How Long Do Chickens Live & Produce Eggs

Chickens Are Productive & Useful Past Three Years Old

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Pullets generally reach the point-of-lay (a term used to describe when they’re about to lay their first egg) around 18 to 22 weeks old. POLINA/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

How long do chickens live is a common question and one that’s, mistakenly, been driven by commercial egg farms. Here’s how long your chickens can live and be productive.

How Long Do Chickens Live? Commerical Farm vs. Backyard Birds

A common misconception that some new backyard flock owners have is that hens are only useful until they are 3 years old. Once they’ve reached this landmark age, their production plummets and their value zeroes out.

When your hens have reached the end of their prime laying days, some say it’s best to euthanize them or use them for soup.

As shocking as this misbelief may be, it’s easy to understand where it comes from. Most commercial egg farms keep their layers until the hens reach 2 to 3 years of age. Once their laying stock reaches this age, commercial farms generally dispose of their hens, refreshing their flocks with pullets just past point-of-lay.

Because of this commercial practice, those new to chicken-keeping often assume it’s also standard operating procedure for backyard flocks. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Small Flock Facts

Hens may live in backyard flocks for 6 to 8 years (or more!), and most flocks will produce eggs for 3 to 4 years. “The level of egg production, egg size and shell quality [however] decrease each year,” writes Sandra Stuttgen, associate professor with the University of Wisconsin Division of Extension, in “Life Cycle of a Laying Hen.” “Most commercial layers are kept for 2 to 3 years as their egg production decreases after this time. To keep a small flock producing, owners should plan to retire old hens and add young hens (pullets) every 2 to 3 years.”

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In “Factors Affecting Egg Production In Backyard Chicken Flocks,” the authors note that the laying cycle of a chicken flock usually covers a span of about 12 months. “Egg production begins when the birds reach about 18 to 22 weeks of age, depending on the breed and season,” they write. “Flock production rises sharply and reaches a peak of about 90%, 6 to 8 weeks later. Production then gradually declines to about 65% after 12 months of lay.”

The decline in productivity varies greatly from bird to bird. The researchers state that good layers will lay for about 50 to 60 weeks and then have a rest period (when they molt). Poorer layers and older hens will molt more often and lay less consistently.

While it’s true that a hen’s egg production begins to decline after age 3, it’s by no means over. With a proper diet, plenty of fresh water, sufficient natural light and a safe living environment, a layer can continue to produce eggs for 5 to 10 years. She may only lay an egg every couple of weeks, but she’ll sing her egg song as proudly and loudly as the yearlings.

An old hen may not be a prime layer anymore, but she’ll still have a use around the farm.

Lifespan Factors

Many factors affect the lifespan of a chicken. Poor nutrition plays a key role in a hen’s longevity. If not fed a layer ration specifically formulated with the percentages of protein and calcium needed for proper egg production, a hen will draw these building-block nutrients from her own body’s reservoirs, directly impacting her health.

Similarly, continual egg production can negatively impact the lifespan of chickens. Even if fed a nutritious layer ration, daily or near-daily production exhausts and depletes a hen, causing caged-layer fatigue. Allowing laying hens to rest and recuperate during the shorter daylight months can help extend their lives.

Other factors that affect a hen’s lifespan include a safe, clean living environment; poultry illness and parasites; the presence of predators; and the type of chicken she is. Production hybrids will typically have a shorter lifespan than dual-purpose and heritage-breed chickens.

Extending the life of laying hens promotes their well-being and contributes to sustainable egg production. Here are several ways to ensure a longer and healthier life for these birds.

Meat Birds

The age of chickens used for meat can vary from 6 weeks to 1½ years old. Chickens labeled as:

Broiler-fryers are young, tender chickens about 7 weeks old;

Roasters are older chickens, about 3 to 5 months old;

Capons are male chickens about 16 weeks to 8 months old;

Stewing/Baking Hens are mature laying hens 10 months to 1½ years old.

Source: USDA

Proper Nutrition: Laying hens require a diet tailored to their needs. Adequate calcium is crucial for strong eggshells, so consider providing crushed oyster shells or calcium supplements.

Clean Water: Clean and fresh water is essential for digestion and overall health. Ensure water containers are free from contaminants and regularly cleaned to prevent disease transmission.

Adequate Space: Overcrowding can lead to stress and aggression among hens. Providing ample space in the coop and run allows hens to move freely, stretch their wings, and prevents injuries.

Predator Protection: Secure the coop and run with sturdy fencing, and use hardware cloth to deter predators. Lock hens inside the coop at night to protect them from nocturnal threats.

Regular Veterinary Care: Establish a relationship with an avian veterinarian who can perform routine check-ups, administer vaccinations and offer guidance on health management.

Clean Environment: Regularly clean the coop, remove droppings and replace bedding material to prevent the buildup of harmful bacteria and parasites. Good ventilation is also crucial for air quality.

Social Interaction: Chickens are social animals and thrive on interaction with their flock. Ensure they have companionship to reduce stress and boredom.

Enrichment: Provide objects for hens to peck at and scratch, such as hanging vegetables or straw bales. This stimulates mental and physical activity, reducing the risk of feather pecking and cannibalism.

Egg Collection: Collect eggs daily to discourage broodiness and egg-eating. Leaving eggs in the nest can lead to problems such as broken eggs and hens going broody, which can negatively affect their health.

How Long Can Hens Live?

Given a safe, clean and stress-free living environment, with winters off to rest and replenish their bodies, and plenty of nutritious food and clean water, hens can live as long as 8 to 10 years … and quite possibly longer. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the record for the world’s oldest chicken is held by Muffy, an American Game bantam who died at the age of 22. I’ve had several that lived longer than 7 and even 10 years. One of our hens had two daughters at the ripe old age of 6! By providing excellent care, protection, and attention to these factors, you can help your backyard chickens live longer, healthier lives and enjoy the benefits of egg production and companionship for many years.

This article about how long to chickens live was written for the January/February 2024 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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