eggs for the three week period required to hatch them. Oftentimes a younger hen will abandon the eggs partway through the incubation period. Older hens don’t tend to do that. And remember, a hen will sit on eggs laid by other chickens, so even if she’s not laying at all anymore, you can just tuck some of your other fertile eggs under her. It makes no difference to her. And in fact, it might be best not to try to hatch the eggs from a hen getting on in years because the shells are often thin and the eggs have a great chance of breaking, although your older hens will tend to be your hardiest, healthiest chickens and you will likely hatch healthier chicks from their eggs. And if you have a hen who is an extremely good layer later in life, that’s the hen you want to hatch eggs from, hopefully, she’ll pass those genes onto her offspring.
Older Chickens Make Better Mothers
Older hens also tend to make better mothers. Sometimes a young hen will accidentally step on a baby chick after it hatches, thereby killing it, or on occasion even eat one of her young. Younger mothers will sometimes abandon their chicks once they hatch. An older hen; not so much. She knows the ropes and seems to know intuitively what to do. Not to mention if she’s actually done it before. I have found that a hen who has hatched two or three batches of chicks seems to have a far better hatch rate and survival rate among the chicks than a hen who is doing it for the first time.
The older hen has also been around the block once or twice and therefore knows the ins and outs of where to hide from predators, when various predators might be out, where the best berries and weeds are, what to eat and what not to eat. And she will teach all of this to her chicks. Just by virtue of having lived for six or seven or more years, she has learned various survival skills that she can pass down to the next generation.
The Eggs of Older Chickens are Generally Larger
It’s an interesting fact about how do chickens lay eggs. Each time a hen goes through her molt, her subsequent eggs will generally be a bit larger than they were before the molt. The shells will be a bit thinner and the color a bit more muted. After all, the same amount of pigment and shell material has to cover a larger yolk and amount of egg white, but eggs from an older hen can approach the size of duck eggs. They can be more than 30 percent larger than eggs laid by pullets.
Eggs Laid by Older Hens Contain More Collagen
Eggs laid by chickens getting on in their years actually have more collagen in them for the simple fact that they are larger. Collagen is important in our diet because it keeps our skin elastic and healthy. It keeps wrinkles and sagging skin at bay. I spoke with Sandra Bontempo, owner of Free Range Skin Care (www.freerangeskincare.com), a company that makes all natural skin care products. She told me that she rescues battery hens from factory farms here in the United States and once they’re back to good health and laying, she uses their eggs in her products. Whether you ingest the collagen or smear it on your face, you’re reaping the benefits!
How Long Will my Chickens Continue to Lay Eggs?
How long do chickens lay eggs? Chickens only lay really well for about two years. After that, their production usually will drop to about half what it was at its peak and then gradually stop altogether a few years later. If you live in an area where you are only allowed a limited number of chickens and you really want fresh eggs each morning, then you have some hard decisions to make once you get four or five years into your chicken-keeping journey. When you start asking yourself why have my chickens stopped laying, and the answer is that they are of a certain age, of course culling chickens and eating your older hens is an option for some.
For me, culling chickens is not an option. I’m not there yet. I might never be. So I keep telling myself that an older hen would be tough and stringy anyway, and I let my non-laying chickens continue to contribute in other ways to earn their keep. And so far it’s working out just fine. Do you have alternatives to culling chickens? Do you keep your older hens? Let us know in the comments below.
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Originally published in 2017 and regularly vetted for accuracy.