Just because your chickens aren’t laying any longer doesn’t mean that they still aren’t hugely beneficial. It just means you may switch back to chicken grower feed and do things a little different. Caring for older hens isn’t difficult and doesn’t have to cost much, especially when you weigh the benefits they provide. In their own way, older hens contribute well past their productive egg laying years. Although the average chicken only lays eggs for four to five years on a regular basis, she can live to be a dozen years old or more but don’t be too quick to re-home or cull her.
Older Hens Still Poop
One of the side benefits of raising chickens is, of course, the wonderful manure they produce. Chicken manure makes great fertilizer for your garden and it’s free! Older hens will still act as efficient little composting machines as they wander around eating bugs, weeds and your kitchen scraps and turning them into piles of nutrient-rich manure. That alone is enough cause for me to keep feeding and caring for older hens.
Older Hens Still Eat Bugs
Speaking of bugs, of course, chickens of any age love to eat bugs. And an older hen is just as good as ridding your yard and garden of bugs as her younger sisters. You’ll notice a marked reduction in the number of ticks and mosquitoes in your yard as well as all kinds of pests in your garden when you keep a flock of backyard chickens.
Older Hens Can Cost Less to Feed
Sure it costs money to feed chickens and justifying feeding a flock and caring for older hens can be tough, but I know that many chicken keepers will start letting their older chickens out of their chicken runs and allow them to free range more often to supplement their diet with grass, seeds, bugs and weeds and therefore eat less commercial feed. Since they do tend to be more predator-savvy, the thought is that they can take care of themselves and if losses are suffered, they were likely near the end of their life anyway.
Also, once your chicken stops laying, basically has become a pet, and likely doesn’t have too many good years left in her anyway, feeding her a diet heavier in kitchen trimmings and garden scraps can save you money on feed as well. At that point, is a perfectly balanced diet all that important anyway? I think at some point quality of life starts to take precedence, especially if your choice is to allow your geriatric chicken to free range or happily dine on leftover spaghetti or to cull her.
Caring for Older Hens
Caring for older hens really isn’t much different than caring for them when they’re younger. My Australorp, Charlotte, is eight years old which is considered pretty geriatric for a hen. She’s a bit slower moving than the others, likes to sleep in a bit later and go to bed a bit earlier, and sometimes is content to just sit and watch the antics of the others while they free range, although she can still catch bugs with the best of them!
One thing you can do in caring for older hens is to lower your roosting bar (or put up a new lower bar) that’s very close to the ground, say up only a foot, to make it easier for your older hen to hop up onto it. I often will lift Charlotte off the roosting bar in the morning and set her down. At some point, she may decide she wants to sleep on the floor of the coop, and that’s okay too.
Feeding Older Hens
If your entire flock is older and not laying any longer, you can switch them back to a chicken grower feed. They don’t need the additional calcium that a layer feed provides. This can be especially helpful if you have new chicks that you are adding to the flock to replace your older hens. The entire flock can be fed the chicken grower feed from the time the new flock members are about eight weeks old and done with chick feed, right up until they are almost laying age, around 16 to 18 weeks old. At that point, the new layers will switch from chicken grower feed and need a laying feed. The layer feed won’t hurt the older hens, as the calcium is good for their bones.
If your older hen is still laying occasionally, putting out crushed oyster shell or eggshell for her is still a good idea, and you want to watch her for egg binding since older hens tend to lay eggs with very thin shells that risk breaking inside of them.
Keeping a close eye on your older hens is a good idea regardless. As they age, their circulation gets poor, leaving them more vulnerable to the cold or to chicken frostbite. Adding a bit of cayenne pepper to their feed through the winter can help with circulation and blood flow. And you want to watch for pecking from younger hens since chickens have a bad habit of picking on those who are smaller, weaker or slower than they are.
But all in all, caring for older hens isn’t much different than caring them a younger flock, and the benefits of raising chickens continues long after their egg laying days are past, so if you have unlimited space, consider turning your older hens “out to pasture” so to speak and let them live out their golden years basking in the sunlight and churning out nitrogen-rich manure for you. After all, it’s the least you can do to thank them for all those delicious fresh eggs they laid for you for all those years!
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