Egg-laying hens are something of a gateway drug to farming for many people: The sight of fat and happy chickens waddling around the backyard just makes a person long for more land (and more chickens). Then, those first few eggs after a lifetime of supermarket yolks can get one thinking about homegrown goat milk, honey, pork chops and so on.
That’s all well and good—it’s how I ended up leaving suburbia for some wooded acreage in central Kentucky—but it should go without saying that production farming, even just producing enough for a local farmers market, differs from raising food in your backyard. And those beloved layer hens offer a key differentiator.
A Hen’s Life
If you habitually name your chickens, as my children do, you might want to look away, but to a market farmer, old hens are better in the stew pot than in the laying boxes. Chickens reach maturity quickly, and their peak laying time—when high-production breeds lay at a rate of almost one egg every day—is within their first year of life, around 27 to 30 weeks. After that, production slows a bit until a hen molts, when laying stops. When she resumes delivering eggs two to three months later, you get fewer eggs.
No, this isn’t when you send your hens to the plucker. While it’s true that they produce fewer eggs, a second-year hen still gives you enough to justify keeping her around. During this year, though, her less-frequent eggs grow larger and have sturdier shells. These eggs are great to add some visual variety to those cartons you sell at market, but you would be wise to order some more layer chicks early in the spring to ensure happy customers come market season. Because you’ll quickly need to tell newcomers from older chickens soon, it’s a good idea to project what your free-ranging chicken yard will look like in this second year.
Many egg farmers order a batch of same-breed chickens every spring, taking care to introduce a not-present breed each year. A few breeds are considered to have the best production, so following a year of Golden Comets with an order of Plymouth Rocks or White Leghorns makes sense. Why? Because when one group hits its second year and production drops off dramatically, you’ll want to know which hens to send to the stew pot and which ones to keep for another year.
It’s worth stating that, if you want to keep old hens around, you’re more than welcome to, but you’ll get far fewer eggs, and those you gather are likely to be comically large. You can try supplementing the hens’ diet with probiotics, but your feed bill will increase and you’ll have way less to show for it. Your market-table bottom line will suffer, and you might lose some goodwill with customers when you don’t have eggs for their Sunday morning breakfast. This can continue for quite a while, as a chicken’s natural lifespan is around eight years.
Choosing to Cull
If efficiency is your priority, you should cull the older hens from the flock at the end of the laying season—before they start molting and you have to feed them through the winter.
While commercial farms often gas “spent” hens with CO2, then throw out or render their carcasses, I think it’s more honorable to make a meal out of those hard-working birds. You can process old hens in the backyard for personal consumption; some customers will request these kinds of chickens, which often sell for a discounted price, so you might want to have some processed commercially to offer at market. Old hens don’t roast well, and you absolutely don’t want to fry them, but if you cook them low and slow in a flavorful stew, you can make an enjoyable meal. You won’t mistake the meat for a broiler’s, as breed and age differences result in darker, differently textured meat, but mindful preparation can put a culled hen’s body to use in a sustainable manner.