Photo by Rachael Brugger
When layer hens no longer lay eggs, chicken keepers can consider culling them from the flock to be used as meat.
When Ken and Heidi Chester moved to a 19th-century farm in Hancock, N.H., in 2004, it seemed like a good opportunity to grow and process some of their own food. Heidi was particularly interested in continuing her family tradition of raising chickens for meat and eggs.
Heidi’s primary goal in keeping chickens was to maintain as continuous a supply of fresh-as-possible eggs while raising her hens naturally—free of artificial lighting and allowing them to free-range around the farmstead.
She established a small laying flock of mixed chicken breeds ranging from bantam hens to full-size dual-purpose hens, which she renews annually by replacing chickens (typically six) that are no longer laying as well with the same number of younger chickens she raises herself. Her total number of birds at any given time is based on available area in the chicken coop, and culling is usually done in the fall of the hens’ second year of laying, when the total number of eggs produced begins to noticeably decline.
When a Hen No Longer Lays
According to Jay Rossier, author of Living with Chickens (The Lyons Press, 2004), young pullets begin to lay around 18 to 20 weeks of age and will lay continuously for approximately one year before the first molt, when chickens “shed” their old feathers, so new ones can grow. Hens typically stop laying during the molting period, which may last from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the bird. Once they resume laying, hens usually produce as many eggs during the second year as they did during the first year, but then are most often culled.
Heidi is philosophical about the need to cull and kill hens that are past their prime to maintain a productive flock. She strongly believes that meat-eaters need to accept the responsibility that their diet is part of the natural cycle of life and death. Heidi admits that butchering chickens is not her favorite part of animal husbandry, but she appreciates the opportunity to humanely dispatch an animal that she has enjoyed getting to know as part of the hobby farm flock, knowing that it enjoyed a good life prior to slaughter.
About the Author: A dedicated gardener for more than 25 years, Cynthia Amidon has also kept poultry, sheep and horses. She lives in a small town in New Hampshire.