|Photo courtesy Flickr user fooferkitten|
There's been some traffic on the Silicon Valley Chickens mailing list recently about what to do with old hens, and it seems there's a general agreement that processing an old hen is a rather cruel way to show thanks for eggs well laid.
While some urban chicken keepers seem content to keep the old chooks around for amusement, the more economically minded chicken farmers seem less than enthralled with the idea of all those extra mouths to feed.
And those of us who live where there are tight restrictions on the number of hens allowed in a backyard can't really keep a flock of non-layers around if we're in it for the omelets, can we?
So it seems there's two strategies for mercifully coping with the inevitable aging of hens:
- Once she stops laying (at age 3 or 4 or 5, depending on your hen's productivity cycle), offer her up to someone who's got a much larger patch of land and is willing to keep a large non-laying flock. Or,
- Sell her while she's still in her laying prime, commanding a higher price and making room for another fluffy chick in the coop to start all over again.
Hmmm... this is an important question. Glad you are addressing this. I would just like to point out that passing your aging hen on while she still has a year or two of laying left, simply pushes the decision to the next family. I'm not sure this is any different than just "processing the hen" yourself. This is important to acknowledge from a moral perspective. It seems to me it is important to see the hen through to the end so that you aren't abdicating responsibility for the end of her life. No matter what you choose to do, you will be the best person to make that choice since you have been the recipient of the gifts she was able to give. You are her best chance for some kind of humane end. Tough stuff I think. No easy answers...
I agree with Jeanne. If taking responsibility for your food and the animals that produce it is part of your rationale for keeping layers, then you should accept responsibility for each one to the end of her life, whether you hasten it in the name of economy or let it happen naturally.
My hens are part of our family and have a "forever home" with us, barring some catastrophe that forces us to find them a new home. Even after they stop laying, they'll still produce fertilizer for our garden and help control weeds and insect pests. Staggering additions to the flock will help keep us in eggs even after our original girls go through "ovipause."
I've been discussing this on my blog (www.hencam.com/henblog) too. I've learned to do necropsies on my hens, and one thing that I'm learning is that while an "old hen" of two or three is going to be fine for the pot, if you wait until they're five, she's often got health issues going on inside of her that you don't want to see on your plate. One thing you'll see is that the Marek's vaccine wears off after 3 years, and old hens often have tumors caused by this virus. So, if you are going to harvest your hens, you should do so early on.
As far as whether to do it at all - we backyard chicken keepers can make that choice, but real farmers can't possibly keep the unproductive hens. If you can, please support them by buying their full range of poultry products.
I have found that hens rarely just "stop laying" completely, as they get older they slow down, and become more irregular. They also seem more susceptible to impacted eggs and other health issues. (I raise high productive layers such as leghorns.) By the time a hen is old enough for the pot, as someone already mentioned, she has health issues and is too tough, or doesn't have enough meat on her bones for the American pallet. I resolve my old hen issues by giving them to my Guatemalan gardener who is accustom to eating old hens, and prefers an old fresh live hen to the dead ones (his words) in the supermarket. If you have given your hen a happy and stress-free life with plenty of room, food, friends and foraging you are pretty much even.
This question actually shocked me. We keep our girls their entire life. Our chickens are free range and the thought of the cost to keep them being too great is beyond comprehension. You can feed a good sized flock of chickens on less than it costs to feed a dog or cat. Our chickens are family pets. We have had to find adoptive homes for a few roosters when we had an over abundance but even that was a difficult separation and we screened the homes first. None of our chickens have been delegated to the stew pot. Sadly many have been sent to fowl heaven by hawks, owls, coyotes, possums, etc. I guess if you are in town and subject to ordinances that only allow you to have a few, you would be best to find them a farm that would welcome the girls just to help keep down bugs if nothing else. I shall have to ponder this some more.
As fieldguidetohummingbirds we plan on staggering additions to our small flock of three hens when egg production slows or stops. We'll keep our girls around until they die because they've become pets to us.
For centuries, humans have raised animals and then killed them for dinner and shown their gratitude and appreciation by acknowledging and thanking the animal for it's life at the beginning of the meal.
If my family were vegetarian egg-eaters, it would make sense for us to either find a new home for our chickens after they can't lay or to keep them until the end of their days and just get a permit for a couple of additional chickens.
However, my family eats meat. Yes, these are our pets and they are also something that teaches our children about reality. My dad grew up on a "real" farm with hundreds of chickens, cows and over 400 acres of corn and soybeans. The animals on that farm were not treated well, were not loved the way our pets are love and were not allowed to roam around a beautiful yard, eat organic flax seed and delicious herbal tea compost.
These chickens not only lay the best eggs but they can provide us with some really good meat for our table, from animals that we respected enough to kill for dinner, rather than pretending that the chicken we buy at the store down the street was somehow not as "worthy" as our backyard chicken to be on our table. We need to change our cultural norms and get a grip on where our meat comes from too. We are getting a little bit better in understanding that we can treat these animals better and provide ourselves with delicious and nutritious eggs. Let's take it to the next level - rather than asking someone else to do our dirty work for us and creating a problem (of overwhelming others with our "used up" chickens).
These 3-5 year old birds do quite well in slow cooked soups and in Vietnamese style clay pots, where fluids are maintained and the meat doesn't dry out. The bones and marrow are fully nutritious and provide our families with the building blocks for our own bones, marrow, brains, etc.
If we're going to continue eating meat, let's get in touch with what that really means and not shy away from the realities of that. It's quite common for a Chinese family to raise birds in their backyards and slaughter them for dinner. It's not barbaric or "ungrateful." It's actually quite the opposite.
Bex, I think you have completely summed up exactly my thoughts. While we do love our three girls, our family DOES eat meat and our kids have learned more about A) where food comes from, and all the work involved in ensuring they are well taken care of and B) how to treat our animals with love and respect and to be sure they are happy hens.
We feel better knowing that what we eat HAS had a GOOD life. Much better than eating those poor birds from factory farms who have never read run free chasing flies, digging happily away eating worms and making little dirt baths or been so excited to eat our left over supper treats each night.
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